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.

Books read, things seen: January, February, March 2021

Brush drawing with digital colour of a person with a showercap reading in a blue bath in a green bathroom

Three months of books and comics read (and a few movies)! So apparently I have been accomplishing something.

JANUARY

Books and comics:

  • First Class Murder — Robin Stevens (book 3 of Murder Most Unladylike)
  • Miss Astbury & Milordo — Irene Northam (a Women’s Weekly Library paperback found in a storage bench in a hospital in Ipswich)
  • Something Light — Margery Sharp (1959 — a pet photographer who spends too much time looking after the men in her life decides to find a man to look after her, and works her way through a list…)
  • The Case of the Missing Marquess — Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes #1)
  • The Case of the Left-Handed Lady — Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes #2)
  • Start Finishing — Charlie Gilkey (mostly I read self-help and time-management books for cathartic aggravation, but although not the most slickly written, this one has turned about to be extremely useful — especially for managing multiple projects)
  • Marry in Scandal — Anne Gracie
  • Indistractable — Nir Eyal
  • Marry in Secret — Anne Gracie
  • The Absolute Book — Elizabeth Knox

Movies:

  • Wonder Woman 84
  • Promising Young Woman

FEBRUARY

Books and comics:

  • The Practice — Seth Godin
  • Faro’s Daughter — Georgette Heyer
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel — Baroness Orczy
  • Jane, the Fox, and Me — Fanny Britt, Isabelle Arsenault (Isabelle Arsenault‘s art in this book is just enchanting)

Movies

  • Pixie

MARCH

Books and comics:

  • Aster and the Accidental Magic — Thom Pico and Karensac
  • The Waxworks Murder — John Dickson Carr (1932, Henri Bencolin #4(?) — I enjoyed this tremendously, perhaps because it’s a murder mystery that manages to be more Gothic in aesthetic than the murders it’s about)
  • The House Without the Door — Elizabeth Daly (1950, Henry Gamadge #4)
  • Skip — Molly Mendoza
  • Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur #6: Save our School — Brandon Montclar, Natacha Bustos, Tamra Bonvillain (Bustos and Bonvillain’s art in this is so energetic — the body language vivid and hilarious)
  • Grave Sight #2 — Charlaine Harris, Bill Harms, Denis Medri
Brush drawing with digital colour of a person with a showercap reading in a blue bath looking up, startled, and hearing the word "RUSTLE"

The Tallow-Wife arrives!

Cardboard box with bubble-wrapped parce.

Look what’s arrived from Tartarus!

Spread of three copies of The Tallow-Wife, on top of bubble wrap. The first is open to the story "Embers and Ash", with a drawing of a ship half-sunk in a cliff. The second has its dust jacket on. The third shows the foil-and-purple cover design on the boards under the cover.

It’s Angela Slatter‘s extremely beautiful The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, which is now available to buy in a limited edition.

The spines of The Tallow-Wife, with hand-lettered title printed in foil on a purple ground.
(Photo from Tartarus Press)

It is illustrated throughout with vignettes and spot illustrations in the same style as The Bitterwood Bible.

Hand holding two pens and several folded sections of drawing paper, on the top page of which is written "The Tallow-Wife & Other Tales by Angela Slatter", with drawn ornaments of candles, branches, and moths.
A Staedtler Pigment Liner 0.05, and a Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pen Warm Grey 272, on Canson Illustration paper.

It’s a loose, conversational, first-impressions style that I love working in. It’s so first-impressions that the label for my sketchbook notes for the project became not only the title page, but the spine lettering and the basis for some of the cover ornaments.

Title page of the book with sketches of candles, floral flourishes, and moths.

First impressions isn’t the same as easy. Here, more than any other style, is where I can feel all the work of observing (the world, how I work, how other people solve problems) and sketching pay off.

