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.