Top Picks

Top 10 Reads 2022

Happy New Year, everyone! Normally I like to get my top reads posted before the end of December but this year–for the first time since the pandemic began–I had a busy holiday travel schedule and just didn’t get to it amidst all the festivities. I’m also mixing it up a bit from past years, and posting a combined fiction and non-fiction list since my reading leaned heavily towards fiction this year. Without further ado, these are my favourite books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2022.


Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. 

When his family dies of cholera in 1820s Canton, a boy whose birth name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. The boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve. Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility.

Note: Babel is published by HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. Please note that the HarperCollins Union has been on strike since 11/10/22 to get a fair contract for their workers. Visit the HarperCollins Union linktree to learn how you can support their fight for a fair contract. The union has NOT asked for a boycott on purchasing HarperCollins titles at this time.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business and she has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her resolve it. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly. Black Water Sister is a standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himwari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo

This is the first in a series of novellas that will follow the non-binary cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who opted to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: FictionNovellaFantasyLGBTQIA+

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malinda Lo

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily finds the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values your family and community taught you to hold dear. But at the core it is a story of first love in the face of adversity.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic NovelLGBTQIA+

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful overseas market is China, with its large population and growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel chronicles the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Categories: Non-Fiction

She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery where Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

At the time I wrote my initial review back in May, the sequel had no confirmed title or release date, but He Who Drowned the World is now due for a August 2023 debut!

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland

Prince Kadou has no interest in the throne; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is freshly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break-in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch

Cover image for This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

by Tabitha Carvan

Australian author Tabitha Carvan’s memoir, which I read twice in 2022, is subtitled The Joy of Loving Something–Anything–Like Your Life Depends on it. And that in a nutshell is what the book is actually about; the theft of joy, and how we can counteract it by refusing to be ashamed of the things that make us happy. Yes, even if that thing is a celebrity crush on British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Carvan is the stay-at-home mom of two young kids in Canberra, Australia, when she finds herself unexpectedly seized by Cumbermania. This new obsession was special not in and of itself, but because it roused Carvan from the “stultification of early motherhood” and forced her to examine the ways society encourages adults–but particularly women and mothers–to give up joy and hobbies and fun. Author Gretchen Rubin has described enthusiasm “a form of social courage. It’s often safer to criticize than to praise; it can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical. Enthusiasm is more fun, however. It’s brave, generous, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and a bit goofy.” Carvan’s memoir examines this social courage, and the social and emotional benefits we can reap from unabashed enthusiasm

Categories: Non-Fiction, Memoir

That’s it for me! What were some of your favourite reads in 2022?

Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malindo Lo

ISBN 978052555261

“Lily understood why her mother had worn the church dress to Macy’s. Even if it was ugly, it declared her investment in respectability. Her mother was a real American wife and mother, not a China doll in a cheongsam, relegated to operating the elevator.”

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily begins to question more deeply, and to find the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club begins with a series of small moments in which Lily realizes that she is different from the girls around her who are beginning to date boys and compete the Miss Chinatown beauty pageant. When Lily discovers a lesbian pulp fiction novel in a rack at the drug story, it opens a world of possibility to her that she could hardly have imagined alone. It is through the medium of the book that she dares broach the subject to Kath, and through Kath she finds access to the world of the Telegraph Club. Even though they are both minors, Kath has been there before with an older friend, and knows how to obtain a fake ID for Lily.

Through the club, Lily and Kath meet older lesbian women who are regulars there. Though the city’s queer night clubs have a less than savoury reputation—sometimes deserved, sometimes demonized—they are also places where the girls can catch glimpses of future lives for themselves they never would have dreamed possible, including long-lasting partnerships. However, the older women are also limited in their ability to help girls who end up in trouble with their families if their secret comes out. The threat of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” looms over them, even if they are supposed to enjoy freedom of association according to a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling.

