Thursday, April 07, 2016

Miss Moon

Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess / Janet Hill
Toronto: Tundra, c2016
48 p.

This charming art book is written and illustrated by Janet Hill, a local painter & bookish type. Miss Moon is a dog governess, who has taken on the responsibility for training 67 unruly dogs belonging to a family on a small island of the coast of France.

It shares life lessons in brief vignettes; things like "With a little creativity, the impossible can become the possible" -- or, "Respect the property of others" -- or, "A Good walk is not a race". The focus and the prime attraction of the book is most definitely the full spread illustrations. They are replete with little details tucked away which requires serious perusal of the pages to make sure you find every one of the delightful surprises and personalities that Hill includes. If you love art and think there is a thoughtful child or art-loving adult in your life who'd appreciate this, do share it.

Janet is a local, and an acquaintance, but I hope you will still take my review of this book as an objective one. I am not a dog person, but I did find this book a lot of fun. Now if only Miss Moon could take on the onerous job of herding cats...

This book was first published in French as Mademoiselle Moon, about a year before this version -- if you like quirky and elegant art, and think reading the 20 life lessons imparted in this book in French would make them even more apropos, you can still find it for sale.

Also, if you just want to explore more of Hill's artworks, check out her website, Janet Hill Studio, and her Etsy store. She has many illustrations of many different subjects, all reasonably priced as well.

I'd recommend this book to older children and adults; it might work well to read together, examining the illustrations and trying to guess what happens next. Each page is just a quick capture of one moment in what seems to be a very busy life!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Girls From the Five Great Valleys

The Girls From the Five Great Valleys / Elizabeth Savage
Amazon Encore, 2014, c1977.
224 p.

This is another title from the Nancy Pearl BookLust Rediscoveries series, and it is one that I really loved. It takes on the stories of five girls from midcentury Montana, and the way they progress through high school into a wider life, surrounded by small town social mores.

With five main characters, not all of them get equal billing; I felt that three characters -- Hilary, Doll, and Amelia -- got the most attention. But there is enough about all of them to make the reader interested in each one. This is definitely a book for the reader who loves character development and a way with language; there is not a lot of plot and what there is moves slowly, driven by characters. I thought it was a beautiful, thoughtful, and intriguing read.

The story begins with Hilary, and from there moves outward to her connections with the group of five girls that make up her circle of friends. There isn't necessarily a lot to connect them, except for propinquity and habit. I think anyone who grew up in a smaller town and experienced this kind of friendship will understand, and will also recognize the growing apart that occurs as people get older.

The ways in which the friendships are tested, and the girls each take their own directions into adulthood makes this a strong story. None have an entitled or easy road, but they go the way that their inclinations and circumstances lead. I actually found it powerful how Savage can take each character and make it clear what her ability and interest is, and then let the character follow it. I also enjoyed how the families of the five girls also have their own incidents and personalities. It all folds together very nicely into a complex and dimensional narrative.

There is darkness in the story, and hope, and surprise. I loved the ending, which made me reconsider the entire book (do not read it first!). The setting is also vividly evoked, becoming almost a character in its own right. I can't really give a plot summary, because, as I've mentioned, it's a sketchy "plot" -- if you're going to read this, you'll be looking more at the beautifully drawn characters and place.

This is another hit for me, a rediscovery I am so pleased to have made thanks to Nancy Pearl. 

Further Reading:

This book reminds me in a quite vague and un-pindownable way of Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery. Not in the plot elements, as Anne is in the Maritimes 40years before the setting of this book, but in the way that a group of young women maintain friendships for this moment.


Monday, March 21, 2016

A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy

A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy / Sarah Lazarovic
New York: Penguin, c2014.
173 p.

I'd heard of this book for a while before reading it -- for some reason I resisted it, thinking it was a KonMari style read, a clear-the-clutter and shame-on-you-for-owning-things kind of book.

I was so wrong.

It's a small book, a pleasing size to hold, and it is a beautifully illustrated book as well, told in pictures and hand-drawn text - a visual essay about not buying stuff. Once I held it I realized I had to read it. It began as an essay (which you can read here, and see her style) and was expanded into a much more heavily illustrated book.

Lazarovic talks about wanting things - another IKEA piece, some pretty bit of fast fashion, and so on - and then waiting, and being conscious of the wanting, but not buying. And it doesn't bring about the end of the world, the not having. Instead, she paints tiny portraits of the things she wanted, owning them in that way. You can get a peek at some of the interior images on Amazon, even if I do hate linking there....

