Book recommendations: January 2013

Before I get to my book recommendations this month, I wanted to show off my new haircut:
New hair

I had 6 inches cut, and ended up with a nice layered bob.  I’m pretty happy with it – it looks good curled or straight.  I grew my hair out because I hadn’t had it long in a decade, but as it turns out I prefer shorter hair – it suits my personality, and I don’t have to spend nearly as long fixing it in the morning, which was becoming quite daunting.

Cutting my hair also set me off on revamping my wardrobe.  I have a new job and new goals, so it was time.  I will post about that later this week, so look for that.

I didn’t have a lot of time to read this month, but I did finish four books, three of which I would recommend.  This month I delved into young adult fantasy and Swedish crime novels.  As always, you can friend or follow me on Goodreads!


The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

I technically finished it early in the morning on February 1st, but I say it counts for January.  This was my favorite book this month!  I’ve previously read all of Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next novels.  I loved the first, but became a little less enamored of them as they went along.  I got a bit of quirkiness overload, and quite frankly the ideas got a stretched a little thin.  So I wasn’t certain I even wanted to give this a try – YA novels from established authors often overdo the simplification of their style.  But to my surprise I loved it!

Jennifer, the narrator, is a teenage foundling.  She has been apprenticed to Kazam, where she spends most of her days watching over and taking care of wizards.  Yes, I said wizards.  In the universe of the book (an alternate United Kingdom) magic is very real.  It is not, unfortunately, very fashionable at the current time.  Indeed, it appears that for years the source of magic has been dying off, with most wizards unable to perform the feats they could have in their youths.  This, naturally, makes them rather cranky.  The wizards are easily the most amusing part of the book, with their self-proclaimed titles and childish jealousies.   They earn their keep by taking on mundane duties – delivering takeaway by flying carpet, predicting odds at the races etc.  One of the precogs has a very vivid vision – that the last dragon is about to die – and that’s where the book really takes off.

I won’t spoil things for you.  If you enjoy humorous fantasy a la Terry Pratchett then it’s a safe bet you will like this book.  It’s worth the price of admission for the Quarkbeast!  What is that, you ask?  Well… I will let the book explain:

“Quarkbeasts, for all their fearsome looks, are obedient to a fault. They are nine-tenths velociraptor and kitchen blender and one-tenth Labrador. It was the Labrador tenth that I valued most.”

There you go.  The book is the beginning of a series, but unlike some it has a real conclusion.  My only quibble is that it is very short – under 300 pages.  I wanted more, but there is another in the series out, with the final book to follow this year!


Cinder by Marissa Meyer

That’s a great cover, right?  I’ll admit I wasn’t excited about this book, but a book club I am sometimes part of was reading it, so I picked up a copy.    I cringed starting it, remembering the time I had to read Wicked for a similar club.  I know, I know everyone loves Wicked, but it tops the list of my most disliked books.  Blah.  So I fear retellings, which often try too hard to be different from the source material.

I’ve been reading more Young Adult novels, mostly because they are what’s being published right now.  Although I initially dismissed them all, I found that there is plenty of good in the genre.  Of course, because there are so many being published, there is also a lot of dreck.  And since there are plenty of women willing to give 5 stars to anything involving a love triangle, it can be hard to find the good ones.  This, let me tell you, is one of the good ones.

Cinder is a loose (very loose) retelling of Cinderella.  Cinder is, as you can tell from the cover, a cyborg.  She has no memory of her early life, but she’s spent the last decade living with her stepmother and two stepsisters.  She supports them by repairing electronics at a stall in the market.  One day Prince Kai, the soon-to-be Emperor of New Beijing, stops at her stall, asking her to repair his childhood tutor android.  This sets Cinder on a path to unwind the secrets of her own path.

There is plenty here that was not in Cinderella, from a deadly plague sweeping the country to a race of beautiful aliens who live on the moon (The Lunars).  Cinder herself is a great character – independent, outspoken, and not the sort of heroine who makes moon eyes at the prince.  The Prince himself was a really decent character – he’s funny and resourceful, and I understood why she would like him.  It was a little more of a mystery why he was so drawn to Cinder, but that’s the fairy tale aspect for you.

If I have a complaint it’s that the central mystery of the book was laughably easy to guess – it’s basically thrust in front of you within the first 50 pages.  So by the time Cinder gets the big reveal at the end, it was a little anti-climactic.  I would have also liked a little more resolution – I know Cinder’s story will continue (the second book is out soon!) but I do like real endings.  Highly recommended!


Let the Right One In by Jogn Ajvide Lingqvish

Let me start with the summary from the back of the book:

It is autumn 1981 when the inconceivable comes to Blackeberg, a suburb in Sweden. The body of a teenage boy is found, emptied of blood, the murder rumored to be part of a ritual killing. Twelve-year-old Oskar is personally hoping that revenge has come at long last—revenge for the bullying he endures at school, day after day.

But the murder is not the most important thing on his mind. A new girl has moved in next door—a girl who has never seen a Rubik’s Cube before, but who can solve it at once. There is something wrong with her, though, something odd. And she only comes out at night….

I’ve come rather late to Swedish novels.  My grandparents were from Sweden, so it would seem I should be interested in them, but I don’t read many crime novels these days.  I decided to explore the genre this month.  I started with The Ice Princesswhich I found disappointing – there was too much love story, not enough crime.  This book was recommended to me as a really great vampire novel for adults.  And you know what?  I think it is.

