Book Review: Let Me In

7911377If you’re in need of a good vampire novel, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In is dark, horrifying, and original. No sparkly vampire romances here! It’s gruesome and gross, the characters – and not just the vampires – do appalling things, and as a cat owner, I was completely revolted by the shut in who lived with an unreasonably high number of cats. I myself love a good vampire story, and this definitely falls into that category, but I had a really hard time enjoying this book because I found it hard to like or sympathize with the characters.

The basic plot works something like this: a young girl, Eli, moves in to suburban apartments in 1981 Sweden with her father, befriends the boy next door, and develops a weird, non-sexual romance with him. People soon start dying in horrifying ways, and lo and behold, it turns out the young girl is a vampire. However, even though Eli is the catalyst for the death that slowly spreads through the community, the real driving force behind the plot seems to be the utter misery of all the characters. They all reflect the grubby, pathetic side of humanity – bullies, alcoholics, pedophiles, drug addicts, teenaged delinquents, the aforementioned shut in with far too many cats. Mothers are weak and powerless to control their children. Fathers are absent and useless. Lovers can’t get their personal lives together well enough to be together no matter how much they love each other. And so on.

Everyone is a victim and everyone is a monster. In fact, sometimes it was hard for me to tell the difference. Oskar, young boy who lives next door to Eli, is habitually bullied by classmates, but he also fantasizes about killing people and cuts out newspaper articles about murders and serial killers. When he finally fights back against the bullies, he becomes somewhat of a bully himself. The shut in won’t come forward about a murder he saw, the kids who bullied Oskar decide to escalate their revenge to murder when he fights back, the pedophile literally becomes a monster and attempts the things he wasn’t brave enough to do when he was human. The only person I sympathized with in any way was Eli, who seemed to be more of a victim than a monster, even if she’s the vampire in the story.

It is a fantastically plotted book. There is a huge cast, but none of their individual plot lines are wasted and weave together seamlessly at the end. The mechanism of Eli’s vampirism is original and kind of cool, and it’s refreshing not to have the hero of the piece running in with a quip to save the day.

However, this book only gets 3 stars. Not because I thought it was badly written, but because I just didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes we just don’t have chemistry with the books we read, and for me, this was one of them. I kept glancing at the page numbers to see how close I was to the final page, and I thought I would never get to the end. But please don’t let that keep you from reading it. From a purely objective point of view, this is a 5 star horror novel, and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something dark and full of monsters.

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Adventures in Sewing: iPad mini Sleeve

My iPad mini arrived on Friday, all shiny and gleaming and futuristic.  But as with all electronic devices, I needed a case and scratch protection and and some kind of cute contraption to carry it around in and I needed it right now. But after standing in front of a display of not-that-cute iPad cases and sleeves and whatnots at Best Buy and frowning disapprovingly at the ridiculous prices,  I thought, “Wait! I have a sewing machine! I can make one of these!”

And so I went home and rooted around in my stash:

My materialsFound a tutorial: http://www.huckleberrylove.com/2013/01/ipad-mini-case-tutorial.html

Added some fusible fleece for a bit of protective padding:

Fusible fleeceAnd, after about an hour and a half of work from beginning to end, had the finished result:

It's open.

It’s open.

Now's it's closed.

Now’s it’s closed.

The finished product with iPad

And now there’s an iPad mini in it!

Button close up!

Button close up!

I can’t say I’m super impressed with my edge stitching at the top or with the button loop, but I had much more success with the fusible fleece than I did the last time I attempted to use it (and no, I don’t want to talk about it), so I’m going to call it a win.

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The Sturm und Drung of the Star Trek Skant, or No, Really, I Can Make ANYTHING

So, the Star Trek skant.

It is finished. I did wear it. I made one for my good friend Rori, and she wore hers.  We even endured about a million comments about how we were wearing the wrong color from people who had never actually seen the show,  just referencing the general pop culture fact that the red shirts always died horrific alien deaths.  Except for the part where it was only the male red shirts who died.  The females were either fourth in charge of the ship, i.e. Uhura (according to Nichelle Nichols herself), or too busy bringing the men coffee and a sandwich on the bridge to get killed on an away mission.

