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Passing Strange

by Ellen Klages

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3423165,789 (3.86)17
San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World's Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer "authentic" experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet. Six women find their lives as tangled with each other's as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Passing Strange is the first book by Ellen Klages that I have read. By the looks of her extensive list of published works, and her Nebula award winning status, it should not have been the first time I was introduced to her stories. Passing Strange wrangled me in from the very first sentence and the time shifting story line is expertly done.

Starting in the present day, the majority of the story then shifts back to 1940, exploring the relationships between 6 intriguing women, who, despite having a shortened amount of time to leap off the page, still manage to make strong impressions on the reader. Klages flawlessly weaves the women’s stories into one, sweeping story of discovering for who you are, and who your real family is.

The two primary figures, Haskel, the artist, and Emily, the performer, are the heart and soul of the group, despite not being familiar with each other at the start of their story, and the rest of the women quickly come together to support them when the going gets tough. While a shorter novel, a novella, theoretically seems like it would be easier to write, I find it is often harder – there is less time and space to convince the reader that the story you, as an author are telling, should stick with them – and so any time it is done particularly well, I appreciate it even more. ( )
  smorton11 | Oct 29, 2022 |
The back of the book says this is the story of six women, but in reality only three of them are very prominent. The story begins at the end: Helen Young has received bad news from her doctor and knows she doesn't have long. It's time for her to keep a promise she made decades ago, so she retrieves a very special pastel painting from its hiding spot and prepares to sell it.

The story jumps back in time to San Francisco in 1940. Loretta Haskel is an artist who paints pulp magazine covers in order to pay her bills. She's married, but her husband left ages ago and she's perfectly happy without him. She found her place in the city's LGBT community and a circle of supportive friends (which includes Helen, who's also her lawyer).

One evening Helen and Haskel go to Mona's, a lesbian bar, and Haskel finds herself entranced by a singer called "Spike"...who happens to be a young woman she recently met, named Emily. Emily is in need of a place to stay, and Haskel has room.

The beginning of their relationship is the focus of much of this novella, and readers gradually learn how Haskel's final painting came to be, and why Helen kept it safe for decades only to sell it to a man she found distasteful.

This is one of those cases where I fell in love with the cover before anything else. The first part of this novella, set in the present, intrigued me, as did Franny's little display of magic at the start of the flashback. I admit, I expected (and would have preferred) there to be more fantasy in this. Instead, it turned out to primarily be historical fiction.

Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm not very familiar with lesbian history in general, much less what it was like in San Francisco in 1940, so I learned a few things. I had no idea about the three-garment rule, for example. And Helen's experiences as an Asian American added another layer - although she was a lawyer, being Asian American limited her job opportunities, so she helped pay her bills with dancing. Although, based on some of the wording in the first part of the story, it sounded like Helen eventually got to focus on law more - I recall a bit mentioning she'd been a judge.

While watching things develop between Haskel and Emily was nice, and the author's depiction of lesbian artist/entertainer life in 1940 San Francisco was fascinating (art lovers may enjoy Diego Rivera's cameo and Frida Kahlo's brief mentions), I did start to wonder where things were going. Then things fell dramatically apart. I had a guess as to how Klages was going to bring Haskel's final painting in, and, surprisingly, I turned out to be correct.

Overall, I found the ending to be both neat and satisfying, as long as I didn't think too much about how Haskel and Emily had really only just met.

Kudos to Tor (and the cover artist, Gregory Machess) for pairing this novella up with absolutely perfect cover art.

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.) ( )
  Familiar_Diversions | Aug 13, 2022 |
A dreamy, stand alone, slightly magic novella set deeply in queer San Francisco in the 40's and it turns out to be a TOR novella -- go figure. No wonder I loved it to its very bones. Ellen Klages takes us on a trip in time, and brings us to an irreverent, funny, vital lesbian circle of women who are finding ways to remain fiercely themselves despite the horrifying local laws governing their dress, their property, their rights as women and minorities. In addition, there's a little bit of magic, a little bit of satisfying revenge, some wish fulfillment and characters worth their salt. Delightful. ( )
  jennybeast | Apr 14, 2022 |
While my main reading interests lie in the field of SFFF and not so much, if at all, general literature, reading a story like Passing Strange was obviously out of my comfort zone. However, I was recommended this book by ActuSF's director, and since staying in one's comfort zone for too long can have some side-effects, I decided to accept the challenge.

Obviously, it's the French translation that I read. In this edition, as well as the larger paperback that came out in 2020, you'll find not only the main novella - 'Passing Strange' -, but also the short story 'Caligo Lane' and an interview (from 2019) with Ms Klages, in which she tells more about the novella, how she came to write it, and more.

'Passing Strange' is divided into several parts:

* La ville aujourd'hui
* Tour de passe-passe
* Amours interdites
* La ville secrète
* La cité magique
* La cité interdite
* Tundérpör
* Un numéro plutôt corsé

We travel back to 1940, to the city of San Francisco, USA. World War II is going on in Europe, but the USA isn't bothered by it... yet. They've got other problems: LGBT (the QI+ was added much later), in short: See Wkipedia.