It’s also quite disturbing.  I feel the need to point that out, as it is so very different from the sort of thing that I usually recommend.  I didn’t find it scary in the traditional, Stephen King sense.  It was more that it gave me a creeping feeling of being unclean.  Eli is the little girl mentioned in the summary above.  And yes, clearly she is a vampire, but she’s not the monster of this book.  There are many, many humans who manage to be far more monstrous through the course of the book.  Perhaps this is the point – that we are scarier ourselves than any monster we might make up?  Every character in the book feels real.  They have motivations and back stories outside of their purpose in the novel.  This makes the setting and characters feel absolutely real, something that I cannot say I have experienced before in a novel about vampires.

I’m not even sure I would read it again, because it is rather not my thing, but I still feel as though I want to recommend it.  If you like thrillers and dark fiction, I highly recommend this book.  I understand there is a movie, which I may see now – it appears to focus more on the relationship between Oskar and Eli than the book.


Book reccomendations: November and December 2012

I haven’t been home much, but thanks to my Ipad I have been reading up a storm!  These are the books I read in November and December.  Not all of them, mind, but the ones I enjoyed enough to recommend.  As always, I’m on goodreads here if you would like to be my friend or follow my reviews.

Best fiction:

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

There is so much fiction on the market right now being categorized as “young adult.”  Some of it seems very young, in both situation and characters, while other books seem to have been characterized that way only because YA is currently the hot market in publishing.  Seraphina is definitely the latter.  The main character, the eponymous Seraphina, is technically a teenager.  In this book she is living independently in a world that expects her to be independent.  The normal cliches and tropes of YA are almost entirely missing, so I would recommend this book to any fan of high fantasy or YA fantasy.

Seraphina has a secret (this is not a spoiler, it’s the premise of the book).  She is half dragon in a world where dragons and humans have the most fragile of political alliances.  To be the product of a human/dragon marriage is unheard of, and so Seraphina must hide her true identity.  She has taken a position as choir mistress and assistant to the court composer.  As a musician I must pause to say that all of the descriptions of music in the book are accurate.  The main character and others play instruments that would have been common in the renaissance, and all they play them accurately.  This is an accomplishment!  Most books gets the music wrong.

The dragons in this book are fascinating.  They can take human form at will, but claim to be creatures of logic (think Vulcans and you’ll be close.)  Someone, whether dragon or human, appears to be trying to upset the fragile peace that has been formed, and this conflict forms the basis of the plot.

Seraphina is a wonderful character, fully formed and real.  I loved all the other characters, from her composer boss to her dragon uncle.  They were all wonderful.  There is a romance, but it is not the focus of the plot.  I prefer this, as I read enough romance as is.  I don’t want too much in my fantasy, but this was just enough.  If you have any inclination at all towards fantasy I’d recommend this book – and even if you don’t, I think it would be enjoyable.

Best non-fiction:

Inferno: The World at War by Max Hastings

I have a difficult time reading books about war or military movements.  I find myself less interested in the chess game of war, and more interested in how the war affected the people experiencing it.  I want to know what happened, how they experienced it, and what we can learn.  This book is a history of World War II, told by the people who lived through it.  We see letters and interviews from solders, civilians, and all people who in any way touched the war on all sides.

Some reviews of this book mentioned that you needed to be familiar with the basic movements of the war before reading it.  I have a basic understanding of the chronology, mostly from watching documentaries on the subject, and I was fine.  I did learn a great deal, particularly concerning Russia and Japan.  I was never lost, and while I can’t say it was fun to read, it was engaging.  Highly recommended to anyone interested in a more personal look at WW II.

Also recommended:

Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan

I hope I’m not the only one with an unholy addiction to gothic novels.  There are, of course, the classics: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc.  I love them all, but I also love the more modern gothics, everything from the books of Mary Stewart to my most recent favorite The Thirteenth Tale.  Unspoken is a nice addition to the genre.  The novel is about Kami, a high school student with a secret (don’t they all start out that way?)  She has been speaking to a boy in her head her entire life.  She’s never been sure he’s real, but she’s learned to hide it from other people.  The Lynburns in the title are the ancestral family of the town where Kami lives.  They’ve been away for many years, but they have returned.  What secrets are hiding in this old manor house?  Ooooh… my kind of book.

It’s actually got a sense of humor.  Kami is funny, as are some of the other main characters.  There is a romance, but it isn’t the focus of the novel.  I have two complaints: first that the characters seem to have basically the same voice.  I would like to see more differences.  The second is that the novel ends on a cliffhanger.  I don’t mind a sequel, but I’d rather just a little more resolution per book.  But eh… the next is coming out, and I recommend this one!

Click over to Goodreads if you want to see what I didn’t love.  It seems I really can’t handle too much romance in a book lately.  I’m reading too many books that start out well, but then veer off into romance land the minute the main character meets a physically perfect, brooding specimen of the male gender.  Don’t get me wrong, I love actual romance (mostly historical) but I don’t really want too much in other genres.

Do you have any recommendations?  I’m always looking for something new to read!


