Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Christmas socks!

I was so intent on getting the pictures in focus I didn't realize the top of one sock was turned down, clearly displaying the yarn end sticking out to the side. Flattering!

These socks are made from the Waffle Rib II pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, and were knit entirely on the bus. The yarn is Berroco Ultra Alpaca Fine which has some long fibers in it that I kept mistaking for cat hair and wondering "How did that get in here?" Because I don't take my cat on the bus with me. It's soft yarn with a nice drape and though it was a bit splitty I like it. I'll have to see how it wears before buying it again, though it's 30% nylon, so it should hold up well.

I need to make some more socks for myself so I can finally get rid of the rest of my store-bought ones and make more space in my sock drawer. I've cast on for another pair but I'm afraid it won't be the sort of thing I can knit on the bus. Those easy patterns are great for that, but I've been dying to make some socks from a more interesting pattern. I'll have to find some other easy project to knit on the bus while listening to audiobooks, because I've come to like my whole listen-and-knit bus routine. Luckily, I just made a fruitful trip to Windsor Button and have lots of new yarn and some ideas to go with it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Game Change

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (2010)

This behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 presidential election was based on hundreds of interviews with people close to the campaigns. It chronicles the rise of Barack Obama, the fall of John Edwards, the spotlight on the previously unheard of Sarah Palin, and much more. Over 400 pages of strategizing, panic, and damage control lead up to election day, with such tension and excitement it's easy to get caught up in it even though we all know how it ended.

It brought back many memories, such as Obama's rousing speeches and Sarah Palin's desperate floundering. But I also learned a lot. The chapter on John Edwards was fascinating. I had no idea he was such an egomaniac or that Elizabeth Edwards was so unpleasant. Nor did I realize how troubled was John McCain's early campaign - that he was supposed to pledge to only serve one term, and that his wife was rumored to be having an affair. Hillary Clinton's campaign was also troubled in that one of her chief strategists was strongly disliked by every one else on the team. I was also surprised to learn that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had a friendly relationship and talked on the phone frequently. Given the scant attention I pay to politics, perhaps these things weren't all news to others, which was my main problem with reading this book - I don't know which information is actually a revelation and which is just news to me because I don't pay close enough attention.

Most of the players are cast in a pretty unflattering light, and it gave me pause. Were the authors unfair? Or were they trying to balance the smile-for-the-camera personas the candidates so carefully cultivated? I'm a little skeptical at anything nonfiction, especially so if it's political, but I think this book is generally pretty highly regarded in its authority so I don't want to dismiss their characterization of the candidates, but I can't completely accept it either.

Either way, it's quite entertaining - easily readable, the storytelling relies not on dry detailed analysis, but on fast-paced action. Given the impressions of all the candidates and what I learned about their personalities, ambitions, and preparation (or lack thereof), I'm even more glad that things turned out the way they did. But maybe that's the impression the authors wanted to leave me with.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (2012)

Born in Iceland, Gemma was orphaned when she was only a couple of years old and taken away to Scotland to live with her kind uncle and his less kind wife. Several years later her uncle dies, leaving her to be mistreated and marginalized by her aunt and cousins. Gemma hopes to improve her situation by enrolling in a boarding school, but there she is treated like a servant. She continues to feel unloved and adrift, moving from one situation to another, trying to escape each new predicament.

Gemma barely knows who she is, nor can she remember anything about her first home, Iceland. Gemma isn't even her real, Icelandic, name. Impulsive and secretive, she makes each situation worse than it needs to be, but she doesn't know better. Because of all the uncertainties in her life, she is very protective of herself. It is frustrating to watch, but understandable.

When she learns something shocking about the man she is involved with, I thought her reaction was way out of proportion to his secret. Was this reaction just contrived to further the plot? Or did I just underestimate the Gemma's sensitivity? It threw me off a little, but not for long because the novel is just so compelling.

I found the story delightfully unpredictable, just like Gemma herself, the language rich, and the personalities wonderfully varied and nuanced. Though the novel takes place several decades ago, it has the air of a more bygone era somehow. Perhaps because rural places such as the Orkney Islands always feel a little bit left behind. The settings - Iceland and Scotland - and the trope of the unjustly treated young girl in boarding school drew me to the novel and I wasn't disappointed one bit. I became quite engrossed in watching Gemma grow into herself, rooting for her all along to find a family and  finally stop running.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I can't help but think I should be doing some sort of Christmas preparation today. Yet here I am, seaming together a cardigan.

The pattern makes this part easy because the pieces have a garter edge and then a bit of ribbing. All too often when seaming, it is unclear which parts should be hidden in the seam, which bar is the one you sew up, and what should be showing. The sleeves are always the most difficult pieces to sew in, but these were a snap.

Hopefully the rest of it will go as smoothly. Then, I only have to pick up a couple hundred stitches, knit the shawl collar, add button loops, find some buttons....Well. I suppose I won't have a new cardigan for Christmas, but maybe for the New Year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Favorites, and the test of time

Now that I use Goodreads to keep track of and rate what I read, I've noticed how my views on books change over time. Recently the director of my library asked us all to provide 1-3 of our favorite books from 2012 for a newspaper article, and when I started looking through my Goodreads list I was quite surprised. Earlier this year I gave 5-star reviews to a few books that I barely remember the details of now, and others only received 4 stars yet I still think about them and recommend them. I left the 5-star reviews as is, because although my love may have been fleeting it was strong at the time and that means something. Perhaps if I read them again I'd fall in love with them this time too. As for those  4-star reviews that seem more deserving in retrospect, I bumped them up to 5 without hesitation.

It's a little thing, but now I can't stop thinking about why certain books blow me away initially but don't stay with me, while others only grow more present in my mind over time.

When I read Age of Miracles, I was totally blown away. I devoured that book like it was cake. When I was done, I closed the book and stared off into space, shaking my head in wonderment. I can remember that, but can't quite grasp the details of what spurred my reaction. Maybe I've just forgotten too much after this much time, and would feel the same if I read it again now. The same with A Land More Kind Than Home. Fantastic book, and it really stood out but again, it's hard to recapture exactly why.

On the other hand, The Dog Stars has stayed with me in a way I didn't expect. I knew it was a very good book, but it didn't pack the punch of the two I just mentioned. However, it had an atmospheric quality that is somehow very easy to recapture.

Similarly, Wild has grown in my estimation since I first read it. I loved it right away anyhow but didn't think it was a favorite. Now though, I keep thinking about how amazing it was for a slightly unprepared and emotionally fragile person to have the determination to do what she did alone. It's really inspiring.

I always wonder how much my book reading experiences would have been different had I read the book at some other time of my life or if I was in a different mood, but that maybe entirely overthinking it.

