The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

“It was no Mercury dime New York moon, but a harvest moon brought all the way from the wheat fields of North Dakota to shine with sweet benevolence down on the chosen and the beautiful.”

Among all of the works to enter the public domain this past year (due to having been published before 1925), one of the most well-known is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a part of the public domain, this classic is now available for authors to use freely in retellings, which is exactly what Nghi Vo does in her latest work, The Chosen and the Beautiful. As someone who has always enjoyed reading the original, my interest was immediately piqued, and I am excited to share more about this title with all of you.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Fitzgerald’s original work, The Great Gatsby is set over the course of one summer during the Roaring Twenties on Long Island (New York) and primarily revolves around Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man of great wealth, and Daisy Buchanan, a beautiful socialite he falls in love with before going off to war. Taking place a few years after their initial meeting, this book picks up with Daisy having married a wealthy and unfaithful husband (Tom Buchanan) and Nick Carraway, Daisy’s distant cousin and narrator of the story, moving to Long Island from Minnesota to work in bonds. Little does either Nick or Daisy know that the former moves next door to the lavish and excessive mansion belonging to Gatsby and that, before long, Nick would play a key role in reuniting Daisy and Gatsby once again.

Another major character in this story is Jordan Baker, a renowned and opulent golfer who is also one of Daisy’s best childhood friends. In this retelling, Vo explores this story from Jordan’s perspective as a queer, Asian socialite who was adopted from Vietnam and brought to the United States at a very young age. Through her eyes, you are privy not only to more of Daisy’s backstory, but to a brand new literary voice experiencing the societal norms of the ’20s at a remove, as Jordan is often “othered” within their shared social circles as Daisy’s charming and exotic friend. In addition to this major change from the original narrative, this retelling also has magical elements incorporated into it, technically making it a science fiction novel set within the glittering excess of the Jazz Age.

All in all, I think this is a very interesting retelling that presents a powerful new literary voice, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Vo’s version of Jordan Baker. While I did find myself becoming lost in the magical components at times, as they seemed a bit random and scattered throughout, I think this was, in part, due to Vo’s diligence in adhering to Fitzgerald’s original account pretty closely. While the transformation of Jordan’s character and her insight were more than enough for a satisfying retelling for me, I think I would have enjoyed the science fiction aspects more if Vo had deviated further from the script and reimagined more of the story, as opposed to just retelling it.

In the end, I would still recommend this novel to both those who have or haven’t read the original, as this new perspective definitely adds to the timeless themes in Fitzgerald’s original, while simultaneously bringing the story up to speed in the 21st century. I also fully intend on reading any future retellings and reimaginings of Fitzgerald’s work, as I am sure there will be many more coming down the pike with this novel in the public domain!

This title is also available in the following formats:

Large Print

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens

Did I just pick up this book because of its beautiful cover? Yes. Yes I did. But luckily it turned out to be as lovely a story as its cover.

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens is a coming-of-age story, a romance, an imaginative fairy-tale-inspired fantasy, and a rollicking adventure. Tal is the fourth in line to the throne, and he’s on his coming of age tour around the kingdom. The kingdom is tense and war is threatened, which doesn’t help to ease Tal’s anxiety: he secretly has magic which he fears will be used as a weapon. Just as his tour is getting underway, his ship encounters a mysterious derelict with an abandoned prisoner inside – the mysterious Athlen. Athlen treats Tal more like a person than anyone has in a while, but before they can explore this connection, Athlen makes a shocking escape. When he reappears miraculously in a later port, Tal follows him, determined to get answers. And it’s not a moment too soon, as Tal is then kidnapped by pirates. He must escape if he wants to prevent a war, and he needs all the help he can get.

The familial love is on-point, messing with some stereotypes, the magic is captivating, and in my opinion the world-building is expert. In some fantasy novels, a page or three at the beginning of the story is taken up by explanations of what the world is and how it works and who the players are; in this case the story starts right up and details about the world are revealed gradually and organically, so that your picture of the world your in grows and gets colored in as you read. I found that very effective for keeping readers hooked and sharing just enough detail so things make sense as they’re happening.

