April 1, 2010
March 31, 2010
10+ books this month, and since that obviously makes too short a post, I have added features – where the book was acquired and what I thought of the cover. If I think of any more categories (or there are any suggestions which amuse me sufficiently) I may eventually be able to reduce these monthly reviews to a formulaic checklist which would at least make it more likely for me to get them out early in the month. Next months’ review post will be shorter, with the unfortunate consequence that you won’t get to hear about Regency gentleman fighting with anacondas in Ceylon (for real! published before Pride and Prejudice! How have I gone this long without Gothic horror!) until after April.
February 25, 2010
An Older Kind of Magic – Patricia Wrightson: A re-read to begin the year. One of my favourite urban fantasies – a very slight book of a very slight slice of Sydney – the house on the roof of a government department building where the caretaker’s children live, the halls of the department at night, a few city streets with their shop windows and facades and street lights, the great Gardens, and how they are all changed in the first hour of comet light and by the wild whispering things that live beneath the streets and in the gardens. It reminds me a very little of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, but smaller and wilder – less madcap and more like… a sighting of a comet, the wind in the trees of the botanic gardens, the magic in the lights at crosswalks.
A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Prompted by having watched the most recent Holmes movie, I read the first novel out loud to my father. He used to read them to us when my mother was away (she usually did the reading) and I’m pretty sure I have read or heard all of the stories, although a very long time ago (I used to stay up late reading The Hound of the Baskervilles under the covers and consequently scaring myself witless when dingoes started howling up in the scrub). This is the book in which Watson first meets Holmes, and I was struck by how much more CSI it is than Agatha Christie (my first memory of Holmes is of him devising a test for discerning traces of blood in water). It is also amusing to meet Holmes with Watson for the first time – as they discuss their character flaws before deciding to take the rooms at Baker Street and as Watson tries to deduce Holmes’ profession by what he knows and, more amusingly, what he doesn’t (literature, how the solar system works). And then the second half of the book is a very sensational western romance/tragedy/account of the Mormon settlement of Utah. I had also recently seen the movie, and so although I knew of the great (and, I am sure, entirely deliberate) inaccuracies of the movie, it was fun to see all the little things which were kept – the American influences, Watson’s bulldog, Holmes’ experimenting on dogs, aspects of their personalities and relationship. It’s a cheerfully liberal reinterpretation, and utterly light and unpretentious, and I liked it.
The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens: Such a peculiar book, this. I am glad I read it (for Sam and the Bear of Bad News among many other reasons), but it is Dickens finding and hitting his stride, and although it may be the ‘first Victorian novel’ it is Dickens writing a Regency novel (it is set 14 years after Pride and Prejudice was published) - all mad-cap adventures and small-town politics and bucolic misadventures and aunts in high-waisted gowns running off with disreputable fortune-hunters. And then at the end, as the pace gentled and friends were gathered and journeys ended I started realising – this is Hobbiton, this is the Shire, this is Sam Gamgee as much as it is Sam Weller, this is Bilbo Baggins as much as it is Samuel Pickwick, this is the last of that England before the factories and the railways and the town planning laws and the electric wires.
Whose Body? – Dorothy Sayers: Published in 1923, this is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and my second: I read Murder Must Advertise in 2008 (reviewed here) and bought both for my mother for Christmas. It is a decent little detective novel with a compelling character of whom I am anxious to read more, but notable for me first for the inclusion of shell-shock/PTSD post-WW1 (and subject of a very interesting series of articles on Tor.com) and for the way it is set in a time and a world that is almost recognisable – almost ours. There are police and fingerprinting and telephones and cars… and yet there are people who have never been in cars, and characters who have to struggle to work out how to use a telephone.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery: The concept behind the title is endearing, but it still makes me think of quirkily titled Alexander McCall Smith novels (and he does have wonderful titles) and on that basis this is one of the more misleadingly titled books I have read. It is the parallel stories of two inhabitants of an upmarket apartment building in Paris – an extremely intelligent, privileged suicidal child, and the disadvantaged concierge who conceals her own remarkable mind behind a veneer of the mediocrity people expect from her. It is full of philosophy and art-house films, but also occasionally surprising beauty and charming situations and (this is where it won me over) a brief summary of why The Hunt for Red October is a consummate film. I enjoyed it, although the style was too literary for me to look back on it with unalloyed affection, and I sobbed helplessly at the end – I suspect the ending was necessary for it to be literary fiction. It made me want to go and read Gillian’s Life Through Cellophane again, or watch Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, as an antidote.