The story is told entirely from Lily’s point of view, so there are large swatches of Kath’s experience we do not get to delve into when they’re not together. This is particularly noticeable in the last quarter of the novel. But though Kath and Lily have much in common, their stories are not the same. Chinese Americans face a double burden of racism and suspicion of communism as the new communist government takes hold back in China, but goes unrecognized by the American government. When Lily’s father refuses to name one of his patients as a known communist, the FBI confiscates his immigration papers, leaving him with no proof of his legal status in the United States. “My parents lectured me for half an hour about how the government would put us in camps just like the Japanese if they thought we were Communists,” Lily’s friend Shirley Lum explains after Lily and Shirley attend a picnic that turns out to have been hosted by suspected communist sympathizers. There are many ways in which Lily’s experience of the queer community is not quite like Kath’s, including people repeatedly calling out her race and asking her if she speaks English.

I purchased this novel on pre-order more than a year ago, but put off reading it for a long time because I suspected it would be a bit of a darker or heavier read. It recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, reminding me that I really wanted to get around to it. I found it open-ended but hopeful, and not nearly as grim as it could have been despite the subject matter it deals with, including racism, homophobia, interracial relationships, and McCarthyism. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values of your family and community that you have been taught to hold dear. But at the core it really is a story of first love even in the face of adversity. In Kath, Lily finally finds someone who sees her, and who understands her love of math and science fiction, and her dreams of outer space.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is based on a short story originally published in 2018 in the collection All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell. Set in San Francisco, Malinda Lo describes the city in detail, but relies heavily on street names. This is useful if readers want to consult a map, but doesn’t do much to evoke the atmosphere of the place. What she does much more successfully is delve into San Francisco’s queer history, while also attempting to bring to life the largely undocumented history of the Asian American women who found their way into the predominantly white spaces of San Francisco’s lesbian community.

Also by Malinda Lo:



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Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Short Stories, Young Adult

Fresh Ink

Cover image for Fresh Ink Edited by Lamar Giles Edited by Lamar Giles

ISBN 978-1-5427-6628-3

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It became pretty freaking clear that, book after book, adventure after adventure, the heroes weren’t like me at all.” –Lamar Giles

Fresh Ink is collection of short fiction highlighting diverse voices, put together by Lamar Giles, who is credited as one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement. The majority of the stories are contemporary, with a strong focus on romance, but historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy are also included. The short format also includes one comic, and one play. With the exception of the reprint of “Tags” by Walter Dean Myer—to whose memory the collection is dedicated—the stories were written for this anthology. Contributor Aminah Mae Safi won a contest seeking new writers to feature in the book.

Everyone will have different favourites in a short story collection, and for me there were a few standouts in Fresh Ink. Sara Farizan, author of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and If You Could Be Mine, offers up “Why I Learned to Cook,” the touching story of a bisexual Persian girl who is out to most of the people in her life, but struggling with how to tell her grandmother, whose rejection she fears. This one put tears in my eyes. I was also gripped by “Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar, a transgender athlete who draws on his own experiences in a tense, first person narrative about a high school swimmer facing down the first day of practice after coming out as trans on Facebook. Both writers spoke at ALA Annual 2018, along with Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Adaptation, who contributed “Meet Cute,” a story about two girls who fall for one another in line at a fan convention, one dressed as Agent Scully, the other as gender-flipped Sulu.

The collection comes to a strong close with “Super Human” by Nicola Yoon, author of The Sun is Also a Star, and Everything, Everything. The world it is set in seems much like our own, but featuring a super hero who has become disillusioned with the people he is trying to save. The point of view is that of the young woman who has been given the seemingly impossible task of convincing X that humanity is still worth saving. But first she must get X to tell her why he has given up hope. This little story packs a big punch, and nicely rounds out an anthology that offers a variety of short fiction which allows diverse readers to see themselves reflected, often in the words of an author who shares their particular experiences.

