Saturday, November 28, 2015

Lost Oceans...of Colouring

Lost Ocean
Lost Ocean: an Inky Adventure & Colouring Book / Johanna Basford
Toronto: PenguinRandomHouse, c2015
80 p.

I love the new trend of adult colouring. I'm not exactly a convert to the idea; as noted by my earlier use of adult colouring, I've been a long-term fan.

But Johanna Basford's Enchanted Forest & Secret Garden were really the beginning of the huge surge of popularity which colouring books are currently enjoying. I am seeing adult colouring everywhere! So I was really delighted to see a new book from Basford, called Lost Ocean.

Basford's books are different from other colouring books in a couple of ways. She adds in a treasure hunt, with items to find in all of the images listed in the front of the book (and a key to their location at the back in case you are totally frustrated...but don't look at it first or you'll ruin your fun!) There's also a foldout banner at the back so that you can colour in a long image -- I think that taking out this banner and making it into a table runner would make for a great party activity :)

The paper is good quality, though the images are double-sided, unlike some other colouring books that are set up to remove each image, and/or colour with markers which may bleed through. The images are so delicate and detailed in this book though, that I think nice pencil crayons or gel pens would be best to use anyhow. And some metallic pens, like the image on the cover suggests, would be fun with all the buried treasure here!

So if you're looking to jump on the adult colouring trend, this is a great choice -- for yourself or for Christmas gifts (throw in some pencil crayons too). This would be a great activity for those holiday hours.

(and, for my fellow Canadians, it is currently on sale for $10 at ChaptersIndigo - that's 54% off!)

ps - that is not an affiliate link. I don't have affiliates on this blog. I just think it's a great deal!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cover Designs! #8

I have not added a new Cover Design in quite a while. So when this copy of Rose Tremain's The American Lover came to my notice at work, I thought it would  be a perfect choice for a new entry into this occasional series here at The Indextrious Reader.

Rose Tremain first came to my attention mainly through the efforts of Simon at Savidge Reads, who was  Trespassing with Tremain, a reading event held last year.

This story of this novel, centred around a Parisian love affair in the 1960s, is clearly telegraphed by this cover. That glossy damask dress, gloves and hairdo say "60s" to me. And fortunately, I have just the pattern to recreate this look.

Vogue 8020 is a current pattern that is heavily influenced by this vintage look. It has the fitted bodice, dropped waist & pleated skirt of this cover dress, though for an exact copy, the sewist would have to add a couple of tucks into the shoulder seams. View A has the closest match I think, and instead of that black belt, a matching sash out of self fabric would copy the book cover very closely.

V8020, Misses'/Misses' Petite Dress and Belt
Add these shoes to your outfit, especially if you make it in a gorgeous pink brocade like the book model is wearing.

Vintage 60s Shoes Pumps Heels Formal Evening Silver Lame with Bow Size 6 B  Mid Century Mad Men

A brocade perhaps like this one:
Or switch it up and make it in show-stopping red for the holidays, like this wonderful sewist did! Cocktail wear just in time for the festive season...

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Pretty Fairy Tale...

Fairy Tale / Alice Thomas Ellis
London: Penguin, 1997, c1996.
227 p.

I loved this book.

Eloise, the dippy main character, sitting under trees in the Welsh countryside and sewing nightgowns, wishing for a baby.

Clare, the impatient urban mother and Miriam, Eloise's sharp-eyed godmother, both come to visit, when a grandchild suddenly appears.

Simon, the hapless father, toiling all day without understanding how very out of place he is in this little red house of women.

And the fey. The deceptively mild, business-like Watchers who expect an awful lot from these humans, including getting their baby back.

This book is weird, in the true sense, with an uncanny setting, including the above-mentioned Watchers. There is spookiness, with a creepy changeling (one which only Miriam -and the cat - seems to be able to see through). Eloise is being drawn into the fey world, losing time and unable to recall what she was doing when she returns dry as a bone from a rainy walk in the forest. Or returning from the woods with a new baby...

Ellis uses fairy tale elements; Eloise wishes heartily for a baby, she pricks her finger on her sewing and a drop of blood falls onto the white linen, and four men appear in the yard. There are mysterious tales about the queens who lived in the red cottage where these hapless English people now find themselves. And the need for a blood sacrifice is strong - but thank goodness for a ridiculously funny scene in which the fey are covered in confusion.

The reason this story works is because of Ellis' biting wit. She skewers Eloise's belief in the goodness of nature and the old gods, fed to her by her New Age acquaintance Moonbird. And yet she seems to mock her own interpretation of these old gods as dangerous and amoral, as well. There is so much dark humour and sarcasm in this story -- perhaps that's why I loved it.

