Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated...

Yes, I am still alive. No, I have not fallen down a well or been kidnapped by aliens.

It's just that in order to write a post I really need to have something to write about and just going to work and then coming home and collapsing in an exhausted heap doesn't make for a very exciting blog post.

Recently though it has occurred to me that it's Christmas next week (EEEK!) so I really ought to get my ass in gear and get organised. I think I might be leaving things a little late. As I write this there are 11 days to go until THE BIG DAY and I have a total of 3 of those when I don't have to go to work. One of those days is already allotted to family obligations, leaving me 2 whole days to do my Christmas stuff. I think I may be kidding myself that the cards will get written, the cake iced (I did bake it, so that's one thing off my list), the knitting finished ( I have frogged the cowl I was knitting twice now, the last in a fit of temper when I couldn't fix the glaring error I had made - Frost Flowers Cowl 1 - Knitter 0). I still have two articles to write, all the presents to wrap, some last minute shopping to do, Christmas cupcakes to bake and I really ought to do some housework at some point. My email is looking scary, I have over 350 unread posts on my RSS feed and I lost track of twitter and facebook about a week ago.

Oh well, if it gets done, it gets done. The real point of this post is to highlight a few books you might not have noticed which would be great gifts this Christmas.

Charts for Color Knitting by Alice Starmore is a reprint of one of her earlier books which I have been lusting after since I saw a copy in Birmingham Central Library. It used to cost over £100 secondhand so I am delighted that it's been reprinted and this edition has been revised and expanded too. It's an absolute treasure trove of information for the knitter who likes Fair Isle. So if the knitter in your life likes to knit with lots of colours then this is the book for them.

Booze for Free by Andy Hamilton is a great little book filled to the brim with all manner of recipes for homemade beers, wines, liqueurs, teas etc. If you like to make sloe gin or hedgerow wine or nettle beer then this is the book for you. In a side note we did manage to bottle our own sloe, damson and ginger gin last weekend so you can imagine that we will be having a very Merry Christmas indeed. Anyway this is a great gift for those who like a bit of foraging (and who doesn't, after all when David Cameron's finished with us, it's all we'll have left!)

MetaMAUS by Art Speigelman is published for the 25th anniversary of his classic graphic novel Maus, one of the most brilliant graphic novels ever published and one read by more than just geeks. This is the story of how he came to write the book and it contains background info, interviews with his father who's story Maus was based on, fabulous artwork and a whole ton more fascinating stuff. If there's a graphic novel fan in your house then this is for them.

OK, that'll do for now. All these books are available now in your local Waterstones, and probably in your local independent bookshop too if you still have one. Either way, don't forget to support your local bookshop this Christmas. And come back in the New Year to spend all the lovely book tokens you get for Christmas.

Have a great time and I'll see you on the other side!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Craft Fayre - Sunday 16th October.

Just a quick post to let you all know that I'll be doing a craft fayre on Sunday (that's October 16th) at Newhampton Arts Centre in Wolverhampton from 11am to 5pm.

I'll be there with lots of yummy hand-dyed yarn, so if you're in the area do pop along. Also there will be my good friend Andi and her Wererat Designs steampunk jewelry. She makes Dr Who inspired Tardis Keys and all manner of other lovely stuff.

There should be lots of great crafty goodies at the Fayre which is organized by I Love Making Things so it's a good chance to get a little bit of Christmas shopping in!

I'll try and get a regular update posted after the Fayre.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nature's Harvest

We've a creative week here. Look at the evidence -

That's (from the left) 3 jars of sloe gin, 1 of ginger gin and 1 of damson gin. We're looking forward to a very Merry Christmas. :)

We have enough sloes picked to do 2 more bottles. Then we'll have to go and pick some more. The damsons came from a friend in my spinning group, and the ginger gin recipe is courtesy of my SIL Rosemary who gave us some of her own gorgeous ginger gin when we stayed with her recently.

Now we need to find a source of little bottles so that when it's ready we can bottle it up for Christmas.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My Big Fat Booker Prediction Fail

Long time readers will know that I am not a fan of Booker books. In general I find them to be pretentious, over-written and lacking in plot. (You can see that I'm not sitting on the fence here.)
Anyway, I've actually read 3 of the longlisted books this year and had selected the next three that I wanted to read and guess what - the only one which made the shortlist was the one I have liked the least so far. In fact five of the six that I liked the look of didn't make the shortlist.

For the record I read The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (it's wonderful, you really should read it), and The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. I liked this one too but not as much as TLHD.

The others that I was tempted by were Derby Day by D J Taylor (I shall probably still read this), On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry and A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards.

The one I read that got shortlisted was Snowdrops by A D Miller. It's on a similar theme to TLHD, a young man adrift in a foreign country, but not nearly as well written and entirely predictable. I really was not impressed by it at all. However given my form with Booker books it should really be no surprise that anything I wanted to read, or liked would stand no chance of winning. Publishers should probably make note of this.

Ok, I took a short break there as Pete came in and said he'd found some ripe sloes where we walk Bubba so we nipped out and picked a couple of kilos. We love a bit of sloe gin, and we already have some damson gin in progress. A couple of weeks ago at Pete's sister's we had a little libation of ginger gin which was gorgeous so we shall be trying our hand at that too.

So back to the books - what do you think will win? I might try the Julian Barnes, on the grounds that it is quite short. And I understand Patrick Ness is tipping The Sisters Brothers. I just don't think I should put the kiss of death on any of them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Update

Yes, I know, you wait all month for a post then you get three all at once. Still, don't knock it. You never know when you'll get another update. LOL.

