Sunday, April 1, 2012

2012 Book Report: First Quarter

It's a new year and a (mostly) new slate of books. Again, my target is to read 100 books in 2012—I hope I have the full year before the world ends. You'd think by the lack of posts on the blog I'd have spent more time reading, but ... well, you'll see.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; R: Romance; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; V: Verse novel; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^for work; #e-book.

01/02/12: Sarah Rees Brennan, The Demon's Lexicon (F, YA, 1)
01/07/12: Rees Brennan, The Demon's Covenant (F, YA, 1)
01/15/12: Nathan Wolfe, The Viral Storm (NF, 1)
01/18/12: Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (F, YA, 1)
01/26/12: Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake # (SF, 1)
01/29/12: Rees Brennan, The Demon's Surrender (F, YA, 1)
02/02/12: Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map (NF, 1)
02/06/12: Jennifer Carson, Hapenny Magick (MG, F, 1)
02/09/12: Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up (YA, 1)
02/13/12: Michael Grant, Hunger (YA, SF, 1)
02/16/12: Grant, Lies (YA, SF, 1)
02/19/12: Grant, Plague (YA, SF, 1)
02/23/12: Kristin Cashore, Graceling (YA, F, 1)
02/26/12: Grant, The Call (MG, F, 1)
03/06/12: Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies # (NF, 1)
03/12/12: Cashore, Fire (YA, F, 1)
03/16/12: Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games # (YA, SF, 3)
03/18/12: Collins, Catching Fire # (YA, SF, 2)
03/21/12: Collins, Mockingjay # (YA, SF, 2)
03/25/12: Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (SF, 5ish)

Wow, only 20 books for the quarter. It didn't feel like I was working like crazy, or that I wasn't reading. I guess I've just been slow. A lot of the YA books were by people I was profiling for work, but I chose them because they looked interesting, and they were. Still, it's hard to pick my favorite book of the quarter; there weren't any real stinkers, and a lot of very good books, but nothing that jumped up and grabbed me and made me want to share it with everyone around me. The closest of the first-timers I read was probably Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon, which had a great voice, a cool urban fantasy world, and a fantastic twist I didn't see coming. If urban fantasy is your thing, I recommend it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Photo of the Week--2/20/11

Oh, yeah, they also have mountains in Colorado. It's fun driving up and coasting down them, and getting awesome pictures like this one. I love it when you get such a wide vista that it feels like you're looking down at a map: Ooo! I see roads! Look at the river twist! There's the highest peak! Somehow it makes you feel like you're getting away from it all and yet still in charge of all you survey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Photo of the Week--2/6/12

I call this photo "Self-Portrait with Waterfall." There wasn't a good place to set up my camera with the timer—it was pretty crowded for that, anyway—so I sat down, stretched out, and put my feet in the picture. I figure they deserved it; by this point in the hike they had gone around 6 miles along the Glacier Gorge Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. And look! They are still on the end of my legs, looking ready to take me another mile or so!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Photo of the Week--1/30/12

You might have guessed from previous photos that I like trees, especially ones that take twisty turny shapes. I found this one while hiking along the Glacier Gorge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. (In Colorado, of course.) The scenery here was so gorgeous I almost forgot I was at nearly 10,000 feet of elevation during the six-nile trek. (My lungs were happy to remind me any time I found a steep section of trail, however.) Any physical discomfort was worth it to sit and have my lunch here, in the shade of a twisty tree with a cool lake at my feet.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quilting How-To: Simple Piecing

So I've written about choosing fabrics and strip cutting; now I'm at the step where you take all that fabric you cut apart and lovingly put it together again. Maybe sometime in the future (when I'm working on the appropriate project) I'll talk about piecing more complex shapes, like triangles, but for now I'll just consider simple piecing of rectangular shapes. Rectangles are simple because they always line up on one side—at least, that's the goal.

Now, I pre-cut all my pieces so I could pair the fabrics together in squares, and make sure I had a balance of pairs before sewing. (I didn't want all of fabric 1 to be paired with fabric 2, I wanted it matched equally with the other 11 fabrics.) This precluded doing real strip piecing, where you leave at least one fabric in long strips, sew pieces of a second fabric to the strip, and then cut them to the appropriate size. Still, I could save thread by stitching in series, rather than piece by piece. I had at least two blocks of every two-fabric combination, so I made piles of the two sizes of strips. I sewed the first seam of the first block, let the machine go a few stitches over, then fed in the first seam of the second block, like you see in the first picture. After I was halfway through the second block's seam, I could cut the first block off the stitching and match it with a piece to do the second seam. By alternating back and forth between two blocks in this way, and not stopping and cutting after each seam, I minimized the amount of thread used between seams. When you're stitching 240 blocks, that could be a lot of wasted thread.

