TBR Challenge Review: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, by Zen Cho

My first attempt at the TBR Challenge is a bit of a good news, bad news, story, but in the end good triumphed and I came out a winner with a book I loved.

Good News: The theme for this month is “We Love Short Shorts,” and since a big chunk of my digital TBR consists of Harlequin category romance, I figured I was golden. I’d dig something from the depths and feel really good about finally reading it.

Bad News: Then suddenly it was Sunday night and I realized no way was I going to find and finish one in time to post a review.

Good News: But hey! I was reading Zen Cho’s romantic historical novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo right then! I could count that.

Bad News: Did it really count as TBR? I’d only had it for a couple of months. Surely the point is to read the oldest and stalest books in my stash?

Good News: I’ve actually had it since November 2013, when Sunita reviewed it at Dear Author! (Sunita is responsible for quite a bit of my TBR). Not as long as some of those Harlequins have been gathering dust, but way longer than I thought. Definitely counts.

OK, Enough Silliness. Time for the Review:

The story is told through the diary entries of Jade Yeo, a Chinese Malaysian woman living in 1920s London and supporting herself, just barely, by writing for magazines. (I really liked that she wrote happily and unsnobbishly for fashion magazines as well as literary reviews). Jade loves her parents, but doesn’t want to return home to make the safe marriage they’ve planned for her. She’s found a Bohemian room of her own, but not–at the start of the novel–the adventure she wants. Can she give up being a safe good girl? Should she?

What sold me on the book is Jade’s charming, wryly comic voice. For example, when Jade brings her scathing review of a popular writer to Ravi, her editor at the Oriental Literary Review, she thinks,

I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi’s judgment is unerring.

Does anyone who writes anything not know that feeling?

Or here she is on her decision to end an affair with a married man, the same writer she savaged in her review (the marriage is open and his wife is perfectly happy about the situation):

I do not love Hardie even one little bit, and if I don’t love him, it might have been immoral to continue fornicating past the point that it was educational.

Possibly my favorite line ever.

I’d call this a historical coming-of-age novella with romantic elements rather than a romance; it certainly doesn’t employ conventional romance tropes or plotting (see the affair above). It does play off them, though: Jade reads books with titles like The Duke’s Folly, and she finds herself entangled with a cad before she finds her real hero. (The fact that the gorgeous, sexy cad is not the real hero–though not a villain either–is one way this book departs from romance conventions). The hero isn’t fully developed, and if I have a criticism of the novella, it’s that it is a bit short to fully develop all its story elements. Nonetheless, I found the romance sweet and satisfying.

Jade’s adventuring does get her into potentially perilous territory–that affair has predictable consequences–but the story never turns as dark as it might have, because everyone in it is really quite nice. In this sense, it is a kind of fantasy. Still, Cho doesn’t leave us unaware that much worse things could have befallen a woman in Jade’s position.

Jade’s cultural background, and the ignorance she confronts in British society, is explored with the same wry humor as sex is:

The British are a peculiar race. My grandfather was transported to Malaya because they needed tin, and yet I’ve never met a Briton to whom the thought had occurred that perhaps I spoke English because I am from one of their colonies [rather than from China]. It is as if I were a piece of chess in a game played by people who never looked down at their fingers.

There’s a pretty deep understanding of colonialism and its impact packed into those few sentences.

Best News: I absolutely loved my accidental TBR challenge read. I loved Cho’s voice, her humor, her characters. I will read this again–in fact, I feel like reading it again right now.

P.S. I loved it so much that I bought Cho’s collection of speculative fiction stories, Spirits Abroad. And apparently she has sold a Regency fantasy trilogy; I am really looking forward to this.

P.P.S. But I couldn’t shake my Harlequin TBR guilt, so I’m now reading Kelly Hunter’s Cracking the Dating Code. More good news: I’m liking that too.

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15 Responses to TBR Challenge Review: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, by Zen Cho

  1. librarianlizy says:

    I’ve accidentally on purpose bought books for the TBR Challenge. 🙂 I keep a TBR list and sometimes I don’t have something I want to read on my TBR book case or in my Nook so I have to work from the list. It’s totally legit. Glad you enjoyed your read!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh sure, permission to buy more books is just what I need! I really enjoyed being part of the Challenge for the first time, after watching it for years.

  2. willaful says:

    I used to go through that same scene practically every month. But after so many years, somewhere along the way I got into the habit of planning ahead. Glad you enjoyed your book!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I guess I might have to plan. But serendipity is working better than planning for me at the moment. It was certainly an experience that encourages me to keep on. I get a negative attitude towards my TBR (guilt, etc.) but in fact it’s full of things I once wanted to read, and many I still do. (Some I should probably just give up on).

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I’ve also had this book in the TBR since Sunita’s A- review. Thank you for saying it is a novella– that should make it easier to find the time to read it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s not a big time commitment–and a lot of return on the investment!

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Yes. We’ve gotten flak for duplicate reviews so I generally prioritize the books that haven’t been reviewed at DA yet over those that have. But if it’s a novella then it’s not such a big indulgence to read it ahead of un-reviewed books.

  4. Sunita says:

    Yay, I’m so glad you liked this! I agree with you that Cho has a singular and wonderful voice, and I also agree that a full-length novel with these characters would have been even more satisfying. This is one of those books where you wish it were longer. I loved the way she integrated the colonial issues into the story and characterization without ever beating the reader over the head with them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think this is a great example of how a genre book can deal with serious issues without being an Issue Book or at all heavy-handed. Her ethnicity, race and colonialism are part of Jade’s life and her outlook, but her whole life doesn’t revolve around it and it’s not the Point of the Book.

  5. SuperWendy says:

    I told myself I was going to plan ahead better this year, to give myself ample time to DNF books if I had to. And yet? I picked up my TBR read on Sunday and finished it on Monday. It helped it was short. It also helped that I liked it, even if it wasn’t a raging love affair.

    I’m taking a page out of Willaful’s book and trying to focus on my print TBR only this year. Oh the mountains of print I have! I really want to start hacking away at it.

  6. Miss Bates says:

    I liked that idea a lot too … because print TBR means one more book I can toss in a box and delegate to the basement. To make room for more!

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    I started reading romance regularly when I got an e-reader, so I have no romance print TBR (and not much print TBR at all, comparatively speaking). But my invisible digital TBR is another matter.

  8. lawless says:

    I read this last year based on Courtney Milan’s recommendation. I liked it for the reasons you mention but didn’t love it. The detachment with which it is written is refreshing but leaves the book a little short on emotional heft. The short length and lack of investment in developing the character of the eventual love interest don’t help.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I see your point about the detachment–or at least the perspective Jade has on events. I really like this kind of voice and I get tired of the insistence in romance on overtly describing every emotion and focusing on emotional impact. I often find a more understated story where I have to read in more of the emotion more moving. Maybe it’s that I feel less like the narrative is directing my emotional response. I know I’m kind of an outlier in this, at least among romance readers; if I quit reading it altogether, that would be why.

      • lawless says:

        I find a lot of romance overwrought too, but there’s a degree or type of emotional heft that I appreciate and is the primary reason I soldier on with the genre rather than dropping it entirely. Jade Yeo just didn’t have it, and while it has other pleasures, it wasn’t involving or deep enough to overcome that deficit.

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