I particularly enjoy working this way because it catches that first response of an early reader, the images that intrigue and charm me, the conversation I wanted to have with the stories when I was first exposed to them. And also because, while there’s a lightness to the style, there’s also a lovely weight of quantity — spooling out wavering lines in response to the stories as they unfold, questioning and reacting and correcting.

More commonly, illustrating a book involves reading through, responding, making thumbnail sketches, having those approved, refining pencils, having those approved, and then working on the finals (subject to approval). For The Tallow-Wife, the selection process was simply the appeal of the text (and the limits of my abilities!), and the taste of the author and publisher as they select and place the final collection of drawings.

Page of black and white line sketches of wine, a boy bowing, ghostly dogs at a cathedral, etc.

The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales is a companion book to Sourdough and Other Stories and the World Fantasy Award-winning Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. The limited edition is now available to buy from Tartarus (while the print-run lasts).

If you need reasons to buy this, apart from the obvious (Slatter, Tartarus, enchantments), I have posted An Incomplete List of Reasons I Have Bought Illustrated Books, in case any of those excuses resonate with you.

An incomplete list of reasons I have bought illustrated books

Close up of a drawing/watercolour painting of a girl with short-fringed purple hair and a red pinafore over a stripey topy, holding a book that says "MAPS"

I keep buying illustrated books thinking, hmm, what an interesting compendium of mark making, technically this is a reference text…

Continue reading

2020 reading

KJennings-JanuaryBookSketches
Sketches from January

I finished approximately 79 books, not including manuscripts for illustration (or at least, the ones I couldn’t talk about yet). You’ll see I got through a lot of 2020 on midcentury murder and Regency and adjacent romance. 15 books were rereads, and many of those were Heyers. It doesn’t include a lot of art books, although I do want to sit down and read them more traditionally more often.

I wrote about some of the patterns in what I was reading — particularly the “romance (and tragedy) of the navigable world” over on Meanjin: What I’m Reading — Kathleen Jennings.

I was trying to do sketches or fanart for each book, but that thinned to a single broadly thematic image over the year. I still like the idea of doing it, but we shall see.

Here’s the list, including links to the individual “Read and Seen” posts, some of which include fanart and occasionally some thoughts on the books (they also show up in Observation Journal posts from time to time).

The *asterisks are for books which did something (style or trope or idea) I’m still thinking about.

Beautiful Australian Gothic Books

Gouache painting in pinks, purples, blues, and greens, of standing boulders, grass, birds flying against clouds
Painting by me, after a trip to Hanging Rock, while working on Flyaway — more on those illustrations at Illustrating Flyaway

Tor.com (who published Flyaway) asked me for a post for their Five Books About… series. I promptly forgot how to count, so here are:

Six Stories for Fans of Beautiful Australian Gothic

Read and seen — December 2020

A photo of a hand holding a cut-paper silhouette of a woman dressed in a moth-costume.

A strong commonality among the December books was a twinned sense of costuming on the one hand, and becoming more who you are on the other. How that turned into a moth girl I’m not entirely sure, but that was where the associations started.

Books

  • Borrowed Dreams — May McGoldrick (romance, villainy, benevolent interference)
  • A Skinful of Shadows — Frances Hardinge (ghosts! the English civil war!)
  • Powder and Patch — Georgette Heyer (Georgian makeover montage — I always thought this was a silly book, and it is, but I liked it so much more on the reread)
  • Reading Like a Writer — Francine Prose (appreciating sentences)
  • Every Tool’s a Hammer — Adam Savage (this was about more than just fitting your studio space to the way you work instead of the other way around, but that was the main revelation for me)
Screenshot from the ebook of Every Tool's A Hammer with the following highlighted: "you don't want to just store stuff, you eventually want to retrieve and use it as well."
From Every Tool’s A Hammer: an epiphany

Other

  • The Happiest Season
  • Darren Hanlon’s Regional Xmas Tour — The Majestic Theatre, Pomona

What I liked in: a Michael Innes paragraph

(Originally in the post Sketch Before Story — I in fact drew some Hamlet, Revenge! fanart but I can’t track it down)

I was going to space out this post and the last (What I like in: a Lilian Jackson Braun scene), but I wanted to get them both up before I wrote about December’s reading.