That’s right, fellas. Fourth in command.

But I digress.

If I sound less than enthusiastic about the skant, it’s because making it was the most frustrating, hair pulling, curse word-filled three months of my life.

See, the measurements on the sizing chart were not accurate. At all.  In any way imaginable.

This is the sizing chart. It lies. Lies like a rug. And Uhura is not impressed.

I mean, I knew that the measurements were a bit wonky. I did.  I had done my research.  I just didn’t realize exactly how wonky they were. When I made the mock up for myself, I used the highest measurements, equivalent to a size 20, according to the sizing chart, but more like a 14 as far as I can tell.  I don’t even wear a 20 in day to day clothing, yet I had to add two inches to the arm and an inch to the other panels. I assumed it was just my body shape, but when I consulted the measurements and chose the size 12 pattern for my friend’s skant, I discovered that it really wasn’t me.  It was the pattern.  She has an average body size, yet I had to completely recut her dress with the size 20 panels, then cut down the panels just below the neck line and at the shoulders to make it fit properly.

Furthermore, the arms and armpits still don’t fit properly on either of our dresses. The arms seem to be too narrow above the elbow, but too big at the shoulder. The armpits don’t fit snugly at the sides and under the arms.  Instead, they stretch out too tightly about an inch from our skin.  This makes lifting the arms to, say, put on eye shadow or fix your hair very difficult. The collars don’t lie flat, either, and it seems that no matter how many inches I added to each end of the collar, it never seemed to be enough for the whole neck line.

I’m not the only one who has had these problems. I stood in line with a woman on the day I wore the skant, swapping Star Trek pattern war stories.  And you could easily spot the homemade skants verses the store bought ones: the homemade did weird things at the shoulders, kind of poofing out awkwardly and folding just above the bicep, while the store bought skants fit perfectly.

Notice the weird fold thing there on my upper arm? It’s very annoying and it makes it very easy to spot a homemade skant.

All that being said, I put on my dress Saturday morning, bemoaning the flaws, the tight upper arms, the weird armpit fit in our dresses.  I fussed and whined and frowned, but consoled myself with how good I looked in my new, bought-for-Dragon*Con boots and hoped no one would notice the flaws. Then we went down to the lobby. Within three feet we were asked for our picture. We were asked for our picture all day, together and apart.  I was stopped in the vendor area twice and asked where I had bought my dress, then later in the lobby while waiting to get into a panel.  By the end of the day, Rori was convinced she was Uhura, and I was convinced that I could make ANYTHING.*

Yeah, no one noticed the flaws.

And I guess, looking back, we do look pretty fantastic:

That’s us. Lookin’ fierce.

* A couple of weeks ago, when we went out for Halloween in our snazzy Star Fleet uniforms, we got multiple compliments on our dresses, and one woman even asked me if I had a card so that she could contact me about making costumes for her party planning business. Seriously, I can make ANYTHING.

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The One I Tell About Being Away

Eleven years ago today, I was living in London on a student work visa. I had been away from home since mid-June, when I had set off on my great European adventure with my backpack, a Eurorail pass, and my student work visa.  I had gone back packing in Europe alone after my original traveling companions dropped out of the trip for one reason or another, and then sought out gainful employment in London. Looking back, it’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. A friend later told me that it had been a stupid thing to do, to go backpacking alone, and maybe it was. But backpacking in Europe was a dream, and I had my chance to go, so I took it.  I had promised myself no regrets when I went, and when I finally came home eight months later after half a dozen sinus infections, visits to 6 countries, and a sudden and painful yearning to just be home, I didn’t have a single one.