One thing that struck home for me was that although Tal is unsure of himself, and a lot of decisions are out of his hands, he gradually takes more control of his life and decides what kind of person he’s going to be. I always love a story where a character forges their own path. I also thought the depiction of politics, and how complicated monarchy can be depending on your perspective, was a good nod to realism without being too dark. In short, hope is a theme running through most parts of the story – and the world needs more of that.

Sweet, exciting, and thought-provoking, this book is recommended for those who liked The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Pirates of the Caribbean, or similar fantasy adventure romps.

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Do you remember Anna’s excellent review of TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea? If you liked that book, or his newer Under the Whispering Door, you may want to try his young adult series, starting with The Extraordinaries – and followed up by 2021’s Flash Fire.

The Extraordinaries is set in Nova City, a city with an established set of superheroes (the titular Extraordinaries). Nick is their biggest fan, and is particularly obsessed with Shadow Star, a hero on the rise and constantly in the news. Writing fanfiction about Shadow Star is more enjoyable than real life, where he’s facing a new ADHD medication, an uncomfortable relationship with his ex (kind of) boyfriend, changes in his group of friends, and worries about his dad’s safety as a Nova City police officer. An attempted mugging foiled by Shadow Star makes Nick determined to be a hero too, and he drags his best friend Seth along for the ride as he chases down a spectacular destiny. But he’s got a lot to learn about what it really means to be extraordinary.

Klune is fantastic at putting a human face on a fantasy universe, without skimping on any of the breathtaking fantasy elements. In this case he shows just how wide a gulf stands between being a fan of superheroes and actually being one – to great humorous effect. Nick eventually brands himself the clueless comic relief, but he also has a great deal of emotional depth, including how his ADHD affects his sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, his lingering grief around his mother’s death, and his anxiety for his cop father’s safety. Overall, his story is one grounded in the discomforts and stupid mistakes that abound during the process of growing up, but overflowing with warmth and hope for brighter futures.

For a similar read I recommend Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari, Hero by Perry Moore, or All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner. Less superhero-focused, but with a similar emphasis the average-citizen perspective in a world of Chosen Ones, is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

A light, quick read with small-town urban fantasy vibes, diverse representation, and a pacifist take on the good vs. evil struggle.

In Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, we meet Nova, a young witch who lives with her grandmothers in her hometown, working at their bookshop. She’s hard-of-hearing, skilled in magic, and passes the time with her non-magical, scientific best friend. But then she’s sent to check out a sighting of strange lights and a white wolf in the nearby woods. When she arrives she discovers the white wolf is not only real, but her long-lost childhood friend Tam. Non-binary Tam is on the run, from their family and from a sinister cult that has a nefarious use for werewolves in its quest to raise a demon. Nova and her grandmothers give Tam a safe place to stay, and much-needed allies against their mysterious enemies – and as time passes Nova and Tam’s friendship turns to romance. But the demon and the cult have to be dealt with, forcing both Nova and Tam to learn about trust and teamwork.

The wholesome atmosphere of this short graphic novel is a welcome respite, and the ultimate message of family and harmony with nature triumphing over darkness is a pleasing and hopeful read in 2021. Good interludes include scenes of Nova’s cultural heritage and her growth toward independence, alongside Tam’s healing from trauma and feeling at home with Nova’s family — and any scenes with Nova’s grandmothers. I appreciated reading a healthy, imperfect family dynamic, as well as casual representation of a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns.

Easily readable in one sitting, Mooncakes is recommended for lovers of magical realism, coming-of-age stories, and gentle reads.

Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking For Love by Kim Fielding

Classic but not cliched, this is a story of misadventures and misconceptions that will absolutely capture your heart. Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking For Love by Kim Fielding tells the age-old story of how appearances can be deceiving and opportunities can come from places you’re not expecting.

