Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow, 2015

★★★★
Read from March 6 to 14, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

There is one big thing you need to know about Lorenzo Da Ponte before reading this mystery book starring him, which is that he was totally real, and his life was actually more crazy than the book lets on. All of the really crazy stuff he got up to actually happened after the setting of the book, and also Da Ponte wrote awesome memoirs of his crazy hijinks that would make even Casanova raise a glass in respect. Look him up, he's one of the great non-musical figures of opera history.

This is a cozy historical, maybe like moderate cozy because there is a little violence, and the mystery plot isn't particularly staggering, in fact the whole explanation of just how Da Ponte (a librettist, which is a subgenre of poet) has been shoe-horned into the already anachronistic role of "detective" in late 18th century Vienna is pretty specious. This is a book formed around the fun of writing about a historical figure like Da Ponte at the core I think, not around the mystery, so if you're looking for an air-tight unsolvable murder-mystery, look on, this is not that. The narrative is well written and edited though, with great flow, which is especially good for a debut author! The main charm of the book lies not in the mystery, but in exploring and enjoying Vienna and the Viennese operatic scene at the time of Mozart through the eyes of Da Ponte, so it was fun to read for me as an opera buff. A lot of the time I was reading the mystery parts I was wishing it would return to the scenes about opera, especially anything with Michael Kelly, another real character with a lot of personality!

This is a book that will have a lot of broad appeal to different groups of readers, including the corps of mystery fans who are heavy library users, but also opera fans, and casual fiction readers. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Good Rake is Hard to Find by Manda Collins, 2015

★★★
Read on March 22, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

I picked this book out for one reason, the ridiculous title, and boy did this deliver. This is a story about a biker gang curricle driving club called Sons Lords of Anarchy who get up to all sorts of nefarious biker gang curricle driving club crimes and murder people and stuff. I'm not joking, this is straight up a regency biker gang romance starting off a SERIES of this (!!), so buckle the fuck up, oh wait you can't, seat belts haven't been invented yet. This is is one cracked out series theme and either you're going to be down to clown on it or you're not. Fortunately I was in a mood that made me receptive to such ideas when I read this, and therefore I enjoyed the story.

However, the book has some clumsy parts to it, more than I'd expect from an experienced writer. Opening the book with a first-person narrative of a violent death to set up the mystery had some pretty weird flow into the rest of the book, which after the intro returns to well-rutted territory with a bog-standard he-thinks-she-thinks shifting POV between our romantic leads. The romantic leads have a Backstory, and thus we must have lots of Exposition to inform us of this, but it's always so Clearly Exposition it grates. The story seems a bit paint-by-numbers to me, like the writer outlined the whole series in one go and is writing off of it.

The second thing I didn't like is the treatment of female infertility in the story, which I found pretty insensitive. The female lead, for reasons I shall not explain for spoilers, is infertile, and therefore has decided to nobly never marry the man she loves because she would deny him of children. So a lot of the story is repeating exchange of "Oh how sad that I can't marry you."/"Why?"/"Because secrets."/"What secrets?"/"If only I could tell you..."  This goes on until the end of the book when The Secret Comes Out and then the male lead naturally proclaims his unchanged love for her and that he doesn't care she can't have babies. I found the lack of exploration of the male lead's feelings on not having children pretty rude to the masculine population in general, is the poor man allowed no feelings on infertility other than indifference in the face of Such Love as Theirs? Although of course male leads are not normally allowed many feelings other than Passion and Devotion, but I feel if you're going to use a plot point that is an emotional reality to a lot of folks in the modern world, you have a duty to give a shit. There's also some plausible denial of her infertility which is what really gave me a frown, the author left it pretty open to her conceiving (presumably in later books), but if you're going to write an infertile character have some spine about it, don't leave it open so she can have a happy-baby-family in the background of book 2.

But let's put our social-consciousness aside, because it's still a regency biker-gang romance series with a Mae West inspired title. If you're looking for a light historical romance book, with the sort of cover to make even the most shameless library user queue up for the self-checkout, here's your mindcandy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Bohemian and the Banker by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon, 2015

★★★★
Read from January 18 to 19, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

I should probably first admit that I have an enormous soft-spot for Dee-Devon books because they were some of the very first things I read from the m/m historicals genre, and will probably never be able to review them objectively. At this point they could probably co-author a book on identifying 19th century arts and crafts pottery and I'd still think it was great. So this isn't going to be a hard-hitting critical review.

