Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Knitting

And so completes my knitting/darning goal to be reached by fall. The socks that needed repair have all been darned, and now all the yarn I bought in the spring has become socks. I was holding out on wearing socks until these were done, but after the events of Friday night (a cold and rainy evening from which my ballet flats may never recover) I caved yesterday and wore some damn socks. And the world didn't end, and I still finished my final sock just hours later. They're nice. I like them.

This is the Ribbed Lace Socks pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, the only sock book I apparently ever need. The yarn is my new favorite, Cascade Heritage, in a color reminiscent of the ocean as viewed from a lobster boat in Maine when it is cold and choppy and somewhat miserable out. I have no idea where that childhood memory just came from. But that's the definitely the color.

I have practically no projects now. Oh sure, there's that "Mottled Rib Sweater" that keeps mocking me from the sidebar, but the reality of that is that it's in a bag tucked away in a hutch upstairs because I don't know if I'm knitting the right size and I've apparently forgotten how to figure out for sure. The first Jack-in-the-Box mitten is almost done but to be honest, it's off-white and that's boring so I've lost interest for the moment.

During a bright spot today I cast on for a purple shawl and knit around 14 rows before I realized that I only had 2 balls of yarn and the pattern requires at least 3. I can't for the life of me figure out why I'd buy 850 yards of yarn for a shawl that clearly requires 1250 yards so I convinced myself there must be another ball around and just went through my entire stash. There is no third ball. What I am going to do with 850 yds of purple lace weight yarn? Also, why I don't I have 400 yards of worsted weight yarn in my stash for the cowl pattern I just saw in Interweave Knits and am dying to cast on for? All my leftover yarn appears to be sock yarn, but I'm certain I've knit projects with other kinds of yarn and didn't use every last inch of it.

Well, believe you me I will figure out something I can make with yarn that is in my house and I will cast on for something I can show you next week.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Losers in Space

Losers in Space by John Barnes (2012)

In 2129, celebrity is more important than anything. So important, in fact, that horrible crimes can be excused if there is overriding media interest. Susan and her peer group, not exactly friends, are the children of celebrities but themselves are unpopular and hopeless. Her kind-of-boyfriend Derlock concocts a plan for all of them to stow away on a ship to Mars, thus increasing their celebrity ratings. But little do they know what he actually has planned...

Told in first person from Susan's point of view, each chapter begins with the kids' location in space - how many kilometers they are from Earth and from Mars. There are also diagrams showing the orbits of Earth, Mars, and the ship Virgo. The author also included frequent "Notes for the interested," his solution for the info dumps that so frequently interrupt the flow of science fiction stories. His idea is that you can read these notes if you want to understand the science, or skip them if you want to stick to the story. I read them, but didn't always completely understand. (Then again, I don't think I've ever gotten higher than a C in a science class in my life.)

There were many awesome things about this book. First of all, science! A teacher could totally sneak this into a curriculum and trick students into learning things. Putting it into the context of a story makes it seem more real than the abstract theories we learned in school. It's also fantastic to just see more hard science fiction. If you read a million book reviews as I do, you'll notice that the "science fiction/fantasy" sections of the review journals are about 95% fantasy. It's so refreshing to see actual science fiction out there.

But aside from all the science-y factors, this is a great story about friendship. Most of these kids weren't real friends before their adventure, but more like casual acquaintances. One exception is Susan and Fleeta, who were close friends until Fleeta start using the drug happistuf, which destroyed her brain. She's still nice, but not the same person she used to be. A complicating factor in their society is that everyone is pretty much on a reality show, so friendships tend to contain a lot of drama just for ratings. Near the beginning of the trip, Susan and Emerald talk about how if they had been friends before, their rivalry and reconciliations would have been great for the "meeds" (media feeds.) However, floating around in space, they are not only somewhat insulated from the media, but they also must depend on each other like they've never had to before.