This paragraph is from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), in which a much-awaited performance of Hamlet at the ducal mansion of Scamnum Court is disrupted by a murder. This scene is still a little before the discovery of the murder and the arrival on the scene of the Inspector John Appleby.

“Aged royalty, perhaps with royalty’s instinct for keeping clear of anything a trifle odd, had decided not to come after all. So decorations had been put away; young ladies, hearing the news when half-way to the drawing room, had scurried back to their rooms to change into more intriguing frocks; Bagot had had a busy half-hour putting away the plate which Scamnum produces only for members of a Reigning House. And now in the hall the Dowager Duchess was sitting in the front row in solitary state, on her right hand the two empty chairs that had been destined for the ‘real’ Duchess and the ‘real’ Duchess’s lady. The Dowager was formidable enough in herself and Gott received with relief Noel’s report that the old lady seemed disposed to take out most of the play in sleep. It was a quite unexpurgated Hamlet.

I liked this paragraph immensely. It felt funny and compact and yet all-embracing.

It’s such a fascinating little way of showing things happening. Innes conveys a great deal of information, but not by description or omission or neat crowd-management (although space is kept here for a crowd, in the personification of Scamnum Court as a stand-in for its staff, and in the plurality of young ladies).

Rather, most of the information is conveyed by showing reactions to a reversal.

This is 70 pages into the book, and we’ve not been told much about the preparations for aged royalty (although they have been a small part of the atmosphere of anticipation at Scamnum Court). This change itself is comparatively minor, in terms of plot. But at the same time this little hitch, which doesn’t bother anyone much (although it foreshadows larger concerns), peels back a corner of the beautiful world of Scamnun Court and shows the thoughts and concerns and scurrying business under it.

Not, “royalty were coming so XYZ was done,” but “royalty WEREN’T coming, so people did these other things instead”, which reveals at least twice as much about everyone (not least the rather presciently absent royalty). The “more intriguing frocks” implies, after all, not only less intriguing frocks, but different standards of behaviour, and the sorts of people who know what to wear for certain circumstances, and to come prepared for both, and that intrigue (of various sorts) is properly part of this world.

Additionally, by showing reactions, it keeps everyone in action. And more importantly, it’s this tiny gear change, a slight shift, an extra hum of activity, just before what’s about to be a BIG gear shift.

If you read (or have read) the book, you’ll notice the passage occurs just before a pivotal moment, but it also contains a number of aspects of the book in microcosm (and some other foreshadowing).

For example, something striking about the book is the sheer quantity of doubles. (You can already see it in this passage, with the duchesses and the two empty chairs). There’s the theatre and actors and roles, obviously, and people playing parts, and the folly that looks like a chapel but is a cowshed. There’s a set of twins. And instead of one “young lady” character, or even just the twins, there are two young English ladies and two young American ones and two awkwardly pursued youthful love affairs, a managing mother with two different approaches suitable to the differences in her daughters, more than one older romance, several rumoured vengeances, mirrors and doubled curtains, two novelists AND a publisher, several academics (two specialising in Shakespeare), another who looks a lot like the main detective and is himself a detective of sorts, three significantly active detectives, two solutions/endings, quite a few people independently resolving a mystery, several active crimes in progress, two approaches to psychology, two doctors…

Arguably not all of these are necessary (or defensible) but occasionally the effect is fascinating. Characters may play roles, but that does not mean they are the role. No one, by virtue of being the only one of their kind, is by default cast in the role of professor or writer or young lady. Which might mean that if someone is behaving stereotypically, they are choosing to do so…

Finally, as Lisbeth Campbell pointed out, “This paragraph is a really effective use of the omniscient narrator too”.

