Autodidact: self-taught

Jun
30
2015

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

by V. L. Craven

How to Lose Friends

Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) is an English journalist with a cynical view of … everything, but particularly celebrity. He has a small publication that’s on the verge of imploding and desperately wants to break into the big time of professional celebrity stalking/mocking. He wants to be a

After a truly ridiculous turn of events involving a pig and Clint Eastwood, young Mr Young is invited to work for the man whose party he crashed, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), in New York. Mr Harding, you see, owns several magazines.

Sidney has caught his big break. He’s in. He’s going to be someone. But first, he has to make an utter tit of himself. Multiple times. I mean, this is an Englishman in America being played by Simon Pegg.

But he’s still in…sorta. His sense of humour is all weird British and he doesn’t dress properly and … Oh, dear. Sidney wants to take the piss out of celebrities, as God intended, but the people he desperately wants to write for want him to kiss simply all the celebrity backside, as journalists do in the States. Loads of things change when you cross the ocean.

So things begin to falter pretty early on. He does make friends with a colleague (Kristin Dunst) who helps him as much as she can help a person determined to shoot themselves in the foot. Another rather ruthless colleague (Danny Huston) teaches Sidney a few invaluable lessons, as well.

And then there’s the vapid celebrity he’s deeply smitten with, played by Megan Fox. She’s hilarious. No kidding. Her publicist is played by Gillian Anderson and do you need to know any more than that? It’s Gillian Anderson. She makes everything better.

There are some fantastic cameos: James Corden, Katherine Parkinson and her IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd, Thandie Newton and others. Miriam Margolyes plays Sidney’s Polish landlady in New York and Diana Kent is an actress desperately trying to make a comeback. Sidney’s father is played by Bill Paterson.

It’s one of those films where every few minutes you’re saying, ‘That guy!’ and then running to IMDB.

How to Lose Friends and Influence People offers some not-surprising but still depressing information about how publicity and journalism (especially in regard to celebrities) works in the States. And it’s based on a true story . The ‘real’ Sidney Young (whose name is Toby Young) worked at Vanity Fair for five years. The one in the film… well. Five years would have been a miracle for that guy.

Knowing it was based on reality to some degree helped. Otherwise it would have been a very funny but somewhat predictable film. Instead, I was sat watching it wondering what was derived from what and who the real life counterparts were to some people. [The Jeff Bridges character was clearly based on Graydon Carter .]

Overall it was a good time. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments, an excellent cast and Simon Pegg doing his thing. 4/5

Jun
16
2015

Fresh Meat

by V. L. Craven
I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

Fresh Meat follows the exploits of a group of awkward students as they awkwardly make their awkward way through uni in Manchester. None of them got into halls (the dorms) so they’re sharing a house. It’s a mish-mash of personalities. Let the good times roll.

The main cast:

Josie: (Kimberley Nixon) Bubbly, Welsh, naive and seemingly kind. People really aren’t what they appear sometimes. All of these people put on fronts to appear to be cooler than they are to their peers, but this one… Wow.

Oregon: (Charlotte Ritchie) A literature swot who makes poor life choices in terms of married professors and, you know, sleeping with them. Particularly when their wife is also in the English department.

Vod: (Zawe Ashton) Far more interested in drinking and drugging than studying, Vod, also isn’t a big fan of the Establishment. Go anarchy!

Howard: (Greg McHugh) Scottish, socially inept but kind, Howard is older than the others, as he changed courses from philosophy to geology. If this show were made a few years ago this character would be played by Nick Frost.

Kingsley: (Joe Thomas) Bog-standard English guy. Awkward in the typical way. Just wants to be a good person and get a nice girlfriend. That doesn’t mean he’s not a tit sometimes.

And J.P.: (Jack Whitehall) Complete posh-o who’s in Manchester because he couldn’t get into a ‘proper university’. This was Whitehall’s acting debut and though his character is absolutely dreadful, he’s still my favourite. He’s condescending and arrogant, but also a loser with women and can be genuinely kind.

