Books read, things seen — October, November, December 2021

I know, I know.

October books

  • The Monkey’s Mask — Dorothy Porter. I’m still not sure how I feel about this classic verse novel of murder and sex and the Sydney arts scene, except that (a) poets writing about horrible poets amuses me a great deal, (b) it gave me a lot to think about re how little a book can get away with saying, and (c) I ended up drafting an outline of a project partly in verse as a result. It might not have been a better outline, but it was certainly a faster one.
  • Death on the Agenda — Patricia Moyes (1962). Shared some interesting tropes with other mysteries I’ve read about this time, especially re beautiful tragic women. I loved the setting of a murder around an international police conference, and also scenes where people unexpectedly end up at too-fancy parties.
  • Murder Against the Grain — Emma Lathen (1967). In my experience, Cold War novels written in the ’60s tend to be either far closer to WW2 or far more human and lighthearted than one might expect. This is the latter. Trained otters! Forged grain lading bills! Spies and embassy staff and bank managers and limousine drivers capering around New York.
  • After the Funeral — Agatha Christie (1953). A very small-feeling book, but the feeling behind the crime lingered.
  • Green Grow the Dollars — Emma Lathen (1982). I described this to someone as Michael Crichton with tomatoes, and for a mystery set mostly at a horticultural conference and turning on industrial espionage, I loved that. Also, a fabulous background character who is changed by their fame exactly as much as suits their purposes, and who thoroughly enjoys the fact.
  • Going for the Gold — Emma Lathen (1981). Banking systems vs the Winter Olympic Village. I just love novels about logistics and systems?
  • Summer Spirit — Elizabeth Holleville. Dreamy, and a reminder (especially read in the same month as The Monkey’s Mask) that graphic novels can feel closer to verse novels than either are to novels or verse.
  • Saint Death’s Daughter — CSE Cooney (out April 2022 and available for preorder). What I wrote about it: “A luminous, chiming, bone-belled, ludicrous, austere, flamboyant, rhyming, reckless, affectionate novel, that — for all its mortality and cruelty — is less about decay than it is about love in its most expansive, gilded, world-shaping forms. A giddy libation to a sly and shifting pantheon, a glittering ossuary-mosaic of incautious hope and over-generous loves, of gambling and falling and flying.”

November Books

  • LickKylie Scott. Caveat: these are very steamy rockstar romance novels (my first foray into reading that subgenre). I’m caught between actually preferring no sex in novels and enjoying the situations and vibrant characters (and Kylie) enormously. Also a gratifyingly uncomfortable stranger-at-the-party sequence. Something I love about Kylie’s novels is the range of vivid personalities, and how many of her protagonists come out swinging, and generally give as good as they get.
  • Play — Kylie Scott
  • Lead — Kylie Scott
  • Corpse at the Carnival — George Bellairs (1958). Perhaps a little heavy on the poetry, but it does make the Isle of Man sound wonderful, and definitely creates a pocket-sized physical world, an enclosed landscape with its own personalities and zones.
  • The Art of Broken ThingsJoanne Anderton (out in 2022). This is what I wrote about it: “
  • The Art of Broken Things embodies a cycle, deteriorating but never entirely decaying, of hope and death. It is peopled by delicate, opportunistic constructs of equal parts life and tragedy shot through, held together and torn apart by grief and gold. Anderton wires together little lives out of the appeal and the dangers of life-grubbied enchantment, fabricated from the humanity of letting go too soon and also holding on too tightly (which might sometimes be just tightly enough).”
  • Deep — Kylie Scott
  • A Girl Like Her — Talia Hibbert. Again, Talia Hibbert’s novels are FAR steamier than is my preference. But she writes a range of characters who are variously atypical (or perceived to be atypical), and something about that presentation of a character as they are, operating within the world, and integrating that into the story and what good relationships and friends mean, and people figuring that out, feels more… human, perhaps, than some books that subscribe too lightly to perceived defaults?
  • Untouchable — Talia Hibbert
  • That Kind of Guy — Talia Hibbert
  • Damaged Goods — Talia Hibbert
  • [secret — bird book]

