Dang, this turned out to be a real disappointment for me. It's not a bad book, but just really not what I was expecting and not the right book for me.
I can't speak whatsoever to the issues around the "historical" part of the historical fiction aspect of the book, but I know some folks who have more knowledge have not been pleased by just how close the characters here hew to the real life folks they're based on. I've certainly seen the words "rip off" and such in a number of reviews. I'm not sure where I fall on that issue, though.
For me, honestly, there was just way too much sex. I'm not naive, I knew there would be a lot of that in here, but holy lordy, it was a LOT. Like, I know I'm an asexual lesbian, but how many descriptions of blow jobs are necessary in one under-400 page novel? It wasn't there to be titillating in general, but even so, most of it was just...depressing. And also just not my thing at all. I can read smutty times and be okay with it! But it got repetitive and honestly boring, while also being personally off-putting for me. I have no problem at all with people doing whatever and whoever they want, so long as everyone is consenting and all that. And I don't look down on sex work even the tiniest bit. But I also just.........don't need to read this many sentences about balls and semen and stuff.
And the thing is, if the rest of the story had been amazing, I would have been fine with skipping past all (aaaaaaaaaall) the sex scenes. But it just wasn't. The characters were super fun to get to know, and the end did definitely get stronger, but I found the majority to be meandering and hard to follow. I wish it had been a linear timeline, and maybe just a couple POVs, because I kept feeling a little lost as to "when" we were and the criss-crossing relationships and such. Plus, this isn't really about the ballroom scene at all - it's about the people in it. Which is fine! But I was expecting more of the former than we got. There wasn't exactly a plot, and the characters didn't do much other than fuck, get drunk, go shopping, etc.
I think Cassara shows some skill here with character creation (though of course, these are all very pointedly based on real people, as I noted) and the dialogue could be quite funny at times. And I really appreciate books that remind people how relatively recent and how devastating the early years of the AIDS crisis was, particularly for queer and trans people of color. But overall this book fell flat for me and seemed too focused on shock-value SEX SEX SEX and less on all the other stuff the synopsis and reviews seemed to promise.
Cassara's novel works from the facts of the House of Xtravaganza and builds a fictional history focusing on the lives of the founder, Hector; its first mother, Angel; one of its early stars, Venus; and two other early members, Daniel and Juanito. Cassara succeeds in writing a stunning portrayal of New York in the mid 80s and 90s full of heartbreak and the desperate and brutal work it took to compete in the ball scene. The strengths of this book are the beautifully written relationships and how Cassara puts into words the crucial power of chosen families. I found the tragic focus of the book to be a bit played out. While focusing on the harsh lived realities of what it took to be a successful ball queen, Cassara gave us very few scenes of what actually made stealing, selling one's body, and generally roughing it worth, ACTUAL BALLS. I understand choosing to show a different side of this story but I don't understand not showing what they all did it for. It felt almost like poverty porn at times. When only displaying the difficult part of the lives of these talented performers, Cassara misses how they literally CHANGED POP CULTURE through their hard work. I guess I especially felt this in the penultimate section of the book which details the lives of Juanito and Daniel after they have left the house. It reads fast especially if you are familiar with the characters but I would not go out of my way to recommend it to anyone.
-longer review to follow when I've watched Paris is Burning :)
Graphic: Addiction and Drug abuse
Moderate: Death, Terminal illness, Transphobia, and Homophobia
Minor: Sexual violenceThe book is set in the 1980s and there is homophobia and transphobia typical for the time, although none from/between the main characters.
Graphic: Addiction, Drug abuse, Drug use, Terminal illness, and Transphobia
Moderate: Child abuse, Grief, Homophobia, Rape, and Sexual content
Minor: Excrement, Hate crime, Incest, Suicide, and Vomit
This was just all right. I felt it was overlong, relied too heavily on Paris Is Burning for its narrative (maybe research the scene more deeply?) and, as some others have critiqued, got facts and timelines about the AIDS crisis wrong. It also needed a closer editor; I spotted more than a few misspellings.
This is one of those books where I really wish I knew how it came across my radar. It’s also one where I was completed caught off guard by the story when I started reading it (things get on my to-read list and if I don’t get to them right away, I go in without knowing what I’m getting into). Anyway, I enjoyed this. I liked the characters, and how it gave me a look into a totally different world.
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