Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Mariana by Susanna Kearsley (1994)

Julia Beckett first saw the house in Exbury when she was five, but somehow knew that it was hers. She came across it again by accident (or not?) a couple more times before finally purchasing it and moving in. Settling in, she begins to have strange experiences, as though she is suddenly transported back in time to someone else's life. Someone named Mariana. These visits are brief, but Julia becomes obsessed with trying to learn the connection between her life and Mariana's and discover why she seems to have been destined to live in this house. So obsessed that she begins to lose hold on her real life, and she must struggle to make peace with the past so she can live in the present.

I quite enjoyed the story of Julia moving to this small town, buying her house, and getting to know the local people. She worked as a freelance illustrator of children's books, making it easy to uproot her life and move from London to this small village. Mariana's story was also fascinating, though not especially happy. She lived in the 1600s and after her mother died of plague, Mariana was forced to go live with her cruel uncle at his house in Exbury, where things only got worse for her. Julia and Mariana led very different lives in very different times, but I really liked reading about both of them.

The reincarnation aspects might be a bit much for some people but I thought the stories were quite nicely woven together and I was happy to suspend my disbelief and go along with it. (By the way, that's not a spoiler - you know very early on that Julia is supposed to be the reincarnation of Mariana.) Likewise, there was a lot of talk about fate and destiny, concepts that I find a bit ridiculous but again, I'll believe anything for a good story. It seemed like I knew a lot very early on, but there were still twists and surprises, including in the several love stories. Altogether, I thought it was quite well-crafted.

The only thing that bothered me was the character Mrs. Hutherson, who obviously knew the answers that Julia was looking for, but insisted that she find out for herself. This is a pretty common trope in books and movies, but I've always found it irritating. I just don't think that character added anything to the story. Other characters, however, were more interesting and played more important roles. Vivien, owner of the local bar in Exbury, was a welcoming friend to Julia, and Geoff made for a dashing and enigmatic love interest. Even Julia's brother Tom, a vicar, lived nearby and was a source of support when Julia's strange visions started.

Mariana was Kearsley's first novel and although it wasn't perfect, I'd be happy to read more of her books. I first heard about Mariana on Shelf Love, a blog I really enjoy partly because of how many books they discuss that I've never heard of anywhere else. It's a shame that Kearsley doesn't seem very well-known; in fact I bought this as an ebook because it's not available in my library system. A few others are though, including The Winter Sea which my mother just read and highly recommends. I'd definitely like to try this author again, and I think The Winter Sea might be my next choice.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I've taken a small break from my sock and shawl to work on a small, brightly colored gift.

I've been wanting to use brown and blue together for a while, and I find it quite fetching.

The free pattern is a bit frustrating and difficult to understand, but I think it's going well despite the difficulties. More when I've finished!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Every Day

Every Day by David Levithan (2012)

A isn't a boy or a girl, doesn't even have a body. Every day, A wakes up as someone else, lives as that person for a day - trying not to alter their life too much - before then moving on and becoming someone else for the next day. (We first meet A as a boy and for simplicity, I'm just going to use male pronouns.) A doesn't know why his life is different from everyone else's and doesn't try to control it or build relationships with anyone and is always careful not to leave a trace of his presence. Until he meets Rhiannon, and then everything changes.

When I first heard about this book, I thought the premise was dubious, but as I read I became fascinated by this idea. A had experienced so many different kinds of people that he understood a lot more than most people do. He had been chronically ill, blind, a drug addict, rich, spoiled, everything you can think of. It gave him insights into human nature that nobody else can really have, especially at so young an age when most teens' experiences have been quite limited.

Despite these insights, it's also true that he was never any of these things for more than a day. That also means he had never been anyone's child, sibling or friend for more than a day. Tomorrow meant nothing because tomorrow he would be somewhere and someone else. He realizes at one point that nobody has memories of his childhood, he'll never have anyone to grieve for him, or to remember him when he's gone. It's a bit mind-blowing if you think about it.