Their adventure in space is fraught with danger and tension as the group tries to survive. Just imagine a bunch of teenagers who have never needed to be responsible for anything suddenly in charge of a spaceship and needing to somehow manufacture their own rescue. Now imagine if one of them has a brain partially destroyed by happistuf and can barely take care of herself. And another is too emotionally crippled to think clearly or do much of anything except cry and feel depressed. And then another manages to betray them all in a way that appears to make rescue impossible. As if that wasn't enough, they all have to figure out how to take care of an illegally engineered pink elephant. So many challenges!

There is so much more I could say, about their screwed-up legal system or the consequences of information overload. The only thing I didn't especially like was the epilogue - it was one of those far-future epilogues à la Hunger Games and Harry Potter and I didn't think it was necessary. Other than that, it's a fantastic novel of friendship, betrayal, and the power of a good news story.

Have any of you read anything else by John Barnes, either YA or adult? Do you recommend it?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Working Theory of Love

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (2012)

After the breakup of his marriage, Neill has gotten back into the dating scene and thrown himself into his work at an artificial intelligence company called Amiante Systems. Ten years earlier, Neill's father committed suicide, leaving behind extensive journals which are now being fed into a computer. The company is essentially rebuilding Neill's father's personality. Neill spends his time in conversations with the computer Dr. Bassett, and these conversations become more and more real, dredging up long-buried secrets from Neill's childhood. Meanwhile, Neill has begun dating a younger woman who is involved with a New Age-y sex cult called Pure Encounters.

The greatest strengths of the novel were its unusual premise and the development of that aspect of the story. I couldn't tear myself from the conversations between Neill and Dr. Bassett, interactions that really dug at the heart of the book. There is clearly unfinished business between Neill and his father and having those issues dealt with after one of them is dead was rather fascinating.

Less interesting were Neill's interpersonal relationships and his dealings with the Pure Encounters cult and its members. It was difficult to care who, if anyone, he ended up with. Though the novel was told in the first person, I didn't feel close to the narrator. He seemed fairly emotionless, though certainly managed to upset a lot of people around him. All this is not to say that he doesn't seem real - he does. He's cynical and frustrated and has a sense of humor that I really appreciate, though I would have like more of it. His wry observations and self-deprecation kept me going during the parts of the story in which I was less interested.

It's strange that a book about love and feelings retains such emotional distance, and I'm not certain if it was intentional or not. I read an advanced reader's copy, and the publisher's message called it an "astonishing debut." It's good for a first novel, and a great premise for a story, but it didn't astonish me in any way. I probably appreciated it more than I liked it. This won't be super popular, but Hutchins clearly has talent and I'll keep an eye out for his next book. I'm especially curious if it will also have a scifi theme or if it will be more conventional literary fiction. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

I received A Working Theory of Love courtesy of Penguin Books. It will be published in October.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Knitting

The grey tangled mass of lace weight yarn has turned into something beautiful.

Honestly, I had no idea how this would turn out. I'm so glad all that knitting time wasn't wasted. So many hours on the bus! When I wear this, I wonder if anyone on the #80 will recognize it as what they've seen me knitting on the way to and from work every day?

Not all went according to plan however. I followed the hand-felting instructions carefully but the thing would not felt. Why is it so easy to felt something accidentally, yet so difficult to do it on purpose?

Luckily, I really like how it looks. The brooch in the first picture is an owl. I can't even remember where I found it but I've had it for ages and I really love it, though I've never worn it before.

Pattern: Les Miserables
Yarn: Classic Elite Silky Alpaca Lace. The pattern calls for 3 skeins, but I didn't use much of the third one.
Needles: Size 8 (size 9 for the first and last few rows)
Started: May 20
Finished: September 19

I'm glad to see those dates. It felt like it took months, and it makes me feel better to see that it actually did.

The pattern contains no information about gauge or how big it should be before blocking (it was a free pattern) so I sort of felt adrift on this project. Plus, making something that deliberately looks a bit shabby is kind of a risk. It could look awesome, or it could look like something I found in the trash. When I failed at felting I only became more concerned. But after it dried and I draped it around myself, I was pleasantly surprised.

