Posts Tagged San Francisco

The Valley of Amazement: book review

valley of amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Publisher: ECCO (November 2013). Literary fiction/ Historical fiction. Hardcover. 608 pages. ISBN 9780062107312.

A sweeping story set in Shanghai, Amy Tan weaves a lush tapestry about mothers and daughters, a subject she writes exceptionally well. In 1905 young Violet lives a vibrant and lavish childhood in the courtesan house run by her mother, American Lucia [Lulu] Minturn. Violet never knows her father and her exotic looks combined with this mystery throw a wedge between mother and daughter. They don’t have the closest relationship. No cuddles, hugs and kisses. More formal. Businesslike. [“All I knew was a gnawing need for her attention and assurances. I wanted to feel without worry that I was more important than anyone else in her life. When I thought about it further, I realized she had given more attention to the beauties than to me.”]

When Violet overhears that she’s actually not American like her mother that she’s half-Chinese/ half-American, quite rare during these times and in most circumstances, she finds it unsettling. She’d be an outcast but her mother’s shielded her from being one. Born in China, Violet speaks fluent English and Chinese, a useful skill in her mother’s business. The story’s mostly told through Violet and it’s engrossing. Tan provides elaborate descriptions and character portraits. She leaves out few details.

When political unrest hits Shanghai making it unsafe for foreigners, a fellow American sets up passage to San Francisco for Lulu and Violet. Unfortunately the double-dealing Fairweather tricks Lulu and Violet gets left behind. The worst possible scenario: she’s sent to a courtesan house and her virginity’s sold to the highest bidder. Luckily the young man’s not so bad and Violet falls for him a bit but soon realizes that wasn’t the best idea. She must keep her head clear. In this next part of the novel, Violet transforms herself into a Svengali and survivor because that’s all she can do. 14 years pass with Violet in her role as courtesan.

“He must have expected I would be pleased to hear this kind of flattery. I instead, I felt I had instantly become a whore. He had wooed me, as any suitor would his favorite courtesan. He wanted the chase and capture, the self-denial and mock agony in between. My agony was real.”

While young at first she quickly learns that she must look out for herself and keep her wits about her and stay strong. A smart woman, Violet has her own ideas and manages her business dealings as she wants. As a feminist reading about the courtesan life through Amy Tan’s words I didn’t find it offensive. She handles it effectively and with style and Violet and Lulu both are powerful, intelligent women. Later Violet does truly fall in love with an American named Edward and they have a daughter. Violet realizes happiness for the first time. After Edward dies from an illness, his American wife and mother sweep in and take the child away devastating Violet.

This courtesan world isn’t glamorous or romantic. It’s a working world. Not the gritty street life of a prostitute but a courtesan in turn-of-the-century Shanghai needed to remain popular among patrons to make money and not get demoted to a worse house or to the streets. Plus most courtesans only had a limited amount of years in which to remain in favor as courtesans. Sadly men like the women young. Sexist world the sex trade. Tan provides a glimpse into this little known world with Violet’s tumultuous story and her eventual reunion with her mother and her daughter.

RATING: *****/ 5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the ECCO/Harper Collins.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: book review


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 288 pages. ISBN: 978-0-374-21491-3.

A fun, amusing, smart page-turner that’s perfect for long winter nights. I picked it up and immediately became attached to the San Francisco setting, the Google culture and geeky characters wrapped up in the story of old vs. new technology. Clay Jannon loses his fantastic web-design gig, stumbles upon a graveyard shift in an obscure indie bookstore. The clientele and books seem strange. Clay, a fantasy fan, begins to investigate and becomes entangled in a super-secret society searching for immortality. Reminded me a bit of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. As Coupland covered Microsoft and my generation, Robin Sloan tackles Google and today’s e-reading 20-somethings. In this novel there’s much discussion about bookstores, book-selling, e-readers, book-scanning and the future of books and book publishing with cloak and dagger sleuthing mixed in.

–Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

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expiration date: book review

Expiration Date , by Sherril Jaffe. Publisher: The Permanent Press(April 1, 2011). Literary fiction. Hardcover, 192 pages.

Now Flora wondered if that weren’t a survival mechanism on her mother’s part. Muriel gave up living in the present in order to live in the future, in the only way the future could ever be experienced. In this way, she continued to stay alive beyond the present.

Flora thinks she’s going to die on her 60th birthday. A professor and wife of a Rabbi, the San Franciscan had a dream or vision many years ago in which she was told when but not how she’d die. So she’s rather obsessing on this and in doing so fails to see the world about her and to truly enjoy herself. Simultaneously her widowed 86-year-old mother Muriel embarks on extensive traveling and love affairs. Expiration Date is that rare find in a novel these days. It contemplates aging—not glossing over the negatives or puffing out the positives—but with flair and honesty. It also vividly captures the intricacies and challenges in most mother-daughter relationships. [“..with her mother, Flora felt ugly, inadequate, and inferior.”]