Essays, Non-Fiction, Writing

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Cover image for Scratch by Manjula Martin Edited by Manjula Martin

ISBN 978-1-5011-3457-9

“Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a fun house mirror reflection.” –Nina McLaughlin  

There are many books about writing as an art form. Library and book store shelves overflow with them. And there are some books about the business of writing, too, such as how to become a freelance writer, or find an agent. But the discussion of writing as an art form predominates, and discussing money remains a bit taboo. In a selection of essays and interview with writers from a variety of fields and at different stages of their careers, Manjula Martin aims to peel back the layers of polite obfuscation and create some transparency about the business and financial aspects of the American writer’s market. Divided into three sections, Scratch takes readers from the “Early Days” of trying to break into the industry, through the “Daily Grind,” of being a working writer, and on to that dreamed of “Someday” when the young writer has finally made it.

In reading this collection, I was struck by the varied and individual business and financial situations faced by the authors. For some writers, the pressure of having to support themselves and their families by writing was crushing. But that same pressure turned others into lean, mean, writing machines. In Malinda Lo’s words, “financial necessity can be extremely clarifying.” In her own contribution to the collection, “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin writes about how all her non-writing jobs have contributed to her work as a writer. As she puts it, “all this unwriterly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist.” On the flip side, in her essay “The Insider,” Kate McKean chronicles how building her career as a literary agent sapped most of her energy for many years, taking her away from her original dream of being a writer. With thirty-three authors included in the collection, Scratch can encompass quite a wide range of the experiences of American writers.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is “Faith, Hope, and Credit,” featuring a conversation with Cheryl Strayed. Incidentally, it was the online excerpt of this piece that first drew my attention to Scratch. In it, Strayed and Martin discuss what a $100 000 advance ends up looking like in real life, after it is taxed, after the agent takes a portion, and then paid out in four installments. Suddenly $100 000 doesn’t seem like that much money anymore, when parceled out over several years. And even while Wild was hitting and staying on the best seller list, Strayed’s rent check bounced during her promotional tour, because she was just that broke. Wild would eventually make Strayed very comfortable, but when it first became successful, Strayed had already spent the advance paying off the bills she incurred writing the book, but the royalties hadn’t started to come in yet. It is a good reminder that a writer’s financial situation is not always evident from the outside.

Of course, being paid to write can become a sort of insatiable obsession, as documented by Rachel Maddux in her essay “On Staying Hungry.” Many aspiring writers would define having made it as the point where you can live on your writing, but as Maddux points out, the goal posts are always moving. On the experience of finally landing her first cover story, she writes, “I expected to experience a sort of transcendent satisfaction, or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead, my stomach just grumbled, my appetite already recalibrating.” As Alexander Chee puts it in his piece, “there is no ‘made it’ point. There is only ever the making of work.” And there is always more work you could be doing, or chasing. There is always another next level.

The business of becoming a working writer isn’t an easy one, as new writers try to navigate the world of agents, advances, publishing houses, and freelancing. Any agent or editor seems like a good choice for a hungry, unpublished writer, but there are several horror stories and cautionary tales in Scratch about the fatality of the wrong fit. In “Five Years in the Wilderness,” Cari Luna writes about landing an agent for her first novel, which they were ultimately unable to sell. When Luna wrote her second novel, entirely different from the first, her agent didn’t feel that she could represent it, and they parted ways. At the time, this was a crushing blow, but in retrospect, Luna writes, “I see now that it was a very kind thing for my first agent to do, to recognize we weren’t a good editorial fit and set me free. Because I never would have walked away on my own.” Still more sobering is Kiese Laymon’s account of being jerked around by his editor for four years, destroying his health in the process.

Scratch is obviously most useful for, and aimed at, writers, but the main message of transparency and information sharing can be extrapolated to other creative professions. And folks in professions related to writing, such as librarians and book sellers, can definitely benefit from a better understanding of how writers are—or aren’t—being paid. The focus is on traditional revenue streams—publishing houses, magazines, teaching gigs, and speaking tours—but Kickstarter is mentioned in Laura Goode’s piece about funding the independent film she wrote. Self-publishing goes largely unaddressed. Overall, Scratch provides a good idea of the basics of the business of traditional American publishing as it stands today.


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Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Young Adult


Cover image for Ash by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316040099

“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”

When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.

Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.

By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.

Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you.  Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.

Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.