Gently Down the Stream – Alan Hunter: A Lifeline Bookfest purchase – the cover featured in this post. This was written in the late 50s, but again there was that feeling of it being in a world that I almost know. Inspector Gently’s England is closer than Lord Peter Wimsey’s was – technology and investigative procedure have advanced, there is discussion of the dangers of tobacco – and yet the warnings are laughling dismissed and suspects are terrified of being hung for murder. I enjoyed the story – it was very particularl to and in love with its unlovely setting, and had a rather Midsummer Murders feel to it.
Mog’s Christmas - Judith Kerr: I grew up on this picture book and when I found it at the Lifeline Bookfest I bought it for my mother and took it home and we read it together with my dad and got teary-eyed again when the tree “stopped walking around and made itself all pretty”.
How the Queen Reigns – Dorothy Laird: There used to be a crazy-fabulous little vintage-with-a-focus-on-the-50s shop in Paddington: marching band costumes and pill-box hats and pearl collars and a small proprietor who sat low down behind a display case and kept all the change in a large tapestry handbag. That is where I bought this book. It is the 1961 updated edition and both interesting and obsessively detailed, at times laborious and frequently less than logically structured. It did, however, have two aspects of interest: a focus on the growth of the Commonwealth, and a portrait of the personality of the young Queen as a woman of strong mind and character, of her time and place and yet really admirable (and reminded me of my Australian grandmother).
Cameos of Crime - M. O’Sullivan: I bought this (I think) in a second hand bookshop in Coolangatta and it was fascinating. It is a memoir of police and detective work in Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s – from working with trackers in mining camps to encouraging the use of plaster casts and the training of detectives in jiu jitsu, it is entertaining, shocking, enlightening. I loved it (if you can’t tell) not only for the stories but for the connections – the arrest that gave the name to a hill on the road I grew up on, the massacre that was remembered in stories of cursed families in my old home town, names and people and places – Captains Moonlight and Starlight, the Kelly Gang, Frank Gardiner. Scathing opinions on law and order in Chicago (as opposed to Brisbane). Police patrolling Woolloongabba on bicycles. Encounters with patriarchs of now-legendary families. Attitudes to race and gender which vary between the unexpectedly enlightened and the shocking (although, given the attitudes in some of those towns today, more than a century on, still arguably unexpectedly enlightened for the era). The authors own colourful views on police and juries and judges. A colourful, eclectic, amusing book and worth reading if you can find it.
Imaginative Realism: How to paint what doesn’t exist - James Gurney: An art instruction book, but also one of great interest to non-artists – my parents kept it at home for a while (it was a Christmas present) to read through Gurney’s techniques and anecdotes. The process pictures and sketches are fascinating and the artwork – from Dinotopia to National Geographic – stunning.
Spectrum 16 – Cathy and Arnie Fenner: Always stunning, although this is one of the issues which the broader interpretation of ‘fantasy’ makes it a little more difficult to share with everyone.
December 31, 2009
November: In which I traditionally read short fiction instead of novels
Suburban Glamour - Jamie McKelvie: Graphic novel – a simple, slightly dark, fun modern fairy tale, with beautifully clean art which doesn’t look flat.
The Enemy – Lee Child: I started this in October, which is why it appears in an otherwise novel-free zone. Set early in Jack Reacher’s career, it is military police procedural/murder mystery/thriller set on and around New Year’s Eve at the end of the cold war and the consequent reordering of priorities in the armed forces. I like Child’s straightforward plotting and style and the noir-ish narrator’s voice, and the setting was interesting and effective although suffered (for me) from the old contrast between a book set in a particular era and a book written then – so, Reacher is no Jack Ryan, but then who is?
