Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Alice Starmore: Glamourie

35069924Title: Glamourie
Authors: Alice & Jade Starmore

Glamourie is a Scots word meaning a charmed condition in which everything is invested with magical properties and possibilities. In this unique book, Alice Starmore leads us into the realm of glamourie and —like the witches of Gaelic folklore —casts spells with needles and a single thread. Taking her daughter Jade’s supernatural stories as inspiration, she uses the art of hand knitting to bewitch and bedazzle and illustrates the tales with elaborate costumes and accessories that portray fanciful and extraordinary ideas.
In creating these costumes, she has powerfully demonstrated the glamourie that can flow from the twin wands of a master magician.
While the first half of this book is an unrestrained flight of fancy, the second half contains full instructions for knitting beautiful garments based upon each costume, all written with Alice Starmore’s trademark accuracy and precision.
By developing each of these patterns from its associated costume, she has revealed how her mind works and how her imagination led her from the initial inspiration through to the final design.
Alice and Jade Starmore are from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and its moody Celtic landscape is the backdrop to the stories, costumes, and designs they have created. The final stage of Glamourie was to take their creations back out into that landscape to be photographed. They trekked to special locations, far off the beaten track, and Jade’s spectacular photographs depict both the sweeping panorama and the minute detail of their beloved native isle. Three years in the making, this combination of photography and fable, of highly conceptual design and practical instruction, will enchant not only knitters but also those in the fashion and costume world and readers fascinated by Scottish and Gaelic legends.

Alice Starmore’s Tudor Roses featured patterns inspired by the Tudor women, each of which is introduced by a short text, told from the point of view of that women. It’s a really nice idea and the short texts made me curious enough to look up some of the women. (Because my knowledge of the Tudors begins with Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived and ends with knowing that Elisabeth I existed). Glamourie does something similar: every design is introduced with a short story about the creature that inspired the design, written by Jade Starmore. Additionally, Alice Starmore talks about her creative process behind the design and some of her own thoughts about the creature or her own experiences with them.

Here’s the thing: Jade Starmore’s fables are…nice. Cute, a bit cheesy and full of important morals like everything must dienothing always stays the same or having your heart broken is painful. Now I’m not criticising the lack of literary merit in the intro-texts of a knitting book but they are a part of this book. And they are not that great.

Meanwhile, Alice Starmore’s notes about her inspiration read a lot like those food-blogs where you have to suffer through the blogger telling you all about the first time they ever experienced snow when really, all you want is that Christmas cookie recipe they promised. I do not care about any person enough to be interested in their experience of completely ordinary things. And I definitely do not care what the ravens near Starmore’s house use to built their nests.

But this is a knitting-book after all, and the important thing about that are the patterns and the photos. Because I have a few knitting books with very atmospheric photos that match the theme of the book but you barely recognize any details about the item because it’s just a tiny part of a blurry photograph. Or the model is wearing so many other fancy clothes and the background is so busy that you can’t really focus on what should actually be the focus of the picture.

This is definitely not the case in Glamourie.  The photos are gorgeous. All are taken outside in front of a simple background (the sea, a field or a big rock) that perfectly matches the garment, without taking attention away from it. The same goes for the clothes the models wear with the knitwear: they perfectly compliment them but never distract from the actual garment. There’s also a lot of pictures of the designs, giving you the possibility to see them from more than one angle and from closeup and further away. Some designs are even shown in two different colours, which gives you an opportunity to actually see how that looks like instead of just imagining it.

Now for the patterns… Well, first, you have to know that Glamourie is divided into two parts: Costumes and Designs. The costumes are directly inspired by the stories (and you can have a look at them here) and are mostly…well costumes. Very few people would wear any of these things in everyday life. The costumes do not come with patterns. They are in the book to show off gorgeous photographs and some mediocre writing.