But not once during those 8 months had I felt so far away from home as I did on 9/11.  My co-workers began telling me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center sometime after lunch, but I blew off the first few comments without much thought. I even made some comment about people always trying to blow those up. I figured we had managed to get up someone’s nose yet again, and that it would be similar to what happened back in the early nineties, when the buildings were bombed at the basement level — lots of smoke, but not a lot of fire. Instead, what I saw when I finally managed to get online was like something out of a movie, pictures of one tower smoking and the other collapsed.  I went home and did what I’m sure everyone did that day. I watched the news for hours, stunned.  I discussed it with my roommates ad nauseum. I called my mother just to hear her voice.

Even today, writing this 11 years later, I tear up when I think about the people on the planes who knew they were flying to their deaths.The terrorists let them call their families, and I can’t imagine what it was like to be one of those family members answering the phone to hear their loved ones saying goodbye. I can’t imagine what it was like to be trapped in the burning buildings, or likewise, to be one of the emergency crews running into them. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Manhattan that day when I don’t even know what it was like to be in the country.

I realize this is the ubiquitous 9/11 post, but I think on a day like this, ubiquity isn’t synonymous with trite.  We all have our stories of where we were that day, and here’s mine, the one I tell about being 24 in a foreign country and making flippant offhand remarks. This is the one where I say that if I had known that a day and a half later that I would turn to my roommates and say, “Can we turn off the TV? I can’t watch any more of this,” I probably wouldn’t have been so nonchalant at work.  This is the one where I say I left one country in mid-June and came back to another in mid-January.  But this is also the one where I say that when the customs officer said “Welcome home,” after she checked my passport, I felt a rush of warmth because I felt like she really meant it.

Sometimes it takes going away to know where you belong.

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Adventures in Sewing: Star Trek Skant Mock Up

I’m a bit of a geek.

By which I mean I am a fully-fledged, card-carrying, Star Trek watching geek.  Ask me anything about Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Doctor Who, and I’ve probably got the right answer for you.  Not to mention the degrees in dead languages that add just the right amount of nerd to my geek.  I could say more, but you’re probably getting a pretty clear idea of where I stand on the scale of cool. Which I happen to measure using the Leonard Nimoy System of Coolness:

Spock is Cool

This is how I now rate cool. Can you lean on a Riviera looking this bad ass in a Star Trek costume? No? I didn’t think so.

And I say this with pride. I used to be embarrassed by my geek inclinations, but the older I get, the less I care.  I used to be obsessed and worried over what people thought of me, and it made me miserable. It was very nearly crippling, and social situations beyond my inner circle of friends were an agonizing form of torture. Now, half way into my 30s, I am starting to enjoy the liberation that goes with learning not to worry so much over what people think.  People are going to always have an opinion about things that are in no way any of their business, so why should I be in the closet about seeing The Avengers three times in the theater  just because some people might think I’m a little weird? Whatever. This is me, take it or leave it.

Which is why I am actually going to post about my current summer sewing projects: costumes.

Every year, there’s a little get together in Atlanta called Dragon*Con. About 40,000 people gather over Labor Day weekend, dressed as Batman and the Doctor and Princess Leia, as zombies and X-Men and a host of anime and gaming characters I can’t even begin to identify. It’s 3 days of intense geekery, with panels of writers, actors, comic book artists, parties where everyone is dressed as their favorite Harry Potter character, and events like Doctor Who episode previews and costume contests.  Everyone has their geek flags out, waving them high, and it’s perfectly acceptable and a-okay, and really, it’s pretty much geek heaven.

Last year was my first year attending, and I was literally blown away by the costuming.  Google Dragon*Con costumes some time.  Mind. Blowing. People put huge amounts of time and patience and creativity into making these gloriously creative costumes.  I was bullied into wearing a hastily thrown together costume by my Dragon*Con partner, and felt completely inadequate next to the other costumers. This year I don’t plan on suffering from costume envy, not now that I am armed with a sewing machine and the unlimited resources of the internet.