December Book

October Other

  • Nil. One day I should consider adding things I watch at home to these lists, but if I haven’t managed that in the last two years…

November Other

  • No Time to Die. This contains a lot of homages but there was a bit that gave me an incredibly vivid flashback to lying on a bed in college, chin propped up on one hand, watching a friend sitting at their computer playing GoldenEye.
  • Last Night in Soho. I’m still thinking about the use of mirrors, the timeslip elements, the good faces, the sense of the smallness of a good creepy UK story. I’d watched Ghost Stories shortly before this, and they belonged to the same tradition.
  • Red Notice

December Other

  • Ghost tour of Wolston House (things I overheard/learned: it’s bad design when manufacturers put non-slip patches on the planchette)
  • Don’t Look Up
  • The French Dispatch. I’m a sucker for staginess, unreality, mannered presentation, the signage, the commitment to an aesthetic.

Books read, things seen — September 2021

Something I love about murder mysteries is the specific, thoughtfully-considered glimpses they give of how and why people live and think and do things — beyond the incidental. And reading old mysteries adds such a wonderful glimpse into kitchens and living rooms, cocktail parties and political conversations of the past.

Read

  • How to Survive a Scandal — Samara Parish
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank — Barbara Mertz
  • Be Shot for Sixpence — Michael Gilbert (1964): This is the second Michael Gilbert I’ve read (the first was The Family Tomb in April). It was a completely different novel — Cold War espionage — and a delight. Fascinating, compelling, with an at first unlikeable character who began to make sense, and just… competent fish-out-of-water set-ups and cold-burned affectless confrontation with horror, and authorial inserts, and bureaucracies, and…
  • Dark Breakers — CSE Cooney: I read an advance review copy and this is what I wrote:

    Dark Breakers is a magnificent parure of novellas and matched stories, a suite of jewelled and velvet tales, delicately linked and ferociously glittering. It forms a magnificent companion piece to Desdemona and the Deep, and also the jewels set around it.
    A baroquely intense confection with a core of typewriters and coal fortunes, 
    Dark Breakers is compounded of voluptuous invention and ferocious structural loves — for new romances and old friends, for the works of hands, for mortality and its gifts, and all the possibilities of worlds bleeding, weeping, wandering into each other’s arms.
  • A Stitch in Time — Emma Lathen (1968): The first Emma Lathen I’ve read — deaths and insurance and medical misdeeds, and a banker investigating through the mazes of the US health system in the 1960s. Fascinating as a study of systems and a time, and of course also as a mystery.
  • Slowly the Poison — June Drummond (1976): Murder… or is it? Lawyers entrusted with stories-through-time, twinned Gothic-murder-family setups in London and South Africa. I didn’t love it, but it was fascinating.
  • (And a couple issues of Slightly Foxed including #67): This I do love.

Seen

Books read, things seen — August 2021

Writing, editing, panicking, which means reading (and thoroughly enjoying) mostly mysteries and romance.