The designs are what Starmore describes as costumes ‘with the usual constraints applied to them’. They come with a pattern and are more wearable than the costumes. And yes they are also very beautiful (you can see them here). I can also understand, that adapting some of the costumes (especially the Raven and the Lapwing) for different sizes would be hard and that not too many people would want to knit something so complex when it has very limited use as everyday wear. On the other hand, there are certainly a lot of people who would want to knit a nice cabled sweater, a pretty colourwork cardigan or a fancy poncho.

Only: Glamorie costs around £42. Do you want to pay that amount for a total of 11 patterns of nice cabled sweaters, pretty colourwork cardigans, and fancy ponchos? I’m not even saying that it’s not worth that amount. Because I see those photographs and all the work that has obviously been put into the costumes, the designs and the photographs themselves (a few of the clothes the models are wearing with the knitted items are also handsewn). They mention that this book took three years of work and I believe that immediately. But at the same time: I just checked and if I put my last eight Ravely purchases together I’ll end up with slightly less than that. And two of those were actually not single patterns but whole books (one with 16 patterns, one with 4). So that gives me more than twice the amount of patterns for less than the price of this book. In other words, I can go and buy a book with nice patterns and pay for those patterns and lots of pretty things surrounding those patterns or go on Ravelry (or in my LYS) and look at some nice single patterns or perhaps a different book with nice patterns that costs perhaps half of that. And I’m much more likely to do the latter because no matter how gorgeous the photographs are, I can’t do more than look at them and say ‘well aren’t they gorgeous?’. And while I do occasionally spend money on things that are pretty and nothing more, this is still a bit much for a book that will mostly be closed on a shelf somewhere.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Véronique Enginger: Retro Cross Stitch

36663314Title: 500 Patterns, French Charm for Your Stitchwork
Author: Véronique Enginger

Enter this deliciously vintage universe of 500 patterns and add a touch of nostalgia to your stitchwork. Recreate 1800s and 1900s fashion house designs and milliners’ catalogues. Take your cross stitch on a bon voyage into the past with traveling motifs like trunk labels of exotic destinations and railroad advertising posters. Other sections of patterns feature tea and coffee motifs, and daily life in vintage terms. Many of the designs include multiple scenes and motifs, offering you hundreds of components to use in a myriad of ways. Throughout, be inspired by “mood boards” of completed motifs, along with photos of projects that will show off your creations in daily life.

 

While there are medium-sized and large patterns in this book, a lot are really tiny motifs: tea-cups, flowers, stamps, bottles…all in a nice vintage-style. There’s also a fair number of small patterns that are almost identical but for the colour scheme. Now, I don’t mind either of these things. I’m more likely to add a cute little motif to a birthday-card than to stitch a whole sampler (I don’t have any wall to hang it on anyway) and the motifs are the perfect size for small projects. I’m also fine with the near-identical patterns. Sure everybody can just replace one colour with another but that doesn’t mean that the colours work well together. It’s nice that someone else has done the work of picking matching colours for you.

My issues with this book are somewhere else: there’s barely any pictures of the finished projects. Sure, I’m not expecting pictures of every single finished item, including the tiny ones that are only a few stitches wide. But for the larger motifs, I would like to have a better idea of the look of the finished item than the pattern alone can give me. It is coloured so you have a rough idea of how it will look but ‘rough idea’ isn’t enough for 10+ hours of work.

And on another note: Dear Authors. Google Translate is not your friend. People who actually speak the language are.
One section has travel-motifs, including one that has Russia in Russian written on it. Only in the pattern, it’s spelled Россйя when it should be Россия (transcribed that would be something like Rossjja instead of Rossija). A few pages later there’s a caviar-box that says икрá (ikra) with a stress-mark over the last letter, which is how you would find the word in a dictionary but not anywhere in print. My guess is the author just looked up the word in some online-dictionary and the и/й is also just a stress-mark and no competent speaker told her that a) she wouldn’t have needed it and b) it makes it look like a different letter.

