Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: SKIOS, by Michael Frayn

Skios, by Michael Frayn. Published 2013 by Picador.

So, what got my attention about Skios was two things. First, it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Second, its author wrote the very silly play "Noises Off."

This is a very silly book.

The plot hangs on a thin premise that some readers won't be able to buy into. Stuffy academic Dr. Norman Wilfred is making his way to the private Greek island of Skios for an international jet-setter's weekend conference. His is to be the keynote address and his presence is a big draw for the wealthy donors to an NGO. He's an older guy, kind of set in his ways and whose charisma owes more to habit than to actual charm. Enter Oliver Fox, an English playboy. Oliver Fox and Wilfred Owen, through circumstances I won't go into, end up with their identities switched. And then the fun really begins.

Stuck in the middle is hapless Nikki Hook, in charge of organizing the weekend. She is a bundle of nerves and anxiety and nearly becomes unhinged as events take their course. Other characters have significant roles to play but basically the book comes down to waiting to see what's going to happen when the ruse is finally up.

All I can say is, if you can put your brain on hold and just go along for the ride, Skios is a fun book. It's definitely a beach book- it reads fast and it's got an undeniable air of frivolity. Some reviewers think it asks deep questions about the meaning of identity; I don't know about that. It's also a great book to read this winter if you live in New England- you'll be feeling that Greek sunshine coming right through the page.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, February 24, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I've been having an interesting reading week. When I went to England I saw and passed on a book called The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, long-listed for the Booker Prize about a young woman getting married in the London Jewish Orthodox community. I sort of regretted passing on it but then I found out it's coming out here in April. Then I found a galley at work! So I read that book this week and enjoyed it a lot. I'll review it closer to the release date but keep your eye out- I recommend it.

As far as what I'm still reading, I'm still working my way through Hild and The Siege of Krishnapur, both very good if not exactly page-turners. But they are good. They are just very slow reads. With Hild, I need at least an hour to read to get into it and it's rare that I have that much time at a stretch. It's so worth it when I do though!

I'm also reading Deirdre Madden's Time Present and Time Past, about a Dublin family and their secrets, past and present. The main characters are Fintan and Martina, middle-aged brother and sister, who each have things to discover about themselves and others. Fintan takes an interest in old autochrome photography and starts having hallucinations; Martina is a successful entrepreneur with memories from the past which insist on resurfacing. I love the book. This was another that I bought on my trip and that is now set to come out in the US later this spring. I'm really glad I'm not waiting to read it!

What about you? What are you reading this week? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Crafturday: Mail Call

Awhile back I got on a mailing list for Harper Design and their craft book series; what this means is every now and then I get some craft books from them in the mail. So I thought I would share them with you!

My latest box included two new titles. The first is Calamity-Free Crochet: Troubleshooting Tips and Advice for the Savvy Needlecrafter.

From the title I assumed this book would be aimed at the experienced crocheter, but as I looked through it I found it to be a great step-by-step guide for the beginner! Author Catherine Hirst goes through everything from yarns, tools and different kinds of accessories- even including stitch conversion charts, and I don't even know what that means- to what looks like a pretty complete array of basics and reference material. I don't know how to crochet (yet) but this book makes me want to try!
The other book I received is Gretel Parker's Little Needle-Felted Animals: 30 Cute and Easy-to-Make Friends. Needlefelting is a craft in which I have some experience; I once made a cat, and a Santa, and an elf. So this one wasn't so foreign. The patterns, for bears, rabbits, mice, giraffes and more, are adorable, but do look like things you need a little experience to make. Needlefelting is a craft that involves taking wool roving and stabbing it repeatedly with barbed needles- great if you're an angry person but you want to make something cute. This book will show you how.

You can visit Parker's blog here for more needlefelting goodness.

I am sure I will use both of these books soon! Thank you Harper Design for the package!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: THE GUEST CAT, by Takashi Hiraide

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide. Published 2014 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Japanese.