She has some strong points in this book, but they are shared in lovely, non-confrontational ways. Ideas about sustainability, fast fashion, and general overwhelming consumerism; for example, she notes that she'd read that the average American buys 68 new pieces of clothing a year. That seems a lot. I really enjoyed her discussion of quality - how fast fashion is cheap, but it does last for the year that you have it before you buy your next 68 items - and no-one educates their children on "button width or zipper teeth" - so how do you recognize quality, anyhow?

This was a charming, pretty book that I really enjoyed, but I did not buy. Thanks to my library for helping me pick this one up and finally read it.  

Highly recommended to those who are interested in sustainability, or simply in personal essays, and/or illustration. It's the complete package.

Check out Lazarovic's website and blog for a bunch more pretty things, some of which you can even buy. Plus you'll find some good tips on buying more sustainably, or even not at all. 


Further Reading:

Elizabeth Cline's Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion will also take you into the world of fast fashion, in a much more factual sense, and will make you wonder if you'll ever be able to buy anything new ever again...

This book is a little older, but still a good one - To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle will reveal much about the fashion industry, including how we buy our cheap clothes, as well as manufacturing and labour rights.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cover Designs! #9

After discovering Kurt Palka recently (as noted in my recent review of his novel The Piano Maker) I went back and looked to see what else he'd done. To my surprise, he had one recent novel, Clara -- but has written other novels -- which were published over 20 years ago. So he is back!

Clara is also set during wartime, but this time WWII, and set in Vienna. It looks like another gripping story of right and wrong in uncertain circumstances, featuring a strong female lead. 

But I was also caught by the cover. The striking red dress against the forest background is an interesting contrast. And I think I know how to recreate that look. 

V8997, Misses' Dress

I'd take Vogue 8997 and make a few mix-and-match changes.

I'd use View A for the body, with the addition of sleeves from View C. Using contrast fabrics like perhaps these two, both from, might work:

Bodice from this tiny print

And full skirt from this silkier, orangey charmeuse

To really finish the look, these yellow-toned lace ups would be just about right, I think.

I'm sure we'll see this image repeated on other book covers in future...I'll be watching out for a reappearance of this red dress, as I've noticed a trend both toward women with their backs facing the reader, as well as multiple covers with the same stock image. If you've seen it before, let me know!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Piano Maker

The Piano Maker / Kurt Palka
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
275 p.

I picked up this new novel as it came across the desk at the library, drawn in by the lovely quiet cover and the premise: Helene Giroux, a Frenchwoman in her 40s, arrives in a small town on the French shore of Nova Scotia, sometime in the 30s. She seems to be running from a dark secret in her past...which is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks.

While the first chapter or two were mildly interesting, I ended up getting invested in it fairly quickly. Helene was an interesting character; she grew up in France, the daughter of a successful piano maker, and becomes an accomplished piano maker, factory owner, and pianist herself. 

But of course, 1914 is coming...and during the war, Helene loses everything. Acquaintance Nathan Homewood, an American who handled their North American sales, offers to sell all the finely laid away wood in her barn -- and does so, while telling her that it was all lost at sea. When she discovers his theft years later, she forces him to pay her back the thousands he had stolen. But at the same time, she agrees to join forces with him in his latest project, antiquities dealing. At this point, Helene has made her way to safety in Montreal, but is living right on the edge of survival -- and though Nathan had cheated her, their long acquaintance and her need for income convince her to join him.

When the story opens, however, she is settling into her new small town life as an enigmatic stranger...until the RCMP places her under house arrest, to be retried for the murder of Nathan Homewood in 1929.

The book weaves back and forth, revealing more of Helene's past and her long relationship with Nathan. It moves from France to England to Montreal, taking side trips to Northern Quebec and Alberta. The small town setting seems to be the one still point in Helene's life, which allows the narrative to rove to the action in her past. This means the book starts out a bit slowly, though, until her past begins to be shared. Still, the story is enough to keep you turning pages, waiting to find out just what her deep dark secret is. And there is enough in it to make you consider rights and wrongs and consequences. 

The one false note for me was Helene's daughter Claire -- she isn't developed enough to become a recognizable character in herself, and for some strange reason, she calls Helene "Mom" throughout the second half of the book, which seems unlikely both because of era and because of its glaring Americanism -- surely French born, England dwelling Claire would be using Maman or Mum, at the very least. A small quibble, but one that struck the ear each time it was used.

