Book Review: Michael Tolliver Lives

This is “my favorite book series” week.  Armistead Maupin returns to familiar ground with Michael Tolliver Lives (2007), catching up with the characters from his Tales of the City series.  The differences here are that while Tales centered around Mary Ann Singleton — starting with her arrival in San Francisco and ending with her departure for New York — this book is about the character Maupin himself identifies with most, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.   While the earlier series is addressed by an omniscient narrator, this new volume is written in first person by Michael Tolliver himself.

The basic premise of the book is that 20 years ago when the series ended one could reasonably assume that Michael Tolliver’s days were numbered because he was HIV+.  Yet, in real life many people who were sick and dying found their lives extended by the drug cocktails that debuted in the 1990’s.  And so it is with Michael, who is not only alive and well but facing middle age and the prospect of dying from old age.  He keeps in touch with his youth through Ben, 21 years younger, but fully in love and devoted to Michael.  In fact they married at San Francisco’s City Hall.  At the other extreme, Michael needs to deal with the mortality of his conservative Christian mother in Florida and his former landlady and mentor Anna Madrigal.  Much of the story involves the choices Michael must make between the biological and the logical family.  Readers get to meet Michael’s extended family for the first time, and Maupin captures them in a nuanced, non-stereotypical way while at the same time not making excuses for them.

The book lacks the juice provided by the omniscient narrator in Tales of the City books as well as the quick and witty, almost script-like dialog.   On the other hand, Michael Tolliver Lives benefits from not being as over the top and ridiculous as those books could be, creating a quieter, more introspective novel.  All the surviving characters from Tales of the City — Anna, Brian, and Mary Ann — put in an appearance and do so in a logical plot-friendly manner.  New characters such as Ben, Brian’s daughter Shawna (a baby in Tales), and Jake add a “life goes on” element and new ways to explore the human character of San Francisco (oddly the city’s presence is not as strong as in the other books).

For Tales of the City fans this is a must-read, and for anyone else it’s worth checking out.   I’ve read all of Maupin’s books including Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, but he’s best when writing about old friends.

Book Review: First Among Sequels

Thursday Next, the heroine of my favorite series of books by Welsh author Jasper Fforde is back in First Among Sequels (2007), the fifth in the series.  The story picks up 14 years after the end of Something’s Rotten and Spec-Op’s has been shut down by the bureaucracy so Thursday and her colleagues run it themselves with a carpet store as a front.  Meanwhile, reading rates are dropping precipitously (something unusual in the literature-obsessed Nextian universe) and the BookWorld is ready to take on ill-advised measures to try to combat it.  As usual, the world also faces an existence-ending catastrophe and Thursday’s teenage son Friday who should be in the ChronoGuard seems to think he can save the world by sleeping in.   The biggest challenge of all are two new cadets she must train for Jurisfiction and they’re both herself, or fictional variations thereof.  Thursday1-4 is a violent, sex-crazed action hero version of Thursday Next from a highly inaccurate fictional version of Thursday’s life.  Reacting to the real Thursday’s complaints, but overcompensating, Thursday5 is more compassionate but also a dopey, New Age stereotype.

This book starts kind of slow, and since it seems to be trying to appeal to people who’ve never read a Thursday Next book it spends a lot of time recapping.  But once it gets going, it goes to very clever, imaginative, and funny lengths.  I particularly like where Thursday gets stuck in a moral dilemma.  The book introduces a lot of loose ends and ends with a cliffhanger.  This is supposed to be the start of the second four-book saga, so I expect it to lead to to good things.