Autodidact: self-taught

Nov
18
2014

We Are What We Are

by V. L. Craven

We Are What We Are

A woman goes grocery shopping in a downpour and suddenly begins bleeding from the mouth. She collapses into a ditch where she drowns, leaving her two daughters to carry out the religious duties for their father and younger brother. Due to the mysterious nature of her death, an autopsy is ordered and it’s discovered she had Parkinson’s. A teenage girl goes missing then the local doctor finds a human bone fragment in the creek, which leads to finding more bones. Things are not going well in the small town, is what I’m saying.

The daughters of the woman, Iris and Rose, have a difficult time taking over for their mother. Though they know the ritual has been carried out the same way for generations they have some objections and they discuss escaping their suffocating lives or upholding the tradition. Meanwhile, it’s discovered that Parkinson’s shares symptoms with a rare disorder called Kuru, which is only contracted one way and it’s not a good way. And it looks like the woman had Kuru.

As a commentary on extreme religious observance, it’s pretty much bashing you over the head and then gnawing on your arm. As a creepy horror film with nicely built atmosphere, it’s definitely one to watch.

The colour palette is particularly fine–it’s just lovely to look at–and the translucence of the girls’ skin and hair combined with them nearly always wearing white added to the effect. The younger daughter, Rose (Julia Garner) was especially good, though Bill Sage hit all the right notes as the stern patriarch of an extreme religious sect. (Though I’m not sure one family of five constitutes a sect.)

There’s relatively little blood or violence for a horror film (excepting one scene that was shocking in its violence if only because the rest of the film was so restrained). In this day of torture porn it’s refreshing to see films that rely more on story-telling than viscera to get the audience’s attention.

There is a sequel and a prequel planned and if they don’t turn both of those into gore-fests and retain the same level of plot and character development as the original, they could be interesting. Keep an eye out for those. Or pull an eye out for them. (Sorry. I’m so sorry.)

Overall I’d give We Are What We Are 5/5 because I like cannibals and I’d watch this one again. It’s definitely a step above most horror films. If you want fast-pacing or nudity or gore galore then this one isn’t for you, though.

Nov
15
2014

Best European Fiction 2015

by V. L. Craven

Best European Fiction 2015

With thirty stories representing twenty-eight countries (twenty-seven of the thirty were originally in languages other than English) the scope is vast. And not just geographically. Genre-wise, as well.

There is literary fiction, which often took the form of snapshots of people’s lives. The poignant ‘Hospital Room Nr 13.54′ by Olga Martynova stands out here.

There’s magical realism like Adda Djorup’s ‘Birds’, which was lovely in that Iris Murdoch I-think-I’m-missing-something-but-I-love-it-anyway sort of way.

‘The Second-Hand Man’ by Michael O Conhaile covered the humour area fairly well in a story that was very Irish. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a church and the Devil and God and a man with two tools. And I don’t mean pliers.

If you’re looking for straight up erotic ‘Somavox’ by Christopher Meredith definitely has that one covered, as does ‘Dungeness’ by Edy Poppy, though the former is a mix of science fiction while the latter is literary fiction.

Want to have your heart broken? ‘What the Dying Heart Says’ by John Toomey. There you go.

If modern vampire fiction is your thing there’s a story for that. And other types of science fiction and eastern European dream state stories. There’s even a choose your own adventure.

What’s most impressive is that it all hangs together. There’s a story near the beginning ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’ by Rein Raud about a man who creates incredible meals out of dishes from around the world where a flavour from one dish perfectly sets off something in the following or previous dish. That’s what West Camel has done. It’s the best anthology I’ve read yet.

With its variety of genres (and not a weak contribution in the bunch), Best European Fiction 2015 has something for every taste. I would definitely recommend it for fans of short fiction or people interested in expanding their reading life beyond works written originally in English.

An enthusiastic 5/5.

[I received a free copy of this book to review, but it genuinely was spectacular.]

Nov
11
2014

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

by V. L. Craven

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Tucker and Dale are a couple of good ol’ boys who’ve bought a house out in the boonies of West Virginia as a ‘vacation home’  and they go out to start fixing it up. On their way there they stop to pick up some beer and other supplies and run into a group of nubile university students. Dale (Tyler Labine) takes a shine to a particular blonde, Allison (Katrina Bowden), and tries to talk to her. Self-awareness not being his strong-suit, he happens to be holding a scythe at the time and follows his buddy’s advice to laugh and smile a lot, as that puts women at ease. She does not swoon into his arms.

The two groups go their separate ways–Tucker and Dale to their cabin and the students to their camping area. That evening the men decide to do some fishing and the kids go swimming. They happen to be doing these activities at the same lake. When Allison slips and hits her head, rendering herself unconscious, our hapless heroes come to her rescue, pulling her into their boat and shouting to the others, ‘We have your friend!’ For some reason the students find this terrifying and run away to regroup.

