One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

The cover, in shades of pink and lavender, shows the two main characters looking at each other; Jane is on the subway, dressed in a black jacket, torn jeans, a white t-shirt and orange sneakers; August is walking alongside the subway station, wearing a white t-shirt and black jumper and boots, carrying a cup of takeaway coffee with a purse slung over her shoulder.
Book cover of One Last Stop.

by Ash B.

If you’re at all aware of contemporary LGBTQ romance fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. I’ve honestly yet to read it, but I can confirm there is no sophomore slump for McQuiston with their second novel One Last Stop. 

One Last Stop follows August, a cynical 23-year-old college student, as she adjusts to life in New York – trying out yet another college in another city – complete with quirky roommates, a job at a pancake diner that she may or may not be qualified for, and a subway route that she happens to share with the most attractive girl she’s ever seen. The aforementioned “Subway Girl” goes by the name Jane, she is equal parts kind and fierce, and… well, her existence may defy reality as we know it. 

I leave this intentionally vague for a reason: I likely would have found the book even more enjoyable if I had no idea of the plot before I started reading, given that McQuiston spends quite some time building up the mystery of who – or what – Jane actually is. Therefore, I will refrain from going into detail about the book’s premise. Honestly, if this review piques your interest in the title, then I recommend that you simply dive into the book for yourself without reading the summary! 

However, I will divulge that, in my opinion, One Last Stop is an example of speculative fiction at its most accessible, and I absolutely loved it. In a recent interview, Casey McQuiston explains how they “have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” referencing films such as 13 Going On 30 and Freaky Friday. These are not stories typically considered sci-fi or fantasy – at least, not in the same way as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – but they absolutely exist within the realm of speculative fiction, incorporating fantastical elements while allowing the author to set the story in an otherwise ‘normal’ contemporary world. The reader can take comfort in the familiarity of the overall setting but can be surprised, or at very least entertained, by the circumstances that arise from the speculative elements employed.  

Whereas these elements are often used for comedic potential in Hollywood movies, McQuiston is able to use them in a way that enriches One Last Stop with queer history and profound examinations about social differences between the past and present. And, of course, the situations created by the speculative elements are also well-suited for romantic tension and drama, which makes for a very engaging story.

I’ve found that a book is a particularly good read for me personally if it reminds me of other books I’ve loved, automatically encouraging my brain to go into “let’s compare these parallels!” mode while simultaneously being an enjoyable narrative on its own. One Last Stop is a perfect example of this! At the beginning, I found myself thinking of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, as both of these novels feature mystery-loving bisexual female protagonists in their early twenties, living in present-day NYC, that end up being caught in the middle of seemingly unreal circumstances. McQuiston’s lovable cast of characters, development of a queer found-family trope, and flirtation with the “star-crossed lovers” trope (but with a happy ending!) reminded me of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. And by the end, as hidden family histories and unexpected connections between characters are revealed, I excitedly reminisced about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Other than being some of my favorite reads in the past few years, I would not think to compare any of those three titles with each other… yet they fit perfectly in comparison to One Last Stop. 

In its best moments, One Last Stop is so tenderly written that it makes me yearn for a life in New York City – and that’s saying something, considering I’m a lifelong suburbanite who’s always been more drawn to the countryside than the city. McQuiston crafts likable characters who speak realistically about life in their city, honoring both the beauty and the struggles of the world which they inhabit. Not only that, but the city itself – and certain destinations within it, such as August’s apartment and the pancake diner where she works – feel like characters too. McQuiston writes them all with such care, I couldn’t help but feel connected to them, want to visit these places, want to be friends with these people and experience life alongside them. This makes for a wonderful book to escape into, and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good read about falling in love, finding one’s community, and growing into the best version of one’s self.

One Last Stop is available to request from HCLS in print as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

Author works: Gail Tsukiyama

The book cover depicts the small town of Hilo at the shoreline, with buildings in shades of white and brown against a foreground and backdrop of turquoise sea and sky; in the distance, Mauna Loa is erupting into the sky, with yellow flame and reddish clouds above the silhouette of the mountain.

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By Julie F.

The beloved bestselling author and recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Gail Tsukiyama returns with The Color of Air. A novelist whose dual Chinese and Japanese background features prominently in her writing, Tsukiyama presents a novel whose prose flows like the lava threatening her characters, with the grace of stringing leis with fragrant jasmine, kukui nuts, and ti leaves. The literal and figurative emblems of Hawai’i leap off the page and into the vision, sounds, taste, and touch of readers as they live alongside the Hilo locals, and hear the voices of the ghosts they cannot let go.

The residents’ stories move through alternating sections from 1935 to the even deeper past — a rich, vibrant, bittersweet chorus which tells the interweaving stories and a lifelong bond to each other and to others in their immigrant community. Even as the eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano threatens their lives and livelihoods, it also unearths long-held secrets that have been simmering just below the surface.