Book recommendations – September and October 2012

I’m distracting myself from an epic sewing fail.  The Juniper pants?  Well, let’s just say that that even with the lovely photo tutorial on the Colette site I still managed to sew the fly zipper wrong… twice.  My fabric is a loose tweed, and won’t hold up to a third go around.  Can anyone recommend a good tutorial on sewing a fly?  A video would be better, as apparently I can’t learn anything from still pictures.  I’ve sewn them before, but it’s been years and apparently I no longer remember what to do!

At any rate, I’m avoiding my sewing room right now.  It seems that I have managed to catch my annual autumn sinus infection, so I don’t like to go into the attic (that’s where the dust lives!)  I’m feeling better, so hopefully I can get in some time to sew my Alma blouse this weekend.

To kill time I’ve been playing Persona 3 on my old PS2 (I am behind the times – that game came out years ago!)  I’m also working on a present for my husband and catching up on my reading.  I love to read, but don’t do it as much as I would like (be my friend on Goodreads – observe the horror of my incredibly long “to be read” list!)

I got an ipad in September, and that increased my reading a lot.  I have a Kindle touch, and I really like e-ink, but I found I didn’t carry it with me.  I always have the ipad, as it replaced my laptop, so I’m getting more read lately!  Below are my favorites.  I don’t like everything I read, but if you want to see my bad ratings you’ll have to go to Goodreads – I don’t feel like taking up the time with things I didn’t enjoy!

I try to avoid spoilers, but I do talk about the plot, so I can’t make absolute guarantees.  These aren’t exactly the same as my Goodreads reviews, as I try to leave personal details off the site.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

“Tell the Wolves I’m home” is the story of June, an awkward high school freshman caught between childhood fantasy and adult reality. Her uncle, Finn, is her best friend. He dies of AIDs and leaves June without a confidant. She is eventually contacted by his boyfriend, Toby, and the two strike up an unconventional friendship.

It’s also the story of June’s relationship with her older sister Greta – once close, the two have grown apart as they grow up. It’s the story of regrets, and the idea that you can’t really change the past, just learn to live with its consequences.

I’ll tell you straight up: I have trouble reading books about AIDs.  Working in the arts, I have lost friends over the years to the disease, and the subject matter strikes a bit too close to home.     In addition, I think it’s  a subject that it’s difficult to do well – how to write the story of a tragic disease without turning the victim into a saintly martyr?

June… June was wonderful. I related to her intensely, having been a weird teen myself. My interests were musical theater and science fiction rather than falconry and medieval times, but I understood her need to be different. Some reviewers mentioned finding her indecisiveness frustrating, but I didn’t. She seemed very real, and her actions made sense.

I gave the book 4 stars. It’s compulsively readable (I read the entire thing in one sleepless night!)  I did not cry, which was something many reviewers mentioned, but then it’s possible that I’m not terribly sentimental.   I think the last book that made me cry may have been “David Copperfield” when I was a particularly sensitive 15.  I am not kidding, seriously, I don’t get worked up about these things.

I have two criticisms of the book. The first was the imagery of the wolves which fill the book. It was a bit heavy handed, and took me out of the plot (as thought the author were saying “Let me show you my metaphor!”)

My other frustration was with the character of Greta (June’s older sister.) Throughout the book we see Greta self-destructing. It felt as though we were building to something, but her story went nowhere.

I highly recommend this book. It’s adult literature, but I think it would also appeal to teens.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

I do not, as a general rule, read much Young Adult fiction.  I know it’s a thing right now, but I haven’t thought much of the big hits of the genre (excepting Harry Potter of course!)  There is so much being published as Young Adult right now, some of which I suspect would have been labeled adult fiction if it were not for the current trends.  I’ve been trying to read more – it’s virtually impossible to avoid, and I don’t believe it can be all bad.  Ok, some of it was bad (Vampire Academy,  do not even look my direction!)  Some was merely ok, but a few have managed to surprise me.

The Diviners is set in New York City during the 1920s.  I have recently developed an interest in silent films (I even saw the Phantom of the Opera with live organ at Halloween!) and have been devouring everything I can find on the subject.  Along with that comes an interest in the 1920s in general, an era on which I was sadly illiterate.  Our main character is Evie, a rebellious teen who is sent to New York City to live with her uncle.  Her Uncle happens to be the owner of the Museum of Folklore, Superstition and the Cult.  It turns out that Evie is a bit supernatural herself (not a spoiler, as we find it out in the introduction.)  She has the ability to read objects – to see something about the owner from touching a personal item.

The story has complexity and the characters have depth – no Mary Sues here!  Evie, the main character isn’t, let’s face it, very nice.  She’s selfish and impulsive, and I suspect this may turn some readers against her.  Me?  I loved her because she seemed like a real person.  She uses a lot of 1920s slang, which was jarring at first, but I eventually got used to the language.  It’s obvious that the author is having fun with the period and dialogue, and I think that made me accepting of quirks that might otherwise have annoyed me. It also helps that the book had a 3rd person POV. I greatly prefer this – I can’t think of the last time I read a really great 1st person.  This perspective allows other characters to take POV turns as well. Some are clearly going to be used more in later books of the series, as their stories feel a bit unresolved.

There is a little romance, but it’s not a focus of the book. Don’t get me wrong, I love romance, but too many books consist of a heroine mooning over which of her love interests to mack on while the world falls apart outside.

