Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History by Alexander C. Cook, 2014

★★★★
Read from August 07 to September 15, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

This is a thematic academic essay collection.The book is based around the idea of the little red books as an export product: as a tangible, digestible symbol of Maoism that other groups and nations could get their teeth into, to promote or to ban.

The first four chapters of the book are essays on the book’s function inside of China, I was particularly interested to read how Mao felt about the book (apparently he had mixed feelings about this Snickers Fun Size version of his philosophies), as well as how the book was at sometimes promoted abroad, but the then also exporting it was sometimes suppressed in favor of more complete versions of Mao’s writings. The rest of the chapters focus on specific communism movements inside other countries and how they related to the little red book and by extension Chinese communism, including India, the Soviet Union, and America.

I haven’t studied modern Chinese history since undergrad, and I had no trouble following it, so if you’re interested in labor or political history this is a nice pick.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sweetwater by Lisa Henry, 2014

★★★
Read from July 14 to 15, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

This is a tough book to review because, while it is objectively very good and skillfully written, subjectively, I just really didn't enjoy reading it. 

The story is a Western, which is a setting that gets unjustly ignored in M/M romances (I can only think of a few off the top of my head actually), so I was pleased to see it featured in this book. The author has clearly done her research, this is no plywood-front Western. It thematically captures much of the core appeal of Westerns - a sort of permanent mental homelessness to the characters, that sense that it's always "time to go," leave for somewhere else, tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, etc. etc. There should be a certain innate restlessness to any work in the Western genre, and it's present here in spades.

The main character is a young man who went deaf as a child from scarlet fever, which killed his whole family who was driving West. He was taken in by the kindly widowed doctor who treated his family, and they've built a life together. From this background you get a great sense of incompleteness to his character, he started a journey that got stalled, and you know he's got to finish it someway or another. Without giving away too much, the book largely focuses on him finding his independence from his adoptive father, and working out his own sexuality between two very different adult men: a cruel pimp/saloon owner and a sweet-natured cattle rustler.

Now why didn't I like it? Well, it's got a kid getting repeatedly raped and liking it. Or "dubious consent," as it is fashionable to call it these days. Which I don't like reading about, and will never learn to like reading about. However, I think it is done well, it's not used as a cheap plot point, so I can't really complain about it other than my own discomfort.

This is no simple Regency historical romance with cravats and milords, this is a complicated and gritty Western. A very moody book. Probably not the right fit if you're looking for some pornographic mindcandy to munch on at the end of a long work day, but if you want something in the M/M historicals genre that's more challenging, this is a good bet. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Only with You by Lauren Layne, 2014

★★
Read from June 20 to 21, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

The blurb for this one lead me to believe this book would be fun little rom-com romper, but this is really not the case. I am thinking about making a "misleading-blurb" shelf on Goodreads, because this is happening to me a lot lately. For this book I suggest you ignore the blurb entirely, and prepare yourself instead for a book with a lot of mild angst, not a lot of sexual interest, and basically just a pair of emotionally stunted people flopping around at each other.

Everything about this book seemed uninspired, and I couldn't get into either of the characters, who were highly unlikable to me. After Gabe (cold sad businessman) mistakes Sophie (flighty unsettled wildchild) for a prostitute in a Vegas elevator, Sophie feels really bad about herself so she quits her job, without one lined up. This works out okay because Gabe, as it turns out, is actually dating her sister, and through a series of banal contrivances, he is obligated into making Sophie his secretary. The romance proceeds as expected, that is to say in a way HR at a real company would find necessary to move her to another department. Then again, they seem to have no control over hiring anyway, poor HR.

There seems to be a perpetual fascination with business executives in modern contemporary fiction. Are they perhaps the modern equivalent of nobility in the romance genre? My father is "upper management" for a Fortune 500 so I really just can't jive with it, it leaves me very cold. Reading romance novels starring Your Dad is bound to feel skeezy, but it also peeves me how businessmen are treated. Every single Romantic Lead Businessman Type is painted with the same stiff, unchanging brush. Successful businessmen are all workaholics, they have trouble getting in touch with their emotions, and every last one of them is looking for a spicy, unbuttoned type of woman to help them cut loose and be a real human being. There's I think more going on here with perceptions of business and corporate culture from those outside it, and the general disconnect between the 99% and the 1%. Anyway businessmen are essentially like any other random assortment of people. Some are nice, some are dicks, mostly they are boring.

The romantic side-pairing of Sophie's sister (Brynn) and Sophie's childhood best friend (Will) actually seems pretty interesting though, and the second book will be starring them. I thought it was a bit stylistically odd to take a break in the middle of your main story to read about her sister having a one-night-stand that goes sour, but if you're setting up the sequel I suppose it is necessary.

If you're already a fan of this author I'd go ahead and read this, so as to start off her new series, but otherwise skip.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Dark Tide by Josh Lanyon, 2009

★★★★★
Read from June 13 to 14, 2014. Copy purchased. 

I am leisurely working through the (extensive!) Josh Lanyon back catalog, after reading Stranger on the Shore. I started with the Adrien English series first simply because the University library owned the first 3 books in paperback, and my pin money runs low. Turns out whichever librarian spent that collection development money steered me well, because I immediately had to buy the next two! I really can't remember the last time I enjoyed a series so much. (I'm also not sure to what extent my review is for the last book instead of the work as a whole, so apologies for that.) 