Dreaming Again - Jack Dann (ed.): This is a very good anthology. It is a large selection of short speculative fiction stories by Australian authors, and necessarily I may appreciate many of them without falling in love with all of them – this isn’t meant to be faint praise by any means, but it has a wide range of styles and genres, some of which hit my buttons and some of which didn’t. I was struck, reading them, by the general high quality of the stories (over my scattered, unreviewed short story reading of the year), and there were many individual stories and elements of stories which really appealed to me. Memorable mentions include: Richard Harland’s “A Guided Tour in the Kingdom of the Dead” which I actually read last year and remember primarily because that was when I realised that of all the authors I’ve heard, Richard’s writing is the closest to how he speaks – it’s like having him sitting in my head talking; Adam Browne’s really quite attractive handling of tricky territory (Michael Jackson) in “Neverland Blues” – lovely colours in this one, too; a world of railways and crossroads which I’d like to see more of in Sara Douglass’ “This Way to the Exit”; the demonstration by Cecilia Dart-Thornton that an Australian setting could be combined with a rich and romantic style of storytelling; Jason Fischer’s peculiarly apt description of his own story “Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh” as “George Romero meets Mad Max”, although few of the reviews of this story mention the Danish invasion; the decayed richness of Peter M Ball’s “The Last Great House of Isla Tortuga”. And many more – there are some fabulous authors in this book, and it goes a long way towards redressing my irrational but recurring concern that all Australian speculative fiction is bleak, hot and post-apocalyptic (well, some of it is).
Dr Horrible one-shot comic: Great backstory for the main character of Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (which, if you have not seen, you should track down!), and endearingly recognisable characters. Missed the one-liners and the music.
The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch - Neil Gaiman, ill. Dave McKean: Family history or fantasy, unless the two are necessarily co-existent. A very slow, elegant, unsettling comic/heavily illustrated story of decayed seaside arcades, family stories lost and changed by time and memory, and the rich dark world of Punch and Judy shows.
Phonogram - The Singles Club 2.1-2.4 – Kieron Gillen, ill. Jamie McKelvie, et al: I’ll probably do a more thorough review at some point in the future, when all issues are out and read, but I really like the structure of this – each issue retelling the same evening in the same club from the point of view of different characters whose stories overlap and illuminate each other – and McKelvie’s clean, graphic art as well as the glossaries of music and musicians referenced in the comic (after each episode I would sit down and educate myself on YouTube).
The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm - Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (ed.): An anthology of short stories drawing on tales of the fae from many countries – English, celtic, Japanese, Australian, Brazil… I loved this from the header illustrations by Charles Vess right down to the author summaries. Wild and tame and beautiful, heart-rending, ridiculous, many-coloured. Highlights included (but are not limited to): Delia Sherman’s personification of the NY Public Library catalogue system in “CATNYP”; Kelly Link’s tall, fabulous tale of second hand clothing stores and hidden kingdoms in “The Faery Handbag”; the terrible imprisonment of the denizens of Peter Pan’s island in Bruce Glassco’s “Never Never”; the hapless eponymous narrator of Patricia A McKillip’s “The Undine” (a story which managed to be at once tragic, hopeful and hysterical); the beautifully matter-of-fact main character of Gregory Maguire’s tale of age and war and home in ”The Oakthing”; and the intense gentle nostalgia of Jeffrey Ford’s day-long “The Annals of Eelin-Ok”
Flight #1: Anthology of short comics acquired for educational purposes: with widely varying styles and some genuine beauty and humour.
December: In which Dickens slowed everything down
Canal Dreams – Iain Banks: Apparently the author doesn’t know quite what to make of it either. It was short. It was intriguing. It did make me want to read another of his books. And being able to describe it as a “literary novel with ninja cellists in Panama” is probably adequate justification for reading it.
The Fantastic Mr Fox - Roald Dahl: I bought this for one of my nephews and reread it on the train. It was my favourite Dahl growing up, and my mother disapproved (she says she didn’t care to support Dahl because his personal life was not consistent with being promoted as a family man, but for some reason I remember her taking against this book particularly). Now – it’s still problematic and fun and over-the-top, but mostly I was struck by how much David Tennant’s portrayal of Doctor Who reminds me of Mr Fox.
The Dragonfly Pool - Eva Ibbotson: This is the childrens/YA counterpart to Ibbotson’s adult A Song For Summer (as Journey to the River Sea is the counterpart to A Company of Swans) and so the setting (pre WWII England and Europe) and characters (mysterious brooding naturalists, stunning artist model/cooks, intense kind girls who want to mend the world) and the eccentric school will be familiar. I did not love it as much as A Song For Summer, but it was charming and fun and although it is a very recent novel it has, like so many of her non-fantasy novels, a wonderful early-modern, 1930s, I Capture the Castle, Enchanted April, sweet, slightly amoral, English feel, which fascinates me. Also, like DWJ, Ibbotson’s books always make me want to go outside and do things.