There is not one cast photo where he's not pulling a face. This man.

There is not one cast photo where he’s not pulling a face. This man.

There are currently three series with a fourth being filmed this year. Each year there are recurring characters that are more or less successful, but it’s the main cast that makes the show.

A standout character from the second and third series (and hopefully the fourth) was Sabine, a Dutch PhD student. She’s very straightforward and doesn’t particularly care for the kids because she sees them for the self-absorbed not-yet-fully-formed humans they are. There’s a hilarious scene in a pub where the British group are asking her how she talks/bonds/gets off with people if she doesn’t drink. I mean…that’s the only way British people can loosen up enough to be social.

It is NOT perfectly natural, you weirdo!

The show was created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the people behind Peep Show. Robert Webb was in series one and two as Kingsley, Howard and JP’s geology lecturer. (And I felt it right in the age bone when I realised that Peep Show is twelve years old. It’s nearly a teenager.)

If you enjoy shows like, well, Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Bad Education–ensemble casts of disparate people getting themselves into and out of trouble and being awkward in the process–you’ll enjoy this one. 5/5

Jun
09
2015

Penny Dreadful

by V. L. Craven

Penny Dreadful

Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein and Abraham van Helsing walk into a pub in Victorian England. Everyone’s got consumption and there’s an ancient evil or three afoot.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Penny Dreadful is a Gothic drama, fantasy nightmare concoction.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s great fun. Just difficult to categorize.

There’s the main character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, who should win all the awards) who has a bit of a possession problem. As in, she’s been possessed by … something. Who knows. But it’s a hell of a thing. Then there’s Mr Gray and Dr Frankenstein (his projects have been going swimmingly by the time we meet him) and Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton.

Sir Malcolm is one of those explorers the Victorians were drowning in at the the time. He’s on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter, Mina. Yes, that Mina. Harker. The Dracula one. We’re hitting all the Gothic greatest hits.

There’s the obligatory prostitute with a heart of gold with harsh backstory (Billie Piper) and an American gunslinger from the Wild West played by Josh Hartnett.

The plot can be a little…meandering at times in a Dickensian sort of way. The show is more about characters, though, and the casting is superb. As are the costumes and sets and everything else.

Though the overall plot tends to take its own path, each episode rips right along, generally, and one never knows what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to.

There was one episode in the first series that was slow and it featured Anna Chancellor. They managed to make an episode with Her Gloriousness drag. That alone is noteworthy. (The episode had a load of useful but dull exposition and she played Eva Green’s mother–a role she also played in the quite excellent The Dreamers.)

Basically, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster (played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear)…and tuberculosis but that makes it sound like Buffy with consumption. I loved Buffy, but… Ugh. This is hard . Do you like American Horror Story? Do you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you like corsets and velvet? You’ll like this. Probably. I’m giving it 4/5.

Jun
05
2015

Lifted by the Great Nothing

by V. L. Craven

Lifted by the Great Nothing

 

Max is twelve years old. He’s of Lebanese decent (though his father, Rasheed, says they’re just American now); he drinks mixed vodka drinks; he spends time with the Yangs next door.

Max’s father is the centre of his world. He keeps the house clean for him and makes his food–special, fancy meals, because his father works several lowly jobs to make ends meet.

Max’s mother died when he was a baby then they fled war-torn Lebanon. That’s when they became Americans. Rasheed doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so they don’t discuss it.

Eventually, Kelly moves in. Kelly is very socially aware and teaches Max about things like injustice, civil war and genocide and he begins to wonder what happened to his mother.

