31 December 2009

Books Read in 2009

Well, my reading goal for 2009 was to read 25 books. Not a lot, but in 2008 I didn't read very much at all, so it felt doable. And it was! I read 44 books total. (Why didn't I finish just one more? I'm only 70 or so pages from the end of one of my current reads.)

Books Read, January through December, 2009
01 – J13 - Weather Makers, Tim Flannery, Review
02 – J15 - The Tales of Beedle the Bard, JK Rowling, Review
03 – J20 - Criminal Minds: Finishing School, Max Allen Collins, Review
04 – J21 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Review
05 – J27 - A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon, Review
06 – F11 - Divisidero, Michael Ondaatje, Review
07 – F14 - Keys to the Kingdom: Mister Monday, Garth Nix
08 – F22 - Keys to the Kingdom: Grim Tuesday, Garth Nix
09 - M08 - The Supernaturalist, Eoin Colfer, Review
10 – M15 - Keys to the Kingdom: Drowned Wednesday, Garth Nix
11 – M23 - Keys to the Kingdom: Sir Thursday, Garth Nix
12 – M29 - Keys to the Kingdom: Lady Friday, Garth Nix
13 – A05 - Keys to the Kingdom: Superior Saturday, Garth Nix
14 – A12 - God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, Review
15 – M04 - Spook Country, William Gibson, Review
16 – M08 - City of Thieves, David Benioff
17 – M28 -The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, MG Vassanji, Review
18 – J03 - The Accidental, Ali Smith, Review
19 - J05 - Skim, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, Review
20 – J12 - The Mysterious Benedict Society,Trenton Lee Stewart, Review
21 – J19 - The Man who Forgot How to Read, Howard Engel, Review
22 – J25 - Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan, Review
23 – J02 - Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet, Review
24 – J04 - Adverbs, Daniel Handler, Review
25 – J07 - jPod, Douglas Coupland, Review
26 – J12 - When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris, Review
27 – J22 - Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Review
28 – J27 - Interworld, Neil Gamain & Michael Reaves, Review
29 – J28 - The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews, Review
30 – A03 - Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, Review
31 – A04 - The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill, Review
32 – A12 - M is for Magic, Neil Gaiman, Review
33 – A14 - Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card, Review
34 – S16 - Little, Big, John Crowley
35 – S23 - The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
36 – O16 - Ghost Story, Peter Straub, Review
37 – O20 - Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett
38 – O27 - Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
39 – N12 - Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, Review
40 – N22 - At Last There is Nothing Left to Say, Matthew Good
41 – N27 - The Chrysalids, John Wyndham, Review
42 – D02 - Elizabeth Rex, Timothy Findley
43 – D04 - You Are What You Eat, Gillian McKeith
44 – D10 - Dark Entries, Ian Rankin

Various bits and pieces about what I read below the cut...

24 December 2009

Recipe: Piroshky

My sister and I made piroshky today. It's a Russian sort of stuffed meat bun. I think there are as many ways to make piroshky as there are people in Russia, but my brother-in-law's method includes meat, cabbage, and of course dill.

Here's a kind of sort of recipe and a how-to.

23 December 2009

Recipe: Pfefferneuse

These aren't quite as dry/hard as most commercial pfefferneuse I've had, but they're still drier than I'd prefer. (I like soft cookies best.) The flavour is pretty amazing though. Well, if you like spice cookies. And I do. Yum.

Cookies for Christmas

Hey look! I made cookies yesterday.

I don't know what inspired me to bake the day after getting my H1N1 shot because OW my arm hurts but I guess I just had too much to do. Today is officially Blame the H1N1 Shot Day. As in: "I'd love to help unload the dishwasher, but I can't really lift my arm up right now. Sorry!"

In any case, I made four kinds of cookies yesterday - shortbread cookies (left), soft chocolate cookies (middle), pistachio orange cookies (right), and pfefferneuse, which are hiding under the pistachio cookies.

Everything kind of went a little bit wrong yesterday - we didn't have any eggs (my sister and her husband made piroshky the day before, messed up the dough and had to start over, using up double the eggs they'd planned), I forgot to buy pistachios, I used wheat flour instead of white (I'm sorry, but health be damned: I'd rather my christmas cookies have as little nutritive value as possible, if it means they taste like they're meant to) on two of the batches of cookies, I snapped a wooden spoon in half mixing the pfefferneuse dough. Our oven is cooking 50 degrees hot. Ugh.

Anyway, the two cookies with whole wheat flour taste okay, but are a touch drier than they should be. I maybe should have added a bit more liquid or else just taken them out of the oven a little earlier, but they don't taste too far off the mark. Or not so far off that I wouldn't give them away. The pistachio cookies are a bit too salty. They're meant to be kind of salty-sweet like a chocolate dipped pretzel, but they're just a touch too hardcore salty. Sigh.

Everything else is basically as they should be. Thank goodness, because I gave these three small boxes to one friend, a bigger box to my boss, and tomorrow I'm leaving another bigger box for my various managers and whoever comes into their office. I didn't want to buy more useless trinkets for people, so, you know. Food.

Anyway, if anyone wants recipes, leave a comment. They're all already typed up, which means they're all pretty easy to reproduce here. I won't even blame it on H1N1 shots if it takes me a while, it'd just be outright laziness.

17 December 2009

Lemon Chickpea Lentil Soup

It's been quite a while since I've felt like talking about food. Since I've felt like COOKING food for that matter. I think in the last several months, I've only made two things I've thought were worth a damn. This is one of them.

It's not so cold now, but we had a really cold cold-snap last week and I kept thinking about soup and how it was soup weather and then my iPod would be on shuffle and Almost a Full Moon would come up: "Let's make some soup cause the weather is turning cold/ Let's stir it together til we are both grey and old / Let's stir it together til it tells us stories of its own / Let's make some soup cause the weather is turning cold..."

I kept trying to make this soup - "Lemon Chickpea Lentil Soup" from Dreena Burton's eat, drink & be vegan (her blog can be found here) - but then I'd realize my lemons were gone too old or I'd not got any celery or I had no onion or some combination of the three. Like a perfect storm, I managed all the ingredients today.

With quilting, I sometimes feel like a project isn't really a project until I've bled over it. Well, I bled over this soup project. Several months ago I bought myself an immersion blender and I've never used it in all that time, so I finally dug it out, and nicked my index finger but good while giving it its first wipe down. That sucker is sharp.

In any case, this soup was a really delicious combination of red lentils, chickpeas, vegetables - Burton suggests either zucchini or tomatoes, but I had both so I used both - and a really warm fall-flavour of cumin, mustard seed, paprika, and some other herbs. The soup is finished with fresh-squeezed lemon, which I'd thought might kind of lighten it out of the fall-flavours zone, but it really just brightened and sort of intensified the flavours already in the soup. Seriously delicious. I'd love to post the recipe, but I couldn't find it online. Alas.

I think anyone who has filtered through the food parts of this blog very much can certainly tell that I'm as far from vegan as it gets, but I do like to cook vegetarian meals at least a few times a week so I'm forever buying vegetarian or vegan cookbooks. I mostly cook the recipes with beans in them because I'm still terrified of tofu, but there might be one or two recipes in this cookbook that I may, maybe, if I can talk myself into it, try. We'll see.

In any case, this is a pretty nice cookbook. (It's doing duty as a coaster under my bowl in the photo.) There are several recipes I'd like to try (even excluding the possibly-maybe tofu recipes). If I have any complaint, it's that there just aren't enough pictures. I love a cookbook with a lot of pictures - I like to know what I'm getting into. In any case, even if I don't try anything else, it's almost worth the purchase price just for this soup - really delicious stuff.

