The robust fictional family (from observation journal notes)

These observation journal pages are both in pursuit of a fascination with robust characters and fictional families. (Thematically connected: Favourite tropes about families.)

This began with a pattern I’d noticed from previous pages (particularly things-to-steal notes) and recent reading: I enjoyed reading about people who are who they are, know it, never doubt it, and aren’t punished for it. (For better or worse.)

On the first page, I simply stated that pattern. Then I jotted down characters/books that fit the pattern in various ways: The Addams Family, the Roses (Schitt’s Creek), the Barnabys (Midsomer Murders), Gilly (Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware — The Foundling), the Lampreys (Surfeit of Lampreys), the Lindsays (from a scene in Time Without Clocks). And then for each I made further notes about how that characteristic played out.

Chart of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want

Here were some interesting patterns in the examples that sprang to mind:

  • Often (particularly in the idiosyncratic groups) moneyed and or upper class backgrounds, even if one or both of those have been lost. Tied to that, a somewhat outgoing eccentricity.
  • They don’t attempt to alter others without provocation.
  • But if they are distinctive through their ordinariness, they are often thrust into paternal/patriarchal roles. (Related to point #1.)
  • Either a strong particular aesthetic, or rigorous avoidance of one.
  • They almost all occur in families — even Gilly’s striking out on his own is aided and abetted by a self-contained and stubborn relation. (See previous notes about favourite tropes in families.)

I then sorted the families into tables, noting the type of family, how others viewed them, and to what degree they were unified/members could leave.

Table of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want vs families in fiction
  • Tendency towards self-sufficiency. Others are admitted into the family circle only if they won’t alter its fabric.
  • If they aren’t masquerading as ordinary, they tend to be regarded by the broader community with cautious bewilderment or alarmed integration.
  • The family forms a centre point for activities. Individuals may have their own adventures, but there is a dense unity/gravity and it is difficult to separate from the family entirely.

A deeply traditional, moral core, with an unflappable certainty of their rightness. In ‘ordinary’ families, that results in quite paternal/care-taker roles, and newcomers/additions must be equally responsible, respectable and easy-going. In ‘unusual’ families, they form their own fiercely self-sufficient and independent group, and newcomers must generally conform by being equally eccentric (or exceptionally easy-going). Even if this isn’t presented as being an unalloyed good, the sheer robustness and self-sufficiency of the group becomes very appealing, their inviolability charming. There’s a strongly traditional and conservative pattern behind many of the families — see also notes on the appeal of The Navigable World.

It’s a striking contrast to more found/chosen family tropes, which seem to me to be be capable of being more disparately chaotic and democratic, with correspondingly different possibilities and risks, and where a central gravitational point is more likely to be a circumstance or personality than a Tradition.

(NB — my affection for this type of character/family is definitely related to liking characters who aren’t changed by a story.)

(AND ANOTHER THING — I need to revisit the original question, because there is a textural difference between the utterly self-confident person embedded in a family, and the one who is in isolation. A degree of defiance vs complacency, a different attitude/stakes to survival… And the role of the found/chosen family vs that.)

Five things to steal from: The Eye of Love

This Five Things to Steal observation journal page is about five aspects of Margery Sharp’s The Eye of Love that I thoroughly enjoyed. (For background on the general exercise: Five Things to Steal.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on The Eye of Love

Margery Sharp’s The Eye of Love (1957) could be one of two books. It might be the tale of a doomed great love that happens to be between the owner of a very small company in 1930s London and his suburban mistress, both middle-aged and not conventionally lovely (to an outsider). Or it might be about how a very blunt and single-minded child who in other books grows up to be an artist begins to hone her eye. It is in either case a sweetly abrasive, sardonically indulgent, affectionately comic romance.

Handwritten notes on The Eye of Love
  • Grand passions happening just as much to ‘small’ people.
    This is, in a way, related to flipping stereotypes (the Caudwell manoeuvre) and to my love of contained, stagey worlds (staginess; little groves). But there’s a shifting, sly subtlety to Sharp’s approach, as she adjusts the tone and focus, so that now the book is sardonically using elevated phrasing for a mundane situation, now it is letting you feel how overpoweringly mythic that mundane situation is for the people in it.
  • People who are interested in a thing, and pursue it doggedly, even if perceived from outside as ridiculous.
    This is in relation to a girl who will become an artist, but it’s a little unusual in that the artist isn’t struggling with that single-minded focus. It’s closer to stories that focus on competence, and frequently the solving of mysteries, and it’s very nice.
  • Chaotic/overbearing people who are the authors of their own comeuppance BUT who also manage to spin the situation to appear (or be) advantageous.
    (This is also a very fun way to have a villainous villain who operates on the same level as the rest of the cast). Jane Austen and Charles Dickens do this gleefully as well.
  • A child’s interests shifting and maturing.
    Sharp treats this child (Martha) as a human with her own independent interests and concerns, which isn’t as common as it might be in books for adults, even for Sharp, and even when the child is the viewpoint character, unless the Plot Changes Them (very little could alter Martha against her will). And I also like any viewpoint character/narrator changing their interests as the book goes — including beginning to lose interest in the story! It’s such an effective way of feeling like the book takes place in time and that times are changing. Nevil Shute does this splendidly in No Highway.
    This approach also complements something else I enjoy: the observer-narrator who is not intimately involved in the heart of the action (see e.g. John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos).
  • Anticipated/potential friendships surviving what could look like betrayal.
    I like this so much! It’s such a relief when it happens. Non-default drama is a grand thing.
Scribbly ballpoint drawing of plane and bird shadows over grass, tree in distance
Plane shadow, crow shadow

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)

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)



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.