The week just gone

 

From Twitter, etc, this week

From Twitter, etc, this week

  • Paperbacks of The Bitterwood Bible have been seen in the wild! You too can own one.
  • The Archibald Prize travelling exhibition is on at the extremely beautiful Tweed Regional Gallery. Angela Slatter and I drove down this week and I recommend it. Of course, the gallery and in particular the Margaret Olley wing are always worth a visit (the views are like paintings).
  • Content warning: Snakes.
    So the giant carpet snake under our house moved into the neighbour’s tree above their dog kennel, and a couple of times when our neighbour went out at night to empty the bins he felt a light tap against the back of his head. And it turned out it was the snake checking him out.
  • Whether you’re drawing or describing backgrounds or just want to see how it’s done: Tips for Drawing Backgrounds. As usual, I maintain most illustration advice can be translated for written description and storytelling. Dunnett, for example, uses incredibly painterly light effects in her prose. Tobacco-brown light and single tips of gold light. Rembrandt.
  • Walking home the other evening I saw a plane, invisible in the dusk save for its lights, fly across the moon, casting the shadow of wings onto a lower cloud.
  • If you like labelling things: Bat-Labels, a curated and categorised list of labels from Batman
  • A letter from Dorothy Sayers (hand-copied, not the original) to a former lover, who told her he never wanted to marry, then married another:

  • I am currently reading c1970 crime: Westlake’s “The Hot Rock” (1970s New York) and Lahlum’s “The Human Flies” (2010, but set in 1968 Oslo). And let me tell you, there is nothing like a vintage crime novel to make you appreciate your mobile phone.

Stories that lingered

Prompted by a question on Facebook, this is a list of short stories which have lingered, i.e. which occur to me off the top of my head. They aren’t value judgements, in fact I am certain there are stories that don’t occur to me because they fit so perfectly into the whole of their collection or anthology. But they’ve stuck, and that probably says more about me than them.

  • Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (in the book of the same title, but also online here) because it was wonderfully strange and folded and caught something true and should have been real.
  • Dirk Flinthart’s “The Ballad of Farther-on-Jones” (in Striking Fire), because it was lyrical and hopeful and contained all it needed to.
  • Shaun Tan’s “No Other Country” (in Tales from Outer Suburbia), because it, like the whole book, is achingly gorgeous. The serious undertones of some of its neighbouring stories enhance the jewel-like quality of this one and its art.
  • Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Dark” (in What I Didn’t See – the paperback has a really nice cover;), because it keeps inserting itself into my memory of other collections, and because terrible things happen but people do good things too.
  • M R James’ “The Diary of Mr Poynter” because of one particular moment of the mundane becoming unsettled. Almost all his ghost stories do this but this one was particularly low-key. And I like the design element in the plot.
  • Dorothy Sayers’ “The Haunted Policeman” (in Striding Folly, but I read it first in the Folio Society’s Crime Stories from the Strand) because it is a miniature painting, and a lovely little puzzle. It was also my first introduction to Peter and Harriet.
  • Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog” (warning for some animal deaths) and/or “We Called Him “Allie” for Short, because of Lawson’s laid-back, tongue-in-cheek tone and, in the case of “The Loaded Dog”, the rolling, rollicking, dangerous inevitability of the plot.
  • Angela Slatter’s “The Badger Bride” (in The Bitterwood Bible – and by the way, the limited edition hardbacks of this are nearly sold out) because it is a small, perfectly formed legend curled into an angle of the interlocked stories of the collection.
  • E Nesbit’s “Melisande, or: Long and Short Division“, because of the knock-on effect of the plot, and the charm, and there being no real villain as such except for consequences (not unusual in E Nesbit’s stories), and because the silliness is played out soberly. Also maths.

Illustration Friday: Jungle

Illustration Friday: Jungle (Shabby tigers)

Some Dorothy Sayers fan art for this week’s Illustration Friday topic.

