(English Language) Review of a Disappointing Book: 独学大全 by 読書猿

The Self-Study Encyclopedia by Dokushozaru

This book is designed to snare curious browsers at the bookstore in every way. From a distance we can see it’s massive – the 750+ pages are a solid 5 cm/2 in thick. Come a little closer and the distinguished cover design and jacket copy appeal, and is that a textured jacket? Oo. We must pick this up and ooph, it’s heavy. A look at the edge reveals thumb indexing and paper in no fewer than three colors.

Opening the book is an experience as well, revealing a beautiful title page in a fourth color of paper, followed by the requite sales pitch of a forward. (In Japanese popular nonfiction the forward comes before the table of contents, all the better to draw readers in.) On a flip we see that there are footnotes, tables, graphs, flow charts, pictures of famous people who apparently have this self-study thing down. And, like the cover says, we want to get back on the study train, right? The tome obediently follows us to the cash register.

Once we get home and settle in, though, it’s easier to see the true nature of the book. Yes, it’s an “encyclopedia” of self-study, outlining how to get motivated, how to choose a topic, how to find the time, and finally (finally) techniques for actually getting the information into your brain and have it stick there. The layout has generous white space at the bottom, which sometimes holds supplemental info but more than often does not. The footnotes (on the left side of a two page spread in Japanese) are copious and most often skippable. And each section is introduced with a dialogue between a wizened learner and a youngin’ which, while cute, only barely sets up the forthcoming topic.

We forgive a bunch of this – marketing, visual appeal, we get it – but the text itself proves to be the most disappointing. The first chapter makes a show of using rarer, hard to read kanji, but I wanted to yell at my dictionary with every look up. Why is もちろん (of course) written 勿論?Another pet word, 咀嚼、is akin to using “masticate” instead of “chew”. They feel like hard words thrown in to make you feel smart if you know them, feel like you’re getting smarter if you don’t, but they don’t serve the text.

And the padding, my god the padding. つまり (in other words), まとめると (to put it all together), and 例えば (for example) get extensive play. Long katakana words are repeated often, usually accompanied by a similarly lengthy English gloss. We get the life story of historical smart dudes, even though it doesn’t apply to the study tip at hand. And they’re all guys. The only woman I remember discussed Kató Lamb which, deserving, but that’s it?

Several of the techniques are variations on an idea and should have been presented as such, not whole chapters unto themselves. The case studies at the end may be interesting if you’re in a similar situation, maybe, but otherwise are skimmable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting “how to study” books to reinvent the genre. A lot of the information is stuff I already know, and that’s fine. I’m looking for new tricks, for ways to reframe my thinking, and an engaging read. I found a few examples of each, but not enough to justify 750 pages, 3000+ yen (~$30 US), and eight weeks of my time.

It’s hard to recommend buying 独学大全 when there are other, more interesting and fulfilling self-study books out there. Worth a borrow from the library, but if you’re looking for content over hype steel up your reserve and leave this self-study encyclopedia on the shelf in the bookstore.

The Hate Project by Kris Ripper (The Love Study #2)

Oscar is a grouch. That’s a well-established fact among his tight-knit friend group, and they love him anyway.

55422666Jack is an ass who’s always ready with a sly insult, who can’t have a conversation without arguing, and who Oscar may or may not have hooked up with on a strict no-commitment, one-time-only basis. Even if it was extremely hot.

When Oscar is fired (answering phones is not for the anxiety-ridden), he somehow ends up working for Jack. Maybe while cleaning out Jack’s grandmother’s house they can stop fighting long enough to turn a one-night stand into a frenemies-with-benefits situation.

The house is an archaeological dig of love and dysfunction, and while Oscar thought he was prepared, he wasn’t. It’s impossible to delve so deeply into someone’s past without coming to understand them at least a little, but Oscar has boundaries for a reason—even if sometimes Jack makes him want to break them all down.

Review:

After thoroughly enjoying The Love Study I was primed to love The Hate Project, but some elements hit too close for me to enjoy myself fully.

