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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Old Wine Shades by Martha Grimes

For a long time I was huge fan of Martha Grimes's Inspector Jury/Melrose Plant mysteries, devouring each one as it came out. Over time I gradually lost interest in the series and lost track of the latest books. A few days ago I picked up Old Wine Shades, the oldest of the ones I haven't read yet (I think), but I was soon reminded why I stopped reading them in the first place -- the sameness of it all.  Jury and Plant continue to brood about their lives, envy the other his life, and pine from afar for the same women. Racer continues to be an incompetent jerk, Wiggins is always dosing himself with home remedies, Aunt Agatha won't stop complaining or eating fairy cakes. Grimes won't allow her characters to grow, and that's a shame.

But then the story got good. The mystery was an unusual one, told in an unconventional way, and I was reminded of how good Grimes's writing can be. At her best, her stories are atmospheric and clever, filled with an assortment of interesting secondary characters.

And then the psychic dog showed up. Which was ... unexpected. In the past Grimes has had animals that were characters themselves, intelligent in their own animalistic way, but a dog that can send telepathic messages -- in English! -- belongs in a completely different story.

But! There was an incredible twist to the story two thirds of the way through, and all was forgiven as I raced to see how it would all end.

And ... it ended in a deeply unsatisfying way.  I think it's clear Grimes was experimenting in several ways here, but only some of them were successful.  From what I've read of the following novels, I think I'm done with the series. Maybe I'll re-read the first 15 or so.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Round-Up: Autumn edition

Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet: A cozy but dark mystery seems appropriate for the season.  This is the first installment of Malliet's series centered around an ex-MI5 agent who becomes an Anglican vicar in a small English town; so a modern version of Grantchester. Malliet's writing is smart, fun, and a bit moody.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving: The version I read had been illustrated and adapted by Will Moses, which I didn't realize.  I think I would have preferred to read the original text, but it serves its purpose of making the story accessible to kids -- Beadboy2 reads the book over and over every October.  I did enjoy the illustrations thoroughly. Moses is the great-grandson of Grandma Moses, and he was clearly inspired by her and her son.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen: The latest from one of my favorite writers, and a sequel to Garden Spells. This novel highlights by comparison the flaws in the Strawberry Hearts Diner. Allen writes about a southern town with mom-and-pop businesses, quirky people, and a quaint ambience; but she's not afraid to show the trailer parks, desperate people, and bad decisions that also populate the town.

Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett: I won't commit to reading all of Pratchett's Discworld novels, but I do enjoy the ones I pick up. These are the first two in the "witches" sub-series, and like the best of his books they marry laugh-out-loud high-fantasy satire with genuine insight into the human condition.  I was planning to read the third, but it seems to have disappeared; perhaps Granny Weatherwax disapproves.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Is it Even the Same Design Anymore?

I stitched a skull for All Souls Day and Dia de Muertos:

And here is the pattern I "followed":
Beware by Linda Medina, 2017 Just Cross Stitch Halloween
The first change came with the materials -- I didn't have pink fabric, so I chose teal, which meant tweaking the colors of the floss.  As I stitched the skull I added an extra row on the bottom for the jaw. Then I decided to emphasize the flowers at the top more, which eventually led to the lazy daisy and bullion stitches.  "Beware" no longer seemed like an appropriate caption, so I changed that. I liked the spiral, but that had to move.  I didn't forget about the little orange floral motif at the top, so those became Rhodes stitches in chartreuse.

I'm pleased with how it came out. Maybe if I ever get pink linen, I'll stitch the original (with no changes) for a companion piece.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trick or Treat Blog Hop

Welcome! Jo at Serendipitous Stitching is hosting her annual Halloween Blog Hop, and I get to join in on the fun.  My eerie, enchanting letter is
Fiddums Family Font Alphabet E

But you are here to see some stitching, too.  I've only one cross stitch finish this year, the Frosted Pumpkin design from this year's Just Cross Stitch Halloween issue:

I started some other patterns, but then set those aside to work on a design of my own. At the end of the summer I signed up for Stitchy Box's Halloween Countdown Box -- a box of 31 stitching goodies, one to open each day of October. The loot:
The hoop is mine

About halfway through the month I got the idea of incorporating the supplies into a sampler of 25 one-inch squares, filling out some of the spots with stuff from my own stash.
The day was too gloomy for a good photo
It's not completed, but it was a blast to make, and I may do a similar thing for Christmas.