It all begins in the "future" or "present", depending on how you approach the story, before tracing back the steps at how it all began originally. Culture, art, and the likes are important, set the scene via jazz music, pulp magazine covers, etc. Lawyer Helen Young, then already long past the age of retirement, carries with her the very last cover illustration by the famed Haskel, who was the main illustrator for the magazine Weird Menace. Entering Marty Blake Rare Books, she manages to convince owner and shopkeeper Marty Blake to purchase the illustration. However, the illustration was put in a sealed box with glass covering to preserve the delicacy of the painting. After concluding the deal, Helen leaves the shop with a silent warning: Caveat emptor, a Latin expression meaning "Let the buyer beware". A warning whose origin will be explained as the story progresses.

Our main character, Loretta Haskel (illustrator for Weird Menace magazine) lives off her work as an illustrator. The work pays the bills, but nothing more. Breakfast isn't like your typical continental breakfast, no, she lives on raspberry cakes and cigarettes. A lot of cigarettes. So many cigarettes that she basically spends almost her entire income on them. That and Bourbon. But she's not the only one who smokes as if lives depend on it.

Like her friends, Loretta is a lesbian. Life as a lesbian wasn't easy back then, for various reasons. Chinatown was, on the other hand, quite receptive and welcomed these women in bars and similar places. Even the army would take measures against them. Loretta's friends include Helen Young, Franny Travers (cartographer, who makes origami objects that have magical characteristics: to travel from one place to another, as origami links them together), Barbara Weiss (Babs; a scientist working on pigments), and Emily Netterfield, who's known as Spike, a jazz singer at Mona's Club 440 at Montgomery.

The fragile painting, sold in a sealed box at the beginning of the story, tells a story of love, of an almost forbidden love with tragic consequences. Loretta was, after all, still married. She had the papers for divorce ready, but her (alcoholic) husband refused. At one point, Emily defends Loretta, but her intervention has serious consequences: Loretta's husband makes a bad fall and dies. Helen Young advises to flee, because there's little to no chance that either Emily or Loretta will be judged innocent, especially when a perfect robot picture of Emily was made and spread. The only way out: fleeing into a last painting by Haskel, by pulverising the blue stone of her necklace and using it for the painting. Opening the sealed box, which contained various booby-traps, put a final end to it all. Marty Blake, in all his curiosity or stubbornness, failed to heed Helen Young's warnings.

While I was quite sceptic about 'Passing Strange' being to my liking (i.e. not being a fan of love stories), I have to admit that my scepticism was a little misplaced and unnecessary. Even if not everything was uncovered on a historical or other level, I did enjoy the historical trip around town, if only to "see" how it was back and how life is now, in the 21st century, at least in the west. Yes, in various countries, LGBT+ still have a hard time living a comfortable life. The magical aspect of the story was original, though could have been more prominent, in my humble opinion. But that wasn't the main objective here at all, I reckon.

The added short story 'Caligo Lane' goes deeper into the origami element: Here we follow Franny Travers, the cartographer, who creates a new map following the postcard she received from her native country (Poland); in addition, she has Jewish origins. With her maps she can create direct passages, convenient when politics or similar make it hard to travel from one place or country to another. We're still in (misty) San Francisco, mainly near Russian Hill. The Golden Gate bridge, also depicted on the cover, has been in use for a few years now. Caligo Lane, where Franny lives, can not be found, not even by the postman. You can only arrive there by happenstance. As the Nazis were persecuting Jewish people in Europe (see here, for example), Franny tries to save as much of her people as possible via her magical cartographer skills.

Long story short: A story very much recommended, including the short story 'Caligo Lane', which complements the main novella.

You can read this short story on Tor.com or download the French version from the website of Éditions ActuSF, if you like to read it in French.

----------

I was sent this book by Éditions ActuSF for review. Many thanks to them for the trust. ( )
  TechThing | Feb 28, 2022 |
A lovely story set in San Francisco in the 1940's. There is a bit of magic, is it real?, you decide.

If there is such a thing as a Reverse Bechdel Test, this fails it. Two men talk to each other, but it is about a woman, specifically Big Jack (Jacqueline) discussed by a cop and a tourist. Other than sailors singing and an abusive husband, that is about as much male dialogue as we get. ( )
  wunder | Feb 3, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Best science fiction and fantasy books this month -- "Ellen Klages deftly weaves science, magic and religion in “Passing Strange” (Tor), a historical fantasy with a strong vein of pulp."
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ellen Klagesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Manchess, GregoryCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Emma and Eunice, Duke Hobson, and the rest of the cast at Polyvinyl Films
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On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor's and made herself a cup of tea.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World's Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer "authentic" experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet. Six women find their lives as tangled with each other's as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.



Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.



Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
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