  • The Siamese Twin Mystery — Ellery Queen (1933): Using a wildfire as a means of both isolating the location of the mystery and adding time pressure to it — as well as calling the relevance of endeavouring to solve it into question — was very stressful. The first Ellery Queen I’ve read, but not the first book this year in which someone is said to have “taken a run-out powder”.
  • Uzumaki — Junji Ito: Eek! Fabulous, of course, and with its (initially episodic but increasingly spiralling) plot also a really diagnostic tool for working out where my particular tastes in horror fall.
  • Death of an Angel — Richard & Frances Lockridge (1955): Publishers solving mysteries in the world of theatre.
  • The Book of the Crime — Elizabeth Daly (1951): A very small but pleasing mystery, with just enough of a Gothic vibe.
  • The Proof of the Pudding — Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1945): The first Asey Mayo Cape Cod mystery I’ve read, and a pleasant change from the default New York setting I was getting used to.
  • Fair Deception — Jan Jones: A reread, before reading the others for the first time. Very comforting melodramatic (in a good way!) Regencies.
  • Battle Royal — Lucy Parker: I felt like I had a sugar burn by the end of this rom-com. Splendid fun, but after the hints at the end of this one I am looking forward to the next book even more. Here’s the SBTB review: Battle Royal (Palace Insiders)
  • The Kydd Inheritance — Jan Jones.
  • A Fortunate Wager — Jan Jones
  • Eleven Pipers Piping — Pamela Hart
  • Long Meg and the Wicked Baron — Pamela Hart: The descriptions of the haymaking in this romance novella, especially the colours, were painterly — just delightful. Kind of a like a Regency romance book-of-hours Sarah Plain & Tall-meets-Venetia.

Movies and exhibitions

  • European masterpieces from the Met (here are the sketches from the visit)
  • Free Guy: I’m still not sure how I’d rate it, in retrospect and objectively, but I had a very entertaining time watching it at the cinema, which was all I asked.

Story shapes and extrapolation

Recently, I’ve been revisiting this three-mood approach to story patterns (last posted about here Observation Journal — Story Patterns). I will probably continue to do so. [And later edits are indicated with a note and/or italics.]

Current thoughts are that breaking a short story into three big moods has proved useful in several ways. These include:

  • Recording my impression of a short story I’ve read.
  • [Edited to add:] Understanding story structure.
  • Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.
  • Guided extrapolation.

I’ve outlined these more below:

(A caveat, as ever, that I use “moodvery broadly, to include mood, texture, tone, trope, attitude, posture, allusion, reaction…)

Continue reading

Books read, things seen: July 2021

Sketches at Andy Geppert’s launch of his latest picture book (Backyard Birdies)

Books (excluding some embargoed manuscripts, as ever!)

I am writing a lot at the moment, so my reading is skewing heavily to classic murder mysteries (and a dash of romance), because that is not what I’m writing. This time.

  • A Marvellous Light — Freya Marske: An advance review copy (thanks Freya!). A definitely very steamy romance in this gorgeous Morris-patterned Edwardian fantasy — and/or a definitely very beautiful fantasy of arts & crafts design in this steamy romance? Anyway, that is either a warning or a promise, depending on your taste (my personal taste is to stop at the bedroom door!). However, what I loved about it (apart from the Morris wallpaper) was that although Marske was working with some familiar relationship constellations and concerns, she balanced the personalities (abilities, damage, affections) in a way that was much less usual (and made me personally like the people involved more) — in particular, there is a certain bluff kindness and exasperated capability that I had not expected. But ALSO I plan to sit down and talk with Freya about contracts and magic next time we meet up and really, that’s what I want in a fantasy. If you like CL Polk, KJ Charles, Emily Tesh or CS Pacat (or, you know, the Arts & Crafts movement) and/or magical bureaucracies, definitely look forward to this one. More about it on Tor.com (including AO3 tags) here, and it is available for pre-order now.
  • The Accidental Apprentice — Amanda Foody: Middle-grade. Splendid fun, with fabulous creatures and a wild, wheeling approach to a world of Wilderlore and Elsewheres (which promise to unfold further) — also an apprenticeship education system, which is neat to compare to e.g. school-based magic systems (no less risky, of course).
  • Loveless — Alice Oseman: The first university-romcom-styled book I’ve read that deals with what that story-shape looks like for a romcom-obsessed person who is resistant to actual romance. As a result, the book does have to put in some heavy lifting around its concepts (which in a few years I think won’t be necessary), which risks it feeling didactic (at least if you’re Extremely Online). But it also has lots of terrible-wonderful theatre kids in their first year at university, and some delightful characters and very hilarious and familiar college friendships. A fun book, and one that feels like it will be a benchmark to look back on and see how genres and conversations develop.
  • Death in Ecstasy — Ngaio Marsh. Obscure British cults! With murder.
  • Vintage Murder — Ngaio Marsh. Travelling theatre company in New Zealand! With murder.
  • Artists in Crime — Ngaio Marsh. Artists in the country! With murder.
  • The Rebel Heiress — Joan Aiken Hodge. Less direct murder.
  • Death of a Fool — Ngaio Marsh. Morris dancing and mummery, and its possible links to King Lear! With murder. (I’ve enjoyed all of these, but this one is the sort of mystery that doesn’t so much glance at folk horror as hold its gaze across the dividing fence, which is what I particularly like.)
  • The Case of the Counterfeit Eye — Erle Stanley Gardner. Only the second Perry Mason I’ve read in memory, but such a concise yet characterful voice.