There is a mystery to be solved, an an overarching story that will carry on to later books in the series.  There are some genuinely scary moments, but nothing that made me lose sleep (this is a plus for me, as I am a giant wuss.)

I would recommend this book to fans of the Maisie Dobb mysteries.  They have a similar feel, though this book is perhaps a bit darker.  I would recommend it to older teens, but I honestly think it reads fine as an adult novel.  At 600 pages it’s longer than your average YA story, but not so long as to be daunting.  I read it on my e-reader in three or four evenings.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

I’m from the south.  Well… sort of.  I never really know how to answer that question.  To Northerners, Louisville is unquestionably part of the south (and a source of endless mocking in college!) To Southerners we are basically glorified Yankees, separated from the north by the thin border of the Ohio river.  Even our own state spends its time disavowing knowledge of our existence (I can recall a memorable argument I had once with a gentleman from London, Kentucky, who was pretty clear and colorful in his views that we should give up and join Indiana.)

I like to tell visitors that we are southern for two weeks out of the year.  The Derby is an illusion.  Kentucky, after all, never joined the Confederacy.  Louisville itself was an important base for Union forces, with its strategic location on the Ohio river.  We didn’t suffer during post civil war reconstruction.  We remain, however, a fairly segregated city.  I live in a neighborhood that counts as among the most diverse, and I have had otherwise reasonable seeming people tell me, in all seriousness, that they couldn’t live in my neighborhood with all the thugs (hint: they mean African Americans.)     We have a confederate war memorial that stands on the campus of the University of Louisville (right by my high school, and I did wonder about it then!)

I was forced to think about all these things when I read Confederates in the Attic.  Author Tony Horwitz, set out to retrace the path of the war one summer, and along the way he was confronted with the views of modern citizens, many of whom view the Confederacy with great romanticism.  The book was written in the late 1990s, but I don’t think it’s so out of place in the America of today.  He visits meetings of the Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy.  He talks about the vast difference in the way the war is viewed.  He meets up (in the most amusing bit) with some hardcore civil war reenactors, who don’t seem to care about the outcome so much as making sure their socks are the authentic level of smelly.

Horwitz doesn’t talk down to the people he meets.  He presents their stories in a realistic fashion, so that you understand how they ended up in this place.  That makes the book much more fascinating to me than if he had merely presented the southerners as awful – it’s easy to stereotype, but perhaps a bit more difficult to see them as real people.  Reading this in the last days of this year’s election cycle was particularly interesting – the journalistic style was a marked contrast to most of what I saw.

I highly recommend this book.  It does not look down on the south, but it also doesn’t excuse it’s problems.  Horwitz merely presents them to the reader, who is left to draw his own conclusions.


WordPress phishing scam warning / book reviews

Just a PSA for anyone else with a wordpress blog.  I got an email today from someone claiming I was using one of their photos with a link to the offending post.  Now, I try not to use anyone else’s photos, but I did click on the link so that I could refute whatever the claim was.  The link took me to a log-in page that looks just like wordpress, which stated that my log-in had expired.   Luckily, I always check the web address before entering my password anywhere, so I caught it in time – the address was certainly not wordpress!  I then changed my password because I was feeling paranoid, and I reported the email to gmail (it was a gmail return address.)

I have this blog, and I’m also the administrator for a self-hosted wordpress blog for my choir.  You get a fair amount of spam or scam emails, but most are easy to spot, as they appear to have been written (poorly) in another language and then sent straight through google translate.  This one was pretty convincing, so I thought I would put out the warning – never give out your password after clicking on a link!

With that out of the way – I’m back from my trip!  We spent a week traveling from Louisville to Minneapolis/St Paul.  I got in some great fabric shopping, and I will have a report for you later – it seems I managed to leave my fabric in Minnesota and my in-laws are bringing it down when they come this weekend!  In the meantime I only have one thing to say – you must go to SR Harris in Minneapolis.  I may have uttered the phrase “this is the best fabric store I’ve ever been to” somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty times.

I got a lot of reading done on my trip – Marc and I listened to books on tape in the car, and I also put my kindle to good use (yes, I have strange sleep habits, so I’m always up reading long after everyone goes to bed on a visit!)  I’m a very fast reader when I put my mind to it – I have been known to actually hit the limit of how many library books you can get.  I don’t buy many books, although the kindle is changing that.  I have the Kindle touch and I just adore it – the e-ink is very easy on my eyes.  I kind of feel like if I wanted a tablet I would buy an i-pad, but I want something without backlighting to read.  I keep meaning to do monthly book reviews, as reading is one of my other major hobbies, so here goes!

(Are you on Goodreads?  Would you like to be my friend?  I review all my books there.)

Soulless by Gail Carriger

This is the first book in a series of steampunk novels.  I will confess that I haven’t read much (read: any) steampunk.  I love steampunk costumes and art, but this is the first book I have tried.  I was joking to my husband that I was curious to see how many pages in the first mentions of goggles or a dirigible would be (page 4 for the goggles, and about 1/3 of the way in for the dirigibles, in case you were wondering.)  Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster in a victorian London (though not our London).  She was unfortunately born without a soul, an idea which seems interesting.  Unfortunately, what it boils down to is that she can make vampires and werewolves lose their powers by touching them.  Yes, I said vampires.  I didn’t know that was coming, but the vampires turned out to be rather delightful (the werewolves were less so, unfortunately).

