Dramatic plot vs. happily-ever-after: The perils of emotional investment

Fear. Anxiety. Dread.

And it’s all the fault of fictional characters.

I have a tendency to binge when I get into something new, TV or books, and then — oh my stars — it’s so hard to separate. Because what happens when you fall in love with characters, but then have to witness them going through hell? All I want to do is scoop them up and keep them safe, but that’s not the way good stories work.

Clearly, I have a problem.

Take my newest obsession, The Walking Dead. Yes, I am super late to the party, but thanks to finally getting Netflix (again, super late to the party), I’ve been indulging. I started The Walking Dead, season 1 episode 1, in mid-May, and apart from a couple of weeks while I was out of town, have been watching the series straight through. So here I am, a month and a half later, slightly past the middle of season 6, and while I can’t wait to see what happens next, part of me wants to just walk away.


I’m at a place in the story where, as usual, the characters’ lives were hanging by a thread. Their supposedly safe haven, where they can finally build a life for themselves and plan for the future, has been overrun by hordes of the undead. All seems doomed, but finally, there’s this totally awesome battle scene (truly, a thing of beauty), and the good guys win! What follows is one of the most chill episodes ever, taking place a few weeks later, where everyone is safe again, rebuilding, relaxing, and starting to make things better.

Guys, they’re smiling! Rick and Daryl are out on a supply run and it’s actually funny! There’s even a sexy, romantic scene! (No, not Rick and Daryl.)

Man, I’m loving this show. I adore Rick Grimes. I want to cuddle Daryl Dixon (after a good bath, maybe). Carl is the cutest. Michonne is a total bad-ass with a heart of gold. And this is where my over-investment comes into play.

Because part of me wants to turn off the TV, pretend that’s the last episode, and walk away. Because then THEY’D ALL LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. And I wouldn’t have to watch all these people I love get tortured again and again. No going hungry. No machete-ing walkers through the brain. No fighting off evil human attackers.

Imagine the possibilities, though, if everyone got to stay happy. The Walking Dead could become a sitcom, with charming little conflicts — uh oh! Craziness ensues when Carol’s favorite knife goes missing! Little Judith’s first word is “walker”, and it’s adorable! Abraham runs a fitness class, and Eugene is his best student! And don’t get me started on Rick Grimes and all the possibilities for him as the cool dad whose teenage son has an attitude.


This can’t be, obviously. Dramatic tension is necessary for good storytelling. If everyone on The Walking Dead remained safe in Alexandria behind secure walls, with enough food and medical equipment to lead healthy, safe lives, the story would be over. It’s wonderful for the characters, of course, but there would be nothing further to keep the show going.

Likewise in books. Let’s take my favorite series, Outlander (duh). These characters never get a break. Yes, there are plenty of happy moments, and plenty of swoonworthy scenes of Claire and Jamie basking in each others’ arms after a blissful night of lovemaking… but things just never go well for long. These folks are in the middle of a war, always. There’s always some bad guy or another lurking around the corner, ready to kidnap, shoot at, plot against, or otherwise cause harm to our beloved characters.


Book #7 in the series, An Echo in the Bone, ends with not just one, but 4 or 5 major cliffhangers. The agony of waiting years for the next book while pretty much everyone is in jeopardy! Flash forward a few years to Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (book #8), and after 145 chapters, everyone we care about ends up in a pretty good place. Yes, there are some small questions left unanswered but (spoiler) Jamie and Claire and Brianna and Roger and Ian and Rachel and, well, everyone, are safe and happy and together!

Part of me wanted to just say to Diana Gabaldon — okay, great! Stop now! Let these people live out the rest of their days in the peace and comfort and love they all deserve!

But no. I need and want and crave more of the story, and book #9 is in the works… and what would an Outlander book be if everyone was safe and happy all the time? So while I can’t wait for a publication date to finally be announced, I’m also dreading diving back in and finding out what hideous new dangers await my beloved Claire and Jamie and the rest of their family up on Fraser’s Ridge.

So, am I crazy for wanting my favorite characters — TV or books — to just get a chance to be happy?