So as not to leave you hanging, the 3 titles I submitted for work were Gone Girl, Where'd You Go Bernadette?, and Born Wicked (the sequel to which has been pushed back to June. June!)

This week at work I posted a more complete list of my favorite books of the year (restricted to those published in 2012), with links to reviews back here on my own blog. Because I'm lazy like that.

Do you feel like your views on certain books change over time? Are you ever surprised to realize you can barely remember a book you were effusing about a few months ago? Or read a book that you thought was good but not outstanding, only to not be able to get it out of your head later?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Insurgent (Divergent #2) by Veronica Roth (2012)

I recently reviewed Divergent, and couldn't wait to land my hands on a copy of the sequel. Be warned - there are spoilers ahead!

When Divergent ended, Tris was newly initiated into the Dauntless faction, but the event was marked by violence and horror that left the factions in conflict with one another. In this second volume, Tris is still reeling from being forced to kill a friend but she must keep going in an uncertain climate in which war seems inevitable. Erudite is using its knowledge to control other factions, and they seem to be looking for information held by Abnegation. Meanwhile, the factionless have grown in number enough to be a force in itself.

I'll admit I didn't spent a lot of huge chunks of time reading so it could be partly my fault for not focusing, but I think Insurgent suffered a bit from Second Book Syndrome. The first book in a trilogy introduces us to a world that is new and exciting, then the second book just tries to bridge a gap between the exciting first book and the climactic resolution of the third book. It's hard to fill that space with something that can compare. But this book had a few things going for it. We learned little about the Amity faction in the first book, but here they played a much larger role, as did Candor and the factionless. There's also a big (though not shocking) reveal at the end that makes me very curious about the third book.

Tris struggled with a lot of her relationships in this story - her budding romance with Tobias, her friendship with Christina, even her relationship with her brother Caleb became complicated by the events going on around them. She didn't know if she should trust Peter, who tried to kill her once before, or Marcus, Tobias's abusive father who seemed to hold the key to Abnegation's secrets. She had to decide for herself who she could rely on, and then face the consequences.

I appreciate that these books don't end on huge cliff-hangers. I hate reaching the end of the book with little or no resolution and though it came late here, it was fairly satisfying. Based on the ending, I suspect where the third (and final?) book will go. It's supposed to be released sometime in 2013, but I don't know when. Hopefully by then I'll still remember where the story left off.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Life in France

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (2006)

This memoir, co-written by Julia Child and her husband's grandnephew, focuses on the years during which Julia and Paul lived in France. Paul worked for the USIS (United States Information Service) and was fortunate enough to be assigned to a job at the US Embassy in Paris. The couple fell in love with Paris, especially the food. It was here that Julia's lifelong passion for food and cooking was kindled. She ate as much as possible and learned how to cook as much as she could, studying at the Cordon Bleu in order to improve her technique. She became involved with two women who were trying to write a cookbook and the three collaborated on this huge project, which was eventually published as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. By then, Julia was back in the United States becoming a tv celebrity through her show The French Chef.

Julia approached everything in life with gusto, not just food. She threw herself into her projects, absorbed everything around her in France, and the other countries in which she lived. Even when she was forced to leave Paris for Plittersdorf, Germany - which she viewed as the land of Nazis and concentration camps - she still learned as much German as possible and exclaimed at how fantastic the beer was. She was chagrined that the other Americans with whom she was acquainted were not interested in German culture and didn't bother to learn the language. She, meanwhile, made the most of her situation, experimenting with the fresh sausages and local game she found in the shops.

She was also completely unflappable. If something went wrong during a cooking demonstration or other project she just figured out a solution and went on. When Julia and Simca (one of the cookbook co-authors) were to host a luncheon that would be covered in McCall's, Simca decided at the last minute to go out of town for the day. Julia just reworked the menu to make it more manageable alone and went on as planned. In life, as in cooking, she didn't expect everything to go perfectly and was always a good sport about it. Her healthy sense of humor didn't hurt either.

The bulk of the story was set in an interesting period. Though far away in Europe, Julia and Paul weren't completely insulated from the American political climate. Julia's father was a staunch conservative, making their relationship quite strained. But more worrying was Senator McCarthy, who at one point targeted Paul Child for investigation. It came to nothing, but made them both nervous and was a great inconvenience.

Her descriptions of France made me want to visit so badly and eat everything she described, although much of it I really wouldn't actually want to eat (there was a lot of foie gras in this book.) But I enjoyed experiencing it all vicariously through her descriptions and the many black-and-white photos throughout the book. I've never been terribly interested in Julia Child, but in this memoir I found her inspiring, not just her cooking but her entire attitude and approach towards life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (2009)

I've just read this novel for the second time, for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work. Since I've already reviewed it I won't repeat myself, but will just add some thoughts.

One of my favorite aspects of this book has always been how the main character, Logan, dealt with Sage's secret. When he first learned the truth he completely freaked out, said terrible things, and high-tailed away from her as fast as possible. Eventually the better aspects of his nature came though, but he continued to struggle. Logan is a product of the small mid-western town where he grew up, and of our society as a whole, in which transgendered people are still pretty far outside of what most people consider the norm. Katcher is just brilliant at capturing the struggles of teens dealing with their conflicting feelings about other people (see also: Playing With Matches). His characters are incredibly genuine, and easy to sympathise with in all their imperfections and angst.

A couple book group attendees were skeptical that such a story would take place, because surely EVERY town has a PFLAG group these days, right? When one grows up in arguably the most liberal part of the nation, I suppose stories like these can be hard to believe, but I grew up in a very small rural town much like the Boyer, Missouri of the novel and I found it all completely believable. And every day I feel grateful that I live in the veritable utopia of eastern Massachusetts now.

It may seem like a strange choice for Sage's family to move to such a place when an urban setting would have provided the anonymity they wanted, as well as the resources to help the whole family deal better with Sage's transition. But growing up where I did, I remembered being surprised when gay people moved to my town only to be whispered about behind their backs and sometimes shunned. Why ever would you do that to yourself? Well, you would do it if you are a small town person who doesn't like cities much, and I think that's the case with Sage's family.

Almost Perfect remains true to its realism throughout, Logan consistently screwing up and seeming to learn from his mistakes, then screwing up all over again, as teenagers do. It's not a happily-ever-after book either and I think if it had been, it would have been a bit harder to swallow. But it's also not hopeless or depressing, and Logan has clearly been left profoundly changed for the better.

This has become longer than my original short review, but it's an unusual book that deserves attention and discussion, and it remains - in my eyes at least - one of the best YA books out there. I'm glad I read it again and had the opportunity to discuss it with a group. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Knitting

My Livingstone Cardigan is positively flying off the needles. I do wish I had a better area to photograph my knitting though. I'm not doing it outside this time of year and don't have many useful surfaces - or decent light - inside.