So, I finished The God of the Hive by Laurie R King, which was excellent as usual. I wouldn't recommend this book as a starting point though if you've not read any of these before. It follows hard on the heels of The Language of Bees published last year and is a continuation of that book so I wouldn't recommend you read just this one. Of course I'd say that you should start at the beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but I actually read all these books out of sequence, starting with Locked Rooms which is the 8th book. And I've just this week finished O Jerusalem, which is the 5th. Mostly this has been due to the books being out of print in the UK for quite a long time and so I read them as I found them. I bought O Jerusalem ages ago but had misplaced it and although The Beekeeper's Apprentice has been republished here along with The Game (no. 7) and the following books, sadly numbers 2 through 6 have not yet been re-published. Lots of customers have asked me about them but I don't know if they will be republished here. I hope they are. Of course, if you have an e-reader some of them are available in e-book format, though of course if you do that you don't get the fun of spending time in your local bookstore.

Anyway, I then read something completely out of character for me. I read a fantasy novel. I was at work and I didn't have a book with me so I had nothing to read (in a bookshop, how inconvenient!) anyway, there was a copy of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence on the staffroom table so I picked it up and had a look, and before I knew it I was halfway through. Now I've not read any fantasy in a long, long time. I think Stephen Donaldson was the last book I read all the way through and that must be at least 30 years ago, probably more. The only other time I looked at a fantasy novel was a day I was out somewhere at an auction and finished whatever book I was reading. Lying on the back seat of the car I found a book of fantasy short stories. I can't remember if they were Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms or some other such tosh but it pretty much reinforced all my preformed prejudices against fantasy novels - full of elves and dwarves and highly implausible plotlines. And I'd not touched a fantasy novel with a bargepole ever since. However, it seems I was wrong, or fantasy has grown up maybe, that seems more likely than me being wrong! Anyway, this Prince of Thorns, this was good stuff. This had good characters in it, with proper, believable personalities. And it had a plot that didn't hinge on something highly unlikely happening. In truth it was more like a historical novel with a little bit of sorcery in it. Well, of course it had a bit of sorcery, or it wouldn't have been a fantasy novel would it? But the sorcery was done in a believable way, that fitted with the world it was in. Oh yes, and it was dark. It was very dark. I liked that. I liked that so much that having read a few crime novels in between I am now reading another fantasy novel. I'm now reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself and I'm liking this too. But the first sign of a dragon or an elf and I'll be off.

Never fear there has been reading of crime novels too. I read Crucible of Secrets by Shona MacLean, which is the third in her series about Alexander Seaton. Long time readers may recall that I loved the first one after a couple of false starts, wasn't so keen on the second one which was set in Ireland, and I'm happy to report really liked this third one which is once again set in Aberdeen. A full review will appear over at Eurocrime when I've written it.

I also read Crocodile on the Sandbank which is the first in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody
series. This is where you get to know how Peabody met Emerson and the whole series kicks off. It's a delightfully silly, lightweight piece of nonsense and I have to be in the right frame of mind for one of these but they are great fun.

I finally got round to reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, long after the rest of the world have read and loved it. And I have to say that I agree with them. It is a fantastic book. I did want it to be illustrated though. I spent quite a lot of time with the laptop open next to me as I read, so that I could see the Renoir painting with his Great-Grandfather in the background, or look at the pictures in his website of some of the netsuke as he was talking about them. What an extraordinary family! It's also a very tactile book, in the manner of those netsuke. The way he described them really makes you feel as though you could almost reach out and pick them up. It reminded me of The Children's Book by AS Byatt which has that same quality.

Now The Children's Book was the last Booker listed book I read, as I didn't fancy anything off last year's list, and as you may remember I have a bit of a problem with "Booker Books" in general, finding them mostly pretentious and lacking in substance.

And lo and behold it's that time of year again, where I look at the longlist and think, "Is there anything on there that I really want to read?" And more often than not the answer that is a resounding "NO!" This year however my eye was caught by the first novel by Patrick McGuinness called The Last Hundred Days. It's the story of a young English graduate who is offered a post lecturing at Bucharest University. This is odd as he didn't actually apply for the job, isn't qualified and didn't turn up for the interview he was invited to. Nevertheless this unnamed young man accepts the position and finds himself in the nightmare reality that was the last days of Ceaucescu's failing regime. It is a state where the Securitate keep tabs on everyone, and the old city is being bulldozed daily to make way for Ceaucescu's New Bucharest, built on shifting sands and without heed to the needs of the people. Our narrator documents all this among the many small details of life in the city. It's full of wonderful characters, like Trofim, the old Party loyalist who is writing both an official autobiography and a secret, explosive version that tells of the inner corruption of the Party, and Leo who's also a lecturer at the University but walks a dangerous line supplying black market goods from the West to half the city's ruling regime. This is a wonderful book. I just could not put it down, especially towards the end when the Berlin Wall comes down and the waves of change in Europe begin to spread eastwards towards Romania. I finished this two days ago and I'm still thinking about it. I even think I might want to go back and read it again. I certainly want to re-read George Galloway's excellent non-fiction book Downfall: Ceaucescus and the Fall of Romania. Sadly that is out of print as it's an excellent recounting of the Revolution. We do have a copy of this somewhere if I could just lay my hands on it! Anyway, you should read The Last Hundred Days even if you don't read anything else from the longlist.

I'm actually planning to try and read a couple more off that list. I have Snowdrops by A D Miller and The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. I'll let you know how I get on.

Another Post - Another Fibre Show

Just after Knit Nation I had the chance to go to a new fibre event called Fibre-East. It was held in Bedfordshire on a farm that was pretty much right out in the middle of nowhere.

I loved this show. It was so well organised. Everything was laid on for the attendees including a nice dry, mostly sunny day. The event was held in a large field and there were two large marquees for the vendors, plus a tea tent, shearing demos from the Sheer Sheep Experience.