There’s some splendid omniscient moments in Hamlet, Revenge! (and moments of a sort of roving consciousness). I’d been wanting to reread this book because it opens on a high-level view of Scamnum Court from a nearby hill, and creates this impression of a Fabergé egg of a world which you don’t want ruined by murder (often country house murder mysteries create the opposite effect), and it’s all from an omniscient point of view. I’d like to go back again and look at how Innes manages point of view. One of his books starts in what appears to be either third person or omniscient, and lets you get comfortable with that before revealing it wasn’t quite the case…

Read and Seen — August to November 2020

I fell behind on my book posts, because I kept meaning to draw art to go with them. But here they are (excluding many partial books, some shorter illustrated ones I forgot to write down, and several manuscripts for illustration). Thoughts are abbreviated, but see also my post on Meanjin: What I’m Reading.

Also here is a wolf in a well.

Wolf in a well — illustration for a Patreon story

August

Books:

Thoughts: There were several books in this group with… variably likeable characters from privileged backgrounds, which makes for both odd characters and tricky class intersections. The Carlyle/Heyer/Marsh sequence was a bit of a trip. The Lucy Parker London Celebrity romances continue to be stacks of fun, however. My favourite is The Austen Playbook, for some apparently very small decisions, like having the heroine get cast as Lydia Bennet instead of one of the more obvious roles, and because it makes the author feel like someone you’d like to hang out with.

September

Books:

Movies:

  • Bill & Ted Face the Music
  • Porco Rosso

Thoughts: I love how Kate Milford writes colour and light, and I keep laughing at something ridiculous Gladys Mitchell in Winking at the Brim. Also, along with The Happiest Season, it has a very minor finely observed sequence about maintaining personal space, which I liked.

Bill & Ted Face the Music was the most delightful way to return to the cinemas post-lockdown (I’m in Queensland), and so very much about what making art isn’t and is. Porco Rosso does such wonderful things with time and learning.

October

Books:

Thoughts: Holly Black always mixes grim reality and enchantment enviably. Huzzah for Robin Stevens’ Wells & Wong detective society (I’m currently reading First Class Murder to my dad) — I’d love to read more traditional English subgenres from a slightly (or even extremely) outside perspective. One of the enormous frustrations of Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! is a glancing acknowledgement of how a country house murder must look to someone not-from-England and then ripping that story away from the reader.

I mentioned a bit over on the Meanjin blog about why I was tormenting myself with self-help and business-development books. Also I like to dip into them occasionally because it overlaps with some things I’d been teaching this year. The ones I usually find most useful, personally, were written for other purposes, but I did get a few good points/reminders/reassurances from The Organised Writer in particular (and there’s always something useful) and I rather liked the approach Ferris took in putting together Tools of Titans, which it shares with Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals and Maira Kalman’s My Favourite Things — essentially a collection of things he found interesting and applicable, and which the reader can take or leave.

November

Books

Movies/theatre/other

  • Baby Done
  • The Happiest Season
  • Born With Teeth — Liz Duffy Adams, table reading with Emily Carding and Margo MacDonald

Thoughts: GOODNESS I enjoyed The Eye of Love (thanks go to Jenny Clements for that). Gentle and focussed, with characters who would be ridiculous if they did not take themselves and their lives so seriously. The table reading of Liz Duffy Adams was a delight — and really interesting to see a certain shift in acting-for-Zoom from what it had been earlier this year, with so much moving into the head and hands. Also the way specificity (of, for example, job) in Baby Done made the story both smaller and expanded it beyond the superficial.

What I’m reading: a post for Meanjin

I wrote a blog post for Meanjin on what I’ve been reading, and the ways I’m trying to make those books fit each other, and the romance of the navigable world. The link to it is here:

What I’m Reading: Kathleen Jennings

It features aviation and romance and Ladybird books and murder (and a few other things — although, thanks to the moderating influence of Alex Adsett, not as many other things as it might have).