Expiration Date proves both humorous and vitalizing. Turns out that maybe expiration dates are only in our minds. Life doesn’t begin or end at a particular time. Those are just the silly notions that our society deems necessary or sensible.

purchase at Amazon: Expiration Date

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book review: Drake’s Bay

Title: Drake’s Bay
Author: T.A. Roberts
ISBN: 978-1579621971
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Permanent Press (April 1, 2010)
Category: mystery/thriller
Review source: publisher
Rating: 4/5

It was all so unlike my normal life program: ancient manuscripts, secrets, Nazi submarines, darkly blonde, beautiful women, scones. Although I was uncomfortable with whatever Brian, let alone Kay, was up to, it was all so damned intriguing.

In Drake’s Bay, T.A. Roberts crafts a thriller steeped in academia and history. Roberts pulls together Sir Francis Drake, California history, and boating in a completely innovative way. Even if the reader knows little about any of these subjects, Drake’s Bay seduces with its impeccable visual and historical details. When San Francisco State professor Ethan Storey takes on an outside project: to archive the library collection for a wealthy family, power-plays and danger follow.

Somewhere amidst all these old books might be Sir Francis Drake’s logbooks of his world voyage from 1577-1580, a huge find for historians and also there’s a brass plate from the voyage of infinite monetary worth for others [particularly two dueling families]. Other historians have cataloged the collection before Ethan and no one has found the true bounty. The logbooks may not even be among the hundreds of books that Ethan finds himself amidst for several days a week. However, the suspicion that the logbooks are out there and connected to these antiques seems likely. Ethan’s girlfriend Kay, an attorney, represents the Ballantine family who has long held an interest in finding the real brass plate [a fake currently exists] and log books.

This mystery is far from antiquated and dusty, there’s murder, chases, and cutthroat deals. When I first received the book and saw that it was about Sir Francis Drake and boating and other seemingly male interests, I wasn’t sure it would be my type of read. I don’t gravitate to that many thrillers even if I like to mix up my reading. Drake’s Bay remains smart, challenging, and provocative from beginning to end. I know my stepfather, a former Navy officer in Vietnam, should really enjoy this one. Drake’s Bay is anything from the usual on the run thriller: an old wooden schooner, Amsterdam, a father-son relationship, moneyed families, competitive universities and scholars all play a role in this deceptively cunning thriller.

Buy Drake’s Bay

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film review: Milk

When gay rights continue to be threatened today, a film about a 1970s gay rights pioneer is important to see. Unfortunately it will not reach the audiences that it needs to reach most. Here in Massachusetts, we have gay marriage. In California, where Harvey Milk fought for gay rights so ardently, gays have had their civil rights taken away and now are fighting Prop 8 (the recent vote against gay marriage). This should be merely a historical film but it cuts into today’s political climate as much now as it did then. It saddens me. I saw the film with my close friend who happens to be gay. We saw it in liberal Brookline at the Coolidge Corner theatre. During classes we took together there was an early undercurrent of “is he or isn’t he gay?” and I just don’t see why this type of discussion still exists or needs to exist today. Why does who someone chooses to have sex with really matter in the end? More importantly, why should society and the government care so much?

At 40-years-old, Harvey Milk lamented that he hadn’t done anything with his life and after looking around his neighborhood and realizing he had a chance to make a difference, he threw himself into politics. He vigilantly worked against many against many anti-gay initiatives. His effervescent personality, resiliency and perseverance (he ran for office four times) paid off when he finally became elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the first openly gay elected politician, in 1977. Everyone seemed to like him and he developed a huge grassroots following. During his short time in office, he managed to pass a major gay rights ordinance for San Francisco. Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by disgruntled former San Francisco supervisor Dan White.

Sean Penn [The Interpreter, Mystic River] portrays Milk in a powerful, profound, commanding performance and will most likely be nominated for an Academy award. He is ebullient and convicted to the end result and wins you over from the first frame. He makes you love Milk right off. He also makes you feel like you are watching a documentary at times. He has the mannerisms and affectations down. And when he’s with his lover, played by the talented James Franco [Pineapple Express, Spider-Man 3], the sex appeal oozes. The duo has smoldering and intense chemistry. James Brolin [W, No Country for Old Men] as Dan White and Emile Hirsch [Into the Wild] as Milk’s protege Cleve Jones, are outstanding as well. First-time screenwriter Dustin Lance Black weaves a compelling script, while director Gus Van Sant [Elephant, Good Will Hunting] scores another convincing, provocative film that delves into a difficult, emotional subject.

Milk is a moving, inspirational film. The gay rights movement, starting around 1970, piggybacked on the civil rights movement, and is equally as historical. Though there are not as many big names attached to the movement or memorable speeches or seminal/blood shed moments. Being openly gay and advancing the rights of gays not only in California but throughout the country by making people realize that being gay wasn’t something that should hold them back or allow them to be discriminated against. He created legislature against such discrimination. Harvey Milk began every speech saying, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.” He had a “platform”, so to speak,” of getting people to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers. That is his legacy.

Dubbing himself the Mayor of Castro Street, Milk had charisma. He declared that it was “not just issues. This is our lives we are fighting for.” And that it was never just gay rights but human rights. Harvey Milk understood the big picture long before others did and longer before many more will.

–Amy Steele [12.10.2008]


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