Thursday, May 30, 2013

Texas Destiny

Texas Destiny by Lorraine Heath (1997)

Amelia Carson accepted marriage to a man she had never met, but when she arrived on the train in Fort Worth it wasn't Dallas Leigh who arrived to meet her, it was his brother Houston. Quiet and gruff, Houston still wears the scars from the Civil War, and seems convinced that he doesn't deserve anything good in his life. But as he and Amelia spend three weeks traveling across Texas to the ranch where she is to marry Dallas, they find themselves helplessly drawn to one another.

Houston and Amelia were great characters, both with tough exteriors and carrying around a world of hurt.  I really dislike when character think they are worth little because of scars or other physical attributes (although I know it's not unrealistic) but it became clear there was much more to Houston's feelings of low self-worth than his looks. Amelia carried her own sort of scars from the war, just not ones that were visible. They understood each other so well that it was easy to see why they would be drawn to each other. I also appreciated that Dallas was also a perfectly good guy, because making the losing love interest a jerk would be an easy and cheap way out. (It would also make it impossible to write the sequels.) The third and youngest brother, Austin, was sweet and charming. They all made me want to read the other two books in the series.

Because the characters were well-drawn, the romance was also believable. It was a sticky situation, but nothing about it felt contrived. I could absolutely understand why both Houston and Amelia were drawn to each other, and also understood how torn they both felt because they wanted to do the right thing. Houston's internal issues almost seemed like a bit much, but considering that nobody in his family actually talked about what happened during the war it was easy to see why he thought and felt the way he did. It was all really quite well done compared to most of the romances I've read.

This is the closest I've come to reading a Western, and surprisingly I really liked those aspects of the story - the cowboys, the long dusty trip across the state, eating beans from a can next to a campfire. Plus the obstacles encountered as Amelia and Houston crossed the state by wagon, such as when they both almost drowned in a river, and when Amelia was bitten by a poisonous snake. Not to mention the entire prospect of traveling to a place where she would be the only woman around to marry a man she had never met. I even found the language endearing. Somehow exclamations like "Hot diggity damn!" which could have been totally hokey seemed appropriate.

This novel is older, but caught my attention after being featured on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. As I was just finishing up Wolf Hall, I pounced on this mainly because it was the opposite of Wolf Hall. It was exactly what I needed.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

"Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all." So says Henry VIII, and yet I spent a full month reading this one. I can't explain what was so compelling about a book that confounded me at every turn, but I kept plugging away at it despite the bewildering number of characters who all shared just a handful of first names, and the unclear pronouns that made it impossible to know who the hell was speaking at any given time.

Thank goodness I've watched the tv series The Tudors or else I'd have been far more confused. The inexplicably-titled Wolf Hall closely follows Thomas Cromwell during the period in which Henry VIII tires of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marries Anne Boleyn amid a great deal of political and religious machinations. It was very long, yet covered such a short period that Anne Boleyn was still alive at the end of the novel.

The most frustrating aspect of this novel is that Mantel almost always refers to Thomas Cromwell only as "he." This is especially confusing when there are other male characters in the scene who are also being referred to because there was nothing to clarify whether the "he" was whatever guy had been just previously mentioned, or Cromwell. Seriously, Hilary Mantel, what exactly were you trying for here? I understand sacrificing a bit of clarity for a larger gain, but here the constant use of "he" achieves nothing. It's not as though it made the writing more poetic or captured something that just saying "Cromwell" could not.

Even when names were used, it was still confusing since everyone in the novel seemed to be a Thomas or an Anne or a Henry. I realize it's based on history and these were the actual names, but it is fiction so would it hurt mix things up a little, or at least specify which Thomas or Henry was being referred to?