One of the things I like best about these books, although it's hard to quantify this, are simply how "adult" they are. Adrien gets his heart broken, Jake goes through the hell of coming out of the closet at 40 with a divorce, and during all this they... go to work, buy their groceries, attend family events, and just keep on doing adult life. Some romance books will fall into the drama trap, where after a break up the main character will take to their bed for a week or something like a Regency lady, so as to show the depth of their love, but dang it, that's just not how being a grown up works. Lanyon can show the pain of heartbreak without these shenanigans.

I also really love the constant theme of physical limitation in the books, with Adrien's heart problem. I live with some limitations so it just really spoke to me, especially how you never quite get used to it, and constantly forget to not do things. I don't know the author's personal situation, but this aspect of Adrien's character ring really authentic.

The last book in the series also just pulls the story arc to a close very well. He doesn't slam the door shut on the series, but you have no feeling of incompletion at the end. It also took me a little while to solve the final mystery, which is good.

A series I'd like to re-read if I get the time. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The 12-Bottle Bar by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, 2014

★★★
Read from April 12 to 17, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

I loved the premise of this book. I hate browsing websites for cocktails and not having anything on hand to make anything, so I mostly stick to old favorites. A collection of cocktails using only a few alcohols is a really handy idea. 

But the book was not entirely what I was expecting! When everything's gone mad for Mad Men and other midcentury-modern nostalgia about the wonders of drinking culture, I was expecting more cocktails from that era. Not so! Nor is the book much like the original website. Not even the 12 bottles are the same. Despite much poo-pooing of vodka both on the website and in the book, the website's absinthe has been swapped for vodka in the book. The book has also limited itself to only one type of whisky (the website has two), and broken down and also admitted white rum into the ranks of the dirty dozen, along with amber rum. 

The overall message of this book is that cocktails should highlight, not cover-up, the flavors of the underlying alcohol. Probably as a consequence, none of my favorite cocktails made the cut, which are creamy ladydrinks like Brandy Alexanders and Grasshoppers that, no matter how much hate is heaped upon them, still manage to be delicious. They also take oddball bottles that wouldn't make it in the 12. Ah well. Big props however for a shoutout to the Brandy Old Fashioned! Not many people know about that variant outside of Wisconsin.

If you like gin and whisky I think you'll really get a lot out of this book. Unfortunately I don't really like either. I did get some new ideas for brandy however, and as a big surprise my favorite section was the discussion about ICE. I've been doing my ice all wrong! 

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age by Alex Wright, 2014

★★★
Read from March 23 to June 28, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

I thought myself decently well-versed in the history of library science until I read this book, when I realized I was only decently well-versed in the history of American library science. It was very interesting to read about what was happening on the other side of the pond while Dewey was creating the American Library Association and Andrew Carnegie was putting a public library in every city that wanted one. I knew nothing about Paul Otlet other than his name, even though my library school alma mater has started a lecture series in his honor

The book is very well researched and written, full of illustrations, and should appeal to both academics and casual-advanced readers. It outlines some cataloging and classification work that was rather ahead of its time, it's also a classic tale of what happens to genius when it's too scattered. Unfortunately the middle dragged quite a bit, which is why it took me so long to read this. I had to skim through most of the middle to escape. I wasn't particularly interested in the crazy dream projects that people Otlet partnered with were working on, and I wasn't very interested in the inter-war bureaucratic kerfuffling that slowly killed his work. The beginning and the end of the book are the most interesting points in this story, the creation of Otlet's ideas, and then their relevance in the modern day and comparisons to the modern Internet. 

I also would have appreciated more discussion on the differing motivations behind library science in America and Europe, especially since Otlet tried to work with Dewey early on and largely failed. Both sides were almost entirely motivated by Progressivism, but the flavors are somewhat different. The American library movement was more animated by the plight of The Poor and what libraries could do for them, Carnegie's "swimming tenth." The library movement very much fits in with the zeitgeist of that period in American history. Its history is also very co-ed, studded with driven do-gooder women like Mary Eileen Ahern and Katharine Sharp. Paul Otlet's animating force, in contrast, appears to be primarily towards supporting the work of academics, with some perhaps trickle down affect to improve the lives of others. Women are more or less absent in Otlet's story. 

I've definitely got a new place to visit on my bucket list though, really must get to Belgium.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Baklava Club by Jason Goodwin, 2014

★★★
Read from June 10 to 11, 2014. Copy obtained through library.

This is the last book in the Yashim the Eunuch series, which are set in 19th century Istanbul and are a really fun little jaunt through that period in the history of the Ottoman empire, and this 5th book came out in mid June. And I was sooo excited to get my hands on it when it came out and then I was soooo sad when I finished it, because man, this book is just really grim.

Those who are fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide series probably know its last book (Mostly Harmless) is also really grim, and DNA at one point apologized for the book and said he’d been having a bad year when he wrote it and always meant to go back and write another that wasn't so depressing. And then he died while he was working on what may have been a continuation of the Hitchhiker's Guide series (Salmon of Doubt), which is a loss to literature I don’t often like to dwell on too much.

Anyway. I really think Goodwin was having a bad year in 2013. This book is a bad-year-book. I don’t want to spoil things, but the ending can be summarized as “rocks fall, everyone dies.” I’m not even joking. Lots of sads happen before the ending too. In the afterword he mentioned people close to him (i.e. his wife and editor) had to talk him out of killing Yashim himself. Wahhh! If you’re considering finishing up your fun little historical mystery series with the violent death of your lead, it’s time to take a step back from life and come back to your book later.

I hope he comes back to the Yashim series even though he says this is the last one, because this is one unbelievably glumbum ending to what was otherwise a super fun series.