Maybe it's finally time to make a Matrix sweater.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Stolen by Lucy Christopher, narrated by Emily Gray (2010)

Gemma is on her way to Vietnam with her parents, when she is suddenly abducted from the Bangkok airport. Her captor, Ty, takes her to the Australian outback where he says they will live forever. He doesn't hurt her - he wants her to be happy there, away from the city. As Gemma overcomes her fears of Ty, she slowly learns more about him and his formative years and her feelings begin to change.

Lucy Christopher has made the unusual choice of telling the story as a letter Gemma is writing to Ty - so it's almost like being in the second person. It's not easy to pull this off, but I think she succeeded. It felt a little bit awkward to me at first, but soon I didn't even notice. I think it could have been done in a more traditional first person, but knowing how it ended, I do think this choice was a bit stronger.

This is not a story of much action or dialogue. Mostly, there are long days in the desert during which Gemma reflects on her life back in England while worrying about Ty and how to get away from him. But it was fascinating. When Ty abducted Gemma from the airport, that wasn't the first time he saw her, and the back story is really quite unsettling and creepy. He also continued to insist that life in the desert is far better than life in the city, and that she is much happier. Gemma does begin to question some of her past experiences and relationships and begins to doubt herself. The changes we observe in Gemma's thinking were subtle and well-executed.

Stolen worked well as an audiobook. The narrator wasn't quite right - she didn't sound young enough, and pronounced "us" as "uz" - but still, she was very good. Her voice captured the haunting feel of the story, and Gemma's confusion, quite well. I've heard that the Australian accent is extremely difficult but she makes both the British and Australian voices sound authentic. (I thought maybe she was Australian, but apparently she grew up in England.)

Altogether I found the novel quite unique. There may be other young adult books about abductions, but this was so much more. I don't want to give away as much information as some of the reviews do, so I'll just say that I found it compelling and haunting and I think it would be great fodder for discussion.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tessa Masterson Will Go To Prom

Tessa Masterson Will Go To Prom by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin (2012)

Lucas and Tessa have been best friends for so long, it seems almost inevitable that they will go to Prom together. But when Lucas pops the question in a very dramatic and public way, he is crushed by Tessa's response. Not only does she say no, but she reveals that she is gay and wants to attend Prom in a tux with a girl for a date. In true teenage boy fashion, Lucas doesn't take it well and reacts without thinking. The result is a maelstrom of media attention, a huge controversy, and - most upsetting of all - the apparent end of Lucas and Tessa's friendship.

Unlike most other YA books with gay characters, this isn't really a coming-out story, nor is there much about Tessa's relationship at all. It's more about friendship and supporting one another, but it's also fairly political, focusing a lot on the controversy, and you've got to give props to the authors for giving teens enough credit to be into that. Man, I wish I had read this book as a teenager, but of course we had nothing like it in the '80s.

The only flaws were minor - just a few conversations early in the book that didn't come across as natural - and I quickly got past that. I don't think most readers would even notice.

The characters were wonderfully imperfect. When faced with the first true test of their long friendship, neither Tessa nor Lucas responded in a particularly mature way, which is good - they're just teenagers and they are learning from this experience. Two-dimensional adult characters are common in YA books, but Lucas's mom was fleshed out with a personality and a history, and she was just fantastic. I also appreciated that the anti-Tessa crowd weren't complete haters. It's so easy to paint these situations black and white, but the authors didn't do that here. Some of them were totally anti-gay and protested in front of her family's store, but others were civil to her family and still supported their business.

There don't seem to ever be enough new young adult books that aren't paranormal or dystopias, so I was happy to spend time with these regular kids in their small midwest town as they navigate the sorts of problems real teens face. As a bonus, the cover isn't terrible. I even like the paperback version, even though the cover model's head is cut off. At least she's not wearing a fancy dress.

Both Tessa and Lucas were kids I'd be proud to call my friends, and I rooted for them - and their troubled friendship - the whole way through. In turn aggravating, nerve-wracking, and touching, this novel ultimately made me very happy in a warm, fuzzy glad-to-live-in-Massachusetts kind of way. I'm sorry it hasn't gotten more attention, but I'll be sure to recommend it to patrons at my library.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (2008)

One afternoon in Sarajevo, 22 people were killed by a mortar attack while waiting in line for bread. A cellist who witnessed the attack from his window decided to play every day on that spot for 22 days. Meanwhile, a young father risks his life to walk across town for water. An older man reconnects with a friend while he is on his way to get bread. A young sniper tries to protect the cellist from afar. Their city now barely recognizable, the inhabitants try to reconcile this new terrifying environment with the familiar home they know and love.