This book is witty from the very first scene (in which our heroine stabs a vampire with her parasol during a fancy party).  I loved Alexia. Unfortunately, as the book went on it seemed to take a bit of a turn down romance novel way.  Don’t get me wrong – I love romance novels (I have one further down the page) but I don’t love paranormal romance novels, and I didn’t really want one here.  I was a bit disappointed, but not enough that I haven’t requested the second book in the series at the library!

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

I mentioned that I was reading this book before.  My husband was interested in it, so I got the audiobook.  The version I bought is abridged.  Ordinarily I hate abridged books, but I had to get it after seeing it was read by Hugh Laurie (you may know him as Dr. House, but I will always think of him as Bertie Wooster.)  The version I have is here (I got it from audible.)  It is missing some of the funny bits from the book, but Laurie’s narration made it perfect for the car ride – especially as I had been imagining his voice when I read the whole thing!  The book itself is available as a free download in ebook format here.  The book is strange – it’s part travelogue and part comedy of errors.  It’s absolutely readable by modern readers (my favorite bits involve the dog, with the unlikely name of Montmorency).

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising #1) Susan Cooper

One of my Goodreads friends recommended this book to me when I requested books for someone who loved Harry Potter but hated the Narnia books.  I’ve heard of the series, but never read it.  It’s a young adult series.  There are a fair number of similarities to Narnia (bored children in an old house go exploring and find a secret… behind a wardrobe.)  I wouldn’t say it’s similar beyond that though.  The books deal with the Arthurian legends, a subject I have always loved.  The children were delightful, and the book was a very quick read.  I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

Goddess of the Hunt by Tessa Dare

I refuse to be ashamed about my love of historical romance novels (have you been to the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” site?  Because I love it!)  Admittedly, there is a fair amount of dreck, but there are also so many wonderful authors out there!  (I cannot read modern romance though, nor chick-lit.  Strange, that.)  Julia Quinn is my favorite author, and of course there are always the classics by Georgette Heyer.  I’m always looking for new authors, and Tessa Dare came up in my search.  This is her first novel (she has several others that have been published since.)

I loved the first half of the book.  Lucy, our heroine, is feisty without being anachronistic (a problem sometimes.)  She plans to marry one of her brothers friends, but through a series of circumstances manages to fall in love with another!  I didn’t like the book at all after they got married, as all involved got personality transplants (Lucy becomes frustratingly reticient, and her husband turns into a brooding Mr. Rochester type.)  The first half was really great though, and I recommend it – just end with the proposal!  I will read other novels by this author.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I listened to the audio version.  I don’t know how the experience would be otherwise, but I loved listening to her read the stories.  I love Tina Fey in general – I think she’s smart, and she she says a lot of things that had me (as an assertive-type lady in her thirties) nodding in agreement.  In particular her experiences at a teen theater camp felt just like my experiences.  My husband loved the book too, but well – it’s possible he might have a type.  Highly recommended!

Night of the Living Trekkies

This certainly seems like a book I would like.  I’m a huge Trek fan, the kind who goes to cons and gets into arguments about the canon treatment of Klingon foreheads.  But I didn’t.  It was, unfortunately, rather poorly written.  One conversation (the one concerning the term Trekkie vs Trekker) is almost verbatim taken from the movie “Trekkies,” and yes I have seen that enough times to quote it.  Quirk books also published the popular “Pride and Prejudice with Zombies,” which I haven’t read.  I have read The Meowmorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa (in Kafka’s Metomorphosis) turns into an adorable kitten rather than a bug.  I loved that one – recommended if you were also forced through that particular extended allegory in school.

That’s it for my trip!  I’m currently working my way through these books:


It’s my second try for Jonanthan Strange and Mr Norrell, a modern novel written in the style of Dickens.  It’s super long, and I couldn’t get into it at first.  I got the audiobook and it’s much better – the text is very conversational, and I think I might listen to all 900 billion hours of it (did I mention it’s a very long book?)  A Game of Thrones is much better than expected.  I always want to like fantasy, but mostly I get bogged down in remember all the names and complicated faerie politics and such.  This is about politics of course, but it’s enjoyable.  And no, I haven’t seen the show, and I don’t intend to until I read all the books!

books · crafts · Sewing

Books for sewing beginners

There’s one question I’ve been getting repeatedly since I’ve started sewing – “What books are you using to teach yourself?”  I thought it was worthy of a blog post, so that I have somewhere to send those questions!  These books are mostly for garment sewing – for quilting I’ve been using the instructions in “Last minute Quilted and Patchwork gifts.”

For the absolute beginner, there are two books I own and love, both recommended to me by fabulous blogging friends.

Sew U, by Wendy Mullins, is probably the more popular of the two.  It contains excellent directions on everything from threading your needle to sewing a pair of pants.  I made the skirt, and it turned out pretty cute.  I really appreciate her “make it your own” attitude – the patterns included, for pants, a skirt, and a blouse, are basic, but she encourages you to think outside the box and improvise on a basic design, an attitude that I’m trying to keep in mind!  She also has a book for knits, which I own, and which I am awaiting my serger for, and she has a new book on dresses coming out this week(you had best believe I will be buying that one.)