Karim Dimechkie’s debut novel Lifted by the Great Nothing is about a young man (it’s told in three parts–when Max is 12, 16 and 26) trying to figure out who he is and where he comes from. And in the process he learns a few hard truths about the choices people make in order to protect the ones they love. 4/5

[I received a review copy of this from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Jun
02
2015

Mean Girls

by V. L. Craven

Mean Girls

Last weekend I decided to become the last person on Earth to see Mean Girls. I hadn’t actively avoided it, really. I simply felt that, being on Tumblr, I had seen most of it in gif form. I knew fetch was never going to happen. I knew on Wednesdays we wear pink. I knew Leslie Knope was the cool mom.

For once, though, Tumblr didn’t oversell something. I actually enjoyed this one.

I know, I know, I’ll let you catch your breath from that gushing praise. But when something is praised so highly and quoted so frequently, it’s difficult to expect much. Generally, when any product appeals to the masses it’s because it speaks to the lowest common denominator.

Occasionally, though, you get something else. *cough* Harry Potter *cough*

I’m not saying Mean Girls is on par with Harry Potter, but it was still entertaining. The internet hadn’t managed to show me every laugh and surprise from the film. (Including a really big one.)

I haven’t done my usual plot description then review because I assume everyone with eyes under the age of, say, forty has seen this thing, but if you’re like me and you haven’t, I recommend it.

It’s like Clueless–that sort of unrealistic teenage film that doesn’t even attempt to be about authentic teenagers, but still captures more about the high school experience than those films about trying to lose your virginity on prom night.

Mean Girls sort of reminds me of Popular, that Ryan Murphy television show that didn’t last nearly long enough. They could definitely take place in the same universe.

It’s written by Tina Fey and based on a non-fiction book called Queen Bees and Wannabees , which is about how horrible teen girls are to one another. If that doesn’t catch your interest then no plot description or review is going to. It’s just as excellent as you’d think that combination of things would be and is the sort of thing I’d watch again. On purpose.

The are very, very few teen films I’d say that about. 5/5

May
06
2015

Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

As mentioned in yesterday’s review of the film , I’ve been a huge fan of Harold and Maude for some time and watch it at least once a year. So when a novel by the same name came up on NetGalley I requested it, thinking it was the source material for the film.

At first I thought it was the most true-to-source material film adaptation I’d ever read–the cover does say ‘a novel’–but it turns out it’s a novelization of the screenplay. Higgins wrote both the screenplay (it was his master’s thesis at UCLA film school) and the screenplay so it has the same atmosphere of the film.

The novel exists in that same darkly comic, wonderfully bizarre world. Nineteen-year-old Harold Chasen is just as obsessed with faking his own death and seventy-nine-year-old Maude is just as in love with life. Harold’s mother is just as exasperated with all the nonsense and then, of course, there’s the car.

It’s a quick, entertaining read and there are little differences here and there that fans of the film will find interesting. It’s fun to see how scenes were originally written versus how they were edited in the final version and what was cut or changed entirely. Scenes with Uncle Victor, the brigadier general, are different in the novel, for instance. And bits and bobs that weren’t fully explained in the film (how did Harold turn that Jaguar into a mini hearse?) are laid out quite neatly.

The film is such a part of my consciousness I can’t say what a person unfamiliar with it would think of the book or how they’d read certain characters. While reading it I was laughing out loud because I was hearing/seeing the actors in my head.

5/5 for people who’ve seen the film this is a must-read.

[I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

May
05
2015

Harold and Maude Film

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

Harold Chasen is nineteen years old. Wealthy in that old-money sort of way. Obsessed with death in that constantly-staging-his-own-suicide sort of way.

He drives a hearse, watches demolitions and attends the funerals of strangers. At several he notices an older woman (she’s turning 80 within the week)–who also notices him. She’s positively full of life.

Though she does have a bothersome habit of stealing cars…or police motorcycles.

She also poses nude for sculptures and frees trees being choked by smog. Oh, Maude is just what Harold needs.

Harold’s mother, however, thinks Harold needs to get married or join the army. She sets him up on dates arranged by a computer dating agency and then sends him to see his uncle, the brigadier general. These experiences go rather hilariously sideways.

The entire film is hilariously sideways.