Hence, my hideous circa-1950 kitchen floor.

Those are not sleeves, but in fact the cardigan fronts. They're a bit skinny because there's a big shawl collar that extends down the front, and that gets added on later.

These pieces went quickly since they're so narrow and knit in bulky weight yarn, but the arm/neck shaping was extremely confusing. It's always hard to keep it straight when you're decreasing both for an armhole and a neck, but when you also have to decrease into your cable pattern - while watching episodes of Doc Martin - it is just not pretty. I made a lot of notes though, and I think I followed them correctly.

But that's not all!

I also started the first sleeve.

....and I just realized that I'm showing you the back of it. Or, what will be the inside. These sleeves are in reverse stockinette, which I completely forgot while I was photographing it. Whoops. So consider this just a teaser of the sleeve!

Despite my relief that the sleeves have no cables - and therefore no confusing increases-while-cabling - it does make them a little boring to knit. As sleeves tend to be. Hopefully my momentum will carry me through. I'm actually beginning to think I might be able to wear this sweater this winter.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011), narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Christine woke up this morning and didn't recognize the room around her. She didn't recognize the man sleeping next to her. When she went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, she was shocked to look 20 years older than she expected. Her husband then explained that she had amnesia from an accident years before and was unable to form new memories. She could remember the events of the day up until she went to sleep at night. Every morning she woke up having forgot it all again.

The day got stranger. After Ben went to work, Christine received a phone call from someone called Dr. Nash who said they met in secret; he wanted to help her improve her memory but she didn't want her husband to know. Suspicious, she agreed to see him and he handed her a journal - the journal she had apparently been keeping for several weeks. On the first page it said "DO NOT TRUST BEN." Christine spends the rest of her day reading her diary, unraveling the mystery of her life. The journal makes up the bulk of the novel, only returning to present day at the end, by which time everything has changed.

The premise of the story is intriguing enough, but the storytelling takes it to new heights. Each mystery unfolds slowly, sometimes in a completely misleading direction, as Christine reads through her journal entries, each one the story of a day in which she woke up knowing nothing about her present situation and would start by reading the journal so far. Reading through all the entries together, she learned more and more of her story until she was finally able to put it all together and make some sense of her life. But it is only back in the present day, when she finished reading the whole journal, that the final reckoning occurs. Watson expertly conveys the sense of confusion and disorientation Christine feels throughout the novel. I always love an unreliable narrator and this was the best kind because she wasn't deliberately hiding anything. She knew no more than I did which made me feel that much closer to her and her story.

Coincidentally, this audiobook was narrated by the same person as the last book I listened to, Where We Belong. Orlagh Cassidy has quickly become my favorite narrator and the most awesome thing about this was she was speaking in a British accent again, in what I can only think of as her Piano Teacher voice. It's so satisfying to have recaptured the experience of listening to that book - it was a very different story, but there's something atmospheric about the way she reads and I just can't get enough of it. I have a feeling I like this story more having listened to the audio than I would have if I had read the print version. Either way, I highly recommend this compelling novel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2012)

This surprisingly popular exploration of how we form and break habits doesn't set out to help you quit smoking or stay on track with your exercise regimen, but it contains a fascinating trove of information that - among other things - may provide some insight into why we do the things we do.

Duhigg uses a "habit loop" framework to illustrate our behaviors and carries this throughout his discussions of individuals, organizations and society. His terminology can sometimes feel like a stretch - I'm not sure I'd consider friendship a "habit" - but mostly it's a useful way of understanding complicated concepts.

The real meat of the book are the stories about the habits of people like Eugene Pauly, who lost all ability to form new memories but could still develop new habits, and Lisa Allen whose entire life changed because she took a trip to Cairo. Less inspiring (to those of us cynical about corporate influence) but no less interesting are stories about the people who successfully sold products like Febreze by creating new habits among consumers. I was especially interested in the chapter "How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do," in which researchers at Target learned how to identify pregnant customers before they told anyone so the store could target the appropriate marketing to them before other companies did. If you want to feel completely paranoid about ever using a rewards card- or hell, a credit card- pay close attention to this chapter.

Other stories were about Michael Phelps, AA, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Starbucks, football coach Tony Dungy, the Outkast song "Hey Ya!" and Rick Warren's church - they are all over the place and sometimes a little hard to tie to the main theme, but still interesting. Duhigg's definition of habit is pretty broad, but still useful in the context.

The appendix is sort of a "how-to" guide regarding breaking bad habits. The example is his own habit of buying and eating a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. He talked about the cues, the routine, the reward and identified other behaviors that would satisfy the same urge. It's a helpful exercise, though in my case mostly made me crave a chocolate chip cookie. (But then again, what doesn't?)

Other things I liked about this book: there's an index and extensive notes (the last 90 pages). I like when authors cite their sources and Duhigg is very conscientious about notes. He includes when there was conflicting information from his sources and when spokespeople (like for Target) refused to talk to him.   I wish I had the time to read through all the notes but I'm a stickler about getting books back to the library on time.

Fascinating on its own, The Power of Habit was also a great complement to other books about behavior that I've read, such as Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink and Do One Thing Different by Bill O'Hanlon which also emphasize the importance (and danger) of habits.

This would actually be a great book group pick. There's a lot to discuss and much more I kind of want to say, but I'll have to stop here. I need to go get a cookie.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I finished my Jack-in-the-Box Mittens over a week ago but didn't get a chance to take photos what with Thanksgiving and whatnot. I actually took the mittens and camera to Maine with me thinking that I'd take photos there, but I don't know who I think I was kidding. Anyhow, here they are.

Afterward I realized that the thumbs are obscured. Sorry. Someday I'll get the hang of this photography thing. Or at least won't be too lazy to retake photos. But that is the back of the flipped open one. Here's the front.

And a close up of what the opening looks like.

Here you can see the opening where your hand comes out of the bottom part, and the flip-top which, when closed, overlaps a bit with the bottom to keep everything snug. If you button it.

I had grand plans to go out yesterday for buttons but it was snowing, and though it looked mildly festive from inside it was actually rather unpleasant. But I scrounged around in my card catalog and found these buttons:

Those are actually the backs - the fronts are red/orange. These mittens are attended to go with a bluish scarf and these buttons may work. I can't really think of what color would be perfect - recently I've tended to want buttons that just completely blend in with the yarn, but that's rather boring, isn't it? These might be a little small but I'm sure I can tighten those already-messy button holes.