28 November 2009

Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

It's been quite a long while now since I read Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, but since I've still got a couple books left in this universe to read: here's a quick blurb.

Opening paragraph:
Speaker for the Dead travels far into the future of Ender Wiggin's life. No longer the boy found in Ender's Game, Ender is a man who travels from one colony to another speaking on behalf of the dead. Ender's book "The Hive Queen and the Hegemon", which told the story of the buggers and their destruction, eventually became the basis of his profession: telling the story, both good and bad, of a life. Ender is called to a planet with a known intelligent alien life, piggies, to speak the death of Pipo, a xenologer who studies the piggies and has been brutally killed by them. En route to the planet, he is called again to speak the death of yet another murdered xenologer, Pipo's son Libo, and that of the husband, Marcos, of the planet's only xenobiologist, Novinha, who had worked closely with both Pipo and Libo. Ender arrives to find Novinha an embittered and detached adult who is terrified of the secrets Ender might reveal in speaking the deaths of the three men. Naturally, Ender shakes things up for the entire community, first by showing up at all and then by revealing so much that has been kept secret.

27 November 2009

Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is a post-apocalyptic novel describing a society some thousand years into a future where some catastrophic event, called Tribulation by survivors in Labrador, has laid waste to most of the world, rendering much of North America uninhabitable or gone wild with mutated plants and animals. Animals and plants with mutations are destroyed; mutated people are either killed or rendered sterile and left to fend for themselves in the Fringes, an area bordering the Badlands where mutations are more common than true images.

David Strorm is son of his community's most zealous supporter of the fight to maintain purity; he is also one of a handful of telepathic children in the area. Realizing that they too are mutations, the children fight to keep their secret, but David's sister, more strongly telepathic than any of the others, is incapable of controlling her abilities and inadvertently reveals the secrets of the entire group.

Opening paragraph:
When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat…
I really enjoyed this book. I have a thing for novels about dystopian futures and also for science fiction that clearly relates to the real world.

15 November 2009

Review: M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic was a disappointment. I hate to say that because I love Gaiman and don't want to feel that way. And generally his books are so good that when I feel kind of iffy about something, I feel like it must be my fault rather than his. How could it be my fault when an author's book doesn't live up to my expectations? Well, in this case, I didn't notice that it was a compilation of eleven stories, of which I'd already read (and in most cases, owned!) nine.

Opening paragraph from "The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds":
I sat in my office, nursing a glass of hooch and idly cleaning my automatic. Outside the rain fell steadily, like it seems to do most of the time in our fair city, whatever the tourist board says. Heck, I didn't care. I'm not on the tourist board. I'm a private dick, and one of the best, although you wouldn't have known it; the office was crumbling, the rent was unpaid, and the hooch was my last.
The idea of M is for Magic was to select and group together stories that might appeal to children. Some stories are meant to be scary, others funny. There is poetry and prose, genres children might enjoy but never have encountered (for example, the noir styled "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds").

13 November 2009

Review: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

When William Gibson first wrote his cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer and the rest, in the early 80s the idea of the internet, of cyberspace, was so new and unknown that it might have turned into anything. It was all (almost all) speculation then, what the technology might become. Now that the internet has become a ubiquitous presence in nearly everyone's life, I don't think there's so much room to imagine what might be as there is to imagine how we might use what we've got. Pattern Recognition was Gibson's first step away from speculative science fiction into the present day.

Opening paragraphs:
Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.
It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.
Not even food, as Damien's new kitchen is as devoid of edible content as its designers' display windows in Camden High Street. Very handsome, the upper cabinets face in canary-yellow laminate, the lower with lacquered, unstained apple-ply. Very clean and almost entirely empty, save for a carton containing two dry pucks of Weetabix and some loose packets of herbal tea. Nothing at all in the German fridge, so new that its interior smells only of cold and long-chain monomers.

11 November 2009

Origami Quilt, Attempt #2

I spent a massive amount of time today crawling around hands-and-knees on the floor pinning this sucker back together. I did it once before, two years ago, but after leaving the quilt rolled up and/or stuffed into one of those zip-up pillow bags and/or shoved from one storage location to another, it was in very wrinkled shape.

So yesterday, besides sewing all those blocks for Modify Tradition (one more today, I'll post a photo at the bottom of this entry later), I took at all in the pins basting it together as well as all the pins holding the petals closed (straight-pins in that case) and ironed both the top and bottom again. Today my back hates me because I pin-basted it all over again.

Now I'm itching to get it quilted (before it wrinkles all over again), but I'm no less terrified, two years on, of the quilting process. I've never done anything so large before (about 6-ft square) or with this kind of batting (the crap stuff no one but ladies as old as my grandmother uses, which I'm using because she prefers quilts made with it to those made with warm & natural style batting) or that I care so much about. I've done a few baby quilts, but any time I make anything bigger I get scared off trying to quilt it because I love them too much to ruin them.

I think I'm just going to do something terribly basic - a criss-cross grid through all the white squares and then... I don't know. I'll have to figure something out for the green. Maybe I'll figure out some sort of leaf or flower type thing I could put into those. In any case, I want to get the quilting done by the end of the month so that I can move on to other trouble-some finishing touches in December. (Opening all the flowers, stitching down the petals, sewing a button into each flower center. Binding. I've never done proper binding before and I might not this time either, maybe just rolling it over from the back.)

When I first started this quilt, two years ago, I made myself a set of goals about it. This many flowers folded by this date, then this many blocks stitched together by this date, and so on. Which actually really worked for getting the top together, but then I totally crashed and burned once it came to quilting. I stitched one line and then picked all of it out because it looked so very, very bad. Then I rolled it all up and stuffed it away. But I cannot, must not, do that this year.

As I've said, rather morbidly, before... my grandma isn't going to live forever. If I want to give her a gift from my own hands, of a quilt, as some kind of thank you for all the many quilts she's hand-stitched and quilted for me... then I need to do it now. And if she dies before I give this to her, I'll never want to look at it again.

And that's enough of that train of thought. So here's another photo...

This block, also for Modify Tradition, was meant to be one giant bow-tie, but I have a definite bias against asymmetrical blocks in samplers. If I knew the quilt would be done on point, I might be willing to do it, but in case it's not... I made my own symmetry. Also, I wanted to use more than two fabrics, which I couldn't do with a traditional bowtie.

In any case, I like my fabrics here a bit better, but I'm finding the gold much too dated looking. I don't know. Maybe I'll go back to the fabric store and see if I can find a different yellow to replace it with. It'd be easy enough to pick apart the two blocks using it so far so that I could replace it with something better and maybe brighter.

10 November 2009

Modify Tradition

I've started following a new quilting blog called Modify Tradition, which is attempting to create a modern looking sampler quilt using traditional blocks. They're talking a lot about different elements that often appear in modern quilts, most of which has been pretty interesting.

In any case, below the cut will be close-ups of each of the blocks and a little blurb about each.

08 November 2009

Notes about this blog

So I decided to blend my three blogs here into one. I haven't been keeping any of them as up to date as I'd like, so I suppose I thought maybe I'd keep on top of it a bit better if I don't feel as if I have so many things to tackle. If I update once a week on any of my given subjects - books, crafts, or food - I think I'll be happier than if I feel that I need to do something with all three.