Now, it's not all bad or else I wouldn't have made it through at all. Had it been tighter, shorter and more clear, it would have been a very strong book. Thomas Cromwell was a fascinating and well-developed character, and I particularly liked the memory system he learned in Italy, and which I learned from reading Moonwalking with Einstein. There was a great smattering of dry humor, and I hope that henceforth when I cry out in frustration it is to say "Oh, by the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!" Descriptions of everyday life were tangible, bringing the historical setting alive. And there were some examples of really lovely writing: "Rumors crop up in the short summer nights. Dawn finds them like mushrooms in the damp grass." I wish there had been more of that and less of all the things I didn't like.

I'm mystified at all the amazing reviews and awards this book received. The NY Times review said: "Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike." I cannot disagree strongly enough. The Guardian calls it "lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written" and says the "reader finishes wanting more." It's like I read a completely different book. But this is why I tend to shy away from award-winners and highly-praised literary fiction. I frequently end up reading through reviews afterward, trying - and failing - to figure out why everyone loved the book so much.

The only reason I even read Wolf Hall is because I really want to try the follow-up Bring Up the Bodies. There's no reason, of course, to read the first one since I've watched the tv show and can look up any history I need (I won't even pretend to actually know it). I can't explain why I was so compelled to read this first. The sequel is apparently written in a much more clear style without the confusing Cromwell "he," and it's shorter, so there's hope I'll like it a lot better. Of course I'll tell you all about it. Mostly, after reading Wolf Hall for a solid month, I'm just happy to finally be free of it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Winter Queen

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin (1998)

One day in 1876, a young man walked up to a young lady in a park and asked her (what did he ask her?) while brandishing a gun and when she refused him, he shot himself in the head. Simple suicide? Maybe, but Erast Fandorin doesn't think so. Twenty years old and just a (rank) he sees something more and is eager to get to the bottom of the mystery. Of course the apparent suicide in the park is just the tip of the iceberg and Fandorin is soon pursuing a large and mysterious conspiracy.

I found a lot to like in this novel, not the least of which is that Russia is one of my favorite settings. As an added bonus, there was a great deal of dueling. Dueling! But of a very different kind than you might think. The opening scene was one of the best in the book and drew me in instantly and I easily carried along on the casual and easy style.  

A minor quibble is that Fandorin's romantic interest was a completely throwaway character; calling her two-dimensional would be generous. Fandorin was smitten the moment he saw her, and I just never care about these shallow romances no matter how much they may insist upon their undying love. But I didn't find this relationship important enough for it to bother me much.

My main problem was with Fandorin himself, who I found be rather an idiot. This was his first case and still wet behind the ears, he regularly made bumbling mistakes with dangerous consequences. It's unlikely he would have come out alive. For instance, there is a situation in which he has learned of somebody's dastardly deeds and that person starts telling him all about the things they have done. This should set off warning bells. Instead, Fandorin actually says "Why are you being so frank with me? Surely you do not hope to win me over to your camp?" I wanted to smack him.

Despite his apparent stupidity, Fandorin still held some appeal. Young and eager, one can sympathize with an orphan who wants to rise above his station and solve crimes. I can only assume he will learn from his mistakes and grow as a character as he takes on more cases in future books. The Winter Queen is the first in a series and I was surprised to see more loose ends than in any mystery I've read. I can only presume these threads will be followed in future books in the series.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I just want to show you the beginning of the lace panel on my Humboldt Raglan.

I apologize for the photo quality and the fact that you can't actually see the lace very well. It's the best I can do, given that I'm supposed to be cooking brunch for my book group right now.

One of the reasons I liked this sweater in the first place is that there's enough lace to make it interesting, but not enough to screw it up. It's a 10-stitch repeat which you do only 3 times. Easy enough!

This is great knitting for movie-watching actually. The lace is just a tiny part of each row and the rest is all stockinette so I barely need to look. Considering the tiny gauge, it's moving along at an unexpectedly quick pace.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A World Away

A World Away by Nancy Grossman (2012), narrated by Jessica Lawshe

Eliza has finally reached the age of sixteen, when Amish teenagers get to run wild. She has always wanted to leave her district and visit the English world where she could wear jeans and listen to music and experience all sorts of new things. Her parents are not very open to this idea, but eventually they allow her to travel from Iowa to Chicago to be a nanny for the summer. Eliza is hungry to see and do everything in this new world, but ultimately she must make a difficult choice - stay out in the large world with all its freedoms and complications, or return to the simple ordered life she has always known.