One of my costumes will be a Star Trek skant, the dress worn by Uhura and Nurse Chapel in the original Star Trek series of the late 1960s. If you have any familiarity at all with the original series, you are aware of how mini the mini-dresses worn by Uhura and Nurse Chapel were.  If you aren’t, well, they’re pretty short.

Uhura's skant

See? Short. My version will be longer for modesty’s sake.

I found a pattern online based on the original pattern used in the show. I decided to do a mock up first, since I am still a novice at sewing and have no idea how this dress will fit. Also, the pattern is a little wonky all around, nothing at all like the traditional patterns sold by Butterick and McCall’s.  It’s two massive, sheets of thick paper like so:

The front panels of the dress are one sheet, the back panels are on the other.  You can’t see through them like the store bought patterns, and I wasn’t so hot on cutting them out since I plan to reuse the pattern at least twice for myself (first for a mock up, then for the real deal), and then probably a second time for a friend.  Cutting out the pieces didn’t seem efficient for my purposes, as I plan to get my money’s worth out of this pattern. In addition, during my research on this pattern (Did you know that Stark Trek has its own website and forums for costume making?  I didn’t.  I should have, but I didn’t.), I learned that the sizing is weird. Not surprising. since it’s based on the original costumer’s design from 40 years ago when a size 12 was something entirely different than the size 12 of today.

However, an unopened roll of wax paper in the pantry plus a black Sharpie equals instant pattern panels with no damage to my original. (Note: You have to clean off the tip of the sharpie occasionally to keep the ink flowing.  The wax coats the marker tip.)

I’m a genius. Seriously. And if you can’t tell by my ingenious use of wax paper, I am happy to inform you on a regular basis by email, social media, or text messaging so that you can remember. Just let me know your preferred format.

Then it was onto cutting out the mock up.  My inheritance from my grandmother was a bunch of vintage patterns and a bag of fabric. A bag of 30 year old fabric.

As soon as I told Mum that I was learning to sew, the first thing she said was, “Now I know what to do with that bag of fabric in the garage.”

It was a both a pleasantly nostalgic and horrifying trip down memory lane. It still smelled like my grandmother’s house, sold 15 years ago now, and there were pieces of fabric in there I recognized from curtains and clothing I saw in that same house throughout my childhood.  It took me back and made me smile in fond remembrance of spending summers at my grandmother’s, mucking about in the closet, fascinated by the patterns and color schemes of her 70s synthetic fabric wardrobe. But here’s the horrifying part: the bag was about 50% polyester. Not the slinky, smooth, better-living-through-chemistry polyester of today, but the hard, scratchy, catches-on-fire-in-the-dryer polyester I associate with the home sewn dress pants of older and long dead female relatives with giant plastic glasses and hairspray shellacked hair. Just touching it is traumatizing.  You can almost feel the malicious joy the mad scientists took in making synthetic fabrics that would outlast civilization.

However,  I did find polyester in 3 shades of light blue, one a pretty dead on match for the blue used in Spock and McCoy’s costumes in the series.  And probably pretty authentic, fabric wise.  I decided that would do for a mock up, and you know, should the mock up fit me properly, I would then have an almost authentic dress on my hands, sewn from vintage polyester that I will never, ever put in the dryer or wear near open flame.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on your stance on fire safety, it didn’t work out for a two reasons.  The first is that I didn’t have enough of the blue polyester to make the full dress; one panel had to be cut from one of the other pieces of blue polyester.

This is the front. Notice the way the panels all come together in that point?
That’s why I want to make this dress. Sure, many of the other Star Trek costume possibilities would be more practical and less mini, but I just love the look of the shape and form of the panels.

The other issue was that the sizing is really is wonky, just as my research has indicated.  When I tried it on, the arms didn’t fit, and I had added about an inch to each arm before I cut.  The armpits and shoulders didn’t sit right either, nor did the entire dress close in the back.  Once I realized the mock up was too small, I didn’t bother hemming anything, though I did pin the panels closed in the back.

It looks much better off the hanger, trust me.