So once I had my blocks made and laid out (I'll cover that in a separate post), it was time to sew them together. Here is the trickiest part of piecing: getting  seams to match. As you can see from this photo,  I had to match these two edges where three pieces were joined together. I wanted those two middle seams to match exactly. Now, you can carefully measure while you're cutting your pieces, and carefully set your machine to sew an exact ¼-inch seam, and still not get your edges to match. Seams can be bulky and messy when you sew them together.

But do not fear! There is a trick to getting your seams to match, and it's all in the pressing. When I initially pieced the blocks, I did them in pairs like this one. I knew these seams would be abutting each other, so I carefully identified one fabric as the "dark" and one as the "light." For the center seam, I always pressed the seam towards the "dark" side (in this photo, the green fabric). So on one square, the center seams were pressed to the outside. On its opposite mate, they went to inside. In this way, when I aligned the edges, I could match the seams and have an equal amount of fabric on either side. Pin the seams together and you have a very good chance of aligning your seams.

Of course, you still have to be careful when stitching, especially if the bottom seam is pointing up (towards the machine). If you're not careful, the motion of pulling the seam up towards the machine will flip the bottom down, and then you have a bumpy seam. But if you're careful, you get a nicely aligned seam, like the one in the finished picture here.

When you get to the stage where you're piecing blocks in rows, and then stitching whole rows together, you again need to be conscious of which way you're pressing the seams. I generally wait until I've sewn a whole row together, then I press all the seams in the first row "up." All the seams in the second row go "down," so I can do the same aligning of seams. I double-check, row by row, until I'm finished. The smoother the seams, the smoother the quilting. But that's getting ahead of myself. You'll have to wait for a future installment to learn about that.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Photo of the Week--1/23/12

It's finally cold here in Michigan, so we're all thinking thoughts of warm places—especially Florida, where so many snowbird like to escape to in the winter months. We took a visit down to a snowbird last winter and took a drive through the Big Cypress National Preserve. We thought these alligators had the right idea: sit out and soak up the sun. And maybe eat a few unsuspecting tourists.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011 Final Book Report

Here's where I go into a little more detail about the books I read in 2011, as well as pick my favorite book of all the books I read this year.

102 total books read (1.96 per week)
76 books read for the first time
47 books of nonfiction/biography/memoir
40 books read for work
24 read on the e-reader
18 books for children or young adults
17 sci-fi books
7 fantasies
5 Austen-related
classic for first time

Pretty interesting when I compare to 2010; the percentage of books I read for the first time was 75%, almost as good as last year (77%) and better than 2009 (71%). Unlike last year, when the majority of books I read were for young adults or children, this year the biggest portion of my reading material (46%) came from nonfiction, mostly books I read for research. Sci-fi was up by a couple of books and fantasy down by almost two-thirds. Classics and Austen-related books also took big hits, as I didn't have time to write about them in my blog.

The most interesting number, I believe, is the new line item: 24 books read on the e-reader, which I received for Christmas 2010. I've purchased a few e-books online, checked out several from the library, and got a big hunk of the ones I read from  CDs included with the latest volumes of my favorite series from Baen publishers. It will be interesting to see, especially with no big research project looming, how much that e-book number grows in 2012. You'll just have to check back in a year to find out! In the meantime, here were my favorite books of 2011:

Favorite book of the first quarter: E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a funny YA school story with lots to say about friends and gender roles.

Favorite book of the second quarter: Ian McEwan's Atonement, both a historical novel and a meditation on writing.

Favorite book of the third quarter: Louis Sachar's Holes, the 1998 Newbery Medal winner (I'm a little behind) and still a wonderfully plotted book with great characters.

Favorite book of the fourth quarter: Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why (fiction), a moving mystery about a girl's suicide; and Erik Larsen's Devil in the White City (nonfiction), an intertwined account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the murderous doctor who haunted it.

