Keeping thoughts on books

Having reading groups postponed after I’ve read the book sometimes means forgetting all the compelling and witty thoughts I had. What helps is keeping quick notes made at the time.

I use the following mashup of approaches from Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative and Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist (consult both for far more details and justification!).

This keeps the notes contained while also teasing out ample thoughts and opinions, and jolting the memory adequately. I’ve posted about this before, because it’s a useful framework for creating conversations and opinions in class discussions. But I use it a lot myself.

I aim to make at least three notes for each of these points:

  • Patterns (between this and anything else, and go wide — after any obvious connections, I try to force links with the last things I watched/read)
  • What surprised you? (and why)
  • What did you like? (and why)
  • What didn’t work for you? (and why? how could it have been done differently, and how would that have changed things?)
  • What would you like to steal or try, or (rephrased for serious groups) what did you find particularly interesting?
  • [Sometimes, for narrowly subject-specific groups: how does it relate to established key themes]

I don’t do this for everything I read or watch. Ephemerality is nice too, and days are brief. For short stories, this framework can be overkill, and I have the whole three-moods reading project for them anyway. In the observation journal, I often just list “Five Things To Steal” (here’s the tag), or look for larger patterns as a separate exercise.

But I do keep a running collection of general notes this way — especially for reading groups and for books I plan or hope to discuss with someone! The full suite of questions is excellent for having things to say, and remembering what they were. I’ve used notes from 5 years ago without anyone realising I had not reread the book (and without losing any debates)

2020-02-24---Bookmarks
Bookmarks for a class (this is the Terribly Earnest phrasing)

Alumni Book Sale Acquisitions

Photo of various older books set out on a table

My haul from the UQ Alumni book sale! Under $30, so I’m perfectly happy with their well-worn state.

Most are reference books. My main criteria for art reference books are illustrated (not with photographs — Reptiles and Amphibians snuck in there), with a preference for line art over more painterly art. That is so I can see the construction and key features quickly for art reference. I think The Trees is the best of the illustrated selection — much as I love The Observers Books, this is illustrated only with paintings. The others will be useful until I come across a book with art that suits me better.

Wildflowers of the World is great, too, but it turns out I already had a copy of that — they are plentiful at the alumni book sale. I think I might have a copy of Katherine Briggs’ classic A Dictionary of Fairies, too, but look at that glorious (battered) Tony Meeuwissen cover!

The Police of Paris and The Gentle Art of Tramping (a re-release but we make do) are tangentially connected to vague possible projects. I think I’ve mentioned before that I like old reference books because nothing rests on me remembering anything with great accuracy, and it’s an excellent conversational opening at parties (at which people are also usually happy to fill in what’s happened since).

Then there’s the Perry Mason, for reading, and the Barbara Cartland’s because I know, I KNOW, but I adore the cover art (and the Book of Useless Information has line illustrations by the same artist). The paintings are by Francis Marshall — here’s a gallery of many of the Cartland covers. As far as I can see, there hasn’t been a volume of his cover art published, but I very much hope there will be!

Advance copies of A G Slatter’s The Path of Thorns

Photo of hand holding The Path of Thorns book with purple foil lettering
Cover design by Julia Lloyd

Look what’s arrived! My copy of A. G. Slatter‘s newest novel, The Path of Thorns. It is released in June, and you can pre-order it from all good bookstores and usual online places now.

There will be a launch in Brisbane on the 17th of June — it’s free to attend but you will need to pre-register here: Eventbrite.

Photo of back cover of The Path of Thorns
Cover design by Julia Lloyd

A lush and twisted dark fairy tale suffused with witchcraft, dark secrets and bitter revenge from the award-winning author. Exquisite, haunting and at times brutal, readers of Naomi Novik and Erin Morgenstern will be entranced.

Asher Todd comes to live with the mysterious Morwood family as a governess to their children. Asher knows little about being a governess but she is skilled in botany and herbcraft, and perhaps more than that. And she has secrets of her own, dark and terrible – and Morwood is a house that eats secrets. With a monstrous revenge in mind, Asher plans to make it choke. However, she becomes fond of her charges, of the people of the Tarn, and she begins to wonder if she will be able to execute her plan – and who will suffer most if she does. But as the ghosts of her past become harder to control, Asher realises she has no choice.
 