Next, according to my plan, is a hat to match these mittens. (Why do I keep wanting to type "kittens"?) Anyhow, hats have becoming quite vexing to me in recent years for some mystifying reason. They rarely come out right anymore, and now I'm stuck on just choosing a pattern. Ideal would be a hat with the same cable pattern as the mittens but I don't think that exists and I'm not about to try and figure out hat decreases in a complicated cable pattern. So I'll likely do something rather plain-ish.

In the meantime, next week I'll have an update on my Livingstone Cardigan. I bet you just can't wait.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Horns by Joe Hill (2010)
Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk, doing terrible things. When he wakes up in the morning he finds that his horrible hangover is accompanied by another strange by-product of his evening: a pair of horns growing out of his head. He soon finds the horns come with a strange power. Everyone he speaks to tells him their secret, private urges, whether he wants to hear them or not. As Ig tries to understand what has become of him, the reader learns about his past : his upbringing, how he fell in love with his girlfriend Merrin, and her violent murder, of which he was accused. As Ig falls deeper into the rabbit hole, so the reader falls with him becoming completely caught up in this twisted, tortured tale coming from one of the most talented writers of horror today.

Initially, I found the whole premise of this book a little ridiculous. But I kept hearing about how good it was and I'm so glad I finally folded and picked up a copy. It was strange and weird and a little creepy, and I never was able to predict where it was going.

For those of you unfamiliar with Joe Hill, you should know that his father is Stephen King, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Hill has a style all his own, but now and then I was reminded of King, perhaps by the sympathetic way the characters were portrayed - King is a master at character development and apparently that trait has been passed down to the next generation. I wanted the best for Ig, who was a decent guy - a very young guy, even - who really needed something good to happen to him. Although Ignatius was the one sprouting horns, he wasn't the real devil here and I loved every moment of that character's true nature coming to light.

Horns isn't a happy story, nor is it realistic (obviously), but if you're in the mood for some twisted fun you could do much worse. The movie is being filmed now, and stars Daniel Radcliffe as Ig, a casting choice which I think just might be brilliant.

Hill's collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, was fantastic and I liked the first volume of his graphic novel series Locke and Key, though the art style wasn't exactly to my taste. After also enjoying Horns a great deal, I might be hooked. Now I'm hoping to read Hill's previous novel Heart-Shaped Box, and I'll be looking out for the forthcoming NOS4A2.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Divergent by Veronica Roth (2012)

In Beatrice's city, people are divided into 5 factions: Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, and her own, Abnegation. All 16-year-olds must take an aptitude test to see which faction they are most suited for, and then choose a faction. Beatrice makes a difficult choice, but one that she believes is right. Along with the other teens who have chosen this faction, she must go through an initiation process that will test her in ways she could not have imagined. But Beatrice - now renamed Tris - is also hiding a secret, one that puts her life in grave danger.

I was fascinated by the idea of the factions. Each one embodies a particular quality that the members feel is most important and they take it to an extreme degree. Amity values peace, Candor honesty, Erudite knowledge, Dauntless courage, and Abnegation selflessness. Throughout the book, I couldn't help by think about which faction I would choose. It's really hard to pick ONE quality and forego all others: why can't I be both smart AND brave? Which I suppose is the whole problem with this setup.

Of course nothing is as clear-cut as the society leaders would like you to think, as per usual in a dystopia. Some factions have lost their way, and trouble is secretly brewing. I won't say anything more, because this mostly happens later in the book as setup for book two. (Did I mention this is a series? Did I even have to? Of course it is.)

Focusing on Tris's initiation is enough excitement for one book. The story is fast-paced, with a little bit of romance thrown in, and is just as compelling as any dystopia out there. If you liked The Hunger Games, this will likely appeal to you.

Every time I think I'm burned out on young adult dystopias, I read another one and get sucked in all over again. Divergent is no exception - I've been wanting to read it all year, and I'm so glad I finally did. I'm dying to know what's going on in some of the other factions, and outside of the city. I can't wait to get a copy of Insurgent!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ask the Passengers

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King (2012)

Astrid moved from the city to a small town with her family when she was 10 and her sister was 9. At 17, she still doesn't feel like she quite fits in, and now she has a big secret. She is falling for a girl she works with and can't tell anyone. She can't talk to her best friend, who is gay and will want to put her in a box when she still isn't quite sure if she fits there. She can't talk to her distant, perfectionist mother or her stoner father. So she spends hours in her backyard lying on the picnic table watching planes go by, sending all the passengers her love and asking them questions she doesn't feel comfortable asking anyone else. And she looks to Socrates for answers - Frank Socrates, who keeps popping up in the most unexpected places.

Short chapters revealed snippets of lives of the passengers flying above, an unexpected addition that worked well. I also love how King integrated a school project from Astrid's humanities class - The Socrates Project - which made her think a lot about her life and helped her work out her beliefs. Most young adult novels don't acknowledge the effects classes can have on teens' lives, and I loved that she included this.

Coming out stories aren't anything new, but unsurprisingly (if you've read A.S. King before), this was different and fresh and clever. Astrid was surrounded by people who wouldn't be upset that she was gay, but that wasn't the problem. The problem is that she didn't know yet and didn't want to be pressured to label herself so until she was ready so she had to hide her feelings (and her girlfriend). Additionally, her girlfriend Dee was very pushy, pressuring Astrid towards sex she wasn't ready for. So not only was Astrid confused about her sexuality, she was uncomfortable with the way her relationship was going.

Astrid's family is worthy of their own book about dysfunction. Her dad has an unsatisfying job and spends his free time smoking pot in the garage. Her mother is a workaholic who enjoys "Mommy and Me" evenings with Astrid's little sister Ellis, in which they dress up and go to a fancy restaurant and get drunk together. Ellis endures these bizarre outings because it's the only way to maintain a relationship with her mother and she's afraid of being left in the cold like Astrid, who their mother barely acknowledges anymore.

I pretty much ate this book. I read it in a day and it only took me that long because of pesky obligations like work. Here is my only problem with this author: as I read, I mark the pages I want to go back to later, pages with significant quotes, clever ideas, or funny moments. With A.S. King's books, going back to read what I've marked pretty much means re-reading the whole book. A.S. King, why must you be so awesome? Also, keep being awesome!

Ask the Passengers just came out, so go get yourself a copy now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Above All Things

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (2013)

In 1924, George Mallory embarked upon his third attempt to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. His past failures haunting him, he nonetheless pushed on, determined to succeed so he could finally be satisfied and return to his family. Meanwhile, his wife Ruth waited at home with the children, missing George terribly, regretting their argument about his leaving the family once again, and trying to endure his absence. Alternating between their stories, the historical novel followed George through his expedition on Everest, and Ruth through one day at home. The result is a beautifully rendered tale of love and obsession.

