Death Comes To Pemberly ★★

Okay, so I thought I’d hate this book. I decided to read it because I actually did watch the TV series remake. Which I also thought I’d hate, and then actually ended up liking. And then I realized it was written by PD James, who is an actual mystery writer, not just someone who managed to get horrible fanfiction published. So then I thought I might love this book.

I ended up more more in the middle. I’m honestly not sure if I like it more than the show or not, which is a pretty scandalous thing for me to say. The show was super dramatized, as one would expect. It was not subtle. But it wasn’t horrible either, and it had pretty costumes, and the acting was decent. I really enjoyed how they portrayed the interactions between Darcy and Elizabeth, I could imagine both of them growing into those people. I also really liked the interactions between Lydia and Wickham, it made sense for them. The characters flowed comfortably from the book into this future. I thought the mystery of it all was glossed over too easily, and a lot of the actions were too dramatized, but thats what I was looking forward to in the book.

Instead, well, I hesitate to call the book a mystery at all. Sure, I guy died, and by the end of it all they figured out what happened. But well, no one was really looking to try to find out what happened. The great reveal moment came from a non-character, and no one actually investigated at all. A letter just magically appears explaining All. That was very unsatisfying.

Also, there were almost NO interactions between Darcy and Elizabeth, or Lydia and Wickham. There was no character development. There was no insight into the intervening years at Pemberly, or anywhere. To say that there was less annoying drama than the TV show is technically a true statement, but a bit unfair. There was nothing there. No characters to feel involved with at all. Elizabeth was barely a character at all.

To be perfectly honest, I felt a bit cheated by it all. I wanted the book to have more detail than the show, and I feel like I actually got less. To add to that, the book didn’t actually do anything offensive or annoying, so I can’t even enjoy hating it! It’s a fast easy unoffensive vaguely interesting read. It was alright. That’s all I can say.

Burda Style Cap Sleeve Godet Dress ★★

Burda Style Cap Sleeve Godet Dress 09/2014 #122

I did not end up having good luck with this dress. It is problematic to fit, especially if you’re not classic model sized. The lining doesn’t really work well and ends up riding up. And the front skirt curve, while it looks great on the model, ends up looking like a weird apron flap or something in real life. The front skirt wants to be flowy, because of the drape of that weird front curve, and the back skirt is almost tightly fitted.

Without wide hips, this dress probably works better. But with them, its almost impossible to alter this pattern to fit flatteringly.

I used this pattern for this dress: Science Girl Drinks Beer… yes, again.

Vogue Dress V8814 ★★

10lineartI absolutely love the way this pattern looks on the cover, but I fear that it is one of those instances where reality will never quite match up. This pattern is very difficult to fit properly. Now, I know I’m not a runway model size, with a perfect ratio from top to bottom, but so very few people are…

Both times I attempted this pattern, I ended up with weird fitting around the hips and a top that was loose not quite right. Making any sort of modification to the fit of the pieces is difficult precisely because of the interesting construction that drew me to it in the first place. The pattern pieces are actually a series of skewed trapezoids that fit together to create a really appealing shape, especially if you choose a direction print and use it well. But that just means that fitting it accurately is well beyond my skill.

Maybe someday I’ll come back to this pattern. You can read about my two experiences with this pattern, and see the results, here: Christmas Velvet &  Chevron Dress.

Comparative Connie Willis

So I have a very mixed reaction to Connie Willis. I was first introduced to her writings about a year ago with “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I was amazed. It quickly became, and still is, one of my favorite books. I’ve reread it twice since then. Its a light-hearted story set about 50 years in an alternate future where time travel has been invented, but its pretty much useless to everyone because you can’t take anything from the past, you can take anything to the past, and its physically impossible to change the order of events. So the only people who use time travel are historians, who go back in time to study and record events in detail. Enter Ned and Verity, two scholars from Oxford, who find themselves together in the Victorian age. Ned is hiding from a rich patron of the history department who needs him to find an artifact from the past, and she wont take no for an answer. Verity is worried that she has somehow accidentally changed the future by saving the life of a cat. And so they’re thrown into a hilarious series of events that witness the first jumble sale, the ridiculousness rules of victorian love stories, and the ugliest statue ever to have been created. Willis also pays homage to a classic of the time, “Three Men in a Boat,” and her story is full of references to other literatures of the times, Alice in Wonderland, and the mystery novels that were just becoming popular and would eventually pave the way for Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. (Infact, it was this book that first got me reading the Lord Peter Wimsey series, for which I am eternally greatful.)