Convenient to the plot, A was always in the US, pretty much confined to one part of the country. This made it easy to further the plot by being able to hunt down Rhiannon pretty easily, but was a bit disappointing. I would have loved seeing him try to adjust to other cultures around the world. I found his experience as a body-hopper much more interesting than the romance that was supposed to be central to the novel. I'm all for a good romance, but can't even buy someone falling in love with someone from spending an afternoon together and then not being able to let go, risking everything to be with them again. The ending also left me unsatisfied, but I'll leave it at that so as not to spoil anything. Other readers obviously feel differently about the romance and the ending based on their reviews.

Still, I'm glad I read it. Although I didn't love it madly as some do, it was imaginative and gave me a lot to think about. I like David Levithan's writing style and will certainly read more of his books in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Cry of the Sloth

The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage (2009)

The subtitle to the novel is The Mostly Tragic Story of Andrew Whittaker Being His Collected, Final, and Absolutely Complete Writings. Andrew Whittaker is an aspiring author, literary magazine editor, and landlord. The writings included here are pieces of his (terrible) novel, rejection letters to hopeful contributors to Soap magazine, signs reminding his tenants of such matters as where to leave their trash, letters to those who haven't been paying rent, correspondence with his ex-wife Jolie, as well as other letters to friends and acquaintances regarding his dubious plans for a literary festival. From these writings we glean his loneliness, mental instability, and utter failure in every aspect of his life. He's socially inept, in financial ruin, drinks too much, hoards, and feels completely out of control. It's as though he has no idea how any of this has happened to him, where those piles of boxes came from, why he has no money.

Although it's fascinating to read about the sort of person who would write letters to the newspaper under fake names, or spend an entire day rearranging the contents of boxes in his house, we are so close to his downward spiral it all starts to seem frighteningly possible. It only took his wife leaving him to set him off and before he knew it he was completely falling apart. He can't manage the simplest task, everything he does becoming a comedy of errors. At the doctor's office he tries to pull a single bill out of his pocket with his finger in a splint, gets his hand stuck in the pocket, and ends up flinging out a wad of cash that flutters all over the room. When the papers in his house start piling up he begins taping them together, so that when he tries to pull out one document, the entire tower topples over.

The book's title refers to the sound made by the ai, which Andrew tries to imitate, having apparently no idea how ridiculous this is to everyone around him. "I did it at the post office the other day when the clerk told me I had insufficient postage on my package."

When I read, I use little scraps of paper to mark the pages with passages I want to go back to, lines I may want to quote, passages that are especially funny or clever. As soon as I began reading this book I knew I'd have to try and hold back, but my copy still looks like this.

Clearly it's not helpful when you mark every third page, as it seems I've done here. I may as well reread the whole thing. I suspect someday I will.

The novel's style is clever and witty, the main character completely unlikeable but tragically comic. Or maybe comically tragic? It reminded me of The Hottest Dishes of the Tarter Cuisine, absurd and sad at the same time. Because it's a collection of various short pieces of writing, it's a great book to pick up when you only have short snippets of time to read. You can even open it up and read random passages without context to get a taste of Andrew's life.

Years ago I read Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, which is one of my very favorite books. Now you are 2 for 2, Sam Savage! I'm only sorry it took me this long to read another book by this incredibly talented author.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)

A British spy plane has been shot down, the pilot presumably killed and the passenger captured by the Gestapo. After being tortured she finally relented to making a deal and promised to tell them everything she knew. This is her confession.

The narrator begins by saying that she's a coward. That she's going to be killed in two weeks anyhow but has sold her information to prevent torture that is too frightening to think about. Then she goes on to tell a story about two young women from different walks of life who meet during the war and become best friends and eventually are thrown together on a dangerous mission.

The narrator describes herself in the third person in her confession, which was a bit difficult to get used to, but other than that it was easy to read, conversational and not at all how I'd expect an actual confession to be written (and thank goodness for that). The narrator was called by several different names in the course of the book and maybe it's this masking of identities that made me feel like I never really knew her very well. It didn't diminish the effect of the story at all though, especially since I got a much clearer picture of her pilot friend Maddie. Maddie gets a turn at narrating later on, but I don't want to reveal much about the later part of the story. But I was glad to finally hear from her, especially after learning so much about her from her friend's perspective earlier in the book.