Next up in the blog hop is Needle, Pen and Sword.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez

Locke & Key is a comic book series about three siblings who discover mysterious keys in their ancestral home, which unlock doors with all sorts of magical properties -- giving a person wings, turning a person into an animal, fixing broken things.  As so often happens in these types of stories, there is also a demon trying to gain control of the keys for nefarious purposes whom the family must fight.

It's the kind of thing that's right up my alley, with one big exception -- the story is thoroughly in the horror genre*, not fantasy (or even its sub-category, dark fantasy), and I really don't like horror. Before starting the series I deliberately sought out spoilers to ensure it didn't have a totally depressing ending and to prepare myself for some of the events.  And still, it was a tough read. A lot of very bad things happen, some deserved and some not; the subplot involving a mentally challenged young teen was particularly stressful for me.

Despite all of that, I'm glad I read it.  It's a fascinating story, the backstory and characters are well done, the artwork is evocative, and there are cool concepts galore.  Above all, the portrayal of a family shattered by horrific events but surviving because of their love for each other was touching.

*Joe Hill is Steven King's son.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This creepy, compelling gothic novel was the perfect read for October nights.  Margaret Lea, a bibliophile and sometime biographer, is summoned to the home of a reclusive writer who is finally ready to reveal the truth about her background -- incest, insanity, and murder set in a decaying ancestral home (the plot owes much to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and even The Fall of the House of Usher).

Margaret's narration is at first overwritten and mannered, something I find in gothic novels no matter when they are written; I think in most cases a baroque plot is better served with plainer language. As the book progresses, however, and Margaret gets caught up in Vida Winter's story, her style settles down.  Vida's sections, on the other hand, are a treat. There is a real satisfaction in seeing this character who has written so many stories and told so many lies struggle to finally tell the truth, and to it coherently.  In particular, the way she shifts from third person to first person plural to first person singular is crucial to understanding who she truly is (literally and metaphorically).

The novel is stripped of any extraneous material; there are no references to friends or outsiders, the world at large is barely mentioned, and descriptions of surroundings are kept to a minimum.  This not only emphasizes the claustrophobia of the stories themselves -- Margaret's and Vida's -- it adds a sense of eerie timelessness to the narrative.  Read this with a mug of cocoa and a blanket wrapped around yourself.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 40

A pumpkin in bullion knots. Surely if I stitch enough leaves and pumpkins, the weather will cool down.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman's novel is a fictional account of the life of Pissarro's mother, particularly her controversial marriage to her deceased husband's nephew.  I was skeptical of the book and only picked it up because it's September's pick in the Inspired by Literature club, but I'm so glad I did.  Hoffman's storytelling is beautiful and evocative, and rich in cultural detail. It even incorporates a little of the magic realism that she is known for.

Although the perspective changes occasionally, most of the book is told from Rachel Pissarro's point of view. Rachel is a force of nature, enough to rival the storms that hit the island and nearly ruin the family business. She is smart, willful, and passionate, alternately willing to make sacrifices for her family and willing to defy laws, conventions, and neighbors to get what she wants. She is also a bundle of contradictions; some of those contradictions deepen her already complex character, but others are inexplicable. It's as if in some scenes -- just a few -- Hoffman wasn't quite sure who Rachel was. Nonetheless, she is a memorable character, and her sections of the book overwhelm those portions told by her first husband and her son.

Most of the story takes place on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, and Hoffman's description of life there reminded me strongly of Puerto Rico, where I was born.  In particular I was taken with the repeated motif of the flamboyant trees (flamboyán, as we called them) with their brilliant red flowers.  My grandmother (a Spanish and French woman herself, although Catholic, not Jewish) was a painter, and one of my treasured possessions is the painting she did of a Flamboyán tree on a street in San Juan:

So that was my inspiration. I embroidered my own flamboyán, and placed it in a brass frame.  I added some glass pearls for luck (like the heirloom necklace in the novel, that can bring or take away luck).

My enchanted island is suffering terribly as a result of hurricane Maria.  If you are able and inclined to do so, please consider giving to help the people.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 39

I stitched some autumn leaves, in the hope that they would bring cooler weather.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

In Spark's classic novel, a mysterious voice calls several elderly people to tell them "Remember, you must die."  The source of the calls -- mundane or supernatural -- is never explained, but that's not the point.  Instead, the novel is a meditation on aging, death, and the way the various characters come to terms with their lives.

