Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Knitting

I haven't knit a thing in well over a week, but I also neglected to post about knitting last week so I do have something new to show you. Even if it's not really new anymore.

This is the beginning of Pianissmo, which I've mentioned before as a possible project. It appears to be a simple drapey sleeveless top, but then I actually purchased and downloaded the pattern. This pattern is 21 pages long. Twenty-one. Granted, photos take up some of that space, but not a lot. I'm not sure what makes it so complicated because I don't read entirely through patterns before beginning like I'm supposed to. It has caused a great deal of regret over the years, yet I continue to skip this vital step.

The project is already not going incredibly well. That scalloped looking pattern along the bottom looks nothing like the photo and I'm hoping it's something that blocking will fix, but we all know what a futile hope that usually turns out to be.

Still, the yarn is lovely so I'm enjoying the knitting.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

Fowler's Booker-nominated novel begins in the middle of the story. Rosemary Cooke narrates what seems to be a pretty typical family drama full of dysfunction and estrangement. But about 75 pages in, we learn something about her family - specifically, about her sister Fern - that puts everything in a different light. Everything afterward revolves around this fact that we learn and creates most of what is fascinating in the story. But it's a spoiler, so you're just going to have to trust me on that.

Which is the central problem with reviewing this novel. You can't tell everyone the single most interesting thing about it, the thing that will actually make them want to read it. A couple of my coworkers recommended it to me, enthusiastically, which is what made me interested, but it was reading the spoiler in a review that made me actually pick it up. And yet, it would have been a better reading experience had I not known the spoiler, because I spent the first 75 pages wondering when I would learn this thing I already knew.

Spoilers aside, there are some great things about it that I can tell you. Rosemary grew up with a brother and a sister and has seen neither of them in many years, though the reasons why are only revealed later. She is just the sort of quirky narrator I like. As a child, she never stopped talking, and drove everyone around her bananas. They had to play a sort of game with her in which for every three things she thought of, she had to choose just one to say out loud. She kept changing this ratio until, as an adult, she kept pretty much everything inside. In college, which is where the story begins (though keep in mind it's the middle of the story), she befriends a woman named Harlow when they are arrested together. This unlikely friendship comes at a crucial point in Rosemary's life, and Harlow gets drawn into the drama of the Cooke family in a pretty serious way.

When Rosemary thinks back to her childhood - the beginning of the story - she is troubled by her faulty memory. It is true that our memories are inherently unreliable and Rosemary knows this and tries to decipher her memories and figure out which ones are true and which are just smokescreens hiding the real ones.

"Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I'd climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred?"

She is especially aware of the misleading nature of our memories because her dad was a scientist. In fact, there are many many references to scientific studies throughout her story. Even when thinking about the children's story Charlotte's Web, she associates it with studies in which spiders were drugged and photos taken of the webs they spun while under the influence.

Although this isn't an issue novel, it does bring up some particular issues that are not usually tackled in the mainstream media and focuses on a particular fringe in a way that is actually fairly sympathetic. It also happens to be something about which I have strong feelings, so I was especially intrigued and appreciative of how Fowler handled it. I'm sorry to be so vague, but again, spoilers. I just want to emphasize how thoughtful this novel is.

This would be a great novel for a book group discussion, if you can manage to convince people to read it without knowing the most interesting aspects of it. For me, it was enough to have some vague but enthusiastic recommendations from other people. Some may be convinced to pick it up because it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But don't be daunted - it's not one of those long, dry, inaccessible award-winners. It's an easy 300 pages that will hold your interest throughout. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes good fiction and especially to those looking for something unusual.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Petronella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam in 1686, the new wife of well-established merchant Johannes Brandt. From the moment she arrives, the household seems strange. Johannes is not at home and his sister Marin seems to be in charge. She is cold towards Nella, and offers no explanations about the household or Johannes, who continues to be frequently absent. Employed by the household is Otto, the first black man Nella has ever known, and a maid, Cordelia, who is just as secretive and stand-offish as everyone else. On a rare visit home, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift - a cabinet-sized replica of their house. Nella employs a local miniaturist to furnish the home, but receives puzzling packages in return, some of which seem to mirror the most secret goings-on of the household.

I don't usually read brand new books by debut authors without first hearing a lot of good reviews (from friends as well as critics) but, well, this one had at me "17th century Amsterdam." I visited Amsterdam myself a few years ago and learned a little about the city's history, especially about the explosion in commerce and the arts during the Golden Age of the 17th century. Not only that, but I visited the Rijksmuseum where I saw the actual cabinet house belonging to the real Petronella Oortman. I knew that this novel centered around one of these elaborate doll houses, but it was only when I opened it to see a photo that I realized it was about a particular house owned by a particular young woman.

A modern view of Amsterdam canal houses.
Reading detailed descriptions of daily life in that time period was probably my favorite aspect of The Miniaturist. The very few reviews I heard referenced a slow start, but I found it very engrossing from the first page. Burton brought her setting to life and I could have gone on quite happily living Nella's life with her even without the intrigue.