This is a simple little story: a stiff virginal English accountant goes to Paris, meets a drag queen, discovers the emerging gay community, and has life-changing sex, there's a little plot-required waffling about how they can make their relationship work, and then all hands on deck because we're crashing straight into the happily ever after. 1900s Paris is actually a pretty fresh setting for gay historicals, which usually get stuck around England-cravat-time and don't deviate too much in time or space from there. It's an interesting time period to pick as well, as it's right around the time for the development of m/m sex linked to a specific personal identity and not merely an activity, in Western Europe anyway. So the overarching plot of a closeted virgin being introduced into gay sex and gay culture and gay love all in a short and erotic time frame, which gay historical romance normally requires you to check your historian with the bouncer at the door to enjoy, actually does work here.

However, history of sexuality aside, historical authenticity still takes a non-negotiable back seat to the romance and sex in the book for sure The easiest error in the book - everyone kept eating pasta puttanesca! Sadly nobody would be eating that 1900s Paris, as the name first appears in 1950s Italy. I mentally started subbing in "nachos" every time they ate it to amuse myself, as that dish is equally as historically likely. But whatever, authentic history is not the point of these books and we all know it. It's a solid m/m historical and I enjoyed it very much. It's the literary equivalent of a bag of Halloween candy, and I ate it in one sitting and NO RAGRATS.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Supernatural Voice: A History of High Male Singing by Simon Ravens, 2014

★★★
Read from February 10 to 21, 2015. Obtained through library. 

This is billed as a revisionist history of falsetto singing, but I honestly didn't find its conclusions that revisionary: the book wanders around for a while but basically comes to a pretty conventionally accepted stance in the history of singing, which is that most male singers (both castrated and intact) up through the 19th century probably used their falsetto range when they felt like it or needed to with not much fuss, and that our taboo on falsetto in tenors (see: today’s mandatory chest voice high C), and our idea of a dedicated falsettist/countertenor, are both very modern. He spends some good time debunking the idea of the countertenor as a dedicated falsettist in Renaissance choirs (arguing it was just a vocal part that ran against the tenor part, probably in the same range as him), and I think that work is very solid.

However, the book is would be relatively straightforward if it didn't unfortunately get bogged down by some bad science.

So, there’s the observable phenomenon that humans are on average getting taller. There’s also the observation that height and larynx length (in hormonally uninteresting people) are generally correlated. There is also, as most people will guess, a correlation between larynx length and modal voice pitch. (Modal voice being your normal speaking voice in phonetics, in singing terms it basically means non-falsetto voice.) So we've got ourselves three interesting correlations here:
  • the broad evolution of humans is towards an increase in height
  • height is correlated with larynx length 
  • larynx length effects modal voice pitch 
Now, what Ravens argues for is a pretty simple A→B, B→C, C→D therefore A→D, which is that the general global increase in human height means we’re having a matching global decrease in modal voice pitch. It’s an interesting argument, and I’m willing to consider it, but he argues it so quickly (I’m talking only 6 pages), and so utterly poorly, and then accepts it as fact for the rest of the book, that this bad science angle just about spoils the whole book. He cites breezy anecdotal evidence about the scarcity of tenors and the glut of baritones, but fails to address many key things, including why baritones are increasing while (he argues) basses are becoming more rare, which doesn't add up in his theory; how this applies to women; and, as we don't know for sure what is causing the rise in human height, if the cause is truly correlated with a lowering of modal voices. Basically he really needs a solid study showing that singing voices are decreasing over time to work with any of this for history.

He makes a second observation, which is that the intermixing of ethnicities (with their different average heights and stereotypes for producing the best of X voice type) means that humans are “averaging out” in height and voice, and therefore we’ll be getting more and more average voices of baritones and mezzos. This is such garbage I am reluctant to even touch it. However I want to point at the garbage so everyone can know it is garbage, so I shall simply observe that the development of singing voice type classifications happened in his golden olden age of relatively homogeneous ethnic groups. The words tenore contraltino (or tenore leggiero, whatever you want to call a high tenor) and basso profundo are both Italian terms developed in Italy among Italian singers, indicating, well, both these extremes of intact male voice types came about in the Italian population (and you can repeat this in other countries’ music traditions), so it’s likely that all voice types naturally occur in some proportion when you have any sizable sample of the human animal, ethnically mixed or “pure.”