I've been playing around with my tagging today, trying to work out the best way to make things findable but not have so many the tags become useless, and I wonder if maybe I should have something very general as well as all my specifics - a tag for book posts, one for crafting posts and one for food posts - so that if someone is interested in one thing but not another it'll be easier to filter out the stuff that doesn't interest them. Hm.

I'm trying to figure out if this program has an option for "cutting" long entries, so that part of them is hidden, rather than every long post being a mile long. Guess I should search through the help files. [ETA: Success! Now to go through and do that to my longer entries... one of these days.]

Also, I need to/want to figure out how to adjust the size of this blog - it irritates me to no end that blogger sets all their layouts to such a small size. I'd prefer it to a be a percentage. For example, the width of my content should be about 80% the width of the screen, with 80% of my content devoted to the entries and 20% devoted to the side bar. I don't know if I have the patience to filter through the html and fix it though.

25 October 2009

Review: Ghost Story by Peter Straub

One of my favourite websites, The AV Club has a monthly book club (link leads directly there), which I've never quite managed to participate in because either the book hasn't arrived on time, I haven't been interested in the book, or I haven't finished reading the book by the discussion dates. (In that last case was the lovely Little, Big by John Crowley. I never did write about that book because as much as I liked it, I equally didn't like it, and didn't know how to articulate the way I felt about it.) I did manage to read Ghost Story by Peter Straub not just in time, but a week early because I had the discussion dates confused.

I'd probably never have picked this book up – it's a ghost story and I do avoid most thriller/crime/mystery novels, except for young adult books – if not for the book club. And I can't decide if I'm glad to have read it or just indifferent. The general gist of the story is that four men, who are creeping up close to retirement age, are haunted by an occurrence from their past, metaphorically speaking, but increasingly it seems also to be a literal haunting with consequences reaching far beyond their own lives.

Opening paragraph:
What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…

I found this a pretty entertaining book. I don't usually get scared by fiction (if you want to scare me, give me a book about true crime, something to do with creepy cults who kill their members or other people and that'll freak me out more) and wasn't scared by this, but I could see how it might have worked for other people, the buildup from unease to knowing something is happening to being in the midst of a city-wide haunting.

15 September 2009

Channa Masala with Curried Potatoes and Peas

So it's been a while. I don't know. You know, I cooked and took pictures and blah blah blah but I guess I needed a break. Maybe I still do. We'll see what happens, I suppose.

I've had a craving for Indian food for a while and the last time I tried to make it - Butter Chicken from scratch - it really didn't work out. I mean, it was okay, but I do think my garam masala is dead (I don't make my own) because it just didn't taste right. And neither has any other Indian food I've tried to make in a while. I mean, it makes sense, I suppose, because I probably bought that jar of garam masala two years ago. Definitely time to be picking up fresh. Though I don't know from where, since at least the last time around I was able to buy it made fresh, not made by... McCormicks or whoever and sitting around a warehouse for an age before getting to a store and sitting there for an age.

17 August 2009

Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

When I bought Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (well, "The Ender Quartet," really) I knew next to nothing about it. I knew it is a highly regarded science fiction novel, originally published when I was a young child. (The story the novel was based on was published in 1977, the novel in 1985.) I knew too that it seemed to be a polarizing book – people loved it or hated it without so many opinions falling somewhere in between. As for me, I loved it, flaws and all.

Opening paragraphs:
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother."
"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."
"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"
"If we have to."

Ender's Game is military science fiction, taking place in a future where the human race has banded together to fight off the threat of invasion or destruction by an alien race known, for their bug-like appearance and hive-mind behaviour, as buggers. The world has become so over populated that there are strict laws limiting the number of children a family might have, but the governing body will make allowances for families raising child geniuses who as children may train to become soldiers to fight in the bugger wars.

14 August 2009

Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes was the winner of Canada Reads 2009 on CBC radio. Basically, the idea behind Canada Reads is that a panel of famous Canadians each choose a book by a Canadian author, which they think Canadians should read. On the radio program, the panellists defend their choices, eventually eliminating four of the books and choosing a winner. I'm not really sure where it all goes from there, if anywhere, since I've never actually listened to the program, but the books chosen do get a fair bit of exposure, winners or not. Probably I wouldn't have picked up the novel if I hadn't heard about it via the CBC website blurbs about Canada Reads. (In some markets, this novel is known by the title Someone Knows My Name, which I think is an insipid title that tells you nothing at all about the story, whereas the Canadian title gives you an idea of the time in which it takes place and of the people the story will be about.)

It's the story of one African woman, Aminata Diallo, beginning with her capture as a child by slave traders in the interior of Africa in 1745. The novel follows her journey to the US (then a British colony) and into her life on an indigo plantation where she learns, in secret, to read and write. Eventually Aminata finds herself in New York, working for the British during the war against the rebels, first as a midwife to "catch" the babies born to the (mostly black) mistresses of the officers and then later as a record keeper, filling in the Book of Negroes, a document detailing some 3000 Black Loyalists who the British sent to other colonies following their defeat. Aminata travels on one of these ships to Nova Scotia, then later to Sierra Leone and finally to London, from whence she writes her story.

Opening paragraph:
I seem to have trouble dying. By all rights, I should not have lived this long. But I still can smell trouble riding on any wind, just as surely as I could tell you whether it is a stew of chicken necks or pigs' feet bubbling in the iron pot on the fire. And my ears still work just as good as a hound dog's. People assume that just because you don't stand as straight as a sapling, you're deaf. Or that your mind is like pumpkin mush. The other day, when I was being led into a meeting with a bishop, one of the society ladies told another, "We must get this woman into Parliament soon. Who knows how much longer she'll be with us?" Half bent though I was, I dug my fingers into her ribs. She let out a shriek and spun around to face me. "Careful," I told her, "I may outlast you!"

The Book of Negroes is a lovely story and in many ways a heart-breaking one. It's a story about loss, loss of family and homeland and identity. It's about survival as well, and strength and overcoming the odds, not by luck but by knowing when to fight and when to hide. It's an interesting mix of uplifting and heartbreaking because for all that Aminata does, there always remains the backdrop of her lost family and freedom and the fates of so many other enslaved people who weren't so capable or adept at survival.

31 July 2009

Review: Adverbs by Daniel Handler

There's not a lot I won't try if given the right incentive, so when a co-worker friend offered me a hard-cover copy of Daniel Handler's Adverbs, free, since she couldn't remember either buying it or borrowing it, I decided to give it a try. I liked A Series of Unfortunate Events (with some reservations), so why not a novel for adults by the same guy? She did warn me that it was impossibly annoying, but hey – free book.

Opening paragraph:
Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner. We breathed it in, particularly me: the air was also full of smells and birds, but it was the love, I was sure, that was tumbling down to my lungs, the heart's neighbors and confidants. Andrea was tall and angry. I was a little bit shorter. She smoked cigarettes. I worked in a store that sold things. We always walked to this same corner, Thirty-seventh and what's-it, Third Avenue, in New York, because it was easier to get a cab there, the entire time we were in love.

I could see almost immediately why my friend gave up on it. It's annoyingly disjointed and enigmatic, but frustratingly rather than intriguingly so. It's not quite a novel, but a collection of stories that occasionally link up and often share nothing more than character names (not characters, just the names) in common, a mention each chapter of black birds, an adverb for a chapter title, and love in a variety of incarnations as the single constant note throughout.

