FO: Ceciliana

Two FOs in one week?!  I am spoiling you.  This is Ceciliana, next in the A-Z of shawls.  

The sharp-eyed among you will have spotted that there is no lace here.  With Ceciliana I’ve tried another technique that is new to me: mosaic knitting.  This is a style of colourwork knitting, but unlike fair isle there are no floats running at the back of the work,, making it much more flexible, stretchy and less stiff.  And unlike intarsia there are no pesky bobbins to contend with.  Instead, the pattern is made using slipped stitches, with each of hte two colours of yarn used on alternate rows of garter stitch.  

It works up really quickly and is very satisfying to knit.  Just like any other colourwork pattern, there is a chart to follow.  The trick is just getting your stitch counts right.  As always, stitch markers are your friend.  It’s definitely a technique I will try again when I want a hit of colourwork without the faff.

I really like the textured effect the garter stitch and mosaic knitting style gives this shawl.  The two shades of grey (a lovely silver and a darker slate colour) give it a very modern look and feel.  The grey was hard work for me to knit (my mood is strongly affected by colour, and subdued colours = subdued me) but the overall look is modern and sophisticated, and I can see it going with lots of things.  This is a practical shawl that I can see myself wearing a lot this autumn.  

The pattern is by Lisa Hannes, who has a number of patterns for shawls of this style using mosaic knitting on Ravelry.  This one is a shallow crescent, and incorporates short row shaping to create wedges of the colourwork pattern, as well as the bands of the diamond motif.  

The yarn is Travelknitter’s Silky Merino, a 50/50 silk and merino blend in a ply weight  This is the yarn I bought at Festiwool in Hitchin last year.  It’s a great yarn to work with and I’d really recommend it – perfect for projects like this and the colour range is superb.  

Summerlong – Peter S Beagle

Summerlong by Peter S Beagle (review copy from Tachyon) is in the fine tradition of literary fiction about the impact of an outsider on a settled community. Lioness Lazos is the new waitress at the restaurant on a remote island near Seattle. On an impulse, Abe and Joanna invite her to live in Abe’s garage, sensing that she is somehow in need and on the run from something or someone. But as the spring and summer progress, they start to notice strange things happening around Lioness: unusual weather patterns, perpetual flowers, mysterious strangers starting to appear. All of this ultimately puts Abe and Joanna’s relationship to the test as they unravel the mystery that is Lioness.  
This is a novel that works best as a straight examination of Abe and Joanna, and their relationship with each other and with Joanna’s daughter Lily. Their relationship is one of long-standing, and has weathered many bumps over the years until they’ve found ways of being together than work for them. Abe, a retired historian lives on the island, researching and writing his next book. Joanna is nearing the end of her career as senior airline cabin crew. She lives on the mainland, but they visit each other frequently in a well-worn routine. Lioness’s presence on the island becomes a catalyst for a crisis in their relationship, but also for both Abe and Joanna to question their priorities and goals in life. Abe chooses to pursue a long-held dream of taking his blues harmonica-playing more seriously, joining a band. Joanna has always dreamed of learning to kayak, to float in the gap between water and sky.  
This story of mid-life crisis with life resettling into a subtly changed pattern is well-worn territory in literary fiction, and Beagle’s take on it is delivered deftly and with real warmth. But the genre elements for me add very little to the story. It’s ultimately immaterial what Lioness’s story is, or what – or who – she is running from. The important thing about her is that she is the disruptive outsider whose presence instigates the events of the novel. I think it would be a stronger novel without the genre elements, if anything. The ending of Lioness’s story is one of the weaker parts of the book.
Summerlong is not a style of book that will appeal to most mainstream genre fiction readers, but it’s a warm and engaging story that’s definitely worth dipping into.  
Goodreads rating: 3*