The first chapter is told from the viewpoint of the cellist, and the rest alternate between the other three characters. The prose is spare but beautiful. Though most of the story is internal and there is little action or dialogue to propel you, it's easy to fly through this short novel.

Though subtle, there are complex themes and difficult questions, as each character struggles to make choices that could mean life or death. Their decisions are small, mundane, and may be totally inconsequential. As the sniper Arrow observes, "There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way." But we do see small acts of great significance. Simply walking across an intersection is an incredibly brave act of resistance. Playing a piece of music on a cello is transformative.

I should mention that although this is a work of fiction, it is based on real events. A cellist named Vedran Smailovic played in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo. Although unusual, the story isn't completely unique - and it's exactly the kind of story we refer to when we discuss the importance of the arts. Galloway deftly illustrates how music inspires hope in a city that desperately needs it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (2011)

In 1920 Chicago, Hadley Richardson is living with her sister and brother-in-law, and still recovering from her mother's death. When she meets and is wooed by a man named Ernest Hemingway, her life changes almost overnight. After their whirlwind courtship and wedding, the couple finds themselves part of a group of American expatriates in Paris. Their new friends are mostly writers who seemingly spend more time drinking than writing and for whom monogamy is passé. Now with a young child, the unfortunately nicknamed Bumby, Ernest struggles with his writing and Hadley tries to support him emotionally, all the while desperately trying to hold their marriage together.

Hadley is committed to helping Ernest succeed, and is willing to make sacrifices. Yet she sinks into complete despair when he must leave her for a few weeks on a writing assignment. Surrounded by friends with open relationships and multiple lovers, they nonetheless try to preserve their relationship, but it's a challenge from the start.

Of course we know from the beginning that their marriage will fail, but McLain tells the story so beautifully that it hardly matters. Her clean prose is so evocative of that place and time that it transports you there. It's one of those rare books which you can enjoy for the writing alone; I read some of the passages over and over because they were so exquisite.

More than anything, this book made me want to re-read The Sun Also Rises, which I haven't read since high school. What I mostly remember about it was everyone getting drunk and going to bullfights, and that atmosphere of hedonism and disillusionment is captured quite well in this novel. Whether happy or troubled, every occasion or mood called for a drink. Out for a night on the town with their friends, or home feeling despair about their crumbling relationship, Hadley and Ernest frequently turned to booze to celebrate or smooth things over. The results were the highest highs, the lowest lows, and an all-around moody novel, which I mean in the best way possible. Normally, I don't like to read fiction that gets this close to people who actually existed, but I'm glad I made an exception in this case.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)

Junior was born with a variety of medical issues and has grown up on an Indian reservation, getting picked on because of his glasses and speech impediments. Comforted only by his best friend Rowdy and his talent for drawing cartoons, eventually Junior is convinced that he needs to leave the reservation and go to a high school twenty-two miles away.

Though Junior makes this decision to improve his life, it comes with a host of new problems. His unreliable parents usually aren't available to drive him to and from school, so he makes the trip with a combination of bus, hitchhiking and walking. Everyone on the reservation turns against him because they feel like he's betrayed them by attending a white school, including his best friend Rowdy who will no longer speak to him. Plus now he has to try and fit in at a new school where everything is different. But Junior sees his sister leave the reservation and pursue a happier life and it only makes him more determined to do the same.

Peppered throughout the book are Junior's cartoons and drawings, breaking up the text while adding color to his narration. This is a quick, quick read. I zipped through in one sitting in an evening, extremely unusual for me. I first read this book back in 2008, and I'm glad my Not-So-Young Adult book group at the library picked it to read and discuss because it's definitely worth a second reading.