Other patterns also contain text in Spanish, possibly-Hindi, Japanese, Greek, Chinese and probably some other languages I just missed but I am very reluctant to stitch these since I assume the author took as much care with proof-reading those as she did with Russian. I don’t want to make a card for one of my multilingual friends only to hear:

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There aren’t too many motifs with texts (that aren’t in French, but I do assume the author knows her own language) so I am not loosing out too much but this kind of sloppiness still bugs me. And, as said, there really aren’t enough pictures of finished objects. I enjoy the motifs in this book more than those in the author’s other book (Fables & Fairy Tales to Cross Stitch) which was too pastel for my taste but it at least showed how the end product will look.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Véronique Enginger: Fables& Fairy Tales to Cross Stitch

cover126557-mediumTitle: Fables& Fairy Tales to Cross Stitch
Author: Véronique Enginger
Create lovely new “once upon a time” keepsakes with these 44 cross stitch patterns, blending the traditional style of France with a charming contemporary simplicity. The designs are eye-catchingly lovely with their subtle colors, gentle humor, and delicate lines. They’re all here: wily foxes, big bad wolves, city mice and country mice…not to mention princesses, enchanted worlds, and fun rhymes. Many include multiple scenes and motifs, offering you dozens more components to use in a myriad of ways. Along with the patterns, enjoy instructions for 22 projects to show off your stitchwork: luggage tags, mobiles, cookie tins, quilts, a cuddly toy with its own sleeping bag, and more.

The book is divided into three chapters: Fables, Fairy-Tales and French Nursery Rhymes, every one offering between 10 and 20 cross-stitch patterns inspired by them. Each comes with a photo of the finished cross-stitch. Most of those are large pictures (ca. 120*130 stitches) illustrating a scene from the story and it would be hard to pick out a small part of it to stitch it as a seperate picture. But a few are more a collection of smaller images, where it would be easy to take out one to e.g. decorate a card (and the fairy tale chapter even includes a set of small patterns for generic fairy tale images like dragons and witches).

The book also offers instructions for projects that can be made out of the finished cross-stitches: a pillow, a sleeping bag for stuffed animals, a book-cover, an apron and much more. The instructions call for one specific pattern for each item but since most of those are for the whole images that are all of similar size, nobody stops you from replacing The Princess on the Pea with Snow White on the pillow.

Now the pattern themselves are…very very cutesy. I don’t think I will make any of the large pictures for myself but stick to decorating smaller items like birthday-cards with butterflies or crowns. I’m not saying that I was expecting a dark and subverted interpretation of fairy tales. But it is possible to illustrate those stories and stay true to them without drowning everything in pastels.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Serial Killers Unsolved

18946406Title: Serial Killers Unsolved: 10 Terrifying Serial Killers Who Have Never Been Caught

Author: Rober Keller

From famous cases like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac to lesser known ones like the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run and the Frankford Slasher. Robert Keller presents ten serial killers that have never been caught.

Note: This book is available for free if you sign up for the newsletter on the author’s homepage.

Rating: C-

This book is exactly what it says on the tin: ten unsolved serial killer cases. And even I, as someone who spends too much of their free time listening to True Crime podcasts, had never heard of some of the cases or wasn’t aware of many details about them.

But when it comes to the cases I had heard of before, the book didn’t give me any new facts. And I’m not only talking about Jack the Ripper (about whom I have more books than is probably healthy). Even if all I knew about the killers came from a single podcast like Unsolved Murders, there were no new revelations. Now, if you’re newly into True Crime and unsolved (serial) murders seem especially interesting to you there are worse places to start. The book offers a nice overview and doesn’t dwell too much on the sensational and gory details.

Still, the lack of depth is glaringly obvious in those cases where the author doesn’t just give the plain facts but also weighs in on the theories (or presents his own as in the case of the Boston Strangler where he thinks DeSalvo is completely innocent). Each killer gets perhaps 20 or 30 pages and after presenting the facts, that leaves no more space than a few paragraphs to go into the theories (and the author’s opinion of them) and that’s not enough to provide convincing evidence of anything.