Cold Forged Flame – Marie Brennan

Tor are doing some interesting things as a publisher at the moment. Chief among them, is their focus on shorter form fiction, particularly novellas. It’s a market that is at least in part driven by the popularity of Kindle Singles – shorter works that can be read in a single sitting. I tend to be a fan of longer works, particularly big multi-part series where each individual volume is so long that the author’s name and the title can be written on the spine horizontally rather than vertically. But there’s a real appeal to shorter works. Done well they can explore ideas in a crisp way, and like the best tapas be full of intense heat and flavour but without ever feeling like a heavy meal.  
Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan is one of those novellas, intended to be the first in a series. The story is a relatively simple one: a being is summoned and bound to carry out a task laid on her. She must travel to a particular item and return with some of the blood from the cauldron of the witch who lives there. This being has no memory of who she is, and does not even have a name, but she is bound to carry out the task. Along the way she faces the traditional perils of monsters and geography, before reaching the witch and bargaining for what she has been asked to collect.  
Brennan has spoken about the genesis of this work and character as lying with a D&D character she created and has played many times. But to me, Cold Forged Flame works more as a metaphor for creation and story-telling itself. Brennan’s protagonist and the world she is brought into are blank canvases that are slowly revealed as more detail becomes laid upon them, particularly once the main character gains a companion on her quest. It’s a relationship that lies outside the strictures of her quest, forcing her to engage in a different and more thoughtful way with the world around her. And the transaction at the end of the quest itself (the exchange of blood for inspiration and vice versa) is a stylised representation of the act of artistic creation.   
Goodreads rating: 3*

Chasing Embers – James Bennett

Chasing Embers by James Bennett (review copy from publishers Orbit, via NetGalley) is the first in a new series of urban fantasy novels about muscle-for-hire Ben Garston. Ben is not your typical mercenary, though. He’s the last remaining dragon in the world. After ruinous wars, King John signed a Covenant that led to the fae and all supernatural beings withdrawing from the world, except for one of each species.  
For the most part, Ben leads a pretty quiet life, doing the occasional job of work without asking too many questions about it, until the peace of the Covenant is shattered. There appears to be another dragon on the loose, stealing items from museums, which means Ben’s enemies have free rein to try to act on centuries-old feuds. Ben’s attempts to unravel the mystery lead him to Africa and an ancient goddess, and jeopardise the safety of his (ex-)girlfriend and, inevitably, the world.
I have to say I was underwhelmed by this book, and it was a bit of a plod to get through. Ben crashes pretty unthinkingly through life, which makes him hard to make a connection with and has the plot reeling from one fight scene or confrontation to another. There is also far too much reliance on the Deus Ex Machina of the one remaining Fae (who lives as a gloriously seedy nightclub owner in Germany) arriving to save the day and get the author out of a plot hole or comer he has backed himself into. And I was left slightly disturbed by the frequent resort to torture and Ben’s sexual attraction to the African goddess, who is embodied in the novel through and around a prepubescent girl.  
Bennett tries to do some interesting things with Ben’s relationship with love-interest Rose, playing on dragon-tropes. Rose is presented as alternately a treasure he is seeking to add to his hoard, or a princess he is seeking to protect. She, by all accounts, is happy with neither role, nor with his inability to admit who and what he really is. But despite a few spirited attempts to rebel, Rose fails to pass the Sexy Lamp Test (could you replace the lead female character with a particularly attractive lamp, without making any difference to the plot of the story?) and becomes merely a plot device to get Ben to the scene of the novel’s climax.  
Goodreads rating: 2*

FO: Brina

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an FO. So here is Brina, the second in my A-Z of shawls.  

Brina is a crescent shawl with short-row shaping, from the queen of that technique, Susanna IC. The pattern is from Twist Collective, one of my favourite pattern sites.  
Brina was the chance for me to vanquish one of my knitting demons: nupps. For the uninitiated, nupps are a particular type of bobble, common in Estonian lace knitting. They create quite a flat bobble, unlike the more pronounced bobles typical of Wastern knitting styles. They are conventionally worked by increasing stitches in one row, and then purling them together on the next WS row. Being able to do that depends on leaving your stitches loose enough that you can manipulate them on the reverse row, with the added trickiness of putting a needle through and then purling together anything up to 7 stitches. I frogged an entire lace shawl once out of frustration at not being able to master the nupps in it. So I was determined to learn how to do them.  

I’m afraid I cheated a bit on this shawl. I used the crochet hook method. It involves finishing the nupp on the RS row, and using a hok to pull the yarn through all the loops. It may be cheating, but it worked. It’s definitely a technique I will use again. 
The yarn I’ve used here is Nimu Lingmell. It’s a lovely spatter-dyed wool/silk blend in a 4ply weight and this skein was in a 150g size that was the perfect yardage for this pattern. The colourway is called Bright Flashes of Panic, and it was part of a limited edition yarn club run by the dyer a couple of years ago. Nimu sadly don’t produce much yarn at the moment (the dyer has gone back to full-time education, which is taking up her time) but if you watch the Nimu Facebook page you will occasionally see a destash or a summer yarn club like the one where I got this yarn.  
The shawl blocked out to be a lot shallower and wider than I was expecting, but that makes it the perfect length to wind round one’s neck loosely while still displaying long tails. It’s a great extra layer for those coool early Autumn days.  