I’ve been falling in love with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and their hard-won, thoroughly negotiated friendship all over again because my housemate and I watched the Edward Petherbridge/Harriet Walter miniseries and were distraught to realise that they had not made Busman’s Honeymoon, which has led to reading out key selections to everyone who stays still long enough. Mostly the snarky accounts of the wedding which starts it all, and the sublime domestic comedy of cleaning the chimney, and the awful devastation of deep happiness in the face of long-running trauma that is the last chapter (in case you aren’t familiar with the book, it is a murder mystery, but that’s never what I remember).

The tigers – tamed and shabby, sleek and shining – make a metaphorical appearance in Busman’s Honeymoon and that’s all I’m going to say! Except that Busman’s Honeymoon is necessarily preceded by (at least) the grave and charming Strong Poison (London celebrity trials! Bohemia! accused innocence! unexpected and unrequited romance!), the intrepid and jolly Have His Carcase (practical rambling lady novelists, English watering places, creepy barbers) and the relentlessly thought-provoking and heart-wringing Gaudy Night (Oxford women’s colleges of the 1930s, philosophy, life choices, proper work and the terms of human relationships).

March and April Short Book Reviews

To War with Whitaker – Hermione Ranfurly: Funny, acerbic, remarkable diaries of Hermione Ranfurly (I read her childhood memoirs in February) who followed her husband to the Second World War and worked for a series of generals in Egypt and Italy. Her experiences, the contrasts between war and liesure, bureacracy and youthful high spirits, the privileges her rank and youth brought her and the economies needed because of relative poverty make it a delightful read. But by the time the diaries return, self-consciously, to the peaceful country setting in which they started, it is clear that the world, politics, culture and society have changed.

  • Borrowed from my mother
  • Cover is a watercolour painting, which is better than a photo cover (although it was based on several of the photos in the book) and looks consistent with the cover of The Ugly One. Still a bit too khaki.

Step Ball Change – Jeanne Ray: Light and sweet and fast.

  • Borrowed from my mother
  • Staged photo cover, I think of someone kicking up a heel in a red shoe? Accurate to the genre, but racier than the cover to Eat Cake (see below), and this certainly wasn’t a racy novel!

Eat Cake – Jeanne Ray: See above.

  • Borrowed from my mother
  • Staged photo cover, tones of pink: a neatly dressed woman holding a pile of cake boxes – accurate to the story.

All the President’s Men – Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein: The account of the breaking of Watergate by the reporters involved. Gripping and entertaining, but also fascinating for the changes (and lack thereof) in reporting and technology!

  • Bought at the Lifeline Booksale
  • Movie tie-in cover, but that means Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman looking earnest and flared, so that’s good.

Der Tod auf Dem Nil – Agatha Christie: This book is incorrectly titled. It shouldn’t be “Death on the Nile” – it should be “People annoy each other indefinitely on the Nile.” Or possibly “People don’t die on the Nile”. I was sure the death happened earlier in the book last time I read it, but my sense of time may have been dilated by reading it in German.

  • Bought at the Lifeline Booksale. I think.
  • Dreadful sunset photo-cover on a cheap library-style hardback.

Death in the Stocks – Georgette Heyer: So much better than the last Heyer crime novel I read – this was frothy and fast paced and entertaining and modern. I’m often surprised by how current books written in the ’20s and ’30s feel and how old-fashioned the ’50s seem. I know *why*, but if you just read books written then it sometimes feels as if the decades came in the wrong order.

  • Lent at me
  • Too pink, but otherwise a painting of fabulous young people in evening dress is accurate to the feel of the novels (although most of the characters were rather bohemian), and far better than the current sweet, pink, beribboned covers to her regencies.

Strong Poison – Dorothy Sayers: I’m sneaking up to reading Gaudy Night (and the review of it on Tor.com), on principles of delayed gratification (and also because, as Tor.com said in relation to that novel, you can reread a book any number of times but you can only read it once for the first time). I enjoyed that this book opened with the summing up in court, but mostly I enjoyed the vigorous opinion of the characters on the correct way to make an omelette, and have been making omelettes (successfully!) a great deal since. In fact, I might have one for dinner tonight.