The most striking thing about this novel is that Junior is probably the most genuine teenage narrative voice I've read. It's so hard to strike a balance in young adult fiction, making the voices self-aware and appealing enough to make a good book but still genuinely young, but Alexie has done it. Part of what makes it so realistic is Junior's colorful language, full of exaggeration and the occasional use of ALL CAPS and, of course, the fantastic illustrations. Pictures are a great way to communicate what you are unable to articulate in words and they work wonderfully here.

Junior's life on the reservation is filled with tragedy and despair, yet there is a strong sense of community that is not present in his other community in Reardan. On the reservation everybody knows everybody else and they share in each other's tragedies and joys. At school in Reardan, people may be better off, but they are also more isolated. Trying to bridge the gap, Junior sees exactly what he is losing and what he stands to gain.

Last night at book group, we talked a bit about how much we want to know what happened later. Some very tragic events happened during the course of the book and I don't know how Junior recovered and moved past them, but I believe he could. I wish there was a follow-up so we could revisit this funny, compelling character. In the meantime, if you haven't read this novel yet, what are you waiting for?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Hello! It's been a shamefully long time since I've posted about my knitting, and I'm afraid I have little to show for it. After posting about the Jack-in-the-Box Mittens lo those many weeks ago, they've languished in my knitting basket untouched until two days ago. When I picked them up again it took me a good twenty minutes to figure out where I had left off before I could start knitting again. I had helpfully left a post-it note over the part of the pattern where I had left off. Not so helpfully, the post-it had notes on it from a previous part of the pattern and I didn't realize for quite a while that although the post-it was relevant the writing on it was completely irrelevant. Anyhow, I eventually managed to pick up where I left off.

This will be so much nicer looking when it's done. Also! I totally forgot to take pictures of the back, which is where the cables are. So just imagine that you're looking at a really lovely cabled pattern.

I had forgotten the extent of my hatred for double-pointed needles. Honestly, how do any of you use these? Why do they still exist? They are the most fiddly, annoying, obnoxious tools that never fail to make me feel like I'm trying to juggle a porcupine. They manage to always be in the way of each other, yet not be close enough together to make the knitting come out right. They are so annoying they defy the laws of physics.

Anywho, in the picture the thumb stitches are on white scrap yarn and the palm stitches are on the purple scrap yarn. I'm knitting the top and just have another inch or so before binding off. Then I go back to the palm and thumb and finish those. Hopefully soon, then I can knit the other mitten, then I can burn those stupid needles so I never make the mistake of using them again.

I also finished my first Ribbed Lace Sock and have begun the second.

I know, it doesn't look like much, does it? But it feels great and will keep my feet warm this winter.

Progress has continued on my Les Mis Wrap as well, though I fear it may be a scarf instead of a shawl. More on that as it progresses. I only have 1.5 pattern repeats left out of a total of 12, so I'm nearing the finish line. I didn't take a picture because it just looks like a big mess of gray yarn right now and nobody wants to look at that. To be honest, I haven't even removed it entirely from my knitting bag in quite a while so I have no idea what it looks like myself. But it's definitely not pretty, I'm sure of that much.

It's sad to see summer coming to an end, but the bright spot is that summer is followed by knitting season. I intend to wrap up these projects and start on a whole slew of new ones - I've got pretty yarn and fun patterns just waiting for me. It's tempting to push these dull-colored projects aside and start on them. Seriously, I don't know what made me knit grey, dark green and off-white projects all at the same time, but I can't let that happen again!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

It starts with a hanging, and a curse, and builder who wants to work on a cathedral. Then a baby is abandoned and brought to a monastery. An earl's son is spurned in marriage and takes revenge. Over the course of almost 1000 pages, these lives are woven together with many others throughout a civil war and the rise and fall of Kingsbridge and Shiring in England during the 1100s. There is so much plot here I won't even attempt to recount it.

Despite its daunting size, this isn't a difficult novel. It reads like domestic fiction, a very different experience from The Game of Kings, for example. Although there's a lot of political maneuvering, Follett does a good job of explaining it all simply and clearly. I didn't need to look up any history to understand what was going on. It's quite seamless and fits neatly into the narrative of the story.