The good:

  • Oscar comes off as a grouch in the first book and here we learn why – he has social anxiety that can lead to panic attacks. It made past actions understandable and gave me more appreciation for how Ripper set up that first book.
  • The dynamics of the friend group are becoming clear and I love the way they interact and support each other. Oscar’s friendship with Ronnie is particularly interesting and they shine on the page together. We also learn more about Mason, one of the MCs of the next installment, through his relationship with Oscar. The found family elements, which felt a little forced in the first book, are in delightful full force.
  • Jack’s grandma is an awesome lady, a no-nonsense grandma that gets her own mini story arc and characterization.
  • Ripper pushes the edges of what’s considered du rigueur in romance and I am here for it. The Love Study has an HEA without a solid commitment, and here sex does not lead to the ‘I love you’ realization that it does in many romances.
  • Some people may find the anxiety rep empowering and comforting, however…

The not-so-good:

  • …Oscar’s thought spirals are so similar to ones I’ve experienced (thank you, birth control!) I found myself skimming whole sections. And while Oscar’s single PoV works well for the story it also means we’re always in his head, close to that anxiety.

I have all the love and respect for what Ripper is doing but unfortunately this book wasn’t the one for me. I’m very much looking forward to the next book – a poly relationship, yay!

Content notes: anxiety including panic attacks, grief, disordered eating

The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley (The Wild Wynchesters #1)

50374203Chloe Wynchester is completely forgettable—a curse that gives her the ability to blend into any crowd. When the only father she’s ever known makes a dying wish for his adopted family of orphans to recover a missing painting, she’s the first one her siblings turn to for stealing it back. No one expects that in doing so, she’ll also abduct a handsome duke.

Lawrence Gosling, the Duke of Faircliffe, is tortured by his father’s mistakes. To repair his estate’s ruined reputation, he must wed a highborn heiress. Yet when he finds himself in a carriage being driven hell-for-leather down the cobblestone streets of London by a beautiful woman who refuses to heed his commands, he fears his heart is hers. But how can he sacrifice his family’s legacy to follow true love?

Review:

3.5 stars

The Duke Heist was just what I needed – a romp of a Regency with a caring beta hero who melts my heart.

The good:

  • Chloe’s siblings are all orphans, brought together by a rich baron, and I am sold on the found family. Each brother and sister has their own skills, from painting to training animals to disguises, and they prove valuable when trying to steal back a painting that’s rightfully theirs.
  • There is a range of rep within the secondary characters – people of color, chronic pain, what appears to be a nonbinary or trans character (no label is given on the page), and perhaps one more queer character (again, no label).
  • Laurence is a titled member of society who gives speeches in Parliament, but I would classify him as a beta hero. He is fully aware of his responsibilities, almost to the point of them being painful, and he considers and puts the needs of others first, regardless of their class or station. The care he takes with Chloe is meltworthy.
  • Servants are people with names and personalities – everyone, not just the butler or a token ladies’ maid. We get a scene of them sitting around a table with the duke and it’s fun and heartwarming, as well as something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a Regency before.
  • While the conflict appears to be enemies to lovers, I would categorize it as two people who have bad impressions of each other from a distance without actually knowing each other. Get them in the same room though….
  • I love flipped tropes and we have a couple, including a semi-flip of “the hero buys the heroine a wardrobe” trope.
  • I cannot wait for the next book – it appears to be a queer relationship and the heart eyes. I can’t stop with the heart eyes.

The not-so-good:

  • The opening came on a bit strong for my liking. It’s like romp! Tons of characters! In your face! and I wasn’t ready for it. Your mileage may vary
  • The plot gets pulled to and fro in a couple of places. It’s been a few days since I finished and while the emotional moments stick with me, the story feels more jumbled the more I think about it.

…but that’s it. A strong start to a series I’m looking forward to continuing – there’s five more Wynchesters who need a happily ever after!

Thanks to Forever for providing a review copy.

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

50043108._SX318_SY475_Michele Harper is a female, African American emergency room physician in a profession that is overwhelmingly male and white. Brought up in Washington, DC, in an abusive family, she went to Harvard, where she met her husband. They stayed together through medical school until two months before she was scheduled to join the staff of a hospital in central Philadelphia, when he told her he couldn’t move with her. Her marriage at an end, Harper began her new life in a new city, in a new job, as a newly single woman.

In the ensuing years, as Harper learned to become an effective ER physician, bringing insight and empathy to every patient encounter, she came to understand that each of us is broken—physically, emotionally, psychically. How we recognize those breaks, how we try to mend them, and where we go from there are all crucial parts of the healing process.

At the highest ranks (doctor, professor) medicine is still a very white field, so I was excited to pick up this memoir by an African-American ER doctor, especially because there was a bunch of buzz around its publication.