You may at this point rightly question what on earth any of this has to do with falsetto singing. Well, the argument is that as human modal voices are lowering, we will see more men using their falsetto range to sing. Seems a very minor argument to spoil a book over, but it is not my book. However, if you’re into falsettists/countertenors and want to read some “revisionist” history, even if the a) revisionist bits are pretty mucky and b) the overall conclusion is not really revisionist, give this a go.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica N. Turner, 2015

★★
Read from February 26 to March 02, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

This book just didn't click for me. It is probably because I don't have any children, and if I do have children some day I'm pretty sure I'll have zero compunction about telling them to go fuck off because I want some alone-time. My (stay-at-home) I know mom had little problem with this, she used to just shut us outside for the morning and tell us to keep in sight of the windows. We were a bit disdainful of that rule anyway, and once I was deemed "old enough" my sister and I were allowed just go tromp around unobservable for hours in the wet Indiana woods, on the thinking that two children can probably look after each other or something. The 90s were the final days of wide cultural acceptance for free-range childrearing in America though, and they are unlikely to return. And I'm not immune to the cultural shift - I'd certainly never even dream to let a tween tootle around the Internet un-monitored like I was. But will my more hovering parenting really be better? I don't know.

What I'm getting at is that there's a bigger cultural problem lying as an undercurrent in the narrative of this book, which is that modern upper middle-class mothers who work full-time feel intense guilt for not spending every spare hour they have with their children. Which is a very natural mental friction to have happening when you think about it: because we have children growing ever more precious in the American consciousness, with the side evolution of mainstream stay-at-home mothers becoming ever more rare, and the evolution in American masculinities decidedly not keeping up. The book spends a lot of time trying not to assuage that guilt at its core, but coming at it from the side - taking time for yourself is good because it makes you a better wife and mother. Thaz some scary shit. It's unhealthy to take your primary identity from your children or your marriage, or really any external thing. I wanted to chant the Fight Club mantra at this book - you are not your job, you are not your kids, you are not your marriage, you are not your fucking khakis... While the titles "wife" and "mother" may be culturally synonymous with unending noble labor and sacrifice, you don't have to buy into it. If you want to spend your evening drinking box wine and scrapbooking while your house is filthy and your kids eat dinosaur chicken nuggets for dinner after a full day at their cut-rate daycare, just do it: other people may own most of your time, but you still own your own soul. 

Also, this book is a Christian book, fair warning. It's labeled as one on Amazon but not on Goodreads or Netgalley, else I wouldn't have requested it. The Christian elements are fairly milquetoast and inoffensive, but do run right-of-center, if you hadn't guessed from the content above, but like one of the anonymous example women mentions American Girls or whatever that holy-roller version of Girls Scouts is called. So there's that.

But enough back of the napkin sociology. Can this book help you squeeze more out of your day? Well, maybe, maybe not. If you're the sort of person who has a bad habit of overextending yourself with social and volunteer commitments for your children, and you need someone to pitch to you why you deserve your own scraps of life, yes you will probably get something out of this. I was disappointed to discover that I am already apparently using my day to its fullest by the author's measures, I have no more time to spare. Tips like "keep a book in your purse so you can read when you're waiting at doctor's offices," are pretty useless to most people who don't just stare blankly into space most of the day. Who the hell doesn't keep a book in their purse? Nobody who enjoys reading I'm guessing. Sometimes I keep two books in my purse, in case the first one is bad or something.

I hope this is the right book for someone, some imaginary Christian mom of three who works an office job all day and just needs permission to go drink wine at a knitting circle one night a week and hear a few non-Spongebob laughs. I hope she gets that. But unfortunately just not a book for me.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz, 2015

★★★★
Read February 6, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This is cute story about two guys: Derrick, who is an out of work lumberjack (yes), unfortunately stuck running the family B&B after the death of his parents, and Ginsberg, a stunt-double with a broken arm who needs a place to stay while he heals up.