Harold and Maude still

I admit my prejudice in that Harold and Maude is one of my top five favourite films. I watch it probably once a year and it never ceases to crack me up.

When the film was originally released in 1971 it was a flop, but eventually became a cult-hit being played on university campuses. It’s wonderfully dark and bizarre. The line-readings are classic, the set designs lush. Every character is perfectly cast.

It’s the sort of film you’ll either ‘get’ and love straightaway or stare at, nonplussed.

5/5

I pulled this one out to review when they re-released the novelization of the screenplay, which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow.

Apr
30
2015

The Well Film vs Novel

by V. L. Craven

Similarities and Differences Between Elizabeth Jolley’s Novel The Well and the Film Based Upon It

This post includes spoilers for both the 1986 Elizabeth Jolley novel The Well and the 1997 film of the same name. There are spoilers everywhere and will not be behind the usual ‘here be spoilers’ tags. If you need a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading, here is a photo of Pamela Rabe.

The Well Pamela Rabe

If you’ve decided to stick around, then here we go.

There are more similarities than differences and the film sticks very close to the book–closer than most adaptations do. Many of the same conversations happen, though perhaps in different places.

The most noticeable difference, however, is the choice of casting Pamela Rabe as Hester Harper. In the book, Hester is menopausal or after–she’s fifty-something if she’s a day. Whereas, Rabe wouldn’t have been forty when she played the role. (Don’t get me wrong, they made the correct decision, but I was surprised by how much older the character was in the book.)

Per usual, there’s more about everyone in the novel–films don’t have the ability to capture the inner world of the characters the way books do–and we learn more about Hester’s beloved governess Hilde and Mr Bird and Katherine’s friend Joanna, as well as Katherine’s time at the orphanage.

Hilde had to leave one day after having a miscarriage (or giving birth? it’s difficult to tell from the description) when Hester was fourteen. Hester found her in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom bleeding profusely and crying. The next day her father took Hilde away and Hester was sent to boarding school. This gave Hester quite a dim view of bearing children or childbirth or relations between men and women.

Mr Bird dies suddenly near the end of the book but was trying to look after Hester right up until his end. There is some intimation that he was romantically interested in her, possibly. He certainly had affection for her, as he’d sent her cards on special occasions her entire life. She hadn’t wondered why until it was too late to ask. The original Hester Harper is remarkably self-involved.

Joanna, Katherine’s friend who spends most of the book and film on remand, sends letters and plans a visit. She eventually becomes an evangelist and her final letter in the book arrives on white paper with a gold cross on each page. She invites Kathy to join her for a tour of the States.

The Hester Harper of the book seemed much more frivolous and less capable than the one in the film, who was always in control and knew what was what. The Hester of the film also seems to have more of a sense of humour and a better singing voice.

The Katherine of the book (she’s never given a surname) is more annoying, but she also looks after Hester. She’s less conniving in the source material, whereas in the film, she comes across as money-grubbing and manipulative. This could be because the book is very much from Hester’s point of view, but the film has to be from a more objective viewpoint. However, in the book, Katherine never refers to her benefactress as ‘Hester’, as she does in the film. She always calls her ‘Miss Harper’.

The original Hester Harper is much less likable. She’s insanely possessive and absolutely will not allow Katherine to bring a man into their house and certainly not allow her precious Kathy to have a baby, even though, as she ages, these are things the younger woman expresses an interest in. She’s jealous of Joanna, as well, but not to the same degree, and, by the end of the novel, she’s resigned to letting Kathy go with Joanna to America if she wants.

The book explains where Hester gets Kathy (see my review ) which I had found confusing in the film. And in the book the Harpers didn’t have Molly–the woman they let go in the film–to make room for Kathy. The girl also didn’t find the work too hard and strop off only to return. Films need conflict, though. Something else the book explains that the film doesn’t is what Katherine sees in Hester. She seems to like looking after the woman–she brings her sweets at the dance, for example, in the book. But in the film it’s unclear why she’d return that day early on when she’d decided the work was too hard.