The title is apt, as one could say that Harper has “broken” several times in her life. While her family situation looked great from the outside – a doctor’s family in a big house – it hid how horrifyingly abusive her father was, mostly to her mother. She managed to go to medical school herself, fell in love and got married, only to have her husband leave her right before moving to a different city. We follow her as she works at different hospitals and focuses on different parts of the job – administrative, patient care – as she comes to terms with it all.

I can’t go any farther in this review without mentioning that this was a buddy read with the wonderful Louise at the blog A Strong Belief in Wicker. She’s an emergency department doctor in Australia so we had a wonderful time dissecting the text on a medical level along with discussing Harper’s life experiences.

The most solid pro for The Beauty in Breaking is the writing. Some turns of phrase are beautiful, and she’s eloquent when talking about how racism in the medical system has affected her personally, as well as her patients. On that more surface, literary level I have little to complain about.

When it comes to medicine I have questions, though. There are some basic errors (for example, the Glasgow Coma Scale is scored 3-15, not 1-15) so I’m guessing the text wasn’t proofread for medical accuracy. Some of the patient scenarios didn’t make sense – why wasn’t a nurse called in to help with a particular procedure? Why is she ordering a head CT for a run of the mill headache?

While most of the patient stories are interesting and informative, several feel unrealistic. One conversation felt a roleplay scenario that’s part of my training as a medical interpreter – everything clearly said in logical order, with no meandering or backtracking or extraneous information. I’m guessing it was a composite patient, but even composite patients should talk like real people, right?

Harper finds peace via yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, which I’m glad for. I do yoga, too. But I don’t need to read detailed descriptions of her yoga class, and I was surprised that she talked to patients about their “spirit” as much as she did. I’m all for wellness and health in a general sense, but this tipped over into “woo-woo” too much for my liking.

All in all The Beauty in Breaking does a great job discussing certain issues beautifully, but if you’re in medicine yourself details will certainly needle you.

Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman

50697406._SY475_The alert was first raised at six in the morning: a fire was tearing through the El Bordo mine. After a short evacuation, the mouths of the shafts were sealed. Company representatives hastened to assert that “no more than ten” men remained in the shafts at the time of their closure, and Company doctors hastened to proclaim them dead. The El Bordo stayed shut for six days.

When the mine was opened there was a sea of charred bodies—men who had made it as far as the exit, only to find it shut. The final death toll was not ten, but eighty-seven. And there were seven survivors.

Now, a century later, acclaimed novelist Yuri Herrera has carefully reconstructed a worker’s tragedy at once globally resonant and deeply personal: Pachuca is his hometown. His sensitive and deeply humanizing work is an act of restitution for the victims and their families, bringing his full force of evocation to bear on the injustices that suffocated this horrific event into silence.

Review:

I jumped at the chance to read this book because I love Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, and I’m always excited to read nonfiction in translation. And read that jacket copy above – mine disaster! Intrigue!

I expected a wild ride but the book is subdued. An exhaustive investigation of the circumstances is impossible 100 years after the disaster so Herrera does the next best thing, critically examining the records left behind.

After outlining the sequence of events as well as we can know them, he looks at what isn’t in the record. How the stories of relatives, often women, are replaced with legalese. What the judge didn’t order investigated. How newspaper accounts were riddled with bias, to the point of obscuring all fact.

The book is a mere 120 pages long and as I reached the end I realized I probably read it too quickly. Some themes I picked up right away – how women were silenced and pushed aside, for example – but others I missed until the very end. Why didn’t I notice the pattern of Anglo names? Did I glance over something early that pointed to the fact that the mine was owned by a US company?

I’ll have to read this book again, at a slower pace, to pick up everything Herrera is putting down. If you’re expecting narrative twists and definite answers you’ll be disappointed. But if you don’t mind following the author has he wipes a century’s worth of dust off of a supposedly settled case he has interesting things to say.

Thanks to And Other Stories and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (True Colors #1)

Luc O’Donnell’s rock star parents split when he was young, and now that the father that he’s never met is making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material.  So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating.

 

I wasn’t completely with this book at the start – Luc is a bit of a disaster in more  ways than one, and I was looking forward to the stability Oliver was sure to bring. And what’dya know, he did.

