Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Gentleman's Position by K.J. Charles, 2016

★★★★
Read from March 17 to 18, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Have you ever asked yourself "What if the Jeeves and Wooster books were like, less comedy, and more romance, and also explicitly gay instead of just subtexty gay?" Well if you haven't, you're probably more normal than me, but if you perhaps have gotten tripped up on Wodehouse's strangely tender portrait of a man and his valet just trying to live together without the constant interference of managing women, are you in for a treat!

This book completes the "Society of Gentlemen" trilogy, which is a strangely generic and restrained series title for the highest-quality regency romance on the market today. These aren't your mom's regencies, where you could make them a contemporary romance with just a few find-and-replace jobs on the clothing. K. J. Charles' books have that particular English sensibility where class is always there in the room when any two or more people meet up. (Very noticeable to all True Americans, because as you know we don't have class, haa...) All of the romances in this series have explored class in some major way, from class mobility in the first book, to class politics in the second, and finally in the last book, we get the most extreme class problem, and we have to decide how two people who will never be anything close to equal in class can nevertheless find human (and sexual) equality between them. And what is more unequal than a servant sleeping with his lord and master? Or is it...

As a bonus, the author has identified one of the characters as demisexual. Google "demisexual," then come back and read the book. Oh, and I can be crude enough to mention this, the ebook is only $3. I've certainly spent twice that on books I haven't liked half so much.

I'm crossing my fingers we get a little shoot-off novella for the side characters Will and Jon, who run the classy gay clubhouse all the characters hang out at. Plz.

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis, 2016

★★
Read from April 12 to 13, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 

Some quite interesting themes at work here, and some good historical research - Esterházy, Haydn, musicians in service to one man, difficult sibling relationships, and a second-chance love story - but the book overall is unfortunately held back by lack of rhetorical chops and sloppy plotting.

This is an adult novel, but the author has cut her teeth on YA and unfortunately it shows. The book had sort of an uncomfortable Degrassi vibe to it - adult themes coming at you in squeaky teen voices. The writing reads exactly like it should for a YA novel. It's very simple. No complicated rhetorical structures, no big words, short sentences. This is not how adult novels are typically written. I stopped reading YA fic more than once or twice a year when I aged out of it, so the combo of adult things + teen writing really jumped out at me. Grown-up YA readers (and there are a ton of you guys) will probably not bat an eye at the style though, so ignore me if you read them on the regular! The narrative also head-hops around constantly to maybe 7 total characters, which I found very off-putting, it's a crude technique if you can't manage multiple-character development any other way.

The plot is about 50/50 split between a romance (between Carlo, World's Greatest Castrato (tm), no relation to that other guy named Carlo, and lonely widow Charlotte) and a magical mystery, which frankly I am still confused about. The romance has some very sweet moments, including a gender-bending masqued ball scene where they dance with each other both dressed as men, which is a bit heavy-handed on the gender-bending theme but it still quite decently done, and is probably the best scene in the book. But the romance is drastically underdeveloped, so that at the end of the book, you are so uninvested in their relationship (which is made up of two erotically charged duets, that dance, and a single kiss) you're just as confused as any of their contemporaries as to why exactly they claim to be in love.

The magical elements in the book are the real Achilles heel though, as they are the backbone of the mystery plot which keeps the whole narrative moving along, yet they are entirely undeveloped. You have none of the key questions about any magical world answered - What is magic? How does it work? Who can do it? What are its limits? These questions are like Fantasy Writing 101 stuff, and I'm very suprised an accomplished author skipped them.

But overall an interesting bridge book for YA - Adult readers showcasing some underexplored historical settings, just a few weak points.

The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1979

Read from May 5 to 9, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 
Let me start this book review with a picture not of the cover of the book, which is more conventional for book reviews, but instead a picture of my particular copy of the book, which I think is worth looking at.

Wow that’s an ugly book you probably are thinking. Welllll. Yes. But to a library groupie this book is more than ugly. This is the first edition of this novel, and has been rebound (badly, the text block is crooked) in a hideous lime green patterned buckram. For some reason which eludes me, library-grade bookbinding buckram traditionally comes only in colors of extreme uglyness. When I worked circ I honestly never quite got used to getting books back from being repaired and seeing what cruel punishment the bookbinders had laid down on books that merely had the misfortune to be loved too much. It’s not fair to make good books be ugly! Yet they usually are, in a big library that’s old enough to have had a few old books pile up. And so, behold this ugly ass book from my public library, drink it in, for what we have here is … A Weeding Survivor.

One of the secret pleasures of living the library life in a city with a large and long-established public library system is that you occasionally end up with a Weeding Survivor in your hands. Weeding, for those who have managed never to work in libraries, is when libraries periodically go through the collection and remove books that are not longer being checked out. You probably don’t know about this, because you shouldn’t, good weeding is unnoticeable except you see more good books on the shelf and less old and crappy ones. Usually you pull from the catalog a list of all the books that haven't been checked out in 5-10 years, or some time period like that, and you evaluate them for things that are no longer relevant or accurate (for the non fiction, in particular health books) and that should be replaced with new books in the subject; or for fiction that is no longer being read, it's just removed, and sent to the book sale. This is the bulk of weeding, fiction. Most fiction has a short life span of when people will choose to read it. More of it is constantly being written too. Public library readers don’t want every dumb novel ever published. They want the hot fresh dumb novels. Fiction goes in and out of the library collection in periodical waves, except for those we deem Classic. There are libraries that never weed and just get more buildings, but they are a different story. 99% of well-run public libraries in America weed with vim and vigor.