In the book, Katherine wears the yellow dress to the dance that Hester makes for her. It’s cause for some snide comments because Mrs Borden thinks Hester is trying to keep Kathy like a child even though she’s twenty-one, but Katherine likes it–she certainly doesn’t intentionally ruin it the way the character in the film does.

After the man is put down the well everything goes the same in both media. However, in the big argument in the film, Kathy says something to the effect of, ‘If you give me the key I’ll do anything you want, I’ll be so good.’ Intimating sexual favours. This line doesn’t appear in the book, though earlier Hester reflects on how her enjoyment of watching Katherine dance makes her feel and:

She groaned. The dance was for her the only physical manifestation of physical love. Hester did not feel guilty about the feeling. It was private. She pulled off onto the gravel for a few precious minutes alone on the edge of the great emptiness.

Afterwards, in her weakness, she cried a little…

So clearly there was sexual attraction on Hester’s side, even though Kathy doesn’t mention it in the book and that’s really the only mention

The last scene of the book is Hester with a petrol can in the car with Mrs Borden and a bunch of her children. She and Kathy had run out of fuel and the older woman felt like a walk so the younger woman stayed in the car to work on her sewing for an upcoming fete. Joanna will be arriving by then for a week-long stay.

The well has just been permanently covered over after the downpour, which nearly filled it. Hester had it covered as she thought Kathy would realise the men working on it all morning would have surely heard anyone alive if, indeed, there had been a living soul down there.

Hester has also set herself on the plan that, if Kathy decides she wants to go to America with Joanna, she’ll simply have to let her and fill the emptiness of her days by constantly finding things to do with her time.

The film ends with Hester in the Bordens’ car with the brood and Kathy hitch-hiking with a bunch of money. The book is never clear on if Kathy has the money or not. In the book Hester doesn’t look for it the way she does in the film.

 

Oh, and in the book the woolly hat is red, rather than yellow.

Apr
29
2015

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

by V. L. Craven

The Well

In February I reviewed an Australian film called The Well and found the ending confusing. In said review I said I’d like to read the screenplay to see if the ending was less ambiguous.

So recently I read the novel the film was based on–The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, which was published in 1986.

It tells the story of Hester Harper, an Australian spinster who has spent the majority of her life on a remote farm with her father.

One day she meets an orphan–a young woman named Katherine–who’s been helping out at a local shop but who is about to be returned to the Home, as the man of the house no longer wants her around. On a whim, Hester takes the girl home with her to help with chores.

She grows possessive of the girl. Protective. And Katherine cares for Miss Harper, as well. She certainly likes her money and helps spend it with an abandon the older woman had never felt the need for before meeting the girl.

The girl has awakened something in the woman. An appreciation for life. Her inner world is more vibrant for Katherine coming into it even if her outer self is as old and broken as it was before her arrival. Most of all, she loves watching the young woman dance.

Hester’s father dies and the decision is made to sell the farm her family has lived on for generations and she and Katherine move to a little cottage even further from civilisation, but who cares, as they have one another.

It’s the first time that Hester Harper has been happy since she was a child so she is willing to go to great lengths to preserve her precious, shared life when a sinister event threatens to disrupt what they’ve built.

The lengths she is willing to go to, though, may do irreparable harm to her beloved Kathy, who may not be as innocent as Hester believes.

the-well

There’s an old-fashioned feel to The Well. Not being familiar with the songs or dances Katherine mentions (and assuming it was because they were Australian) the book ‘felt’ like it took place in the late 60s or 70s. It wasn’t until the end of the novel when one of the characters makes a passing mention of AIDS that I looked at the copyright. This could be because the book takes place from Hester Harper’s p.o.v. and she’s a queer sort of bird but old fashioned in her way.

