Unraveled Sleeve (A Needlecraft Mystery #4) by Monica Ferris

Unraveled Sleeve (A Needlecraft Mystery, #4)Unraveled Sleeve by Monica Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite in the series so far. I enjoyed this Betsy Devonshire/needlecraft outing immensely.
Great things about the story included the sense of place–Betsy and her friend Jill drive up to a needlecraft retreat at Naniboujou Lodge near the Canadian border. This is a real retreat that hosts real stitch-ins, and it was pure escapism reading about this place. I also love how the author tends to teach me something in these books…whether it’s learning a bit about the geography and history of Minnesota, to surviving outdoors, to, of course, needlework.
Once again, I was reminded that part of what I enjoy about this series is how old fashioned the writing itself feels. It reminds me a bit of a Nancy Drew mystery. Unraveled Sleeve can definitely be read as a standalone mystery, and would be a great introduction to the Needlecraft Mystery series.

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Crewel Embroidery by Audrey A. Francini

Crewel embroidery: With texture and thread variationsCrewel embroidery: With texture and thread variations by Audrey A. Francini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great book, and what a great artist to discover! This book on crewel embroidery (surface embroidery completed with wool threads) was published in 1979, when there was a bit of a crewel renaissance going on. (Crewel Embroidery has been around since at least the Bayeux Tapestry in the 1070’s ad.)
Francini’s book is really something special, as she is clearly a visual artist, understanding how to used different stitches to emphasize the piece she is stitching, working with design, color, and texture.
I like how this book is laid out with several projects, each of which teach the reader to use a certain family of stitches.
So, for example, there is one project that is completed primarily with chain stitch variations, then with buttonhole stitch variations, and then with knotted stithes. There are samplers completed with flat stitches (the project of a mushroom/mouse/raccoon in the rain is something special). Francini’s instructions on long and short stitch/soft shading were helpful to me, and included tips I hadn’t heard in other books. Finally, there are projects with couching and laid stitches, filler stitches, and weaving stitches. Francini also includes a chapter on color, one on design, and one on finishing the project. At the end of the book are several pages of great designs for the reader to use…mostly floral and animal shapes.
I loved this book, but it’s worth noting that the samplers are all pretty involved, even when they are demonstrating fairly simple stitches. Thus, they are really useful as far as seeing how stitches can be used together to create a coherent design, but not as useful if you want something you can finish fairly quickly. Also, Francini recommends Appleton’s wool, but does not specify specific colors. Rather, she will say, for example, light, medium, and dark green are needed. Francini also states that the reader need not use the Appleton’s brand of wool. All in all, this is one of my favorite embroidery books I’ve read thus far, and I know I will return to it again and again for inspiration and learning.

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Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create DifferenceDelusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, I think that everyone should read this book.
The book is split into quite a few sections, and the first couple of chapters are very statistic and science heavy. As the book progresses, it continues to cite numerous studies, but the analysis of gender is expanded to a bigger and bigger picture.
So though the first couple of chapters seem at first to be almost too specific to be important, they do in fact set the reader up for better understanding the analysis that follows.
So what’s the bottom line? Well, the author uses a LOT of evidence which left me convinced of her premise that while biology and hormones have a clear influence on developing our male and female body parts, they do NOT demonstrate any kind of a clear causal relationship with gender. In fact, in all the time researchers have been trying to study this, particularly since the 1980’s on, the researchers are actually pretty frustrated because they can’t find much of anything linking male and female hormones with gender roles/preferences/stereotypes.
Unfortunately, several bestselling books out there (and the author gets very specific about this) have given the opposite idea, by misrepresenting the actual science. The disjunction between what the science shows, and what popular authors have claimed it shows, is shocking. The science doesn’t back up what we’re hearing in the popular media.
What science DOES show is that gender is HIGHLY, HIGHLY influenced by culture. Many studies (presented in the book) have shown how very susceptible human beings are to suggestions, both conscious and unconscious, that shape our perceptions of what it means for us to behave as men and women.
After reading this book, I came away with the conclusion that the science we have today indicates that gender is a social construct.
This book also addresses the question of why children raised by parents who are trying to be gender-neutral frequently seem to enact popular western gender stereotypes. Suffice it to say, after reading the entire book, I am not at all surprised that our best attempts at gender-neutral parenting may have no effect on children enacting gender stereotypes. The sad truth is that the society we live in today is so completely saturated with gender stereotypes, that children/babies are exposed to them from all directions, from unconscious and conscious gender biases, etc., and actual gender-neutral parenting is pretty much impossible, despite our best efforts.
Ultimately, this is a very important book, and I’m really glad I read it.