What I love about the book is that there is a subplot for everyone. If you’ve had a relative challenged by dementia or Alzheimer’s, you see how Mama Natua’s family tries to cope with the help of Daniel, the Hilo native and urban Chicago doctor who has returned to the island to work among his people. Daniel himself wrestles with paternal abandonment, maternal loss, and the guilty sting of feeling that he failed a patient on the mainland. His high school sweetheart, Maile, has an abusive relationship in her past and is tentative about finding happiness again. Razor, the best friend of Daniel’s uncle Koji, tries to unionize the immigrant workers who are taken advantage of by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners and overseers. Each person has their secrets and struggles, yet all come together to find solutions. That’s one of the best things about Tsukiyama’s novels: the sense of love, community, and found family that permeates each page, with characters who learn to face and overcome their fears in order to adapt and grow.

Another strength is the remarkable visual and sensual imagery of the island, which is like a living being itself: “just as volatile and unpredictable as anything a big city could offer” (48). The native Hawaiian words interspersed throughout give the reader a sense of the geology, the fruit, the pikake blossoms, the music of the Filipino bands in the town, and the diversity of languages spoken on the island (at one point, she notes that signs on the street were printed in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Japanese). Hawai’i is truly a distinct cultural melding of sounds, sights, and scents, and Tsukiyama’s descriptive language conveys its unique beauty.

In her years aside from writing, Tsukiyama co-founded the nonprofit WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. Alongside bestselling authors Ann Patchett, Gillian Flynn, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Roach, and Lisa See, the foundation’s mission is to give children in developing communities hope for the future through nourishing their minds and bodies with books and water.

Gail Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco, California to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawai’i. She is the bestselling author of Women of the Silk (available from HCLS in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) and The Samurai’s Garden, as well as the more recent A Hundred Flowers (also available as a book on CD and as an eAudiobook from CloudLibrary).

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.

Found Family in Speculative Fiction

By Kristen B.

There’s an old saying that while you can’t choose your family, it’s lucky that you can choose your friends. Some of my favorite stories include found family, where the characters forge tight bonds that go beyond simple friendship into family feeling. These are often the books that live on my comfort reads shelf. It’s also one of the oldest tropes in existence: the band of brothers (or maybe just the band) who live and die for each other. If it can’t actually save the world, friendship can at least make it a better place.

This mostly brown cover features a planet in the background and a chunky spaceship in the front. The title appears in shaded block letters which gradually increase in size.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

This is the book I hand to people who tell me they don’t really like science fiction, but want to try something new. If you ever enjoyed the show Firefly, this novel will feel familiar. Set on an older, slightly beat-up spaceship, the crew represents a wide range of galactic species who pull together as a team, a ragtag group of political and social misfits. The fairly minimal plot focuses on the need to push a new wormhole/jump, which means that one ship has to take the slow voyage to anchor the jump points. It may sound tedious but it’s never boring with all that time to get to know the quirky crew of the Wayfarer. Two of my favorites are the pacifist chef who comes from a species that essentially committed self-genocide through endless war, and Lovey (short for Lovelace), who is the ship’s AI. While not so heavy on forward action, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet provides an interconnected set of character studies that leaves you feeling more than a little warm and fuzzy.

A blue cover with an image of Jupiter in the background features a flotilla of different spaceships framing the title across the middle of the image.

A Pale Light in the Black by K. B. Wagers

Some of the most enduring found family stories tell about military outfits whose bonds are stronger than blood – kinda like the A-Team. Meet Max and Jenks, officers (commissioned and non-com, respectively) on the NEO-G ship Zuma’s Ghost. A sort of space-based Coast Guard, NEO-G (Near-Earth Orbital Guard) Interceptor teams run counter-smuggling interdiction operations and rescue missions. Max has recently joined Zuma’s Ghost, after Jenks’ brother is promoted off the ship. Part of the story revolves around Max and Jenks finding a good working relationship during various military actions. Part of the story concerns the Boarding Games annual competition, which happens among teams from all military service branches and which Zuma’s Ghost just missed winning the previous year. Jenks is the all-time champion cage fighter, and Max, navigator extraordinaire, is still discovering what skills she contributes to the team. Underlying all this surface fun, something more sinister lurks that threatens Max, Jenks, and all of Earth. This book rolls with a ton of space opera fun, hitting all the beats you expect and some you don’t. It’s also one of the most inclusive set of characters ever thrown together to save the solar system!

A woman kneels upon a beach gesturing with her right hand toward a flat sea, with symbols traced on the sand beneath her. The palette is muted beiges and blues.