The men take her back to their ramshackle cabin for the night, figuring her friends will come looking for her tomorrow. But that isn’t exactly how things go. Because, to their minds, they have to save their friend from a couple of insane hillbillies.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is about miscommunication on a large scale. It plays with all the tropes of the killer hillbillies genre, as well as serial killer films like the Friday the 13th series. Labine’s ‘dumb as a stump’ Dale is endearing and genuine and Alan Tudyk’s Tucker, the brains of the operation, has some of the funniest lines and moments. He just wants to help his friend gain some self-confidence, but it will be at the cost of much physical pain and confusion.

Eminently rewatchable, it’s on par with Shaun of the Dead for laugh out loud hilarity both in terms of dialogue and physical humour. And don’t worry, nothing happens to the dog. 5/5

Nov
07
2014

The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

The Empire of Death

Humans haven’t always tried to hide death away–it’s only relatively recently (and in Western culture)–that we’ve decided death has nothing to do with life and we want nothing to do with it. As though not thinking about something will keep it from happening. (This is something Caitlin Doughty addresses wonderfully in her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , which I reviewed last week.)

The Empire of Death

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant’Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris is what it says on the tin, but it’s so much more, as well. It has 290 photographs, 260 of them are in colour. The average person wouldn’t be able to visit all of the sites he did, so perhaps the tag should have been: The Empire of Death: Koudounaris Confronts Mortality in Seventy Places Since You Couldn’t Afford to.

The Empire of Death

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

Because that’s essentially what happens when looking at the photographs. If you really take the time to look at them it has a similar humbling effect of contemplating the size of the universe. Every skull was once a person with hopes and dreams and families who fought and laughed and loved. It’s an exercise in existentialism.

The Empire of Death

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

Which was the intent of the original designers. They were created for people to sit in and contemplate their own mortality–to be aware that they weren’t going to live forever and so they’d better act properly because eternity was a very long time to spend in hell and/or separated from their loved ones who would no doubt be in heaven. Often there would be quotes on the walls, one of my favourites was from the Chapel of Bones of Valleta, Malta:

The world is a theater and human life is the boundary of all worldly things. Life is the personification of vanity. Death breaks and dissolves the illusion and is the boundary of all mortal things. Let those who visit this place ponder well these maxims and carry with them a lively remembrance of death. Peace be with you.

The Empire of Death

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

I’ve long been a fan of charnels–since I visited the Capuchin crypt by the Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini in Rome and was rushed out before I could properly appreciate the chandeliers made of human bones. And all of the well-known sites are included including that one. Sedlec , the Paris Catacombs , etc, but many that I hadn’t heard of and quite a few that had been destroyed, either by nature or humans, were covered, as well.

The Empire of Death

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

People weren’t all bad, there was a resurgence in charnels in the 19th century where several were restored and some are being restored now. The Eggenberg charnel in Austria has something of a Hannibal touch, where they created an eye shape, as it was meant to be viewed from the top of a well with skulls as the pupil, looking back at the viewer.

The Empire of Death

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

It’s well-researched and well-written and with maps and notes galore it’s sure to please those interested in unusual facts about history or interesting sites to visit. Or people comfortable with their impending doom (or who want to become so). So if you’re looking for something for that person on your shopping list this holiday season, here’s something to consider.

The Empire of Death

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

Koudounaris has a website empiredelamort  that has loads more photos.
He’s also on Instagram under hexenkult.
And on Facebook .

Dahlia Jane also wrote a lovely review, with more photos, on her blog Upon a Midnight Dreary .

Nov
04
2014

The Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Killing

Rounding out our series of shows about female law enforcement is The Killing, bringing the final count of countries covered to four. Northern Ireland ( The Fall ), England ( Happy Valley ), and New Zealand ( Top of the Lake ). This one is set in the States–Seattle, Washington. Female police aren’t interested in your nonsense no matter the geographic location.

The US version is based on the popular Danish show Forbrydelsen  (The Crime), which ran for three series. Unlike the original, the remake follows one case through the first two series, then one case each for the third and fourth series. Like the original, each episode is one day of investigation of the current case.

The Killing

The first two series are about the kidnapping and murder of Rosie Larsen, a 17 year-old girl who goes missing the weekend her parents are on a camping trip. Everyone within fifty feet of the Larsen family seems to have motive and means. It’s more about the way a violent, tragic crime reverberates out like ripples in a pond and how pain turns us into people we may not recognise. The strongest of the three cases, this one keeps the viewer guessing until the end. Of particular note is Michelle Forbes, who plays Rosie’s mother.

The start of the first series also introduces the viewer to detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Linden is told to show Holder around, as it’s her last few days as a detective in Seattle–she’s moving away to get married. But as always happens when detectives try to leave their jobs, they catch one last case, so she and Holder wind up working together.

While Linden is the obsessive type of cop–a previous case nearly destroyed her–Holder has his own problems. Chiefly with drugs, which he got into working with Narcotics. Now he’s newly clean and moved into Homicide, where he works cases his own way. He’s a vegetarian, go-with-the-flow, Buddhist/Christian, laid-back sort of person. Linden is the focused on the case before her to the exclusion of life itself.