I almost gave up 80 or 90 pages into it, because it wasn't grabbing me. I think I had just been reading it in fits and starts and was a bit put off by all the discussions of planes and whatnot. And then we got hit with a blizzard and I sat down with it for an hour or so, and I am so glad I gave it another shot.

It's hard to say actually what is so fantastic about this book. Partly it's just the perspective - the British experience of World War II, but also British women in the military. Planning spy missions! Caught by the Gestapo! The whole worldview of the two women, their experiences and fears, are so different from anything else I've read about this period that I had to keep reminding myself it's the same World War II I've read about before. I probably wouldn't even have picked this up based only on the description. My interest was piqued by the many rave reviews, which were well deserved.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (2012), narrated by David Tennant

Jamie was just five years old when his sister Rose was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now ten, he lives with his dad and his sister Jasmine, Rose's twin. Months ago his mother left for another man and the rest of the family had to move to a new house. Jamie's father drinks way too much and pays more attention to the urn of Rose's ashes than to his still-living children. He raves against Muslims, who he holds responsible for her death, and gets angry when he doesn't think Jamie affords Rose the attention and respect she deserves. But Jamie barely remembers Rose, never mind missing her or feeling sad about her death. Of course he won't tell his father that. Neither will he tell his father that the only friend he's made at his new school is Muslim.

Desperate for his mother's attention, Jamie attributes her continued absence to her boss Mr. Walker not letting her have time off. When he receives a birthday package from her with a Spider-Man shirt, he wears it all the time. His persistent optimism is so sad! His sister Jasmine is older and more grounded in reality, but doesn't want to dash Jamie's illusions. Their fierce loyalty toward one another was the very best part of the book.

I knew Jamie would learn a lot of painful truths in the course of the story, but he also gained a great deal of strength and confidence, thanks in no small part to his sister Jasmine and his fearless friend Sunya.

The audiobook is brilliant narrated by David Tennant. I was a bit dubious at first: a middle-aged man performing a first-person narration of a 10-year-old boy? But he captures Jamie's exuberance and humor just perfectly. (It also doesn't hurt that I just like listening to British people talk.) The musical interludes between each chapter were unnecessary and a little too long, but even that couldn't detract from the excellent production.

A really lovely, sweet book about family and friendships and growing up. The audiobook isn't available at libraries in my area (I got it from audible.com) but it's absolutely worth seeking out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Best Man

The Best Man by Kristan Higgins (2013)

Nothing can be as humiliating as being jilted at the altar, especially by a guy you thought was in love with you but who turns out to be gay. Faith Holland didn't wait around afterwards, but high-tailed it out of town and made a life for herself in San Francisco. But three and a half years later she has returned to upstate New York to do some work at her family's vineyard. Of course that means facing her ex-fiance again, not to mention his best friend - who Faith blames for everything - Levi Cooper. Unfriendly police chief Levi, who has always disliked Faith and makes no attempt to hide it and who is suddenly, strangely, compelling. How has she never noticed how attractive he is?

I picked up a Kristan Higgins book not long, an older book called Just One of the Guys. It was terrible. It read like something written by a twelve-year-old. With lots of exclamation points! In every paragraph! And "bleeping" used as a swear word, repetitively. But since I kept hearing how good Higgins is, I decided to try this forthcoming novel which will be published later this month. I'm glad I gave her a second chance.

Her language has improved greatly since that earlier book, but it's still homey and super-casual, like an email from a friend. Sometimes this extends to barroom language that's a bit jarring; I was ok with the use of "boobage" thought it was overused, but cringed when she used (more than once) "mighty rack." Nonetheless, the writing was generally easy to read, breezy and friendly and funny. I really liked her brand of humor, even it was a bit over-the-top at times. There were some scenes that actually made me snicker and I've been dying to share them with someone but don't want to ruin it by my terrible retelling. I'll just say there's a memorable scene in a bar bathroom that involves a Microfiber Slim-Nation undergarment, a powerful "child-sucking" toilet, and a doomed sweater. The book may be worth reading for this alone. But if that's not enough, there's also a really uncomfortable conversation between Faith and her ex regarding their old sex life and Justin Timberlake. You may not want to miss these things.