It can't really be summarized or it will ruin the reading for others. The writing is crisp and pared down, no padding here. There are witty asides, quotable bits, and clever women -- especially Miriam, whom I adored. Eloise's problems are resolved not by her fairy godmother, but her very down-to-earth, real-life godmother, who takes on the fairies all on her own.

There are clever lines, like this one, describing the way country life begins to affect Clare and Miriam -- “The days went by like carelessly turned pages, so that she seemed to have missed whole passages, and sometimes felt that she must have turned two pages without noticing.” And many more that I could share, but, well, you should just pick this one up yourself!

It's an entertaining read, with many dark elements that somehow feel matter of fact in context. The only stumble for me was the final pages; the ending was not quite right for my tastes. It feels very much like a book of its time. But it was an enjoyable discovery, one just perfect for the dark and windy nights at this time of year.


Further Reading:

For more on women and their interplay with self-focused fey, try Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu. These short stories show women who find power in magic, and outwit the fey at their own game. More straightforward fantasy than Ellis' Fairy Tale, they still hold the same Englishness and quiet wit in the telling.

Penelope Lively is another choice if what you are interested in is the interplay between mothers and daughters, and concise social commentary within fictional tales. Lively also writes brief, considered prose and includes reflections on how the distant past affects the present, whether supernaturally or not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lolly Willowes

2443678Lolly Willowes / Sylvia Townsend Warner
Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1979, c1926.
264 p.

This was a strange little book I picked up on holidays this summer, and read it not knowing what to expect. This very stark cover would have given me a little bit of a clue if I'd paid close attention to it before's a satirical look at women's roles in the years after WWI, when there were suddenly so very many widows and spinsters in England.

Laura is a spinster, a dutiful daughter who runs her father's house capably until one day, the inevitable happens and he dies. Then her brothers and their families are put to the question of what to do with her. Obviously, she has to live with someone -- she can't possibly be left on her own.

She is taken in by her brother's family, with her capable sister-in-law Caroline using her as domestic help and live-in babysitter. Of course it's just because they all depend on her so much, because she is so needed. She is so much an appendage to their family that her name is even changed to Lolly, when a young niece can't say "Laura" -- she is not asked whether or not she likes this.

She lives in this way for many years, until one day she just can't any more. Shopping, she sees a vision of the countryside:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

”As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

So she heads off to the village of Great Mop to live in a little house with a landlady, all on her own. She loves it. But then her nephew, who needs her, lands in Great Mop too. And she must find a way to say no to his needs and to do what she wants to do, without feeling guilty for wanting "a room of her own". So she joins the local coven and makes a pact with the devil.

Right, what was that? Yes, she becomes a devotee of an admittedly suave Satan, so that she has every excuse to refuse acting in the ways that society demands of a maiden aunt. She can't do it on her own authority, she needs a higher one. Since the quiet and devout society she has spent most of her life in tells her she must be selfless and devote all her energies to those around her, she rejects all of it in one go. She is now a witch, with a sweet little kitten as her familiar. All these old ladies and their cats in small country's not as innocent as it looks!

Actually, I thought that the idea of the book was fascinating. The stifling life that Laura lived, which was upheld by all the married women around her, was tedious to the extreme. She had small goals, just some time to herself to rest and think and read, and just NOT to be needed constantly. When the book goes into the oddity of Laura resting and chatting with the devil on a hillside, and showing up at a village-wide witchy bonfire, the reader isn't sure whether she's imagining things or if any of these events are actually supposed to be occurring. This fantastic element suddenly appears, and it's not expected. But it does make sense for Laura to decide that she is now a witch -- it gives her an out from society's demands. It seems sad to me that such a extreme reaction was needed, when those looking at her life might have thought she was quite comfortable, what more could she desire? As Laura says about her seemingly inevitable witchhood:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that - to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

This is an odd, interesting read that reveals the focus on women's lives and self-agency at a time when there were many writers thinking about this issue. It was well done and just odd enough that it sticks in the mind. To read a lengthy and thorough review of many possible interpretations of Lolly Willowes, check out this great blog post at Furrowed Middlebrow

Sylvia Townsend Warner


Further  Reading:

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, published just a year or two later, is often compared to this book -- not for style, but for the very similar focus on the idea of a life determined by a woman herself, not just one arranged around the needs of others.

Crewe Train, by Rose Macauley, was published the same year as Lolly Willowes and has a different take on a young woman who resists the social expectations pushed on her as she returns to English society as an outsider. 

And if you'd like to know more about Sylvia Townsend Warner, check out the STW Society online, or the STW Archive. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Black Feathers

Black Feathers / Robert J. Wiersema
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2015.
408 p.