There were lots of sheep. all waiting to be sheared throughout the day including this chap -
Sue Blacker from Blacker Wools gave her wonderful talk on selecting a fleece which was very interesting, even for me who doesn't normally have anything to do with raw fleece.
And there was a tent where they were selling fleece too. I got carried away and bought some fleece. Only a little bit though. I bought 300g of Wensleydale curls from a lovely black/dark brown sheep called Treacle.

Here's a shot inside the fleece tent. I must point out to protect the innocent that in no way were the women in this photo buying any fleece at all. No sir, not one fleece. Honest, guv.

Well, maybe there were one or two fleeces that went home in the car with us, but they were only small ones!

There were plenty of vendors too in the big marquees selling all kinds of spinning and weaving equipment, fibre and batts. There were several guilds there demonstrating and exhibiting. I tried out the new Schacht Sidekick wheel at the Threshing Barn stall and loved it. If I was in the market for a very small, more portable wheel (which I'm not!) that's what I would go for.

I can only say that I thought Fibre-East was great and I look forward to next year. It was a really good day out with just enough stuff to keep us busy but not so much that we didn't get a chance to look at everything.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Knit Nation Report

I just realised that I am so far behind with my blogging that this show happened over a month ago and I still haven't reported on it.

Knit Nation, for those not in the know was held at Imperial College, London on the weekend of 15-17th July. It was a huge event with many classes and workshops, covering lots of different knitting and spinning skills and with tutors from all over the world.

I wasn't doing any classes, but I did want to go to the marketplace because I wanted to check out the competition - ie I wanted to see if the many independent yarn dyers who would be there were selling the sort of stuff that I am planning on stocking in my little Etsy shop. Plus, I just love to see what everyone is knitting, what the new products are, talk to people etc etc.

I went with Philippa from my spinning group and we had a lovely time mooching around the stalls and talking to the vendors. There were some great stands - Habu Textiles, Loop (they had lots of Wollemeise which was selling like hot cakes), The Yarn Yard, Juno, Brownberry Yarns and Krafty Koala to name but a few. I was very restrained and actually didn't buy any yarn at all. I did buy some alpaca fibre to spin from John Arbon Textiles, and a blocking wires kit from Brownberry Yarns. All in all it was a very inspiring day spent with some lovely knitters. We went to Ysolda's booth and tried on her samples from the Little Red in the Big City book and now I want to knit them all. I definitely need to knit myself some cardigans before this winter though so it was great to try her samples and see which ones look best on me.

When we felt we'd had enough of the shopping we headed back towards South Kensington tube station and went to the Hummingbird Bakery which is just around the corner where we had fantastic cake, and I bought some for Pete and the Evilpixie too.

You will notice that there are no photos from this day - I did have my camera with me but somehow in all the excitement, and overcome by the sheepy fumes I just didn't take any pictures. I am such a rubbish blogger.

Next up is my report from Fibre-East - I took pictures there, honest.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hey Look - A Book Update!

Well hello there. Yes, finally a book update.

Actually I have to admit that there hasn't been a whole lot of reading done here, due to work and some deadline knitting I was desperately trying to finish.

Furthermore, I have had a few books recently that have just failed to thrive.

I had a copy of The Cleansing Flames by RN Morris which I was supposed to be reviewing for Eurocrime but to be honest I just could not get on with it. Now, I loved his three previous books in this series which features Porfiry Petrovich from Crime and Punishment as the detective (Prosecuting Magistrate if you want to be technical). But this one just didn't grab me at all. It starts with a body being found in a river in St Petersburg just as the Spring Thaw starts, co-inciding with a string of arson attacks across the city as revolutionary fervor begins to build. So far so good, but after a promising start it rather loses the plot (quite literally in this case) as the next 50-60 pages I found to be very tedious, with a lot of political discussion and some waffling by Profiry Petrovich, and not a lot of action. I really tried, because I do feel that I should finish review books but I just could not make myself finish this. I got to page 179 before I gave up. (Sorry, Karen!) I think this is a shame as the previous books were good and I've read all of them.

I even tried to tell myself that I couldn't read anything else until I'd finished the RN Morris, but I could only hold out for so long on that because I had in my possession the latest Mary Russell book from Laurie R King. Now you know that I absolutely love this series, and this one is no disappointment, thankfully. The God of the Hive follows on directly from where The Language of Bees leaves off, so it would be difficult to tell you much about it without major spoilers for that book, so I'll just say that it's great, that Mary Russell is wonderful, the plot is complex, there are big shocks along the way, and that I cannot wait for the next installment.

Luckily Ms King has provided us with a little something to keep us all going until The Pirate King comes out in September. Beekeeping for Beginners is a short novella in e-book format which recounts that first meeting on the Sussex Downs between the retired Sherlock Holmes and the fifteen year old Mary Russell which is told in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. But this novella tells us the story from Holmes' point of view. Go read it, it only costs £1.50 and it's well worth it.

Pretty much anything that I read after that was going to pale by comparison so perhaps I was a tad unfair on Aline Templeton's Lying Dead, which also did not grab me. It's not a bad book, I just wasn't that interested in most of the characters. I've read one of these before and I liked the main detective Marjory Fleming, but this book was spending far too much time with a cast of shallow undeserving characters with whom I did not wish to spend my limited reading time. Perhaps it just wasn't the right time for this particular book.

Anyway I'm now reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes and absolutely loving it. To the extent that I was almost late for work this morning. I was sitting in Starbucks having a Flat White and reading and was so engrossed in my book that I didn't notice the time. Ooops.

Back soon with reports on Knit Nations and Fibre East, plus the strange rumour that I read a fantasy novel and enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Big News from Mysterious Yarns

I've been really, really busy over the last few weeks dyeing yarn and fibre and photographing it, and now I am ready to announce to the world that my new venture is up and running.