We all love happily-ever-afters, right? But they just don’t make for great storytelling. There’s a reason most fairy tales don’t continue past the HEA. We can be happy for people who find happiness, but stories are driven by tension, suspense, conflict, and crisis. If there’s no obstacle to overcome and everybody just enjoys mundane daily lives, what more do we need to know?


I know that great drama demands all of the above. As for The Walking Dead — well, hell yes, I’m going to keep going. And I’ve stumbled across enough spoilers before I started watching the show to know that VERY BAD things are coming soon for characters I care about, and I’m going to end up heartbroken once again.

In the choice between walking away at a happy moment or continuing with a story I love despite the unhappiness to come, there’s no question — I’ll always choose to continue.

But isn’t it nice to daydream about a life in which Carl Grimes’s greatest worry is about impressing a girl, and not fighting for survival while covered in zombie guts?

Counting up the books: 2017



For a brief period last year, I had the crazy idea that I’d do a mini-inventory of my books each month. Basically, I decided I’d count all the unread books on my shelves and on my e-reader, then track my monthly reading and buying and see if my numbers went down (the goal) or up (the reality). The point was both to remind myself that I actually own oodles of books that I should get around to reading and discourage myself from buying more books than I read.

Did it work?

Well. No.

I quit my counting project after a few months. My spreadsheets were messy, my tracking was arbitrary, and in the end, who needs the pressure?

But here I am, back again with a brand new approach!

libib2Thanks to being turned on to the oh-so-fun-and-useful Libib app (www.libib.com), I have a whole new way to get geeky about counting my books.

With Libib, you can create libraries of books, movies, music, etc, organized in whatever way suits you. Adding books is super easy — there’s a scanning feature, so I went through my entire house and starting scanning book barcodes using my smartphone. The scanning feature won’t work for books that have bookstore stickers over the original barcode, and I also got incorrect results for some of my older books. Most of the time, though, scanning worked beautifully, letting me build my home library record over the course of a few hours. (And for anything that didn’t scan, manual entry via the website was quick and easy.)

I decided to include just the unread books in my house, so I’d have a starting place for keeping track. I broke my inventory out into four categories, and here’s where I stand at the moment:

I decided to exclude book I felt pretty sure I’d never read — and in fact, created a new stack of books to donate or give away while I was at it. I also excluded e-ARCs, and any Kindle titles that I doubted I’d get to.

Grand total: 657

The last time I counted in February 2016, my numbers were:

Books: 428
E-books: 76
Graphic novels: 40
Non-fiction: 52

For a total of…  596

Hmmm. My numbers keep going up and up. To be fair, I’ve done a lot of public library reading this past year, but still, I’d like to think I’m reading books from my home library too. I did make a big dent in my graphic novel collection, so yay me!

Anyway, this is all really just for my own bookish entertainment. (My son thinks I’m a total nerd.) I’m not going to be doing monthly updates, but it might be fun to see where I end up at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, my project 2.0 with Libib will be to go back through my house with the scanner one more time and create a “books I’ve read” library too. You never know when that dreaded moment will hit, as you stumble on a book you’re tempted to buy and think “wait, do I own that one already?” Okay, this mainly happens to me in regards to my Stephen King collection, but it’s still fun to have a reference of all my books ready at my fingertips.

abacus-1866497_1920Anyone else crazy about counting books? What methods do you use for keeping count?

I’m so glad I discovered Libib!

A big step forward over my older methods, after all.



Serious series reading: A look behind and a look forward


Resolutions come, resolutions go… but one that I’ve been getting better and better about sticking to over the last few years has to do with reading book series.

Last year, one of my bookish resolutions was:

I resolve to (attempt to) read series as a whole — all books in a row — rather than reading them as they come out and then forgetting all the details in between volumes.

This was not meant to be an absolute, of course. I do have some ongoing series that I’m crazy about, and I’ll continue to read those whenever new installments become available. But the intent of the resolution is clear — whenever possible, I want to resist the urge to start new, incomplete series, and focus instead on series that are already published and complete, so I can enjoy them as a whole instead of in bits and pieces.

