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Welcome to Read This Book, a newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!
This week’s pick is one that I’ve been meaning to shout about for a while, by one of my favorite authors, and now is as good of time as any since it just made the National Book Award longlist!
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Lily is a teenager living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1953. She’s always known that she is different, but is unable to put into words what that means until she sees an ad for a male impersonator at the nearby Telegraph Club. Then a chance encounter with a white classmate named Kath provides Lily with a chance to sneak out, and they discover an underground community of independent, queer women who welcome them. At first, Lily and Kath are convinced they’re just friends, but when feelings develop between them, they’re unsure how to navigate them. There are more than a few reasons to be cautious in 1953—and when Lily’s family finds themselves a little too close to suspected communists, the stakes for Lily are even higher.
What I love about this book (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this) is that this novel is a realistic and sometimes heart-wrenching look at what it was to be queer in the 1950’s, but it’s not a tragic book. Lo does a brilliant job at capturing the uncertainty that Lily feels when she first begins to understand what it means to be attracted to other women, and the euphoria at finally having the language to identify herself and the context to understand her feelings. The sense of community is also really strong—both within Lily’s Chinese American family, and at the Telegraph Club, where many of the women have learned the essential value of found family the hard way. For a book that’s largely about self-discovery, it shimmers with tension—there’s Lily’s fear of getting caught sneaking out, her anxiety about her family finding out about how she feels about girls, her tumultuous feelings for Kath, the constant threat that the club will be raided, and the heightened fear that if Lily is arrested it could jeopardize her family’s status in the U.S., despite being citizens. I found myself racing through this book, fearing the worst and yet hoping for the best. The ending wasn’t what I expected, but it left me deeply satisfied.
Bonus: Malinda Lo just announced that her next YA book, A Scatter of Light, out next fall, will be a contemporary companion to this one, set in 2013. I can’t wait to see how Lily and Kath fit into it!