The good:

  • Once I got into the groove of things I laughed out loud every few chapters – some of the characters are ridiculous and over the top in good ways. If you’re looking for a rom com bordering on lovingly silly this book is for you.
  • There’s complex emotional stuff going on here with both heroes, including with their families. Luc and Oliver support each other as best as they are able and pull away when they need a break, but it’s never left to fester long. Both are dealing with some fairly major stuff and we get to watch them talk about it and grow, both as people and in the relationship.
  • I love that some situations aren’t cut and dry – hard conversations with no right answers. No best way to console someone who’s crying his heart out. But our heroes do their best and it ends up being enough. More than enough.
  • I think it’s interesting that while Luc and Oliver are both gay they surround themselves with completely different kinds of people. Luc found a home in the LGBTQIA+ community when he needed one most, while Oliver’s circle of friends is almost completely straight. Both are presented as okay and valid – having mostly straight friends doesn’t make you any less queer.
  • The side characters are fleshed out and interesting. From Luc’s parents to the posh donors at a charity party, we get a solid feel for everyone as people.
  • There’s a nod at how difficult family can be when a couple decides they don’t want children (‘but we want grandbabies!’) and as someone without children myself I appreciate it.
  • Thanks to libro.fm I received the audiobook for review and my god, Joe Jameson does an amazing job with the narration. Luc’s fumbling is natural, more natural than it looks printed on a page, Oliver’s baritone is sexy, and the voices of women, especially, blew me away.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • The sex is infrequent and of the fade-to-black variety. If you’ve been wanting to try an m/m romance but were looking for something more tame in that department, this book is a great place to start.

The not-so-good:

  • I’m sad that we don’t have any chapters from Oliver’s point of view. At first I wanted to get out of Luc’s head for a while – he really is a disaster in the beginning – but I think seeing some scenes from Oliver’s POV would have added some depth.
  • It wouldn’t have worked for plot reasons, but I was dying to see Oliver get mixed up in Luc’s group of friends. How would he react? Would he become looser or clam up? Love them or like them? (There are no other options, natch.)
  • Some scenes got long, especially in posh dining rooms.

I ended up reading Boyfriend Material in a combination of print and audio and with such amazing narration I ended up liking the latter more. Three stars for the print, four stars for the audio, averaging out to 3.5 overall.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca and libro.fm for providing review copies.

Binding Shadows by Jasmine Silvera (Tooth and Spell #1)

49231123._SY475_Hunting lost books is more than a job; it’s a way for Barbara to hide her powers in the mundane world of the university library. But the prickly new professor in charge of her latest assignment proves more than he seems, and rules are no match for her growing fascination.

After years of battling to cage the beast within him, Tobias returns to Prague and the safety of his pack of brothers. But keeping his family safe means never revealing his dual nature, not even to the irresistible research assistant with a nose for rare books.

Now, a 400-year-old witch’s revenge threatens to reveal everything they’ve concealed. Trapped between a witch and a necromancer, Barbara and Tobias must choose: embrace the powers that could expose them or allow their secrets to destroy them.

Review:

3.5 stars

I have been all about paranormal and science fiction romance lately so when the author asked if I’d be interested in a werewolf romance featuring people of color, written by a person of color I was all, yes please!

The reading process was utterly enjoyable – interesting characters in a world with a unique magic system, with enemies and happenings left and right. As soon as I finished I thought, four stars!, but unfortunately the book hasn’t stuck with me.

Why, though? I’m not sure. It’s probably me – a pandemic ramped up while I read this and heaven knows I was distracted. Regardless, I am excited to return to the world whenever the next book comes out, and hopefully I have a bit more brain space to give it its proper due.

Thanks to the author for providing a review copy.

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe

44463274._SY475_In the 1940s, a bored heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths.  In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer through an intense series of letters. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own.

Each woman, Monroe argues, represents and identifies with a particular archetype that provides an entryway into true crime. Through these four cases, she traces the history of American crime through the growth of forensic science, the evolving role of victims, the Satanic Panic, the rise of online detectives, and the long shadow of the Columbine shooting.

Review:

This was my last read for the opening round of the Booktube Prize and it followed No Visible Bruises, a harrowing look at domestic violence. It feels weird to say, but the tone of this book was downright breezy in comparison.

It’s not a knock on the book. Monroe introduces us to women who identify with one of four archetypal roles – the killer, the victim, the attorney, and the detective. Tales from the author’s life, such as her stint volunteering at a law office and attending a true crime convention, are scattered throughout.

Overall I found the book was scattershot, examining bits and pieces without coalescing around a central narrative. I remember lovely lines and thoughts, but it failed to hold together as a whole for me. Not a bad read by any means – I both learned things and enjoyed myself – but it didn’t quite stack up to some of the other books this round.

Just Like That by Cole McCade (Albin Academy #1)

49875508._SY475_Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts. But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the Albin Academy boarding school—and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.

Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.

Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.