Review: The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

So Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans. I was expecting, because of previous experience with Toews' work, that this would be a story about Mennonites and possibly also the clash between their culture and Canadian culture. I wouldn't have been bothered if that's what I'd gotten because I quite enjoyed A Complicated Kindness and it's something that Toews does well, that sense of connection to a shared culture, while also trying to break free of it. I'd been pleased enough by what I read before that I didn't even read the back of this book before buying it.

The Flying Troutmans is a road trip novel. When her boyfriend leaves her for an ashram in India and her unstable sister Min needs to be admitted to a psych ward, Hattie Troutman finds herself suddenly in charge of her niece Thebes (11) and nephew Logan (15). She doesn't know what to do with them or how to deal with their behaviour so she decides to take them to North Dakota to find their father, Cherkis, who'd left the family (on Min's orders) years earlier. They end up in California before finding him, but as in any road novel I can think of it's really about finding oneself.

Opening paragraph:
Yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she'd been trying to take care of things but it wasn't working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn't know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principle, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan)… basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only eleven.

My memories of this book are pretty clouded and that's not a good thing since I finished it just two days ago. I don't know if it's that that book wasn't memorable, that the feeling rather than the events were more important (and so I'm left with good feelings but few memories), or that the books I'm reading now are so good that they've pushed out everything else already. Or all of it together.

30 July 2009

Review: Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

Like a lot of people, I'm a sucker for mostly anything with Neil Gaiman's name on it. (Not so much movie tie-ins or merchandise, but otherwise.) My latest bout of Gaiman-induced spending resulted in my owning M is for Magic and Interworld, a novel co-written with Michael Reaves.

Interworld is an adventure story for pre-teens (at least it read about that level to me) featuring Joey Harker, a rather average kid. Average except that one day he walked into a fog and out into another universe, one very much like his own, except that his parents gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, and not a son. Joey soon finds himself in another world still, but in this one Joey Harker has died by drowning. Joey's ability to walk between worlds puts him at risk to two opposing forces – Magic (called HEX) and Science (called Binary) – that each want control over all the worlds in the all possible universes. Joey learns that his double in each other world is also able to walk between worlds and that it is that duty to fight for balance between the forces of science and magic.

Once I got lost in my own house.
I guess it wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. We had just built a new annex – added a hallway and a bedroom for the squid, aka Kevin, my really little brother – but still, the carpenters had left and the dust had settled over a month ago. Mom had just sounded the dinner call and I was on my way downstairs. I took a wrong turn on the second floor and found myself in a room wallpapered with clouds and bunnies. I realized I'd turned right instead of left, so I promptly made the same mistake again and blundered into the closet.

Wow, long intro. I'm distracted – got a computer virus, yay! Or, you know, 83 infiltrations – and it's showing. Right now I could use a little less binary and a little more hex-the-pants off whoever did this.

26 July 2009

Review: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

Two memoirs in such a short period of time is unusual for me, and two dealing with brain disorders no less. The first, of course, was The Man who Forgot How to Read, which I reviewed about a month ago, but read around the same time as this, Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. This book deals with the way Savant syndrome, a form of Asperger's syndrome, and Synaesthesia combined in Tammet, record holder of most digits of pi recited from memory (22 514) and learner of the Icelandic language in one week.

This memoir is a record of how Tammet grew up and learned to become independent as an adult in spite of the difficulties his various syndromes gave him. It's also an explanation of some of the many ways his brain works differently from yours and mine, from his general lack of empathy to his experience of numbers as colours, shapes, and movements.

Opening paragraph:
One of the things I struggle with in writing about this book (and the reason it's taken me nearly a month to finish writing this) is distinguishing between the quality of the writing and enjoyment I get from the information it offers. It's not an especially well-written book. Sometimes it rambles or describes things Tammet couldn't possibly know about. Sometimes he latches onto a subject like a dog with a bone and doesn't seem to understand how tedious the subject actually is, such as the many many paragraphs he devotes to his own variation on solitaire. (He is aware of that tendency in himself, but that doesn't make it any less boring to know that he knows he can occasionally be dull and repetitious.) There is a sort of cautious and considered tone to the book that probably reads to most people as being simplistic. (My impression is coloured by having seen Tammet speak on television, when I got the impression of a deeply shy person who thinks everything through and then presents it very carefully.)

I'd have liked to read more about what Tammet described in interviews as learning how to experience emotions – learning what love is, for example – but I did feel that the book focused more on the difficulties of understanding emotions rather than how he overcame those difficulties.

On the better side, I found the actual content to be quite fascinating. There is nearly always something very interesting about the ways that the brain can go "wrong." Not that Tammet's brain is wrong, it just makes different connections than most people's minds make. A lot of things I've read about Tammet talk about how remarkable he is for his ability to describe the way he sees things – many people with similar conditions are unable to articulate the differences so clearly. Here is one quotation on the way he experiences words:

Some words are perfect fits for the things they describe. A raspberry is both a red word and a red fruit, while 'grass' and 'glass' are both green words that describe green things… Conversely, some words do not seem to me to fit the things they describe: 'geese' is a green word, but describes white birds ('heese' would seem a better choice to me), the word 'white' is blue while 'orange' is clear and shiny like ice. 'Four' is a blue word but a pointy number, at least to me. The colour of wine (a blue word) is better described by the French word vin, which is purple.
Other sections when he talks about his ability to process mathematical equations or to learn languages are similarly interesting because they are so different from the average experience.

As I said, reading the book is a bit of a mixed experience. I think it's more interesting to think about than it is to read, if that makes sense. I liked to read about the way his brain works, and I think he described it well, but I wish the actual writing of it had been a bit tighter.

Daniel Tammet has written two books, Born on a Blue Day and more recently Embracing the Wide Sky, which tries to explain more about the Savant mind and how the average person's mind isn't so very different. He's appeared on several talk shows, including The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, which you can see here, and The Late Show, and was the subject of the documentary, Brainman. His website can be found here, Optimnem.co.uk.

Tammet, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day. London: Hodder, 2007.
Finished: 02 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 sieves of Eratosthenes
This was my 1st book in July and my 23rd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Retread Review: Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

[I wrote this review in 2007. Just digging up some old stuff to add to the collection here. It might be interesting to read some of these books again and see if I've got a different perspective now. Probably I won't bother though.]

I read most of Douglas Coupland's Eleanor Rigby in one go last night, laying in the bathtub and letting the water get cold around me. I think I absorbed a pound of water through skin that might never unprune itself.

I really liked this book.

Opening Paragraph:
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life would feel reborn. Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty—pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon. And yet I've read books that tell me this isn't the way newly created vision plays out in real life. Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened and confused. They can't make sense of shape or colour or depth. Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace. My brother, William, says, "Well think about it, Liz—kids lie in their cribs for nearly a year watching hand puppets and colourful toys come and go. They're dumb as planks, and it takes them a long time to even twig to the notion of where they end and the world begins. Why should it be any different just because you're older and technically wiser?"

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunn, a lonely woman who finally gets woken up from a life she's been sleepwalking through. It makes me feel pathetic to admit it, but in many ways, she reminds me of me.

Review: JPod by Douglas Coupland

So jPod. jPod was my most recent favourite-new-tv-show-that's-bound-to-be-cancelled. And was. There were a lot of problems with jPod, mainly related to the fact that CBC was staffed by a bunch of poor-decision making tools. They advertised, but not enough that I ever learned what date/time the show as to premiere or even air. Then they moved it to a new night, mid-season, but once again didn't very widely advertise the new day. A new day which happened to be Friday evenings, a night when the show's target market (20-30 somethings) tends not to be hanging around at home waiting to watch tv. (I watched online myself.) Not surprisingly, the ratings weren't great and so they cancelled it. Sigh.

