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Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Publisher’s description

Acclaimed author of Ash Malinda Lo returns with her most personal and ambitious novel yet, a gripping story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. 

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Amanda’s thoughts

This will be an illuminating read for modern teens who may not know much about what it was really like to be a queer teen in the 1950s.

It’s 1954 and Lily Hu lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She’s heading into her senior year alongside her lifelong best friend, Shirley, who is also Chinese American. One day in a class, Lily is put in a group with Kathleen Miller, a white girl she’s known for years but never really been friends with. Something sparks between them—maybe just a new friendship, maybe a bond over being the only two girls left in their upper-level math class, maybe something more, something Lily doesn’t really understand or have the words for. It takes reading a surreptitiously reading a lesbian pulp novel in the back corner of a store for it all to finally click into place for Lily. But now what?

For Lily, there is so much more going on in her life than just beginning to understand what she may feel for Kath. The FBI takes her father’s citizenship papers when he refuses to give information on one of his patients who’s being investigated for Communist ties. Lily’s friendship with Shirley is under pressure, too. Shirley doesn’t like Lily being friends with Kath (and “warns” her about Kath) and freezes her out until she needs her help for the Miss Chinatown pageant. Lily feels the push and pull between her various identities, always feeling singled out for all the ways she is “other.”

Through repeated clandestine trips to the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar, to see a “male impersonator,” Lily and Kath come to understand more about their identity and the nearby lesbian community, especially when they are befriended by some of the older lesbians who frequent the club. But that hardly makes anything simpler—in fact, it just complicates things. How can Lily possibly live her truth in this era? And even if she and Kath feel the same way about each other, now what? More sneaking, hiding, being afraid of being seen?

This layered story also offers brief chapters about Lily’s mom, dad, and aunt from various points in time, helping flesh out more of what was going on, historically, at this time in the United States and specifically in Chinese American relations. Extensive back matter on the era and culture at the time provide additional insight. As can be expected of a historical fiction story set in the 1950s, there are plenty of racist and outdated terms used and the story is built on a foundation of the homophobia of the time (this is also discussed in the back matter.)

The way the story ultimately unfolds may be kind of predictable in the sense that it’s probably easy to guess how things may go for Kath and Lily—it’s hardly going to be an easy road for them. Though I would have liked to see some scenes or threads of the story fleshed out more and followed through with better, this was ultimately an enjoyable and thoughtful, personal look at one girl’s journey to self and identity. Pair with Robin Talley’s Pulp (set in 1955 Washington D.C.) for an even more comprehensive look at what it meant to be a queer teen in the 50s.

Review copy (digital ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525555254
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

On Overcoming Fears and Becoming Superheroes, a guest post by Christina Li

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I was quite a shy and fearful child. Speaking up in class terrified me. I wanted to become an author, but I was scared I wouldn’t know how to write. As one of the few Asian kids in my Midwestern hometown, I was reluctant to embrace the culture of my Chinese-American immigrant family. Time and time again, I found myself hesitant to fully accept my identity, and to pursue the things I loved to do out of the fear that I wouldn’t be good enough.

At the same time, I was becoming an avid reader, and for me, books were life-changing. I read about main characters going on epic adventures across space and time, developing incredible superpowers, and facing off against lunchtime bullies and monsters alike. I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a Chinese mythology-inspired fantasy with a resourceful and caring protagonist that helped me fall in love with my own Asian identity. As I read these books, I realized that these fictional kids I read about had lots of fears, just like I did. Over the course of their stories, they overcame these fears, little by little, to become bold, intrepid heroes. If they could do it, I could, too.

There are so many reasons why I wrote Clues to the Universe. I wanted to write about whimsical space comics. About dealing with loss. About families, born and found. But at the end of the day, I wanted to write about fearless characters and characters who overcome their fears to achieve extraordinary things. I wanted to write about a brilliant girl scientist, Ro, who is as proud of her Chinese-American identity as she is about her passion for rocket science, and who isn’t afraid to explore the unknowns of the world around her. I wanted to write about a shy artist, Benji, who admires comic book superheroes but isn’t sure of his own place in the world. Ultimately, I wanted to write about two kids who, in their budding friendship, learn to fight for the things they care about and for the people they love, to come into their own, and to become the superheroes of their own stories.