This is not a deep, poetic novel, despite its various romantic settings and the musical element of piano making. It's an adventure tale, with recognizable types and episodic events revealed slowly for suspense. It's enjoyable as such, and I found Helene to be a mysterious and engaging heroine. Her life in France was memorable, and her foray into Northern Alberta was gripping, even if slightly implausible - again, adventure reigns supreme.  This is one that I'd recommend to book clubs -- an entertaining story told in a style somewhere between literary and adventure yarn, and lots in it to talk about. 

Other opinions:

Doreen at Schatje's Shelves says "I love novels with strong female characters.  And Hélène is certainly resilient and resourceful and stoic.  Unfortunately, I sometimes found her just too adept to be believable."

Diane Schuller says "This is a well written mystery with a strong female lead. I really appreciated the straightforward manner in which this book was written. The mystery of why Helene, the protagonist, ended up where she was and what had occurred before she arrived kept me continually wanting to know more."

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Meg Lukens Noonan's Coat Route

The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat  / Meg Lukens Noonan.
New York: Spiegel & Grau, c2013.
244 p.

I picked up this book on a sale table one day, recalling that I'd seen it mentioned by -- I think it was DovegreyReader & that it had sounded interesting. So glad I did - it kept me busy for a few enjoyable evenings!

The idea for this book came to the author when she heard of an Australian tailor who had handcrafted what seemed to her an incredibly expensive overcoat for a private client.

She looked into it, and was intrigued by the whole process. So she followed the route it took from raw materials to finished coat, interviewing vicuna fur suppliers in Peru, investigating Italian silk merchants, visiting British button factories & Savile Row, and much more -- including of course, long talks with John Cutler, the master tailor. And a final visit to the coat's purchaser, a Vancouver based businessman, in which she finds the infamous overcoat casually slung across the back of a chair.

It feels like an entire collection of microhistories. It is perfect to read chapter by chapter, as each one is a complete story in its own right -- I feel like following up on one or two of my favourite bits, as they are just an introduction to a fascinating topic. I think that some of these chapters could be expanded into full books on their own! I really enjoyed dipping into this one, and after reading about the vicuna cloth, the silk lining, the gold engraved tags, the horn buttons and all the tailoring itself, the cost of this coat seems quite understandable. It is valued according to its actual value; and seems in line with couture and designer clothing prices, even while being utterly customized to the buyer.

So while something like this would never be found hanging in my closet, I found the steps toward its creation wonderfully interesting. I'd recommend reading this book bit by bit and allowing some time in between chapters, as it can feel a bit too much of a good thing when read all in one go, like I did. Her writing voice is very much "reportage", like the journalist that she is, without many stylistic frills to smooth out the narrative. It works, but for myself, a break in the matter-of-fact telling was needed. I wanted to imagine the story developing as it progressed, and taking a day or two before reading the next chapter was perfect.

Any reader who is also a sewist would find this one intriguing - so many different industries involved in making up this one item, and all of great interest to those who stitch. Recommended!

Note: this review first appeared in this form at Magpie Makery

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

BBAW: Delayed Burnout Post

Day OneIntroduce yourself (17)

Oh hey! Hello everyone -- adding my thoughts on avoiding blogger burnout, just a few days late :)

I'm just illustrating the principle. Really! 

Day 5's question was:

One of the unfortunate side effects of reading and blogging like rockstars seems to be a tendency toward burnout. How do you keep things fresh on your blog and in your reading?

Actually, this really is my principle of avoiding burnout and keeping on with blogging: join in on fun and exciting community activities like BBAW... but when life gets busy and you can't keep up, just let it go. I was having lots of fun with the first few days of BBAW, but just couldn't post on time for the last day, on this topic.

So I didn't pressure myself to get on the computer instead of getting my sleep, just to write a quickly dashed off post on deadline. I practiced self-care and slept instead, and then did the things I needed to do. And now that I have time again and I'm still thinking about this topic, I jumped in a little late to contribute what I can. 

And that's my secret: to keep your blogging habit going, keep it fun. Don't place the pressure of expectations and demands on your hobby. Blog when you can, read when you can, and share when you feel like it. Share book reviews, general book talk, community posts, whatever -- sometimes you need to shake it up a little to get out of a review slump (like the one I've just had!) So try something new - and don't apologize for not posting every day - just start again where you are. Remember why you started blogging - probably because you love reading as much as we all do, and love talking about it.

My book blog is my happy place; I'm not interested in killing off my joy in writing it, just so I can say that I'm productive and popular. It works for me, and that's all you need to do, too -- figure out what works for you. 

Happy Book Blogging!

**all photos via The British Library on Flickr