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold: I was surprised that I enjoyed this – it was so popular that I expected not to. But it was well-crafted, I liked the structure, the characters were enjoyable, it was interestingly a-religious in imagery and it explored some very intriguing viewpoints – by which I do not mean the murder-victim-point-of-view, but rather the exploration of the characters of her family as people beyond (or trapped by) the stereotypes of mother, father, sister (etc) of the murdered girl. It reminded me strongly of Dürrenmatt’s Das Versprechen (translated as The Pledge, I haven’t read it in English or seen the Sean Penn film, but the book is excellent), particularly in relation to the ending which in both books wasn’t traditionally happy, but was still satisfying. It’s not perfect (and the title is come by awkwardly) but very readable and enjoyable. The movie, however, managed to be nominally faithful to the book while completely abandoning the sense, internal logic and character development of the novel.
November 28, 2009
Life through Cellophane – Gillian Polack: It was described on the cover as “part horror & part gentle love story”, but I’d rephrase that as “part gentle horror and part love story”. It’s about growing up in middle age, about being alone when surrounded by people (and vice versa), and about how, even when your family is made up of friends, you can’t always choose them or how they’ll behave. Also ghosts and ants and lots of food and Canberra and escaping from the public service. I really liked it.
The Impetuous Countess – Barbara Cartland: I mentioned in my review of Serena last month that there was another Regency to come. I was reading this book on the train and wanted to hit my head against the window in rhythm with the train because the writing. had. a. paragraph. break. at. the. end. of. every. sentence. and it drove me batty. It also made it difficult to assess the book beyond that, but it was in some ways closer to what I should have liked – innocent, flamboyant, melodramatic. And yet it was thin and silly, and I have a theory that this is because it concentrated on just the romance and the erratic behaviour and missed what make Heyer’s and Jones’ and Bujold’s romances so much fun: that those books aren’t primarily about the romance, that while what romance there may be is inevitable it’s almost a bonus. Plot: Young girl running away from home falls in with dour but handsome count, carriage is overturned, she tells the people who takes them in they are married, forgetting they are in Scotland and that means that now they are married and then they… go to France, I think, and there are balls and misunderstandings and Napoleon and rooftop escapes and pretending to be servants to escape from Paris and then getting smuggled back to England and finally realising they love each other. It could have been fun if it wasn’t *so* cringe-worthily over the top (and the heroine so hilariously naive). Or maybe if it had just had longer paragraphs.
The Two Pearls of Wisdom – Alison Goodman: My diary says “It was sort of like… Prince and the Pauper meets chinese chequers meets The Grinch who stole Christmas. All in a good way. (P&P for opulence, deception & protocol, CC for world buildng & border decoration & Grinch for the denouement).” All of which is true, but not necessarily helpful, because regardless of how that sounds it is a good book, with a strong formal structure (which suits the world), a very ordered world (which suits the story), lots of elegant action, complicated politics (both government and gender), beautiful description of trappings and action (both fighting and smaller actions – a lovely way with the folding of hands), and dragons. My personal tastes trend more towards fairy tale retellings and chaos-with-a-heart than such beautifully thought-through worlds and systems of magic, and while I don’t have the background to do it myself I’d like to see a take on this looking at the cultures that inspired the world, but I am looking forward to reading the sequel.
Fables 10: The Good Prince (issues 60-69) – Bill Willingham, et al: My note on this simply says, “Gentle, for all the fighting”. James Jeans’ cover painting still makes me sad. Old enemies, new heroes, baseball in the Frog Prince’s lands, foresworn knights and families slowly growing. The individual issues of Fables form a much more discrete storyline than the enormous mythology of Sandman, for example (a large part of their respective charm) but I am still blown away by the ease with which mood changes to model itself to each episode – fun and childlike, austere and tragic, heroic. It’s a beautiful series, and my copies have been in fairly high rotation.