The real strength of this novel is in the characters. Prior Philip was orphaned as a child and brought to live in a monastery. A man of God, Philip nevertheless has his faults and must remind himself to keep his pride in check. Philip is smart - some called him sly - and very good at manipulating situations to work out in his favor, but also to benefit others as well, thus making everyone happy. Philip really wants to do what is right, and is especially fair-minded and just when compared to the corrupt clergy surrounding him.

There are a couple of villains in the story, but my favorite was William Hamleigh, the spurned groom who took revenge on his intended wife's family by usurping the earldom from her father. He's the worst kind of brute (his favorite game is "stoning the cat") and he spends most of his life raping, pillaging, and robbing at every opportunity. His cruelty stems from his fear of being laughed at behind his back, and his terrified of hell, ironic given the number and severity of crimes he commits despite his fear.

I don't know if this was intentional, but the main female characters led unconventional lives. Ellen, the wife of Tom, master builder of the cathedral, spent a lot of her life living in the forest and was thought to be a witch. Aliena, the intended bride of William, became a shrewd businesswoman who avoided romance. Even Tom's daughter Martha preferred to remain single, an unusual choice. But I suppose that's what makes the novel so compelling.

Since the backdrop is the construction of a cathedral, there's a lot of information about architecture woven into the story. At times I found it hard to envision exactly what was being described, but I got the important points which were primarily concerned with the development of different styles of architecture and solving various problems in bringing the builder's vision to life.

It's a rather fascinating time period, what with the violence and savagery and horrid treatment of women. Not to mention the civil war and the uncertainty of who would win the throne. People were so helpless in controlling the circumstances of their own lives, and it was crushing to see how their security was pulled out from under them over and over again. If you want to spend some time with a book, reading a long story arc spanning decades of the characters' lives, this would be a good choice.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Born Wicked

Born Wicked (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #1) by Jessica Spotswood, narrated by Nicole Sudhaus (2012)

Ever since their mother died, Cate has felt a responsibility to take care of her sisters. This proves especially difficult because they are ruled over by the Brotherhood, an oppressive group who seek out and persecute women for the least offense. Cate and her sisters are in great danger if anyone finds out about them because all three of them are witches. Tension mounts when Cate finds her mother's diary and learns of an ominous prophecy. On top of that she is nearing her birthday and will soon have to choose the path of her life, either marriage or joining the Sisterhood. A decision which at first seemed so clear, is becoming more and more difficult to make.

I always feel like it's easier to talk about why I dislike a certain book than why I like it, but in this case I absolutely understand why I loved this book.

As is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog or has ever talked to me about books, I have a soft spot for historical fiction. If it takes place in New England, all the better. But this isn't the New England with which we are familiar, nor is it the world we know. The Western US is colonized by Indo-China, the South under Spanish rule. When Cate and her peers talk about freedom they long for Dubai where women can vote and wear trousers. It's historical AND a dystopia!

I think what makes this book a better pick for me than some paranormals, like The Gathering Storm, is that although it includes paranormal elements they aren't the focus of the story. Obviously, there wouldn't be a story if Cate and her sisters weren't witches, but not many spells are cast during the novel - it's more about the way witches (and all women, when you really get down to it) are persecuted in this society.

Another thing I loved about this book was that Cate didn't exhibit those annoying qualities that plague so many young protagonists. For instance, she wasn't artificially stupid or naive to further the plot, and though there were times when I felt she should tell her sisters secrets she was hiding for seemingly no reason, she didn't hold out for long. Just when I thought she was beginning to act a little bone-headed, she would come through for me.

The narrator on the audio version had a great reading voice and added emotion without melodrama. Combined with the relative simplicity of the writing, this was a good audio pick!

Since this is the first in a series, things didn't wrap up tidily the way I wanted them to, which is why I'm not a writer. (I'm telling you, my books would be SO boring because I wouldn't let the villains be horrible enough nor would I keep the love interests apart for long.) I am only upset that I read this when it was so new. Honestly, I had no idea I'd like it this much and want to read the next books in the series. Now I have to wait until February for the (unfortunately titled) sequel, Star Cursed.