SEW: The Sew Everything Workshop by Diana Rupp is actually my favorite of these two beginner books.  I don’t know why – something about her tone just speaks to me more, I feel like she’s the one I would rather take a class from, and if I lived in NYC you’d better believe that I would (our local sewing classes are almost entirely quilting or heirloom sewing.)  This book has a bunch of projects, and mostly they are super cute (a plus!)  Some of them are included on paper, and others teach you to draft your own pattern.  I haven’t made any of them, but I do have plans to make “Tender is the nightie,” a draft your own nightgown pattern (note: I will not be modeling that one for the blog!)

Moving past the beginner books, you need a basic all-in-one reference book.  I like Vogue sewing.  This is the edition I have – it’s pretty clear, and I like the vintage style graphics and design.  I hear that some of the tailoring techniques are not in this newer book, but I have Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Schaeffer to explain many of the more “high end” touches.  I love this book, even if I don’t understand it all yet – it’s worth it for the look inside couture design studios, and the beautiful photos of the insides of classic designer garments.  I got them on a “buy both, get a tiny discount” deal from Amazon.

I also have 2 editions of the simplicity sewing guide.  The one I have has hilariously outdated fashions – you too can learn how to finish your 80s style track suit on the serger!  You can “fix” your lopsided shoulders by giving yourself 3 shoulder pads on one side (hello linebacker…) But the info is great, and sometimes it is more clear than the Vogue book.  The edition I have is still for sale at my Hancock’s, so I assume it is the current one.  I have one from the late 60s also, which is fabulously mod, and which takes you chapter by chapter through making different garments (similar to the “Vogue New Book of Better sewing” that the fabulous Gertie is working her way through on her blog.)  It offers recommendations for simplicity patterns of the time.  The late 60s aren’t my favorite, so I won’t be making my own project, but it is fun.  I’m looking to get some older (1940s or so) sewing books as well, for reference with my vintage patterns.

Finally, as far as sewing garments go, the next big challenge is fit – learning to fit your clothes is hard!  I just got 2 fitting books.

These two books have different approaches, and are both nice to have.  I like Fast Fit the most – Sandra Betzina recommends making a muslin, which I always do.  The illustrations are cute, and the amount of information isn’t overwhelming.  Fit for Real People is also excellent, despite my dislike of the term “real people.”  I used the tissue fitting technique on my plaid Simplicity blouse and found it helpful in choosing a size, though I confess that I still made a muslin.  If I had to make a criticism of both books, it’s that the styles being fitted are pretty outdated, and not always so flattering.  Fit for Real people seems to really love shoulder pads too.  But of course, it was written awhile ago, and styles do change.  I appreciate the positive message of the book.

So there you go… a selection of books that are good (in my beginner’s opinion) for a sewing library.  I hope you find it helpful!

books · crafts · knitting · patterns

Book Review: Knitted Socks East and West

Every year as autumn rolls around I become obsessed with knitting socks.  Knitted Socks East and West by Judy Sumner is the first of 3 sock books I have bought this year, and my favorite!  The idea behind this book is to incorporate Japanese stitch patterns into socks.  The author opens by discussing her interest in Japanese stitch dictionaries (one that I happen to share!)  She explains several stitches that are common in Japanese patterns, with diagrams and written instructions.  The books quickly moves into the reason you’ve bought it – the patterns.  And they do not disappoint!  I’ve knit many a sock, and at a certain point sock patterns tend to blend together, but this book is different.

For one thing, many of the socks are knit in gauges larger than fingering weight.  I love detailed socks, but sometimes I want a nice pair of slipper socks that I don’t have to worry so much about snagging on my wooden floors.  The 2 pairs above are knit in worsted weight yarn, and there are others, even one for chunky yarn.  There are several patterns that call for a stockinette gauge of 24-26 st/4 inches also, making use of sport weight sock yarns.  My favorite patterns in the book are below.

The last 2 patterns call for fingering weight yarns, but the gauge is sport.  None of these stitch patterns are especially hard, but the results are lovely.  The photography in the book is beautiful, and most of the patterns have several clear photos in addition to the more artistic ones.  If I have a criticism it’s that they seem to have hired a model with very small feet – in many of the patterns the socks are obviously too big, and I do find it a little distracting.  There is a note at the beginning of the book that many of the stitch patterns are large and hard to take repeats out of, so perhaps this contributed to the problem.  That’s a small matter – this book is beautiful and a lovely addition to any sock knitting library.  I’m already planning my first pair, and I got out all my sock yarn to take stock:

Hmm… I need some red and yellow sock yarn to balance out all this blue and green (the seasonal peach Smooshy looks lonely!)  I can’t wait to start my first pair!

books · crafts · knitting

Book Review: Knitting socks with Handpainted Yarn

The other day I was shopping at Amazon for my sister-in-law’s Christmas present, when I noticed that this book (which I had not seen before) was now shipping.  Since Folk Socks, which I was going to get, had a long shipping time (I ordered it from Knitpicks instead) I got this lovely book.  I’m so glad that I did!

I will tell you right off the bat that I love books about sock knitting for some reason.  Once Folk Socks arrive I will own all of Nancy Bush’s books (she is my sock hero.)  I love Favorite Socks, and even the Vogue Sock Book, errors and all.  But more than sock books, more even that knitting socks, or wearing handknit socks, I love sock yarn.  Perhaps you have noticed, yes?  In fact, today I had an exceptionally good meeting, and as a reward?  I got a skein of one of the yarns used in this book.  But sometimes, of course, we all end up disappointed in our yarn once knit up.  I know I have destashed more than one skein that pooled hopelessly for me (and went on to make lovely socks in someone else’s hands.)  This book helps to give solutions you can work with.

