Thursday, October 15, 2015

For Real by Alexis Hall, 2015

Read from June 10 to 13, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

After the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey the mainstream romance genre has become extremely bogged down with BDSM options hoping to cash in on that trend, most of which are poor quality. It can be tricky for the sincere ones to shine out. So this, first off, is the loveliest, sweetest, and most thoughtful BDSM romance that you're likely to come across for a good long while.

The most notable plot difference from other BDSM stories here is that the dominant is significantly younger and less experienced in sex (and life!) than the submissive. There are other stories that do this flip, but most simply present it ham-handedly and essentially require you to just ignore that core power imbalance to make it work. This works completely within the ages through, and you never forget for a minute anyone's real age.

This is also very decidedly a romance book and not a work of erotica - relationships of many types are the focus of the story, and sex takes its place as part of a human relationship, not aside from it. The sex is placed decidedly inside the mental aspects of BDSM, the exchanges of power, and the carefulness of it. If you've read and enjoyed Hall's other books and are hesitant about BDSM content, push forward, he completely works it.

A unique book from a very unique voice in the gay romance genre.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge, 2015

Read from June 30 to July 05, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

Lisa Eldridge is a famous makeup artist, so this is probably one of the more anticipated women’s interest history books of the year. The book is very beautiful, mixing historic images of painted people with photography of modern models, and all of that is mixed with images of historic cosmetics pots, lipstick tubes, and compacts. Art museums should really do displays of cosmetics designs, cosmetics packaging is always lovely. You can in good conscience get this book just to look at it!

But the overall history is, frankly, a bit sloppy. I was constantly annoyed by generalizing statements, and leads not finished out, such as mentioning such-and-such came from the theater world and moved into everyday cosmetics, but not telling us how it moved, who did the moving, or what the makeup originally looked like in the theater. I was hoping to get a good grasp on makeup of the 18th century, but I’ve read historical blogs with more detail. However it really picks up when she hits the 20th century Western world, which she knows very well. The history after about 1920 is really excellent pop-style history, ranging from Estee Lauder to Mary Quant to the modern “shimmer” effects made possible by microglitter technology.

The book opens with a “makeup as universal” angle, with three chapters focusing on the “universal” colors, white, red, and black, which I thought was really not a good look. It presents a lot of pop science evo-psych reasoning and stuff like "red light wavelength=good moods" for reasoning why people wear makeup, but all the evidence you are presented is from the Western world with a dash of Asian and Ancient Egypt, used to argue for women self-painting to a universal ideal of “pale face with red and black accents." Because Science Reasons. I can understand the appeal of including this material, because it worked on the book's overall angle of makeup as an ancient, universal, and ultimately natural and valuable human activity, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth, and soured the start of the book.

But, still, a gorgeous book and I learned a lot about recent makeup history. I love makeup and I felt good about wearing it after reading this.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Fool's Gold by Jess Faraday, 2015

Read from March 6 to 7, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This is the third book in the Ira Adler series, which was until now set in the criminal subaltern of 1890s London, so I will admit, after having read the other two previous books in this series I was not at all expecting to read a Western when I picked this up! But, naturally, it's the same time period, and Oscar Wilde even toured the Wild West himself, and I love Westerns! So a nice surprise.

The story begins with Ira, against his best judgement, agreeing to meet Cain Goddard, the crime lord who Ira previously lived with as a kept man. However, Goddard's house explodes minutes before their appointment. Grieving not just Cain but also the lack of proper resolution to his complicated feelings for him, he reluctantly accepts an invitation from his friend Lazarus to come to America with his family. There, natually, the real story begins.

The book includes some of the thematic elements that make the Western such a distinct genre of historical fiction: learning where your physical and mental edges are and then pushing them, learning when to stand on your own and when to accept help, and a certain mental restlessness that keeps your character moving through the entire book. But it also includes some more challenging emotional content, with untidy romantic resolutions, and worthwhile relationships that take more work than the ultimately empty ones.

The Ira Adler books are one of the rare mystery series out there that includes active character development. So there's no magic end of book reset button on characters and you do need to read them in order! These continue to be an undeservedly under-read series of books with the gay historicals set, and I highly recommend them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca M. Herzig, 2015

Read from April 25 to May 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This book really surprised me, but in the best way. The book does of course cover exactly what it says on the tin, discussion of the various ways people have removed their body hairs, but the historical undercurrents of why they’ve done it, and to what levels, are wonderfully laid out and explored, and it is deep and disturbing and fascinating. The book is a complicated braid of scientific racism, caustic skin-melting patent medicines, sexual anxiety, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, radiation hair removal vs. laser hair removal, femininity vs masculinity, and the medicalization of beauty. 