First off, this is a gorgeous cover, despite the beheaded lady, and it actually fits the story. But there is much to love inside the book as well. The 1920s are a fascinating period (and very trendy right now), but this is a different aspect of it than we usually experience. While Americans were enjoying jazz, making bathtub gin, and moving to Paris to write novels, George Mallory and his crew were embarking on this decidedly unglamorous and life-threatening quest. Somewhere I heard it described it as The Paris Wife meets Into Thin Air, and I think that's quite apt.

The chapters all had headings with some sort of measurement - for Ruth's chapters it was the time of day and for George's the altitude. The slow, measured pacing captured what each character was going through. Ruth struggled to get through the day, anxious for word from her husband, trying to fill her time to just make it go by so she'd be closer to his return. In the harsh climate of Everest, the thin air and freezing wind hindered every movement. Forced to climb at a slow, plodding pace, the climbers had to take great care since any false move could be their last. In both cases, the characters focused a great deal on their relationship and their pasts, not just the events at hand. George was haunted by his time in the war, being forced to recall some of the most unpleasant parts such as putting on an oxygen mask and being reminded of gas attacks.

I don't know how accurate the author's descriptions of climbing the mountain were, but they felt incredibly real to me. The biting cold, the brisk smell in one's nostrils, the crunch of snow underfoot, the stiffness of one's body after sleeping in a tent in a frigid climate. These scenes were beautifully contrasted with Ruth's experiences of domesticity back in England with the children.

Initially, I hard a difficult time getting into the novel because I simply wasn't in the mood for this sort of book, but Rideout's prose is captivating and the story hard to resist. I became so caught up in it that I read the final 150 pages in one evening, staying up late to finish.

I received this review copy as part of Penguin's First Flights program. Above All Things will be released in February 2013, which is why you probably haven't heard about it yet. But you will.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where We Belong

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin (2012), narrated by Orlagh Cassidy

Marian is 36, a successful tv producer in New York, and has an equally successful boyfriend. But despite appearances, not all is perfect in her life. One night, after an especially strained conversation with her boyfriend about their relationship, her doorbell rings. Expecting it to be Peter, Marian is startled to find instead an 18-year-old girl she's never seen before. Except that she has....and now Marian's world is forever changed. I'll leave it at that, so as not to ruin the plot for you.

Chapters alternate between Marian and teenaged Kirby, two very different lives and very different perspectives. The characters were well developed and easy to visualize. Although I sympathized with Marian in the early parts of the book, I unexpectedly began to dislike her more and more as it went on. I have no idea if this is intentional or if I was just feeling especially judgmental. But it didn't matter because I really liked Kirby so much it more than made up for it. (And Marian gained much of my respect back in the end, so it's all good.)

Giffin has delivered another great story and although it was somewhat, but not entirely predictable, it was immensely satisfying. Unlike a lot of chick lit books, there was little romance. All the good stuff was in flashbacks, which didn't lessen the effect at all. But that's mostly not what it was about. It was more about the choices you make and have to live with, how they affect others, and the importance of honesty. I've consistently liked all of Giffin's books (I've read all but one so far); she's not afraid to tackle difficult problems, and she does a great job of capturing all the subtleties of real life. She doesn't tie it all up neatly in a bundle at the end, but still draws each story to a satisfying conclusion and leaves her characters irrevocably changed for the better.

I make a point to listen to Emily Giffin's books on audio if possible. They are just the sort of books I enjoy that way, and this one was no exception. Although there were a few times I thought she slipped into another character's voice a bit, the overall experience was satisfying. And! It turns out I've listened to this narrator before, more than once. I really need to start paying attention to these things. Orlagh Cassidy also narrated Beth Harbison's Thin Rich Pretty, which I KNOW I enjoyed way more than I would have if I had read it in print. Even more surprisingly, she was responsible for the beautiful performance of The Piano Teacher. I would never have guessed, since that voice was so British and classy-like. It also wasn't the sort of book I usually listen to on audio, and I loved it. This makes me feel better about my next audiobook choice, a crime novel which is coincidentally also narrated by Cassidy. She is just everywhere.

Audio or not, if you've liked Giffin's other books - or chick lit at all - then surely you will like Where We Belong. It's one of her best.

Friday, November 16, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Mary Katherine Blackwood and her sister Constance live alone in their family's house. The rest of the family is dead. Mary Katherine, also called Merricat, narrates the strange story of their lives and how they came to be living by themselves, outcasts shunned by the villagers. It's a dark and strange story, told by a narrator who is obviously a bit off her rocker.

The plot is best revealed in Jackson's skillful way so I won't talk much about it here. The best thing about it is the creepy, gothic atmosphere. Merricat's eccentricity adds a great deal because we know she's not quite right but are dependent upon her to tell the story. She is a girl of ritual and superstition, going to town only on certain days, burying objects in the yard and nailing books to trees to ward off...I'm not even sure what. She also keeps saying she is not allowed to do certain things, but it's unclear why or who is not allowing her to do them.

Mary Katherine and Constance's relationship is strange and co-dependent. Constance never ever lets herself be seen by anyone from the village, although she seems a bit more down-to-earth than Mary Katherine. They are weirdly close, regularly telling each other how much they love each other and how happy they are. It's as though they just want to remain together, isolated from the world, for the rest of their lives. But Constance seems like she'd be happy to rejoin the world if it weren't for her vaguely-threatening sister. Creepy.

Every once in a while I'll read a book and desperately wish that I had written it, and this is one of those books. I can't explain why, except that it just the perfect combination of big old house, family secrets, sinister children, and mental illness. Oh, and a cat. Kind of a creepy cat, now that I think about it. Anyhow, it has all my favorite elements of a good story (lacking only a stern governess, which here would ruin the story.) I also wish I had read this for a book group, because I'd really like to discuss it with someone, particularly those bits that would be spoilers if I wrote about them here.

All around an excellent book. Have you read it? It's only about 150 pages, so it doesn't take long at all, and is absolutely worth it!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Long Walk

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) (1979)

Every year, 100 teenage boys gather at the most northern point in Maine to begin the Long Walk. They must stay on the road, keep moving at least 4 mph, and not interfere with each other. If they break the rules they get three warnings before getting a "ticket," a euphemism for being shot. They keep walking south, as far as it takes for there to be only one person left walking. That person is the winner.

Though it's a race to the death, all the participants are willing volunteers. Ray Garraty has joined the Walk this year, for reasons he never seems quite sure of. He also isn't convinced he'll win, especially after sizing up his competition. Yet he just keeps walking. Through his exhaustion, his pain, his doubts, his fear - what else can he do but continue to walk?