The Guest Cat is a poetic, short read about a couple living in a rented Tokyo house who become attached to a neighbor's cat. The husband narrates; he and his wife have rented a small house on a large estate in a quiet, bucolic corner of Tokyo and get along well with their elderly landlords who live in a large house on the property. Into their lives comes padding a cat who becomes a friend, an enjoyed and appreciated free spirit who chooses to spend some of its time with them.

The couple have no children and enjoy a quiet life of working from home on intellectual-type livelihoods; the cat is a welcome distraction and enriches the little nest of a home they've built together. Their relationship with their landlords and the serenity of the natural world around them complete the picture, but nothing can stay the same forever. When the elderly husband dies, they must move, but this process becomes dragged out amid the details of selling the estate and finding a new place to live. And the cat doesn't always come around. Death, a part of life, touches the couple in more ways than one, and understanding, when it comes, is bittersweet.

The Guest Cat is a sweet book that I read comfortably on a snowy afternoon earlier this month. It isn't syrupy by any stretch but has a serenity to it that was perfect for a quiet day in my own little nest. Cat lovers are the obvious audience for the book but I would recommend it to anyone looking for a little down tine with a book that often reads like a poem to nature, solitude and the life of the mind.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, February 17, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Another week, another book. Or two. This past week I read The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide, a short and poetic book about a Japanese married couple and their relationship with a local cat. It's as much about their relationship with the world, their neighborhood and nature as it is about the one cat, and what they learn about themselves. I finished The Ghost Road, Pat Barker's 1995 Booker winner, with mixed feelings. It was okay. I didn't love it but I want to read the other books in her Regeneration trilogy; this was the third and I think maybe I should read the other two.

I'm about half-way through Nicola Griffith's Hild now and still loving it. Literary fiction readers, please do yourselves a big favor and buy this book now when it's in glorious hardcover. I'm telling you, you won't be sorry.

I also started a new Booker book, J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker in 1973. I read his Troubles a while back and that remains one of my favorites; this one displays the same subtlety and dry wit of that book. It focuses on the Indian Mutiny of 1857 though its themes are very modern and current even today.

Finally, I decided to read The Castle of Whispers, by Carole Martinez, as well, and that book about a Frenchwoman who locks herself up in a tower, is interesting and one that I think my college French professor would enjoy.

What about you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Salon: Another Bookstore Is Closing

So making the rounds with my husband yesterday afternoon,  I was very disappointed to learn that Seek Books, a science fiction specialty used bookstore in Boston, is closing at the end of March. Jeff and I have been shopping here on and off since the beginning, more or less; owner Brad Kinne contacted me via email after seeing my blog to tell me about the store and invite me to stop by. I did, and brought my science-fiction-loving husband, and we've been customers ever since.

I've just about fallen in love with Asimov, the beautiful white bookstore cat, and Jeff and I have made afternoons of visiting West Roxbury- lunch, stops at other shops along Centre Street, a cupcake at Sugar Bakery- every now and then. We found a lot of treasures at Seek, which specializes in classic SF and collectibles and has always had an impressive selection for the small size of the store. We bought some things yesterday and we are going to try to stop by before it closes for good. If you're in the Boston area, do him a solid and help take some inventory off his hands before he departs for New Mexico.

I'm not going to turn this into a diatribe against Amazon and I'm sure most of you can guess my feelings but it makes me crazy to see a store like this go out that should have a big following in this area. The book business is tough these days and that may not be the only issue but it sure doesn't help. I would send customers to Seek whenever I could, and the bookstore where I work as a lot of SF readers who would have been (and maybe were) great customers there, too. The location wasn't great, and who knows what else was going on behind the scenes, but this store was a great (too) hidden gem and I will miss it, and I'll miss Brad and Asimov and I'll miss our afternoons out in that area. There's really not much else in that direction that's going to get us there, sadly.

I think about all the bookstores I visited in London and Dublin (and I know lots have closed there too!) and it depresses me that Boston can't seem to support a rich and varied bookstore landscape the way they can. Why is that? Is it just Amazon? Is it rising rents? Other small-business issues? Boston only has one independent new-book bookstore. One! Boston! That's crazy. And how many- one, maybe two Barnes and Noble outlets? Ridiculous. Why is this? This is supposed to be an academic city, a city that prides itself on its smarts. On its book smarts. So what's the problem, Boston?