The results aren't exactly admirable, but they are funny, satirical, pathetic, and moving.  Human frailty is on display here as the characters mull over their lives, make excuses for themselves, and criticize their peers while coping with the physical and mental costs of aging. Above all, the concern is to have a "good death," whatever that means to the individual -- in the comfort of one's home, in a hospital with round-the-clock care, with a lot of money, surrounded by loved ones, mourned by the public at large. 

But the concerns often become petty. One character is constantly revising her will to reward or punish people; another schemes and blackmails to get inheritances.  One character catalogs the infirmities of everyone around him for the sake of "research" that's really busywork; another does it to reassure himself that he is "winning" at aging.  Towards the end of the book one woman, astuter than the others, makes the observation that "[a] good death ... doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul."  This is a point that is often ignored when we discuss end-of-life issues because we are so focused on getting rid of suffering and in "dying with dignity." But some suffering cannot be avoided no matter how hard we try.  And dignity doesn't lie in how able-bodied or sound-of-mind we are, but in our character.

For the most part, the characters in Spark's novel don't quite grasp that. That doesn't make them contemptible, though, just human.  Just like the rest of us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

It's that Time of Year

... when I get the urge to stitch, bead, and sew all things pumpkin and foliage.  First up is a scrappy pumpkin pillow, which allowed me to use a Halloween-themed charm pack from my stash:
Instead of 2.75 squares, I made mine 3.5 finished to better accommodate the 20 inch pillow form I had.  I also quilted it with perle cotton and big stitches:
To finish it I used the envelope technique, which I learned all the way back in 6th grade in my first quilting class:
No zippers!

I'm in the process of recovering the old, ugly cushions on the rocking chair. Doesn't this look better?
Speedy Beadboy3 lunges for the pillow

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Book Round-Up

Darned if You Do by Monica Ferris: the latest but one of the Crewel World series, this novel had some sloppy editing, but it was made up by a genuinely interesting mystery.  Ferris's character development continues to shine.

Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart: A quiet, gentle story set in post-war England, this novel is part mystery, part family drama, and part romance, but is mostly a pleasant diversion.

The Strawberry Hearts Diner by Carolyn Brown: This was ... kind of awful.  I'm all for cozy novels set in cute small towns, but this was too unrealistic.  The small-town superiority was too ridiculous, the characters' relationships developed far too quickly, the alleged conflicts were too minor (or just petered out instead of being resolved). I ended up skimming through to the anti-climactic ending, and it wasn't worth it.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux: Published in 1907, it's one of the first locked room mysteries, and well constructed; I was able to accurately guess the perpetrator of the crime and his motive, but the way he did it confounded me. It's also a product of its time; the success of the crime hinged in part on two people deliberately impeding the investigation to protect someone's honor -- not an internal sense of honor that comes from integrity, but an external one based on reputation.  I have little patience for that sort of thing, and it kept me from appreciating the novel as much as I should have.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Even More Blockheads

I got inspired over the Labor Day weekend.

Floral heart:

The Wicked Witch of the West:

I am vengeance! I am the night (flight)! I am ... BATMAN!

Monday, September 4, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 35

Two new motifs: a gridiron for St. Lawrence and St. Jerome's cross; both are the patron saints of librarians.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Another Blockhead

This week's block is called Cat's Cradle, and like a couple of other members I used some cat fabric:
Ignore that erroneous-sewn seam at the bottom.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 34

We spent the past week visiting my mom, and I forgot to pack my 1 Year embroidery.  That doesn't mean no stitching got done, however.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Welcome to Night Vale: a Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night Vale is an on-going podcast about a mysterious desert town teeming with secret police, men in black, illegal angels, deadly librarians, and a glow cloud, all discussed by Cecil Baldwin in his daily radio show. In 2015 the creators came out with a stand-alone novel set in the same town.  The story fits into the narrative of the podcast, but knowledge of one isn't necessary to enjoy the other.

Fink and Cranor have a distinctive narrative style that highlights the absurdity and horror of life in Night Vale, but while that style works well in a half-hour podcast, it's too much here, becoming somewhat of a distraction from the story itself.  Which is a shame, because it's a very good story.  Jackie and Diane, along with many other Night Vale residents, begin receiving a mysterious message that may or may not be intended for them about a city that no one can actually get to.  And it's nice to see an expansion of some elements of Night Vale; a novel gives the opportunity for more in-depth storytelling.