Movies

  • Werewolves Within
  • Fast & Furious 9
  • Gunpowder Milkshake
  • Black Widow

In two of these, I was weeping with laughter, and it was not the ones I expected going in.

Observation Journal: A good sentence

This page of the observation journal is a return to sentence analysis — and specifically, to one of my favourite lines from Pride and Prejudice. (See previously: Staring at Sentences and First Sentences.)

Two page handwritten observation journal spread. On the left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done. On the right, notes on a sentence.
Dogs with dancing feet and girls with rabbit ears, gum trees glittering silver in the afternoon light. 

This is not a first line, but it is one of my favourite sentences in a book. It comes from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle return from a visit to Pemberley:

“They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit — of everything but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject.”

This is such a fun line: low-key but central to so much of what is happening in the book, and linking several very important relationships (the Gardiners, after all, get the last line of the novel).

Here are some of the elements that came to light as I worked through it this time (starting by selecting word types — pronouns, nouns, verb strings, etc):

  • Possession and reference — Mr Darcy is never mentioned but everything in the sentence is circling that topic.
  • Domesticity and affection — the nouns (sister, friends, house, fruit, niece) focus on relationships and responsibilities, but also very kindly relationships. The tone is aloof but the undertones are deeply personal and affectionate.
  • Desire, pleasure, intensity — there’s complexity and strength here, and a sense of big emotions being held in suspension, conditionally.
  • Staccato, then flowing rhythm — awkwardness of speech (which is very sympathetic) vs the impulsive flow of emotion
  • Two views of the same thing leads to sympathy — there’s no doubt about people’s thoughts here, because we know what both Lizzy and her aunt are thinking. That puts the focus on why/what is not being discussed. But also because I’m not wondering what the characters are thinking, it makes it safe for me to feel for them, as they think it. There’s a sort of benevolent dramatic irony here, and a sense of little people moving on a board that I like very much in (for example) both Georgette Heyer and Stephen King (see Sympathy for Characters). [Also a lesson for me, as I tend to leave descriptions of emotions out of early drafts.]
  • [A more recent observation] The role of the em-dash and semi-colon — each half of this sentence is composed of two ideas (house vs man; Elizabeth vs Mrs Gardiner), but all these features are finely balanced and inextricably linked. The em-dash brings the breathless recitation to a sharp halt by focussing on what is missing. A full-stop instead of semi-colon would break the very clear point that the conversation aunt and niece are extremely conscious they are not having threads its tension through the words they do speak.

I’m particularly interested in that idea of it being safe to care for characters. Not because nothing bad will happen to them, but because of a sort of benevolent dramatic irony. It’s the opposite of a twist — the sense of things that will remain constant even if the unexpected happens. It’s also something I’d like to explore further in images, as well as writing.

But whatever practical and theoretical benefits this activity has for telling stories, it’s a wonderfully indulgent exercise to do as a reader.

For a writing/art exercise see Staring at Sentences.