That December, Blackout and All Clear had just been released and I was ecstatic. It was that great feeling you get when you are introduced to an author, and you love them, and it turns out they’ve written tons of books you get to go catch up on, and they’re even writing more books, and you know you wont run out of things to read for a long time. So it was with happy anticipation that the day after Christmas I curled up under a blanket and opened Blackout….

One hundred pages later I was into the story, but not enthralled. Two hundred pages later, I was bored. Three hundred pages later, I was bored and annoyed. Eventually I made it to the end of Blackout, but I was not impressed. Why had this gloroius author failed me so badly? How could she do this, to me, personally?! Where were the silly time-travel hijinks? Where were the witty observations? The unlikely heros, the mystery to solve, the comedy of errors, all were missing! Sure, I expected more dramatic and serious book, it was set during World War I, there’s only so much comedy you can create. But I still expected a coherent and interesting plot. I’d read 512 pages, and the only thing that’d happened was to get three historians lost in London during the blitz. They coudln’t find the way out, and they couldn’t find eachother, and they spent every one of those pages saying “its ok, Mr. Dunworthy will find me eventually, all I have to do is this…” The reader has spent those 512 pages knowing that they’re all within a couple miles of eacother, and they’ve all almost run into eachother three or four times, but they’ve just narrowly missed eachother. A tragedy of errors you could call it. In a lighter book, it’d be amusing, but in this situation it just feels sad, and slow, and, well, annoying. And it sure doesn’t advance the plot at all.

I almost didn’t pick up All Clear, but in the end I decided to give Willis another chance. I rationalized it by saying she intended the story to follow the pace of the war. Long periods of boredom interspersed with terror and drama. Slow to start, full of hope in the beginning, eventually giving way to exaustion and despair. Well… Yes, that’s about how my emotions went during the readings of All Clear. Not because I felt worry for the characters, or was invested in the story. But just because I eventually resigned myself to the fact that nothing I wanted to happen was ever going to happen. I wont even mention the ending. I like to pretend that the final two chapters didn’t actually happen.

Now, nearly a year later, I finally picked up her previous novel “Doomsday Book.” I had sort of decided that “To Say Nothing of the Dog” was mostly a fluke, and I didn’t actually like Connie Willis at all. Yes, Doomsday Book had won all sorts of awards, and everyone loved it. But then again, Blackout and All Clear won all sorts of awards too… But I was bored, and it had been sitting on my shelf for awhile now, and I thought, why not, just one more try. And lo and behold I enjoyed it! Not with the same love I still feel for Dog, but it was a good book. I could see why people liked it. And then I realized, wait, it has the exact same plot as Blackout and All Clear… Lonely historian accidentally trapped during the beginning of the Black Plague in Englang. In danger, but unable to return. Circumstances in Oxford keeping them from rescuing her. Connie Willis just did the lazy author thing, she just rewrote Doomsday Book, made it three times as long (but didn’t actually add anything to the plot) and set it during a revered and honored time in history hoping to get more awards for it.

And it worked. Getting the awards for Blackout and All Clear, I mean. I still don’t believe the novels deserved them. I think she needed an editor to stand up to her, hand her a whole package of red pens, and tell her to get to work cutting out about 500 pages, and make it into one novel. Then, I might have enjoyed it.

I think Connie Willis sees that more books get awards for being heart-felt dramas than get for being light-hearted comedies. But her skills really truly lie in the happy endings, and she needs to realize that that doesn’t make a book less important. Her voice with Dog was amazing, and perfect. Her characters well-rounded, and likable, and believable. Definitely not the case with Blackout/All Clear, and even a little shakey on Doomsday. Its a lesson I wish all authors would learn.

More pages does not equal a better book! Dramas and tragedies are not automatically more important than happy endings and comedies. Silliness does not decrease the long-term value of a story!

The American Heiress ★★

I admit, I enjoy the good fluffy romance novel every now and then. I like them because their purpose is generally to provide the easy happy ending we all want in life, to give us the same feel-good feeling of home cooked comfort food. Its the grown up version of a classic disney movie, it makes you believe in grown up fairy tales (though I admit, I still watch those too).

I didn’t enjoy this book because, from the description, I was expecting the usual historical romance plot. Up until the very end, I thought the girl would get the boy, the bad guy would be suitably punished, and everyone would be happy! Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that wasn’t really the case. Other aspects of genre were there in abundance. Looming gloomy English mansions were described in infinite detail. The wardrobes of all the female characters were vividly imagined, and fairly historically accurate. Every article of jewelry was given at least four adjectives.