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Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1) by Monica Ferris

Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1)Crewel World by Monica Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I’ve just recently fallen in love with the art of embroidery, and I am always up for a good, escapist, cozy mystery. I sampled Crewel World, the first “Needlecraft Mystery” by Monica Ferris, and was quickly hooked. This book is a quick, light read. I enjoyed the setting, the real town of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. I enjoyed the characters, and I enjoyed the needlework aspect (plus a free pattern at the end of the book).
What surprised me the most-and what I really loved-was the quality of the writing. Here’s an example of an especially lovely paragraph.
“It had started raining sometime during the play, and was still raining when they came out of the theater. But the farther west they drove, the lighter the rain became, until out in Excelsior it ceased altogether, leaving platinum puddles as markers of its passing, and tree branches hanging lower, their leaves heavy with water.”
The writing style reminded me a bit of a mystery from an earlier time….perhaps something Nancy Drew-ish or even earlier. Anyway, Crewel World was a lot of fun, and I plan to read more in the series.

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The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

The Darkest CornersThe Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishers for my advance review copy of The Darkest Corners.
As an intro: The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas, is a YA mystery/thriller with a superficial coating of grit, a Pretty-Little-Liars vibe, and an emphasis on twists and turns which left me ultimately unconvinced.
The plot centers around Tessa, who in the present day is a high school senior in Florida who lives with her grandmother. Tessa wants nothing more than to put the traumatic events of her childhood behind her, but when she gets word that her father, a criminal sentenced to life in prison, is on his deathbed, Tessa feels compelled to return to her home town of Fayette Pennsylvania, to bid him goodbye.
However, once Tessa gets “home,” she realizes she is in for way more than she bargained for. A mystery from her past, involving a serial killer who she helped put behind bars, starts to reassert itself in her present. As bad things begin to happen, Tessa decides to investigate the decade-old mystery on her own (after all, if the police haven’t been able to solve it, maybe she can!).
So where to begin? First, I was not impressed or especially drawn to Tessa as a character. Her actions proved her to be a decent, thoughtful person, but I got the feeling that author Kara Thomas was trying to add some cool angst a la the characters of Gillian Flynn. So, as well as a whole lot of “life sucks” attitude, Tessa also occasionally threw in an intentionally witty one-liner which seemed entirely out of character, and instead, like something that a writer had spent an awful lot of time crafting.
The problems I had with Tessa were amplified with the rest of the cast of characters, who never felt coherent or real to me. This was a problem for me as a reader, because the mystery is primarily character based…it’s about discovering secrets that people “you thought you knew” were hiding. Since I didn’t have a strong sense of the characters to begin with, the reveals lost any kind of deep emotional impact.
Finally, I didn’t like the ultimate twist that the story took, again, based largely on the fact that it didn’t seem supported (or unsupported) by anything that came before. It didn’t feel organic. I also had a problem with some of the logic that went into a main action sequence…I think this is one of those stories which may not bear up under careful scrutiny.
So ultimately, The Darkest Corners didn’t work for me. On the plus side, it was a fast read which kept my attention. But the characters, world, and plot, never seemed real, or absorbed my attention in the way I had hoped that they would.

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Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Thereby Hangs a Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2)Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m so glad I discovered this super-sweet and also funny series featuring PI team Chet (a dog, and our narrator) and Bernie (his human).
The Chet and Bernie mysteries remind me in some ways of Bunnicula for adults (with the caveat that I consider Bunnicula appropriate and perhaps necessary reading fare for EVERYONE, adults included!).
What primarily makes this an “adult” book is that as Chet and Bernie solve crimes, Chet is witness to events, often not fully understood, that the reader realizes have serious implications, either regarding life and death, relationships, or even contemporary environmental issues.
Although at first glance, the story seems so funny as to be almost “fluff” reading, Spencer Quinn (a pseudonym for a well-known crime writer) actually writes with the talent of capturing deep feelings and wisdom, with a few simple, carefully chosen words.
Since the story is told from a dog’s perspective, we’ve got a narrator who is totally loveable, and also totally grounded in the things that matter in life. I loved this aspect of Thereby Hangs a Tail.
Chet’s perspective, in which the concept of worrying doesn’t make sense, in which life is full of joy and wonder, and in which his human is loved totally and unconditionally, are qualities which I value, and want to remember more in my daily life.
Thereby Hangs a Tail is a fast read, with a lot of humor, a great sense of place (the American Southwest), and two characters who will leap right off the page and into your heart. A great book to brighten your day.

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In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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