There was more subtle humor as well - of a variety I especially appreciate - in Faith's description of wine. Eons ago I visited many wineries and participated in tastings where I was subjected to wine talk that I find pretentious and ridiculous beyond words. In the novel Faith says it's all made up anyhow, and goes on to creatively describe wines thusly: "Passionfruit, pepper, a little honeysuckle, just a touch of pencil lead in the body, with a whisper of lychee in the finish." I love that. It's that sort of talk that finally made me realize I don't enjoy "tasting" wine, I enjoy drinking it.

The Blue Heron Winery was a pleasant backdrop, and Faith's family were charming and quirky. The story of Faith, her sisters, and their mother's death was an unexpectedly sophisticated addition. Faith was epileptic,  a seizure the apparent cause of the car accident that killed her mother when Faith was 10. She had felt guilty about this for years, and how she finally came to grips with it and spoke of it to her family was bittersweet and quite touching. Levi was also a complicated character, greatly affected by his time in the military in Afghanistan and his brief marriage to a woman he met there.

There was really a lot going on here for a romance novel. It's not high literature by any means, but there's a lot to like. I've been striking out a lot on contemporary romance and The Best Man has given me hope for the genre.

I received my copy of The Best Man courtesy of NetGalley

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I'm still moving along my cabled socks, having begun the second one, and my Fountain Pen Shawl which I'm about a third of the way through. But my update isn't about those projects. I've just learned something that will change how I knit, how I plan projects, how I get yarn, forever.

My favorite yarn store is closing. Windsor Button just announced that their landlord hasn't renewed their lease and I've heard they looked around for another space and were unable to find anywhere suitable and affordable. After 75 years in business - 75! - they're closing forever.

It may seem a huge exaggeration to say that I'm devastated by this news, but allow me to tell why this is so awful, and why I love that store so much. Knitting is one of just two pastimes I engage in (the other being reading) so despite my apparently slow progress I do spend a lot of time on it.

Windsor Button is the only place around that has everything I need for knitting. It's the only yarn store that carries everything from Red Heart to Malabrigo, Lion to Madelinetosh, and everything in between. Sure, they don't have every brand, but whatever you are looking for, they have something like it. No other yarn store in the Boston area - of the very few that still remain - can boast the range of yarns that Windsor can. It's literally the only place I can go when I have a project in mind and know that I'll come home with suitable yarn in a color I like. It may not be what I originally was looking for, but it will be as good or better.

And buttons! Where else can you even buy buttons? And don't say "the internet" because you can't hold them up to your finished sweater to make sure they go with it, or push them through the buttonholes to make sure they fit before buying them.

The staff is friendly and helpful and the owner, Sue, is incredibly skilled at suggesting the perfect buttons to go with your sweater, buttons you would never have even given a second look at but at clearly the ONLY buttons that would even make sense. I may have to stop knitting cardigans altogether.

I don't know what I'll do now. I suppose I'll end up ordering yarn from KnitPicks and WEBS, and maybe take the occasional drive to Western MA to visit WEBS in person, but there's just no substitute for being able to go buy yarn TODAY or TOMORROW because I've suddenly decided to make a project. This is going to take a lot of planning from here on out.

In the meantime, Windsor is having a big sale starting Monday morning. Luckily, I'm working evenings Monday and Tuesday this week so I'll be able to stop by in the morning at the beginning of the sale while there's still a lot there. But I'm not buying for a particular project so I'll have to plan well. Oh, it's going to be tough walking into the store knowing it may be the last time!