The novel focuses entirely on the event at hand, never stepping back to explain the big picture. What has happened in the world that this brutal race has come to exist? Why do people volunteer for it? What exactly are the Squads that keep being mentioned, and that took Ray Garraty's father away? A tiny bit is revealed: "In the old days, before the Change and the Squads, when there was still millionaires, they used to set up foundations and build libraries and all that good shit." The Long Walk must be just one strange element of a very different world, and I was dying to know in what other ways it differed from our own reality.

What I love about King's writing - and what makes it creepy or terrifying or exhilarating - is that he knows how to make us empathize with his characters. I don't know why Ray Garraty joined the Long Walk exactly, what his motivations were, whether or not they were noble, but he is real to me and I wanted things to turn out ok for him because he's a good guy, and nobody deserves to be shot in the middle of the road for getting a charley horse. It was sad when any of the walkers died, because I cared about them. Sometimes they cared about each other too, even though they were competing to the death. There were some incredibly powerful scenes in which one boy would help another, or they'd stick together in unexpected ways.

This isn't a supernatural book, but one of psychological endurance. That is horrifying enough. Living every moment of the Long Walk with Ray, as he gets to know the other participants, even befriending some of them, knowing that only one of them will live through it - well, it's fascinating and scary and expertly written. I'm sure it's just as powerful today as when it was first published in 1979. If you like Stephen King but missed this one, go back and read it - you'll be glad you did.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2008)

Disreputable History remains one of my favorite young adult novels, and Frankie may well be my favorite YA heroine. I already reviewed this book a little over a year ago, but since I just re-read it for my Not-So-Young Adult book group for work I thought I'd add a few thoughts.

I loved the concept of the panopticon, introduced early in the book. In her class "Cities, Art, and Protest," Frankie learned that architect Jeremy Bentham designed (but never built) a prison that would allow watchmen to see all the prisoners without them knowing whether or not they were being watched. This means they would constantly feel like they're being watched whether or not they actually were, and this paranoia would reduce the amount of actual watching needed. Michel Foucault applied this idea to Western society because so many of our institutions operate like a panopticon - hospitals, factories, offices, schools. Like Alabaster Prep. This concept became a theme throughout the novel, and was helpful to Frankie as she planned her mal-doings.

I think what struck me the most upon a second reading is just how calculating Frankie is. Planning large-scale pranks without anyone (including the participants) knowing who is behind them is a challenge that requires a fairly high level is scheming, of course. But holding together a relationship with the head of the organization you are undermining without appearing to be a clingy or bitchy girlfriend also requires careful planning. During several uncomfortable conversations with Matthew, Frankie thought about what she wanted, what he wanted, and how to get him to do what she wanted without feeling like he is being manipulated or pressured by his girlfriend. She thought about how pathetic girls somehow seemed around their boyfriends, and how transparent their desperation. A lot would go through Frankie's mind in the few seconds she had to formulate thoughts during a conversation.

In my earlier review, I mentioned Frankie's feminism, which is more nuanced upon a second reading. (And I should mention that my first "reading" was on audio, and therefore I probably missed a few things.) There is a scene in which Frankie's roommate Trish told her that she was uninterested in the exclusive boys' club parties, preferring instead to bake fruit crumbles. Although Trish was just doing what she preferred to do, Frankie was horrified that not only was Trish lessening the chances of continued invitations to these parties, but she was leading them to expect fresh dessert upon their return.  It's so easy to see how Frankie comes to these conclusions, yet she keeps being trapped by her own logic. She doesn't want to be manipulated by boys, and so makes decisions based not on what she wants, but on not wanting to be manipulated, which is of course just another type of manipulation. But Frankie is still a teenage girl, and despite her over-analysis of every situation, when Matthew compliments her "most of her simply felt happy that he had put his arm around her and told her he thought she was pretty."

Frankie was drawn to Matthew and his friends because their elite and moneyed status freed them from so many of the constraints that applied to others. Yet they're not nearly as smart as she is, nor as socially aware. Matthew criticizes Frankie for overthinking, and seems displeased when she acts unconventionally. As much as Frankie doesn't want to be "put into a box" by Matthew and his friends or do what they want her to do, she is desperate to be accepted by them, to be one of the boys. Because the male gender is more powerful in her view, she needs them to legitimize her as an equal. And although she can't accept the patriarchal status quo, her constant drive to shake things up contributes to her unhappiness. The more I think about it, Frankie's situation at Alabaster Prep is just a microcosm of feminism in society.

Oh dear. I appear to have written an academic treatise. There is a lot going on in this book, and a great deal of fodder for discussion and analysis. And still some people can't seem to take young adult fiction seriously. They don't know what they're missing!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I came very close to ripping out my Jack-in-the-box Mittens. My mood has been of the ripping-out sort recently, what with the Mottled Rib Sweater fiasco and that nameless sock I started and hadn't even gotten around to telling you about before frogging it completely. The Jack-in-the-box Mitten I started had been languishing in my knitting basket and I decided I needed to face it one way or the other.

Even when I started it, I wasn't crazy about the wrist ribbing pattern. Then as I went on, I realized the mitten isn't knit tightly enough to be as warm as I would like it. I had just about talked myself into trashing the project entirely when I pulled it out and realized that the first mitten was closer to being done than I remembered, so I spent an hour or so just finishing it and starting the second one.

Here's a close-up of the offensive ribbing.

It's a little fussy. I can't explain why I didn't just knit plain ribbing instead of what the pattern called for. Maybe I should make it a goal for 2013 to get out of my lazy mindset and actually modify a pattern rather than knit it as written and then complain about it.

One thing that saved this project for me - in addition to the fact that I was farther along on it than I had realized -is that I quite like the cable pattern.

Cables are just so satisfying, aren't they?

If I can get my nose out of a book for two seconds, I may actually finish this before Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Slender Thread

A Slender Thread by Katharine Davis (2010)

Margot and her older sister Lacey have always been close. From their early summer days at Bow Lake, through Margot's difficult marriage, Lacey has always been the strong older sister who helped Margot and cheered her on. But when Lacey is diagnosed with a form of dementia that will slowly rob her of the ability to use and understand language, the two women and their families must deal with her disease, as the slender threads that bind them together grow more and more taut.

Lacey has twin teenage daughters getting ready for college, and a loving husband named Alex. Margot and Lacey have known Alex since their childhood days at Bow Lake, and early in the book there are hints that Margot may once have had feelings for him. Now, Margot lives with Oliver, who is finding success as an artist. He wants to marry Margot but she is resistant because of her bad first marriage. It was then that she stopped making her own art, but now as her family struggles with Lacey's illness, Margot once again begins painting. Lacey is also an artist, but with fiber - she expresses her creativity through weaving beautiful tapestries.

