Tuesday, May 29, 2012


11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

Jake Epping is a divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine who learns about a door to the past - to a particular day in 1958 - and decides to use it to prevent JFK's assassination. Since that doesn't happen until 1963, he has some time to make a life for himself as he follows Lee Harvey Oswald's path towards that fateful day. Jack gets a job as a teacher, makes friends, and falls in love. He also learns that the past is obdurate - it doesn't like to be changed. He faces many obstacles to his goals, as well as strange coincidences that he is convinced aren't actually coincidental at all.

After finishing this book, I felt like I'd just returned from a long and harrowing trip. It wasn't as harrowing as Jake Epping's trip from 2011 to 1958, but just watching him was quite exhausting (plus I had to turn every one of those 849 pages.) This was a long freaking book, but not unnecessarily; there was a lot of story. Before undertaking the JFK trip, he tried to change a smaller event, just to see if it would work and how it would affect 2011. Then he returned to 1958 for the long haul.

I liked the parameters of time travel as Stephen King created them. Epping used his first trip to prevent a family from being murdered, but when he went back a second time everything was reset. So he had to prevent that murder again before moving on to his JFK project. It makes sense. Interestingly, every trip through the time travel portal was only two minutes in 2011. So after spending 5 years in an earlier time, Jake returned to 2011 and went home and fed his cat who probably didn't even miss him yet.

For those of you who avoid Stephen King books because you don't like horror, take note that this is not a horror novel. It's pretty straight fiction with a little history thrown in, and a love story. The romance between Jake and school librarian Sadie Dunhill was a major focal point of the story. Certain events conspired to draw Jake away from his intended purpose and there were moments I thought this book would go in a direction I was most unhappy about, but it didn't, and that's all I'll say about that. I was very satisfied with the ending.

Although it took me a while to get into, I was soon so engrossed in this book that I wanted to just sit at my desk and read all day at work. (If only that was actually what librarians do!) King has such a gift for getting us inside his characters' heads, and in many cases that is terrifying, but in 11/22/63 it was just incredibly compelling. I tend to shy away from long time-consuming books, but this story was worth every moment.

P.S. Did you know that Stephen King is working on a sequel to The Shining? OMG!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Knitting - Coraline

Yesterday I got dressed up all in jeans and wool and went out into the 85 degree day to get pictures of my long-awaited (by me anyhow) Coraline cardigan.

The back

And a close up of the smocking and buttons.

Some quick stats:

The pattern is Coraline by Ysolda Teague
The yarn is Queensland Collection Rustic Wool DK
I used needles sized 3 and 4
I started in late September, which made this an 8-month project for no good reason.

In addition to coming up with beautiful designs, Ysolda is a very meticulous writer of patterns. Not only does she provide the largest range of sizes of any designer I know of, but her patterns are very clear and detailed. Although she has been published in magazines from Knitty to Interweave Knits, she primarily sells her patterns directly and manages to cobble together a living from knitting. All this to say, this was a nice pattern!

I liked the yarn as well. It's so hard to find DK weight yarns that don't break the bank and this was fairly pricy if I remember clearly, but it was worth it for the color alone. After blocking, this sweater is every bit as soft and drapey as I had hoped. One of the balls was a bit defective as it had several knots - technically you can return it when that's the case, but who's going to rip out all that work? Luckily, out of the 11 balls of yarn I bought, the others were all fine. (I actually have 3 partial balls left, probably equal to about 2 full balls.)

My gauge was a bit off, despite swatching before I started and getting correct gauge (but we all know how swatches lie) so I was bit worried because the smocking requires accurate row gauge. However, the stars aligned and it came out perfectly.

The only part I'm not happy with is the button loops, but you can't see them (thank goodness.) I have a vague plan to redo them, but knowing myself as I do it seems unlikely to actually happen. This is ok because they're not visible. These are the instructions, if you're curious. I used 2 plies of yarn as thread but I think it was a little too slippery and moved around and looks very messy. If I were to do it over, I'd try to find matching embroidery thread.