As in other magical realism books, the oddities and supernatural occurrences are manifestations the struggles ordinary people have trying to figure out the big questions of life -- its meaning and purpose -- and what they want their own lives to be.  Diane's teenage son is a literal shape-shifter, because teenagers have to figure out who they are.  Jackie has been 19 years old for decades, because like a lot of young adults today she isn't quite ready to grow up. A charming but feckless character multiplies himself endlessly because he doesn't have an actual personality, and in the process almost destroys reality. In the end, the horrors of Night Vale remind us of just how little we understand the world and ourselves.  What keeps me coming back to that desert town is the humanity that thrives despite those horrors.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Jewelry Round-Up

Another beaded bangle, like the Christmas one, but with pale pink pearls and black seed beads:

Steampunk earrings, made from clockwork gears from Blueberry Cove's Steampunk Box (with faceted glass beads from the Renaissance Box):

A red and turquoise necklace:
The beads were two inexpensive strands from Michaels, but even together it wasn't long enough. I attached each end to a large jump ring, and then added chain with a strip of red sari silk woven through the links.

I don't remember what I was going to make with these Indian glass beads, so I made a necklace instead.  Super fast and super pretty -- it's like a strand of hard candy around my neck:

Pretty, sparkly cup chain wired to two "gold" bangles.  I got the idea from the March 2013 issue of Bead Style (Becky Nunn being the designer).  It will look lovely with these bangles.

Monday, August 14, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 32

A bad cold knocked me out for a whole week. When I was finally up to stitching again, a medical hazard sign seemed appropriate:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a pure delight. Clay Jannon, who is that rare mix of competence, dorkiness, and enthusiasm that few writers get right, begins working in a musty, mysterious bookshop only to find himself entangled in an adventure involving secret societies, cutting-edge technology, and a lost book. 

The reader would be forgiven for assuming that Sloan is setting up your standard battle between old and new, paper and computers; instead he does something much more interesting by showing how these two disparate worlds can work together, enhancing each other.  This works in part because the two groups in the novel, the Society of the Unbroken Spine and Google,* want the same thing -- transcendence from the frailties and humiliations of the flesh. They're just other forms of Gnosticism, privileging the mind over the body and hoping for eternal life in one form or another.

This is what the two factions want, but Jannon himself has no such ambitions.  Skeptical of the claims each side makes, he just wants to solve a really cool puzzle.  Which he does, through his knack of putting together people, concepts, and methods from all aspects of life.  That's what the novel is ultimately about -- collaboration.  It makes for a lovely, engaging read.

*Yup, that Google, and it is horrifyingly sterile and perky.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cellini Spiral

A few months ago I was looking for a nice, solid beading project, and I settled on a bangle made with the Cellini spiral stitch -- a good excuse to use some lovely size 6 green beads.  The bangle at the end of this post gave me the idea of using a mix of size 11 beads, inspired by all the blooming flowers I saw this spring.  The result:

While I was poking around the internet, looking at different Cellini projects,  I ran across one woman who claimed to whip up a bangle in an evening.  I'm calling shenanigans on that -- this project was easy, but took a loooooong time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Overheard on the Street

"I'm not sure whether to be pleased or concerned that my pee smells like champagne and strawberries."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Chemickal Marriage by Gordon Dahlquist

Getting the third volume of Dahlquist's series was a bit of an ordeal; thank you, Public Library of St. Louis, Missouri!

And it was an ordeal to read.  There's just too much -- too many arch-villains, each one stepping in to take over the dastardly plan when the previous one dies.  Too many allies who help the heroes for a moment, only to disappear or be left to their fate. Too many interchangeable underlings. Too many separations and reunions of the protagonist trio. Too many action scenes that don't change the outcome, chases that don't go anywhere, and conversations that don't reveal anything significant. Above all, there is a sense of ugliness that pervades the narrative.

And it's a shame -- there are some wonderful characters in this trilogy and a lot of neat, original concepts, starting with the mysterious blue glass that can take or infuse memories, wipe out a personality or replace it with another, brutally kill the body or give it strength.  Pruning this story down would have done wonders.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Round-up

Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists, edited by Chris Duffy:  I bought this for Beadboy2 ages ago, but couldn't resist reading it myself.  It's a collection of tales from around the world (although most are from the Grimm Brothers) delightfully illustrated by a variety of artists, including the wonderful Hernandez brothers.  The tales have been bowdlerized for children's sensibilities, something I feel was unnecessary, but it well suits the happy, whimsical art.  My favorite was "The Boy Who Drew Cats" by Luke Pearson, especially because the boy in question reminds me so much of Beadboy2.