The best part about this book was getting to know the ways of the Amish people at the beginning and then traveling with Eliza to Chicago and experiencing so many new things along with her. Her first ride in a car, her first phone call, her first jeans, makeup, learning how to use a computer. And did I mention that there's a boy? Of course there's a boy. His name is Josh and he and Eliza start as friends but it predictably becomes more, making her ultimate choice that much more difficult.

While living in Chicago, Eliza slowly learns more about her mother's time out in the world when she was young. She also gets in touch with someone from her mother's past and learns secrets her family has been keeping for years. I really enjoyed her relationships with all the adults in her life and how they developed, in addition to the more complicated and drama-prone friendships with her peers.

Eliza is what I can only think of as wholesome (and I mean that in the best way possible.) Fresh-faced and polite, she really does want to do the right thing and as far from home as she is, she still retains reverence for Amish ways. I found her outlook extremely refreshing in some ways. For instance, one evening not long after she begins living in Chicago she is getting ready to go out with Josh. When she's all dressed up to go, she looks into a mirror and thought to herself "I am pretty!" This isn't a sentiment we usually hear from teenage girls, most of whom have learned to focus only on what they perceive as their faults. We could really learn some things from the Amish.

There is a point late in the book where she became disillusioned with the English world because of a bad experience after a dance she attended with friends. She made some mistakes and bad choices and had to deal with the extremely unpleasant consequences. It was strange because she was finally able to make decisions on her own, yet when she had to take responsibility for those decisions her reaction seemed to be targeted at the English world. But there are always those who prefer strict order to keep themselves in line, I guess. It was just an interesting way to look at freedom and responsibility and keeping your wits about you. I thought maybe there were too many complications thrown in late in the story when she was trying to make her decision, but ultimately I found the ending satisfying.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I'm a little fascinated by the Amish and other old-timey people so I was naturally drawn to this story. Much like The Sweetheart of Prosper County, I found it a refreshing change from dystopia/paranormals and the sort of realistic fiction riddled with school shootings and drug problems. I like all those books well enough, but I also like books where the problems are more of the everyday sort, and they can be hard to find.

The narrator, Jessica Lawshe, had an appropriately warm and earnest voice, as I would imagine Eliza had. Because the story was fairly simple, it was pleasant and relaxing to listen to on my daily commute. (If you pick up a paper copy just ignore this horrible cover.) I'd recommend this story to anyone who likes young adult books, and it's totally appropriate even for pre-teens. It's a shame it's not available at any libraries in my system, but it's absolutely worth the price of purchase.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

The government is preparing for the next alien invasion by training child soldiers, and Ender Wiggin is their newest recruit. Six years old, Ender is a genius living in fear of his sadistic older brother Peter. It's only his sister Valentine he'll miss when he's taken away from his family to train at Battle School. He excels and quickly rises to the top of his class, all the while afraid of becoming violent like his brother. Ender doesn't communicate with his family so has no idea that while he's training to fight an alien invasion, Valentine has allied with Peter to manipulate the public and change world politics, making these three children the most influential the world has known.

Battle School is incredibly difficult, physically and psychologically. Throughout, all I kept thinking is that Ender's life was no longer his own and never would be. All day and all night, he lived and breathed military strategy and he had no choice. He developed some friendships, but the lives of all these kids were closely controlled to make sure nothing impeded their mission.

A great deal of the book described the battle simulations Ender and the other soldiers practiced, and despite the changes to the simulations and improvements Ender made in his skills, I became a little bored before I was even halfway through. But around that time, Valentine and Peter entered the story again as they created fake online profiles with oppositional views and carefully crafted arguments to sway political opinions. I'll admit I didn't understand much about what they were arguing, but I still found this part of the story fascinating. Peter was the stuff of nightmares, as far as older brothers are concerned, but brilliant as a character. Eventually Ender's part of the story became much more interesting as well, and late in the book it became quite gripping. So maybe about 2/5 of the book was pretty boring, with an interesting beginning and end.