In fact, I got just a bit impatient a little over halfway through because of the rate at which the action had ramped up. I found many of the plot points predictable, which isn't awful in itself, but it began to seem like maybe there was a bit too much going on. I also thought people who were so secretive and calculating would have been a little more careful about certain things which became their undoing. I wasn't convinced these characters would have acted the way they did.

Still, I liked getting to know all the characters and learning their secrets. What was considered scandalous then is nothing now, of course, but seeing the story slowly unfold was quite a delicious pleasure. There is a scene early in the book in which Nella sneaks into Marin's bedroom and sees many strange and foreign objects decorating the room, and realizes there is much more to Marin than her stern, black-clad exterior. She doesn't know what, but she becomes very intrigued and so did I. The whole book was like that to me - everything I read about just made me want more.

At the end is a glossary, followed by salary comparisons for that period, and sample household costs. This are unusual additions and would have been great to know about before I finished the book. I looked for an author's note too, since Nella was a real person, but the only mention is in the acknowledgements where Burton says Nella's biography is completely fiction. She was married to a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt, but it doesn't appear there's much more information available about her.

The cover art is lovely, though the first version I saw was the one discussed by the designer in this article, which I liked even more. Both versions capture the atmosphere of mystery that pervades the novel and makes it such an engrossing read. Despite its length, I found The Miniaturist so gripping I plowed through it in a long weekend.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

Ignore that the cover looks like a romance novel or a feminine hygiene product, because the design is misleading. Our main character, Cecilia, is a mother of three who sells Tupperware and is incorrigibly well-organized, efficient, and perfect. I get the feeling that many of the other mothers hate her. One day she finds a letter that her husband Jean-Paul has written to be opened only upon his death, but she reads it and learns a secret that will change her family forever.

Rachel is a secretary at the school Cecilia's daughters attend, and she is notable primarily because her daughter was murdered so many years ago. The killer was never caught. (You can see where this is going already, right?) Our third major character is Tess, who has just learned that her husband is in love with her cousin/best friend, and she returns from Melbourne to Sydney with her son to stay with her mother. Here, she runs into her ex-boyfriend, who also happened to be a suspect in the aforementioned murder. This, I think, is the only reason why Tess is even in this story.

This was a pretty engrossing book, and I consumed it over just a couple of days (I've been on a reading tear recently.) It was kind of a cheap thrill. It was predictable in many ways. Jean-Paul's secret is revealed about a third of the way through and it's exactly what I thought it was. But I don't think the point is to be surprised about the secret, but how the characters deal with it. Cecilia is put in an impossible position, and what you don't know is what she is going to do about it.

Meanwhile, Rachel and Tess star in their own dramas. Rachel is almost completely alone, having lost her daughter so many years ago, and her husband more recently. She still has her son Rob though, and his wife and their son. Little Jacob is the apple of Rachel's eye and when the novel opens, she learns that Rob and his family will be moving to New York. Focusing on all she has lost, and is continuing to lose, she turns her attention back to her daughter's unsolved murder.

Tess owns a business with her husband Will and her cousin Felicity, so they all work closely together and don't even really have any other friends. Felicity has always been rather overweight but recently has gotten skinny and looks gorgeous. This has apparently not gone unnoticed by Will. When he and Felicity tell Tess they have fallen in love, she is convinced it's a joke. But it's not, and she must work through her feelings of betrayal by the two people to whom she is closest.

Although the story takes place in Sydney, which I assume is rather a large city, it felt very much like a small town. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they were all connected. It also all wrapped up quite neatly and I can't decide whether or not I liked that, but I am clear that I hated the epilogue. And because that's what I was left with, I became unable to manage rating the book on Goodreads.

Aside from that, it was pretty enjoyable, though I wouldn't be nominating it for any literary awards. But it kept my interest throughout and I found the narration quite witty. The real strength of the book is in the issues it brought up, many of which are things I've been thinking a lot about recently and which I think will make great discussion fodder at my book group next week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sisters' Fate

Sisters' Fate (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #3) by Jessica Spotswood (2014)

Finally, the third and final volume of this series has arrived! When we left the Cahill sisters, the witches had just caused a mutiny at Harwood Asylum and rescued a large group of women who had been committed unjustly and horribly mistreated. But the witches were divided, and Maura was so angry at her sister Cate, she did the worst thing she could think of - she erased Finn's memory so he didn't remember her. I didn’t know how Jessica Spotswood was going to write us out of this horrible situation. Of course I shouldn’t have worried, and I wasn’t disappointed with the wrap-up of this series.

Now, not only are the witches still in danger, but a fever is sweeping New London and the Brotherhood is trying to keep it a secret. The witches want to prevent further spread of the disease without revealing themselves, but as Sister Inez gains more power the Sisterhood's internal rifts only increase.