The first part of the book is dedicated to a basic overview of color theory.  After reading the section I looked over my sock yarn stash (and thought about the ones I’ve given away) and realized that the ones I love the most are the ones where the color values are all similar.  Yarns are divided into three types – muted multis, nearly solids, and wild multis.  Patterns are marked as to which ones will work with which yarn.  There is also  discussion of dying methods, and how it affects the yarn’s pooling potential.

Of course, we all came for the patterns, and the book does not disappoint.  There are patterns from some big names (Ann Budd, Veronik Avery, Nancy Bush) as well as lovely patterns from newcomers to me.  Most patterns are written for several sizes, which is unusual for a sock pattern.  None of the patterns look super hard to me, and all are charted (I have discovered that I can’t knit socks without charts because I can’t memorize the pattern.)  Highly recommended, especially if you have a sad sock yarn habit like me (is there a 12 step program?)  Below are some more of my favorites… I have actually knit with two of the colors used before (the heel/toe color of the first sock is Shibui sock, and it still makes me mad how it pools as a semi-solid)  I’ve also used the Red Tail hawk Bearfoot that Nancy Bush uses for her socks (second pair) and I think they would be even lovelier in a different color… I find that Bearfoot obscures patterns because of the mohair, and that yarn is super dark (but comfy I know!)  Oh, and the yarn I bought?  Colinette Jitterbug in Slate, seen in the purplish pair above.  I love Jitterbug, short yardage or no… the feel of the base yarn is excellent, and it isn’t super skinny, and the colors are so pretty… of course, my socks will be shorter because I’m too cheap to buy 2 skeins, but no matter…

books · crafts · knitting · Life

Legwarmers started and book reviews!

I’m sick again this week… icky, but at least I will be well for Christmas (I have a fear of being ill when I have so many singing gigs.)  Dionne shares my sadness.

We both feel like this

We refer to Dionne as the “bad energy vampire.”  She isn’t a snuggly cat in general – in fact, the only time she usually wants attention is when you are either yelling or crying or really sick.  You could be in the middle of a fight and suddenly find a cat, desperate for attention, in your lap, and she will not leave. It’s cute, really, but it’s also really strange.

The legwarmers are going well, and aren’t too boring.  I got 6 inches out of one episode of Fringe, minus commercials, so I don’t think these are going to take as long as I feared.  I’m really glad though that I knit continental… I can’t imagine how 1×1 ribbing would kill the other way!

I frogged my sleeve for Vaila and restarted… my gauge in regular stockinette was just too large, and the sleeve was going to be huge.  So… back to purling for me!  Have I mentioned how much I love the knitpicks Harmony DPNs?  Seriously… I could never stand to knit on larger DPNs because I hated the bamboo, but these are so much nicer because the yarn doesn’t stick to them.  I am getting some laddering, which is unusual for me, but I’ve decided to just go with it.  I am not alternating skeins anymore for the sleeves, since I don’t think it matters for the small diameter, and since this color of malabrigo in general is not too variegated.

Finally, I’m reviving a blog feature where I talk about my other love… books. Lately I’ve been very into victorian and gothic novels, but I branch out into nonfiction sometimes as well!

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Apparently this is something of a classic, but I had never read it.  It’s the story of a family living in genteel poverty in an old English castle.  Their lives are changed when new neighbors move into the manor house nearby.  I would imagine that when I was a teenager I would have adored this book, and I love it still.  The main character is wonderful, and the ending manages to not be too treacly without being sad.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This book was very popular when it came out, and I am enough of a snob that I had avoided it on that basis.  It kept coming up recommended for me though, and my library had several copies.  I will tell you off the bat that my favorite book is Jane Eyre, and so I simply loved this book. I am a sucker for a good gothic thriller, and this was a wonderful one. I also loved the main character’s musings about books – so similar to the way I think many of us feel about them. I did not guess the twist at the end, and I was interested to the very end to find out more. Highly recommended.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I have a love/hate relationship with Gaiman’s novels.  On one hand he has written some of my favorites (Anansi Boys, Coraline) but I have been very disappointed in others (American Gods, Neverwhere.)  I loved this one.  It’s young adult, but don’t let that stop you!  It’s the unusual tale of a young boy, who is orphaned and then adopted by the citizens of a village graveyard.  It sounds macabre, but really it’s a sweet story, with excellent illustrations.

Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders

The subject matter – the inner workings of middle class victorian households – might seem dull at first glance.  I, however, found it fascinating.  The author focuses on one room per chapter (kitchen, parlour, drawing room etc) and indeed talks about the rooms and their decor/purpose, but she also uses each room to explain a different aspect of victorian life – for instance, in the bedroom we get victorian attitudes toward birth and death, and in the kitchen we learn a great deal about the lives of servants.  There are fascinating charts, such as one explaining the complicated rules governing the wearing of mourning after a death.  This is easily the best book I have read on the subject, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the victorians or victorian homes.  It’s a surprisingly easy read for the subject matter.