And my favorite book of 2011? Of course, I have to choose Atonement. Beautiful language, epic scope, and a doozy of a final twist—all to explore the role of the author and the act of writing. How could I resist?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Photo of the Week--1/9/12

For this week's installment of picture of things framed by other things: Picture Rocks National Lakeshore! The only way to really see this beautiful part of Michigan is by boat, which we did a couple of years ago. (In the future we'd love to do it by canoe, but that requires planning ahead for the special class.) I love the patterns the water makes on and through the rocks; testament again to the patience and power of water. Wait long enough, and water will triumph. It's an example to keep in mind as I prepare yet another cycle of revise-and-submit for my novel.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 Book Report: Fourth Quarter

Last quarter, despite the crush of work for my book project, I managed to get 74% of the way to my 100-book-year goal. With my project completed, did I read enough to meet my goal, or did I laze about reading nothing but magazines? Check out my list below.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; R: Romance; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; V: Verse novel; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^for work; #e-book.

10/03/11: Clare Vanderpool, Moon over Manifest # (MG, 1)
10/15/11: Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber (F, 10-15?*)
10/17/11: Zelazny, The Guns of Avalon (F, 15-20?*)
10/19/11: Zelazny, The Sign of the Unicorn (F, 20-25?*)
10/22/11: Zelazny, The Hand of Oberon (F, really, I've no idea how many times I've read these*)
10/22/11: Zelazny, The Courts of Chaos (F, 15ish*)
10/24/11: John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist (NF, 1)
10/26/11: Mary Burchell, A Song Begins (R, 5-10)
10/27/11: Burchell, The Broken Wing (R, 5-10)
10/28/11: Burchell, When Love Is Blind (R, 5-10)
10/31/11: Liz Murray, Breaking Night (memoir, 1)
10/31/11: Burchell, Music of the Heart (R, 5-10)
11/01/11: Burchell, Unbidden Melody (R, 5-10)
11/04/11: Burchell, Song Cycle (R, 5-10)
11/06/11: Burchell, Remembered Serenade (R, 5-10)
11/10/11: Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks # (NF, 1)
11/13/11: Charlie Price, Desert Angel (YA, 1)
11/17/11: Price, Dead Connection (YA, M, 1)
11/21/11: Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why # (YA, 1)
11/26/11: Walter Mosley, Futureland # (SF, SS, 1)
11/30/11: Gregory Maguire, Wicked (F, 1)
12/04/11: Asher and Carolyn Macklin, The Future of Us (YA, 1)
12/05/11: Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs^ (bio, 1)
12/06/11: Price, The Interrogation of Gabriel James (YA, M, 1)
12/12/11: Price, Lizard People (YA, 1)
12/22/11: James L.Swanson, Bloody Crimes # (NF, 1)
12/26/11: Erik Larsen, In the Garden of Beasts # (NF, 1)
12/30/11: Larsen, Devil in the White City # (NF, 1)

That's right. I cheated. It was the middle of October and I saw I had read only one book, despite being freed from the constraints of research reading. My brain was tired. I didn't want to think. I turned to two favorite series I re-read from time to time; it's like comfort food. Now, just because each book in these series was only about 200 pages doesn't mean ... oh, yes, it does. I cheated. A book a day! Sometimes two! I read each of them all the way through, so these books definitely count, but they were short. I didn't have to think. And so I reached my 100-book goal. Actually, the final count for 2011 is 102 books.

So what was my favorite book of the quarter? That's actually a tough one, and I think I have to go with a tie. My favorite fiction of the quarter was Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, a young adult novel that deals with an extremely serious subject—suicide—without being preachy, treacly, or otherwise "issue-y." It's frank, occasionally funny, and always emotionally true, and the characters really stuck with me.

My favorite nonfiction book of the quarter was actually the last book I read this year: Erik Larsen's Devil in the White City. It dealt with an era that's become very familiar to me this year—the 1890s—and intertwines the story of the building of the Chicago World's Fair with an account of one of America's first serial killers. It builds suspense and evokes horror as well as any novel I've read, and makes even potentially dry subjects (the history of landscape architecture, anyone?) extremely interesting by focusing on the people behind the history. This is the best kind of nonfiction writing, and the other Larsen book I read this month, about the American ambassador in Berlin in the 1930s, was equally captivating. Nonfiction rules!

At least, I'm pretty sure it did for me this year. Check back soon for my final assessment of my year's reading.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Photo of the Week--1/2/12

Ha! Mother Nature says. Get your picturesque photos of sunlight in a cathedral. That's easy, what with the walls and windows and all. Try this: a lone shaft of sunlight finding you in a forest. Now that's hard! (Or maybe not, if you take a trip to lovely northwest Michigan, as we did a couple of summers ago.)