Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

Novelist Carrie McClelland arrives in Cruden Bay, Scotland to visit Slains Castle for her new book. She's writing a historical novel about the 1708 attempt to return the exiled king to Scotland, and Slains is a key location for her heroine, a young woman Carrie names after one of her own ancestors, Sophia. But the story comes easily and powerfully, and her research shows that what she has written is actually true. Meanwhile, Carrie is feeling more and more at home in her little cottage, especially when she meets her landlord's son. The novel moves back and forth between Carrie's story and the story she is writing about Sophia.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy Kearsley's writing. Her style is somehow otherwordly and romantic, even the parts that take place in modern Scotland. I've only read Mariana before this and I found many similarities between the two novels. In each, a woman was being drawn to a particular place and that place somehow connects her with the past. I'm not sure if Kearsley's books are all on this theme, but I like it.

Much more of the book was the back story than the present, which I found a little bit disappointing. I really enjoyed the story about Carrie moving to this little village and finding love while researching her book. But ultimately, there just wasn't a lot to her story and in some ways I'm glad she was able to have a romance without the difficulties that usually plague relationships in novels.

Of course, I liked the backstory too, in which Sophia has more than her share of drama. She arrives at Slains Castle to stay with relatives and learns that they are Jacobites, sympathizers of the exiled Scottish king, James Stewart, and they and their friends are organizing to bring him back. She begins a romance with one of these Jacobites, a man who is wanted by the government and feels uncomfortable revealing their relationship. Between the secret romance and the political intrigue, this story had enough going on to make up for the lack of action in the modern-day story. I got a little bored during some of the history lessons, but I do understand that they are important to the story. They sort of went in one ear and out the other, much like the semester of Scottish History I took during my semester abroad in Glasgow, but I got the parts that were especially integral to the story.

This is neither here nor there, but this is the third book I've read so far in 2015 that mentions this old-timey system where in some houses you had to feed coins into a meter to get power. I guess it's a British thing? It came up in The Likeness and I think also in The Paying Guests, and it's just a weird coincidence because I had never heard of such a system before.

I bought this for my mother a couple of years ago and reclaimed it from her bookshelf after she died. I do wish I had read it right after she did so we could have discussed it. At any rate, I'm glad I finally picked it up. I read this for the TBR Pile Challenge, and it's the only one on my list that was actually in a pile and not just on a list. I kept putting off reading it because it's over 500 pages. Well, I've decided to read one of the long books on my list every month for the first four months of the year so that later if I lose momentum on the challenge, I will have tackled the most daunting books first. Of course, the two long books I've read so far turned out to not be daunting after all!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (2015), narrated by Lauren Fortgang

Fairfold is not like other towns. Here, regular people live side-by-side with faerie folk, though not always peacefully. In the heart of the nearby forest is a glass coffin which has been inhabited for generations by a horned boy, who remains deep in sleep. Hazel and her brother Ben come to look at the coffin, as others do, and whisper secrets to the sleeping horned boy. Then, suddenly, he wakes.

Despite living in such a magical place, Hazel and Ben are regular high school kids. They have crushes and text their friends and defy their parents. They also know the rules for attending a faerie revelry, have seen tourists murdered in ways that can only be magical, and their friend Jack is a changeling. So, you know, things can get weird. The same night the horned boy's coffin is broken open, a local girl is found almost dead, her mouth full of dirt. Hazel and Ben set out to find out what happened and try and set things right.

I love the cover art, and I will admit it is a large part of the reason I read the book (despite the fact I listened to the audio and barely saw the cover). This really wasn't my kind of story - I mean, faeries? Especially faeries with an 'e'? No, thank you. But because it was Holly Black, and because I so enjoyed The Coldest Girl in Coldtown even though it was about vampires, I thought it was worth trying.

The story was good, though as with many books I listen to I think it would have been better for me in print. But I got the gist of it despite my attention-span problems, and I liked Hazel and Ben and Jack and even the horned boy. I liked that it was magical and modern at once.

Some of the narration left a bit to be desired - a few of the male voices sounded forced and fake - but otherwise Fortgang did an excellent job. Her strong voice seemed just right to capture Hazel's personality.

All in all, it was enjoyable enough but didn't really grab me. I have nothing bad to say about it, but it simply wasn't the best choice for me. This wasn't a book that made me excited to listen to the next chapter, but I think people who like books about magical folk would have a different experience.  The Goodreads rating is one of the highest for Black's books, higher even than The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Although I didn't love it, I will likely try other books by Holly Black, but I'll stick to ones that sound more my speed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Knitting

I've done something extremely reckless.

Last week when I was trapped inside during a blizzard, I ordered a huge shipment of yarn from WEBS - and that is not the reckless part. Yesterday it arrived and I immediately cast on for a sweater, without swatching.

I miss natural light.
This yarn is Madelinetosh Tosh Vintage, and if you are familiar with Madelinetosh you probably understand my urgent need to dive in so irresponsibly. 