The only thing I changed was to use fewer buttons, just because mine are larger than she used on the original. I felt lucky to find buttons in that color, never mind finding the exact size I wanted. I did something a little different on the hem as well, unintentionally, but that was so long ago now that I don't even remember what. I remember being concerned about it, but it looks fine now.

All in all, a success! I look forward to wearing it a lot next fall and winter.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Help me choose some summer reading

There are a few authors I want to re-visit so I think I'm going to try and read another book by each of these authors this summer. But which books should I pick?

Maggie O'Farrell - I've read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Penny Vincenzi - I've read Sheer Abandon

Sarah Waters - I've read The Little Stranger and Tipping the Velvet. I'm thinking of reading Fingersmith next.

Have you read any of these authors? What do you recommend I read next from each of them?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In One Person

In One Person by John Irving (2012)

Billy is raised by a single mother in the small town of First Sister, Vermont. As he grows up, he begins to have what he calls "crushes on the wrong people," such as a guy on the high school wrestling team and the local transgendered librarian. Spanning the better part of Billy's life from childhood into his sixties, the novel weaves a complicated tapestry of Billy's life and relationships and features a large and colorful cast of characters. 

This is actually a tough story to describe. There's not really a plot, but many threads of stories about Billy's family, his missing father, his friendship with Elaine, his romantic relationships, and his obsession with the wrestler Kittredge. Much of it seemed comically exaggerated and outlandish, which makes it all rather unbelievable, but fairly entertaining. The narrator is prone to melodrama (and can be annoyingly whiny), yet is fairly flip about serious things like a second-hand story he hears of a woman seducing her own teenaged son. The most prominent characters, Billy and Elaine, didn't develop much over the course of the novel and even in their later years I kept picturing them both as I pictured them in high school. They spoke and acted the same as they did when they were younger and I had to keep reminding myself that many years had passed.

I feel a bit conflicted about this novel. On the one hand, I want to complain that it's unrealistic for a small town in Vermont to contain so many people who are gay, trans, or cross-dressers. But on the other hand, once I got into the story - and it did take a bit - I was quite content keep reading and reading it in every spare moment I had. Although at times it felt like a lesson in tolerance and AIDS-awareness, I couldn't help but enjoy the humor and the quirky characters. 

More than anything, reading In One Person has made me want to go back and read - and re-read- older John Irving novels. I loved some of his earlier works and although this isn't nearly as good as The World According to Garp or Cider House Rules, it did remind me why I like Irving so much.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Knitting

This month's bus knitting is another sock.

I bought some Regia self-striping yarn so I could knit socks that don't require concentration but still look interesting. Regia is a pretty sturdy yarn, so these should hold up well.

I'm using the same size needles and same number of stitches as some other stockinette socks I've made, but I just tried this on and it's a little tight. I'll wait until after the heel and try it on again - if I have to restart it I will, but I think it should be ok. I wonder if I'm knitting with a tighter gauge these days?

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I2 by James Bannon (2011)

Dr. Edward Frame is hard at work on a bio-software program that can upload and store a person's memories when he learns that he has terminal cancer. He turns to his coworker Samantha, with whom he has been having an affair, and they hatch a plan to store his memories and download them into a baby she will have, giving him a second chance at life. But all does not go according to plan, and when Edward awakes in his new infant form he realizes that his mother is not Samantha, but Clara - his wife. Even worse, Clara is now married to a former colleague of Edward's, who is ruining their business. Trapped in the body of a child, Edward (now called Adam) struggles to reconcile the person he once was with this new person, leading him towards self-destructive behavior as he continues to put together the pieces of what happened to Samantha and how he can ever rectify his situation.

The narrative style at times reminded me of Frankenstein. It's told in first person but far in the future with that same ominous tone we heard from Dr. Frankenstein as he waited for his monster to catch up to him. Sometimes it reminded me of The Time Traveler's Wife, I think because Edward Frame was trapped so helplessly in a body that wasn't cooperating with him. (Can you imagine having all your thoughts and memories but being a toddler to the rest of the world?)

Bannon doesn't shy away from the more uncomfortable or brutal aspects of this story, and I have no doubt this novel would have been edited into submissiveness had it not been self-published. Speaking of which, had I not known it was self-published I wouldn't have guessed - this is a well put-together and polished work. 