  • Bought from a big chain bookstore
  • Black and white photo of a woman’s legs and court shoes, walking along a pavement. A bit noirish, but not off-putting and sets the era squarely. It does give the impression of a cover to a well-known book, rather than a cover to draw in unsuspecting readers.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy Sayers: Too many accents! This circular crime novel with its welter of accents and geographical features and eccentric artists at times felt too convoluted and self-indulgent, but it was Lord Peter Wimsey and many eccentric artists, so it wasn’t  bad. Possibly I wanted more cooking tips. I did like that she had a character discover a vital clue at the beginning and then told the reader that they’d have to work out what it was for themselves and if they’d been paying attention they’d be able to. And I did! Well, I had a strong suspicion, but I’m not an oil painter so I wasn’t sure.

  • Bought from a local crime/SF store on the same evening as the above, in penance for shopping at big chain bookstores
  • I cannot recall what the cover picture was of, but my impressions were as for Strong Poison above.

Also: I also read several Strand short crime stories out loud to my father, include Kipling’s “Faery-Kist” and Sayers’ “The Hanted Policeman”, which was my first Lord Peter Wimsey story, and so far my favourite.

January Short Book Reviews

An Older Kind of MagicPatricia Wrightson: A re-read to begin the year. One of my favourite urban fantasies – a very slight book of a very slight slice of Sydney – the house on the roof of a government department building where the caretaker’s children live, the halls of the department at night, a few city streets with their shop windows and facades and street lights, the great Gardens, and how they are all changed in the first hour of comet light and by the wild whispering things that live beneath the streets and in the gardens. It reminds me a very little of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, but smaller and wilder – less madcap and more like… a sighting of a comet, the wind in the trees of the botanic gardens, the magic in the lights at crosswalks.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Prompted by having watched the most recent Holmes movie, I read the first novel out loud to my father. He used to read them to us when my mother was away (she usually did the reading) and I’m pretty sure I have read or heard all of the stories, although a very long time ago (I used to stay up late reading The Hound of the Baskervilles under the covers and consequently scaring myself witless when dingoes started howling up in the scrub). This is the book in which Watson first meets Holmes, and I was struck by how much more CSI it is than Agatha Christie (my first memory of Holmes is of him devising a test for discerning traces of blood in water). It is also amusing to meet Holmes with Watson for the first time – as they discuss their character flaws before deciding to take the rooms at Baker Street and as Watson tries to deduce Holmes’ profession by what he knows and, more amusingly, what he doesn’t (literature, how the solar system works). And then the second half of the book is a very sensational western romance/tragedy/account of the Mormon settlement of Utah. I had also recently seen the movie, and so although I knew of the great (and, I am sure, entirely deliberate) inaccuracies of the movie, it was fun to see all the little things which were kept – the American influences, Watson’s bulldog, Holmes’ experimenting on dogs, aspects of their personalities and relationship. It’s a cheerfully liberal reinterpretation, and utterly light and unpretentious, and I liked it.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens: Such a peculiar book, this. I am glad I read it (for Sam and the Bear of Bad News among many other reasons), but it is Dickens finding and hitting his stride, and although it may be the ‘first Victorian novel’ it is Dickens writing a Regency novel (it is set 14 years after Pride and Prejudice was published) – all mad-cap adventures and small-town politics and bucolic misadventures and aunts in high-waisted gowns running off with disreputable fortune-hunters. And then at the end, as the pace gentled and friends were gathered and journeys ended I started realising – this is Hobbiton, this is the Shire, this is Sam Gamgee as much as it is Sam Weller, this is Bilbo Baggins as much as it is Samuel Pickwick, this is the last of that England before the factories and the railways and the town planning laws and the electric wires.