From the award-winning author of All the Murmuring Bones, dark magic, retribution and twisted family secrets combine to weave a bewitching and addictive tale.

And this time, instead of drawing for Angela, I got to do a cover quote! Here’s the full quote:

Angela Slatter's The Path of Thorns is beautiful and vicious. Although it is a ruthless, Gothic tale, bright and bitter as poison, cold as a crypt, its chinks are stopped against the bleakest wind with deft, jewel-toned tales, and at its bruised heart, it is as loving and warm as a wolf curled around her cubs.

Dickens on plot twists and (mis?)direction and managing reader’s realisations in serialised formats

Dickens, in his afterword to Our Mutual Friend, describes the fine balance (in a serialised novel!) of giving readers enough information to work out what was happening, but little enough that they thought they weren’t meant to. The trick of letting the audience feel smart without thinking the author foolish.

Photo of Postcript to Our Mutual Friend
Redacted in case you have not yet read the (wonderful) novel (although I do often recommend the BBC miniseries as an entry point, not least because it’s so short compared to the novel and therefore difficult to come back to afterwards)

POSTSCRIPT.

IN LIEU OF PREFACE.

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that ******, and that ********. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worth while, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

To keep for a long time unsuspected, yet always working itself out, another purpose originating in that leading incident, and turning it to a pleasant and useful account at last, was at once the most interesting and the most difficult part of my design. Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for, it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.

A loose collection of thoughts on other people’s appreciation of things

A drawing of a compass, sample borders, a scroll with "elsewhere" and an arrow, and a comment saying "good coffee here!"

I’m taking delight, lately, in appreciations of things.

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Observation Journal: 5 Things to Steal from A Surfeit of Lampreys

This observation journal page is a list of 5 Things to Steal from Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (previously mentioned here: Read and Seen — August to November 2020).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations and a sketch of toilet paper rolls, and notes on Surfeit of Lampreys.

It continues to be a good way to quickly process thoughts on a book (and other things). Five is enough of a stretch if I’m stuck for thoughts, a reasonable distillation if I have too many, and sufficient to fill a page.

As usual, I expanded each note of something I’d like to steal by outlining how to “steal” it— that is, how to adopt or adapt a trick or trope or glancing idea into my own illustrations or writing. This both gets it out of anything in the realm of copying, and pushes me to actually record if not begin working on some ideas and next steps.

For example, for “a family impervious to dramatic events”, there’s a reminder to play with the idea of “hauntings fail to break through squabbles”, and also to try a picture of “person walking like that photo of girl in street but unruffled” (presumably, given the broader context, surrounded by ghosts or monsters).

Somehow I recognised this as a reference to “An American Girl in Italy” by Ruth Orkin — here’s an article about it

The application notes are mostly shorthand references to various projects, but here are the elements of Surfeit of Lampreys that particularly struck me:

  1. The structure of a family impervious to dramatic events, continuing through chaos with only minor variations.
  2. Minor point-of-view character gets romance with charming dilettante for whom there might yet be hope.
  3. Several perspectives on the main characters (always fun), but leavened by an unfavourable view held by a sympathetic character.
  4. Magic (the supernatural) not directly affecting or even terribly relevant to story (see also Sayers).
  5. Clever, ridiculous, untied family, and benefits thereof (and difficulties of breaking in/exclusion? or do they adopt others freely?)
Tiny ballpoint sketch of couple with linked arms
have fun storming the castle

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Tiny ballpoint sketch of toilet-paper rolls
What can I say? It was 2020

January 2022 Big Giant Three-Mood Story Reading Thread

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied/slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I kept, tracking my January 2022 (and late December 2021) short story reading. It is extremely long, and I plan to extract sections of it into more concise posts in the future.

However, for posterity, here it is. Story notes are in regular text, my thoughts are in bold, in case that makes it easier to skip around. Feel free to ask for more detail/clarity. And I’ll edit this with links to related posts from time to time. [Note: I’ve started to drop in some very brief story descriptions to jog my own memory, but it might take a while to complete those, due to the aforementioned memory] [Further note: there is now a full list of stories read at the very end of this post]

It’s based on previous three-moods posts. See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for background. The short version:

  • I like breaking short stories into progressions of three moods (rather than beginning-middle-end, etc). I find it more revelatory, intuitive and useful, both for reading stories and for writing them.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Each dot point is one shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.

Also now up:

Read on if you dare.

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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.