Winter Tide by Ruthanne Emrys (also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive)

I must admit to avoiding this title for longer than I should have given its association with the Lovecraft mythos. Lovecraft’s opinions and bigotry have not stood the test of time well, and I was a little apprehensive about diving into the deeps with a Cthulu-inspired novel. How wrong I was! Emrys reconstructs the Lovecraftian milieu into a family saga that demands empathy for the Other. Set in Innsmouth along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, down the road from Miskatonic University (home to lots of unhelpful white men), Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb look to reclaim their heritage that was stolen when the government interred her people away from the sea in the desert. The Innsmouth community comes from People of the Water (as opposed to Air or Earth), who eventually leave dry land and evolve to live as Deep Ones in the sea. Aphra needs to find trusted friends and colleagues to re-establish a home at Innsmouth before developers demolish what little remains and to reclaim her people’s heritage from the dim reaches of the university’s library. This quiet, personal novel focuses on staying true to yourself and trusting others who travel the path with you – even if one of them happens to be an FBI agent.

A face with long ears peeks over the bottom of the cover wearing a crown shaped liked a palace.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (also available as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

Do you love pauper to prince stories? Heroes that go from the kitchen or the farm to the throne? Me too! Half-elf, half-goblin Maya grew up in almost total isolation after the death of his mother, living in a remote marshy estate with an equally outcast, abusive tutor. His father, the Emperor of Elfland, had come to regret his political marriage, exiling Maya and his mother from court. This book opens with Maya receiving news that he is the only remaining legitimate heir after his father and older brothers are killed in a terrible accident. Promising himself to be true to his mother’s precepts of kindness and generosity, Maya tries to maneuver in an imperial court for which he has no frame of reference or requisite education. He makes his way tentatively toward a previously unimaginable royal future, grounded in the adamant idea that he will not continue the cycle of abuse levied against him. Along the way and despite assassination attempts, he finds kindred spirits – helpful councilors, his maternal grandfather (who rules the goblin empire), long-lost aunts and sisters, and devoted bodyguards – to ease the burden of royal privilege and deference. I love this book to pieces, and it only improves with re-reading. The language can be a little dense at first, but stick with it and you will be greatly rewarded with a story of courtly politics and the power of kindness.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

An illustration shows a raggedy spit of land above a blue sea, with a red house with lots of windows at its very edge. Windswept trees and a blue and pink sunset sky frame the house.

by Sarah C.

Have you ever read a book that feels like a warm hug? Not just certain scenes either, like the entire story overall, start to finish, feels…happy. Comforting. Wholesome. And despite containing a large variety of themes, concepts and emotions, highs and lows, and a bit of magic, the book still manages to wrap itself around you like a soft, well-loved quilt?

Me neither…until now! To be fair, my preferences are usually hard-hitting realistic teen fiction with some fantasy and sci-fi thrown into the mix, and I tend to avoid gentler, softer stories. Maybe that is why this particular book was so surprisingly engaging for me. Regardless, let me tell you about this charming modern fairy tale of a novel that I had the absolute pleasure of reading.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) was recommended by a colleague who is always on point with their choices, so I assumed I’d enjoy it, but was not prepared to fall in love like I did. Utterly and completely head over heels in love. After staying up late on a weeknight to finish this page turner, I then re-read it slowly over the weekend to savor it…then demanded my friends, my book club, my social media groups, my co-workers, and my family read it. Then I bought it, AND I requested it again from the library because at this point there was a decent waiting list but my copy was almost overdue. I proceeded to suffer greatly waiting for the copy I bought to arrive, so I began reading it yet again, together with my 11-year-old in the evening..and so on and so forth.

Perhaps you might like to hear about the actual book at some point, as opposed to my swooning?

Right, well this is the story of a group of misfit children with different special abilities and backgrounds, and the “normal” adults who play certain roles in their lives. Some try to raise and protect them, some try to control and contain them, while others fear and scorn them. Our main character, Linus Baker, is confused by them but curious and good-hearted, and throughout the book learns to see them for who they truly are and love them more for it. A lonely, rule following caseworker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth, Linus lives a dull and dreary life, until he is given a mysterious assignment to investigate the “dangerous” children being cared for at the Marsyas Island Orphanage and identify their threat levels. Without much information to go on, Linus embarks upon what becomes a life-changing adventure, filled with unexpected beauty and memorable characters. There might also be a sassy and insufferable pet cat, which is an added bonus.

Themes include found family, celebrating differences, facing bias and prejudice in ourselves and others, accepting help and love, and recognizing true bravery and learning that it’s never too late to start over or discover something new, with many parallels to today’s world. Darkness lurks around corners in Cerulean Sea as well as our own lives, and the author skillfully acknowledges this, lest the story become too unrealistic.  

As I finish this book for the third time, I am left with a renewed sense of hope for the future. I invite you to fall in love as I did with this intergenerational “must read” for 2021.

While you will have to request the title because it’s so popular right now, the wait will be worth the while!

Sarah is the Teens’ Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch, where she can be found geeking out over new graphic novels, spotting rainbows and drinking day-old coffee.