The first couple of chapters felt a bit stiff and awkward, but I soon started getting into the story. I thought it would be about the disease, but it was mostly about how Lacey and her family dealt with the diagnosis and the ways it changed their lives. There are obvious ways, but also more subtle changes and tension in all of their relationships. We didn't ever get Lacey's perspective; most of the story was from Margot's view, but occasionally we got Oliver or Alex as well. There was a LOT of internal thought and reminiscing, especially Margot's thoughts about their long-ago summers at Bow Lake.

I had just a couple of minor annoyances, like Lacey's stubborn refusal to tell her daughters about her condition - a frequent plot-furthering device - and the way the characters kept putting off important conversations with silly excuses about being tired or whatnot. Also, Margot's insistence on dropping everything and rushing to be with her sister's family every time she thought they needed her, and then realizing she probably didn't need to, over and over again.

But it was a good story that became more engrossing as it went on. I liked how the characters were all so flawed but nobody was a villain. I liked how complicated it all was, going all the way back to Margot and Lacey's childhoods and how it affected them later, plus Margot's early marriage and its devastating consequences.

I also liked how art was so important to many of the characters. Lacey's weaving was something she hid behind but also a way of expressing herself, even more important as she began to lose language. Oliver's art career began taking off in a big way, and he started making some big life decisions because of it. Margot, who had stopped painting after living through a horrible marriage, began to take it up again. It brought home that a devastating diagnosis doesn't stop everything else - everyone affected has other things they think about and care about and focus on more than their own dramas.

This doesn't seem to be a well-know book (indeed, I hadn't heard of it until I received it as a gift) but those who enjoy domestic fiction will appreciate it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Shawls in progress never really look like much, but I'm going to show you mine anyhow.

It's going remarkably well, considering how much I dislike knitting lace.

The pattern begins by casting on 5 stitches and then each row increases the number of stitches until you end up with 467 stitches per row. This is all very poorly planned. When I start on a project I'm highly motivated and have lots of momentum, as I'm sure is true for most knitters, but as time wears on the project loses its novelty, the road beginning to feel long and arduous, until I'm limping toward the finish line wishing to just be put out of my misery. Having those last rows get longer and longer might do me in. Wouldn't it make more sense to cast on the 467 stitches to start with and then decrease so the rows get shorter as time moves on and our energy wanes? If I ever make a shawl again, I'll certainly look for one constructed that way.

Another thing I've learned about is nupps. I've heard of them before but had not made them. I noticed them in the pattern before I started and when I read the stitch guide at the beginning of the pattern, they looked simple enough. To make a nupp, which is like a little bobble, you just k, yo, k, yo, k all in one stitch. Well, that's easy enough! What the stitch guide doesn't mention up front, however, is that when you are on the next row and you come to that nupp, you need purl 5 stitches together. Let me say that again: purl 5 together. Let me tell you, I will never again complain about purling 3 together. Purling 5 stitches together requires not only great dexterity and the holding of one's breath, but apparently the consuming of an entire Manhattan. It also requires a tool, though I'm not sure exactly what - I've been using the pointy end of a metal stitch holder. You just need something smaller than the needles you're using in order to pull the yarn through those 5 stitches. A tiny crochet hook would probably work really well, if I had one, but I've managed to make do. Luckily, the nupps don't come often, but when they do there's a slew of them.

In summary, this project may be more difficult than I thought when I began. But it will look lovely if I can manage to bring it to completion.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (2012)

In her early 20s, Cheryl lost her mother to cancer. For several years afterward she was adrift, seemingly on a path of self-destruction. She had affairs, her marriage ended, she did some drugs. Finally, she decided that what she really needed was to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. Slightly unprepared, she set out on an amazing and difficult journey and lived to tell us all about it.

Strayed had a very close relationship with her mother. They went to the same college together, and transferred to a different college together. Just before graduation when her mother was dying, it was Cheryl - and not her other children - who stayed by her bedside. After her mother's death, Cheryl was understandably lost.

As she began her downward spiral into meaningless sex and drugs, I began to wonder if this might be one of those
memoirs in which people brag about their poor choices. But it wasn't - every bit of it was relevant background upon which she reflects during the most important part of the book, her long and arduous hike.

Wearing hiking boots in the wrong size and carrying a hopelessly heavy backpack (nicknamed "Monster"), Cheryl got on the trail. Despite a few mistakes (like bringing the wrong kind of fuel for her stove) and a noticeable lack of training, she wasn't completely stupid. She had a good trail guide that she followed religiously and had packed what she needed (and then some), and carefully planned her route, mailing resupply packages to herself that she would pick up along the way. When things went wrong - like having to skip impassable parts of the trail - she didn't back down. She figured things out and moved on, sometimes with a little help from strangers or new friends she met along the trail.

When she thought she couldn't go on, she just pushed ahead anyhow. I mean, there's little choice when you're in the middle of the woods, but every time she went through a town was an opportunity to give up and she didn't. Even though she seemed perpetually starving and out of money, even though at one point she ended up lost and wearing booties made of duct tape, she didn't give up. If you have an experience like this at the age of 26, what in life could ever seem insurmountable again?

Throughout the book I was struck by the kindness of strangers, the camaraderie between hikers on the trail, and surreal moments of beauty, such as the night Cheryl awoke to find herself covered in tiny frogs. But most striking of all was her strength and tenacity, her sheer will to do this thing, to prove to herself that she was strong and that she could change her life for the better. Truly an inspiring memoir.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Unwind by Neal Shusterman (2007)
The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights, and after it was over both sides agreed to a compromise. Life was to be considered sacred from conception until the age of thirteen. At this point, parents could choose to retroactively terminate the pregnancy by having their child "unwound" and all of his or her body parts donated. It is into this world that Connor, Risa, and Lev were born. Connor has started too many fights and has been too much trouble to his parents. Risa is a ward of the state and the home has gotten too full. Lev has known from birth that he would be unwound, because he's a tithe from his parents to the church. When one of them decides to go AWOL, all three are thrown together to face their futures.

The premise of the novel is a bit hard to swallow, but after hearing my coworker talk about it at a YA Crossover Booktalk that we did at the library, I had to try it. Maybe certain aspects of their society aren't fleshed out enough, and the motivations of the parents are difficult to understand, but that was more than made up for by the fast-paced plot, likeable characters, and one especially disturbing scene that was awesome and nightmarish at the same time. (Actually, I think it may have been the mention of this scene that really made me want to read it, and it did not disappoint.) In addition to the main characters were Roland, a terrifying bully, and CyFi, a teenager with part of an unwind's brain, and let me tell you THAT is not something that goes as smoothly as everyone in this world would have you believe. A possibly-trustworthy adult character, The Admiral, has a great back story that is revealed slowly near the end and provides some much-needed hope for humanity.