So, when you have a novel survive in a major US city’s public library collection from when it was purchased in 1979, to today, 37 years later, without either being removed from the collection or replaced by a new copy, it means two interesting things:
  1. This book has maintained enough regular circulation among the good people of Indianapolis to remain un-weeded for 37 years
  2. Yet, conversely, after being rebound (likely in the mid 80s from the style), it has not circulated enough to get worn out and replaced with a new edition, which does say something about the power of industrial buckram
Steady, yet low, circulation, makes for a Weeding Survivor. Weeding Survivors are generally very interesting books for this paradox of readership. They may be cult classics. They may be more legit classics that just get this unique status in your particular town. I doubt many other cities in America are still rocking the first edition in their public library, it’s either gone from the catalog or in a reprint. But Indianapolis is special. So, this ugly smashed-Skittle of a book has enjoyed low, steady circulation for 37 years, and that’s something worth taking a second look at. My check-out (and also not ripping the book in half, dropping it in the bath, or eating a burrito over it) has almost certainly ensured it will now make it to 40 years.

So keep an eye out for Weeding Survivors at your own public library. They are special. They are a unique delight of the physicality of shared reading material. Put your fingers in someone else’s (you hope to god) chocolatey fingerprints, imagine when and why they read this, what they thought about it. I once heard an old lady talking about how she loves ebooks now and only checks out ebooks because sharing books is sharing germs. I resented sharing air with her in that moment, for it’s the same thing. Life is sharing physical space, physical items, germs. There’s nothing I like more than reading a weird or controversial book and seeing from the physical book that other people in my town have read it too. What could be more comforting that you are not alone, and are never alone, even through time, that you can touch hands with someone on a book owned by the citizens of your city for more than three decades. And I’m afraid it’s your Last Chance to See. Public libraries do not rebind as much anymore, as it is usually cheaper to replace now. And it will be entirely lost when popular reading moves to ebooks. So go check out an old book.

ALSO, aside from a fascinating physical existence, this book had words inside it, which is pretty common for books, so now I shall review these words and not just talk about buckram.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Fashionable Indulgence by K.J. Charles, 2015

★★★★
Re-read March 15 to 16, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Julius Norreys has to be one of my favorite dandies in fiction, probably right next to Julian Kestrel from Cut to the Quick of the late (great) Kate Ross. And Julius has some thought behind him as well, this is no plug-and-play period-piece dandy. What makes a man adopt the fashion of well, caring about fashion? Why does anyone pride himself in knowing more about buttons than anyone else in London? There's a reason he dresses the way he does, and you're going to learn it.

Harry, also, is a very well-developed character, struggling with his profoundly casual morality and a fondness for not being poor, and where he can fit himself in between his late parents' revolutionary zeal and the cruelty of the British aristocracy in the height of the Peterloo Massacre. Add in the fact that he's depicted as bisexual with zero fuss, and the only woman character in the book is portrayed as a real person and not a 2D generic girl-villain, and you've got a tightly bound romance standing head and shoulders above just about anyone else.

The sex scenes are also amazing for the simple reason that the characters keep their personalities during sex. Sex scenes can get kinda generic as we all know, the what goes where and people feel the things, etc etc, but this is decidedly not generic magic romance book sex. Julius is prickly and distant during sex. Harry is cheery and giving. Eventually they figure it out, but their sex is an extension of them, not something that occurs besides the other things they are.

Certainly stands up to a re-read!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Savor: Rustic Recipes Inspired by Forest, Field, and Farm by Ilona Oppenheim, 2016

★★
Read on March 12, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

I'm pretty crunchy-friendly, but this is too woo-woo for me. The author apparently took a crash course in dubious nutrition blogs and now wants to tell you ultra-high-temp pasteurized milk will give you lactose intolerance and that you should eat as much raw milk and raw milk cheese as you can afford. Now, I'm an American, and that means I must defend to the death your right to do anything that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg as they say, so drink raw milk to the extent your state legislature permits and you'll see no protest from me, but I prefer to use my PTO on something besides diarrhea myself... I live in delight not to have learned her opinions on vaccines.

The foraging sections are also kinda dangerous. There are some things that are easy to forage for (like dandelions) but mushroom hunting is tricky and it is very local, and generally it's recommended to take a class from someone knowledgeable to your area. I'm hoping most people, even the raw milk sort, have the good sense not to eat fun looking mushrooms they find in the woods without training though.