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Pox Party

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

Octavian and his mother Cassiopeia are royalty. They live at the College of Lucidity where they study and play music and dress in fine silks. The others are each known by a number, only Octavian and his mother are called by their names. It is only as Octavian gets older that he notices that those running the College all have light skin and and others who have dark skin like Octavian are not treated well. He begins to question the way his bodily functions are recorded in detail. He stumbles into a forbidden room in the College and his world shifts. As the pictures opens up a bit wider, we see Boston leading up to the Revolution and Octavian suddenly becomes involved.

Most of the story is attributed to Octavian's own accounts of his life, but later on there's a long portion from an account by a soldier. Octavian's language is quite lofty, as befits one who is receiving a classical education. It's tougher to read than YA narration usually is, but not nearly as difficult as the soldier's passages. Oh, that was rough to get through!

"O Fruition, dear Sis, the Spirit of Liberty stirs the Countryside like Sap, & everywhere I am sensible of the Blossoms."


All the &'s and inappropriate capitalizations are just maddening. I can appreciate the historical accuracy of that style but it is incredibly unpleasant to read.

In addition to capturing the feel and writing style of that era, the book deserves big bonus points for a number of other reasons. First, a non-white male protagonist : yes, please. Young Adult fiction is teeming with blond young women, the guys and people of color all too rare. Second, Revolutionary-era Boston! I live in the area, so it's of special interest, but those particular events in our history resonate with many Americans.

Having said all that, Octavian Nothing was a book I appreciate much more than I enjoyed. Octavian's story was compelling on some level, but I found it really difficult to relate to his character because we didn't really have access to his thoughts, his inner life, but only to what was happening to him. However, I read this for a book group and I'm very much looking forward to hearing what others thought of it - I think there's a great deal of fodder for discussion.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

And When She Was Good

And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (2012), narrated by Linda Emond

Heloise has it all: a big house, expensive car, perfect son, and a successful business. One day, while in line for a latte at Starbucks, she hears that a suburban madam has died, apparently of suicide. But it's not as simple as it seems, and neither is Heloise. Her lobbying firm is in fact a cover for an escort service and though she has been careful over the years to make sure she and her girls are protected, suddenly everything seems like it may begin to unravel.

Most summaries of this novel contain a lot more information, but it's best if you know little going into it because Heloise's past - and much of her present life - is revealed slowly over the course of the novel. In fact, although I knew that Lippman was a crime writer (I've read two of her other books), this didn't even seem like a crime novel most of the way through, more like a novel about Heloise and how she came to be a madam. Which is fine, because it was fascinating to read about how she ran her business to look legitimate - she filed taxes and everything - and how she kept that side of her life so separate from her life with her son.

Heloise's childhood and young adulthood - during which she was known as Helen - were troubled, to put it mildly, and she was still haunted by her cruel father and the other men who mistreated her. But she emerged strong and hard and capable. It's sad though, as she has had little contact with men who aren't horrible (except professionally, and they paid money for that bit of intimacy), and she isolated herself even from potential friends. I like to think these things changed for her later.

I should mention the narrator - I barely thought of her at all, which is a testament to her expertise. Worthy of mention is her portrayal of Heloise's assistant, Audrey, who is hearing-impaired. Her voice was convincing in its subtle tone sounding much, but not exactly, like someone who is deaf. I would think it's difficult to get it right without overdoing it, and Emond succeeded at that.

This is the third book I've read by Laura Lippman, and each one has been just as good as the last. She is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2002)

It is 1666 and the Plague has travelled north from London on a bolt of fabric to the small village where lives young Anna Frith. Widowed when her husband was killed in a mine, Anna is left with two young sons. As the plague ravages her village, she continues to help where she can as those she cares about are taken from her, one by one.

It's been about a year since I read Caleb's Crossing and became determined to read more by Geraldine Brooks. Again, I was drawn in by her descriptions of life in the time period about which she writes and again I was reminded Ann Patchett. Brooks uses vivid imagery, and I kept rereading sentences because they were so nicely crafted. When evoking a feeling of fall, the images she picked seemed the most perfect ones she could have chosen: "wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest" and "the rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins." That is in the very first paragraph, hooking me the moment I began reading. Like Patchett, her writing just seems so perfect.