After a sour ending to his relationship, Teddy Spenser decided that love was not something he wanted. He wanted to focus on work and make a life for himself, without the inevitable hurt and heartbreak of love. He definitely didn’t want to see what could happen with his aloof, buttoned-up, out of touch and totally gorgeous coworker, Romeo Blue. But then their boss sends them on a business trip to woo an rich and eccentric investor to back their project. Not only do they get off to a rocky start, but then the investor sends them on three weird quests to prove their worthiness, and Teddy feels like he just can’t catch a break. However, all the time alone with Romeo is starting to show Teddy that he might need to rethink some of his assumptions about him – and maybe his assumptions about love, too…

Did I know what was going to happen in this book? Absolutely. Did that make it less fun and sweet? Absolutely NOT. This book understood its assignment and does it very well. Good features include a motley crew of characters, lighthearted tone, steady pace, and generally uplifting theme: that second chances do happen and dreams do come true. Maybe it’s current events talking, but I think this is a very necessary book to refresh hope and optimism – and have a laugh along the way.

If you love classic tropes of romance and fanfiction (including ‘there was only one bed’), or you need a book to make you believe in love again, this is the story for you!

Upcoming Albums from LGBTQ Artists

Don’t miss these albums from iconic artists of the LGBTQ community, coming soon!

The Lockdown Sessions by Elton John is a collection of collaborations that the British singer recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring Miley Cyrus, Lil Nas X, Stevie Nicks, and many more. The tracks cover a variety of genres and moods for a truly eclectic mix. Personally, I can vouch for this album because I’ve already heard a few of the tracks, including Chosen Family (absolutely gorgeous track with a great message) and Nothing Else Matters (gives me chills every time). If you, like me, spent time in quarantine singing along to everything and making playlists, you might relate to this album!

Broken Hearts and Beauty Sleep by Mykki Blanco is the new album from non-binary boundary pusher Mykki Blanco, melding hip hop and rap with club and trap sounds as well as experimental elements. I’m excited for this one because I love more publicity for non-binary artists, AND I just recently discovered this artist through their essay in The Queer Bible (an excellent book!).

 

To discover other LGBTQ artists, try:

Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – their most recent album which was accompanied by a film released on HBO Max, and which wrestles with the suffocating side of love, pregnancy, creation, destruction and how we claim and use power.

 

 

Brandi Carlile’s In These Silent Days : the 2021 offering from a country and folk rock staple. Encompassing both intimate contemplation and defiantly rollicking tunes, it’s an album exploring the full breadth of Carlile’s skill and power, with echoes of Elton John and Joni Mitchell, according to critics.

All In: An Autobiography by Billie Jean King

“Champions adjust. Champions are masters at being resilient. To succeed, you have to find a way to reconcile everything – chasing goals, believing you will succeed but absorbing failure, and the loneliness of knowing that no one can help you on the court but you.” 

“Two of the unchanging, overarching lessons of my life are that people’s existence is rarely improved by sitting still in the face of injustice, and that the human spirit should never be underestimated. The human spirit can’t be caged.”

As an avid tennis fan and player, I was thrilled when I read that Billie Jean King (BJK) was coming out with an autobiography. While I knew she was a groundbreaking tennis player in her day, especially renowned for her historical “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, I honestly didn’t know much else about her. With that said, let’s delve right into All In: An Autobiography. 

Published in August, this memoir gives readers a deep and comprehensive look into BJK’s life story. Born in Long Beach, California, her first encounter with tennis was in the fifth grade when a friend convinced her to attend a lesson with her. After her first few experiences playing, BJK dedicated herself to the sport and quickly set out to win Wimbledon (a Grand Slam tournament played in London) and become the #1-ranked player in the world. After undergoing intense training and an excruciating schedule of play for many years, BJK would come to accomplish much more than that; some of her career highlights include capturing 39 Grand Slam tennis titles and 20 career victories at Wimbledon, as well as winning the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match and holding the world #1 ranking in women’s tennis for six years.