Some reviews of the book criticize the characters because they don't act like children. This is true - they're all geniuses and completely practical and mature. But it didn't bother me because this is a different world from ours and I don't expect it to be the same. On the other hand, I never felt like I got to know Ender very well. He was definitely a character as opposed to a person, if you know what I mean.

Since I'm reading this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work, I should probably mention the young adult-ness of it, or lack thereof. Although the readership does span into the teen years, it seems to be a favorite of people of all ages. Despite the age of the protagonist, 6-12 during the course of the book, the writing style is not light or breezy. It's not difficult, but not an easy quick read either. Science fiction and fantasy break age-related bounds in general, and Ender's Game is only young adult the same way that Lord of the Rings is.

I first read Ender's Game close to 20 years ago, and didn't remember a thing about it except a vague feeling that I had liked it. I'm glad the group voted for it so I had the opportunity to read it again, but it's unlikely I'll continue with the series.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Knitting

Since I finished my Noro Striped Scarf last week, it was clearly time to start a new project. Never mind that I still have my Fountain Pen Shawl and Cozy V Neck Sweater in progress. Clearly another sweater was needed. Here's part of the waistband for the Humboldt Raglan from the Spring 2013 issue of Knitscene.

I'm using Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino, a blend of wool, microfiber, and cashmere. I bought it as part of the yarn-buying spree I allowed myself at Windsor Button before the store closed its doors forever.

Though I bought the yarn knowing full well what I was going to be knitting with it, I neglected to check the pattern for needle requirements. This happens to me every time I start a project. I've been knitting for over a decade at this point, and I think I've convinced myself that by now surely I must have all the knitting needles I need. Yet my over-confidence is downfall every time.

It was after the final closing of Windsor Button (over which I am still grieving) that I realized what I had done. Panic set in. The point of the spree was that I didn't know where I'd go for knitting supplies after that store closed so I was stocking up. But I remembered another small store in the area that was still around - Mind's Eye Yarns. I went online to check that store's hours in anticipation of a needle-buying trip and saw an announcement that unless anyone buys the store soon, it too will be closing. I high-tailed it over there for the needles I needed.

Then I sat down one evening with an episode of Doctor Who and my yarn and needles and looked at the pattern. Oh.

It requires two different sizes of needles.

I got them a few days later, but I no longer trust my ability to plan a project properly. Perhaps I should just stick with socks. For those, I know I always have the right needles I need, and in multiples.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Stuff of Life

The Stuff of Life: a graphic guide to genetics and DNA  by Mark Schultz (2008)

In my post about the book Why Evolution is True, I mentioned that the few pages I struggled to understand were about genetics and DNA and that I had requested a comic that explains the basics because I was determined to make sense of it. I'm happy to say that I followed through and read The Stuff of Life as planned.

The setup is this: an alien life form called the Squinch are suffering from some sort of genetic disorder and sent a representative to Earth to study what we know about genetics in hope of helping their species. The representative has returned to their planet and is explaining all of this to their leader who is learning it along with us. He begins at the molecular level, gradually moving towards the larger subjects of inherited traits and diseases in the population, and about the study of genetics and how that is being used.

Initially I thought the science fiction framework was a little hokey, but I came to appreciate the occasional relief from the barrage of information. Now and then when the material became very dense, we're taken back to the conversation where the leader will say something like "Let me make sure I understand this," and then summarize what has been discussed, which was incredibly helpful.

In addition to the fictional aliens, a lot of the molecules and whatnot were anthropomorphized, so it's not exactly reality but a good introduction that I think would make it easier to tackle a more traditional textbook if one wanted to go that route (which I will not. This was almost more than I could handle.)