Whose Body? – Dorothy Sayers: Published in 1923, this is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and my second: I read Murder Must Advertise in 2008 (reviewed here) and bought both for my mother for Christmas. It is a decent little detective novel with a compelling character of whom I am anxious to read more, but notable for me first for the inclusion of shell-shock/PTSD post-WW1 (and subject of a very interesting series of articles on Tor.com) and for the way it is set in a time and a world that is almost recognisable – almost ours. There are police and fingerprinting and telephones and cars… and yet there are people who have never been in cars, and characters who have to struggle to work out how to use a telephone.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery: The concept behind the title is endearing, but it still makes me think of quirkily titled Alexander McCall Smith novels (and he does have wonderful titles) and on that basis this is one of the more misleadingly titled books I have read. It is the parallel stories of two inhabitants of an upmarket apartment building in Paris – an extremely intelligent, privileged suicidal child, and the disadvantaged concierge who conceals her own remarkable mind behind a veneer of the mediocrity people expect from her. It is full of philosophy and art-house films, but also occasionally surprising beauty and charming situations and (this is where it won me over) a brief summary of why The Hunt for Red October is a consummate film. I enjoyed it, although the style was too literary for me to look back on it with unalloyed affection, and I sobbed helplessly at the end – I suspect the ending was necessary for it to be literary fiction. It made me want to go and read Gillian’s Life Through Cellophane again, or watch Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, as an antidote.

Gently Down the Stream – Alan Hunter: A Lifeline Bookfest purchase – the cover featured in this post. This was written in the late 50s, but again there was that feeling of it being in a world that I almost know. Inspector Gently’s England is closer than Lord Peter Wimsey’s was – technology and investigative procedure have advanced, there is discussion of the dangers of tobacco – and yet the warnings are laughling dismissed and suspects are terrified of being hung for murder. I enjoyed the story – it was very particularl to and in love with its unlovely setting, and had a rather Midsummer Murders feel to it.

Mog’s Christmas – Judith Kerr: I grew up on this picture book and when I found it at the Lifeline Bookfest I bought it for my mother and took it home and we read it together with my dad and got teary-eyed again when the tree “stopped walking around and made itself all pretty”.

How the Queen Reigns – Dorothy Laird: There used to be a crazy-fabulous little vintage-with-a-focus-on-the-50s shop in Paddington: marching band costumes and pill-box hats and pearl collars and a small proprietor who sat low down behind a display case and kept all the change in a large tapestry handbag. That is where I bought this book. It is the 1961 updated edition and both interesting and obsessively detailed, at times laborious and frequently less than logically structured. It did, however, have two aspects of interest: a focus on the growth of the Commonwealth, and a portrait of the personality of the young Queen as a woman of strong mind and character, of her time and place and yet really admirable (and reminded me of my Australian grandmother).

Cameos of Crime M. O’Sullivan: I bought this (I think) in a second hand bookshop in Coolangatta and it was fascinating. It is a memoir of police and detective work in Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s – from working with trackers in mining camps to encouraging the use of plaster casts and the training of detectives in jiu jitsu, it is entertaining, shocking, enlightening. I loved it (if you can’t tell) not only for the stories but for the connections – the arrest that gave the name to a hill on the road I grew up on, the massacre that was remembered in stories of cursed families in my old home town, names and people and places – Captains Moonlight and Starlight, the Kelly Gang, Frank Gardiner. Scathing opinions on law and order in Chicago (as opposed to Brisbane). Police patrolling Woolloongabba on bicycles. Encounters with patriarchs of now-legendary families. Attitudes to race and gender which vary between the unexpectedly enlightened and the shocking (although, given the attitudes in some of those towns today, more than a century on, still arguably unexpectedly enlightened for the era). The authors own colourful views on police and juries and judges.  A colourful, eclectic, amusing book and worth reading if you can find it.

Imaginative Realism: How to paint what doesn’t exist – James Gurney: An art instruction book, but also one of great interest to non-artists – my parents kept it at home for a while (it was a Christmas present) to read through Gurney’s techniques and anecdotes. The process pictures and sketches are fascinating and the artwork – from Dinotopia to National Geographic – stunning.

Spectrum 16Cathy and Arnie Fenner: Always stunning, although this is one of the issues which the broader interpretation of ‘fantasy’ makes it a little more difficult to share with everyone.