Meet Christina Li

Christina Li is a student studying economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest, but now calls California home. Clues to the Universe is her debut novel. Find her online at www.christinaliwrites.com.
Twitter: @CLiwrites Instagram: @christinaliwrites

About Clues to the Universe

Clues to the Universe

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

ISBN-13: 9780063008885
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: This Is My Brain in Love by I. W. Gregorio

Publisher’s description

Told in dual narrative, This Is My Brain in Love is a stunning YA contemporary romance, exploring mental health, race and, ultimately, self-acceptance, for fans of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and Emergency Contact.

Jocelyn Wu has just three wishes for her junior year: To make it through without dying of boredom, to direct a short film with her BFF Priya Venkatram, and to get at least two months into the year without being compared to or confused with Peggy Chang, the only other Chinese girl in her grade.

Will Domenici has two goals: to find a paying summer internship, and to prove he has what it takes to become an editor on his school paper.

Then Jocelyn’s father tells her their family restaurant may be going under, and all wishes are off. Because her dad has the marketing skills of a dumpling, it’s up to Jocelyn and her unlikely new employee, Will, to bring A-Plus Chinese Garden into the 21st century (or, at least, to Facebook).

What starts off as a rocky partnership soon grows into something more. But family prejudices and the uncertain future of A-Plus threaten to keep Will and Jocelyn apart. It will take everything they have and more, to save the family restaurant and their budding romance.

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved Gregorio’s first book, None of the Above, and have been waiting to see what she would do next. When this book showed up, along with a letter about the importance of happy books about mental illness, I rearranged my reading schedule (a literal printed out schedule right now, as I write this review, as schools are closed and I’m home with far more unstructured time than I’ve had in years) to read this right away. And I loved it.

Chinese American Jocelyn lives in Utica, New York and is finally used to life there versus her old life in the city. So when she learns that her family’s restaurant is struggling and that they may have to closed up and move, she takes it upon herself to help the business thrive. That is A LOT for a high school junior to take on. She puts out an ad for help wanted to grow the business and give them a social media presence, and Will answers it. Nigerian American Will goes to a local private school and brings lots of skills to the table. Before long, the two are not just working on the business together, but falling for each other. But it’s complicated. Jos’s dad doesn’t want them dating for a variety of reasons, both teens deal with insecurities and mental health issues that interfere with their communications and interactions, and the pressure to save an entire business looms large.

Will starts to notice Jos seems like she has depression. He has generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. He’s been in therapy for years, which is great, but he’s not medicated, which is not great because his symptoms seem to need something else other than CBT for him to thrive. He’s wary of medication for all of the classic reasons, but also because his ob-gyn mother seems wary of medication. Jos is slowly growing more miserable, drowning under the pressure of the restaurant and clearly depressed. She is into Will be also appears to resent him—-she feels he’s more successful than she is (better grades etc). She begins to feel like she has to watch her mood around him because of how aware he is of her changing moods. She wonders if she has to appear happy for him to be happy.

I loved this story for how very real it was. Not everyone is having open conversations at home about mental health. Not everyone who is being treated is getting the full spectrum of what they could to help them feel their best. One thing that everyone is doing, however, is still living complicated, multifaceted lives that have a lot more going on than just trying to address any one thing. While this is a romance, and the story of children of immigrants juggling multiple cultures, norms, and expectations, it’s also a very affecting and complex exploration of mental health. Jos and Will’s story is warm and supportive, even when things get all mixed up. A smart story that shows that while people don’t fix people, they can support them, and that may lead to getting help. Gregorio makes it clear that not only is getting help okay, asking for help is good, too. Highly recommended.

Review copy (finished book) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316423823
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Book Review: 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario

Publisher’s description

500 words or lessA high school senior attempts to salvage her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates by writing their college admissions essays and in the process learns big truths about herself in this mesmerizing debut novel-in-verse, perfect for fans of Gayle Forman and Sonya Sones.

Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.