It’s very … Australian. In a way I don’t have the words to describe. Some books simply feel like the countries they were written in. Some books are American or English or Australian. There’s an Oz sensibility about it. And also a slightly English. Perhaps it’s the ‘single, eccentric woman living in the countryside giving no cares’ that rings the English bell for me.

That’s not a criticism (the Australian thing, I mean); it simply is what it is. If you’ve never read Australian books before this may seem sparse or if you haven’t liked other ones you probably won’t like this one but I enjoyed it. Hester Harper is a fully-formed character and the reader gets to know her, warts and all. She is stubborn. And, ultimately, a very lonely person. Her loneliness makes her blind and blind people do stupid things.

This is a satisfying, but not uplifting read.

I give this 4/5 but if you’re looking for straight-forward answers or a happy ending keep driving.

My next post will be about the similarities and differences between the source material and the film. Needless to say, this didn’t clear up much for me, but as a fan of the film, I’m glad I read it. It also stands on its own as a novel.

Apr
28
2015

The Duke of Burgundy

by V. L. Craven

DoB Three Panel Maroon

This review is free of spoilers, though in some ways this film is better if you know nothing about it going in. It may sound odd, but I recommend not reading this review, or any review. Just watch the film—it’s incredible.

A young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at her employer’s house—Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen)—a cold, demanding woman who makes her stay late at work and punishes her severely when she makes mistakes.

In the next scene we find out the women are lovers who play sadomasochistic sorts of games. This isn’t a spoiler—we learn this in the second scene of the film.

The women go through their normal lives—the older one is a lepidopterist—and they attend talks at the library, as well as do scenes at home.

But all is not well in kinky-land.

And then the end happened and I was: Whaaaaaa?

I know that seems like a short plot synopsis but it really is better to know less rather than more. Also, the film is more of a character-study than plot-based.

DoB Venus in Furs

The Duke of Burgundy was written and directed by Peter Strickland in the 20-teens, but feels like it was based on a 1970s novel. In an interview Strickland says it was an homage to 70s films, and that’s apparent in both look and feel. The cinematography (by Nicholas D. Knowland) is lush and luxurious.

The setting is somewhere non-specific in Europe and the time could be any time after the 70s. (It was filmed in Hungary and Budapest). The soundtrack is by Cat’s Eyes and compliments the film perfectly.

The Duke of Burgundy is about what happens when Dommes and subs don’t negotiate what they both want. (And something called topping from the bottom.)

There are some trippy sex scenes and music cues that are very 70s. And there’s an entire sequence roughly three-quarters of the way through that’s that sort of LSD weird-out sort of thing you’d see in the 70s.

Even though it’s surreal and artistic, it’s a more realistic depiction of a BDSM relationship than Secretary, as it shows how far the fantasy is from the—often boring or hilarious—reality.

Basically it’s my favourite film now. 5/5

[The images in this post are by Julian House. More are available here .]

Bonus: some behind-the-scenes photos of the film.

Apr
21
2015

Quills

by V. L. Craven

Quills

The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has got himself locked up in the lunatic asylum at Charenton.

The Abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) has prescribed writing about his deviant fantasies in order to rid himself of the thoughts.

What he doesn’t prescribe, but the Marquis does anyway, is to publish the writings. This is done with the help of the laundress Maddie (Kate Winslet), who smuggles the scribblings out to a man on horseback.

This is how Justine is published. Napoleon is less-than-pleased with the work and orders all copies to be burned and for the Marquis to be killed. He is talked around to sending Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum to ‘work’ with the artist.

The good doctor is a pioneer of curing mental illness. Unfortunately this is the early 1800s, so that mostly involves torture.

Before taking up permanent residency at Charenton, Dr Royer-Collard swings by a Paris convent, where he collects his underage, orphan bride-to-be. They’re wed in very short order. She’s so much his junior and the wedding happens so quickly, everyone begins to gossip and the information makes its way back to the Marquis…who writes a little play.

Which the performers of the asylum put on for the doctor (they’ve been doing plays for some time, always to good turn out) but this one is rather bawdier than usual and, of course, more true-to-life than the typical fare.