Okay, rant over. Back to your Sunday activities. Please, please, please- if you value books and book culture, please support your independent bookstores and your local used bookstores. They need you.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Crafturday Review: PLAYFUL LITTLE PAPER-PIECED PROJECTS, by Tacha Bruecher

Playful Little Paper-Pieced Projects: 37 Graphic Designs and Tips from Top Modern Quilters, by Tacha Bruecher. Published 2014 by C&T Publishing.

I love to paper piece. For those of you who aren't quilters, paper piecing or foundation piecing as it's also called, is a technique whereby you stitch fabric to a paper foundation to create intricate geometric or representational designs. The technique offers a level of precision and detail that simply isn't available in traditional patchwork, and there endless ways to apply it.

I learned to paper piece on geometric designs but quickly progressed to representational work. I still enjoy traditional patchwork and that's largely what I've done over the years, but I've been looking for more representational paper piecing designs to use in the accessories and small items I've been sewing lately. There are a ton of patterns available online but my paper piecing prayers were answered with Playful Little Paper-Pieced Projects.

This book includes dozens of patterns for blocks, accessories, small items and more; the book starts with a series of 12 calendar-type blocks- month by month designs, then modifies and incorporates them into a variety of items for the home. So for example, the umbrella pattern shown on the cover is used as the basis for a block and then for a tote bag.

Lately I've been into making 12-inch pillows, some to keep and some for gifts. I decided to try out the February pattern, a love letter and rose, and then decided to use it in one of those 12 inch pillows. Here's the result:
I was able to use scraps on hand- I needed about a fat quarter for the background (although I still had a big chunk of it left) and less than that for the letter.

The book comes with a CD with all the patterns on it, but- and this is my only problem with the book- the patterns don't include seam allowances around each piece, so as you're cutting and sewing you need to remember to leave enough fabric around the edges. Playful Little Paper-Pieced Projects is not a book for the absolute beginner but if you have some experience with paper piecing you should be fine. I consider myself an intermediate paper-piecer and I found that this pillow project was enough to keep me on my toes but nothing I couldn't handle.

But now I want to make everything in this book, because the patterns and projects are some of the funnest and cutest I've seen. What's also fun is that each project is written by a different artist, many of whom have blogs and websites and Etsy shops, if you're interested in checking out more patterns. How fun is that? I strongly recommend this book to all sewers! You can make quilts and you can make all kinds of fun stuff.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: HEAVENLY BODIES: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, by Paul Koudounaris

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, by Paul Koudounaris. Published 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Nonfiction.

One of my favorite parts of my job as a bookseller is shelving new books, because I get to see and handle so much of what goes out on the shop floor. It's fun to page through the random, weird, beautiful things we get in- and nothing was weirder or more random than Heavenly Bodies, art scholar Paul Koudounaris's book on the bizarre but striking phenomenon of the so-called "catacomb saints" of the German-speaking world.

So Koudounaris tells us, after the Reformation, concerned with waning belief among the faithful and eager to rally enthusiasm, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a project of distributing skeletons believed to be of martyrs to churches in German-speaking countries, where the Protestant Reformation had taken hold most fervently. The skeletons were then dressed and jeweled in elaborate costumes and ornament, then displayed prominently in churches. Often the "saints" were the focus of intense worship and veneration; miracles were attributed to them, and they sometimes became the spiritual center of the towns in which they were hosted. People named their children for them, traveled miles to see them, prayed to them, believed they were healed by them.

But over the years they fell out of favor and the Church began to see them as an embarrassment. Some of the skeletons deteriorated; others were scientifically determined to not be what they were thought. And today only a few remain on view. Many others have been vandalized, sold off piece by piece or lay languishing in storage bins hardly befitting their regal splendour and past.

