Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Pros: great characters, good attention to detail

Cons: limited fantasy elements 

When Helen Young is given the news that her death is near, she performs a final duty for an old friend. In 1940 San Francisco, Loretta Haskel, an artist for lurid pulp covers, falls in love with another woman. Their lifestyle is illegal and complicated, and vibrant.

The characters are brilliant. They acknowledge some of the racial and sexual challenges of the day, focusing on Asian and lesbian. The women are all living their lives, trying to get by without getting into trouble with the law for being who they are. They’re each quite different, though most of them are artists of some sort.

San Francisco is a wonderful setting. The book allows you to experience several parts of the city. There’s a day at the World’s Fair, Chinatown, various eateries, the fabulous view. The book also mentions the war a few times, and how that affects people. It’s far enough away that the influence is minor, but it helped make the book feel grounded in history. I was impressed with the level of detail - enough so you can fully picture the city, but not so much you get bogged down in descriptions.

There’s a faint inkling of magic in the book. It’s used a few times in minor ways. If you’re hoping for a lot of fantasy elements, this isn’t for you. I was left with a few questions about the final piece of magic, but nothing that detracted from my enjoyment of the story as a whole. 

I loved that the cover of the book is the final picture Haskel paints, and annoyed that it took me so long to figure that out. 

One plot twist was fairly obvious, but on the whole I thought the book was beautifully written and evocative. As a novella it is on the short side, but it’s the perfect length for the story being told. If you like historical fiction, San Francisco, or books that explore more diverse lifestyles, give it a go.

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