The show ended on a cliffhanger – one of the characters winds up in a coma after being too vigorously hugged by an Artificial Intelligence-run hugging machine – and we never learn what really happens. So I thought… why not read it?

Opening paragraph:
"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
That asshole."
"Who does he think he is?"
"Come on, guys,
focus. We've got a major problem on our hands."
The six of us were silent, but for our footsteps. The main corridor's muted plasma TVs blipped out the news and sports, while co-workers in long-sleeved blue and black T-shirts oompah-loompahed in and out of laminate-access doors, elevated walkways, staircases and elevators, their missions inscrutable and squirrelly. It was a rare sunny day. Freakishly articulated sunbeams highlighted specks of mica in the hallway's designer granite. They looked like randomized particle events.

JPod the book by Douglas Coupland is ridiculously funny. More so than the tv show or perhaps funny in a different way. In fact, the show and the book have little in common beyond characters and a handful of scenes/story lines. They are very different beasts. (And rightly so - a book can only be a jumping off point really, otherwise you might just as well make a movie or do a miniseries.)

23 July 2009

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those iconic American writers who it feels like everything I know has read except me. I recently bought a boat-load of books (well, okay, 11 or 12 of them, which fit in a smallish box delivered from an online bookseller's warehouse in Ontario), including Slaughterhouse-Five. I don't know why I choose that book in particular and I didn't even read a synopsis before buying it. I didn't have any preconceived ideas of what it might be like – except a vague notion that it maybe involved children or young adults – but it still was nothing like I'd imagined. (And not just because it was about soldiers rather than children. The entire thing was somehow askew from whatever non-formed ideas I had.)

Opening paragraph:
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.
I didn't know that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, though I'd some idea about the satire. I did know he had a penchant for "So it goes" and that he'd included the phrase "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt" in at least one of his books. (That, I knew, because it was referenced in a song by, I think but can't remember for certain, Maybe Smith.) After Vonnegut died, I read some tributes people had written and some lists of the best bits (according to whoever) from his books. Having now read Slaughterhouse-Five I do feel a little like I'd have been okay with reading only those lists.

What I said in my one-line review for anobii.com was "This was interesting and sometimes funny, but mostly I feel like I missed the point." Many of the particularly funny bits I'd already read (without context) in those best bits lists. The interesting bits were mostly the references to war – the irreverent tone was refreshing, probably because I'm so used to the pro-war (or pro-America, anyway) rhetoric of so many American war films – and also the ideas put forth by the Trafalmadorians. Those were such curious segments. I suppose because of the banality of both the war/regular life sections and the otherworld alien sections. Even though Billy Pilgrim ends up a fish out of water in those sections, he approaches everything in exactly the same way.

Still, as I said, I'm not sure I got from this book whatever I was supposed to get from it. It's probably partly lazy reading – I stretched out this short book over several weeks – but also because it was so wholly outside of whatever I thought I was getting myself into that I spent more time going "Wait… what?" than I did really paying attention.

Worth the read? I don't know. I thought it was okay, but I'm not as sold on Vonnegut as everything else seems to be.

Kurt Vonnegut was the author of several novels, including Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slapstick. He also published short stories and essays in several collections, including Welcome to the Monkey House and the posthumously published Armageddon in Retrospect. You can read "The Blood of Dresden" here, an essay extracted from Armageddon in Retrospect, on the subject of the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1991.
Finished: 22 July 2009
Rating: 2 of 5 Kilgore Trout novels
This was my 5th book in July and my 27th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Review: When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the 3rd book from David Sedaris that I've read. The first was Me Talk Pretty One Day, which had me laughing like a maniac in public places. It was a great experience and sing I'd come quite late to his books, I had several others to choose from to read next. Unfortunately, I picked up Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which was only so-so. I can't really remember what put me off about it, though I assume it just wasn't that funny. But I was a bit wary after that and hadn't picked up any of Sedaris' books since. When You are Engulfed in Flames had a great cover though and it was 40% off, so why not?

Opening paragraph, from "It's Catching":
My friend Patsy was telling me a story. "So I'm at the movie theater," she said, "and I've got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along –" And here I stopped her, because I've always wondered about this coat business. When I'm in a theater, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over my armrest, but Patsy always spreads hers out, acting as if the seat back were cold, and she couldn't possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.
I can't remember if Sedaris' other books had any sort of thematic element to tie the essays together. (I assume I was being a lazy reader and that there actually was.) This collection is mainly about death and endings. Very entertaining takes on these subjects, of course.

For the most part this book brought me back to the laughing-out-loud-on-the-bus mode. It makes me feel like a tit just to grin in public when doing something so private as reading, but it couldn't be helped. There were a few mediocre stories, but more were absolute gems, and most of the collection fell on the very enjoyable side of somewhere in between.

On the whole, I think I prefer Me Talk Pretty One Day, but it's been a long time since I read it, and I'm very happy with the experience of reading When You are Engulfed in Flames. It was worth every moment spent.

David Sedaris has written several books, beginning with Barrel Fever and Naked, neither of which I've read, and a handful of others (most of which I've also not read). He has co-written several plays I've neither seen nor read with his sister Amy Sedaris, and he's also been a contributor to Ira Glass' This American Life radio show. (Which I've never listened to, incidentally.)

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Finished: 12 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 human skeletons
This was my 4th book in July and my 26th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

19 July 2009

August Fields Handbags

A while back now, I made a set of hand bags for a craft exchange I was doing online. I could make anything I wanted, and when I found this gorgeous collection of fabrics - August Fields from Amy Butler - it sort of snapped right into place.

What I loved about it, especially, is how summery it is. The colours are gorgeous and the prints fun and if I'd made the bags a bit bigger, they're the sort of thing I could imagine carrying around to the beach with a ton of junk stuffed in. I didn't have enough fabric to make them very big, though - I had a set of fat quarters, plus one extra half metre, and a few inches each of green and yellow, which was enough for six bags this size.

I've only got pictures of four of the six bags, so here are close-ups. I made three bags using this material, because they had more of this fabric than any of the others. (And I wasn't as fond of some of the other options they had on the bolt.)

This was definitely one of my favourite fabrics, anyway, so it all worked out. The three bags I made each had different coloured linings - one white, one yellow, and one bright pink. (I kept the one with pink lining for myself.)

This is probably my least favourite of the fabrics - I probably wouldn't have chosen it if it hadn't been part of the fat quarter pack. I like the shape of the pattern, it's just more yellow than I care for.

This is probably the prettiest of the prints - it's a bit more restrained and, I guess, realistic. It's probably the easiest bag to actually use because the colours are a bit less garish.

Nothing wrong with garish either, though. This is my absolute favourite of the bags with the bright pink lining and the fun sort of lollipop print. I didn't keep it, but I really did want to because I liked it that much.

I think I could make a dozen of these, if I could find the right fabrics. Not that I will, I don't really need a dozen bags in different colours. They came out pretty nice, though, if I do say so myself.

29 June 2009

Review: The Accidental by Ali Smith

I haven't got a particularly interesting story about how I came to read Ali Smith's The Accidental. I've never read any of her novels or stories before and I only got the book because it was free in a Buy 3 Get 1 Free sale. I couldn't find a fourth book I was interested in, but this one had a cover that reminded me of the cover of Jeffery Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, so why not?

It's quite likely that if I'd known more or if I'd skimmed or read the first few pages that I'd have given the entire thing a miss. I can't decide if that would have been a good thing or not. Probably not.