How did I do? Let’s take a look at the series I read in 2016:

Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: I had read the first book in the trilogy years ago, but had lost interest by the time the 2nd came out. This year, I listened to the audiobook of book #1, then continued in print with the 2nd and 3rd. (These books really must be read in hard copy in order to get the full experience, since the illustrations are really a part of the story.)

final peregrine banner

The Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow: I got involved in this excellent series in 2015, and finished up the 20th and most recent book (as well as the four books in the spin-off series) by mid-2016. Such a fantastic reading experience — and I’m thrilled that #21 will be out in 2017!

kate 2

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: This is another series that I started years ago, and just came back to this year. Prompted by the TV adaptation, I decided to give The Magicians another chance, reread book 1 and then went through 2 and 3, and ended up loving the trilogy as a whole.

The Magicians MAgician King 2 Magician's Land

The Wrath & the Dawn and The Rose & the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh: I didn’t love this duology nearly as much as everyone else did, but I’m still glad that I read them together.

Wrath & the DawnRose & Dagger

The Giver by Lois Lowry: My son read The Giver for school last year, and I realized that I remembered almost nothing about it — so I went ahead and reread The Giver, then read the rest of the books in the quartet.


And now, looking ahead…

Series I plan to read in 2017:

This is partially a plan, partially a wish list. I really do want to read all of these, but we’ll just have to wait and see how many I can actually commit to while still reading everything else that grabs my attention. My priority series for 2017 are:

Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi: I love Scalzi’s writing, and now that I’ve read all of his stand-alones (I think), it’s time to finally dive into the series that’s supposed to be his masterpiece!


Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch: After reading and loving Dark Matter this year, I absolutely have to check out this trilogy!


Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King: I’ve had Mr. Mercedes on my shelf since it was published. At some point, it seemed to make more sense to wait for all three books to be available before starting. And now, I’m out of excuses!


And maybe…

I have a few series openers that I’m interested in — but not quite ready to commit to at this point.

leviathan-wakesrosemary-rueTemeraire 1

Last but not least…

Let’s not forget two series I’m already committed to, and look forward to continuing in the New Year:

Ross PoldarkThe Poldark series by Winston Graham: I’ve read the first five books so far. That’s five down, seven to go! I find that I need to space these out, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of the TV show, so perhaps I’ll just tackle another one or two in 2017.







And my very, very favorite:

silence_fallen_layout.inddThe Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs! Silence Fallen, the 10th Mercy book, will be out in March, and I cannot wait. I hope Patricia Briggs continues to create adventures for Mercy (as well as her spin-off series, Alpha & Omega) for many, many years to come.







Anyone else read series as a whole, rather than as they come out? What’s your preferred approach to reading book series? And what series are you most looking forward to in 2017?

Whatever your series-reading style, here’s wishing us all a fantastic year of reading!

A whale, an app, and me; or, how I finished reading Moby Dick in 79 easy pieces

Hast seen the white whale?

moby-dick-3I have!

I conquered that whale, and good.

Yes, after spending all of my reading life up to now saying, “I should probably read Moby Dick one of these days” but knowing in my heart that I never actually would… I DID IT!

Thanks to the glory of the Serial Reader app (read about it here), I have finally conquered the American classic that I never expected to read.

moby-dick_fe_title_pageSerial Reader is an app that lets you pick a public domain book to “subscribe” to. Each day, a new installment is ready to go. I got kind of used to waking up in the morning and seeing the friendly “Ahoy!” messages (I kid you not) letting me know that the new daily reading chunk was ready and waiting. Each day’s reading was typically short enough to read in 10 – 15 minutes.

Is 10 – 15 minutes something I could spare? Absolutely.

Let’s face it — the idea of reading Moby Dick or certain other massive classics is just way too daunting. I’m not afraid of the content, but I do know myself well enough to know that I’ll push my way through while constantly aching to go back to something that doesn’t feel like I’ve given myself an assignment.

But 10 – 15 minutes? Heck, I could do that over my morning coffee (which is exactly what I did most days).

I did read ahead at least a few days per week, so rather than taking 79 days to read, I finished the book in more like 60, I think.

whales-1472984_1280You probably want to know – how was it? I mean, was the book actually good?

The answer is YES. Surprise, surprise — it’s even funny at parts. Herman Melville can tell a tale, I tell you.