Nowadays fashionable cooking trends vacillate between plain/insane. You're either being told to sous-vide 14 ingredients sourced from your favorite local heirloom husbandry specialist, or you're squeezing a lemon over raw kale. This book is mostly in the plain school. There actually is a lemon-kale recipe with 3 other ingredients, I will not spoil it though. There are some solid recipes in here, this woman's clearly cooked a few things in her time and that shows, but nothing really new or innovative, nothing you'd be unable to find on the Internet or even in The Joy of Cooking.

This book does commit my absolute pet peeve in crunchy cookbooks, which is to beat your reader with your opinions on food sourcing on every. last. recipe. Every instance of milk and meat in this book is accompanied by a moral reminder like "milk (ideally raw or nonhomogenized grass fed)." Yes, every instance of meat and dairy. We read that stuff earlier, calm down, we didn't forget you like raw milk. It's okay to just say "milk" as shorthand.

Shoutout for including a Fondue recipe though. I am convinced the humble but fun 'Due is due for a comeback. Biding its time, waiting for the right food zeitgeist to strike again. Hold on to your pots and long forks. (Also pretty sure it's in Joy of Cooking.)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service by Devin Leonard, 2016

★★★★
Read from February 12 to 27, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Well what we have here is a good, honest, easy-readin', overview-level pop-history of the US Mail system! Which doesn’t sound special, however it becomes more interesting when you find out (as far as I can tell in Worldcat) that the last time a overview level popular history of the US Mail was written by someone other than the USPS was in 1987. (The USPS however employs their own historian with staff, and maintains their own Smithsonian museum, so it’s not like their history output is low.) The two strongest parts of the book that you wouldn’t be likely to find in an official history of the USPS are its critical coverage of the Comstock Era and the rash of postal shootings in the 80s and 90s. The “Going Postal” section is a really impressively fair treatment, saying both “you give your business mandatory preferential hiring to a set of veterans with little to no mental health support and you see what happens” while also being very critical of the USPS bureaucracy's lack of response to pleas for help from postmasters prior to these shootings. The coverage of the 1970 postal strike was also very refreshing, and makes a good argument for why these strikes were both justified and likely entirely necessary for the postal employees of that period to enact any change in their status. Consider, a New York City mail carrier earned less than a New York City garbage man of that year, worked longer hours, and lack of efficient implementation of mail sorting technology meant that most mail in the country was still sorted by hand, which required a lot of training and practice, when the Post Office had had sorting machines and OCR technology for years. I’d strike too. There’s a few things I’d have liked to see more of, like more Rocketeers! and I’d have really liked more stuff about the importance of postal employment to the rise of the Black middle class (although this was likely skipped due to being very recently covered.) In addition the book still follows a bit too much Great Man style, giving you the names and important work of every last postmaster general from Ben Franklin down, yet not much from the little people who used the mail or trodded around in the mud delivering it. But it’s an overview level book, so these things are to be expected. If nothing else this book is important for its somewhat awkward placement in history, because it comes at a pivotal time in the institution of the mail: as of the last USPS report first class mail volume has dropped to an all-time low where it will either continue to drop or plateau off, while the volume of packages and parcels the mail is carrying is continuing to rise in tandem with their unexpected new best friend, Amazon.com. USPS technology and procedures are optimized for “flats” and not boxes, and first class mail has the highest profit margin, so there’s a stress there. Which obviously has not yet been resolved. But the book is unexpectedly hopeful to the mail lover, because a constant theme of the book is that the US Post Office has spent its entire life shambling from minor crisis to major crisis to minor crisis again, Congress has tried to muck it up since day one, and it has essentially always been mildly on fire. Yet it survives without taking tax money since 1982, despite people’s attempts to kill it by making it pre-pay pensions to invisible retirees or just printing its obituary as “lol internet” and hoping it doesn’t have the strength to fight you. Yet neither snow nor rain nor Congress being shitty has yet stopped the mail, despite 241 years of darned good effort.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Writing History in the Digital Age ed. by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, 2013

★★★★
Read from January 26 to March 02, 2016. Free to read online.

I read a fair amount of professional literature, and most of these books are, frankly, slapped-together publish-or-perish overpriced crap. However, this book is decidedly not any of those things. It is free, carefully written and edited, thoroughly thought-provoking, and everyone professionally or unprofessionally involved with history should read it.

The first chapter, "'I Nevertheless Am a Historian'" is probably the most thought-provoking, discussing the mixed bag that is the public DOING history as the newest wave of what "public history" means. I also have had it running through my head for a while, that phrase, “I nevertheless am a historian,” and don’t know how to get it out.

"Putting Harlem on the Map" talks about how data visualizations can help us see patterns in history we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. There’s a lot of push for maps and mapping tools in history lately, but I don’t see a lot of arguments for why we should be all going map crazy in history, so this is one concrete map-dependent historical insight that you can cling to in a flurry of mapped history that otherwise just seems to be making maps for the sake of making maps.

The final concluding chapter makes an evidence-based argument for the future of academic publishing in a post-print-boo-paywalls world, and one possible model it can work on. Most interestingly: the essays had traditional paid reviewers, but it was also open to also whatever random academics or non-academics found the book during its peer-review process, so the authors got reviews from both sources. Authors could not successfully guess which of their reviews were paid and free.