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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012)
In the early 1970s in western New York, a group of idealists form a commune on the grounds of an old mansion called Arcadia House. Among the early arrivers are Abe and Hannah, and it is their little son Bit who is the center of our story. Bit grows up in Arcadia, witnessing its rise and eventual fall, before he is finally forced out into the real world as a teenager. A little over half the book takes place in Arcadia before jumping ahead about twenty years, where we visit a fairly unhappy Bit. Then again it jumps forward and is suddenly a dystopia.

Lauren Groff's writing can be quite exquisite. As I began reading I was charmed by her beautiful sentences and apt turns of phrase. But that can only take you so far, and as a storyteller she falls short. The life cycle of the commune is captured well, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere and characters. Then when the story jumps ahead to Bit's life, I felt robbed of something that could have been fascinating - his introduction to the world outside of Arcadia. How integral this must be to his development as a person, and we missed it! And the part of his life we skipped to is, frankly, pretty boring. There was a doomed romance that I felt it difficult to care about because I don't know why he loved this person in the first place. When the story skipped ahead again, I wanted to just be put out of my misery. Suddenly Bit is in a world that seemed to be entering some sort of apocalyptic time, and I wasn't sure what kind of book Groff was writing. It's like she was trying to put everything she could think of into one novel. Perhaps she was trying to contrast the utopia of Arcadia with the dystopia of the future world, but it didn't quite work.

Unfortunately, I could not connect at all with the main character, Bit. I simply didn't feel like I knew him at all. The Guardian review says: "The requited maternal ecstasy the author feels for Bit, combined with turgid storytelling results in a novel that could be a one-page love poem, and in that sense feels 288 pages too long." That is spot on - Groff loves Bit, but just as I can't be convinced of Bit's love for his ex-wife, so I don't see what Groff finds so compelling in this character and that may be the biggest failing of the novel.

Arcadia was released to rave reviews, and those mean little to me, but I do pay attention to reviews of my friends. On Goodreads, almost everyone I know gave this book 5 stars, which was enough to convince me to pick it for the library book group. Now I'm struggling to understand what everyone loves about it, which is why I'm reading so many reviews. On the bright side, I stand by my book group choice, because there are a lot of things about this novel I can't wait to discuss with others. I hope some of them loved it, and can explain why.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Knitting

As I briefly mentioned last week, I ripped out my Mottled Rib Sweater and used the yarn to cast on for the Livingstone Cardigan. I was unsure about the gauge and size on the Mottled Rib and decided (as I do frequently) that what I really need is more cardigans. (It has come to that time of year when my office alternates between freezing and sweltering, and pullovers just won't do.) Also, I really wanted to sink my teeth into some cables. Do you ever have those times when you are just dying to knit cables?

This pattern is from an issue of Interweave Knits that I don't own, but luckily I was able to purchase it online and begin right away. It's going very fast.

There's a LOT of difference between sizes, and I uncharacteristically chose the larger size. There will be about 4 inches of ease if my gauge is on (which, let's face it...) but the smaller size would have been negative ease of 2 inches, and that seemed too tight for a bulky-weight cardigan that I plan to wear over  another shirt. I've knit another couple of inches since taking this photo yesterday afternoon and it looks like a reasonable size. I'm feeling optimistic.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

More Baths, Less Talking

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby (2012)

This is Hornby's fourth collection of essays from his books column in The Believer. As in previous installments, each chapter represents a month (sometimes two) and begins by listing "Books Bought" and "Books Read," followed by an essay on that month's reading.

Hornby's taste is eclectic, but no matter what kind of book he's talking about, his commentary is sure to be entertaining. Even tomes like Austerity Britain, his opener, are fodder for interesting discussion in his hands. From dense nonfiction to children's books, every reader will see something that sparks his or her interest. There are also plenty that I'm glad he read so I don't have to.

It's nice to read his thoughts on books I've already read (like Tinkers by Paul Harding and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman), as well as books I keep meaning to get to - Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson or The Fear Index by Robert Harris. And if a British person can highly recommend Game Change, a book about the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, then surely I should finally get around to reading that as well.