Of course, there are huge chunks in the middle where we have chapter after chapter about whale anatomy, the parts of whaling ships, descriptions of the jobs of every person on board a whaling ship… on and on and on. The early chapters are about our narrator Ishmael, and there are some delightful moments when he befriends the “cannibal” Queequeg, although I was sorry to see their bromance fade from the storyline as the book progresses. Really, if you took out all the parts about categorizing and labeling whale parts, the story of the Pequod and its mad captain Ahab would probably only be about a third as long as Moby Dick is in its entirety.

As to the method of reading the book, the Serial Reader approach has its pros and cons.

PROS: I read the damn book! I really don’t believe I ever would have done it otherwise. The app kept me motivated, with its scoring and little achievement badges and daily encouragements with each segment completed.

CONS: While I read the book (hurray!), I don’t believe I came even close to fully appreciating it. I read it quickly, and it was a very surface-level read. I didn’t dive into the symbolism, the structure, the themes, the references — I read it purely for story. I suppose someone could use the app and still take the time for a deeper dive into each installment, but I didn’t. I approached this read as a limited time commitment, with its allotted 10 – 15 minutes per day, and that’s all I was willing to give.


Do I recommend it? Again, yes and no.

The Serial Reader app is a great way to tackle books that you might not ordinarily read. But as for Moby Dick, I do believe that I would have gotten much more out of it if I’d read an annotated version, or even looked through an illustrated edition with diagrams of all the whale anatomy and other goodies.

Will I use Serial Reader again?

Oh, I think so. Maybe not right away. I think I need a little free reading time where I’m not keeping up with quite so many narrative threads at once. (See my post about my reading saturation point, here.)

Likewise, I don’t know if I’d want to tackle such a big book this way again. At some points, it really did feel like a chore, and I’m pretty much opposed to anything that makes reading feel like work, not play.

But I do see the value in using the app to make a challenging read more bite-sized and manageable. I could see myself using the app for some classic sci-fi, like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or even some random short stories. As for longer classic fiction, I’m not sure. I’ve been saying I want to read Great Expectations for years now and still haven’t done it, so Serial Reader could be the way to get it done — but I think I’ll get more out of it as a reader if I treat it like any other book I want to read, sitting down with the book and a bookmark, and not starting anything else until I’m done… rather than treating it like an assignment with a daily deadline.


Meanwhile, back to Moby Dick

I read it, and I enjoyed it, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit ever since I finished this week. The book has such a reputation as a heavy, overwhelming read, and I was surprised to find that it’s actually fun, entertaining, moving, and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Sure, the science is a bit (oh, 150 years or so) behind the times, but for when it was written, it’s really quite remarkable. So what if Melville considers whales to be fish? I’d venture to say that what he presented was deemed accurate at the time.

So, consider me a fan. I met the white whale, and survived to tell the tale.



Saturation point


Saturation point…

Might I add another variation of the definition?

  • the stage beyond which no more book content can be absorbed by the reader’s brain.

Which pretty accurately describes my current state of being, which can also be described thusly:


For the past few years, I’ve been able to successfully juggle multiple books at once — a book for fun, a book for book group, an audiobook for while I drive. I never thought I’d reach the point where my brain feels maxed out, but now I know:

My magic number is: five

Yup, I think I’ve reached my reading saturation point — the point at which my brain will not accept a single additional plot line, character, theme, or main idea. And symbolism? Foreshadowing? Don’t make me laugh.

I haven’t had quite this problem before. I usually do have several books on the go — typically, a big huge book from the Outlander series as part of my group read with Outlander Book Club; a classic read, also with the book club; whatever book I happen to be reading just for me (just for fun), and an audiobook for while I’m driving or exercising.

So why do I suddenly feel maxed out at 5?

Consider this: Of my five current books, 4 — yes, four — are brand-new to me.

The Outlander book (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) is a re-read, and although we’re reading and analyzing two chapters per week, it’s not taking up a huge amount of grey matter. I already know what happens. It’s not that I don’t have to think about it, but it’s still not taking in new concepts and information.