"Stormy Weather" Merino/Silk Laceweight

I've opened an Etsy shop so now you can buy yarn and fibre that I have hand-dyed. Please go take a look. I hope there will be something there that you like. It's not super-stocked with yarns yet, as I'm starting slowly and keeping it manageable. All the yarns and fibres are named after crime novels, so now you can knit your favourite book or your favourite author, or even just pick a colour you like and you might discover a book you'll love.

"Field Grey" Elementary sock yarn, dyed so it graduates from pale grey through to charcoal along the whole length of the skein.

I came back from Knit Nation at the weekend full of inspiration for new yarns, and I shall be going to Fibre East this weekend for more research (well, that's my excuse anyway). Say hello if you see me there and get a free MysteriousYarns keyring. I'll have my Ravelry badge on and I'd love to meet you all.

To celebrate the new shop and because it's Fibre East this weekend I'm offering free UK shipping in the shop. Just use the code EAST1 at checkout and please tell all your knitting friends about the new shop.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Days 3, 4 & 5 - Along the South Coast

So, after our damp Sunday in North Devon we stayed overnight again in Taunton and spent Monday morning scouting out the charity shops of Taunton.

Waterstones in Taunton have made a great mural out of the little tags that we use to seal the totes the books get delivered in -

Isn't it great?

Then we hit the motorway and went south to Exeter, along the coast to Exemouth. Did you know that Exemouth has an amazing 12 charity shops? I don't think we actually bought anything in any of them, but there were loads. Sidmouth next, which is a pleasant little town with lots of little galleries etc.

I do have one thing to say about all these places. Don't you think they should be encouraging people to stay as long as possible and browse happily without having to watch the time because they only have 2 hours in the car park? If the parking was free people would be more inclined to stay and shop, wouldn't they? I hate to think how much we spent just on parking in the week that we were away.

Anyway, after Sidmouth, where we declined the overpriced room in a seaside hotel (who would obviously rather the room was empty than offer a reasonable rate), we hopped inland to Honiton where we booked a room in a hotel/guesthouse via my iphone from a layby just outside Honiton and the delightful, if slightly eccentric, Thai lady owner was all ready for us twenty minutes later when we arrived. I love my iphone.

Next morning in Honiton was market day - and they just set up the market all along the high street at the side of the road, with no worrying about the traffic.

From Honiton we moved on to Poole, where we had a lovely icecream on the front from a very rude woman. If she worked in my shop she'd get a rocket up her arse, I can tell you. The icecream was nice though. :)

There was a little bookshop in Poole with interesting stock, though we didn't buy anything, but he recommended their other shop in Bournemouth, which was the direction we were heading anyway so we got very lucky in that shop. Pete bought some graphic novels. They had a lovely selection of craft books too but nothing that I didn't already have. It's Winton Bookshop in Cardigan Road in Winton, Bournemouth. The chap who runs it was a total delight. Very knowledgeable about his stock and really helpful. We could have chatted to him all day. It's not very often you can say that about second-hand booksellers. Anyway I highly recommend them. They're well worth checking out if you happen to be in the area.

We spent that night with Pete's sister in Gosport and the following morning we did Fareham, Chichester and Arundel before heading for his other sister who lives near Horsham.

Thursday we went to Brighton where we had a good mooch along The Lanes and drank a lot of coffee and walked along the prom. The pier looks very sad. We had a really good day, just wandering around aimlessly looking at the lovely little shops and galleries.

Friday was Pete's birthday and had booked the Eurotunnel to Calais. We were hoping to find a local flea market but working on duff information from the internet the only market we found was a general one, though we did have a fantastic cup of coffee in one of those surreal little cafe/bar establishments with odd local people in that only seem to exist in small French market towns. Back to Calais then where we managed to avoid the traditional row about directions and who is the better navigator and why can't the French put proper signposts up. We got well stocked up on wine and cheese and other goodies as you can imagine.

So we got home late on Friday night, totally exhausted.

And here is my haul of crafty stuff -

That's the crafty books.

And the crime books. You may be able to see that I am on a bit of an Elizabeth Peters kick. How odd - no serial killers.

and the magazines. I bought some bits of fabric too in Bath but they're not in the photo for some reason.

And this is our painting, bought in Ilfracombe. Again it is by a Devon artist called Kevin Powell. Here's a close up of the little man. It's called The Leafkicker.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day Two - Underwater

We woke on Sunday morning to pouring rain. It was absolutely torrential. That rather scuppered the plans we had made to hit the car boot sales round Taunton. Instead we headed for the coast.

We started in Ilfracombe where we had a huge breakfast in a little cafe called Pandoro - lovely fry-up, very friendly place.

Just up the road was a little gallery with an exhibition by the local art society and let me tell you the quality of the work was outstanding. We bought a watercolour by a local artist called Kevin Powell. Most his work is of dragons, but the piece we bought is different. I'll post a picture when we get home - It's safely wrapped up in bubblewrap at the moment. There were some other pictures that I really liked too including some by an artist called Aline Forde - abstract seascapes using mixed media. There was even some beautiful knitting. The exhibition was quite a find and far above the usual local art exhibitions.

We walked around Ilfracombe, along the prom and down by the harbour. Some of the colours and textures in the rocks were amazing

We were pretty damp by this time and it was still raining so we skipped down the coast to Croyde where even the surfers weren't out. We did have some ice cream though.

Coldharbour Mill is an 18th C wool mill which still works. Sadly it only operates a few weekends in the year and this wasn't one of them. However it was still fascinating to see all the ancient spinning machines and looms. I'd really like to go back and see it running. The displays are very interesting and I particularly liked the upstairs part where the local weaving society meet and all their looms were set up. This part is closed off so you can't go in, but I had a good peer at them from the sidelines and there are some lovely looms there.