One of my favorite things about Nick Hornby is how unpretentious he is. His tastes run the gamut from literary award-winners to thrillers and he finds something of value in pretty much everything he picks up. Plus, he comes clean about being too distracted to read anything during the World Cup.

As much as I love reading about books, it almost doesn't matter which ones he's talking about because the real value of these essays is Hornby's writing. More than anything, it made me want to read more of his books.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

History of a Pleasure Seeker

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (2012)

Amsterdam, 1907. Piet Barol has left his impoverished life with his father to apply for a job as a tutor for a wealthy family. The opulent lives of the rich appeal to Piet and he fits in easily with this family, thanks to preparation from his mother when he was young. Seamlessly, Piet navigates this new world, charming the family and seducing his young charge's mother. But not everything is easy - his student refuses to leave the house, and submits himself to strenuous rituals under imagined forces that drive his strange compulsions. His mother Jacobina hasn't been touched by her husband since her son was born, and the couple are unable to communicate about their absence of affection. The daughters are suspicious of Piet, and the household staff a mixed bag of friendly and predatory.

I couldn't help but picture Piet as the gay footman from Downton Abbey because of his deception and sense of entitlement, but I liked him in spite of it because he was mostly harmless and had a conscience that nagged him, if only occasionally.

The reviews call this an erotic novel, but although there was a healthy dose of sex, it wasn't especially erotic. It was important to the plot, sure, but not dwelled upon in any detailed way. I would say it's hedonistic and sensual because it dwells so much upon the opulent lifestyles of the wealthy, and that is what Piet is so taken in by.

Speaking of Downton, this novel appealed to my sensibilities in the same way as those great costume dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Pride & Prejudice. Indeed, there was a split here between the family and staff, with Piet lodged comfortably between them. He wasn't quite equal with the family, but was still socially above the help, which made it much easier to insinuate himself into the family's lives. I enjoyed his trajectory, and liked him enough to spend the whole novel with him, but not enough to feel badly when things went wrong. It was his own fault, after all.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Here are my completed Woven Fingerless Gloves, somewhat outshined by the adorable baby pumpkin.

The pattern is from Sock Yarn One-Skein Wonders, and is made from Dream in Color Smooshy yarn. I realize now I should have blocked them, but somehow I was so relieved to finish the project it completely escaped my mind at the time.

Here's a picture where you can see the pattern a bit better.

I've not only restarted my Fountain Pen Shawl (with yarn in a proper quantity) but I've also ripped out the Mottled Rib Sweater and begun the Livingstone Cardigan with the yarn. I think it's a better choice. More on both of those projects soon!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dreamland Social Club

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando (2011), narrated by Erin Moon

After her grandfather's death, Jane moves with her brother and father to the house on Coney Island where her mother grew up. They've never been here before, nor did they know their grandfather. Jane's mother always intended to bring her kids back and show them Coney Island, but died before she got the chance. Now Jane tries to fit in with a motley group of fellow students who could start their own sideshow, while trying to make sense of her mother's affection for a place that has clearly seen better days.

The best part of this book is the setting - I know nothing about Coney Island, so it was all new to me. Most of the rides Jane's mother told her about are gone and the town is pretty run down. Jane meets interesting characters at her school, like a goth dwarf named Babette and a boy with no legs who goes by H.T. (Half There), as well as a bearded girl, a giant, and - most intriguingly of all - a tattooed boy named Leo who Jane instantly crushes on. But Jane is the real outcast, the other kids slow to accept her, especially when they find out that her dad may be in cahoots with a developer who wants to make drastic changes to the community they all love so much.

Although her mother had already been dead for several years, Jane was obviously not over it. Coming to Coney and learning more about her mother and where she grew up was rather cathartic for her. Suddenly, a lot of the games her mother used to play with her began to make more sense as Jane realized they were based on amusement park rides. We get a fragmented view of Jane's mother, who comes across as completely freaking obsessed with Coney and the amusement park rides, but obviously that's just what Jane remembers. Throughout the book she gets to know her mother more and more, as she also becomes more at home in this strange new place where she is living.