The Accidental tells the story of the Smart family – mother Eve, step-father Michael, children Astrid and Magnus – while they spend a summer in Norfolk, where Eve intends to write her next novel. A strange woman, Amber, appears one day and, each of the adults believing the other knows her, no one questions her presence until her strange behaviour begins to cross uncomfortable boundaries and change every member of the family.

Although I generally only quote one opening paragraph, for the sake of showing the book's format, I'm going to use a bit from each of the members of the Smart family.

Opening paragraph, Astrid:
The Beginning
of things – when is it exactly? Astrid Smart wants to know. (Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski.) 5.04 a.m. on the substandard clock radio. Because why do people always say the day starts now? Really it starts in the middle of the night at a fraction of a second past midnight. But it's not supposed to have begun until the dawn, really the dark is still last night and it isn't morning until the light, though actually it was morning as soon as it was even a fraction of a second past twelve i.e. that experiment where you divide something down and down like the distance between the ground and a ball that's been bounced on it so that it can be proved, Magnus says, that the ball never actually touches the ground. Which is junk because of course it touches the ground, otherwise how would it bounce, it wouldn't have anything to bounce
off, but it can actually be proved by science that it doesn't.
Opening paragraph, Magnus:
the beginning of this = the end of everything. He was part of the equation. They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody's email. Then she killed herself.

That noise outside is birds. It is swifts. They are making their evening noise. Birds are pointless now. Everything is pointless. They took her head. They put it on the other body. They sent it round the email list. Then she killed herself.
Opening paragraph, Michael:
the beginning again!
Extraordinary. Life never stopped being glorious, a glorious surprise, a glorious renewal all over again. Like new. No, not just like new but really new, actually new. Metaphor not simile. No
like between him and the word new. Who'd have believed it? That woman, Amber, had just pushed her plate away, pushed her chair back, long-limbed and insouciant and insolent as a girl, and had stood up and left the table, left the room, and Michael, now that all that was opposite him was her empty chair, could stop, breathe out, wonder whether Eve, who was scraping at breadcrumbs with her napkin, if she looked up, say she looked up and looked him straight in the face, would see the surprise of it written all over him. His face would have that astonished look more usually found on the face of a soprano hitting a high perfected oh.
Opening paragraph, Eve:
the beginning was keeping her awake. She by far preferred the edit, the end, where the work in the dark was over and you could cut and cut until you saw the true shape of things emerge.
Where was Eve, exactly? Eve was lying in bed in this too-dark, too-hot room, completely awake in the middle of the night, next to Michael completely asleep with his head under his pillow.
No other reason she couldn't sleep? No.
Honestly? Well. That girl of Michael's was a little distracting.
The idea of the story, the actual story is quite fascinating, though I don't quite want to say what happens or why its so interesting. The entire effect of the novel would be lost if a reader came into it knowing what will happen. Getting to that point, seeing how Amber slithers into their lives and changes every one of them, is so frustrating that I very nearly gave up on the book in the very first chapter, when Astrid's thoughts are running the show.

As you can see in each of the openings I posted, each section is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, so that you're dropped right into the thoughts of each of the characters. And oh god, the tedium, the mundanity, the repetition, the way they circle around from one thought to the next and back again… ugh. It made me want to scream. (I was amused by Eve, who thinks very often in interview format, which is something I sometimes do when I'm inward-bound.) Later on, there is even poetry from Michael. Just… frustrating to read. To say the least of it.

And yet… the story slithered into my mind the same way Amber slipped into the Smart's lives, pushing in just the right ways and taking root without my noticing it was happening. For that reason, it's not an easy story to forget, even though I want to forget the voices that it's told in. There's something mysterious about it that makes you want to peel back the layers and reexamine everything to see what you've missed, to see if Amber gave anything away.

But then again, no, I probably won't read it again, because I don't want to slog through the thought of these people. It's enough to live in my own head without having to live in four of theirs as well.

Ali Smith has written several collections of short stories, including Free Love and Other Stories and Other Stories and Other Stories, as well as several novels including most recently Girl Meets Boy. The Accidental was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (as was her earlier novel Hotel World) and won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005. Ali Smith's website cannot be found at alismith.org (though art by an American Ali Smith can be) and if she's got one, I've not found it.

Smith, Ali. The Accidental. Toronto: Penguin, 2006.
Finished: 03 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 recordings of sunrises
This was my 1st book in June and my 18th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I've been trying for two weeks to write a review of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, but I invariably wind up with three pages that say nothing at all. Then I start over and the same thing happens again. It's driving me a little bit mad.

The book is a children's or young adult adventure novel with elements of detective fiction and science fiction. It's a kind of hybrid I suppose. It's a bit young for young adult but too convoluted for children's fiction. It doesn't really feel like an adventure novel, but the four main characters go on a quest that leads them through all sorts of dangers and tests of their abilities.

To say more about the story itself, though: the four main characters – Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire are the only children smart and lucky enough to pass a series of tests designed to find gifted children "looking for special opportunities." The special opportunity, it turns out, is a chance to act as spies for Mr Benedict at The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. Mr Benedict believes that the institute is the front for a dastardly plot by the evil Mr Curtain to bring down the government and seize control for himself. Because only children can attend the institute, the gifted children's abilities have to complement on another; where one child is weak, another is strong.

Opening paragraph:
In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test. It was the second test of the day – the first had been in an office across town. After that one he was told to come here, to the Monk Building on Third Street, and to bring nothing but a single pencil and a single rubber eraser, and to arrive no later than one o'clock. If he happened to be late, or bring two pencils, or forget his eraser, or in any other way deviate from the instructions, he would not be allowed to take the test and that would be that. Reynie, who very much wanted to take it, was careful to follow the instructions. Curiously enough, these were the only ones given. He was not told how to get to the Monk Building, for example, and had found it necessary to ask directions to the nearest bus stop, acquire a schedule from a dishonest bus driver who tried to trick him into paying for it, and walk several blocks to catch the Third Street bus. Not that any of this was difficult for Reynie Muldoon. Although he was only eleven years old, he was quite used to figuring things out for himself.
The trouble I have in writing about this book is that although I enjoyed it a lot, there are a great many things I didn't like. In order to get a handle on that, I decided to read some other reviews that people have written about the book, but I found myself agreeing as much with the 5 star reviews as the 2 star ones. Sigh. What to say?

I enjoyed the story and the characters very much, but had serious reservations about both. The story is in many ways completely absurd, the characters (at least the bad ones) often one-note. The ending is tied up with the prettiest of happy-ending bows. It's a fun story, so long as you don't think too hard about it.

Trenton Lee Stewart is the author of two already published books in the Mysterious Benedict Society series with a third forthcoming this year. He's also published another book called Flood Summer, which I believe is adult literature. If he has a website, I haven't found it.

Stewart, Trenton Lee. The Mysterious Benedict Society. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.
Finished: 21 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 rules (but there are no rules)
This was my 3rd book in June and my 20th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Review: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I pretty well always like young adult fantasy. Even though they're often very predictable, adventure stories are just fun. So the entertainment value is high and they let me indulge in the things I like about all fantasy – world creation, interesting magic (even if it's not called that), even the comfort of archetypal characters and the tropes of the genre and seeing them played with – without the things I don't like about adult fantasy – mainly women who exist as sex objects or not at all. I'm sure there are heaps of adult fantasy books I'd like if I read them, but I can't bear to weed through the crap to find them.