Then there’s the group classic read. Our last group classic was Emma by Jane Austen, which was oodles of fun — but which I’d read several times before. It was a blast reading it with the group, but again, it was a re-read for me. Hey, if you know any neurologists, can you ask them if re-reading a book uses different parts of the brain than reading a book for the first time? I’m no brain doctor, but I’m betting the answer is yes.


Our current classic read is A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway… and it’s completely new to me. I know nothing about the plot or characters, and I’m definitely having to put more effort into learning what’s what, getting the rhythm of the writing style, and understanding the shades and nuances of the story.

Then there’s the audiobook. I do a lot of re-reads via audiobook. I find that my mind is often slippery when it comes to listening to books, especially while I’m driving. If there’s bad traffic or I get stuck looking for parking in a crowded neighborhood, I can’t concentrate at all on what I’m listening to. But if I’m listening to the audio version of a book I’ve already read, I can relax, not worry too much about hearing every detail, and just enjoy revisiting something that I loved already the first time around.

At this moment, however, I’m listening to a new-to-me audiobook, The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi. Granted, this is a pretty silly and light-hearted science fiction novel, but even so, I find myself getting caught up in the story… and even when I get out of the car or remove the earbuds from my ears, my brain does not want to disengage.

Plus, there’s my book book — whatever I’m reading right now, either via physical or e-book — my normal, everyday, just because I feel like it book. Basically, my daily reading fix.

And finally, I’m now tackling Moby Dick via the Serial Reader app, and I think it’s this one that’s pushing me over the edge. Don’t get me wrong — I’m really loving Moby Dick! And I love the serial approach to reading such a huge book, getting manageable bites delivered each day.

The problem, I think, with my current reading, is that with 4 of my 5 reading commitments being completely new material, my engagement is getting split in way too many directions. I read a bit of Moby Dick, and I want to know more… but then I turn on the car and start listening to The Android’s Dream, and I can’t get the action sequences out of my head. When I have a few minutes of down time, I pick up my current novel (right now, The Magician King by Lev Grossman) and get totally into it… but then in the evening, I read the next day’s chapter of A Farewell To Arms and want more of that too.


Saturation point.

I think I’m there.

Five plotlines and sets of characters may finally represent my breaking point… my saturation point… the point beyond which I absolutely cannot absorb one more detail or shred of story.

Not that I’m willing to drop any of my five reading projects. But man, my head feels full to bursting sometimes.

Remind me to STOP THE MADNESS next time I need to choose an audiobook or rethink my reading commitments. Maybe it’s time to scale back on the amount of new fiction I’m trying to cram into my brain.



I went to a silent reading party… and had a (quiet) blast

File this under “things only a book lover would understand”:

I went to a silent reading party this week, and it was the most fun I’ve had in ages!

What’s not to love? A room full of bookworms (book enthusiasts… book nerds… book freaks… ), drinks all around, silent (but companionable) reading, and raising money for a good cause. I ask you — can you think of a more fun way to spend a Tuesday evening?

(The fact that I can’t says a lot about me, I know.)

So here’s what it’s all about:

Drink, eat, and read. Silently.

Drink, eat, and read. Silently.

Silent Reading Parties started several months ago here in San Francisco, hosted by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) and Radio Silence. They’re held on the first Tuesday of each month at a downtown hotel — a hotel with a very stylish “library bar”, which feels cozy and bookish as soon as you step inside. Starting at 6 pm, talking stops and reading begins. And the room remains silent. For an hour and a half, there’s light jazz music playing in the background while 40 or so bookish folks sit and read.



Seeing how it’s a bar, there are drinks, of course. There are menu cards on the tables, so you can order drinks and munchies without breaking silence.

And that’s what we did.

I finished the last few chapters of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, while my friend read volume six of Saga, then started on the “Weird Junior Edition” of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.

We read. Drank some wine. Ate some fries. Grooved to the jazzy tunes. And then at 7:30, the silent time was done, and the readers shook themselves out of their trances. Some stayed and schmoozed, some went on their merry ways. And I’d bet that most will be back next month for more.

All this wild and crazy fun, and a good cause too! A portion of the drinks proceeds plus the contents of a fishbowl full of cash (which Lemony Snicket personally handed round for contributions) all go to support the library of one of our local public elementary schools.

reading-4As if I needed any further inducement to sit and read!