Ginsberg was a fun and well-developed character, I enjoyed reading about Ginsberg. However, Derrick is a pretty muddled character. It seems like the authors couldn't totally figure him out, and neither could I. He runs hot and cold on Ginsberg, but mostly he's cold. His change of heart in the end (after the requisite misunderstanding breakup scene) is pretty out of nowhere. His appeal to Gingberg remains mysterious to me, really his appeal to anyone is unknown, and his motivations are similarly mysterious. For example, Derrick struggled with his unhappiness running a B&B through the book, and never appears to find any point at which he comes to value or enjoy the work, but in the end he decides to continue running it and give half to Ginsberg. Because reasons?

However, Ginsberg does mostly make up for Derrick's sloppy development. He's a self-possessed, cheerful transman, and I liked reading about him. A lot of the book is concerned with Derrick sorting out his own muddled masculinity (which is basically him getting an object lesson in disparate career options: lumberjack vs. housekeeper) around Ginsberg's more developed sense of self, which has an unfortunate hint of Magic Pixie Dream Boy to it, but the explorations of masculinity/femininity are for the large part thoughtful, so it's okay.

Now, let me be honest (if only with myself), I'm not reading these books for the sensitive explorations of redefining femininity and masculinity in the 21st century. I read romance books because I like reading about sex in its "natural environment" - between two (or more) people in a romantic relationship, and I'm guessing a lot of people read these books for the same reasons, so how's the sex? Good, but not enough! There are only 2 sex scenes in the book. The first one is really great, but the second one feels pretty phoned-in and fades to black before anything interesting happens. Booo! Way more sex needed.

But in the end, I'll openly admit I'm grading with extra-credit points included to make up for some of the faults, and the extra-credit points are thus: writing a cool, well-developed transman character in a way that's thoughtful, fun, and enjoyable; writing honest, sensitive erotic scenes; for making the plot about something other than just being trans; and to boot taking some time to explore some of what masculinity might mean in this brave new world. Those are some pretty hefty points that help to make up for one of the main characters being sloppy and underdeveloped, and the plot being kinda wonky, even for rom-com.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clutter Free by Kathi Lipp, 2015

★★
Read on January 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

I read housekeeping books when I'm stressed. I'm not entirely sure why. I think I like self-appointed homemaking experts to boss me around and then I just like to ignore everything they say because I know better than them. Perhaps they just make me feel more strong and capable about my own homemaking. Perhaps it is some deep-rooted mother/daughter relationship thing. Who knows. I got this housekeeping book because I loved that velvet purple couch on the white background for the cover. That is exactly what my house should look like. Purple and clean. Perhaps the all the secrets to that purple-couch-lifestyle are in this book, I thought. Alas, no.

This book is written for a certain sort of person: an older moderately Christian woman with more money than time, more money than mental energy, and more money than they reasonably know what to do with really. Half this certain person's problems can probably be solved by having less money, or just learning to not spend so much, but until then, it's just judiciously using Rubbermaid bins I suppose. Basically this book is for my mom I guess. The book doesn't translate well to people in other life situations. I'm a young, frugalist, nomadic type of homemaker, and my housekeeping problems come from a much different place, I quickly learned while reading this book.

Some of the tips in this book I'd consider to be slightly dysfunctional. She recommends a couple of times dumping your unwanted stuff on your older moved-out children. As the recipient of such objects: please don't. Through personal experience I've figured out this is sort of a halfway-house approach to clutter for people who have emotional attachment issues with objects. You're just passing on a chore. Mark it for garage sale/donation and then let your older child go through it maybe.

Now, for the Jesusy parts. They just add nothing to the book. Cards on the table, I'm atheist, but I was raised Christian and I do appreciate Christian philosophy. The author attempts to deflect future negativity with a little whining about how people commented negatively on the Jesusy parts in her last book, so my guard was a little up already. Nobody likes a whiner. But the thing about the religious elements in this book are that they are not at all integrated into the narrative. They are as strange and incongruous as a layer of rainbow sprinkles on an otherwise perfectly serviceable pot roast. I did not feel her approach to household management was in any way coming from a place of faith, and she was just adding on faith-sprinkles for some unknown reasons of her own. If you want to read books that show how the author uses their faith as an inspiration for minimalist living or other styles of homekeeping, there are much better ones, like the rather emotionally challenging Living More With Less, the extremely religious but worthwhile The Hidden Art of Homemaking, or if you want something more modern, in The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful I think the author makes a good presentation of how her faith impacts her approach to making a home.

I did like the tip to only let your drawers max out at 3/4ths full. I have been weeding out my clothes in the past few weeks and that's been a good rule of thumb.