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Night Diving
By Michelene Esposito
Spinsters Ink, $14
A triumph of the "post-gay" movement is the novel with gay or lesbian characters that doesn't center on coming-out drama or homophobia. However, shedding the "For LGBT Only" label means that a book must be judged outside a genre, against all other books. Does the story grip the reader, gay or straight? Unfortunately, the answer here is no. Esposito, a psychologist and first-time novelist, centers the story on the unlikely premise of picking up again with a childhood first love. It's a nonissue that Rose's first love happens to have been her best friend, Jessie. What is an issue, however, are traits assigned to each character that read as if they've been pulled straight from case studies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Rose's mother is manic-depressive; Jessie's mom is depressed; as an adolescent, Jessie was suicidal with a fetish for cutting, while Rose has panic disorder around driving. This makes for too many characters drawn with broad brushstrokes, then referred to later with a tone of: "Oh, you know how she is." It's distracting and ultimately dissatisfying, though the novel won a Silver Award for Gay & Lesbian Fiction from Forward magazine. -- Annika Dukes

Oakland -- A Photographic Journey
By Bill Caldwell
Momentum, $24.95
Caldwell is in love with Oakland. In this self-published volume, he juxtaposes contemporary photos of the vibrant cityscape with pictures, postcards, and illustrations from the past. Often framed in identical locations, approximately three hundred full-color and black-and-white images -- some of which are separated by more than a century of so-called progress -- depict the ever-changing face of the region's priorities. It's sad to see a recent snapshot of a mundane West Oakland street set against a panoramic view of Idora Park, a funfair complete with roller-coaster and waterslide that brightened the exact same spot in the first quarter of the 1900s. More pathetic yet is an elegant postcard of the turn-of-the-century Piedmont Baths contrasted with a picture of the abandoned parking lot that's there today. Of course, the city still boasts stunning architectural showplaces -- the Paramount, Parkway, Grand Lake, and Fox Oakland, not to mention the Camron-Stanford House and Dunsmuir Estate. While the wheels of change tend to trample the relics of history, Caldwell's work reminds us that there's more to a city than meets the eye. -- Sam Prestianni

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
By ZZ Packer
Riverhead, $24.95
Comparison to early stories by Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara rightly reel off the tongue. But Packer is her own woman, a writer with a stunning debut volume that stands as one of the most impressive story collections released in years. Witness "Brownies," a perfectly pitched saga (with a surprise twist) about a bodacious black Brownie troop convinced a troop of white girls has denigrated them with a racial slur: "By our second day at Camp Crescendo ... [we] had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909 ... 'Nobody,' Octavia said, 'calls us niggers.'" In the title story, Packer explores the charged relationship between two classmates at Yale. Dina is a black woman raised amid the grit of Baltimore. Heidi is a politically active Canadian who prefers to be called Henrik. Both seeking sanctuary, the women form a complicated alliance. The human need for love and protection also provides the thematic thrust for "Speaking in Tongues," a brave and unsettling story about teenage Tia, who flees the home she shares with a religious aunt and takes an hilariously rendered bus trip to Atlanta. There, she is befriended by a complex street hustler and his female "associate." Gifted with an astounding ear for language, Packer offers dazzling, deeply moving stories that will long linger and uplift. -- Evelyn C. White

Cloud 8
By Grant Bailie
Ig Publications, $8.95
James Broadhurst is killed in a car accident. He steps out of a dark tunnel into "patently glorious light" to find an Abraham Lincoln lookalike who hands him a claim check and drives him to his first stop in the afterlife, an office where he is assigned an apartment in a brownstone with a noncommunicative roommate, and a job doing ... he's never quite sure what. Sound more like life than the afterlife? It is but it isn't. He wanders the streets of this sort-of purgatory, going to work, visiting bars, almost finding love. This vision of life after death is sad and alienating, but it is also human, and realistic, as dreams can be. Bailie's prose is dreamy yet precise. He creates a world that is just slightly askew, always familiar, yet fantastic: What's more difficult than writing about death? Scenes in which James is allowed to watch his family on television are quite moving -- a less talented writer couldn't have pulled it off. Bailie's stories have appeared in various "hip" magazines, including McSweeney's, but his work is deeper and more accomplished than the lowest-common-denominator irony dished out by that crowd. His own sense of irony is more subtle, and he writes with humor and grace. This is an astonishing first novel. -- Owen Hill


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