So that was our soggy Sunday in Somerset and Devon. Taunton it should be noted does not seem to eat out on a Sunday evening. We had a bit of trouble finding a restaurant open. Midlands people eat out regularly on Sundays, but I guess Somerset people don't as most of the restaurants we saw were closed for the evening.

Next up - Exeter and the South Coast.

Day One - Bath etc

The internet access in Somerset was a bit hit and miss so I'm a tad behind with the blogging but here's what we did on Saturday.

We were up early as usual and off to Bath. It only takes 1.5 hours from home which surprised me. The M5 was pretty quiet though.

It was a lovely day and we had a great time mooching about and finding lots of interesting shops. We started off with a coffee in Starbucks – they have posh mugs in the ‘Bucks here.

I knitted a couple of rows on my Hitch-hiker as it was WWKIP day.

There are a couple of stand-out book shops in Bath – Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Topping & Co Booksellers. Both of these were stocked to the rafters with books to drool over – lots of lovely art and textiles books. We had a great lunch in a little pub in one of the little lanes, great fresh sandwiches and homemade chips.

I stopped into the Makery and bought a couple of bits. And I found a great weaving book in a charity shop. I'll do an update of my purchases when I get home and show you my total haul.

After lunch we headed out and went to Midsomer Norton, Shepton Mallett, Glastonbury and Street, where we went to the Clarks Outlet Village (but I didn’t buy anything). The charity shops of Somerset were not very forthcoming with their goodies. I don't think we bought anything in any of these places.

We spent the night in Taunton, ready for the next day’s adventure.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

A Little Trip

I know, I know I'm just rubbish. I seem to have been so busy recently that I've done hardly anything except go to work, come home and veg in front of the TV, and really that doesn't make for very good blog material.

However, we are off on one of our little trips this weekend. We start off in Bath then we spend a couple of days in North Devon, across to Exeter, along the south coast and ending up with a day trip to France. It's just Pete and I - the Evilpixie (who was 21 this week - eek how did that happen) is house/dog sitting. It's been ages since we went away anywhere so we're really looking forward to it.

Internet service willing I shall blog as we go and will try and take some interesting photos if I can. In the meantime - bookshops, wool shops and car boot sales of the South West be prepared - we're coming your way!

Friday, March 25, 2011

TV Drama - US or UK??

As you know I do love a bit of TV. My all time favourite TV series is The West Wing but I've recently delved back in to my previous love of SF with a Battlestar Galactica marathon. I've always loved science fiction TV, from Blakes 7 and Star Trek back in my
youth, through ST:NG and Deep Space Nine. I kind of drifted away from SF round about Star Trek: Voyager, though I have dipped in and out of that too. I picked up on Stargate Universe, because I like Robert Carlyle, though I'd never watched any of its previous incarnations. I'm currently eagerly awaiting its return from a mid-season break. (Why does US TV do that - it drives me nuts). I'd been hearing good things about the new series of BG though and succumbed to a great deal on the complete boxset. There's really not much better than a good, well structured, well-written, TV series that doesn't feel the need to talk down to its audience. Geek TV and knitting go so well together too. I did almost all my Christmas knitting on my days off while watching Starbuck fall apart on BG. This is why I prefer a DVD boxset of a series - I can watch as many as I like back-to-back without having to wait for the TV schedulers to provide my fix.

I do like American TV. I know we usually only see the best of it over here, but
they do produce some great stuff. I am already in love with Sky Atlantic. Totally the best thing on TV at the moment - Treme. A series about New Orleans, set in the area called Treme where lots of musicians lived pre-Katrina, and following a group of people trying to put their lives back together in the wake of the hurricane. I love it. It's fantastically well-scripted, but even if it wasn't, the music is wonderful. It makes my week. The boxset of this will be available soon so I can heartily recommend it, and a second season has already been commissioned.

British TV is not doing quite so well for me at the moment. I had reasonably high
hopes for Outcasts, the BBC's first foray into SF for quite a while, and I could see what they were trying to do with it. Definitely aiming for the BG audience and with Jamie Bamber in the first episode. But ultimately it was a disappointment. It had that old BBC need to pander to the audience and explain things that really we had already understood. If you're aiming an SF series at people who are already literate in that genre then it's really not necessary to state the obvious at every turn. It used a lot of the same themes that BG used - escape from a doomed planet, the sense of history repeating itself, a humanoid appearing people in conflict with humans. But the handling of these issues was very ham-fisted. Some of the acting was distinctly ropey too, which didn't help. Anyway, no-one watched it, it got swiftly shuffled off to a late slot on BBC2 and has now been cancelled.

However I can't be too hard on the Beeb because they have brought us the wonderful
The Killing - OK, so they didn't make it, and they put it on BBC4 so they haven't pushed it too hard, nor did they shout about it too much. It was people on twitter that alerted me to this series. And I was a bit dubious - it's a 20 part series, set in Copenhagen, about a murder - yes all 20 episodes, just about the one murder, and it has sub-titles because I don't speak Danish, which means I can't knit while watching. But let me tell you - it is utterly fantastic, totally gripping and if the BBC don't repeat the whole series on a more mainstream channel then they are just as much the fools I always thought they were. I have been watching this on iPlayer on my laptop (with a small screen) because I missed the first episodes and have been desperately trying to catch up, and even in that format it is fantastic. It finishes on Saturday. I can't wait.

Just one more thing to say - BBC, please do not try to make a series like The Killing. All the evidence shows that you are incapable of doing this. Here's a suggestion though. Commission more from the quality writers you already use like Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. How about something steampunk?

Picture of the lovely Avon from Blake's 7, still from outcasts and cast photo from The Killing, all courtesy of the BBC, still from Treme courtesy of HBO

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Failing the 50 Page Test

I used to try and finish every book that I started but these days I am so swamped with things that must be read, should be read, are long overdue to be read and cry out to be read, that I have developed my 50 page rule.