The Pipes of Orpheus – Jane Lindskold: This was like the Famous Five in Dante’s Divine Comedy written by a late 19th century fantasist and Christian Anderson, but with a dash of PL Travers, more human sacrifice, and a strong dose of Stoker in the last third. It was – I’m not sure. It had the same effect on me as a lot of late 19th century fantasy, which is admiring puzzlement, and I think this is because the story doesn’t neatly fit the modern structure of such stories. Essentially, it is the story of the surviving children the Pied Piper in his madness lured away, and of their journeys through Hades, Transylvania and Olympus to free the spirits of the dead. It features a gorgeous description of a tenuously existing world being rolled up, and some Muses who appeared to be Welsh. The relevant entry in my diary reads “I finished Pipes of Orpheus on the way in [to work]. I am still puzzled”. It is, however, one of those books I will recommend because I would like to discuss it – don’t, however judge it by its cover!
Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest: I have not read a great deal of Southern Gothic fantasy, but I think I might like it. Tor gave out some free books at… Conflux last year, I think, and I finally read this one. It is gripping from the beginning, full of ghosts and family secrets and murderous cousins, swamps and alligators and monks in disguise, blood memory and old murders, the lies of those we love and the occasional kindness of enemies (such a small part, but it stuck with me). But I particularly liked the heroine, Eden, who is… kind of awesome, not because she is Feisty(TM) or Strong(TM), but because she just does things. She’s not superhuman, she knows which fights not to pick, she’s physical but not exceptionally powerful, not angsty (!), not polite or relying on hints, prepared to do something, even if it might not be wise, rather than do nothing. It is such a relief to read a story which appears to be shaping up to be an impenetrable web of untold family secrets and have the main character give up on being polite and just ask the questions outright. I’d like to read more of the stories about Eden, but also some more of the genre because it interests me not just for the books in it, but for the sort of fairly location-specific genre, and because of recent conversations about whether parts of Australia have or could support something similar.
October 31, 2009
Adventures in Two Worlds – A J Cronin: Autobiographical, but not dry facts and memories – so far to the other side that at times it was like fiction and at other times maudlin. But while the beginning and end tended towards the overblown, the rest of the chapters were beautifully written scenes of life as a doctor in Scottish villages, Welsh mining towns and the wealthy and poor streets of London: entertaining, romantic, endearing and occasionally reminiscent of James Herriot. I read a few chapters – about the district nurse and her bicycle, daft Tam and his houseboat and the widow on her farm – to my parents and predictably we all got choked up.
White Rabbit – Bruce Marshall: A biography of Wing Commander F F E Yeo-Thomas, of whom I knew a little from his appearance in the pages of Leo Marks’ Between Silk and Cyanide. Cloak and dagger adventures in occupied France during World War II, parachute runs, double agents, escapes in and from p.o.w. and concentration camps, fleeing through Germany – fascinating and gripping, though with too many French phrases for me to attempt reading it out loud with anything like confidence.
A Room with a View – E M Forster: Gentle and very enjoyable, although the end takes a sudden literary turn and all the characters change their apparent character which although Meaningful isn’t necessarily Fun. But I love the slightly erratic, slightly socially-misplaced, loving and expansive Honeychurches, and their difficult relatives.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy: A father and his son’s journey on foot through the ash of a long-burned-out America. Bleak, occasionally frightening, occasionally hypnotic, with a placidly mundane streak of horror. Literary science fiction which is a genre that is usually like an unsettling dream (and, if you are used to the other sort, leaves you wanting detail of exactly how the disaster took place, and the science behind all the after-effects – but plenty of post-apocalyptic nastiness and survival on the edge of everything). Neatly and elegantly worded.