Dark and strange, this novel has gotten very little attention aside from a starred review in Kirkus which characterized it as "mind-blowing." It's certainly different from anything I've read before, but I found it satisfying from beginning to end - a pretty quick trip since it was so hard to put down.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Here's how I've spent my bus commute for the past month or so:

This is the first of 3 skeins of practical-colored sock yarn I purchased at Windsor Button recently after finishing my decidedly-impractical bright orange socks (which, incidentally, I *have* been wearing.)

These socks are the Twin Rib pattern from my go-to sock book, Sensational Knitted Socks. Here's a close-up of the rib pattern.

The problem with practical-colored socks is that they are hard to photograph. The next pair, which I've already begun, will be just as problematic.

I used size 0 needles, but forgot to double-strand the heels for extra reinforcement. At least the yarn has a good amount of nylon content for extra strength (it's my new favorite - Cascade Heritage). I need to write myself a note to remind me to double-strand the heels on the sock I've just begun. This needs to become a habit!

My bus knitting is part of my plan to catch up on socks over the summer so I'll be fully stocked come fall. I failed at this last year, but then I was walking to work and then when I got a new job, driving. Now I can just knit away on a simple pattern while listening to audiobooks or podcasts. It's working very well so far! I'm afraid I won't have any very complicated socks to show off anytime soon though, as reading charts is too difficult on a bus (not to mention nausea-inducing.) The other part of my summer sock plan is catching up on darning - I mended 3 pairs of socks last night, and now just have 3 more pairs to go!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010)

In the rural English town of Edgecomb St. Mary lives a retired Major, stodgy and traditional, who above all cherishes the set of Churchill shotguns passed down from his grandfather, one residing with him and other with his brother Bertie. When the novel opens, Major Pettigrew has just learned of his brother's death. Though grieving, he can't help but feel relieved that his father's guns will once again be reunited, but he soon faces resistance from his brother's widow and his own son. As his family drama unfolds, Major Pettigrew's newly-formed friendship with Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Ali is heading towards romance, to the chagrin of many uptight relatives and villagers. Meanwhile, a local landowner is brewing up a plan that could forever change the peaceful village they all call home.

The budding relationship between the Major and Mrs. Ali is the focal point of the novel, and sparks a bit of racial tension. Though Mrs. Ali was born in England and has lived in the village for decades, she is still not quite accepted, the other townspeople maintaining a polite but distant attitude. Their love story was touching not only for it's slightly scandalous nature, but also because of their age. Both widowed, the two seemed to find a particular freedom in their second chance at love, despite the discomfort of their families. 

Permeating the novel is the tension between tradition and change that create friction between Major Pettigrew and his son Roger, between the local hunters and animal rights protestors, and the residents and developers. The community was so attached to their traditional ways, I didn't even realize this was set in present day until someone surprised me by pulling out a cell phone. But it was so charming, the way everyone knew each other's business and they all put on aristocratic airs and tried to impress each other at their hunting parties.

I loved pretty much everything about this book. I want Major Pettigrew to be my uncle so we can have tea every Sunday and talk about what the world is coming to and how young people don't appreciate tradition and civility anymore. (This is similar to how I want to live in Pride and Prejudice and end up marrying Colin Firth.) I loved the clashing of tradition with Roger's flashy wealth and city ways. I loved how torn Major Pettigrew felt between seeking the approval of the distinguished local men and wanting to pursue the love of Mrs. Ali. And of course I loved how he was introduced as such a stiff traditionalist and ended up being the one challenging others' notions of what is proper and acceptable. It was a such a pleasure spending time with Major Pettigrew and all the colorful characters residing in Edgecomb St. Mary. I think I'd like to visit again sometime.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Half-Life of Planets

The Half-Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin (2010)

"Slut." This is the note Liana found in her locker one day, and the reason she has decided to give up kissing. She continues to obsess over the note, and her own behavior, every moment that she's not busy in the science lab. But then she becomes distracted by an unusual boy named Hank. Hank has his own obsession - music. He will steer any conversation towards music, no matter what it was originally about. This is what happens when he first meets Liana in the women's bathroom of the hospital after spilling coffee on his lap and rushing through the wrong door. Both are surprised when they strike up a friendship that seems headed towards romance. Liana is torn between her attraction to Hank and her kissing moratorium. Hank, who has Asperger's syndrome, is completely unused to positive attention from girls. There is just no way this is going to go smoothly.