I probably understood close to 80% of the material. Of that, I don't think I retained more than half. It's like I can grasp it for one glorious, lucid moment before it flits away leaving me muddled and hazy again. That's just how it is with me and science.

Some interesting facts have stucks with me though. For instance, that all men today carry a Y chromosome inherited from a single ancestor, and all women carry mitochondrial dna originating from a single source as well. What? I barely understand this, yet am surprised and intrigued. This will probably be covered more in Last Ape Standing, which I have out of the library and hope to fit in my reading schedule sometime soon. (I just have to finish Wolf Hall and two book group books first!) I'm really happy that I'm following the reading path I began with Why Evolution is True - maybe after reading a few related books some of this knowledge will actually sink in and stay with me.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday Knitting

Lovely, if I do say so myself. And just in time to wash it and put it away for the summer. By the time fall rolls around I will have forgotten all about it and will be in store for a wonderful cozy surprise. At least that's my plan.

This is the Noro Striped Scarf from this pattern, using 4 skeins of Noro Silk Garden on size 7 needles. Easy and satisfying, I could easily make another one right now. Noro uses some gorgeous colors, and the surprising way they appear from the skein keeps your project from becoming dull.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Lady by Midnight

A Lady By Midnight by Tessa Dare (2012)

Coming from a modest background, with no family, Kate Taylor has made a comfortable home for herself in Spindle Cove. Here she gives music lessons to young ladies at the local combination bar/tea house, the Bull and Blossom. One occasionally runs into unpleasant types here, such as the inscrutable Corporal Thorne. Although they have barely spoken to each other, circumstances suddenly throw them together and they are instantly drawn to one another. When a motley band of strangers arrives in town to claim Kate as a relative, the suspicious Thorne fakes an engagement with Kate. Hilarity ensues. Passions are kindled. Love is found at last.

This story contains some great elements. Kate and Thorne are from a similar background and, in fact, fairly early in the book we learn that they met in the past. Thorne realizes that Kate doesn't remember and tries to protect her from memories that, if dredged up, could be upsetting to her. Meanwhile, the Gramercy family arrives with information linking Kate to their family. Kate is instantly taken with this colorful crew and wants more than anything to finally have a family, but should she trust their story? Why did they wait so many years to find her?

Kate was orphaned at a young age and if that's not enough to undercut one's sense of self-confidence out in the world, she was also graced with a port wine birthmark on her temple. Although she's self-conscious about her appearance, she strives in her role as music teacher to instill feelings of confidence in her students. Perhaps because of her modest beginnings, she reserves judgment about others who she is sure just want to be accepted and loved as she does. In this way she is able to overlook many characteristics deemed unsavory by polite society.

This is good news for Corporal Thorne, a coarse man with a dubious background that includes prison time. Never does he think he deserves the attention of someone like Kate, yet he has protected her interests for much longer than she realizes. Only through a great deal of coaxing - and some help from a dog named Badger - is he willing to open up to the possibility of romance. Although they are very different people, their shared background gave them enough in common that I found their relationship believable. Of course the depth of their passion was just as over-the-top as I would expect from a romance novel, peppered liberally with wanton sex for good measure.

I really was actually liking this fairly well until near the end when there is a confrontation and a melodrama, and Kate is treated as a piece of disputed property before the whole thing peters out in a less-than-believable way. It was silly that the whole debacle even occurred, but I got really, really annoyed that she was fought over as though she had no opinion in the matter when, in fact, she has given her opinion quite clearly, loudly, and repeatedly.

Although it was sort of saved by the final scenes and satisfying conclusion, I was soured enough by the penultimate events that I ended up giving the book only 2.5 stars. This may not be fair, as I was rating it when those parts were fresh in my mind; had the parts I disliked occurred earlier they may not have factored so heavily in my rating. To rectify things a bit, let me recommend this review which gives the an book A-. A Lady By Midnight was the third in the Spindle Cove series (but the only one I've read), and despite my issues it showed enough promise in general that I might be willing to try other books in the series.