Serena – Sylvia Andrews: I brought this on myself, but I was out of Heyers and there were two regency romances in the 50c bin out the front of the Annerley community bookstore and – I still hurt a little bit, although not as much from this one as the other (which caused me to wish physical injury upon myself, of which more next month). This had all the requisite melodrama, hijinks, disguises, passion, rage, betrayal, compromised innocence &c, &c, but… it was about the romance, and written to that end (whereas Georgette Heyer is like DWJ – her stories are fabulous and cumulative disasters, of which an occasional romance is only one of the many unlikely by-products). Anyway, back to Serena: Beautiful (of course) young (white) woman from the West Indies (non-slave-owning!) who thinks she is plain (she isn’t) and old (she isn’t) escorts her younger (sillier) niece to London to give her a London Season (because you’re worth it) and while they are in boot camp in the country she isn’t allowed to ride alone so she dresses up as a boy and meets a man who finds out she is in disguise but they like each other so they keep meeting and then they meet in London but he gives her the cold shoulder when he finds out her name because his brother went to the West Indies with his wife when Serena was 14 (remember this) but Serena’s brother stole his wife and the wife told her husband she didn’t want him and so he committed suicide and then Serena’s brother told the wife he didn’t want her so she went back to England and told everyone that Serena had led her husband astray and then jilted him (I told you to remember the 14 years old part) and then had a baby who is actually Serena’s nephew but our hero (who naturally is brooding and cannot trust a woman) thinks is his nephew and is raising but his (evil, Irish) mother is convinced he is sickly and won’t let the boy walk anywhere and his terrified that Serena will expose her secret and so she enlists help (from evil! Irishmen! and our hero’s sometimes-jilted mistress) and then there are kidnappings and faked compromises of virtue and…
Worldshaker – Richard Harland: A steampunk novel, set in the claustrophobic, stratified, artificially-maintained Victorian society of the great steam-powered juggernaut/mobile city Worldshaker, which rolls across the countries. A coming of age story, and a what-is-humanity story, an above-and-below decks story, a British Public Schoolboy story and a story of revolution, violence and retribution. I would have liked to have been a bit more convinced of the feasibility of the juggernaut and the whole system and society, but this wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I hadn’t been aware of the juxtaposition of the two rival sides of the genre: the Victorian-inspired, cogs&gears fantasy on the one hand, and the questions of class and imperialism and colonialism and very real violence and death on on the other. I know Richard Harland is very aware of those two aspects, and so I suspect that dissonance was deliberate. I am keen to see how he rebuilds in the sequel what was torn down in this story (but still wanted more of the nuts & bolts of how the cogs & gears worked).
June 3, 2009
iWoz – Steve Wozniak, Gina Smith: I really enjoyed this. I think it was mostly the voice – it was written based on taped interviews, and that shows in many little verbal tics and idiosyncracies that made the memoir endearing as well as interesting. I’d quite like to hear Steve Wozniak speak one day.
Teen Idol – Meg Cabot: I didn’t mean to sound like I was Cabot-bashing last month. I don’t mind her, and this book hit all the things that I really like about her books – the voice that was catchy without being annoying, the highschool-is-hell set-up, the nice person learning to be better (if not as “nice”), a few subverted expectations. Over-the-top and sweet and fun with one of my favourite forcible-makeover scenes (she does do these well).
Size 14 is not Fat Either – Meg Cabot: Light, fluffy, the voice got a bit irritating at times. I wanted the protagonist to take control a bit more, like in Teen Idol.
Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff: So much fun – the story of how Helene Hanff didn’t become the next Noel Coward. New York and Broadway and playwriting and creative retreats and hand-to-mouth artistic existences and the beginning of television and a bad experience with Lord of the Rings.
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens: The BBC miniseries of this is my favourite BBC miniseries, so I did know the outlines of the story going in (sometimes this helps). This book is now my favourite Dickens to date. So rich and complex and interwoven, so funny and sad and beautiful, it is difficult to pick a plot to call the main one. The mysterious character of the kindly but shadowy Rokesmith? The rise of the dustman and his wife, come to an unexpected fortune? The predicament of beautiful, poor, grasping Bella, willed to a man who died before she met him. The moral quandaries of the lovelorn taxidermist drawn into a web of deceit by a scheming ballad seller whose amputated leg he bought? Strong, capable Lizzie, who saves her brother and cannot save her father and must keep saving herself? The myriad of smaller backstories? Is it the loves – dangerous, sweet, murderous, unfaltering? The friendships – of the pawnbroker with the dolls-dressmaker and the factory worker, of Bella with her father, of the Boffins for all those less fortunate than them? The hatred and the paths paved by the love of money, or the paths shaped by the river? I love the book for all of these, for the mistakes and misteps and hard decisions, for the repeated references to Little Red Riding Hood, for the unexpected physicality of relationships, for the dear humanity of clerks in dingy offices, for the heroines who cannot wait by their lover’s sickbed because they have to go to work at the factory, for the descriptions of shops and of rusting chains, for the girl who rescues a victim of violence and carries him to safety, for the sharp tongue of the dressmaker and the many buttons of the false foreman, for the comeuppances and the happy endings, and the bittersweet ones.