Chapters alternated between Liana and Hank, the two authors assuring distinct voices for each character. While I was sympathetic to Liana and liked her well enough, Hank stood out as the far more interesting character. He was quirky yet charming, embarrassingly awkward but selfless and kind. He always meant well, so even the times he screwed up weren't intentional and it was impossible to be mad at him. Both characters were outcasts in different ways, and watching how they navigated a relationship together was funny and sweet.

There were a few awkward spots in Liana's chapters, which detracted slightly from the story. At one point her parents tried to have a serious conversation with her and she kept interrupting and finishing their sentences. But they didn't correct her, just moved on to another topic, and it felt fake. Later when Liana met up with her mother and learned what they were trying to tell her, she again just diverted the conversation towards her own problems, not asking the obvious follow-up questions to the news. During these scenes I kept picturing her parents sitting quietly like cardboard cutouts while Liana controlled the conversation.

Other than those two scenes, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. It was a refreshing break from the steady diet of dystopias and the undead that young adult literature provides these days, and I really enjoyed watching a regular, and very sweet, relationship develop between two fairly-normal human teenagers. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I'm working on what may be the most poorly written pattern ever.

That's probably an exaggeration, yet it's been a while since I've been so flummoxed by what should be a fairly simple set of directions.

This is a top-down raglan baby sweater, with a simple cable running down each side of the front. There's a garter edge and although the "notes" section specifically says to always knit the first and last stitches in the row, those instructions are repeated for most rows, except one, so of course I forgot to knit those and that was the first time I had to rip back.

That's not even the bad part of the pattern though, just a slight inconsistency. The part that I find truly aggravating is the cable pattern. There is no chart, which is unfortunate enough for a visually-oriented person like me, but the written instructions are somewhat maddening. They are thus:

Row 1 and all WS rows: k2, p8, k2
Rows 2, 6, 8, 12, 14, and 16: p2, k8, p2
Rows 4 and 10: p2, sl 4 sts to cn and hold in back, k4, k4 from cn, p2
Row 18: Rep Row 2

Now. I'm knitting along and every time I get to the cable part I need to hunt through the pattern to find the row I'm on and then follow those instructions. Not only did I not have a good idea of the overall shape of the thing without a chart, but for some reason all this hunting and pecking made me think there were fewer than 18 rows in the repeat so I started the second repeat too early and that's the second time I had to rip back. (I realize it's my fault for not reading through the pattern closely, but honestly I was at a knitting group where I was new and trying to meet new people. My attention was divided. That's why I chose such a "simple" pattern to work on.)

After the second ripping back, I got a piece of graph paper and charted the stupid thing so I had an idea of what it should look like. This is when I realized how simple the cable pattern is. Looking at it on the right side it's always 2 purls, 8 knits, 2 purls except for the two times that you do a cable cross, in rows 4 and 10.

Row 1 and all WS rows: k2, p8, k2
Row 2 and all RS rows EXCEPT 4 and 10: p2, k8, p2
Rows 4 and 10: p2, sl 4 sts to cn and hold in back, k4, k4 from cn, p2

That is all. Look closely at the first and fourth lines of their cable instructions. I actually went online to find out if there was an errata for this pattern, hoping that would explain why they found it necessary to list Row 18 separately when it is the same as the other 6 rows grouped together above.

Despite my setbacks, it's beginning to shape up a little.

I am probably overthinking this whole thing, and honestly it wouldn't bother me so much, especially for a free pattern, except this pattern is from Interweave Knits. They should know better. Some of the problems I've had are clearly due to my own inattention, but come on IK, at least meet me half way.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Forever (Wolves of Mercy Falls #3) by Maggie Stiefvater 2011)

This is the third and final book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series.  My reviews of the first two books are here and here.