Koudounaris tells this fascinating story with the aid of many remarkable, striking photographs. The book is worth it just for the pictures, which will knock your socks off, but if you are interested in saints or strange corners of Catholic history, I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I'm not sure what exactly Koudounaris's provenance is as a scholar but he writes a lively, engaging text about a truly wonderful and interesting bit of religious life.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, February 10, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I read and finished What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell, over the weekend. It was good. It's a YA that was recommended to me by a friend. It was about the after effects of World War 2 on a New York family, anti-Semitism and tough choices. I also finished a really cool book called Heavenly Bodies, which I'll review this week. It's about the catacomb saints of Germany. I'd been reading it little by little since Christmas. It's amazing!

I'm still deep in to Hild, by Nicola Griffith, which I'm loving in one of those where-have-you-been-all-my-life ways, and I'm about to finish The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, the Booker Prize winner from 1995.

What about you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Crafturday! A Little Pillow

It's been a while since I shared some craft projects with you so here goes.

Here is a 12 inch pillow I made using this pattern called Scrap Attack, which I found on Craftsy. This was an easy paper piecing pattern that did indeed use up a whole bunch of fabric scraps. I love paper piecing and I'm getting into making this quick, instant-gratification projects like small pillows.

It's the perfect size for my head and I think little pillows like this would make great gifts, too. I backed the block in an ugly fabric- I now have a basket in my sewing room filled with "ugly" fabric for just such things- and used a vibrant red Hawaiian fabric for the pillow "envelope," where the pillow form goes in.

I can't wait to make more little paper pieced pillows!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Kickstart This Movie About Women in Comics!!

I just found out about this great project that needs funding help! If you love comics and want to support women writers and artists, help fund this documentary, She Makes Comics!

If you're interested in women in the arts and in comics, this documentary is a must-help. I signed up and I hope you will, too, and please spread the word!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge

I guess I forgot about the 15 Day Book Blogger Challenge but let's continue, shall we?

I'm on Day 6 of the Challenge and the question for today is:

Describe how you shop for books.

That's quite a question! The short answer is I browse. I look over displays and find things that look interesting to me, either because the book is by an author I like, or comes from a publisher I like, or just because it looks interesting for who-knows-what reason. I do keep a wishlist on my phone, which is handy if I'm at a particularly large bookstore, especially a used bookstore with an eclectic selection. I was at the Strand bookstore in New York this past weekend and let me tell you, it was overwhelming, so having some specific things to look for made my visit fun and productive. But it's also nice to just lose yourself in the stacks!

April at GoodBooksandGoodWine.com runs this Challenge, which is open to all.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

February's Staff Pick

My Staff Pick for the month of February is Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre. Here is the blurb you will see at the bookstore:
Ben Macintyre’s latest history of WW2 espionage might be his best. The story of the six double agents and the spymasters who helped launch the D-Day invasion is a fascinating, harrowing and often funny page-turner you won’t forget. If you loved Agent Zigzag, Double Cross is a must-read, an unbelievable true story written in Macintyre’s characteristic entertaining and addictive style, with romance, tragedy and farce all rolled up together.
And here is the link to my full review on blog: Review of Double Cross. It's a must-read for history buffs!

Monday, February 3, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I read and reviewed Saving Mozart, by Raphael Jerusalmy, last week, and I think I decided to DNF Skippy Dies for now. Maybe I'll pick it back up, maybe not.

I also finished Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston's book coming out in May. He is the husband of one of my coworkers, so I can't claim to be objective, but I enjoyed the book a lot and when it comes out I think you will, too, so keep an eye out. I'll review it closer to its release date.

I started Nicola Griffith's pretty amazing Hild this week. It's the story of a young girl in medieval Britain who is bred to become a power player in a brutal and violent society. And she does. The book is detailed, ponderous and slow- not a quick read at all- but I'm really, really enjoying it. It's a long book and one I'll be reading for a while, but I definitely want to stick with it.

In audioland I'm on disc five of Lisbon by Neil Lochery, and my bedside book is still London: A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.

What are you reading this week? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.