I don't usually read anything labelled, in any way, as 'horror'. I really don't like graphic gore or violence; I'm okay with spookiness and psychological suspense, but the violence is a turn-off for me.

I saw this book in the library, though, noted as a new horror novel, and since it's RIP time I thought I'd give it a try. Thankfully, the graphic horror of it is subdued. In fact, many 'real' horror readers probably wouldn't consider it very horrible at all. But it was plenty so for me!

Cassie Weathers, 16, has run away from home and is living on the streets in Victoria, BC. It's getting colder, and she's having a hard time adjusting. Part of it is the uncertainty and fear of being on the street; part of it is that she's not sure anymore what is reality and what is a dream. She's experienced a lot of fear in her apparently comfortable suburban childhood -- waking dreams with dark figures in her bedroom, memories of possible abuse, possible murder -- she's run from everyone she cares about, as these dreams seem to have real life repercussions.

On the streets, she meets another girl, Skylark, who helps her survive. They are pulled into a community of sorts, led by the charismatic Brother Paul. Meanwhile, there are violent murders occurring among the sex workers of Victoria. There seems to be a serial killer at work. Not only that, we are given moments of The Darkness which stalks Cassie. The reader is not overly surprised when Skylark becomes the next target...

It's very quick paced and dramatic -- at times too much so, turning a bit predictable and over-the-top. Anyone who reads this kind of thriller will know who the Evil Villain really is, fairly quickly. But if you don't mind the way the plot follows the obvious, you might still enjoy Cassie's story. She's an interesting character, even with the many themes and topics all wrapped up in her story -- homelessness, psychosis, runaways, sexual violence, sexual identity, and so forth.

There are some unique ideas in this one, though, along with the tropes that one might expect of a semi-supernatural thriller. I'd have been more fascinated with more of the crows and the Darkness, and a little less of the gory serial killer bits -- I'm not a big fan of violence against women in books like this, as I feel it normalizes it in some way. I feel the same about tv shows in which the vast majority of crimes are against female victims.

Anyhow, this was a very suitable RIP read, and as horror novels go, I found it a fairly interesting read. I realized after I finished it that I'd read another of his books, A World More Full of Weeping (a novella) in 2010 as part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My thoughts on both books are surprisingly similar, especially since I hadn't connected them until after I'd done with this title. Likable reads, but not things I personally find too lovable.

I don't have any further reading suggestions for this novel; I will leave that to you -- does anyone have another similar kind of horror novel that you could recommend for someone who has a low gore tolerance & a preference for very little graphic violence?


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Vicki Grant's Small Bones

Small Bones / Vicki Grant
Victoria, BC: Orca, c2015.
239 p.

This novel is part of the Secrets series, a set of seven Canadian stories focused on, well, something secret.

It crossed my desk at the library & I knew I just had to read it, both because I really enjoy Vicki Grant's writing (her other books have all been clever and funny) and because the main character in this book is a seamstress. And I love sewing.

In early June 1964, the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls is destroyed, in one fiery night. Each of the grown-up orphan girls (7 in all) are sent out to make their own way in the world -- thus the 7 titles in the series. This book follows Dorothy 'Dot' Blythe, nicknamed for her tiny size as an infant (and given a suitable last name with classic orphan resonances). She is searching for her origins, with one clue; a coat that she was wrapped in the night she was left on the orphanage's doorstep, with a label reading "Howell's of Buckminster". Her journey is brief; she leaves Hope, ON and takes a train to nearby-ish Buckminster, ON.

Once she arrives, however, she finds that an envelope that held all the money she had in the world has been stolen on the train. Desperate, she sees a notice for an employee needed at the Dunbrae Arms, a summer resort, which includes room & board -- so starts walking. And encounters a cute boy who was on the train as well, now on his bike and offering her a ride.

Their meeting is fortuitous for the plot, and also for the reader, as it is a very amusing scene. Grant's sense of the ridiculous in the everyday is in full swing here, and so there are many moments where I was laughing aloud, not at any slapstick comedy but at the situations and behaviours that Dot finds herself faced with.

There are definite period elements; the popular dance at the time is the twist, the trendy clothing that they wear is noted, there are post-war effects still felt in town, and of course, the biggest one of all, there is a reason that Dot's birth was kept a secret all this time. One more 60's element that I noticed, which was also present in the last 60's teen book I reviewed (Eloise Jarvis McGraw's Greensleeves) is that Dot and her new boyfriend Eddie get pretty serious at the end; marriage is mentioned even though they are only 17ish. The way the plot wrapped up, all I could think was "how is she ever going to break up with him now?"

