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. 

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.