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Challenges, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Inheritance (Adaptation #2)

Cover image for Inheritance by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 978-0-316-25505-9

“I wanted to be an ordinary human girl who met another girl, and we liked each other and that was it. No complicated backstory to mess it all up.”

In Adaptation, Reese Holloway and her debate partner, David Li, crashed into the middle of a government conspiracy in a car accident that almost claimed their lives. Thanks to the alien medical technology, and the aliens, that the American government has been concealing for more than fifty years, they are both alive, but struggling to cope with the new powers that came with the Imrian DNA that saved their lives. Public interest in the Imrians is at a fever pitch, and Reese and David are caught at the centre of that maelstrom as a UN summit to treat with the alien visitors approaches.

Inheritance picks up right where Adaptation left off, with Reese and David stepping out of her mother’s house to address the press and finally reveal the truth about what happened to them in Area 51. But as soon as they are in front of the cameras, it becomes clear that there will be nothing simple about telling the truth. The government is prepared to interfere at every turn, and it remains to be seen if the Imrians can really be trusted. With public disclosure comes alien supporters, alien protesters, abductees who claim the Imrians are the aliens responsible for their kidnapping, and many more complications than they could possibly have foreseen. Inheritance is less action-oriented than Adaptation, and much more driven by political agendas and interpersonal relationships.

Young Adult fiction has an overwhelming tendency to write out parents, giving the teen protagonists broad freedom to pursue their adventures. But both Reese and David’s parents are present and involved, even though Reese’s parents are divorced, and her father has had to leave his job in Seattle to come help them deal with the situation. While writing out the parents makes logistics easier, Malinda Lo incorporates them into the story in a way that feels realistic, as they struggle to protect their children from powerful forces they couldn’t have imaged only months before. At the same time, Reese and David are still the ones caught at the centre of the conflict, and they still have to make difficult decisions about where their loyalties lie and who to trust. It is a fine balance, but Lo handles it masterfully.

Similarly well-handled are questions about gender and sexuality, which Lo addresses forthrightly. Trying to understand an alien culture and how it deals with these topics allows Lo to include these important discussions. Faced with a sudden onslaught of press attention, Reese actively decides to conceal her previous relationship with Amber, knowing the sensation it would cause. But this decision causes unexpected complications in her friendship with Julian, who can only see that she is going back into the closet. At the same time, the practice of susum’urda—the touch-based empathy that defines Imrian social interactions—is giving rise to an intense new relationship with David, even while Reese struggles to come to terms with Amber’s betrayal. However, for those to whom the concepts Lo is introducing are new and unfamiliar, the ending may seem implausible or rushed, even though the groundwork was clearly laid in Natural Selection. These books are best read in order, including the novella that fits between them.


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Challenges, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Natural Selection (Adaptation #1.5)

Cover image for Natural Selection by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 978-0-316-27837-9

“A lot of Imrians get freaked out about the idea of being isolated within their own consciousness because they’re so accustomed to knowing, always, how others feel about them. I’m not worried about it, since I’ve lived on Earth. Humans never know for sure how others feel.”

In Adaptation, Amber Gray is a mysterious character whose arrival in Reese Holloway’s life is a source of confusion and ultimately betrayal. We know very little about her past, or her motivations, and her people, the Imrians, remain largely mysterious. Natural Selection is a novella that fills the gaps in the universe created in Adaptation and its sequel, Inheritance, and offers the reader a window into Amber’s past, and a glimpse at Imrian culture and customs.

Set several years before Adaptation, Natural Selection tells, in alternating chapters, two stories from Amber’s youth. The first is set on Earth, where an end-of-year camping trip results in a classmate outing Amber, and exposing her crush on her best friend, Morgan. The second takes place on the Imrian planet of Kurra when Amber is fifteen. She was born, and has lived two thirds of her life on Earth, but has returned to Kurra for a coming-of-age rite known as kibila’sa. Both stories examine how Amber’s divided life has made her feel simultaneously at home and alien on both worlds. The existence of aliens is part of the big reveal in Adaptation, and keeping it hidden for most of the book didn’t leave a lot of room for Malinda Lo to build or develop her alien culture. Natural Selection not only introduces us to Kurra, but examines the significance of the Imrian’s touch-based empathy, known as susum’urda, the ability which Reese acquired in the adaptation chamber.