For more Pride and Prejudice see (among many other posts) Mix and Match.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Books read, things seen: June 2021

Drawing of mermaid sitting in water reading.
From the February 2021 calendar/print

Books

  • Blue — Pat Grant. (Comic) Striking style, and belongs to a particular Australian style weird-wonderful take on the bleakly awful parts of the country. Interesting history of local surf comics.
  • Tempting the Bride — Sherry Thomas
  • Slippery Creatures — KJ Parker
  • Burger Force volume 1 — Jackie Ryan. (Comic) SO MUCH FUN. And with a very particular (and stylish) style — and approached more as film than comic, when it comes to its creation as sequential art. And odd. And mod.
  • The Bone Lantern — Angela Slatter. Not published yet but as lovely as all her Sourdough-world tales, with interfolded enchantments and interleaved tales, and cruel and kind and pragmatic travellers with tangled histories, so keep an eye out for it!
  • Cousin Kate — Georgette Heyer. An occasionally almost anti-Gothic Gothic, with a stately pace common to this era of Gothic novels and a resistance to melodrama, which makes it an interesting read after the heartily Gothic aspects of The Quiet Gentleman (which somehow feels less Gothic). Some splendid people, though.
  • Gaudy Night — Dorothy Sayers. A reread for bookclub — I just love the Wimsey/Vane books so much, and it’s honestly SO indulgent, mimicking restraint and then having her characters essentially write fanfiction of scenes, but by this point authorial indulgence is all to the reader’s benefit.
  • Busman’s Honeymoon — Dorothy Sayers. A reread — see above — also I was getting very strong Diana Wynne Jones resonances from these two books (especially Deep Secret and Howl’s Moving Castle, but others as well). The milieus from which they emerge, a generation apart, are very obviously the same, and there are the John Donne quotes and so on, but there’s more there, and a deep delight.
  • Dungeon Critters — Natalie Riess & Sara Goetter. (Comic) This had been well-reviewed, but I was resisting it unfairly on the basis that it is cute and it is D&D-derived (nothing against D&D, I just stumble over some of books more obviously based on it). But this comic was having so much honest fun with the adventures of the critters, and the bad puns, and the melodramatic body language, and the little text jokes of e.g. certain names having to be pronounced (and therefore lettered) OMINOUSLY, or always being covered up by an interrupting word balloon.

Not books

  • CHESS (QPAC). The best of musicals, the worst of musicals.
  • The Broken Machine (by Liz Duffy Adams, reading by Magic Theatre online). Delight.
  • The Sleeping Beauty (Queensland Ballet). Cotton candy, in the best way.

South of the Sun update

The printed copies of South of the Sun are rumoured to have arrived in Australia, so there are now plans for an online launch on Friday 2 July 2021. There will be readings and a sneak-peek at the illustrations, with more online previews over the weekend (see the anthology’s pages on Facebook and Twitter). You can find the launch event details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/293740192287594/

And pre-orders are available from Serenity Press: https://www.serenitypress.org/product-page/south-of-the-sun!

Books read, things seen: May 2021

Books

  • Emporium of the Imagination — Tabitha Bird. Magical shops and enchanted telephones in Boonah, Queensland. (We were on a panel together at the Brisbane Writers Festival — notes on that here)
  • Claudia and Mean Janine — Raina Telgemeier / Ann M Martin. The Baby-Sitters Club is solid and Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel adaptation is lovely. I might have cried.
  • [Title TBC], Corella Press. Three 19th century ghost stories — more information in due course!
  • The Bee and the Orange Tree — Melissa Ashley. Salonnières and murder. (We were on a panel together at the Brisbane Writers Festival — notes on that here)
  • The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen — Krissy Kneen. Family secrets and the Alexandrine women. (Krissy moderated our panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival — notes on that here)
  • All the Murmuring Bones — Angela Slatter. Of course I loved it but I was reading it while thinking about a drawing for the cover of the limited edition hardback, and forgot to tell the author so she only saw my frowning spatial-reasoning face. The paperback is out now from Titan and the limited edition hardback will be from Tartarus.
  • Kiki’s Delivery ServiceEiko Kadono
  • Batman: A Death in the Family — Starlin, Aparo, DeCarlo
  • The Rock from the Sky — Jon Klassen. One of my sisters described Klassen’s ‘hat’ trilogy as “Cohen Brothers for kids”, so if you image a Cohen Brothers science-fiction picture book…
  • Craft in the Real World — Matthew Salesses. A really interesting and useful re-approach to workshopping writing. Dense with thoughts and techniques. I also really appreciated the structure which, instead of fitting ideas to the shape of standardised non-fiction chapters, moves from commentary to dot-point lists, to collated thoughts, as most relevant and efficient for the material.
  • The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes — Neil Gaiman, art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III and Robbie Busch. A reread. That vigorous, untidy, grungy, horrific, insinuating, baroque, beautiful art still gets me by the throat.
  • Provocation — Meg Vann. The first of Meg’s chapbook thrillers from Brain Jar Press. Murderous happenings in the State Library…