This will be a yoked sweater, knit top-down all in one piece. What is difficult about this sort of project is that they are hard to swatch for. It's possible to swatch in the round, but it's not pretty, or accurate. I figured the yoke could be my swatch.

I think I'm going to have to go up a needle size. I also realized that part of why I swatch isn't so much to get gauge, but to determine how much it may change once I wash the item, so I think I'm going to actually make a swatch now, after the fact, before I make any rash decisions about ripping out and restarting. 

Another interesting bit about this yarn is that it's hand-dyed and there's no dye lot. This means that the skeins aren't all exactly the same, which is why there are two balls of yarn in that photo. With hand-dyed yarn, you need to knit one or two rows (or rounds) from one ball, and then the next one or two from another, alternating to sort of integrate the variations in a way that will appear more natural. One doesn't want half of one sleeve, for instance, to look lighter than the whole rest of the sweater. This was something I had not anticipated when I ordered this yarn, but I'm willing to overlook it, because look at how gorgeous that color is.

Wish me luck. Once I've determined I'm using the right needles I think this project might go quickly. I have fantasies of wearing this sweater this winter, which is utterly ridiculous, unless we have a lot of winter left. Which, sweater aside, I really hope we don't. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

172 Hours on the Moon

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad (2012)

It's been decades since the last trip to the moon, but now NASA is holding a contest and the three lucky teenagers who win will accompany experienced astronauts to the moon's DARLAH 2 station for research. The winners are Mia from Norway, Midori from Japan, and Antoine from France, who all have different reasons for taking the trip. But of course, things do not go as smoothly as planned, and they wonder if they will ever make it back to Earth.

This was a great premise for a novel. There is little hard science fiction in young adult literature, and also it was very creepy. I find space completely terrifying and the threat present on the moon was effectively vague - it's somehow always worse when you don't quite know what sort of danger you are in. The setting is desolate - an atmosphere emphasized by photos of the moon peppered throughout the novel - and there isn't much information about what's going on, but clearly it is very very wrong.

Unfortunately, the writing was weak. Some of the awkward wording may be attributable to the translation from the original Norwegian. But there is no excuse for poor character development and the fact that some of them acted in such improbable ways. When things began to go bad, the adult astronauts acted defeated right away, rather than focusing on fixing the problems (as they do in movies and, I would hope, in real life.) Aren't they trained to deal with catastrophe? And aren't there mental/psychological qualifications to this job? The female astronaut, Caitlin, seemed especially weak and hysterical. But they all failed to do what I think they'd do in real life, which is take responsibility for the teenagers. Instead, they were basically like "Hey, sorry it has to end this way, but you're on your own." At the end, NASA also didn't act the way I think they really would. They would have been extremely involved in investigating what happened.

I didn't hate it, or even dislike it, but the more I think about it, the more criticisms I have. There were a number of dropped threads and unexplained things that didn't really make sense. I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at the library and we spent a great deal of time ripping it apart, but we enjoyed doing so. Isn't that the most fun part about any book group? I think we all thought it was a good idea for a book, but poorly executed. We did all agree that the cover is pretty cool.

Coincidentally, my real life book group is just about to read The Martian by Andrew Weir. I've read some really good reviews of that one, so I'm looking forward to reading it and I'm confident that it will be much better.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Top Ten Book Related Problems I Have

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

Here are my top ten book-related problems:

1. There are too many of them. Most of my book-related problems relate to this one inescapable fact. I'm a librarian, so I can't help but hear about all of the books, and so I keep finding more and more books I want to read. Sometimes I wish I could just ignore what's being published but that is just impossible. I have often wished that everyone would just stop writing and publishing for about 5 years so I can catch up, but that is unlikely.

2. I frequently let myself get suckered into trying the new hot book just because it is new and hot. Most recently that was The Girl on the Train. Luckily, I have gotten good at putting books down when I'm not loving them, and I wasn't loving that one and I put it down. It's a constant battle I must fight though, sticking to what I want to read without being tempted by what everyone else is reading.

3. My reading tastes are all over the place. I can't focus or get really into a genre because I like them all and I just don't have time to read them all. I envy the people who only read historical fiction or only read romance or only read mysteries. They really know their genres well and are able to keep up with them.

4. I constantly make more assigned reading for myself. I have a long-standing tradition of being in more than one book group at a time. Right now I'm holding steady at two: the Not-So-Young Adult book group at work, and what I refer to as my "real life" book group. And then there are the book challenges I so frequently fall prey to. Assigning and scheduling reading for myself makes it difficult to just read whatever I feel like at the moment, which is really the best way to read.

5. Everything is a series. I've been trying to avoid reading anything that's the first in a series, unless the entire series has been published and I've heard good things about all the books in the series. (Recently that was The Selection series by Kiera Cass.)

6. Although I have a shockingly good memory for titles and authors, the details of books I read get lost pretty soon (especially the endings. I can never remember how books end.) This can make it difficult to sell others on particular books unless I've just finished reading them.

7. When I try to read in bed I usually fall asleep almost immediately. When I was a kid I could stay up reading half the night, but now, I'm lucky if I can get through a chapter before falling asleep.

