Books

  • Trouble in Triplicate (“Before I Die”, “Help Wanted, Male”, and “Instead of Evidence”) – Rex Stout: More Nero Wolfe (but mostly, more Archie Goodwin). Very enjoyable, although they don’t stand out particularly in my memory.
    • I continue to be charmed and amused by the women in these stories, particularly seen against current discussions on representation in shows and stories written now but set then. While not unproblematic, there are a LOT of them, and very different, even if Archie is judgemental. I spend a lot of these books going, “Oh, ARchie!”
    • I love too how Archie’s point of view, even though he is the first person narrator, is not uncritiqued by the author.
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot: I read this to do an illustration of it for Litographs! Some of my thoughts on it are in that post (Middlemarch illustration). It’s a study in the gentle weight and power of cumulative, well-written volume. I really, really liked it, and am not sure I can fully distill my thoughts yet. Three aspects I’ve been referring to frequently, of late, are:
    • the *smallness* of society in the book;
    • the way it captures how consequences in life frequently seem inevitable and acceptable when you experience them even though a bland description of them would be melodramatic; and
    • how Eliot doesn’t pretend not to be writing a historical novel, and alludes at times to events “then” or “in those days”, etc.
  • My Antonia – Willa Cather: After Middlemarch, this was beautifully slim (pages) and crisp (the sentences). Not a criticism, just a contrast! A fascinating view of a predominantly immigrant culture, of a world moving between raw survival and ‘civilisation’.
    • Really interesting to read only a few months after Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, because it is set perhaps 50 years later and the lifestyle, landscape and some events resonate (I also just realised Burial Rites takes place the same year as Middlemarch, speaking of small societies and consequences).
    • And speaking of small societies… oh, the agoraphobic smallness of prairie towns!
    • It is also roughly contemporaneous with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and Seven Little Australians, although written earlier than the first and later than the second), and it is fascinating to think of these frontier childhoods happening at a time when Alcott and Coolidge’s comparatively urbane stories would have been out for several years.
    • Basically, it was a book I liked far more than I expected to: adventurous, charming, intriguing, awful, vital, gentle, uncompromising, and with plenty of story.
  • A Certain Justice – P. D. James: I… neither loved nor hated this? Possible I have been spoiled by the Sarah Caudwell novels. I could appreciate the masterly writing and observation, but I didn’t want to get into the world, so it wasn’t quite my brand of murder mystery.
  • Pegasus – Robin McKinley: Not my favourite McKinley, either – too much beginning. I had a similar issue with A Darker Shade of Magic, so your mileage may vary. It was interesting to compare McKinley’s deliberate, patient, pearl-like building of the world with the all-show-no-tell-no-time-to-explain-get-in-the-war-rig approach of Mad Max: Fury Road (shut up they are both stories which in their own ways are entirely of and about the world created).
  • Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein: Goodness, everything suffered from comparisons in April, at least at first. In case it isn’t clear, this is a recommendation.
    •  Black Dove, White Raven was not as violently, sense-assaultingly stunning as Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. It skews younger and is paced slower, and I was expecting to be picked up and dumped by it like the other books. But once I realised what a different book it was, I did really enjoy it.
    • I fell in love with Ethiopia, and never realised how little I knew about it, or about the late years of the ’30s. And the fact it is a war novel tied to the currents which would become the Second World War, but before that war happens makes the politics fascinating and the tensions unpredictable. Mostly, though, I just want to know a lot more about Ethiopia!
    • Also of note: Wein does not write her characters as being particularly extraordinary (although they are!). Momma’s unconventional life and marriage is never presented as such, Teo and Em use other people’s expectations but never fight against their own perceptions. These aren’t “girl power!” books, they are just books about girls (and now Teo) who happen to be doing things. In planes. In war.

Movies

  • Dior & I – Charming, fascinating, human, unglamorous documentary of people management and fashion. I could watch people working competently indefinitely. There is something very beautiful about people who look normal, and think of themselves as normal, but who are doing fascinating things well as a matter of course (see Black Dove, White Raven above) and due to the little choices they have made, working in the milieu in which they find or put themselves (see Middlemarch).
  • Fast & Furious 7 – I was looking forward to this as much as Cinderella (last month) and for very similar reasons. These are such winsome films, and the found/made family so endearing. Also: cars and stunts.
  • Age of Ultron – Not hugely disappointing, but a little bit.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Not disappointing at all. I was sitting in the cinema grinning wildly, thinking, “stylish and classy are not words I expected to apply to this film”. Many, many people have written about the movie, and I recommend Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ thoughts as a starting point. My enduring impressions are:
    • It is a marvellous example of consistent, wildly inventive, contained, restrained story design. Lots of people have said there isn’t much story there, but there is. Most of it, however, isn’t spoken.
    • More than one of anything is powerful. Having more than one woman takes the pressure of representing (yet standing apart from) all women off a solo character, and means they can be individually awesome, weak, human, furious. But having more than one good man does the same for him. Neither Max nor Nux represent all men. They’re just… them, flaws and all. (I mentioned Rex Stout critiquing a character from within that character’s first-person viewpoint, and he largely does this by having two very different detectives).
    • This is the third (but most extreme) recent example I can think of, of people just deciding to love something loudly on the internet, and that is so much fun.
    • The thundering, crazed poetry of certain lines.
  • San Andreas – Exactly what you’d expect. Exactly what I paid to see.

Illustration Friday: Airborne

 

Sneaking in under the radar with a Queen and 7 of Wasps for this week’s Illustration Friday topic. As usual, trialling techniques. These sketches are based on a series of wasp queen drawings I made idly in panels during Continuum 11 (which was great).