Since the first book of the trilogy, we’ve known about the prophecy the Cahill sisters are meant to fulfill. One family of three witches, all with the ability to use mind magic: one sister will be an oracle, and one sister will kill another.  I wondered if that last part of the prophecy would come true at all, or whether fate would somehow be thwarted. Tensions increased between all three Cahill sisters as Tess's visions became more and more terrible and real, convincing her she was going mad, and Cate remained furious with Maura for erasing Finn's memory. The conclusion was both exhilarating and satisfying.

I love the world that Spotswood has created for this story. In this alternate New England, witches have been persecuted so heavily that all women are punished, and greatly oppressed by the powerful Brotherhood. The paranoia and secrecy remind me a bit of the Soviet Union or North Korea, though of course old New England has a very different feel from those places.

Although there is romance, the best relationships in the series are those between the sisters and among their friends. We learn a lot about their friends and their friends' families compared to other teen books, but it doesn't get too complicated. It was just enough to make their friends seem real and interesting, and I think it helps remind us that this is their story too, and not just that of the Cahill sisters. There is an awful lot at stake here.

Sisters' Fate is a strong finish to a series that deserves more attention than it has gotten. I realize there's a lot of competition, but not many trilogies are so consistently good from start to finish. But I do what I can as a good librarian and recommend the first volume, Born Wicked, at every opportunity. (Because librarianship is all about making people read the books you love most, right?)

I hate to place undue pressure of authors to keep producing - and I do think it's enough of an accomplishment to write three really good books (or even one) - but I do hope Jessica Spotswood has more in store for us.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Clockwork Scarab

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason (2013)

Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker are mysteriously called to a meeting at the British Museum at midnight, where they are asked to investigate the deaths of two London society girls. The case, which takes them through the streets of an alternate London, involves steam technology, ancient Egyptian rituals, and time travel. The niece of Mina Holmes and the younger sister of Bram Stoker must channel all their strengths to thwart a dark figure's dangerous plans, and prove they're worthy of their family's reputations.

This is the first steampunk fiction I've ever read, and I really liked those aspects of the story. If you're not familiar with steampunk, it is basically the way that people in the 19th century would view the future. So there are a lot of high-tech machines but they are mechanized rather than digital, and there are flying machines but they are airships rather than airplanes. There's a particular style to it all too (a Google image search on steampunk would give you an idea). The author Holly Black once described it quite aptly, saying "Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown."

In the world of Stoker and Holmes, electricity has been outlawed, and everything runs on steam. Buildings are so tall they sway, and sky-anchors float above them to keep them stable. London is built up vertically in addition to horizontally, with several levels of walkways. The best businesses are on the upper levels, and pedestrians must pay to rise up to those levels. Some of the clothing sounded extremely stylish as well - at one point Mina Holmes was wearing a dress in alternating panels of brown and rust, all embellished with pocket watches and clockwork gears. I found it all utterly fascinating and would love a movie version just for these visuals.

Unfortunately, the story didn't quite live up to the world it inhabits. I liked it, it was good, but it didn't knock my socks off. At the very beginning a visitor arrives from the future accidentally, which could have been quite interesting, but he was almost completely superfluous. There were a couple of other characters, too, who weren't brought into the story as much as I expected. But this begins a series and I wonder if there are more plans for these characters. If so, I think they may have arrived prematurely.

Nonetheless, I found much to like and I'm curious to hear what people think of the follow-ups. It's a great premise, and I found the characters of Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker to be quite promising. They are smart and strong, and lock horns enough that working together as a team could be both thrilling and exasperating. I'm not sure whether I'll try the next one in the series, but it may well be worth checking out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Knitting

When last I posted, the sweater I had been working on for so long had turned into a butt-enormifying sweater mini-dress. But I ripped back and re-knit the hem, at which point it was...too fucking short. Seriously. I was so mad I didn't even take pictures, but just ripped it out again. And then knit some more.

The third time's the charm apparently, because now, much like baby bear's bowl of porridge, it is just right.

I'm not in love with it, but it's cozy and warm and that is pretty much what I was going for. It's more form-fitting that I would have liked, but I bet it will stretch a little. I'm glad I made the sleeves nice and long, because I always love those extra inches of warmth in the winter.

I was beginning to think that dark blue yarn is just cursed. Because there was this also, (the pics aren't showing up currently, but the whole, sad story is still available) which is still shoved in a bag in the back of a closet, probably half-eaten by bugs despite being acrylic. On the other hand, there's this hoodie vest which, despite the impractical combination of short sleeves and bulky yarn, I like quite a lot. So my research is inconclusive.

The thing is, I'm not even crazy about dark blue, so why I keep buying that color is a mystery even to me. I need to stop this madness. Luckily, this one appears much brighter in natural light, which is a bonus.

For this sweater, it was the textured pattern I like, but I confess it doesn't look a lot like the picture in the magazine. The fit is also different. It fits me, but snugly, and I was going for something loose, though I can't complain since I didn't swatch.

In the end, the project is a success and I've been very happy to cast on for some new things which I'll be sharing soon!