Everfair – Nisi Shawl

I’ve written before about the challenges and shortcomings of steampunk as a genre. It was why I was so excited to receive a review copy of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair from Tor. It’s the book about colonialism I have been waiting a long time to read.  
Firmly rooted in history, Shawl imagines an alternate history for the Congo Free State in the late 19th century. The real history is bloody and shameful. As Shawl acknowledges in the historical note that opens Everfair, under King Leopold II of Belgium, around half of the population disappeared between 1895 and 1908. Much of the motive for this was the production of cheap rubber under highly exploitative conditions. And as any industrial historian will tell you, rubber was essential for much of the Industrial Revolution, making colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources elsewhere in the world a central element of Western industrial progress. This is exemplified by Lisette’s love of her rubber-tyred bicycle and the freedom it represents in the opening of the novel. Shawl imagines an alternate path for the Congo Free State. A group of idealistic Europeans and freed American slaves work with the indigenous people to defeat King Leopold’s troops and found a progressive state. Ingenuity combined with local raw materials drive a steampunk society that quickly prospers. The novel follows the country’s history as it throws off the yoke of Belgian colonialism and navigates WWI. 
What’s so refreshing about Everfair is to see racism and the power dynamics of colonialism set out front and centre. At their best, the Western settlers are motivated by idealism and a genuine desire to create a better place. But they are also racist, entitled, privileged and crashingly tone deaf to how they come across. Many of the central conflicts in the novel stem from the interplay between those attitudes and those of the indigenous population. For some, it is the first time they’ve encountered racism: the mixed race Lisette Toutournier is white-passing in Europe, but on moving to Africa is forced to engage with her heritage, particularly the unthinking racism of her lover Daisy Albin.  
But the real joy of Everfair is its cast of characters. There’s the intelligent and elegant Queen Josina, the peace-maker and diplomat, wife to the canny King Mwenda. Tink, the visionary engineer from Macao who is at the heart of so much of the country’s development, but mourns his lost love Lily all his life. Fwendi: actress, spy and lover of an English playwright. Martha Hunter, the puritanical widowed missionary who seeks to bring Christianity to Africa, and takes such unalloyed joy in her unexpected second marriage.All of them bring a tremendous richness to a fantastic book.  
Goodreads rating: 4*

Bury the Living – Jodi McIsaac

I approached Jodi McIsaac’s novel Bury the Living (review copy from 47 North through NetGalley) with a high degree of trepidation. Anyone that knows my academic and professional background will know why a time travel novel set during the Irish Civil War would be a risky proposition. And, at risk of damning it with faint praise, the book was nowhere near as bad as I had been fearing  
The story follows Nora O’Reilly, an aid worker from Belfast, who is also a former member of the IRA. She returns home for the funeral of a former IRA colleague, before following a mysterious dream summons to Kildare, where she is told to seek out Brigid. She meets a woman from a mysterious sect called the Brigidine sisters and finds herself sent back in time to help the man she saw in her dreams. She finds him, but he refuses her help, and with no clear sense of what her purpose is, Nora sets out to avert the Partition of Ireland in an attempt to prevent the death of her brother during the Troubles.  While the details of Nora’s childhood explain how she would become a member of the IRA, I wasn’t convinced that an aid worker who had subsequently experienced the human impact and aftermath of violence and civil war would remain so fanatically and unquestioningly wedded to the republican cause. The guilt she clearly feels at the death of her brother was not enough of a motivation for me. I would have hoped, at least, for a little more inner conflict within Nora on the issue. The Civil War setting, itself one of the most difficult and contested parts of Irish history would have presented the perfect opportunity to interrogate ideas of nationalism and their human impact. But apart from a few stray references to differences of opinion, there is no real effort to examine issues of ideology. For example, when Nora’s friend chooses to go on hunger strike for the cause, Nora’s main concern seems to be founded on her knowledge from the future that such strikes make no difference to the success of the cause.  

The novel’s use of mythology feels like a slightly clunky overlay to the story. It falls into the trap of being Oirish at times and no explanation was given as to how or why Nora should be the one to get mixed up in the events of the book.  

This is the first in a series of books, which will no doubt see Nora visit other key points of Irish history. But I won’t be seeking out the sequels.

Goodreads rating: 2*