This enrages the doctor, who does the worst thing he can think of to a writer–he removes his every ability to put pen to paper. No more pens, no more ink, no more paper.

The Marquis gets creative and then things go a bit south…

This would be creative mode. You don't want to see 'south'.

This would be creative mode. You don’t want to see ‘south’.

The cast is A+, as is the writing and direction. And cinematography and costumes. It’s all grand. Historically correct, not so much. It’s funny and dramatic and a little bit gross, just like the Marquis.

5/5 just don’t consider it to be a history lesson.

Non sequitur bit of info: I went to see this in the cinema in 2000 and it was sparsely attended, but the other film-goers were a random bunch. There was a young couple with a baby in a stroller a couple of rows away and the person I was with and I were: Do they *know* what this film is about?

Apr
17
2015

The Winter Family

by V. L. Craven

The Winter Family

In the final days of the Civil War Quentin Ross (who grew up wetting his bed and pulling the wings off flies) is sent off by General Sherman on a mission. Ross puts together a small band of people who have a, shall we say, tenuous  connection with morality and set off. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they’re wanted for desertion.

In the wake of the war, the Klan is formed in the South and several members of the gang hire themselves out to combat them. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they have to split up to save their lives.

Luckily, this was in the early days of the Union. There were huge swathes of uncharted land to get lost in. Violence-loving thugs and those with nothing to lose lead by two sociopaths could easily get lost.

Then came the Chicago election of 1872. The Republicans had held the city forever but the Democrats were beginning to organise. All the working-class people and the various ethnicities–the Irish, German, Polish, etc, were coming together in order to face the rich Republicans. President Grant has promised the gang pardons if they help maintain order on election day.

Except Augustus Winter (sociopath number two of the group) his brand of violence was beyond the pale. He was not up for pardon and he was not invited to Chicago.

So the gang is reunited in Chicago–Winter finds out, of course–and it wouldn’t be a Winter Family reunion without copious amounts of violence. Once again with the unfortunate decisions and having to split up.

Eventually they wind up coming back together in Oklahoma in 1891 for the big showdown with their arch-nemesis, Matt Shakespeare, brother of one of their former members.

The main events of the book take place in Georgia 1864, Chicago 1872, Phoenix 1881 and Oklahoma 1891. Between each section are summations of what was happening in American history and what the characters did while they were apart. This could feel a little disjointed, though the narrative device is understandable because otherwise the book would have been 2,000 pages long.

The Winter Family is about race and violence and what really lives in the hearts of men. It’s well-written and was difficult to put down and it covers a vast area both geographically and historically–Jackman definitely did his research–I learned a lot about parts of American history that wasn’t covered at school.

Overall I’d give The Winter Family 4/5.

[I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Apr
10
2015

Deep Shell

by V. L. Craven

Deep Shell

Harkel is a surgeon. His job is stitching the wounds that appear in the ground they live on. And the ground is alive.

Four decades prior, four ships crashed onto a planet mostly made of water. They landed on a living organism they call the behemoth. The survivors are doing the best they can and have got on with things in the intervening period.

When there are fleshquakes (think earthquake but gory) people like Harkel go in, assess the damage and suture things up.

Lately there have been more, and more violent, fleshquakes. What resources the humans have are running out and will only continue to do so so when Harkel is given the opportunity/order to help save the planet he has to take it.

Deep Shell is available on Kindle for $.99 and it’s definitely worth that. It’s worth more, really. There’s lots of action and blood and gore, and feels like an hour-long sci-fi episode of a well-produced show. I’m not sure which one, but something dark.

Kelly has a gift for creating atmosphere, which in this case can be a little stomach-churning (don’t eat spaghetti whilst reading it). There were some questions about the overall world that were left unanswered, but it left room for other stories set in the same universe called The Conflux, which I would definitely read.