That being said, it was surprisingly easy to sew together once I figured out that I had to make the straight lines of one piece fit the curve of its matching piece, and just to treat it like a puzzle, matching the pieces together as I went. My sewing instructor was impressed that I had managed to do what I did on my own.  I have to say I’m impressed, too.  I just sat down one Saturday, put all the panels together, and started to sew.  My skills are definitely improving, and I can’t wait to see how the real dress comes out.

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Adventures in Sewing: Mum’s Mother’s Day Apron

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about how I made the apron – I basically followed the pattern and advice from my instructor – but I learned some interesting new skills.

1. Making straps: Making straps involved sewing seams, ironing the seams, then turning the straps inside out. A wholly tedious affair until one of my fellow sewers showed me how to use a pencil eraser to do so.  It was much less tedious after that.

 

 

 

2. Splicing: I only found the lovely yellow fabric I used as the straps and pockets in fabric squares, which weren’t large enough to make the waist straps as one piece.  So I spliced two pieces together before I sewed the seams.

 

 

3. Pockets: Not much to say here other than that I followed the directions and I ended up with pockets. And they work!

 

 

 

 

Top stitching, for the non-sewing initiated, is when you sew along the edge of the garment, next to the hem or a seam, so that the fabric is pressed flat. It gives it a very tidy look. And it’s adorable!

4. Top stitching:I just – wow. I mean, top stitching! I love how neat it looks. Neat and cute and look at it! It’s adorable!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Patience: Patience is, I have learned, essential to sewing. Or, at least to sewing well. Between ripping out stitches and the sheer amount of ironing that is necessary to end up nicely sewed hems and seams, I had to dip into my deepest reserves of patience to get through this project. And even so, if I hadn’t made 85% of this apron in the presence of others, I could have easily filled up a swear jar. And the bit I did alone at home  – the neck straps and the top half of the apron – did bring forth many, many naughty words.  So, yeah, patience.  Not in the brochure.

And the apron, you ask? Here it is, as promised:

Mum immediately donned it and proceeded to cook dinner. I should have taken a picture but did not.

As with all highs, the challenge. risk, or amount of the high inducing element must increase and grow ever more extreme, even when it comes to sewing. Just wait until you see my next project….

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Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Five years ago, I started reading this book at the recommendation of an acquaintance, got about 150 pages in, and put it down out of lack of interest.  I don’t know why; it just wasn’t doing it for me.  Recently, a another friend read and recommended it with five stars, and I, in need of something new to read, pulled it off the bookshelf, bookmark still in place. This time I was determined to stick it out, and to my surprise, found myself frantically plowing through it in a mad dash to find out the answer to my questions:  Who was Mr. C? What was Finch’s secret mission?  Would Ned ever find the lost Bishop’s bird stump and would the poor man ever get a good night’s sleep?

This is, without a doubt, one of the best plotted time travel novels I have ever read. The premise is both amusing  and brilliantly executed. After the powers that be realize that they can’t plunder the past with time travel, Oxford historians find themselves so desperate for funding  that they agree to help a very rich, American dowager rebuild Coventry Cathedral down to the most miniscule detail. Historian Ned Henry, having time traveled for 19 hours straight in search of a mysterious artifact called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, is sent to Victorian England to get some rest and escape Lady Shrapnell’s unceasing demands that he visit every rummage sale before 1943.  In the process, he finds himself responsible for correcting the space time continuum while attempting to navigate through the byzantine customs and excessive clutter of the Victorian era – not to mention managing the sleeping arrangements of a bulldog named Cyril and a spoiled, fish killing cat.

This novel is so tightly written that things that appeared to be little details or off hand remarks were, to my great pleasure, rather important plot points by the end of the tale.  I was also impressed by how it somehow manages to be, all at once, a mystery novel, a romance, and a comedy of manners that is both an homage to and a send up of the genre.  I laughed out loud several times, and am rather in awe of how everything came together so neatly in the end. This was just an all around pleasure to read.  I give it my highest praise, which is that I wish I had thought of this first.

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