Review:

Just Like That is this month’s addition to the Carina Adores line, huzzah! I’ve been meaning to read McCade and this is a fine introduction.

Before I go any further I want to point out that there are tropes with squick potential including age gap (24/pushing 50) and the fact that this is a teacher/former student romance. The content warnings are detailed at the front, but I especially want to point out anxiety (including a panic attack on the page) and suicidal ideation.

The romance is hurt/comfort in both directions – Summer has a bright, soft personality and is continuing a lifetime struggle with anxiety, while Fox has built up prickly armor around a traumatic event from his past. Both are psychology teachers, so it should be no surprise that the conflict is entirely internal. Expect lots of talking and ruminating with a fair side of angst.

Let’s start with the good, at least for me. McCade’s writing is descriptive and flowery, and it won’t be for everyone. It was just what I wanted right now, though – flowing and lyrical in a way that felt comforting.

Fox is half-Japanese/half-Western and grew up in Japan to age 14. I found one small bobble in the Japanese culture references, which is pretty good considering how much authors usually get wrong.

As for the not-so-good, the believability isn’t quite there for me. Fox and Summer have make out sessions in their classroom on the regular, the assistant principal doesn’t even blink an eye when he walks in on them. There’s a side character that shares living space with Summer, but he disappears as soon as he’s not needed for the plot. And while I get the romance, I’m not completely sold on Summer and Fox as a couple.

Speaking of, to the reviewers saying that a formerly straight guy goes gay for his student – stop. Fox never said he was straight. There is something called bisexuality, let’s not forget it.

Between the squick potential and the writing style it’s hard to recommend Just Like That to everyone, but I’m sure it will have its fans. I’m looking forward to reading another book by McCade to get a better feel for what he can do.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Unvarnished by Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll

48254184When it opened a decade ago, the acclaimed Los Angeles speakeasy The Varnish—owned, designed, and managed by award-winning cocktail aficionado Eric Alperin—quickly became the stylish standard bearer for modern bars.  Alperin and veteran bartender and writer Deborah Stoll push back against the prevailing conceit that working in the service industry is something people do because they failed at another career. They offer fascinating meditations on ice as the bartender’s flame; the good, the bad, and the sad parts of vice; one’s duty to their community as a local; the obsessive, compulsive deliberations of building a bar (size matters); lessons from Sasha Petraske—Eric’s late partner, mentor, and the forefather of the modern day classic cocktail renaissance—and the top ten reasons not to date a bartender. At the book’s center are the 100 recipes a young Jedi bartender must know before their first shift at The Varnish, along with examples of building drinks by the round, how to Mr. Potato Head cocktails, and what questions to ask when crafting a Bartender’s Choice.

Review:

It’s interesting to see how different people approach their craft. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain centers cooking as a physical act – I can’t separate my image of him from banging pans and frantic kitchens. Marcus Samuelsson comes across as a more cerebral chef, chasing flavors as he’s led by his taste buds in Yes, Chef. Alperin tends towards the latter by paying great attention to detail while making the perfect drink – the right ice, ordering ingredients just so, arranging the workspace for maximum efficiency.

I especially appreciate this detail in the chapter about ice. It’s fascinating how far bartenders will go to get perfectly clear ice in the shape best suited for the drink. Overall I like the chapters that are close the to the bar best as Alperin, with the help of Stoll, does a great job sharing his knowledge about the hows and whys of bartending and how he applies them at The Varnish. His insights on hospitality and what his mentor calls “offhand excellence” are especially memorable. I like that he doesn’t name drop – there’s a couple of mentions of “a celebrity” stopping by, but nothing else. The memoir-esque sections concentrating on his personal life and boozing it up in LA are hit and miss, though.

Speaking of things that are hit and miss, footnotes are used heavily throughout. Sometimes it’s to define a term, other times to add a funny anecdote or source. I wouldn’t mind if they were limited, but at one point there were three within a couple of lines of each other. I was sick of clicking through. At that point it’s better to gloss P&L as “profit and loss report” and leave it at that.

There’s 100 cocktail recipes smack dab in the middle when, at least in the ebook, it would feel more natural at the end. And when we do get to the end we’re met by an afterward full of essays by people who are in some way connected to The Varnish – regulars, the piano player, bartenders, and so on. Not a couple, not even a dozen, but 26 essays. Some are great, and I love that the barback writes his in Spanish, but the sheer number feels like padding.

All in all, Unvarnished is a quick read with interesting bits as well as flaws.

Thanks to Harper Wave and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.