The main character is a plucky American girl who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it: life away from her mother. She is the closest thing to American royalty that exists, the sole heir of one of the wealthiest families in New York. However, her mother wants the respect of the highest branches of society, and knows her daughter can buy it for her through marriage. She is determined for her daughter to marry into the House of Lords in England. Cora is perfectly fine with this plan, as long as it gets her away from her mother. Yes, the daughter’s name is “Cora Cash” … There’s some subtlety for you.

Mother and daughter therefore plan a trip to tour the counties of England, and pick out a husband. Of course, right before they leave Cora decides to beg her childhood best friend to marry her instead, so that she doesn’t have to spend months with her mother abroad. He (of course) says that he likes her well enough, but he wants to be a painter and go off to Paris to study with the masters and he must not allow anything to distract him from achieving his dream.

Oh well, not even barely miffed, Cora goes off to England, falls off a horse, lands practically in the lap of an impoverished English count who is desperate for some cash (pun intended) to brighten up his ancestral home. They are rather quickly engaged. And of course a battle of the in-laws ensues.

All the while, we are also following the story from the point of view of Cora’s maid, a girl of mixed blood from South Carolina, who is just glad she can find a job that lets her send home a little money to her mother. She finds that in England she’s only a second-class citizen only once because of her position as a maid, and not twice because of that and the color of her skin. She starts a passionate affair with the butler of Cora’s soon to be husband.

And of course, there appears to be some intrigue in the history of the Count. He was the perfect second son, frivolous and happy, until his father and older brother died within a year of each other. Now he is weighed down by a country estate he was never interested in, and the obligation to keep the family name respectable. He is also blessed with an overbearing mother who remarried a step higher in the social ladder the moment her first husband was cold. Needless to say, she is not enamored with his new wife.

Cora is having trouble fitting into the confusing and ever treacherous rules of English high society. She makes many mistakes, and is constantly humiliated by her staff and the various “friends” she’s made. Added to this, she doesn’t even know if her husband really loves her. But oh, look, here is her childhood friend who’s come to visit from Paris! Even though she’s been married for over a year, and now has a baby son to take care of, he’s decided to let her know that he was an idiot, and he really does love her. Rumors abound that her husband is having an affair, but he is there and will take her all away from it if only she would ask him to.

Ridiculously unrealistic and overly dramatic plot lines are standard operating procedure with this genre, but I think where I lost it was the lack of motive for many of the characters’ actions. So much of it was written as though the author was trying to incite emotion and drama into the story, but just didn’t quite get there. She has her characters going through the motions, reacting to the things that happened to them, but it just never felt fully formed. The motivations felt flat. The antagonists acted evil because they were evil. We were never shown why they had a grudge against somebody, or what their aim in ruining the lives of others was. They were there just because the author knew she needed to have tension in the story.

And maybe my beef with the end of the story is unfair. It was probably more realistic than any ending I would have preferred. I like gritty depressing realistic stories. And I like my fluffy fantastical romantic stories. But I just don’t like them mixed. That’s not to say no one should ever try to mix them, just that I don’t think this author succeeded this time. My personal preference rating: * Within its genre, compared to similar books: *** Will I read anything else by this author: unlikely, but then I probably wouldn’t have read this one in the first place, except that it was a goodreads advance copy.

Mutant Message Down Under ★★

While I was right in that this book definitely wasn’t my norm, and while I may not have liked it in the end, it was definitely worth reading and stepping outside of my box for.

First, I’d like to preface this review by saying I know absolutely nothing about real aboriginal culture or history. I can’t possibly tell you what is fact and what is pure creation by the author. This book is apparently extremely controversial because while some people love it as the tale of a spiritual journey amongst a mysterious native population, other people say that the author didn’t accurately portray the culture truthfully, and was actually blatantly offensive.

I also have no idea if the author actually wanted this book to be taken as a mostly true story, or as just an extensive metaphor, a spiritual fable. It is written in the style of a memoire, and the author writes that it is based on real events, but it is shelved as fiction. Personally, I think that if any of it is actually “based in reality,” its really just an extrapolation of one night she spent camping in the desert and probably got a bit high. Wikipedia states that eventually she conceded that she made the story up, but… well… its wikipedia.

All of that said, I’m not going to evaluate this book on the intentions of its author, or the dubiousness of its origins, but only on the story and the message itself.