8. Reading in a moving vehicle makes me very sick. This has plagued me since childhood. So many long, wasted car trips! There was a time when I was able to read on buses on my work commute, but no more. I have partially combated this with audio books, but I can only do audio for certain books that are easy to listen to, and I wish I didn't have to have a separate "commute" book.

9. I'm always thinking about what I'm going to read next, and it often distracts from what I'm currently reading. Usually about halfway through a book I'll start feeling impatient to get on to the next thing, even if I'm enjoying what I'm reading. Why? Why do I do this to myself?

10. Focusing is really, really hard. I know it looks like I read a ton and it is my primary pastime, but the fact is that I can't ever truly focus on what I'm reading and can rarely read for more than a half hour at a time without becoming distracted. I'm a very inefficient reader.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Knitting

After the disappointment of my failed Pianissimo, I have moved on to a new sweater project. I've long been trying to find a use for some Wool Bam Boo yarn I bought when Windsor Button was closing, and failing to find the right project. This is why I don't buy yarn without knowing what it's for. Usually I choose a pattern I want to make, then find yarn for it. But when my favorite yarn store was closing and selling everything for cheap, I panicked.

Finally I found a pattern called Nympheas, a lovely short-sleeved pullover with a simple lace pattern, and cast on.

So far, so good.

Mind you, I didn't exactly do a proper swatch. I knit a swatch and measured it, but I didn't bother with the whole washing and blocking and measuring again because I did it for Pianissimo and look what that got me. Anyhow, this is a pretty quick project so far and I think I'll be able to tell soon if it's coming out close to the right size or not.

The bottom curled up edge is going to be folded under and hemmed, revealing a picot edge. The lace is a simple pattern, though the decreases have been a challenge. Usually with lace I put stitch markers between the repeats so that if I screw up it's easier to tell where it happened. It also makes it easier to figure out where to start in the pattern once I've decreased stitches at the beginning of the row. However, here the repeats are staggered and don't start at the same point in each row so I can't mark them. I already had to rip back once, but I think I've got the pattern down pretty well now.

I'm also starting to look at more new projects. We're having quite a harsh winter here in the Northeast - in fact, I'm writing this mid-blizzard - and my office has been freezing. (One of my co-workers actually crocheted a whole slew of fingerless mitts to keep at all the service desks for everyone to share.) Usually, my heavier sweaters are reserved for use at home because most buildings I go to in the winter are heated quite generously, but this year something is up with our heat and nobody seems willing to fix it. I've been getting a lot of use out of my heaviest sweaters, but I've only a few of them and they are quite casual. So I'm just going to need to make more.

I realize I won't finish any of them in time to use them this year, and things could totally be different next year, but I've never let reality get in the way of my knitting and I'm not going to start now.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin (2014)

Young artist Addison Stone is dead at 18 after falling - or jumping? - from the Manhattan Bridge. The story of her rapid rise and fall is told through a series of interview excerpts, as well as photos, art, and other bits of ephemera. Her story is told by her family, best friend Lucy Lim, ex-boyfriends Zach and Lincoln, therapists, and associates in the art world.

This is fiction, but felt like a documentary. Griffin has meticulously crafted Addison's persona, even finding a model to be her for a series of mostly candid photos, some of which include her friends as well. Because the story is told through interview snippets, I didn't get into the way I would a more traditional narrative, but it also wasn't as disjointed or difficult to read as I expected. I loved the inclusion of the photos and art, and I wish more books would do this.

Addison was a tough character to warm up to. She struck me somehow as just wild and crazy and pulling stunts to get attention. I know she was supposed to be struggling with mental illness, but somehow I didn't feel very sympathetic towards her. Maybe it was because she just kept becoming more and more successful, as though her eccentricities only increased her fame. Because of the way the story was told, she felt rather distant. She was everyone's darling, but always just out of reach. Her art was brilliant and she was portrayed as a genius, and sometimes it grated on me. For instance, her work was displayed in a gallery show and she declared everything else to be crap. Her agent, Max Berger, agreed with her. It was like everyone adored her so much they enabled her bad behavior. I don't really care about famous young women who behave like brats.

But that's kind of beside the point. This isn't about liking Addison, it's about the tragedy of a disturbed young person who can't handle her own talent - a pretty believable story - relayed through an unusual storytelling format. I wish it had gotten into her home life a little more, because there were so many vague references to her bad home life and inept parents, but that's really my only criticism.

There was also a creepy undertone to what is already a pretty ominous story, because Addison was convinced that she was being haunted. She started hearing voices while staying at her grandparents' house in Dartmouth, MA. She claimed she could hear conversations between Ida, Miss Cal, and Douglas. She became obsessed with Ida, drawing pictures of her, and even after leaving the house she always felt like Ida was with her, talking to her. It became hard to dismiss as a symptom of mental illness, and remained a pretty creepy subplot throughout the novel.

The story good enough, but it was the form that really stands out here. Appropriately for a story about an artist, this book itself if a piece of art. If you like artsy books, or just want to try something different, I highly recommend this one.