If you've ever been new in town, or lived in a community dealing with change and development, this book will resonate with you. Throw in some colorful characters and a little bit of romance, and you've got a winner. I initially found some of the accents a bit grating in the audio version (and I don't know if that's the narrator or just the accents), but soon got used to them and now I want to go around saying "Hey, Looky-lou!" to everyone I see. Either audio or print would be a great choice with this one - whichever you prefer, I recommend giving it a try.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

The long-awaited new novel from the author of the Harry Potter series takes us to the small village of Pagford, where local parish council member Barry Fairbrother has just died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. His seat must be filled and the political implications are large - the fate of The Fields, a low income neighborhood with a methadone clinic - hangs in the balance. The struggle pits rich against poor, haves against have-nots, and the lives of the most vulnerable are at stake. Tension simmers under the surface of the seemingly-idyllic town, manifesting itself in conflicts between husbands and wives, and teenagers and their parents, and these conflicts have implications far beyond the walls of home.

Reviews for this book were late coming because of the embargo, and are very mixed. Negative reviews seem based on the fact that this book isn't Harry Potter, exclaiming about the foul language and sex. Well, it's a novel for adults and filled with adult problems, which tend to involve things like sex and swearing.

Rowling's talent for creating colorful characters is apparent here, in the large cast of villagers with various neuroses and quirks and complicated relationships with one another. This is a fairly long book - over 500 pages - but it needs to be, with all that is going on. She gives ample attention to each character, and their detailed personalities and genuineness are the real strengths of the novel.

I've always enjoyed Rowling's writing style, easy and fast-paced with an undercurrent of humor, even in this serious novel. Despite some of the negative reviews, I thought The Casual Vacancy was compelling and even fun, while still tackling serious, complicated issues. Rowling has proven that her talents extend beyond fantasy for children and I'm looking forward to what else she has in store.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Shortly after posting about my sad lack of projects last week, I was perusing through my copy of Sock Yarn One-Skein Wonders, and noticed a pattern for fingerless mitts that it was suddenly imperative I make immediately, and with the purple sock yarn I discovered in my stash while rooting around for the elusive and non-existent third ball of purple lace weight yarn.

This pattern is actually called "Woven" Fingerless Gloves and those quotation marks make me cringe every time I see them though they are technically correct as the gloves aren't actually woven. But still.

The sock yarn is Dream in Color Smooshy, a really lovely sock yarn that unfortunately doesn't make very rugged socks. Luckily I have an entire book of patterns (101 of them!) that use sock yarn for all sorts of projects.

In other knitting news, there was a yarn sale at my favorite store, Windsor Button, this weekend. (I almost said "my favorite yarn store" but no, I think it's my favorite store all around.) I was going to go anyhow to get some lace weight yarn so that I can make the shawl I started with the purple yarn, and then I realized that it was Columbus Day weekend and there's always a sale. So I brought a whole list with me.

I bought - three skeins of it this time - Silky Alpaca Lace for my shawl in a lovely shade of teal or peacock or some such blue/green concoction. Additionally, I bought some black worsted weight Cascade 220 superwash so I can finally make the Talia vest that's been in my Ravelry queue for lo these many years. I feel like a vest could be really cute and stylish, or possibly horridly frumpy, but either way you don't have to knit any sleeves so it's win-win. I also grabbed a couple of skeins of sock yarn because that's always practical to have and I may as well get it on sale.

I'm still so enamored of my "Woven" Fingerless Gloves that I haven't yet begun any of these projects, but I'm sure I'll have something new to show you next week.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Study in Seduction

A Study in Seduction by Nina Rowan (Daring Hearts #1)(2012)

Young mathematician Lydia Kellaway has lost many things - her parents, her virtue, and now her mother's locket, sold to a pawn shop and subsequently purchased by the handsome yet infuriating Lord Northwood. Lydia is determined to win the locket back, but at what cost?

