Review: SmoothDraw vs Artweaver

You may have noticed a little upsurge in “hand-drawn” comics in the past couple of weeks, the most prominent being Grampa Scientist.

I’ve been using the Wacom Pen tablet I got a few weeks ago and I’ve been experimenting with various drawing software. The one I prefer – so far – is SmoothDraw. I like its simplicity, which is important, given that I draw simple cartoons.

This past week, I tried Artweaver. It’s surprisingly rich for a freeware, runs smoothly and has an interface like Photoshop. The problem was its actual complexity. For all its great features, it took me ages to find a simple felt pen for sketching. There are just so many settings and adjustments etc for every one of the available “brushes” that it just became counterproductive. And even when I managed to find a setting that allowed me to sketch, it didn’t have the liquidity that SmoothDraw provides. Also, drawing often suffered from lag, especially with quick strokes or long continuous lines.

Colouring in was also a pain, as you have to change the pixelation (“threshold”) of your sketch to avoid horrible white marks. SmoothDraw on the other hand is a bit more intuitive and fills things out a lot nicer.

Overall, it seems that Artweaver is better for deep, artistic work. When it comes to line art and colouring, I’d recommend SmoothDraw (which actually has more features than the average cartoonist will ever need!). Anyway, they’re both free, so give them a try and find the one that works for you.

Still, I did draw something with Artweaver. Here you go:

Tools for teachers

I recently came across Report Wizard, a clever piece of software for teachers of English, French, Spanish, German and even Business studies.

In essence, RW is an evaluation report-writing program that allows you to evaluate your students by select from a list of four standard performance levels (Excellent – Good – Satisfactory – Poor), and then literally writes the report for you in fully editable text.

But what makes RW really stand out is that every text output comes in six variations, which means you have six different ways to praise or, um, “encourage” your students.

I can’t help but think that this kind of tool would be enormously useful in universities.

Summer music: Taryn Leia Prescott’s “Young and free”

A couple of months ago I posted a review of Taryn Leia Prescott’s album Songs of the Bride. Well,Young And Free EP Cover Art the talented musician/singer/songwriter has done it again in her new album Young and Freefive songs described as “an unabashedly enjoyable tribute to young love”.

Given the different theme, the music and lyrics are also different in style to Bride, with some humour, a more upbeat flavour and a strange sweetness that’ll make you drop what you’re doing and listen. Along with young love, Taryn also explores some interesting instrumental arrangements and even goes demi-bluesy on track 2, Thought Train. The last track, Meant to be, oozes with childhood sweetness and a heart-aching violin solo.

A small, deep and beautiful sound for the summer.

You can listen to the whole album here.

Review: “Room” by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Room tells the story of 5-year old Jack, who has lived all of his life with his Ma in a locked room. He lives in an artificial reality, where the surrounding objects are personified, TV is a window to other planets, and what lies Outside of Door is Outer Space.

Interesting premise? Absolutely. Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, told from the point of view of little Jack, unnervingly realistic and with a fair amount of tension in the first half, Room is certainly worth reading.

Having said that, it’s a little hard to understand why everyone went crazy over it. Well, maybe not that hard: saying anything negative about it would be like finding faults in a little child’s drawing. Consequently, it is my impression that Room is one of those works that you just have to rave about lest you’re looked down upon – just like Pulp Fiction managed to convince an entire generation that it was a good film.

Okay. Let’s do this.

Room‘s biggest problem is what is supposed to be its biggest asset: it’s told by a 5-year old boy with a seriously skewed view of the world. It’s supposed to be endearing; it’s not. You know how cute it is when a little child tries to tell you a story? Now imagine the same little child yapping incessantly in your ear for the next ten hours, interspersed with incomprehensible demands, complaints, whining and tantrums. Yep – not so cute any more. Annoying is how you’d describe it.

And there’s the rub: The story, and particularly its psychological dimension, is complex and dark – enough to make a thrilling page-turner. But instead of that we are constantly treated to what Jack is distracted with at any given moment. For example, during his mother’s psychological evaluation, we have to endure a couple of pages of Jack’s toy trucks. Tension dissipates with an obscene amount of Dora the Explorer. The impact of a really interesting and original story rapidly diffuses while Jack rambles on about how he hates shoes.

What Donoghue is trying to do is commendable: put the reader in the mind of a child who has known nothing outside of a 12-foot room all his life. And she does this superbly well, with the skill of someone who has had some serious hands-on experience with children. The fault is not that she doesn’t achieve this; it’s that she thinks that this is a good format for a psychological drama.

Another problem is the actual plot. The first half of the book takes place in the room itself, describing a few typical days and bringing us up to speed with the all-important backstory: Jack’s Ma was kidnapped when she was 19 and she has been locked up for seven years. She has been repeatedly raped; she has had one stillborn girl and finally she had Jack. Her captor comes in almost every night to bring supplies and to engage in other, more despicable, activities.

Then, at about 45% of the novel, it’s all over. In what is the only heart-pounding section of the book, Jack manages to escape, call for help and then rescue his Ma with the police.

And just like that, Room is over. Now, the entire second half of the book is Readjustment. The suspense is gone. The struggle has ended. What now? Police, media, clinics and doctors parade through the pages while Jack understands less and less, grows whinier and whinier, throws tantrums and – since he’s telling the tale – frustrates us more and more. Even his Ma’s family reunion – a potential tear-jerker – is lost under Jack’s confusion. Realistic? Yes. Good reading? No.

The result is loss of empathy and sympathy. As adult readers, we don’t get enough adult input of what’s going on. We’re relying exclusively on a reality-challenged child to take us through the stages of a very mature drama. We don’t get to feel for Jack because Jack doesn’t seem to be suffering all that much. As long as Dora is around he’s happy; in fact, he gets on our nerves a bit too. On the other hand, Jack’s Ma doesn’t appear as damaged as she should be because we only see her through his eyes - knowledgeable, wise, strong and mature. She has to attempt suicide for us to appreciate that her prolonged captivity might have affected her somewhat.

In short, I think that Room might have worked better as a straightforward psychological thriller, told in third person or even in first person through the mother’s point-of-view (although I imagine that would be hard work too). There is so much involved in this story, and we’d love to know more about the captor, about the kidnapping itself, about the girl’s psychology and about Jack’s underdevelopment - all the while leading to the climactic escape/catharsis. But all we get is a “triumph of parenthood” – a beautiful drama reduced to a sob story for over-sensitive moms. We need to hear the tale from someone who understands what is going on and can appreciate its gravity. And quite frankly, little Jack is a child sent to do a grown-up’s job.

Music with an impact: Taryn Leia Prescott’s “Songs of the Bride”

I am very picky when it comes to music, and even pickier when it comes to Christian music. The past few decades have delivered some lamentable samples of Christian musicians who either have never read the Bible or are terribly confused about what market they’re targeting.

But every once in a while, we’re blessed with some real gems. One example that I have really enjoyed recently is Taryn Leia Prescott‘s Songs of the Bride. Heartfelt, genuine and biblically deep, her lyrics draw heavily from the Psalms (there’s also a beautifully rendered hymn), with an unembarrassed honesty about the pain and passion of the Christian life. The music is simple and beautiful, and her voice artful and sweet. I have the joy of knowing Taryn and her husband Peter personally, and I know that they both mean and live every word in the album.

You can listen to all 7 songs here and purchase them for any price you want. There’s also an iTunes version here.