If the book hasn't grabbed me within 50 pages then I put it down and let it go. This is a major achievement for me. I'm the sort of person who once I've started to watch a film, can't stop. Even if I can tell where it's going and I can't stand the acting/script/direction, I will watch a film to the end just to see if I'm right about it. I used to be like that with books too. I would drag myself through the most turgid prose and ridiculous plot right to the bitter end. Of course there are books with which I can't do that. If I'm reviewing a book I will read all of it. Sometimes I will have to read all of it in a vain attempt to find something positive to say about a book. To write a review I need to have read the whole book or I'm not giving it a fair review. And sometimes it's not the fault of the book - it's just not the right book for my frame of mind at that moment. These books, while they do get put down, usually get picked up again further down the line somewhere. But in general, so many books pass through my life that I just don't have the time / energy/ will to read dull or ludicrous or badly written books. So I don't.

Here are a couple of examples of books which failed my 50 page test recently.

Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay. I liked Linwood Barclay's first book No Time for Goodbye, the premise for which was "What if you came home from school and your family had gone?" I liked the characters of the woman who's family disappeared when she was a girl. I liked the way Barclay dealt with some of the issues this brought up for the woman. And I didn't think it was at all badly written. The premise for this one is "What if your neighbours get murdered and you find out that the killers went to the wrong house?" I just couldn't get into this one. There didn't seem to be any subtlety about the way it was constructed. Details that were obviously important to the plot were telegraphed in such a way that they seemed to just leap off the page. I just couldn't continue with it, though I did persevere for about 100 pages to give it a fair trial.

The other book that was a fail for me was Great House by Nicole Krauss. Now this book is getting great reviews all over the web and
in the papers so this is probably just me. I liked the idea - this is a multi-stand story about a woman in New York, a man in London and an antique dealer in Jerusalem. All the stories are linked by a desk which we hear about first with the woman in New York. Back in the 1970s she spends the night with a Chilean poet, who asks her to look after his desk for him. He then goes back to Chile where he is arrested by Pinochet's secret police and never heard from again. So far so good. I like the idea of the desk linking the stories. As someone who has worked with antiques on a minor scale this is an idea I've pondered from time to time - how a piece of furniture or an object has an importance in or influence on people's lives far and beyond it's importance as an object. I liked the Chilean poet though we only met him briefly, but the woman was horribly self-obssessed and I really didn't want to spend any time in her company. I'm not entirely sure that I managed 50 pages. She's supposed to be looking after the desk for the poet but when his daughter turns up to claim it all she can think about is how she can keep the desk. Now that I've savaged it this book will probably win the Booker prize - it's one of those books. Some people obviously love it. I just hated it.

Do you have a 50 page, or a 100 page rule? And what's failed your test recently?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Long Overdue Book Update

The books I've been waiting to blog about have been sitting on the desk in the office for weeks waiting for me to get the chance to write this post. They've been taunting me - demanding my attention and I'd just been putting them off and ignoring them. Well that'll teach me because now that I finally have the time, the books seem to have walked. So you'll have to bear with me while I try and remember what it was I wanted to say about these.

I started the New Year with Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves which is one of the Vera Stanhope series. I enjoyed this very much. It's set on the coast in one of those isolated, insular communities that Cleeves does so well. The indomitable Vera is an outsider, come to look at an old case. That old case is unmistakeably mixed up in a more recent murder, but Vera is not supposed to be looking at the new murder. You can imagine that's going to remain the case, can't you? It's very good. I'm looking forward to seeing what the ITV have done with the character when the TV series finally airs. It's still billed on the ITV website as "coming soon" but there's no mention of a date yet.

I also read Findings by Kathleen Jamie, which was a recommendation from a podcast, though I can't remember which one. Anyway I was delighted as I read to realise that I recognised some of the places she was describing and that she lives in Newburgh in Fife which is where my parents used to live and where I lived for a few years before I left home. She's a fantastic writer with a way of bringing the landscape alive whether she's describing an osprey's nest in Fife or the ancient tombs of the Orkney Isles.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is a fantastic book which I knew I wanted to read as soon as I saw it. I waited for the paperback to come out and it was worth the wait. It's the tale of a woman, kidnapped into the slave trade in Africa as a young girl, and her subsequent life in Virginia, Canada, Africa and London. A bit like a female version of Alex Haley's Roots, though it's just the one life. Aminata is a wonderful character and her life story is gripping and real. I loved this book. It's beautifully written and a great mix of sadness and gentle humour.

A change of pace was called for so I picked up The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. This is not a Harry Bosch book, but a return for Jack McAvoy, who we first met in The Poet. Now The Poet is one of my favourite books. It was the first thriller I picked up after I been on a female only fiction kick for quite a while and I remember being totally gripped by it and not wanting to put it down. Sadly that was not the case for this book. I couldn't really connect with Jack in this book. He's just being made redundant from the newspaper he's been working for and he has the chance to do one last big story. The story turns out to be very different from the one he thought he was writing however and it puts his life at risk. To me this book was a tad too formulaic. Early on in the book there's a description of a place (I shan't spoil the plot for you if you haven't read it) and I thought immediately "that's where the denouement takes place". After that all the pieces fell into place and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I was disappointed. On the other hand I've always thought that Connelly's standalone books (apart from The Poet) have been inferior to his Harry Bosch novels. I'm not a big fan of the Mickey Haller books either - but that's because I'm not really into legal thrillers not because I think they're bad books.