Movies

  • Wrath of Man
  • Those Who Wish Me Dead

Books read, things seen: April 2021

A hand holding a tiny silhouette drawing of a mermaid reading a book
Big month, tiny mermaid.

Books

  • Mr Invincible — Pascal Jousselin — (comic) both wildly unlike Memento, and yet very like it in that I couldn’t read stories properly for a while afterwards, and started to resent the fourth wall.
  • The Family Tomb — Michael Gilbert — murder and intrigue in Florence in the 1960s, and for some reason I do enjoy stories of British expats being flamboyantly awful.
  • The Swimmers — Marion Womack — I’m used to books doing direct rewrites of their inspiration, and it was refreshing to read a book that took an influence (Wide Sargasso Sea) and simply ran with the elements and flavours that intrigued the writer, rather than attempting any sort of correlation.
  • The Black Moth — Georgette Heyer — I have a friend who talks about “historical smugness” in historical TV shows, e.g. “the issue of the week and how we would have handled it better now”. Heyer’s early Georgian novels sort of do the opposite — pick up the social mores which didn’t stand the test of time and then lean into them. Usually leads to vigorous bookclub fights.
  • A School for Unusual Girls — Kathleen Baldwin — Apparently I’m about to start on a Regency fantasy-romance kick again.
  • Death of a Ghost — Margery Allingham — I also like murder mysteries in which the writer has clearly been personally victimised by dramatic bohemian types
  • Fun Home — Alison Bechdel — A classic for a reason, and yet somehow I hadn’t read the whole book before (also the stage musical is magnificent, unexpected, and somehow implausibly inevitable).
  • Elmer — Gerry Alanguilian — (comic) Still a bit stunned, but my goodness, the clouds
  • Newt’s Emerald — Garth Nix — Luminous green magic!

Movies and theatre (I’m in Queensland, it was safe and legal)

  • King Kong vs Godzilla — in Gold Class, because where else
  • Come From Away (at QPAC) — I cried through most of it and it took ages for my mask to dry afterwards.

Exhibitions

  • “Creatures” — Shaun Tan (Beinart Gallery) — the lines, the paint, the eyes… Shaun is a magnificent artist, illustrator, and writer, and getting to just stand close and look at the texture is a treasure
  • She-Oaks and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism” — (NGV) — A wonderful exhibition, and a chance to see many favourites (Tom Roberts, in particular, influenced what I was trying to do with descriptions in Flyaway). Seeing them all in one place was illuminating. In some rooms, there were pictures that seemed backlit, shining off the walls, so I was puzzling over that. I worked out, too, that while I generally prefer paintings of green landscapes, that does not hold true for Impressionism, where my heart gets pulled out of my chest by dust and light, yellows and ochres and luminous flickering violets. And of course I reinforced my love for the smallest, sketchiest of paintings, where one or two dabs of paint are a bolting horse, or a girl holding her hat down, or the tiniest dog in a patch of sunlight — see, for example, Allegro con brio.