I've gotten so that I don't know where to start with young adult fantasy either. So many compare themselves (through blurbs on the covers) with Harry Potter, which is lazy and tells me nearly nothing – kids will triumph over evil and magic will be involved. So, you know, suggestions are always welcome.

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan was recommended to me by a good friend who'd picked up the first book while looking for something light-hearted and fun, without too many depressing elements. The first book, The Lightning Thief, fits the bill pretty closely.

Opening paragraph:
Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.

If you're reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It's scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
Like a great many young adult adventure series, The Lightning Thief begins when a 12 year old boy, Percy Jackson, discovers that he's not quite a normal boy and that there is a whole other world hidden from outsiders, a world of magic and monsters and fights for power. As it turns out, Percy is the son of a mortal woman and a Greek god, one of the Olympians who still hold power, even if they're only thought of as myths. Percy, and other "half-bloods", is trained to be heroes, performing quests, following the whims and wars of these capricious gods. Percy is set to the task of recovering Zeus' stolen item of power, his master lightning bolt, and must return it by solstice or the gods will descend into another brutal war. Naturally, there are triumphs and minor defeats, allies formed and betrayed, battles and monsters, and twists on top of unexpected twists.

As in a lot of young adult literature, there is a curious lack of consequence and morality. Notwithstanding the fact that gods can be killed but will always return, Percy's response to his first kill is remarkably nonchalant. One death is treated as a practical joke and all, even the most personally hurtful of them, are treated in a remarkably emotionless way.

The story is a lot of fun, though. The action is never-ending, the down-time short enough to keep from bogging down the pace (although there could have been a little more build-up to a couple of the action sequences and perhaps fewer of them with the more minor gods and beasties). There are enough moments of lightness and humour to keep the book from becoming too serious. I could have done without the pop culture references, though. (Seriously, Hilary Duff? Way to date your novel, Riordan. Nothing wrong with setting the novel in a certain time and place, but maybe do it without referencing real life people who 20 years from now will only leave readers going, What? Who? Is that a joke?)

In any case, an enjoyable read. I think it would be great read aloud – each chapter ends with a bang, making it easy to break up into once-a-day reading sections. I'll definitely be picking up the rest of this series, once I've finished a few more of the books I already own.

Rick Riordan is the author of five books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, as well as an editor of Demigods and Monsters, a collection of essays about the series. He also wrote the adult mystery series Tres Navarre. His website can be found here.

Riordan, Rich. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion, 2006.
Finished: 25 June 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 fork-tongued monsters
This was my 5th book in June and my 22nd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

27 June 2009

2008/09 Block of the Month - The First Eight

We've fallen a little behind in our block of the month on Livejournal due to some family problems with the person who has put together the BotM. It seems like things are getting better for her, so hopefully the rest of the year will be an improvement on the beginning.

In any case, she recently posted blocks for April and May, so those two are included in this collection of eight blocks. There was an error in her June block, so she's holding that one back until she can work out the problems. Which is quite okay - I've got little planned as far as sewing goes for most of the summer. (Well, that's not quite true, but I haven't quite figured out how to do what I'd like to get done this summer. I really, desperately need to finish some things though. For once.)

This is the April block. I really, really like the look of this block, even with my kind of ugly fabrics. (Seriously, I waver back and forth between grudging enjoyment and a kind of sneering dislike.) I like that it shows off the print, which I do like. I always like the blocks best that keep the burgundy and the orange clear of one another, which this one does, so that certainly helps.

And here is the May block. I sort of wish that I'd moved colours around, but I've been following the colour layout exactly as it's been set out in the original blocks.

One of the things I like about this block is that it shows off the marble effect of the burgundy in a way that usually just kind of looks muddy and mottled. But, that said, with so much of the burgundy, it still kind of looks almost dour (for a block made with yellow and orange).

I think I'm back on an upswing about this block though because looking at the photo now, it doesn't seem so bad as it did on Wednesday when I made it. Hm.

20 June 2009

Review: Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

I tend not to read a lot of graphic novels. I enjoy some of them and I love the combination of art and story, but so much of what I encounter seems either to be men's wank fodder or anti-social in a way that annoys me or too much the superhero thing or… or… or… So on CBC's website, I saw that the online book club was reading Skim, a graphic novel by cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Their description of the novel intrigued me, so I shelled out the ridiculous sum of $30 to buy it online from Groundwood books (should have gone to a bookstore...)

From the CBC Canada Reads book club site: Skim takes us into the world of Kimberly Keiko Cameron. It's 1993, and she's in grade 10 at a private girls school in Toronto. Skim is the nickname she's been given by the popular girls in her class. It's a constant reminder to her that she's not slim. Through Skim's diary entries and the small moments of her daily life, the book depicts the teenager's response to depression, crushes, a student's suicide, gay sexuality and the experience of being an outsider.

Opening paragraph:
Dear Diary,
Today Lisa said,
"Everyone thinks they are unique."

That is not unique!!
As I said, I don't really know very much about graphic novels, and I don't know much about art or how to talk about it, but I really loved the art in this book. Sometimes it's quite sketchy looking, but other panels are rich with detail and emotion. Some of the characters, like Skim's best friend Lisa, seem to match faces with personalities: Lisa is as hard and pointy looking as her personality. The cover of my edition looks a bit more like a portrait of a geisha than Skim, the slightly overweight, Wiccan (maybe) teenager, but in the context of the novel, that portrait suits perfectly the often melancholy mood of the book.

The story itself is interesting enough but not terribly special, much like most teenager's day to day lives are interesting enough but not terribly special. There is angst, betrayal, broken hearts, and that search for a sense of self and for one's identity. Having been that girl in many respects, there is something almost nostalgic about the story line. The mood is spot on for a teenage emo angst-fest. I shouldn't sound like I'm making fun, though. The writing and art give the subject and feeling the same weight and seriousness it has while living through it.

I quite liked Skim for the nostalgia and perfect distillation of the feeling of separation from everything and everyone which also defined my high school years. I can imagine, though, it might be grating for someone who has forgotten or never lived through that state of depression and quiet longing for the world to be better than it is.

Jillian Tamaki has done illustrations for a number of newspapers and magazines including New Yorker, SPIN, and MacLean's and of course did the artwork for Skim. Her website can be found here. Mariko Tamaki has written and published a handful of books including Cover Me and Fake ID. I can't quite figure out if a second graphic novel Emiko Superstar (with art by Steve Rolston) has been released. (I'm sure one site said October 2008, but it's not listed on Tamaki's website under published works OR the comics/graphic novels tab.) In any case, her website can be found here.

Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood, 2009.
Finished: 05 June 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 Wiccan rituals to bring forth the spirit of the dead
This was my 2nd book in June and my 19th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Review: The Man Who Forgot How to Read by Howard Engel

I have occasional, passing bouts of interest in memoirs and auto/biographers, but generally only in cases where I'm already a fan of the author or subject. I quite loved Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, for example, but it's pretty unlikely that I'd have read it if I hadn't already read and loved his novels. A month ago, I'd never heard of Howard Engel, so The Man who Forgot How to Read would never have even been on my radar except that when I went to check the weather on the CBC website one day, they had a big link to their online book club, which read the memoir in May. I read a fair bit about the book at their site and was intrigued.