I like to try and read all kinds of different crime novels so I know what I'm talking about if called to recommend things. So I had to read a Carola Dunn, though to be honest I thought they probably wouldn't be my thing. I randomly selected Rattle His Bones. (By randomly selected, I mean "found in a charity shop!). I have to say that I was right about them not really being my cup of tea. This one features the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple stumbling over a murder in the Natural History Museum. It's light and fluffy, and the characters are amusing, and I guess if you start at the beginning and work through them then you see Daisy develop and her relationship with Alan blossom. And if you like that then you'll probably like these. They're not at all badly written, quite sweet without being too sickly, just not for me. I started off fine and was quite amused for a hundred pages or so then my attention started to drift. I began to be irritated by Daisy and I wanted something grittier. It's a matter of personal preference. I don't like cosy crime. Give me a serial killer any day. But I know what they're about now and can happily recommend the series to those who like their murders fluffy.

A proof of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young came my way with warnings that the ending shouldn't be revealed so as not to spoil the book for anyone else. It's set just before and during the First World War and is the intertwined stories of two relationships. It's well written and I enjoyed reading it. I have a bit of a thing for WW1 writing - those who've been reading this blog may remember that the novel I am currently failing to write is partly set during WW1. Anyway the title of the book comes from the preprinted postcard that was sent to next of kin when a loved one was injured at the Front - a very unspecific and general communication that told very little. And this book is all about miscommunication, about people who can't say what they need to say, or just don't say what they need to say and the effects this has on those around them. I loved reading it, thought the characters were interesting and original, though there were some I wanted more of who got rather sidelined. The end, however, about which as instructed I will say nothing, the end was a little bit of a disappointment to me. I think I was expecting a big set-piece ending or a huge shock and it didn't come. It's not that the ending was bad, or even wrong. It was fine, but I had predicted it, then discounted my prediction because "the end is amazing". Perhaps I just read too much crime fiction. Anyway I did enjoy the book and I would recommend it, though I thought the end was not as strong as it could have been.

Back soon with a couple of books which failed my 50 page test. And some FOs. Yes, really. Finished Objects. I have actually finished some knitting. Amazing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Party

A couple of weeks ago it was the 25th Anniversary of my spinning group. We are the Walsall Handspinners and you can find out more about the group on the website here.

Anyway such a momentous occasion called for a party and that's what we had. We had a whole day of spinning and chatting and eating and a great time was had by all.

The Threshing Barn came with lots of goodies for sale, and there was a raffle and the competition (for which I had been making the hideous corn fibre object).

And yes before you ask - here is the thing I made -

It's a little beaded shawl, and while it looks all innocent and butter-wouldn't-melt lying there on the chair, trust me it was the work of the devil. I didn't like the corn fibre (I may have mentioned this once or twice) and it was hideous to knit with. I used a shawl pattern from Spin Off magazine because it happened to call for exactly the right yardage I had. It was only when I was almost complete that I realised I had been knitting the pattern wrong (the two sides of the shawl weren't symetrical. I ask you, who writes a pattern like that?). Then I tried to block it (I suspected this would be difficult - this fibre is not at all like wool). It doesn't block. So I tried to press it because the edges were curling up. And I melted a hole right at the point of the shawl. So I had to rip back about 10 rows and reknit as far as I could with the yarn I had left. There was some swearing.

Unsurprisingly I did not win the competition. There are some seriously talented people in my group, and they did far better things with the surprise packs of fibre than I did with mine. However it has taught me something so it wasn't a total waste of time.

Next up on the blog - some book reviews, a tale about stash re-organisation and a trip to Shrewsbury.

Back soon(ish).

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Couple More Things You Might Want to Know About Corn Fibre

If you are considering spinning with corn fibre at all (and I can't say that I would recommend it) here are a couple of things I've discovered today that you might want to bear in mind.

A - It doesn't block well. I had a feeling this might be the case is it has none of the stretch or memory of wool. I was right. The mystery object (it's for a competition remember, to be judged anonymously) looked great on the blocking board but as soon as I took it off it reverted pretty much immediately to it's previous unblocked state. And the edges curled in.

B - You know when you have a really bright idea to fix a problem. I had one of those. I thought if I steam pressed the edges they would stop rolling in and look better. Here's where I learned the other thing you really need to know about corn fibre. IT MELTS!!!


Friday, January 21, 2011

Summing Up and Looking Ahead

I had a little look back at January's posts from 2010 to see if I'd actually done any of the things I'd planned. And the answer was pretty much a resounding NO!

I wanted to read some great new authors this year - and while I've read some good books there have been precious few of them by authors that were new to me. It seems that when my reading time is limited as it has been this year then I turn to the tried and tested, not wanting to waste any of that precious time on a book I don't like. It's not looking as though I will have any extra reading time this year either as I am now working full-time, 5 days a week. I promise I will at least try some new authors this year though - even if I just read a few chapters and don't get any further, I will try.

Crafting time has been in rather short supply too. I have done almost no quilting at all, dabbled in wire jewellery making and liked it, but haven't taken it any further due to those time restraints. When I've knitted, I've either knitted for other people - there was a lot of gift knitting this year, or I've knitted little shawls. Socks have been barely touched - I haven't even finished the two pairs of socks I had on the needles last January. However I have a few weeks holiday booked for the spring so I'm hoping to get cracking on some of the great ideas that are floating around in my head. I'm hoping to make some clothes for myself, and I'm planning to knit something bigger than just another shawlette. Much as I love to knit shawlettes, really do I need another one? What I do need are a couple of stylish, practical skirts for work, and a go-to, wear with anything cardigan. Other than that there will be more dyeing, some jewellery making, and I will try and finish the quilt that is on the go at the moment.

We did make it to Woolfest and I had a good time, despite the best efforts of Travelodge. And we had a fantastic weekend in Brussels for my birthday. Other than that we had a couple of day trips to London and a few of our pottering about days in Gloucestershire and Derbyshire. It must be time for a trip to Shropshire - eeeh we know how to have a good time, don't we? The long planned trip to Seattle is still on hold and seems to be slowly morphing into a trip to San Francisco instead (probably couldn't afford both). If it will be this year or next remains to be seen, depends on the exchange rate (and whether or not we can afford it). If the US is a stretch too far for this year then we shall almost certainly get up to Scotland again at some point, as we didn't go last year.