This is the story of a typical middle aged american woman who is on business in Australia teaching methods of holistic healing (she mentions acupuncture, therapeutic massage, etc). She is invited to a “meeting” by a native aborigine, and she thinks its her big moment. She thinks she’s going to be recognized for all the good work she’s done trying to help the lower-income mixed race young adults. At heart she is a city woman, and she sits on her high horse expecting to receive a pretty little plaque, a big thank you, and maybe a lunch buffet with some “authentic cuisine.”

Maybe predictable, she quickly finds out that true aboriginal culture isn’t anything like she expected. Still dressed in her business suit, heels and make-up she’s driven out to the edge of the desert, told to remove all her clothing, jewelry and belongings and instead put on a rag dress so that she can be cleansed. Which she does. They then burn all of it, tell her she’s going on a walk-about across Australia to “become one, and experience true beingness,” and promptly head out into the desert on foot. Which she does. She’s afraid and confused, but she follows them, and naively expects to back in the city by check out time at her hotel tomorrow.

What ensues is three months worth of ramblings, physically across the width of Australia, and mentally through various memories she has and spiritual realizations she comes to. It turns out that native aborigines can communicate telepathically, can heal broken bones overnight, and perform illusions to either disappear from sight, or to make one man look like 50 men. What is also mentions, and that I believe may actually be closer to the true culture, is that they can find water nearly anywhere within the desert, can eat just about anything, and have been using natural remedies that are completely unique and unknown to the rest of the world to cure various health problems that keep them surviving and able-bodied to an incredibly old age.

Eventually she finds out that she really is on her way to a meeting, of sorts. When she was born, a similar spirit was born in the exact same moment on the exact opposite side of the earth. She and her kindred spirit made plans to meet again in 50 years and share their experiences. It was her destiny that brought her here. A destiny that even a mysterious fortune teller in the tea-shop in the city told her, but that she just didn’t understand until this moment… Right. It turns out that her companion spirit is the tribal elder, and they share many different things about their cultures, finding similarities and differences in elaborate metaphors. My favorite one: “It seems Mutants [their names for non-aborigines] have something in their life called gravy. They know the truth, but it is buried under thickening and spices of convenience, materialism, insecurity and fear. They also have something in their lives called frosting. It seems to represent how they spend almost all the seconds of their existence in doing superficial, artificial, temporary, pleasant-tasting, nice-appearing projects, and spend very few actual seconds of their lives developing their eternal beingness.”

Eventually they share with her their true secret. The aborigines are leaving the world. When they die, they will become one with the world, they already are one with the world. But the mutant world holds no place for them anymore, so they have stopped having children. They need her to go out into the world, and take to the rest of the Mutants a message, teach them the things she has learned about being and oneness and the true intent of the universe. And so she does.

To be perfectly honest, this book was not for me. I found it over-written, and over-moralizing. It was a soap box of very little support, and distinctly unbalanced and prone to wobbling. I don’t entirely disagree with its message, as a culture we most definitely place too much emphasis on materialistic gain within the short frantic time-span of our own lives. But I believe that taken seriously, this is a fanaticism of the opposite extreme. Growth and change are good and necessary. As well as personal identity, ambition to create, and not to mention will to survive.

In the end, the main character gallops out of the outback on a higher horse than the one she rode in on (metaphorically of course, though she does describe her now calloused feet as “hooves” several times). She is distressed that the local Mutants she tells her story to seem uninterested in her grand philosophies of reincarnation and the one-ness of the universe. She encounters meanness and ugliness in the world that she hasn’t had to deal with in the last three months, but proves to herself that she has grown in “beingness” by not being hurt and instead blessing the person that wronged her. She makes her way home, to a family that wants to hear her story, and with a willingness to tell it to the world.

Basically, if I take this book too seriously, it bothers me very deeply. But if I take a step back, and instead look at the silliness of the adventure of it, at a woman in a situation she is utterly not prepared for but willing to take a go at, its not so bad. I think maybe this story would have been greatly improved if the author had not claimed it was based in reality from the beginning. If she had rather decided to create a completely fictional native culture on a completely fictional world, and instead focused on making the message a subtly built piece of art that didn’t have to worry about offending anyone on the planet we already live on, it might have actually held more meaning. Instead I just felt like she was bashing me in the head with a two by four carved with the message “you suck! aborigines rule!” … or maybe not quite that obviously violet. Maybe instead this book made me feel like I was walking down the street and a slightly graying middle aged new-age hippie is sitting under a tree. And she reaches out her hand, and tries to lure me close with “Come, come smoke pot with me and feel at one with the universe! Here, eat this worm, its good for you. The aborigines do it! They’re right about everything. They’re One. They are Beingness. They’re sooooooo smart and soooooo ancient. I remember this one time….”