This is also part of 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for Pancha Ganapati: Read a book whose cover has one of the 5 colors of the holiday: red, blue, green, orange, or yellow.

A Stash of One’s Own: Knitters on Loving, Living with, and Letting Go of Yarn

34227605Title: A Stash of One’s Own: Knitters on Loving, Living with, and Letting Go of Yarn
Editor: Clara Parkes

This addictive-to-read anthology celebrates yarn—specifically, the knitter’s reputation for acquiring it in large quantities and storing it away in what’s lovingly referred to as a “stash.” Consider contributions from knitting and teaching luminaries, including:
Stitch ’n Bitch co-founder Debbie Stoller
Meg Swansen, daughter of master knitter Elizabeth Zimmermann
Knitting blogger and author Susan B. Anderson
alongside offerings from knitting greats Amy Herzog, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, and Franklin Habit—plus, stories from a romance novelist, an illustrator, a PhD-wielding feminist publisher, a globetrotting textile artist, a licensed clinical social worker, and the people behind the world’s largest collective online stash, Ravelry.com. The pieces range from comical to earnest, lighthearted to deeply philosophical as each seeks to answer the question of how the stash a knitter has accumulated over the years reflects his or her place in universe.

The stories in A Stash of One’s Own represent and provide validation for knitters’ wildly varying perspectives on yarn, from holding zero stash, to stash-busting, to stockpiling masses of it—and even including it in estate plans. These tales are for all fiber artists, spinners, dyers, crafters, crocheters, sheep farmers, shop owners, beginning knitters to yarn experts, and everyone who has ever loved a skein too hard to let it go.

Rating: C

Asking a knitter what he or she plans on doing with the yarn he or she just bought is like asking a squirrel what it plans on doing with that nut it just buried under a pile of leaves. Obviously we plan on using it. Now? Later? For what? How can we know? Our main priority is simply to get that yarn safely back home and stored away in our stash. We’ll know when we need it.

I read this book to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now…

As it is the case with anthologies you get a mixed bag with this book. In Stashers: Who the heck are we? Lela Nargi simply wrote out some Ravelry stats about stash. I could never get much out of these “If you put all these together it would be enough to do X” things. Blame my failure to imagine measurements of any kind properly. Or the fact that for me 17 times to the moon and back and 100 times to the moon and back both boils down to ‘a bloody lot’.

But you also get a hilarious story by the Yarn Harlot about having too much stash, dealing with it and still having a lot that manages to describe the reason she is keeping a skein that looks like “Barbie and My Little Pony dropped acid and tried to come up with a colorway” in a rather touching way.

In another essay, Amy Herzog insists that she doesn’t have any stash. The yarn she has at home isn’t a stash. Never mind that it’s a lot more than I have in my two IKEA boxes (and that additional bag with sock yarn leftovers…) and that that yarn she has at home is not intended for specific projects which is for me the only reason to consider it not stash.

But then there’s also a beautiful essay by Franklin Habit (of It Itches-fame) talks about dealing with being a boy that wasn’t interested in typical masculine pursuits and then with the loss of his mother which was very moving.

After some outstanding (good and bad) stories, in the beginning, everything blurs together in the middle. Every essay seems to be some variation of ‘this is how I started knitting’ followed by ‘this is my stash’ and ‘this is when I realized it was too much and this is how I dealt with it’. Optionally accompanied by a story that is only vaguely/not at all connected to knitting and that sometimes takes more space than the parts about knitting. Somewhere in between a psychologist explains how much stash is too much and requires outside help (I don’t have that much).

