Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age by Patricia Howard, 2014

Read from September 28 to October 26, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

This is the first monograph biography of Gaetano Guadagni, author Patricia Howard has been working on Guadagni for years, and she's previously re-written the historic record on some essential stuff about him, like what his vocal range actually was, and the fact that his birthdate was wrong for years (this for whatever reason happens to castrati a lot) and that his birthname was actually Cosimo! So she's almost certainly the foremost expert on Gaetano Guadagni.

However that means she's published a lot of her Guadagni research already to get this reputation, and the book has that pesky recycled feeling. The information on his early life, acting, limited composing, puppetry, and relationship to the character of Orfeo has all been published before, which is maybe like 30-40% of the book. There's a lot of original stuff in here through, like the chapter on his work with Handel, which will likely prove to be the most heavily cited section because he's pretty hot right now, and a few tantalizing hints that Caffarelli might have given Guadagni a leg-up in his early career by getting him a gig in Lisbon which sheds a bit of a different angle on Caffarelli, as well as the whole "reform" singer/actor idea. As Caffarelli is known more for maltreating other singers, it could be a hint that at least one of the old timer recognized GG’s raw talent. But she unfortunately doesn't explore this idea much.

In general though she gets bogged down by facts and details and doesn't tell you what things "mean." For example, Gaetano Guadagni was a big puppet enthusiast in retirement and had a full marionette theater in his house which took up two whole rooms, and he gave free shows for the neighborhood kids and would apparently also ambush unsuspecting visitors to the town and make them sit through impromptu puppet shows. While of course this is just hilarious to think about by itself, Howard doesn't pull much meat out of it. She devotes a lot of words the history and details of late 18th century puppetry, which is all very interesting, but she seems to have forgotten to tell us what this love of puppetry might say about Gaetano Guadagni's personality and theatrical spirit.

Unfortunately I think somewhere along the line she also forgot that she was also supposed to be arguing for something in particular, which would be the title: why does Guadagni have the right to be called "the first modern castrato?" There’s a little bit tacked on the beginning and finish of the book about how he is the first "modern castrato," but otherwise it is not really mentioned in the book, and the term is not well defined. Maybe it was an after-thought when her editor said she needed a title?

I really hate to be a sourpuss about this book, because she's amassed an awful lot of original research on Guadagni's life, like an almost complete itinerary of where he was for just about every season he worked (and it’s actually really freaking hard to do that for opera singers), but I think the art of Doing History and Telling the Story got lost in the focus on verifying all sorts of little bits and bobs from his life. I've got my own ideas about who Guadagni was and what his legacy is this magnificent, ridiculous artform that we call opera, but they’re the same ideas I had before reading the book, and I’m not sure I could tell you what exactly the author thinks in that vein. Having read most of her research articles before, I was hoping she'd get into more of an overall synthesis on his life and legacy in longform, but I was left hungry. If this is your first time reading about Gaetano Guadagni you will probably get a lot more out of this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hunting the Spy by Tyler Flynn, 2014

Read from September 16 to 17, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

I really enjoyed this book! Like a hot bath at the end of a long day, a bowl full of mac-and-cheese, and a cold beer, this is solid comfort-reading for those who like m/m historicals.

This book is much more of a mystery than a romance, and it is set in England right before the start of the Napoleonic wars, and the plot focuses on tracking down a man who is passing information to the French. The two main characters are former lovers who split with unfinished business, and the book focuses on them solving the mystery as well as learning to trust each other and work together, and (naturally) coming back together as a couple. The sexual content is pretty light and the mystery content is more prominent, so this book is recommended to those who like a little less romance in their romance books and more action.

My only criticism would be that there's nothing too new or challenging here. The characters are a gruff working guy up against a suave, wise-cracking minor aristocrat who is more or less Fanon!Draco (for those old enough to have cut their m/m teeth in the Harry Potter fandom). And the dynamic here is a little well-trodden but it's well-trodden for a reason, it's a enjoyable romantic dynamic that works well for a lot of people.

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!