Despite the lightness and humour, Grant balances the secret of the story well, with tension and darkness involved. This is a youth-focused novel, however, and so she holds that line between the sadness of the past and the sense that Dot will prevail, and is not in too grave of danger. It's well done, amusing, charming, and appropriately tricky -- the reader won't figure out all the plot points very much faster than Dot finally does herself. It's a fun read, and other sewing readers will enjoy the stitching details, while anyone else will have a great time with the story & the way it is told.


Further Reading:

For more secrets & lies uncovered by a teen girl working at a summer resort, try Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, set in 1906 in the Adirondacks. Based on a true story, it places the heroine in the middle of an historical murder.

And of course, if you'd like to follow the other girls from the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls on their own journeys, read the rest of the Secrets series!

Friday, October 16, 2015

McGraw's Greensleeves

Greensleeves / Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Amazon Skyscape, 2015. (orig. pub. 1968).
334 p.

I picked up this book for two reasons: first, I've read McGraw's historical novel Mara Daughter of the Nile many times since I first discovered it back in my youth, and second, this has just been reissued thanks to Nancy Pearl and her Book Crush Rediscoveries project -- the teen version of her Book Lust Rediscoveries.  It has been impossible to find, so I was delighted to see it in her lineup. I've read and enjoyed so many of the Book Lust Rediscoveries, but this is the first one for "young readers" that I've picked up.

The main character, Shannon Lightley, is just 18, but she is very cosmopolitan, having travelled all over the world either with her actress mother or journalist father for most of her life (they are divorced). As the book opens, she is finishing high school in small town America, where she's been living for the past 2 1/2 years with her extremely normal aunt and uncle -- she wanted an American schooling and some stability. But she's found that it didn't agree with her, and now the only thing she feels is relief that high school is over -- and a complete lack of direction about what to do next.

She's about to give in and just go back to Europe like her father wants her to, but at the airport she just can't do it. She stays; luckily for her, her Uncle Frosty rescues her, takes her home, and finds some work for her to do for him. He's a lawyer, probating an excessively strange will, and wants her to check out the people named in the will and the possible circumstances that led to it. He intends her just to take a look around and maybe innocuously chat a bit, as a non-suspicious-looking young girl.

Shannon, however, goes all in: she gets herself a makeover, pretending to be Georgetta, a small town girl from the Midwest all new to the city; she gets a job at a diner across the road from the will-writer's former boarding house, and then moves right in to her old room. And begins to interact with all the persons of interest, finding out more about herself than about them in the process.

Of course there's a love story involved too. But of more interest, there's a safe suitor, and then one that is older and completely unsuitable -- the interesting thing is that Shannon allows herself to acknowledge the attraction between them (and try it out) without assuming that they are in love. It's something I don't see teen girls being allowed to do very often in fiction, especially not older fiction. I found it fascinating.

There are some drawbacks to my enjoyment of this one though; I know it's a period piece, but Shannon is 18, trying to decide if she wants to go to college or not, and is waitressing for the length of the summer and her undercover job. But when she finds true love, the educated boy worthy of her, in order for them to kiss and have a more serious relationship, they have to start talking marriage. Jarring to say the least! I understood Shannon's sense of being stifled and wanting more, especially in light of this taken-for-granted development.

But it is a delightful read, nonetheless. The period details make it just strange enough; Shannon's struggle to find her own way makes it current and relatable (even if her worries never have to do with having enough money for survival). I liked the physical details of clothing, hair, and domestic settings of all of the characters, and how those descriptions reflected their role and status. This is one of those familiar novels featuring young women who are both older and younger than their years, and very, very connected to art/drama/music and aesthetics in general. If I'd have discovered it when I was much younger, I think I probably would have loved it, and made it a reread. As it is, I appreciated it and enjoyed it, but it will never be as strongly embedded in my bookish heart as my other McGraw favourite, Mara, Daughter of the Nile is.

Further Reading:

Madeleine L'Engle's Camilla reminds me of this novel, even if it is set across the country in New York. Camilla is fifteen, and is experiencing her parent's breakup, and is discovering that she has to leave childhood behind and become a grownup. While she is nowhere near as self-directing as Shannon Lightley, the story is all about her finding a way forward, and also includes various unlikable men who drive the action. And lots of deep thoughts.

Sari Wilson's forthcoming Girl Through Glass features Mira, a very young ballet dancer in New York City, who is suffering from her parents' divorce, and creates a controlled dance world for herself, full of secrets. She also finds an unsuitable older man, who changes her life path in unexpected ways. While this one is set more recently than the other two I've mentioned -- starting in 1977 when Mira is a girl, and flipping back and forth between her childhood and her contemporary life as a dance historian -- it has the same feeling of young artsy girl with troubled home life finding a future, and discovering who she really is. It just takes Mira a little longer to do so.