Of course, a romance blossoms between Lydia and Alexander and it is fraught with obstacles. Alexander's family is still getting over the scandal of his mother running off with a Russian and his parents' resulting divorce. Lydia....well. She has dark secrets she cannot reveal to anyone, lest she cast scandal over her own family.

I first heard of this novel on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books website and its accompanying podcast Dear Bitches Smart Authors. The premise of the book sounded unusual, and I was further interested by the disagreement between the two podcast hosts about whether or not the book was any good.

Alas, I did not find this novel especially compelling, and there were some frustrating aspects. First of all, there is a huge reveal near the end and I saw it coming a mile away. I guessed from very early in the book, and I am not an observant reader who typically anticipates these things. I am oblivious, and am pretty much ALWAYS surprised when authors want me to be.

Furthermore, when Alexander discovers this shameful truth, he gets over it remarkably easily. Normally, I'd chalk it up to love but in this case the hero of the story has a pretty fresh scandal in his own family and those wounds are still a bit fresh. Would he be so quick to accept the possibility of another scandal? I find it hard to believe.

As for our heroine, she was likable enough until fairly late in the book at which point she began furthering the plot by continuing to insist on the likelihood of a scandal after that possibility had been eliminated. I hate when characters do this - they continue to keep secrets when it's no longer necessary or stubbornly cling to things that are untrue. So annoying! In this case, things were wrapped up pretty well and she just continued to draw out the drama in a way that was completely unnecessary. There is no reason for Lydia to continue in this vein except to draw the book out another couple of chapters.

The math aspect of story was a little lame. I realize it's a romance novel and not an academic treatise, but some of her demonstrations were just parlor tricks. But I thought she was fairly convincing as someone who enjoyed math immensely, and found comfort in its rules and structures (an aspect of the story about which the podcast ladies disagreed).

Altogether, it was neither wonderful nor terrible. I liked the premise, and mostly liked the primary characters (except for Lydia's stubbornness). I found the relationship between Alexander and Lydia compelling and as full of tension as it should be. Still, it was just ok. I probably won't make a point to read the next novel in the series.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012)

When Bee brings home a perfect report card, her parents are thrilled. Then she reminds them she's earned whatever she wants as a present, and they become less thrilled when she requests a family trip to Antarctica. This sends her reclusive and emotionally precarious mother, Bernadette, into a manic state which culminates in her sudden disappearance just days before their scheduled trip. Told through emails, letters, official documents and some first-hand narration from Bee, the novel recounts Bernadette's strange behaviors and the events - past and present - that all lead up to her mysterious disappearance.

Bernadette Fox was once an architect who won prestigious awards for her work, but ended up as a stay-at-home mom in Seattle. She hates Seattle, the state of Idaho, Canada, and the neighboring suburban women she refers to as "gnats." Reluctant to leave her house, she hires a virtual assistant from India named Manjula to handle all her errands. Still, she manages to run over her neighbor's foot with her car, cause a mudslide that destroys the woman's home, and get involved in an international conspiracy.

Bee is a believable teenager, precocious yet naive. Her choice of vacation is a direct result of studying Antarctica in school, voraciously reading up on the continent and the many expeditions there throughout history. When she gets ideas in her head they stubbornly refuse to leave until she's satisfied; hence, the Antarctic trip and her later search for her mother even after authorities tell her all hope is lost. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Even after everything that happened (and despite how much I loathe extreme cold), I sorta want to visit Antarctica too.

Does it all sound a bit wacky? It is - this is fast ride to crazyville. As I learned more about some of the "gnats" in the neighborhood, especially Audrey Griffin, I couldn't help but sympathize with Bernadette. The farther into the book I got, the less certain I became of who was actually sane and who wasn't, but I still enjoyed every moment of it. It reads partly like chick lit, partly like a young adult book, retaining its fast-paced hilarity throughout. Fun, fresh, and clever, Where'd You Go, Bernadette has been flying off the shelves at bookstores and libraries and now I can see why. Burnt out on dystopias and the zombie apocalypse? This might be your best remedy.