While it was fascinating to read about what it took to become a champion on the court, I was dismayed to learn about all of the barriers she endured on her way to becoming the best in the sport. One incredibly significant barrier was the entrenched sexism present in the sports world at the time, BJK illustrating a vivid picture of just how different it was to be a female athlete in the mid-20th century compared to now. She was first barred from advancing beyond an amateur player (meaning she was not paid for playing) since being a professional athlete was not an acceptable profession for women. After breaking that glass ceiling and turning pro, she found herself in yet another uphill battle in which tournaments refused to pay women the same earnings/winnings as men.

She was also constantly barraged with society’s stereotypical expectations of women, always having to answer to when she would give up her fling with tennis to settle down and start a family, why she thought the world would want to watch female athletes, and how she had the nerve to take away money from the true breadwinners. These expectations didn’t even spare her at the very beginning of her young career; one particularly scarring memory involved being pulled out of a picture at one of the tennis clubs where she practiced because she was wearing shorts instead of a skirt or dress. On top of all of this, BJK also struggled with an eating disorder and her sexuality later on in her professional life, especially having to keep the latter secret in fear of losing everything she had worked so hard to achieve.

Despite all of the aforementioned struggles, BJK not only excelled in tennis, but also used her platform to make huge strides in several social justice issues off the court. She founded several initiatives and organizations to support and advocate for women’s rights, including the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation; established World TeamTennis, a professional tennis league in which men and women compete together on a team; and advocated for the passing of Title IX in 1972. She also set up the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to achieve diverse and equitable leadership in the workforce. She has and continues to engage in every opportunity she can to pave the way for all of the women who have and will continue to come after her; it is no wonder that she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2009.

Overall, this autobiography is one of the most inspiring accounts I have ever read. I led this post with two quotes because expressing just half of BJK’s influence on the world wouldn’t do this book or her legacy justice; she is not only a champion of tennis, but also a champion of social justice and equal rights. She has been a trailblazer for women’s rights, not only throughout the sports world, but also across society and the world at large. She is still fighting for social justice today, especially for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and one of the greatest values she abides by is ensuring that tennis, sports, and the world are inclusive and accessible for everyone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

This book is also available in the following formats:

Large Print

In addition to this book, I would also check out the 2017 motion picture Battle of the Sexes, featuring Emma Stone as BJK and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs (her opponent). This match was one of the most widely watched sporting events of all time, with an estimated 90 million people having tuned in to watch on primetime television.

The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi Cullinan

I waited a long time on hold to get this book, and I’m excited to finally talk about it! The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi Cullinan is a heartwarming happily-ever-after about a bookseller and his favorite author pretending to date and unexpectedly falling for each other. In a nice coincidence, the author uses they / them pronouns  and is from Iowa – so they and I have a lot in common in addition to loving a good happy ending.

The novel switches between the perspectives of Rasul, a successful author struggling with writer’s block and a bad breakup, and Jacob, a bookstore owner who’s always loved Rasul’s work. Jacob knows you should never meet your heroes, so he’s apprehensive when Rasul moves to town on a temporary academic residency. Rasul is on a tight deadline and desperately needs to get away from his toxic ex, but is surprised to find Jacob’s store and apartment such a calming haven – not to mention the heat of their attraction. They pretend to be dating to help clean up Rasul’s image, but slowly their feelings become real, and they both have to face their demons to reach the future they want to create together.

There was so much I loved about this book. Cullinan packs in a crowd of well-drawn supporting characters, with backstory that’s clearly been deeply thought out. The plot is aware of romance tropes (in this case, “fake dating” applies, and the concept echoes Beauty and the Beast) but doesn’t get bogged down in them, choosing instead to follow what really works to help the characters work through their issues and come together naturally. Thoughtful engagement with the publishing process and the dark side of social media is a really effective thread that runs through the romantic story. Book lovers might also appreciate the loving nods to the fantasy and speculative fiction genres. Best of all, the inclusion of LGBTQ and racial identities is detailed, intentional and touches on the struggles of bi and pansexual men in the larger landscape. My only concern was that Cullinan put so much into this book that not everything could be covered in a comprehensive way, but I think for the space they had they did a fantastic job crafting a story, and a relationship, that’s grounded in deep emotions that will really resonate with readers.