The short and simple "Acknowledgements" section at the end is unexpectedly one of the loveliest parts. She talks about her reluctance to tell others what she's been working on, immediate assumptions from people about her personal habits on body hair, the covert and overt professional discouragement from other academics, including being told point blank to drop the topic in graduate school and pick something "better." Naturally, she then does go on to thank the people who did encourage her. But this section really spoke to me. Academic freedom is all well and good, but freedom doesn't equal respectability. What good is the ivory tower if we do not encourage the weird and uncomfortable things? 

A great case study in how personal is political and the political is personal, and now I’ll never be able to shave my pits again without having to take a good, long, uncomfortable look at why I’m doing it. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Unlikely Lady by Valerie Bowman, 2015

Read from March 24 to 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This story is inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, and it follows shrewish bluestocking Jane as she tries to make herself completely un-marriageable so her mother will leave her alone and let her live as a contented spinster; and Garrett, alleged rake but really nothing of the kind, as they flirt at a wedding-focused house party, and bicker their way to marital bliss.

Bluestocking-themed romance novels are really dime-a-dozen these days, but I still thought there was something quite fresh and unique about this one. The dialogue between our two leads is genuinely funny; sharp and witty, and a pleasure to read. The tone of flirty bickering is very, very difficult to get right, too heavy and readers find it unbelievable that the leads actually like each other, too light and it comes off completely insipid and it isn't fun to read. But in this book the bickering is very right. The drama, while requisite in romance novels, is not too heavy to distract from the pleasures of the interactions between the leads. The drama does lean entirely on An Evil Other Woman, who is pretty two-dimensional, but wow, if your blood pressure doesn't actually rise when she pops on the page! You can gleefully and sincerely hate her character the entire time you read, which is a nice trick in one of these books.

A perfectly pleasurable escapist romance story, hits all the right notes with some new ornaments you might not have expected. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What a Lady Requires by Ashlyn Macnamara, 2015

Read on January 18, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This is a cute backwards courtship/arranged marriage romance, with a bookish virginal miss (Emma) with loads of money wedding down with an rakish barely-literate fop (Rowan) her dad picked out for her; he agrees to the marriage because he is in debt up to his eyeballs, she agrees to the marriage because she wants both his title and his tight ass. Now that's a fun and unusual storyline! It has a fun bit of interplay between male and female knowledge and power, her practical knowledge vs his sexual knowledge, his ignorance of finances vs her ignorance of sex, etc, so that there's quite a bit of interesting power exchanges to keep things lively. Those elements were fun to read. 

However, the requisite secondary drama plotline (dramaline?) running through the book, which is required in romance books, is just way too strong, to the point of overpowering the book. We've got Rowan with a Deep Dark Secret Shame of Youthful Indiscretion that has ruined his life and made him a rake (because a rake can't just be a shitty dude for no reason, he must have inner turmoil), and then we also have Emma being pestered by a two-dimensional villain for most of the book. I found the dramaline pretty pesty pretty quickly, and it cluttered up an otherwise nice little story. I feel like there was enough going on with the courtship-after-marriage without the invasive drama. 

I also think something should be said about this cover. Now, I primarily picked this book because of the cover, working on the standard conventions of romance covers, which is: the more flesh on the cover the more flesh in the book (until you go all the way to pure erotica, which is, somewhat ironically, moving to a convention of using single objects on the cover a la Fifty Shades of Grey). It's like fair-trade labeling for the filth set. Anyway, this book's cover promises a certain sort of book, one with ample, bordering on excessive, scenes focused on Lady A____ and Lord B____ doing the needful in imaginary ye olde intercourfe fashion. However, the sexual content in the narrative doesn't really match the implied sexual level of putting a man's butt crack on the cover. This is not a butt-crack level book here. This is a standard moobs-and-boobs cover level book. I felt a bit cheated. Like when you get an ice cream called Snickers Explosion and you only get like 4 chunks of Snickers in your scoop. You still like it, it's still ice cream, but where is the Explosion? There is also the problem that the terrycloth towel covering his butt is anachronistic by a couple of decades I believe, but I suppose that is neither here nor there. 

Still, cute little book and a novel storyline. I'd read another one of the author's books if I came across it! 

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.