The Man who Forgot How to Read tells the story of how author Howard Engel woke up one morning, having unknowingly had a stroke, and discovers that he can no longer read. Having written an (apparently) well known series of novels about detective Benny Cooperman, the loss of Engel's reading skills was a blow not just to his sense of self (Engel is/was a voracious reader), but also to his career. He could still write, but couldn't read what he'd written; the letters on the page looked foreign, as if they'd been printed in Serbo-Croatian rather than English. How could he complete and edit a novel like that? Maybe it's better to say that this memoir is about how Engel came back to himself, both as a reader and a writer.

Opening paragraph:
My name is Howard Engel. I write detective stories. That's what I tell people when they ask me what I do. I could say I'm a writer or a novelist, but that raises a false echo in my brain, so I'm happier with the more modest claim of writing detective stories. I've written quite a few of them.
Although I can't speak to Engel's skills as a writer before his stroke – I've never read any of the Benny Cooperman novels – this particular bit of writing is simple and understated. It's very straightforward, feels honest, and unpretentious. I don't know how much of that is a result of Engel's style as a writer and how much is due to his stroke. There are occasional blurbs (particularly noticeable in the section about his childhood and the years leading up to the stroke) that felt unnecessary and repetitive sometimes in word choice and sometimes in subject (though of course I can't find any of them by skimming just now). There are bits that felt like unnecessary diversions, but again I don't know if Engel thought that there were important points to be made (that I obviously missed) or if they were also a result of the stroke.

Nevertheless, this is quite an interesting book, at least if you're intrigued by the oddities of the human brain and just how amazing it is at finding ways of working around problems. (Engel spends a fair bit of time talking about the ways he's learned to trick his brain into working better for him.) I think it would be interesting to compare his writing now with his writing before, though that would probably require dredging up an interest in detective fiction that I'm not sure I've got.

Howard Engel wrote close to a dozen detective novels before the stroke, beginning with The Suicide Murders, and he's published one since, Memory Book and is at work on another. He's also written a few non-fiction books, including Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind and Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love.

Engel, Howard. The Man who Forgot How to Read. Toronto: Harper, 2008.
Finished: 19 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 Sero-Croation newspapers
This was my 4th book in June and my 21st in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

19 June 2009

Vegetarian Spring Rolls

Tonight's dinner (not pictured) was a comedy of errors, without any of the redeeming comedic value. (Meat gone off, a burned sauce, boiling water spilled on my tummy...) I started my evening tired, hungry and not feeling that well, and now I've lost two hours, am still tired, still hungry, still don't feel well, AND I have a burned stomach. Plus a sink full of dishes to wash. Sigh.

I've not been updating to much this last while, which maybe means I'm getting tired of this and it's time to give up. Or maybe it means that I've not been happy with anything I've been making. Or maybe it doesn't mean much of anything. I don't know.

I think I've mentioned that I'd been feeling unwell for a while, well, I finally went to a doctor about it, but I'm not really convinced that his diagnosis really was the whole story. The medication I've been taking hasn't really been helping. I suppose I need to go see someone again, but I have a hard time going to clinics about things that feel wishy-washy to me - vague discomforts (I can't really call them pains, but they're so constant that it's worse than just a short sharp pain would be) to me don't lend themselves to visits to a clinic. They want Symptom A + Symptom B = Diagnosis X, leading to Treatment Y, and Patient Z out the door. I wish I could find a doctor taking new patients. Preferably not an old doctor, either, because that would be just my luck that I'd start seeing someone and s/he'd retire.

Anyway, these vague discomforts are mostly related to my stomach and the treatment I was given was Prevacid, so if I've got a problem with stomach acid, that means I should be more careful about what I'm eating. I've not felt inspired by food in a while.

Still, I finally got around to making spring rolls the other day. I don't know that I did a very good job - it seems like there should maybe be more filling so the rice wrapper isn't layered so thick and one of the spring rolls I made had a lot of tears in it by the time I got it on the plate. Still, these were really tasty - the vegetables are bright and fresh and came alive with garlic and cilantro and serrano pepper. It was really spicy (I should be avoiding that... didn't seem to bother me, though) but pretty spectacular tasting. I've got enough rice papers left to make spring rolls every day for the rest of eternity, so I'll definitely have to try it again.

A few days prior to the spring rolls, I made healthy meatloaf. This meatloaf probably had pretty equal amounts of meat and vegetables in it - finely diced mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, and red pepper, as well as rolled oats.

It's not the most tasty looking thing, but it was really delicious, especially as leftovers with a bit of cheese melted over and a puddle of ketchup and mustard for dipping. I served it with mashed sweet potatoes, which I found tasty but too strange to want to eat often, and sautéed snap peas (delicious!) I've got most of the leftovers in the freezer, so I'll definitely be eating this again, and will probably make it again someday if I'm in the mood for comfort food.

Even though they're completely different meals, this sort of looks samey, doesn't it? I made this a few days prior to the meatloaf. It's just salmon in a very simple marinade of (mostly) orange juice and ginger, and the glaze was quite tasty, though most of it cooked away. I severely overcooked it though and didn't eat very much of the salmon because it was so dry.

And that's the backlog. Enjoyable, all. Shame I didn't get to eat any of them tonight, instead of my trashed stir-fry beef with snow peas and tomatoes...

09 June 2009

Sausage and Sweet Potato Chili

This photo is several days old now and when I look at it, I think that June isn't really the time of year to be making chili. But when I made this, it snowed. SNOW. In June. I feel pretty strongly about the fact that it should not snow, in the northern hemisphere, in June. But my sister assures me that it snowed in July once, a few years back.

The thing about living in Calgary is that we have pretty wild weather, sometimes. Not wild in the sense of hurricanes and tornadoes, but if we get a Chinook at the right time in winter, it can go from -20 to +20 within hours. And sometimes it also snows when it should be summer. Sigh.

In any case, this was a very delicious dinner, which very much suited the weather, if not the season. It was sweet and savoury and warm and filling. The chili wasn't over-powering or under-whelming, just a nice compliment to the flavours of the chorizo sausage, sweet potatoes, kidney beans, and other spices. I'll definitely be making this again, but I hope not for another 6 months or so.

04 June 2009

Chicken and Potato Caesar Salad

You know, this is not the most attractive picture, but it was pretty tasty. Even better on the second day, once the garlic had more of a chance to do its thing in the dressing.

Basically, this is what it says on the tin: a combination of potato salad and chicken Caesar salad. But lighter than either and a really great dish for lunch. Essentially it's boiled potatoes and cooked chicken breast, coated lightly with a (light) homemade Caesar dressing, topped with sliced green onions and chopped parsley, and served over baby romaine and other greens.

I was really impressed with the dressing, since most "light" Caesar dressings in my experience haven't really tasted that good, but this one was garlicy and delicious.

03 June 2009

LJ Birthday Blocks - June 20

Another set of blocks for my birthday blocks group. These are much smaller than usual - 6.5 inch blocks rather than 12-in ones. Which, actually, is why I've made four rather than just two.

The request, this time, was for 2 6.5 inch blocks featuring stars or frogs or featuring fabrics with either frogs or stars on them. I did consider, for a while, coming up with a paper-pieced frog, but honestly, it seemed like too much work for my particular talents. And then, I didn't want to buy fabric with frogs or stars because generally speaking I don't really like novelty prints and I wouldn't want to have scraps afterwards. So star blocks! I was going to do something more structured than this, but I decided that wonky would be fun, so wonky stars was it.

I sort of felt like the recipient was ripping herself off by requesting 6-in blocks, so I made her four rather than two. And this, truly, is only the equivalent to one 12-in block, so I still feel like I'm not giving her as much as she deserves, but regardless. I hope she likes them.