It’s a short read–16,000 words, but great fun. If you’re looking for some sci-fi with plenty of viscera that can be finished off in an afternoon, look no further. 5/5.

Apr
07
2015

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

by V. L. Craven

Young Doctor's Notebook

In 1917 Dr Vladimir Bomgard (Daniel Radcliffe & Jon Hamm) was an utter Hermione at university in Moscow and scored 15 5s. Immediately upon graduation he’s shipped to a village on the outskirts of nowhere in Russia (and Russia does nowhere like no other). He has next to no practical experience and was too short to see some lessons so he’s beyond unprepared for life in a hamlet without so much as a shop and in the middle of a Russian winter (Russia does winter like no other).

The villagers are ignorant, the doctor is unprepared, the staff at the clinic are cynical (or realistic, depending upon your view). It’s an excellent combination for disaster and a few miracles.

The show is darkly comic in a very Russian way (it’s based on stories by Mikhail Bulgakov). And it doesn’t go easy on the gore. This is medicine circa 1917 on the outer edge of the end-of-the-world, after all.

It’s the first time I’ve gagged watching anything fictional. And I’ve seen all of the Saw and Wrong Turn films. To calibrate that–I refuse to watch anything by Miike or the Centipede franchise.

I wasn’t paying full attention at the beginning of the first episode because it took me awhile to realise Jon Hamm was playing an older version of Daniel Radcliffe. What with Daniel Radcliffe being 5’5″ and Jon Hamm being 6’2″, this wasn’t apparent otherwise. There’s also only supposed to be a 16 year age difference, but it’s twenty. I’m going to let that slide and focus on the giant height difference (see exhibit A above).

The framing device of the entire series is that Jon Hamm is looking back on his old diaries after he’s being accused of using dead clients’ names to fill morphine prescriptions for his drug habit. The older version of the character often speaks to the younger version–trying to talk him out of taking morphine for the first time, for example–but the younger version also speaks to the older version, which is just… Russian.

There are two series–both are four episodes long. Unaware of this when I started the first series, it seemed to end abruptly. This review is for the first series, which really is excellent, as long as you have a strong stomach. 5/5

Mar
30
2015

The Jinx

by V. L. Craven

The Jinx

Some people have all the luck. And other people are massively unlucky. Robert Durst is one or the other. He’s either got away with murder three times or has known three different people who have got themselves murdered in such a way as to make him seem to be the killer.

In Andrew Jarecki’s documentary about Durst, The Jinx, he doesn’t exactly come across as a master criminal. But he does possess three qualities that will allow a person to get away with quite a bit: He’s male, white and wealthy. You can call me a social justice warrior all day if you want, but no poor black woman would get away with even one of these crimes.

Hell, in the one murder case they manage to get to court the jurors just couldn’t believe he’d done it because he seemed too nice. In that case he admitted killing and dismembering the person, but the question was whether the killing was justified.

We get to meet the major players in all three cases–Durst’s first wife went missing in 1982 under mysterious circumstances and she’s never been heard from again; in 2000 his long-time friend and confidant was killed in an execution-style murder; in 2001 he killed and dismembered a neighbour he was supposedly friends with.

All of these occurrences happen just about the time these people are about to make Durst’s life very difficult. Huh. What an unlucky person.

One of my favourite people is Jeanine Pirro–she was the District Attorney in New York when they were trying to make a case against Durst regarding the disappearance of his first wife. She has my absolute fav bit in the entire piece, when the filmmakers show her something they discovered. She examines it, then exclaims, ‘Son of a bitch !’

I have a bit of a crush on her.

But I digress.

It’s a six part documentary and I went in knowing the main points, including the ending, but had to see how on Earth all of the insanity Durst’s life sounded like could be and it was still compelling viewing. I watched all six episodes in one go.

The Jinx is a must for true crime fans or people who want to see how the justice system ‘works’. 5/5

Since the show aired, Durst has been all over the news for other crimes and is finally getting his due. Hopefully.

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