In addition to expanding on the diversity of the world that Lo imagined in Adaptation, Natural Selection opens up interesting possibilities for the resolution of the love triangle that is forming between Reese, Amber, and David. Amber has a mother (Ama) and two fathers (Ada and Aba). A bisexual love triangle is already unusual, but the Imrian culture also offers Lo the possibility of further subverting the traditional YA love triangle through a polyamorous relationship. Neither Amber nor David is really a fully developed love interest in Adaptation, but I was leaning towards liking David better primarily because he had never betrayed Reese. While it is not strictly necessary to read Natural Selection before Inheritance, the novella makes Amber a more relatable character than she was before, and a more viable love interest for that sequel.


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Challenges, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Science Fiction, Young Adult


Cover image for Adaptation by Malinda Lo by Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316197960

“Reese remained standing until the birds were removed, leaving only a smudge on the pavement: the stamp of their final moments. When she sat down again, she felt unsettled, as if the ordinary world had been knocked off-balance and everything was not listing slightly to one side.”  

Reese Holloway, her debate partner and crush, David Li, and their debate coach are trapped in the Phoenix airport when several planes crash around North America after flying into flocks of birds. When the resulting no-fly order shows no sign of being lifted, they rent a car and attempt to drive back to San Francisco. Almost a month later, Reese wakes up in a top secret military hospital somewhere in the Nevada desert. The details of her medical treatment are classified, with a non-disclosure agreement that stipulates that not even her mother can know what happened there. Back home in San Francisco, life seems mostly to have gone back to normal after the bizarre events of June nineteenth, though a military curfew is in effect, and crews roam the city collecting dead birds. Reese tries to get back to normal too, but her life is thrown for an unexpected loop when she meets and falls for Amber, and starts to question her sexuality. At the same time, she is dreaming and remembering inexplicable glimpses of her time in Nevada, and experiencing headaches and other strange side effects. But Reese’s efforts to find out what happened to her and David in Nevada threaten one of the most deeply held secrets of the American government,

2014tbrbuttonThe first few chapters of Adaptation are utterly suspenseful and nerve-wracking, starting off with a dystopian or disaster movie feel that will have you completely on edge. But the vibe shifts when Reese wakes up in the hospital, and the crisis seems mostly to have passed. At first this seems like it should be a blessing, but the subtly-wrong world she re-emerges into is, in its own way, more eerie than the almost-apocalyptic world on the verge of chaos that she crashed out of with the accident. There, everything had obviously gone wrong and she could act accordingly, but the almost-normal world she wakes up to leaves her unsure how to react. Only David, who shared the crisis, and her best friend, the conspiracy-obsessed Julian, seem to see that things are not quite right. The situation is less overtly dangerous, but still suspenseful and mysterious, though the pacing is slower, and we have some room to explore the emotional aftermath of the accident.

Although Adaptation is more science fiction than dystopian from the moment Reese wakes up after the accident, it nevertheless gets at the heart of what is driving the current dystopian trend. Lo slips this observation into the narrative, in the form of a newspaper editorial on the crisis:  “Democracy, at its root, is based on faith that our representatives have our best interest at heart. If we as a nation no longer believe that they do, that may be even more disturbing than [the spoilery truth].” These discussions of government, the popularity of conspiracy theories, and the role and power of the media, add a welcome depth to the narrative.

Malinda Lo is known as an advocate for diverse books, so it should come as no surprise that she delivers on that commitment in her own work. Her characters come from a variety of backgrounds, and I especially loved that many of the characters, from the President to the head of Homeland Security, to the chief scientists, were women, and no one said anything about it.  Additionally, Reese, in the midst of a life changing crisis, finds herself being forced to confront her sexuality, which she has utterly supressed for a long time. While I liked David better than Amber, Lo’s writing seems more alive in the scenes between Reese and Amber than the ones between Reese and David. Love triangles are old hat in YA, but a bisexual love triangle is enough to stir things up.


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