The plot includes strangers forging alliances in a society that breeds mistrust, friendship and betrayal, fear of authority, and some screwed up relationships between generations. Though the Bill of Life is supposed to make life more scared, in fact it just cheapens it. Unwinding isn't considered dying, but living in a divided state and most people refuse to discuss what that means, and what the process of unwinding actually involves. Are the unwound kids still alive in some way? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Just recently I remarked to someone that I was getting a little burnt out on dystopias, but apparently that's not the case. I'm also very happy to say that even though this is a planned trilogy (isn't everything?), Unwind works very well as a standalone. If you like that genre at all, I think it's a very good choice!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Boston Book Festival

In lieu of any interesting knitting news to share, instead I'll tell you about my day yesterday at the Boston Book Festival. This is my second year attending this free event and once again it did not disappoint. If any of you are in the Boston area - or have a friend in the area who will let you crash on their couch - you should absolutely plan on attending next fall.

Here are the sessions I attended yesterday:

Lemony Snicket!

Daniel Handler is not just a great writer, but a fantastic performer. This (not surprisingly packed) event was staged as a secret meeting with an agenda that included items like "dance the carioca" which Handler sternly informed us we would not in fact be doing. One of the first agenda items was to apologize for the absence of Lemony Snicket himself, which was explained in a rather hilarious manner by Handler pulling in a glass-enclosed creative which he waved about wildly while running through the audience thrusting it into the faces of unsuspecting spectators while shouting things like "this terrible creature!" and "enormous teeth!" and so on.

He read from his new book Who Could That Be At This Hour? and even played the accordion and sang. At the end he again apologized for the absence of Lemony Snicket and hurriedly said "I'm sorry it's been so disappointing!" while running from the room. He really is his books personified.

That's an opening event that's hard to top!

Great Brits and Books

Considerably more sedate, this event also had a full house, forcing me to sit on an uncomfortable bench near the door so it was a bit hard to hear the speakers over the outside noise. There were four panelists who discussed Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J.M. Barrie and Victorian literature in general. They talked about the appeal of Jane Austen, one professor remarking that those signing up for a class in Austen usually have already read her books and know more about her than the professor does. They also discussed perceptions about Dickens, the serialization of his work, and his views on America. The Barrie expert talked a bit about how Peter Pan can be read on different levels and means much more than we think as children, which rather made me want to read it. This was the only event I attended that didn't involve any actual authors, but the subject matter was appealing and I liked it despite not being able to hear quite everything from the back of the room.

Alexander McCall Smith

Author of several series including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, McCall Smith is one of those infuriating jack-of-all-trades like Steve Martin, who seem to have been unfairly dealt far too many talents while too many of us are completely talent-impoverished. McCall Smith is an author, doctor, bioethicist, and bassoonist. Oh yes, and he also wrote an opera. (Host Robin Young of NPR responded "Of course you did" which I think summed up what we were all thinking.) McCall Smith is funny and engaging, able to go on and on at length about pretty much anything and is completely enjoyable to listen to.

His newest novel, just released in the past few days, is from the Isabel Dalhousie series. I haven't read any of these - in fact I've only read a couple from the No. 1 Ladies, which I quite enjoyed - but I'm intrigued by the character of Isabel and may try one of these. This latest novel, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, centers around an art theft. Young and McCall Smith had an interesting conversation about art theft (which, she reminded him, Bostonians can be a bit sensitive about) and the retrieval of stolen art, and the difference between a reward and a ransom. They also discussed nationalism, the difficulty of writing multiple series at once, characters who don't age, and various other interesting topics. I had no idea how prolific he is, publishing 5 or 6 novels per year, so let's hope he doesn't go the way of certain of authors I know who don't even write their own books anymore. (Also, when is HBO going to do another season of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency?)

YA: The Future is Now

As I was just getting over a cold, I was pretty tired by late afternoon and considered skipping the last time slot in favor of a nap at home, but no way could I pass up this panel discussion on Young Adult dystopias.

Moderated by M.T. Anderson (author of Feed), the panel also included Gabrielle Zevin, Cory Doctorw, and Rachel Cohn. I was thinking I hadn't read much by any of these authors, but in addition to Feed I've read Zevin's Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and three books by Cohn: Gingerbread, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Dash and Lily's Book of Dares. I haven't read anything by Doctorow yet, but now I might.

They talked about the rise of dystopia, its appeal, why it has special appeal to teenagers, whether or not their books have a message and whether or not they should, and a variety of other topics. Cory Doctorow, who is a proponent of information sharing, brought up a fascinating study in Britain. In a low income housing development, one group of residents was given free internet access and then later several factors indicative of quality of life were compared to the non-internet residents. Those who had internet access had better jobs, were more likely to go to college, were in better health - it was really quite amazing. What a great reminder of how directly people's lives are affected by access to information.

What about you? Did any of you make it to the Boston Book Festival? Or do you live in another city with a similar event?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Twelve

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (2012)

In Justin Cronin's sequel to The Passage, we rejoin survivors of an apocalyptic United States in which a virus has turned people into vampire-like creatures. Like its predecessor, The Twelve moves between Year Zero - immediately after the outbreak - to a time almost 100 years later. We meet some new characters, including one who was just briefly mentioned in the first book as "Last Stand in Denver." There is also the strange and traumatized Lila, who lives in her past, refusing to accept reality. April is a teenaged girl just trying to save her little brother. Guilder is one of the bureaucrats responsible for Project NOAH which created the whole problem in the first place. Very interesting characters added to the already complex mix, and some major plot developments that I won't go into at the risk of spoiling the fun.

It seems like so long ago that I read The Passage, and it was difficult to remember all of the plots and characters, and on top of that there were some new folks to add in. The day after the book was released I saw Justin Cronin speak (which was so awesome!) and he talked about how the second book in a trilogy tends to be the weak one and that he dealt with that by adding in all the new characters and slightly shifting the overall paradigm of the story. I would have to say that it worked.

I know I missed some things and I'm sure it would have been even better had I read both books in a row. Wikipedia helped. Bookmarking pages that seemed important and then referring to them later also helped. In my fantasy world, when the third book comes out I will read all three of them in a row so I won't have this problem at all. But I found The Twelve so compelling, and even when I was unsure about where I last saw a particular character or couldn't remember something important from the first book, I still couldn't help but keep going.

At this point I really want to share how ridiculous the criticisms of the book are in the reviews I've read, but I won't waste the space with my ranting. (Just like those reviewers didn't waste their time actually reading the book. I'll stop now.) I'll admit that I didn't love it as much as The Passage. The second book in a trilogy just can't be as good as the first - it's not possible. In the first book you're introduced to a new world and it's characters and by the second book that's not new and surprising anymore. But Cronin has done a great job of continuing that story and keeping it exciting. I can't wait to see how he's going to end this trilogy.