But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.

Provocative, brilliant, and achingly honest, 500 Words or Less explores the heartbreak and hope that marks the search for your truest self.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There is something so satisfying about a novel in verse that is done well. To be honest, they don’t often work for me. I find that my eyes want to skim the lines and I finish in record time, which I like, but feel like I don’t retain a whole lot of what I read. Or, I feel like the story isn’t served well by the structure—like I want more, but can’t get it in this format. Thankfully, neither was necessarily (more on that later) true with this title.

 

The summary up there does a fairly tidy job of giving you the plot. The plot is a lot more of an internal journey than anything, which is fine by me (for the millionth time I’ll say it—go ahead and close people into a room to talk or put me inside someone’s head while they just think and I’m perfectly happy to keep reading). Biracial Nic Chen is at the top of her class. She’s smart, involved, and has applied early decision to Princeton, but she feels like she’s still not perfect enough for her dad and stepmom. She’s also constantly whispered about at school, her locker defaced with the word “whore” on it, feeling totally lost without her lifelong friendships with Jordan and Ben—friendships that fell apart when Jordan and Nic, who was dating Ben, slept together. But Jordan doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fallout as Nic—he’s still adored, no one is writing slurs on his locker, and he is still best friends with Ben, who no longer has anything to do with Nic. It’s all fairly lonely for Nic, who doesn’t appear to have many friends. It’s only because she starts writing college application essays for her classmates that she starts to interact more and realize some things not just about her peers but about herself. By writing about their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, she also reveals parts of herself. She begins to realize that there are so many versions of herself that she shows and hides. Though she always felt held at an emotional distance by Ben, even when they were dating, she starts to see that she, too, held not just Ben but everyone at a distance. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this, including her mom’s disappearance from her life, but prior to this, Nic hasn’t thought too hard about them. Though Nic started writing the essays as a way to keep her from ruminating on her own life too much, she finds that this is a time in her life to be particularly reflective, especially once Ben reappears and things grow even more complicated with her feelings for him and for Jordan. 

 

The one part that I felt didn’t work for me was a thing that happens about 4/5 of the way through the book, a tragedy that I will avoid talking about here because of spoilers. I will say that it felt like a bit of a tidy/easy way to help both Nic and Jordan come to some realizations about their lives and their futures. It didn’t make me dislike the book, but it felt contrived and kind of like a cop-out. I also wish that we actually got to know the larger cast of characters better—the peers whose letters Nic writes, her friends Kitty and Ashok, and maybe even Nic herself, who holds the reader at a bit of the same emotional distance she grapples with in her life. The interesting plot of writing letters for others, of seeing through their eyes, thus highlighting and revealing Nic’s own loneliness, is an appealing one. A strong if imperfect look at guilt, regret, and forgiveness. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534410442
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 09/25/2018

Book Review: A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

line in theA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (ISBN-13: 9780735227422 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 10/17/2017)

Gr 9 Up—Friendship, romance, obsession, and crime all get tangled up in this complicated mystery about love and lies. Angie Redmond and Jess Wong are best friends, though Jess harbors a desperate and rather obvious crush on Angie. Their relationship becomes complicated when Angie begins to date Margot, a wealthy student at a nearby boarding school. Jess, a talented artist who creates a dark, supernatural comic about a love triangle, has her doubts about Margot, who seems cruel and controlling. Margot drives a wedge between Angie and Jess, but eventually, a murder brings them back together. As the police interview all three girls, the details of the night a student is killed highlight the tension among Angie, Jess, and Margot, but do not clearly point to who may have committed the crime. Just when it seems like the truth is coming to light, the story takes another turn, forcing readers to reassess everything they think they understand. Dark, twisty, and unsettling, this book almost begs to be read in one sitting, and then instantly reread. The pace picks up in the second part, with higher tension and uncertainty propelling the story forward quickly, encouraging teens to race to the whodunit conclusion. Though the final few chapters feel rushed, they provide a satisfying—and shocking—finale to this scandalous examination of jealousy, secrets, and untrustworthy characters. VERDICT A high-interest thriller with wide appeal recommended for all collections.