June and July Short Book Reviews

Obligatory Vanuatu connection… the Rivers, Trudgill and Sayers were all read in Vanuatu, in my little guest room/storeroom/library overflow at the top of the flats looking out over the Coral Motel to the port. If you want more specific information about Vanuatu, feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments ;)

Tales from Outer Suburbia – Shaun Tan. I was so looking forward to this book. And then I went and bought it and had it signed (and he drew a picture in my sketchbook as well) and as I flipped through it I thought, “Hmm, maybe my hopes were too high” because it looked wordier than his others. I WAS WRONG! I read it and cried on the bus home and read it out loud to my mother when I got home, and to my nephew in Canberra. The stories and pictures (and they breathe into and rely on each other) are beautiful and eerie and haunting – suggestive but not allusive (I do like allusion); elusive and original and funny and sad and just the way things should be or ought to be or are in Australian suburbia. Of course a sad home might be helped by an abrupt dugong. Of course there should be an inner garden between the rooms of a house (only in this country). I want to celebrate the ‘Nameless Holiday’ on the basis of a single scratchboard illustration (that and the gingerbread crows and pomegranate juice). ‘The Night of the Great Turtle Rescue’ went for one page, had no context and is the most suspenseful story I’ve read. ‘Stick Figures’ freaked me out more than Picnic at Hanging Rock. The story about what happens to unread poetry came true the very next day when I went to the busstop and found a bin of shredded paper had been tipped over in the rain. I now want a backyard missile (for entirely aesthetic reasons) and thanks to the answer of what is at the edge of a street map, my mother has been writing down her stories. There are so many styles of illustration: collage and oil and pencil and scratchboard – thin whispy figures, juicy colours, complicated text, faded salt-whitened suburban scenes. A beautiful and amazing book.

Little Brother – Cory Doctorow. I’m a Fahrenheit 451 girl: I don’t like the horrible inevitability of 1984 and I had a bad reaction to Brave New World. I like a touch of hope with my dystopias. And so I thoroughly enjoyed Little Brother, which was a combat-boot-first, high-speed, technobabble, name-dropping, near-future rollercoaster of a book. I read it in one day, a day on which I flew back from interstate, went to work and out to the movies after. It made me want to go out and do things, good and big and independent things, and to think about what governments and security are and do and are for. It’s available for free download and it’s fast and I don’t mean that (in this case) as faint praise.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon. I enjoyed this very much, more than Kavalier and Clay (reviewed here). Literary genre fiction is a category I can definitely live with. This is a noir detective/alternate history set in the decaying city of Sitka, Alaska in the last days before the Federal District – created for Jewish refugees after Israel collapsed soon after World War II – dissolves and returns to American rule. It is perfectly noir (I do like hardboiled detectives) and odd and more real than some books I’ve read about real cities. It has seedy hotels and daredevil bush pilots and conspiracies and chess tournaments and was dark and funny and just an enjoyable book.

Redeeming Love – Francine Rivers. I’ve given a few answers I shouldn’t have, and I feel that telling the person who pressed this upon me that it was like The Da Vinci Code (I had problems with the theology, but it was very quick) was one of those answers. A resetting of the story of Hosea’s in  mid 18thc America, I found it – ugh. I had problems with the theology (especially that of guidance) and the representation of the author’s theology (ask me about Christian fiction sometime), the sex scenes (coy but more numerous than any other book I have read and I once spent a week with a bad back and nothing to read but Mills & Boon), the characters, their motivation, and the cover art. The best part was when Angel went off on her own rescuing people, and even that got a stop put to it. I found it unbelievable, ridiculous and often offensive and yes, I did read it all the night I got it. Like The Da Vinci Code, it moved at a cracking pace.

Sociolinguistics – Peter Trudgill. (My room in Vanuatu was part of the SIL library). Recommended. I don’t know how it compares with current theories, but it made me think about all the currents and debates and factors which go into language: culture, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, nationalism, politics. Also, it produced plenty of interesting facts with which to startle people at the dinner table. Everyone should read some linguistics, but I am starting to consider sociolinguistics a very useful area of study for authors.

Murder Must Advertise – Dorothy Sayers. The first Sayers novel I have read, and it was like Agatha Christie with a touch of Wodehouse. Or Midsomer Murders with a hint of Fawlty Towers. Remarkable observation of what happens in a workplace, numerous puns only excusable because it is set in an advertising firm between the wars, and kept me reading through the description of a cricket match which ran for an entire chapter. I will not object to reading more.

Also, James, 1 Peter and then I lost track.

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