Things are looking ever worse for the Mercy Falls wolves. A young woman is found dead in the woods and this becomes the last straw for Tom Culpepper and the other wolf-haters who soon secure permission to exterminate the wolves.  Meanwhile, our friends Sam, Grace, Cole, and Isabel are hatching a plan to move the wolves to safety. They find an unlikely ally and together try to save the wolves once and for all.

Sam and Grace continue their lovefest now that Grace is a wolf and hiding from her parents. While in human form she is staying with Sam at Beck's house. Because of her limited contact with her parents, I found their relationship easier to endure now that they weren't constantly trying to convince other people of how serious they are.

There is an extra element of danger and risk now that Grace is also a wolf. But Cole continues to work on his scientific experiments to try and overcome whatever it is that controls shifting from one form to another, which he is convinced is something other than temperature. This was never completely clarified for me and was one of many unresolved threads in the story. 

I found this book merely ok, mostly because of the lack of resolution. But overall, I found the series pretty good. The audiobooks were a bit uneven as a couple of the readers changed from one book to the next, but that's a minor quibble, and in the case of Sam it was definitely an improvement.

For a young adult series, the pacing was relaxed and the story contained more internal dialogue than usual. Not too much - definitely not enough to be boring - but the storytelling was a slight stylistic departure from many young adult novels. What I liked most were Stiefvater's werewolves. I just liked how it worked in this world, and I liked the pack dynamics, Sam's history, and how that all fit into the larger story. I'm not sure how I got from feeling caught up in Sam and Grace's romance to rolling my eyes at them, but I think that could have been improved in a couple of ways. For one thing, this series took itself slightly too seriously - and I may be biased because I think humor improves pretty much everything. Secondly, I wish it had been wrapped up more in the end. This didn't feel like the last novel in the series, it just felt like a continuation of the middle book. I don't feel like the wolves are safe once and for all, and I don't know how Sam and Grace will continue on their relationship given the states of their wolfishness. 

Overall, I thought this series was good, but not great. Did anyone read this and love it? Please tell me what you loved most about it!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Writing

On Writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King (2000)

I've heard many great things about this book over the years, but was 
finally inspired to pick it up after reading Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car, a short piece about her writing which made me curious about how other writers approach their craft. (Also, I just wanted to read something by King and there were no library copies of 11/22/63 available.) In the book, King describes his early life, how he started writing, his career trajectory, and the accident that almost took his life in the summer of 1999. 

Having read many of his novels and short stories over the years, I really loved reading his thoughts about his own writing. The background stories were really interesting, such as the two unpopular girls in high school who inspired the title character in Carrie, but also he wrote a lot about what did and didn't work in his novels. I love that he is so candid about the lesser of his books. Rose Madder and Insomnia are two that he mentioned as being sub-par; I've never read either of them, and now am more likely not to. On the other hand, I'm now interested in Bag of Bones based on his thoughts about writing it successfully.

His advice ranges from the specific to the broad. "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." King gives examples of poor adverb use as well as other grammatical problems. He also offers advice on creating multi-dimensional minor characters, saying "...in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character..." It sounds obvious when he said it, but it hadn't occurred to me before (but then again, I'm not a writer.) 

Perhaps his broadest (and I have to think, most helpful) advice is to write with the door closed, but then rewrite with the door open. King always writes his first draft without showing any of it to anybody until it's done. When he goes back to rewrite, that is the time to let other people have a look. For this reason, he isn't fond of writing classes where students weigh in with their opinions early. Everyone will have something different to say, and who do you listen to? According to King, while you're still writing you should just listen to yourself.

His first reader is always his wife Tabitha. One thing about this book that struck me is the depth of his affection for her. Again and again he says how important she is to his writing, and to every aspect of his life for that matter. Maybe it's just because he's known for focusing on the darker aspects of the human psyche, but the importance of his marriage stood out to me as I was reading. It's nice to know that people who have been married for decades can still appreciate each other so much. 

I think what makes this book so unique is how open and candid King is about his process, something many writers seem reluctant to reveal. He tells us how many drafts he writes, where he writes, and his schedule for a typical day. Along with the biographical parts of the book, it paints a fairly full picture of an author who I have long admired.