Then, in the last third or so, we get some variety again. Lilith Green’s Work in Progress talks about her body image issues and how that also affected her knitting (and stashing) habits: muted colours, nothing that stands out, nothing that draws attention. And how she finally came to the conclusion that “I stash for the body I have now and will have for years to come. Not for the body others think I should have, or that I think I should have, but this body here and now.” while also admitting that loving her body is still ‘a work in progress’.

 

Here’s the thing. As makers, we fix things. That’s what we do. It’s our superpower. We’re good at it. When it comes to grief and loss, though, there’s no fixing.

 

A few more essays tell very personal stories about knitting as a way of dealing with loss and grief. For me, Comfort Yarn by Rachael Herron stood out especially but the others were great as well.

We also get A Proper Stash which has very little to do with (yarn or fabric) stash but sounds uncomfortably white saviour-y in parts. Eugene Wyatt’s On Giving is the essay that sounds most like self-promotion. It also opens with a quote by Anne Frank.
Allow me to throw a deeply-felt fuck you at that level of emotional manipulation. And finally, we look at Yarn as a Feminist Issue which makes some great points. Unfortunately, the writing is so condescending in some parts that I want to disagree out of spite.

So what do I think of the whole collection? It was…nice. The good stories (especially Comfort Yarn, Work in Progress and Habit’s Her Pretty String) were so good that I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time with this. Despite some boredom (and anger). Am I saying this is a must-have for a knitter? No. Listen to a crafting podcast (I suggest The Crafting System or their sister-podcast On Pins and Needles) and knit some of your stash instead.

 

ARC provided by NetGalley

The Truth about Belle Gunness

cover114698-medium

Title: The Truth about Belle Gunness
Author: Lillian de la Torre

On the morning of April 27, 1908, the farmhand on a lonely property outside La Porte, Indiana, woke to the smell of smoke. He tried to rouse the lady of the house, the towering Belle Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness, and he called the names of her three children—but they didn’t answer, and the farmhand barely escaped alive. The house burned to the foundation, and in the rubble, firemen found the corpses of Belle, her two daughters, and her son. The discovery raised two chilling questions: Who started the fire, and who cut off Belle’s head?

As investigators searched the property, they uncovered something astonishing: The remains of a dozen or more men and children who had been murdered with poison or cleaver were buried beneath the hog pen. It turned out Belle Gunness was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. And when the investigation revealed that the body found in the fire might not have been hers, the people of La Porte were forced to confront the terrifying realization that Belle might have gotten out alive.

Rating: D

 

When I requested this book I expected a recently written book about Belle Gunness. It is neither new nor really about Belle. Now I don’t mind the not new part much. It’s a re-release of a book from the 1950s but considering that it’s still fine. I’ve read some older true crime books that were very sensationalist and cheerfully mixed fact and fiction. (Not that newer ones are always better, especially when it comes to sensationalism). However, that wasn’t the problem. Yes, the facts were sometimes dressed in (light) purple prose and especially at the beginning we are told a lot about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved but that gets better.
However, it’s also not really a book about Belle Gunness. It opens with her farm burning down and the discoveries of the bodies on the ground. Then it spends only a short time on Belle’s life and her crimes. I already knew more about her and my only previous contact with Belle had been my favourite true crime podcast doing an episode on her.
The book’s actual focus is Ray Lamphere’s trial. Only at the very end, it returns to Belle and the author poses her own theory about Belle’s fate. (A theory that’s plausible but also one that hasn’t any more proof than any other). Now I wasn’t that interested in that trial before I started reading and the book didn’t change that.
Mainly because the trial is mainly told via court transcripts. Just one after the other (with the occasional newspaper article thrown in) with the minimum linking narration possible. Sure, some original quotes from the time are good but this book goes beyond that. Often the information from several pages of transcripts could have been summed up in a few paragraphs. And then the next transcript just repeats the information we already got in the last one. It makes for some rather tiresome reading.

The book simply has a misleading blurb. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I had known that it focussed so heavily on the trial. If that’s your thing you might enjoy it more than I did.

ARC provided by NetGalley