A novel of mutual courtship, healing, creating community, and the struggle of creativity, The Bookseller’s Boyfriend is a sweetly simmering slow burn that romance fans won’t want to miss. If you’re looking for a romance with a lot of community, intelligence, and heart – and a good pinch of passionate heat – definitely try this book.

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye

An amazing retelling of Hamlet that makes the original more comprehensible to a modern audience, The King of Infinite Space is the ultimate read for those who loved reading Shakespeare in high school, those who (like me) are suckers for a good retelling, and those who just live for drama, love triangles, family intrigue, yearning, sinister dreams, and yes, murder.

Here’s the gist: the Hamlet character in this case is Benjamin Dane, son of oil tycoon and theater magnate Jackson Dane, recently deceased. Benjamin is spiraling because his manipulative mother, Trudy Dane, has suddenly married his annoying uncle, Claude Dane, AND his ex-fiancée, Lia, has recently started appearing in his dreams, an unwilling participant in some kind of psychic link revisiting the fire that traumatized their shared childhood. In order to have any kind of support, Benjamin summons back to New York his estranged best friend Horatio, who fled home to London after his longtime crush on Benjamin culminated in a one-night-stand that neither of them knew how to deal with.

That’s already a lot, right? And that’s just the setup – the whole book spirals, like water around a drain, toward a gala event that Trudy and Claude Dane are hosting to celebrate their marriage / honor Jackson Dane’s contributions to his theater company. Benjamin is trying to find out whether his mother, uncle, or anyone else contributed to his father’s fatal overdose, while Horatio desperately tries to keep him alive and sane. Lia, on the other hand, has become caught up in the machinations of three enigmatic sisters and their (for lack of a better word) frenemy as they all seek to influence the outcome of the doomed gala. There are secrets and deceptions and half-truths GALORE that need to be unearthed before the book comes to its inevitable (but still surprising) conclusion.

Personally I thought that Faye knew exactly where to be faithful to the spirit of the original and where to deviate. For example, Lia’s role is a a great interpretation of the role of Ophelia, with certain improvements including rounding out her personality more and giving her more power over the narrative. For another, Horatio and Ben’s complicated platonic/romantic relationship seems to just make explicit what Shakespeare strongly implies in the original (depending on how you read it). In another important point, Faye also uses typeface and writing style to great effect in Ben’s chapters, moving the text around on the page in various ways to reflect his neurodivergence and unique experience of the world. If you’re into murder mysteries, modernized classic lit, and lush magical realism, you’ll probably love this book.

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Morgan Rogers has created a masterful debut novel full of raw emotion and expressive language. Honey Girl is a coming-of age novel that deals with tough topics that many adults may find themselves dealing with today.

Grace Porter is confused. A 28-year-old woman who recently completed her PhD in astronomy, Grace and her friends are in Las Vegas to celebrate her major achievement. What no one expects is for Grace to get incredibly drunk and marry a woman whose name she doesn’t know. She wakes up the next morning with vague memories of what happened the night before, remembering that she got married to a mystery woman who she wants to know better. Armed with friends who support her no matter what, Grace goes back home to deal with the aftermath.

Back home with her friends, Grace struggles with her mental health, with her existing relationships with her family and friends, and with what she wants to do with her career. Hitting barrier after barrier as Grace works to get a job in her field, she is unable to find solace in her father who grows increasingly frustrated with Grace’s ability to adhere to her established life plan. Fed up and exhausted with her current life, Grace decides to search for the person who she believes may hold the answers: her mystery wife. Traveling across the country, Grace finally meets her wife and is forced to deal with all of the conflicting emotions raging inside. Grace cannot outrun reality though and even though she finds some escape with her wife, she must find a way to balance her fears, her new love, her career, and her family.

This book is also available in the following formats: