I’m going to save the more hard-hitting topic for the end, and instead start with the RBR part of the post. I have finished two other books (one of which I finished just this morning), but considering the topic of today’s post, I think they’re best saved for later.
Both of the books today are historical novels written about Chinese (well, in the case of one, Chinese-American) characters. These Violent Delights (Chloe Gong) takes place in 1920s Shanghai; Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Malinda Lo), in 1950s America. The RBRs will be spoiler-free.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
Everyone knows the 1920s American “flapper era” was a crazy one, but no one thinks about what was going on in the rest of the world. A historical fantasy novel inspired by Romeo and Juliet, These Violent Delights places a Chinese and Russian mob against each other in the glittering city of Shanghai. Until, that is, an unknowable, vicious monster starts killing everyone off one by one. The blood feud isn’t going to matter if everyone’s dead, and Roma and Juliette are the only ones are willing to bridge the gap to save their people.
There are a few really great things about this book and a few subpar ones, and they both sort of cancel each other out. Although inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the novel really follows the two characters after a major betrayal tore them apart. It was a refreshing, and slightly ironic, change of pace from the love-at-first-sight romances that plagued both the original and our modern YA fantasy. Even the side characters felt distinct. Additionally, there are several small but telling moments of Juliette feeling stuck between the (oftentimes arrogant) modernization and progression spurred on by the West and the more traditional ideologies of the East.
Unfortunately, the prose leans a little more to towards whimsical, and especially when it comes to a historical city, more concrete details would have helped ground the reader. There are mentions of cars and electricity, and there’s even mention of their relative newness, but they could have just as easily been present-day cars for all the difference it would have made. And setting descriptions were not the only thing that was lacking. There are certain areas of prose that felt clunky. Not enough to make it hard to read, but certainly enough to make it difficult to enjoy.
All this goes to say that it wasn’t a bad read. For those wanting to try a new author, These Violent Delights certainly isn’t a bad book. There’s some oft-ignored representation with at least one, maybe two, gay characters and even a transgender character. And, of course, its setting is a refreshing change of pace from the more “traditional” western-inspired fantasy. But it’s more for people expecting a bit of light reading than anything else.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
For Chinese Americans like Lily Hu, the 1950s were not a great time to be falling in love. Not in the middle of the Red Scare, and certainly not with another girl. But there is something intoxicating about realizing fundamental truths about oneself, and love is no exception. Lily is going to have to face that inevitable question: Will she hide who she is, or will she live her truth?
While both books introduce a lot of history that most people probably wouldn’t know much about (well, let me not project myself onto other readers, here), it’s really easy to feel the time and dedication Lo put into her research for Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Every page was dripping with that historical feel.
Lo’s central characters–Lily, Kath, and Shirley especially–are incredibly well-defined. Most of the book is told in Lily’s point of view, and it’s honestly a rather beautiful story, one of self-discovery. It isn’t until the book begins that Lily starts to question her sexuality. It goes how these things often go, with the acknowledgment that you’re not like what everyone’s supposed to be, feeling guilty and ashamed of those feelings until you learn that you’re not the only one. Lily’s identity as a Chinese American will play a smaller role, though it is a quiet presence throughout the book.
The book was admittedly slow-paced, but not enough to detract from the story. The only real quibble I had with the book was that there were a handful of subplots that were left unresolved by the end of the book. And I also wished that Lo might’ve offered some pronunciation guides for the Chinese characters included in the book, if not in the main text, then at least in the footnotes where they are translated.
Overall, Last Night at the Telegraph Club was beautiful to read. It wasn’t all beauty and fun. There’s tragedy in it too. But it reminds us that, despite all odds, there were LGBT+ people living their lives even when everyone around them stood so adamantly against it. It was also a refreshing change of pace from my usual fantasy, or even from the hetero romance books I read in February. If you’re part of the LGBT+ community, especially, I expect you’ll find this an enjoyable read.
A Discussion of Recent Anti-Asian Hate Crimes
A major issue with American culture is that even when it accepts that prejudice is woven into our society, it’s unwilling to talk about it until some tragedy forces its hand. Even then, people would rather talk about it for the political clout it earns them rather than put any real action behind it.
The murders committed on March 16, 2021 in Atlanta Georgia (NPR) were nothing short of a hate crime. They sparked outrage across the country. Other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) used it as a springboard to comment on the rise in hate crimes that everyone else would be more than happy to ignore. And while it’s good that the community is getting the attention it deserves, it’s even more unfortunate that their voices are only listened to in the wake of the tragedy, and that the cause was quickly forgotten.
It is not my place to speak on things I don’t know about, but I wanted to share some resources, and to ask that we continue to talk about these things even after the news withdraws the topic from the metaphorical front pages. I know I’m a book blogger, and a fantasy one at that, but books have never been an escape for me. They’ve always felt like little experiments, allowing me to learn fundamental truths about humanity, compassion, and resolve, truths that can serve as foundations to help the world we actually, physically inhabit. It’s important that we don’t let books become the sands in which we bury our heads.
I can only recommend that you start with the Anti-Asian Violence Resources card. I would credit it if I knew who collected the information, but instead, all I can say is that YouTuber Xiran Jay Zhao provided the link to her patrons, which is how I came across it. On the resources card, you’ll find articles to educate, options to donate, and various other ways to show your support. Following that, Xiran Jay Zhao made a 20 minute video titled “On Anti-Asian Hate Crimes – And How You Can Help” and Eugene Lee Yang of the Try Guys likewise created an hour-long video titled “We Need to Talk About Anti-Asian Hate.” Both are incredibly informative and offer historical perspective. The first step to ending hate crimes is to get educated, to understand the full scope of the problem. The second is to make sure it isn’t forgotten about the second the media stops covering it. Stay informed, my friends.