Middlemarch sketches

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a very large book. I know this because I speed-read it last month, and that isn’t actually possible. It is also a very wonderful book: all the summaries, while strictly accurate, make it sound depressing but it isn’t – once you commit to the 1000 pages of it, everything becomes inevitable and deserved and in character. It’s a very tender, human novel. I like it so much.

I am not the only person to feel this way! Due to the machinations of master-conspirator Ellen Kushner, I met Danny Fein and Benjy Brooke of Litographs, and was commissioned to illustrate Middlemarch.

Middlemarch roughs for Litographs

A lot happens in 1000 pages, and the novel has an ensemble-cast, so the process of finding an iconic image was complex. In the end, I simmered the ideas down to a focus on Dorothea’s story (since she begins and ends the novel), and the idea of how the choices we make, the context in which we live and the passage of time all limit the options available to us (I’ve been told that sounds depressing, but spread over 1000 pages it’s almost reassuring). So the sketches featured Dorothea, her husband the elderly, academic Casaubon, Highly Symbolic Trees (TM), and passionate, unsettled Will Ladislaw.

Who lost out in the final design. I listened to many episodes of 99% Invisible in the process of cutting out the final illustration.

Middlemarch - Original cut paper illustration

 

The 1830s did not have the best sleeves.

I then scanned the silhouette in and moved a few elements around – detached the bird, extended the line of hills, and so forth – before adding colour, converting it to an appropriate vectorised image and sending it off to Litographs, to be overlaid on text and printed (here is a video of their process).

Middlemarch

 

It can be produced in black and white or other colourways, on posters, wall-clings, tote bags and t-shirts – all through the Litographs website. They also have lots of other books, and are reprinting Alice in Wonderland on people using temporary tattoos, so have a look around while you’re there!

KJennings LItographs t-shirt

Illustration Friday: Pet

Queen of Thorns: yet another in the playing card series, to (as usual) warm up for this week’s illustration projects and try out some techniques. This is a very light sepia pen and ink drawing, with colour and texture added in Photoshop Elements.

The shape of this one is taken from some 15th century playing cards from Holland (you can see them on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website). Old playing cards are generally amazing – have a 15th century Stuttgart set as well.

I have been asked whether the cards will coalesce into a single project. Maybe? They began as a prop for a story, and then turned into illustrations for other stories, as well as a testing ground for other ideas.

In other news: oh, stacks of stuff, some of which I hope to be able to talk about soon. I’ve been waiting on a few illustration projects to come back to my desk (they’ve all arrived this weekend), so I’ve been pushing ahead with the first read-through and edits on my Large Amorphous Manuscript. 8.3% to go!

Illustration Friday: Wiggle
Even mermaids start small…

Another in the ongoing, desultory playing card series. Pen and ink drawing, with colour and texture added digitally.

Scholarships and Access Fund

To mark its 25th anniversary, the wonderful Queensland Writers Centre (which among many other things runs the Australian Writers Marketplace, if:book and GenreCon Australia) is launching the inaugural Scholarships and Access Fund to provide funding and travel support for writers from diverse backgrounds. If you’re able to help us with that, please make a pledge to 25/25/25 on Pozible before Wednesday 6 May 2015. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of QWC)

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Reaper

Friend and clever, eyebrowed, sweary person KHR Smith is writing a crowd-directed story for her Masters project. She needs input (ideas –>story; money–>charity). More on her Patreon here: The Reaper Next Door (language warning).

Cinderella

Books

  • Burial Rites – Hannah Kent: A historical novel about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Such a small, slow, bleak, beautiful book and history. Also some interesting Anne of Green Gables parallels, which is not at all to say that if you like Anne you should read this (you should read it, just not for any similarity!). I’m curious, however, to know if anyone else thought this.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic – V E Schwab: (One of several I grabbed from Tor based on the cover) The structure of the beginning of this novelreminded me of Diana Wynne Jones. It didn’t unfold or particularly explain, just… started, and then went on, so the whole book felt on the cusp of Telling You What The Plot Is And Tipping Into The Middle. This gave it a sustained, off-balance momentum which I always find both puzzling and enjoyable (it’s something that’s usually discouraged but high on my wish list). Schwab also starts with the point of view of someone not of our world looking at our world (or something like it) and just assumes the divided state of the worlds is normal. This is something else DWJ trained me to like.
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell: The first and, as I read them out of order, the last. Alas. Such a delightful balance of classic mystery/comedy, and unexpected, understated messing-with-stereotypes.
  • Am I Black Enough for You – Dr Anita Heiss: Part memoir, part musing on identity (and how others perceive it, particularly the Aboriginal identity of an academic city girl), part story of the growth of an academic and author. Both this and Palmer’s book (below) had some interesting intersections on the themes of (a) speaking up and (b) listening.
  • The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer: I really enjoyed this, and have recommended it to people for very different reasons: as an account of controversy (whichever side of several you fall on), as an artistic memoir, as biography, as a bohemian fantasy, as a crash-course in creative business, to read as a novel, for some unexpected Sayers parallels in the themes of growing up and negotiating adult relationships.
  • Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat – Ursula Moray Williams: A classic. I may have cried at the end.

Movies

  • Cinderella: Just nice, in the nicest way. Terri Windling pointed out this review by Grace Nuth, “Have courage and be kind”, which points out the charming kindness and politeness. It sounds like a small thing, but as KHR Smith pointed out, we didn’t realise until we came out of the cinema that we’d been missing it.

The little gouache Cinderella painting above is available as a print on RedBubble.

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