My son thinks I’m weird, and wonders why I couldn’t have just sat at home by myself with a book instead of going out to read. But he doesn’t get it… and I bet anyone reading this post absolutely does.

Booklovers are solitary creatures in their pursuit of great reading — but who says we can’t read alone, together?


Consider me hooked… and absolutely looking forward to next month’s (sssssh… no talking!) party.






Bookish Goodies: Serial Reader app


Anyone out there using the Serial Reader app?

And more importantly, why am I only discovering it now?

Less than 24 hours ago, I stumbled across Serial Reader, and I think it’s going to change my life.

IMG_3905This very cool app (cool, as in, perfect for book geeks like me) seems like the ideal way to tackle those big, heavy classics that you’ve always vowed to get to… eventually. When you have nothing else to do. Hey wait, doesn’t the oven need cleaning?

I digress.

Serial Reader lets you subscribe to a book, set your delivery time, and then receive daily chunks of the book to read. There are tons and tons of titles to choose from, including classics in genres such as fantasy, gothic, and adventure, as well as quirkier categories like “Lost Worlds”, “The High Seas”, and “Retro Futurism”.

I think it’s all rather brilliant, to be honest. Each daily chunk is meant to take about 10 minutes or so. And hey, even if I’m juggling a few other hot reads right now, I can surely fit in 10 minutes for a bite of a classic, right?

IMG_3906At the moment, I’m thinking about biting the bullet and starting Moby Dick. Crazy, right? I watched In the Heart of the Sea last night (good movie!), and started thinking about what a shame it is that I never was exposed to Moby Dick back in my school days… and from there, after poking around online for a bit, I stumbled across a mention of reading Moby Dick via Serial Reader.

According to the app, the book is broken down into 79 “issues”. This might seem a bit daunting, but for the $2.99 upgrade option, there’s a pause option — which means that if I want to take a break during a busy week and come back to it, I can!

I haven’t quite made up my mind to go for it, at least as far as Moby Dick is concerned. Maybe I’ll end up choosing a different book instead. But either way, I think Serial Reader sounds like a lot of fun, and it definitely seems like an awesome way to make big, intimidating books seem a lot more friendly.

Have you tried Serial Reader? Does this sound like something you’d enjoy?

Wish me luck! If (when) I get started, I’ll definitely report back!


What do you think? Should I go for it?


Vacation reading! The annual dilemma…

I’m at T minus a week and change until I leave on a trip, and I’ve entered the vacation obsession zone: Do I have enough sunscreen? What if I want one more sundress besides the two already in my packing pile? How many totebags do I really need?

And the biggie…

What books to read???

I love the whole concept of vacation reading. It’s so freeing! I look at it as a time to pull books from my shelves — books that I’ve always meant to read, but never got around to, or books that I just know will make me happy. It’s a weird and random process, but I think I’ve been narrowing it down lately. Here are the top contenders:

I need a King… or two… or three:

mr. mercedesBag of BonesLong Walk

Maybe a little historical fiction:

Sandcastle GirlsBlue Asylum

There’s the romance I need to read for book group this month:


And some of my newer acquisitions that I haven’t had time for yet:

EligibleWrath & the Dawn

Maybe a little fantasy would be a perfect compliment to a sunny, relaxing day:

Gobln EmperorTemeraire 1

And I am really itching to continue the Magicians series:

MAgician King 2Magician's Land

Did I mention that I’ll only be gone for 10 days? Do you think I might be over doing things just a bit?

Oh yeah, and there are these two, which could help me prepare for a different trip coming up later this summer:


Eep. So. Many. Choices.

But hey — I still have over a week before I zip up the suitcase. Anything can happen in a week. Maybe an entirely different stack of books will catch my eye between now and then!

When is local too local?

San Francisco. As in, I left my heart…

San Francisco, CA, USA

I’m a transplant, as are a good chunk of the people I meet here in SF. I grew up on the East Coast, but San Francisco has been home for 20+ years now. And obviously, I must love it, since I’ve stayed and put down roots.

It always amuses me when I read books or see movies or TV shows set in my fair city. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I really don’t. Which brings me to the question:

When is local too local?