The Knitting Diaries: since I already read novels centered around embroidery, cross stitch, quilting, and baking, why leave out knitting?  I heard about the collection from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and the first two (by Debbie Macomber and Susan Mallery) were meh.  The third, by Christina Skye, was both more compelling and more touching (and yet had the fewest references to knitting, interestingly enough).  I might check out more of her work.

The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist: I've resorted to skimming these books, because they are far too long and tedious.  There are too many action scenes that last quite a while, place our protagonists in certain danger before abruptly freeing them, and don't actually further the plot at all.  Not until the end, with the final confrontation, did the story engage me.  Still, I want to read how it all turns out.

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook: The second full novel in the Iron Seas series was a bit of a let-down; there weren't any major flaws (except for the female protagonist constantly telling us how badass she is and the fact that the resolution to the central problem was anti-climactic), but it didn't hold my attention as much as The Iron Duke.  I did, however, enjoy the continuing world building. We got to see other countries and cultures, and as I predicted there were scenes that showed the Golden Horde are not a monolithic, faceless enemy.  

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Having adored Uprooted, I was eager to read The Bear and the Nightingale, described by many reviewers as having a similar vibe.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as engaging, and it left me wanting to reread Novik's book.

Which isn't to say there isn't a lot to like about it -- Arden paints a vivid picture of life in the Rus, describing brutal winters so well I could almost feel my blood freezing (my overly air-conditioned workplace might have helped).  Her characters are for the most part fleshed out from their fairy tale counterparts, humanizing them and giving them believable motives. But after establishing a fascinating world, in the second half of the book she relies on fairy tale tropes too often.  The stepmother is evil because she is supposed to be; much of the antagonism between her and Vasilisa makes sense given their world views and the price (for both of them) of living in such a patriarchal society, but other instances of Anna’s cruelty seem out of place in the narrative.  The impossible task Vasilisa is given is another example -- a common trope that might might make sense in a brief, allegorical tale shows up jarringly and late in the narrative here, serving as an unnecessary excuse to get the heroine into the woods.

Also, Arden sets up an unfortunate and tired dichotomy between Christianity and the old beliefs.  Both human antagonists (who are, to be fair, complex and interesting) are Christian; Vasilisa is not. Worse yet, Christianity is portrayed as useless, even false. But given a world where magic is real and there are loads of non-human spirits, it does not make sense that the Church would ignore that for hundreds of years, would not have investigated and debated and gotten theologians to wrestle with the implications, would not have adjusted to better fight the evil present in the world.  Especially since that evil is ultimately defeated by a willing sacrifice; gee, I wonder where I’ve heard of that concept before?

There is a sequel in the works that will focus more on Vasilisa's sister and brother; her brother in particular is a devout Christian and so far, at least, a good guy, so perhaps the friction between the two belief systems will be better addressed.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more from Arden.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

The Iron Duke is billed as a steampunk romance, but it is quite a bit more bonkers than that -- yes, there are airships and clockworks and a Victorianish atmosphere, but there are also secret societies, pirates, radio-controlled nanoagents, zombies, cyborgs, and giant half-metal sharks.  Brook is such a talented writer, however, that you just take all that craziness in stride and enjoy the story.

This is primarily a romance, so there was an awful lot of relationship angst and thinking about feelings; I would have preferred more adventure-having and mystery-solving.  And there is the potential for some ugly racial issues.  According to this alternate history, the Golden Horde successfully took over most of Europe for hundreds of years, and England only recently regained its freedom.  Even in our world, where there was no Mongol empire ruling everyone through the use of mind-controlling nanoagents, white people nonetheless managed to have (still have, in some cases) some ugly opinions about Asians; you can imagine what the fictional English in the novel think of them.  Brook smartly mitigates some of this by making the female protagonist half-Asian, but this can only go so far (especially given that she is the product of a rape) and there is the danger of tokenism.  There are also brief references to a resistance within the Horde, so perhaps later books will widen the scope.

Still, this book was loads of fun.  I also read two novellas set in the same world -- The Blushing Bounder and Wrecked.  As is often the case in romance novellas, the couples go from hate to true love far too quickly, but the novellas are worth reading for the added world-building.