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Book Review: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Series, #1)

March 8, 2022 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a cartoon drawing of a street in San Francisco.

Summary:
San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous

Review:
This was first published as a novel in 1978, although it was published prior to that as a serialized story in a San Francisco newspaper. It is considered a classic of LGBTQIA+ literature. The first tv show miniseries based upon it that premiered in 1994 had a same-sex kiss made history and was also protested (source). The Netflix reboot/update in 2019 brought fresh attention to it, and I thought it was high-time I read the classic.

It’s clear that some restraints were placed upon Maupin, either by the newspaper or simply the culture of the time. Our window into the queer world in San Francisco is given to us by Mary Ann Singleton – a single cis straight woman who comes from Cleveland for a visit and decides to stay. She’s invited into Barbary Lane and declared one of us, although why exactly she’s considered part of the found family is not resolved in the first book.

The book is definitely a product of the 1970s. 1970s fashion and freewheeling culture are everywhere. Lack of acceptance of queer people is a real threat and concern, and the AIDS crisis had not yet hit. It’s an interesting snapshot of a very particular point in time.

While characters are quite loose about who they will sleep with, there’s also a lack of diversity in the cast of main characters that’s jarring. Especially for a story set in a city that’s so diverse. Particularly noticeable to me was how the Asian-American characters are all peripheral, even with this being San Francisco. I don’t think this lack of diversity is a product of its time – there were other very forward-thinking works of fiction at the same time as this. This lack of diversity is something to keep in mind when approaching the book.

There are also two plot twists that revolve around race, and I don’t think either is handled with particular grace. The race of someone’s lover is identified by pointing to a yellow flower. This is obviously offensive. While it seems to me that the character who does this is someone we’re supposed to think badly of, on the other hand, it seemed to me that this was supposed to be a funny moment. And it definitely was not. In the other case, a character reveals that they believe that the only way to become a successful model is to be Black. It is unclear what the other character they are speaking to thinks of that. I think this instance may be intentionally leaving it up to the reader to decide what they think, but it’s also a strange plot point in a book that’s mostly about hookups and very little about careers.

This reminded me very much of other books and tv shows that have dramatic, gasp-inducing storylines with large casts of characters whose lives intertwine and overlap in mysterious ways. Think Jane the Virgin or Desperate Housewives just with fewer identical twins and less murder (so far…..) and more queer characters. If you like that type of storytelling, then you’ll likely find this hilarious and engaging. If you don’t, then you probably won’t.

I personally found it to be a rapid read with an engaging storyline and funny chapter titles. I wished it had been more forward-thinking and intersectional, but I also respect that the mere depiction of queer people in a soap opera like story was quite groundbreaking. I appreciate it for what it is, and it was a fun, quick read.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 386 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

A red figure hangs like a puppet from red wires on a black background.Summary:
Ever since his birthday party when a fortune cookie exploded in his face, professional blogger of all things San Francisco, Ted Hall, has been passing out, sleeping 12 hours, and waking up exhausted.  It’s disconcerting, especially since there’s a serial killer on the loose.

The circus is in town, and the highwire workers are frustrated with the star of the act, who never rehearses and periodically disappears.  And no one understands why the manager isn’t reporting their missing highwire wire to the authorities, especially since the serial killer is stringing up his victims with a strong, thin wire that sounds an awful lot like a highwire wire.

Bob the beach-living, ballroom-dancing attraction, used to be the god Kanaloa, but the immortals have abandoned humans to their own devices, and he’s not supposed to interfere.  But he just may be the key to all the mysteries occurring in San Francisco.

Review:
I picked this up because it sounded like an urban fantasy serial killer mystery, which is just my speed.  Unfortunately, I found a book with a discombobulated world and plot that builds confusion rather than tension.

If my summary above seems disjointed and confusing that’s because that’s precisely what this book is.  Multiple different extremely odd plots are going on that ultimately do have some relation to each other, but the relation takes far too long to establish or understand.  The book starts with a flashback to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and introduces us to Bob/Kanaloa.  It then jumps forward to the completely dull Ted and the exploding fortune cookie.  It then jumps backward in time again to an entirely different character, who is tied to the circus, eventually.  It takes quite a while to find out what his relation is.  These three disparate storylines that seems to have no relation to each other continue throughout the book.  Bob/Kanaloa’s journey from immortal god to just immortal beach bum would be an interesting book.  But his plot keeps getting abandoned for the other two plots, so all tension and interest is lost.  Similarly, the evil circus organizer would be interesting, but only if his plot was handled with more detail and finesse.  As it is, what he is doing and why he is evil is just confusing, not interesting.  Ted’s plot would not be interesting, even on its own with more detail, because Ted is a two-dimensional, boring character.

Beyond the three disjointed, confusing plots, nothing in this story is ever fully fleshed-out.  There’s the vague idea that immortals were once on Earth and involved but now have left, but the details of the hows, whys, and how this has affected Bob/Kanaloa is left out.  We’re told the organizer of the circus is evil, but we never see his fall from grace.  We see him as a poor pioneer then later as an evil circus worker.  The interesting part of how he got sucked into this evil is left out.  Similarly, two people ultimately become human hosts for gods, but this is basically just announced and moved on from.  The intricacies of how this feels for the human and for the god, why it might be effective or not, etc… is all left out.  This is a bare-bones, confusing plot with little development, which ruins all possible tension.

Just as the plot is created in broad, sloppy strokes, so are the characters.  The closest any come to being three-dimensional is Bob/Kanaloa, which at least made the story readable.  But the rest are quickly laid out with broad character traits, and the story moves on.  There is, for instance, no depth to Ted’s relationship with his girlfriend.  We’re told she’s his girlfriend and he loves her, but we never truly see them together and functioning as a couple.  We get no flashbacks to times prior to the supernatural craziness to see them in a non-stressful situation.  Ted’s girlfriend is there as a plot device, nothing more.

I understand that this is an advanced copy and there will be another editing pass, etc…, however this is the most errors I have ever seen in an ARC.  It was rife with typos, use of the wrong word, and format issues.  Most egregious to me is the Britishisms used by American characters, such as “prawns” for “shrimp.”  ARCs should have already had at least one editing pass.  A reasonable amount of errors could slip through, but not this many.  There were errors on approximately every other page.  Hopefully the final version received a heavy final edit.  Check reviews of the final version to be certain.

This book reads like an extremely rough first draft that badly needs an editor to come through and fix, not just minor typos and grammar, but also plot and characters problems.  It could be an interesting story if it was more fleshed-out, with some storylines dropped in favor of a more solid main one, and with at least a couple of three-dimensional characters the reader can really relate to and root for.  As it stands, there are certain scenes that are well-written and engaging, but together they do not make an engaging, readable mystery.  I normally love books published by Angry Robot, so I found this particularly disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Lemon Reef by Robin Silverman

Silhouette of a person diving.Summary:
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog.  Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida.  But a phone call comes in.  Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30.  The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that.  Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.

Review:
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.

The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing.  There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did.  In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in.  Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently.  I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.

There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon.  Every single character has flaws and good qualities.  Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna.  Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs.  Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter.  Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves.  The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read.  There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in.  I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer.  She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.

The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters.  There are lines that just totally grab you.

Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)

I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex.  She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too.  She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even.  But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community.  I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  But I found this complexity interesting.  It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life.  This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.  There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book.  For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground.  Things like that that are periodically clunky.  I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.

I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife.  I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral.  Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison.  It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple.  I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.

Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit.  Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested.  I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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