Is there such a thing as having too much local content in fiction? When does it enhance, and when does it distract?

SF cableI’ve read plenty of books by now that are set in San Francisco. Because, let’s face it, San Francisco is one of those places that get instant recognition. Golden Gate Bridge, Victorian houses, Alcatraz… they’re all so picturesque, while also being worldwide tourist magnets. So sometimes, key scenes in books will take place with the bridge or the skyline in the backdrop, and that’s about it. But sometimes, the city itself is a part of the story, and that can be a wonderful thing.

Some of my favorites take place in San Francisco. Take for example the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, which is pure and simple an ode to the history and soul and flavor of the city. On a different note, there are the works of Christopher Moore, who sets remarkably weird and wacky supernatural tales in the City by the Bay — and it totally works. I mean, vampire parrots of Telegraph Hill? The Marina Safeway as a key plot location? A heroic Golden Gate Bridge painter? Moore’s books are hilarious, and the way he uses the city’s oddities and quirks (and notable personae, especially the Emperor) are just delightful.

I’ve also read a few great books where the city is just a subtle presence, but one that adds flavor without hitting the big tourist attractions. A recent example is the delightful YA novel Up To This Pointe, which delights in the quieter parts of SF that only residents really know and love — West Portal, the Outer Sunset, and Ocean Beach (my side of town!). The places here aren’t the point of the story, but they do add a sense of home and connection that give the main character roots and a point of origin.

SF grpahic 2Still, sometimes, the local flavor can feel like it’s inserted in order to check items off a list. Maybe it’s when the details are overdone — in one book, every time the characters take public transportation, the specific bus route is named — and I’d find myself veering out of the story and into an internal dialogue about how the N doesn’t actually stop there or no, that’s not the best way to get from the avenues to downtown. In a recent urban fantasy book (which I didn’t enjoy as a whole, and which shall remain nameless), whenever the main character would rush off to save the day, I felt like the story was being narrated by GPS: She took a left on Van Ness, then turned right on Sutter and continued onward for a mile and a half. Not only was it not engaging writing, but again, it completely took me out of the story and into recontructing street maps in my head.

My most recent foray into San Francisco fiction is the new novel All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer (reviewed here). In this book, catastrophic earthquakes that ravish the city serve as a backdrop for a study of characters and their loves and losses. The relationships are interesting enough, but once the quakes hit, all I wanted was to know more. The book does a great job of describing the reasons why huge quakes in SF would be devastating — the crowded design, the unstable ground, the drought, the understaffing of local emergency response, and the reliance on bridges for 2/3 of the entry points to the city. I was interested in the characters, but I couldn’t maintain my focus on them once the local landmarks started coming down and the fires started destroying Chinatown and North Beach. At that point, the SF resident in me just wanted to know more — what was still standing? Did they get the fires out? What happened to the bridges? … and my interest in the main storyline, the characters and their fates, dwindled in the face of the destruction of the place I call home. (I had a quibble with the end of the book as well, which jumps forward a few months and shows the city bouncing back — which is nice, but doesn’t tell me how they got there, and left me feeling that it was a little too rosy to be realistic.)

Don’t even get me started on San Francisco in film. Have you noticed how much movie folks love to destroy San Francisco? Quick, need a scene to show horrific destruction due to aliens/melting of the earth’s core/rampaging apes? Cut to the Golden Gate Bridge! Seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous how often movies use the bridge as shorthand for letting us know that life as we know it is now at serious risk. Can’t they destroy something else once in a while?


For me, the local setting in fiction is a mixed bag. When well done, it can absolutely enhance my enjoyment of a good story. I love when the essence, sights and sounds and smells, of a particular neighborhood are used to give texture or groundedness to a story. Rooting the characters in a real place and time can make them seem more alive, and can make the story feel like it could be happening just around the corner. But when the place overrides the story elements, or when the background events seem more attention-worthy than the actual plot, that’s when I start to have trouble with it all.

How about you? How do you feel about reading fiction that’s set in your real-world location, or a place that you know and love? Does it add to your enjoyment, or does it distract you from the plot and characters?

Please share your thoughts!

A note on images: I’d love to give credit where credit is due! All images were found on Pinterest, but original sources were unclear.