Lies my Teacher Told me by James W. Loewen

This book was not what I was expecting.  I thought it would be one of those fun “misinformation in history” books.  It did contain some of that, for instance, pointing out that history texts ignore the adult life of Helen Keller because of her socialist associations.  What I found fascinating though was the idea that our society can be shaped by the way our history is taught, and how we as a nation are presented.  The book posits that our history textbooks discourage critical thinking, and that they present a view of our history that is free of errors in judgement (and certainly, like any nation, we have had many.)  Sometimes it does seem a little outdated (for instance, I was not taught that everyone but Columbus believed the world was flat) but I thought it was a very interesting read, and it caused me to evaluate where my own viewpoints come from.

books · crafts · knitting · patterns

Book Review: Glam Knits

Thank you for all the nice comments on my sweater – I’m going to wear it tonight to a debate party (go team Obama!)  I’m still working on my hat, which isn’t a quick knit, being in fingering weight, but I think it’s going to be cute!  I’m about to cast on for my next sweater, Ingenue from Custom Knits (as soon as I decide if my yarn is going to work or not.)

I have a book review for you today, but first you get to admire my new haircut/color.

The color is a little darker than usual (I wanted to be autumnal) and I have bangs!  I haven’t had them since the 7th grade, but I thought it was time to give my forehead a little break.  If I like them I will get even more cut next time.  It also has a lot more layers than normal.

Ok, bad photos of me over, on to my review!

I was about to place a knitpicks orders (I got a whole bunch of their DPNs) when I saw this book had gone into stock.  I loved her previous book, Fitted Knits, so I was really excited to see this one.

Initial thoughts?  Well, it is very different from her last book.  There are fewer raglans (although there are plenty.)  This book focuses on using luxurious yarns in your knitting, and uses such lovely fibers as Malabrigo, Silk Raphsody, and Cash Vero.

The book is basically divided by type of garment – pullover, dresses, cardigans, and accessories.  It should be noted that the dress section only contains one thing I would call a dress (the cover garment,) one skirt, and a few sweaters that I think are not long enough to be dresses… but perhaps that is just me.  One of them (below) is really cute, but I would wear it over pants or a skirt.

Sizing is not as great at the small end of the scale as it could be.  Fitted Knits had the same problem – plenty of sweaters that start at a 35 or 36″ bust.  This one has fewer sweaters that start there, but it is still a problem for a few garments, frustrating if you are considering making one.

Schematics are clear, and the instructions appear to be detailed.  I will confess to you that I bought this book primarily to get the pattern for the sweater Stefanie was wearing in her author photo for Fitted Knits, and it does not disappoint.

I will be getting yarn for this one immediately.  Smallest size is a 33″ bust, perfect for me.

I’m not sure how I feel about this book otherwise.  I think I will need to see some FOs – the highly stylized and posed way this book is styled is distracting for me, and makes it difficult to imagine the garments in real life.  The use of luxury fibers is nice, but it does make substitution a challenge sometimes.

I quite like the hoodie (knit in Malabrigo) I think, but again I find myself unable to visualize it outside of the book.  The kimono cardigan, knit in Lorna’s laces angel, looks pretty, but is hard to see.  Same with the others pictured below.  So, a mixed review at first impression, but I may revisit my thoughts later.

Items in my queue for now: the author sweater, the hoodie, and maybe the first sweater above (knit in Malabrigo aquarella,) but maybe I just like the yarn.

I suggest checking this one out for yourself!

books · crafts · knitting · patterns

Book Review: Custom Knits

I haven’t bought a lot of knitting books lately, but since I found so little to love in the newest IK I thought it might be time to add to my library.  Custom Knits is written by Wendy Bernard, author of the “Knit and Tonic” blog.  I have previously made three of her designs – fad classic, the not so shrunken cardi, and something red.

I was predisposed to like this book, but I have to admit that at first my feelings were mixed.  I am not always a big fan of top down or one piece sweaters.  I don’t like having so much on the needle at once, and feel the designs are necessarily limited.

Having said that, I love this book!  There are so many designs that I want to make.  The patterns are divided into sections – top down raglans, top down with set in sleeves, round yoke, and a chapter with a few other ways of knitting.  I have not, in the past, had great luck with set in sleeves on top down sweaters.  I have small shoulders and have found the cap to inevitibly end up looking rather like a drop shoulder.  But I’m willing to give it another try!

The size range in this book is great – every sweater comes small enough for me, and sizes extend up to (I believe) a 52″ bust.  Almost all the sweaters are presented with two options, and a little box telling you how to customize the sweater that way that you want it.  I found this information very useful.  The back of the book includes formulas for the types of sweaters in the book, so that you might design your own sweaters.

My only real criticism of the book is a superficial one… the styling.  Although I haven’t shown any of them, I swear to you that half the sweaters in the book are modeled without pants – sometimes swimsuits, sometimes underwear.  Seriously, who lounges around in a swimsuit and a wool sweater?  It just seems strange to me…

That’s minor though.  I love the book, and I have already started a sweater – the lion necked cardigan in RYC Soft tweed.  This is a strange yarn – it’s like knitting with strips of a blanket or something.  But I’m happy to use up stash yarn, and I hope it will work out.  The sizing looks teeny, because it isn’t supposed to close in the front.  I’m knitting a medium, but my gauge is a little small, so we will see where I end up.