Of course, most of what she's evoking here is unpleasant - it's the plague, after all. Anna Frith has only small moments of happiness in a difficult life, made all the worse by the descent of a horrible illness upon her village. Still, those trying times brought out the best in some people, like Anna, who labored at the bedsides of those who needed it without fear for their own health. In others it bought out the worst - years before the Salem witch trials, villagers Anys and Mem Gowdie were accused of being witches because of their skill with herbs, and suffered greatly for it.

The only part of the book I disliked was the epilogue. I'm starting to dislike most epilogues, I find.
They are so out of control, jumping forward or shifting to some far-off place, disorienting the poor reader who has come so far and only wants an ending. This one felt less like a conclusion to this story than a small bit of another whole, entirely different, story. It was intriguing, but I would have preferred it be expanded on and presented as a sequel, not part of this book.

Otherwise, Year of Wonders was just as good as I had hoped. Anna Frith served as a worthy protagonist, smart and strong, and I liked reading about her life and her relationships with the other villagers, many of whom were intriguing and complex characters. Brooks brilliantly captured this small bit of history, bringing one small village and its inhabitants to life.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I don't think I've yet shared with you the sock I've been knitting on the bus. Here it is, on the bus:

You can even see my lunch bag and part of my Squall Hat in the background.

It's the 3X3 Cable with Moss Stitch pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, and I'm using Cascade Heritage sock yarn.

I'm delighted that I'm able to knit this cable pattern on the bus. I picked it because I really felt like making cabled socks, and it was only after I started on it that I realized it would be bus-friendly. The pattern is very easy to memorize, though I have a scrap of paper in my knitting bag with the instructions on it, just in case.

Things got a bit hairy just briefly one day when I pulled the sock out of my project bag and heard a metallic plinking sound as my cable needle landed somewhere around me. I looked on the floor and on the seat and almost gave up, thinking that I do have other cables needles at home. But this is my favorite, so I took one last thorough look around and spied it in the crevice between my seat and the wall of the bus. A crevice filled with dirt and grime and things I do not want to think about. Nevertheless, I fished it out using the point of my knitting needle and washed it later. All is well! 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bright Young Things

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen (2010)

It's the 1920s and Prohibition is in full swing. Cordelia Grey was forced into marriage after being caught in a compromising position with a young man, but immediately after her nuptials fled Ohio for New York City, accompanied by her closest friend. Letty thinks they're going for her benefit, as she is a talented singer looking for stardom, but only after their arrival she learns that Cordelia is actually searching for father, the notorious bootlegger Darius Grey. The third protagonist in the novel is the flapper Astrid Donal, girlfriend of Darius Grey's son Charlie. The lives of these three young women intersect and diverge, changing them all forever.

One of my favorite YA trilogies was Anna Godbersen's The Luxe, and I've been wanting to check out her follow-up series for a while and I can't help but compare the two. As with The Luxe, the first few pages of Bright Young Things foretell of the ending - one of these girls will be famous, one will be married, and one will be dead. In The Luxe it began with a character's funeral and the story worked its way towards that funeral. But here, the promised outcomes apparently are at the end of the series. In that way, I found this story a bit lacking. Sure, there are romance and scandals and danger, but somehow it all seemed a bit less dramatic than I had hoped.

I liked Cordelia with her fake sophistication and devil-may-care attitude. Letty seems to be the naive one, Astrid world-weary and suspicious. They were all fairly likeable and distinct enough, though I didn't find them especially well-developed. They're probably similarly developed to the characters in The Luxe, but I think I preferred that series because of the time period and the types of social interactions and scandals. There was a time when I was totally enthralled by the 20s, but I think that era just no longer has the same appeal to me as others do.

Although I'm left hanging by the promises at the beginning of the book, I don't think I'll read the later books in this series. I'm sure I'd enjoy them well enough, as I did this one, there are just so many other books I'm looking forward to even more. But if you're looking for a young adult book that captures the spirit of the 1920s, look no farther; from the cigarette girls to the lavish parties to the organized crime, Bright Young Things captures the feeling of life in this bygone era.