Once on a time – A. A. Milne: A short fairy-tale novel. Oh, read this if only for that wonderful, terrible woman, the Countess Belvane. And the army of Amazon(s) marching round and round a tree. And the recommendation that poets wear green when the muse is upon them (as inspiration or warning). And the conclusion that the Gladstone bag has killed romance. But mostly for Belvane, that enchanting, scheming villainess, who keeps a diary and in it writes sadly that today, she became bad.
May 6, 2009
The images here are the thumbnail roughs I sent to Kelly at LCRW for the cover of Greer Gilman’s novel Cloud & Ashes. As usual, you can see a larger version by clicking on the picture (which will take you to the image on Flickr) and then clicking on “all sizes” above the picture.
I did a very small freehand scratchboard sketch and then added colour in Photoshop, sampling the colour and texture from this old painting. We did not run with this style, for several reasons including the rather distracting face (it was a sketch!), but I still quite like the shadow-birds and the effect of the rough orange at the edges of the lower left image.
The next four show a few different styles:
Top left: pencil coloured in Photoshop.
Top right: sepia ink coloured in Photoshop. The hair in this one does fun things when run through Photoshop filters.
Bottom left: sepia ink coloured in Photoshop and textured with an old page. My favourite part is the birds running off with the stars.
Bottom right: sepia ink coloured in Photoshop. Too bold for the book, but I do like this one – maybe for a book of legends about constellations.
This month’s blog header is a variation on the top right of the above:
I can’t remember why I decided on the technique for the next piece. It features hundreds of little dashes drawn in sepia ink with a dip pen, then scanned and layered in various ways with a scan of a yellowed page.
Finally, this version was painted with a brush on a nice heavy drawing paper (everything else was on plain printing paper). I did the lettering separately and combined the layers after scanning, then fiddled with lighting and contrast.
Next: At work on the final
April 30, 2009
Illustrating Children’s Books – Salisbury. Part how-to, part survey, beautifully illustrated and quite inspiring.
The Great Hunger – Cecil Woodham Smith. A compelling and illuminating history of the Irish potato famine, pulling in the history of Ireland, England, Europe and America, issues of politics, theories of trade, medical knowledge, economics, personalities, revolution and an immense, relentless and lingering tragedy. This was a more harrowing read than her The Reason Why, but an equally wide-ranging and thought-provoking book.
The Dolphin Crossing – Jill Paton Walsh. I hadn’t read this short novel for years. It is a story of two high school boys who take a boat and join the relief of Dunkirk, and is both more innocent and more moving than I remembered.
Miracle and other Christmas Stories – Connie Willis. On the one hand it was Christmas stories, and on the other – Connie Willis! The scales tipped onto the side of Connie Willis, so I bought it and thoroughly enjoyed it: ghosts and detectives and alien invasions and family newsletters and love stories and a thoughtful introduction and very useful appendices of recommended Christmas books and movies.
Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K Dick. I’m sure I’d read this before, but surely I would have remembered the ‘disemelevatoring’. Simpler and wierder than Bladerunner.
70 Years a Showman – ‘Lord’ George Sanger. This was brilliantly entertaining – the simple, non-literary, anecdotal autobiography of a colourful character, whose career covered the span of Queen Victoria’s reign and features acrobats and magicians, peep shows and escaped lions, wolves in the streets of London, starvation and tricks and battles and pageants and parades, along with some unexpected but interesting observations on the changes in society, law, order, red tape and town planning law during a long life. This edition also had a lyrical and nostalgic introduction by Kenneth Grahame. Like many of the best books, a Lifeline booksale purchase.
The Southern Cross Story – Charles Kingsford Smith. Record setting flights! Death defying feats! Tigers in the jungle! Turkish prisons! Crash landings! Near starvation! Planes disappearing without a trace! Obviously, this was written before his disappearance, but I still tensed up whenever he flew over the Bay of Bengal. A good, interesting, surprisingly level-headed book, and the day after I started it, it was reported that the Lady Southern Cross may have been found.
Early Birds – HC Miller. A memoir of the author’s involvement in aviation from before the first world war. Full of people who have now become names, box-kites, tri-planes designed by quixotic Russian counts, sudden death, unexpected survival, mysterious scarfed socialites, back-yard aviation, daring stunts, barnstorming and cars that could only cross the Blue Ranges if you put them in reverse and pushed. Miller is much more of a raconteur than Kingsford Smith.