I would like to say that I will write more this year, but I know I probably won't. I'll keep making notes though, and you never know - another of those short stories like the Christmas one might appear here from time to time. There just isn't the space in my life for more prolonged writing than that at the moment. I'm not altogether happy about that but I'm being realistic here. The novel is just not going to happen this year.

So that's what this year has in store for me. I'm not setting any unrealistic goals, but will continue to blog as and when I can, will knit and spin and weave as often as time allows, and try and be more time efficient. Here's hoping it will be a good year.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Taa Dah!!!!!

Big drum roll please to announce the ceremony for the Annual Mysterious Yarns Books of the Year Awards. I hope you all have your posh frocks on in readiness.

I've not read as many books as usual this year, with work conspiring against me. I am constantly amazed by people telling me who lovely it must be to work in a bookshop, with all those books to read. Wouldn't it be great to be able to read all day, they say. If only. Somewhere in amongst serving the customers, stocking the shelves, doing the paperwork, returning the unsold books, ordering more books to replace them and wrangling the team, I'm lucky if I can snatch 10 minutes of my lunch hour to actually read a book. Which is a shame as there is that constant flow of interesting and tempting books through my hands all the time, with not enough time to read any of them. But I digress.

My Crime Novel of the Year this year goes to Dark Water by Caro Ramsay. It was a close run thing, not many votes in it, but this just edged it over the competition. A well written, smartly plotted book with an interesting and developing team of characters. It's all I ask for in a crime novel really, so why is it so difficult to find?

Non-Crime Book of the Year goes to The Small Hand by Susan Hill. I've read remarkably few non-crime books this year, despite my avowal earlier in the year to read more general fiction. It seems that when I just want a good read I will still always pick up a crime novel, so there weren't too many nominations in this category. Runner up was also by Susan Hill with Howard's End is on the Landing, so she's done very well.

The Fiat Punto Memorial Award for the Book Hurled into the Back of the Car with most Vehemence goes to The Twelfth Card by Jeffery Deaver. Now generally I like Jeffery Deaver's books but this was an audio book, so was listened to mostly in the car (sadly not the Fiat Punto which died a horrible and expensive death this year, to be replaced by a smart VW Golf who's backseat has not yet had a book hurled at it). It seemed to go on for ever (that's the audiobook, not the car), and became very tedious with it's innumerable plot twists. That bit Deaver does in all his Lincoln Rhyme books where he sums up the clues they have on their board - let me tell you that gets very old very quickly when you've listened to it 6 or 7 times. So this audio book very nearly was actually hurled into the backseat on several occasions and it was only the fact that it was a library book that stopped me.

Sadly there is no winner this year for the I Can't Believe I Paid Good Money for That Award. Looking back over the list of books I read, there were very few on the list that I actually paid for - and those that I did buy I enjoyed. That's not to say that I didn't buy any books this year - of course I bought books, I just haven't read many of them yet. I expect there will be a few candidates for next year's award among my TBR pile.

Honorable Mentions need to go to the following books which I loved -

The Language of Bees by Laurie R King, latest in the wonderful Mary Russell series.

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller which was the first book I read in 2010 and was a fantastic read

Saints of New York by RJ Ellory which is the first of his I've actually read, despite having several of his earlier books. It's an interesting study of a cop in meltdown.

Rome by Manda Scott, taking the characters from the end of her amazing Boudica series and moving them on in time and place. I loved it and am eagerly awaiting the next installment which is not out until May.

There are some more great books to look forward to this year, with Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane at the start of February - he returns to his roots with this one which features Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, some 12 or so years after Gone Baby Gone. I got a proof of this and it's definitely been worth the wait. Most exciting for me is the news of a new James Sallis book in August. Roll on Summer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Spinning with Corn Fibre

Every year at my spinning group we have a competition which is judged by the group and a prize awarded at the annual party. Previous competitions have been for making a peg doll, a Christmas decoration, woven squares etc. This year, as we are celebrating our 25th anniversary we came up with something a bit different. Everyone donated 50g of fibre of some kind which we drew at random and we must each make something with this fibre, in time for our 25th Birthday Party in mid-february.

I drew a bag of corn fibre. It is not something I've ever spun before but that's all part of the fun, isn't it? Isn't it? I tried to do a bit of research about how to spin this, but there was nothing very helpful out there. It's odd stuff - very white and lustrous and the fibres are very fine. I'm not sure it has a natural staple length (see below for how it gets made) but the staples in the stuff I got are about 2-3 inches. Corn fibre, in case you're not aware, sounds like it should be one of those great natural fibres like linen or flax, but the process by which it's extracted from the plant involves quite a lot of chemicals. Basically the fibre is dissolved into a gloopy substance by means of various chemicals and then is it slowly extruded into long, fine fibres. It doesn't take dye well, so I've not attempted that. It was a complete pig to spin - too much twist and the fibre snaps, too little and it just drifts apart in your hand. It has none of the crimp of wool , so it's slippery and I kept letting the strands slip through my fingers and losing them. If I didn't pay attention the fibres clumped together and I got lumps. God knows how - at other times it would barely hold together. So now I have just over 200m of this bright white shiny yarn, with a few lumpy bits in it. It's not terribly well spun - I just wanted to get it done as quickly as possible, it's such an alien substance, and I really wasn't enjoying the experience.

You'll have to wait and see the end results, which won't be revealed until after the party on Feb 12th. I'm not sure that it's going to resemble what I have planned in my head - we'll have to see.

Anyway you'll all be pleased to hear that the voting for the Mysteriousyarns Book Awards is now closed and the votes are being counted and verified. Results soon, I promise.