Hello and welcome to the July 2021 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have two teen girls falling in love against the 1950's backdrop of the Red Scare, two best friends in fifth grade starting their very first roller derby team, and a driven academic woman with no time for romance!
We hope you find something to enjoy this month. Happy reading!
Title/Author: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Summary: Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can't remember exactly when the feeling took root—that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible.
Genre/Sub-genre: Teen Fiction
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 409 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: Homophobia, racism
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: YES
Personal thoughts: Courtesy of the AIDS epidemic (amongst other things), the new generation of LGBTQ+ have grown up mostly without the guidance of queer ancestors. (I touch upon this in another review of mine as well.) We have grown up with much of our own history being lost to us or commercialized and white-washed via Hollywood. While I will say there is a lot of good nonfiction out there that helps fill in the holes, it's rare to find a fiction book so well-researched and well-written that it feels like you’re getting a piece of that history back. Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club just does that.
Lily is your average teenager growing up in 1950’s Chinatown in San Francisco. It’s the height of the Red Scare. The government is cracking down on any suspected communists. They're targeting the Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant community especially. As Lily navigates high school, she must balance the fear of her father getting deported after his papers are confiscated with her own growing suspicion that she may like girls. When she and Kathleen are put together for a group project at school, Lily finds those feelings growing. And when Kathleen mentions being able to show Lily the ropes of the queer club scene in San Fran, Lily is only too eager to accept.
As the two spend late nights at the Telegraph Club (a lesbian club) and with the community of queer women they find there, they find themselves finally feeling as if they’re living authentically. But the 1950’s are not a safe place for two young girls to fall in love and when the Telegraph Club is raided by police, Lily and Kathleen’s lives are upended.
It's a beautiful and moving story about falling in love set against an incredibly well-researched backdrop. This fictional window into queer history will always hold a special place in my heart.
Title/Author/Illustrator: Kenzie Kickstarts A Team by Kit Rosewater, Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse
Summary: Ever since they can remember, fifth-graders Kenzie (aka Kenzilla) and Shelly (aka Bomb Shell) have dreamed of becoming roller derby superstars. Then Austin’s city league introduces a brand-new junior league! To get a team together, Kenzie and Shelly will have just one week to convince three other girls that roller derby is the coolest thing on wheels. But Kenzie starts to have second thoughts when Shelly starts acting like everyone’s best friend. Isn’t she supposed to be Kenzie’s best friend? And things get really awkward when Shelly recruits Kenzie’s neighbor (and secret crush!) for the team.
Series/Standalone: The Derby Daredevils #1
Genre/Sub-genre: Illustrated middle-grade realistic fiction
Book Format: Hardcover
Length: 162 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: The main character is lesbian, her dad is transgender, and one of the other kids may be genderqueer, but it’s not stated outright at this point in the series.
Content Warnings: none
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Would I Recommend?: YES!
Personal thoughts: Okay, so I don’t normally read children’s books or even teen books these days, but I really liked the premise of this one and decided to give it a go. I was not disappointed! First off, if you flip through the book you can see the many wonderful illustrations in it and I definitely stopped to look at each one a second time as I read the book. The illustration style is fun and detailed and I would love to read this as a full graphic novel done by the illustrator, Sophie Escabasse!
Second, I really enjoyed the fact that this is a diverse book with main characters who are queer, Black and Asian without their race or orientation coming into the narrative at all. Kenzie and Shelly see that Tomoko is sad and lonely and determine she needs a friend. Kenzie has a crush on her Black neighbor and her father is a transgender man. (When her father tells stories about his life, she likes to picture him in her mind so she’ll ask “before or after?” to know whether the story takes place before he transitioned or after. She recognizes that he was always a man, but that he looked more like a girl before the transition. She likens him to an undercover agent with a big secret.) It’s very refreshing how cool, calm, and casual it all is.
The whole book was exceedingly well written for a young audience. Even the roller derby rules are easy to understand while not coming across as dry and the bout itself at the end was fun to read.
This is a quiet Girl Power book. No one is off doing major heroics, but they’re learning how to be strong in the ways that really matter such as making new friends, getting out of their comfort zones, and helping each other out. In roller derby, the girls learn to wear protective gear because it’s a given that they’ll fall but with the gear they can get back up again. While not preachy, this lesson was reinforced in other ways throughout the story. Things are suitably difficult for Kenzie and the gang and not everything works out in their favor but when they fall, each girl learns to get back up and try again.
In short, these girls have a great kind of spirit and can-do attitude that’s just what young readers need. As an adult, I sped through this and had a hard time putting it down. I highly recommend this for kids, teens, and even adults. I enjoyed it and might even go on to read the next books in the series myself.
Title/Author: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Summary: Dani Brown is a driven academic with no time for romance—a fact that recently torpedoed her relationship with her ex-girlfriend. This makes it even more ironic that, when her friend Zafir rescues her during a fire drill, a tweet about how cute they are together goes viral. The media attention has donations pouring into Zafir's nonprofit, and faking a relationship is basically a victimless crime … but how long can they play the perfect couple for the cameras without it starting to feel real?
Series/Standalone: Second in the Brown Sisters trilogy
Genre/Sub-genre: Romantic Comedy
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 400 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual
Content Warnings: Zafir's father and brother died relatively recently before the start of the book, and he is still grieving for their loss. Also, do not be deceived by the cute cartoon cover—the sex scenes are quite spicy.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Definitely well-written!
Would I Recommend?: Absolutely! I think any fan of romantic comedies would enjoy this one.
Personal thoughts: I've now read all three Brown Sisters books, and I think this is my favorite one! They're all extremely charming but Danika and Zafir have a dynamic that I treasure in m/f romance: a driven, successful woman and a nurturing man who wants to support her. Zaf is a delight. He's a former rugby player who works with young men to help them unpack their toxic masculinity, loves his family, reads romance novels, and worships the ground Dani walks on. If he has a flaw, it's that he's too willing to sacrifice his desires (for a loving, long-term relationship) for Dani's (for no-strings-attached sex). Dani gets to be the one who's sexually confident, the one with an important career that requires her time and attention.
I loved that the book turned the usual "career woman falls in love" trope on its head. Dani doesn't have to give up anything! Zaf doesn't need her to change! He might not understand everything she does at work but he understands that it's important to her and he loves that! There's a scene where Zafir is asked to summarize Dani's area of research and, to her shock, does so without hesitation. He listens when she talks about her work, even when it gets jargon-y and theoretical. To an academic, is there any more romantic gesture in the world? (Lest you worry that the care in this relationship is all going one way, in the epilogue Dani makes the single most romantic gesture I can imagine anyone doing for a romance reader. It's coming.)
The narrative is very tightly focused on Dani and Zafir, but I did really enjoy the supporting characters, especially Zaf and Dani's families. Dani's sisters each have their own book, of course, although you can read them out of order without any major spoilers. I recommend you check them all out if Take a Hint, Dani Brown sounds up your alley! But I especially appreciated the late cameo from Dani's ex-girlfriend and the recognition that while Dani wasn't able to give her what she wanted in a relationship, it doesn't make either of them a villain.
If you enjoy happily-ever-afters featuring characters with autism, anxiety, and/or chronic illness, Talia Hibbert should be on your to-read list. If you enjoy stories about Black women being unconditionally loved as they deserve to be, Talia Hibbert should be on your to-read list. If you enjoy sexy romance, Talia Hibbert should be on your to-read list!