Avalon High – Meg Cabot. Like The Dark is Rising with !lipgloss! and !cute! !boys!. Arthurian romance in an American highschool.
Victoria and the Rogue – Meg Cabot. Few of the things I like in my regencies and most of the things I don’t like in my romances. Not my favourite Cabot.
Also: Exodus, John, Job, Luke, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians
March 18, 2009
Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. This did not suffer at all from my not having read its predecessor (These Old Shades) and was improved by the parents of the main characters all having their own extremely lively backstories which, while often only alluded to, made everyone more interesting and twice as large as life. Abductions, compromising situations, concealed identities, everyone defending everyone else’s honour with a different understanding of what that means, character A shooting character B (non-fatal) after B says A won’t (this reminds me of my family – never dare my mother to do something, by the way). Lots of fun.
The Corinthian – Georgette Heyer. Not as outrageous as Devil’s Cub, but with occasionally startling, how-can-this-not-be-intentional subtext (and having now read some of her non-historical fiction I think it was intentional), theft and murder and assumed identities coming back to bite the people who thought they were a good idea to start with.
The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer. I didn’t expect to enjoy this little murdery/theft/mystery/romance as much as I did, but then the second-fiddle silly heroine turned out to be deliberately pretending to be silly, which led to some hilarious asides between her and the people who know she hasn’t really fainted, etc. Also, smugglers and secret passages and hidden cellars and daring adventurers.
The Narrow Road to the Interior – Bashō. A quiet little pause of a book, in the midst of all these others – the tranquil, poetic account of the author/poet’s journey through 17th century Japan.
Space Train – Terrence Haile. I posted extracts and initial thoughts here. It was an experience. A consistently horrific experience.
Young Miles – Lois McMaster Bujold. This is an omnibus (‘by, to, from, for or with everybody’) of two novels and a novella: The Warrior’s Apprentice, ‘The Mountains of Mourning’ and The Vor Game, so I’m claiming it as two novels for the purposes of this year’s book count. I had been evading Bujold and regret that now. They were wonderful – adventure/mystery/detective/military-procedural/comedy-of-manners/jurisprudential/concealed-identities/missing-emperor/clash-of-cultures/clash-of-eras/cumulative-disaster stories which move at a flying pace, full of wonderful characters, irresistible forward momentum, hope, disappointments, reverses, surprises – they were like Hornblower and Jack Ryan and Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, but with space battles and situations which make the thought of writing an SOS in macramé seem plausible until 3 weeks after finishing the book when you realise it is brilliantly ridiculous.
The Amazing, Remarkable Monsier Leotard – Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (graphic novel). Self-indulgent, but not in a bad way. I felt like I was reading something the author and illustrator had made not with ‘the audience’ in mind, but for their own pleasure. A gentle, episodic, odd, humorous, sad series of vignettes of circus life and adventures and aging and fading, with beautiful soft sketchy images. Also with fortitudinous bowels, unlikely deaths and a cameo by ‘Lord’ George Sanger, whose autobiography I have just started reading.
Penhallow – Georgette Heyer. The only reason I wanted a happy ending for any of these appalling characters was so that I didn’t have to close the book thinking of them living out their horrible lives in self-inflicted misery. The cover billed it as a murder mystery, but it wasn’t a who-done-it at all. It was a why-haven’t-they-done-it-yet. When the victim was murdered, at last, I knew who had done it (you saw it happen, and also the blurb was completely wrong) and didn’t really mind if the murderer was caught. The characterisation was very thorough (I often enjoyed the descriptions) – I just disliked all the characters.
Flowers for Mrs Harris – Paul Gallico. The only Gallico novel I had read was heart-rending, lyrical The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk. I only realised when the last movie version came out that he also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, which was… unexpected. Flowers for Mrs Harris is like neither. It is a short, cheerful, hopeful and unlikely story of Mrs Harris, a cleaning lady, who saves to buy a Dior dress and goes to Paris to buy it. It tips between characterising some things as having particular appeal to the feminine brain (I think that may have been Terrence Haile’s term rather than Gallico’s), and praising an unvarnished, unromantic life of hard work and independence. It is sentimental, comic and lightly tragic but always pragmatically so (it reminded me a little of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I have seen but not read), and is a short, cheerful read.
Also: Genesis, Esther, Mark and Romans.