The Killing

The third series concerns the lives of several street kids–one of whom goes missing. In Holder’s search for her, the bodies of several other murdered kids are uncovered. Linden, retired after the previous case, begins to suspect the man she put away several years ago (and who is about to be put to death) has been wrongly convicted. Her investigation reveals chilling information that brings her back into the police department and reinstates her as Holder’s partner, as it becomes obvious their cases are connected.

Stand out performances this series are given by Peter Sarsgaard, as the possibly wrongly-convicted murderer and Bex Taylor-Klaus as Bullit, one of the street kids playing at being tough who befriends Holder whilst trying to find her friend. Sarsgaard’s performance of a man on Death Row is almost difficult to watch it’s so immediate. It’s truly spectacular.

The Killing

The fourth and final series, which was released in its entirety in August 2014 on Netflix, is about the massacre of a seemingly perfect family, the only survivor being the seventeen year old son who was shot in the head and has no memory of that evening. In the will, the boy, Kyle Stansbury (Tyler Ross), is sent to St George’s Military Academy where his guardian will be Colonel Margaret Rayne (Joan Allen). Stansbury’s classmates–one specifically–doesn’t make his life easy and is the one Kyle suspects killed his family.

Allen’s performance as the only woman in charge of a school full of male cadets, a woman with her own cache of secrets, going head-to-head with strong-willed Linden is compelling to watch. And Ross’ depiction of a boy who lost what little bit he had is impressive. The two main cadets (played by Sterling Beaumon and Levi Meaden) were convincing, if disturbing.

Throughout the fourth series Linden and Holder deal with the consequences of their actions at the end of the third series, and their respective responses are fascinating. Watching that situation play out was anything but boring.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the very end, which dealt not with the case, but with Linden and Holder. That will be the sort of thing that each person will feel differently about. It depends if you need everything to be wrapped up neatly or not.

The Killing

The Vancouver landscape (where they film the show) stands in beautifully for Denmark (and Seattle) and the cinematography–all blue-greys–sets a chilly, serious tone. It reminds me of Henning Mankell novels, which is definitely a good thing.

There really aren’t any likable characters. Relatable, yes. It’s easy to understand why characters react the way they do to certain situations, but I can’t say I want to befriend any of the people on the show. So if you’re looking for that, go elsewhere, but if you’re looking for character-studies set in a morally (and visually) grey universe, then stop looking and watch The Killing.

Some episodes are hit-or-miss, but overall 5/5.

Oct
31
2014

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

by V. L. Craven

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Having previously waxed poetic about my love of Caitlin Doughty and her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and website Order of the Good Death  you can imagine my glee upon learning she had written a memoir about her early years as a crematory assistant, mortuary school student and work in the death industry after graduation.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more than just a memoir of the macabre–it’s a meditation on the way Western culture treats death with Doughty as a stand-in for the average American who wants to see dear ol’ Mother Deadest looking ‘natural’, even though the process to make her appear that way is about as unnatural as possible.

Doughty starts her journey terrified of death, of facing her own mortality, (the current response of most Westerners). She takes a job as a crematory assistant at Westwind Cremation and Burial and, due to her interactions with the decendents that pass through, her entire philosophy on death (and, necessarily, life) changes. It’s a philosophical journey that encompasses history, religion, mythology and biology, is frequently hysterical (I was laughing out loud every other page) but also deeply affecting.

Of particular interest to anthropology-types were the parts about how we’ve come to deal with death the way we do in this part of the world at this point in time, as opposed to the way other people have done. Or do deal with it but simply in different places on earth like the tribe in Brazil that practises cannibalism as part of the death ritual. They’re not having a gourmet, Dr Lecter-style feast whenever someone dies, either. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s what they do. (Next time you have to go to a wake of a family member you hardly knew be grateful you at least don’t have to eat them whether you want to or not because, ‘That’s just what we do. It’s how we say goodbye. Now be polite and finish off Cousin Martha’s foot.’)

Doughty’s writing style is personable, like chatting with an old friend, if that friend is Wednesday Addams. If you’ve watched many of her Ask a Mortician videos you can hear her voice in your head when reading, which makes the funny bits funnier and the moving bits that much more gut-wrenching.

Speaking of guts, this book is most definitely  not for the squeamish. Human bodies are organic matter and  things happen to organic matter when it begins to break down. Or when it’s embalmed or cremated. Doughty believes in lifting the veil on what death practitioners do and she’s straight-forward about everything that goes on in all its messy, sometimes amusing, human glory.

This book  is, however, excellent for fans of Mary Roach, particularly the one about what happens to the body post-mortem, Stiff . I would also recommend the poet and mortician Thomas Lynch’s wonderful Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade .

This one is definitely 5/5.

 

And because it’s Halloween, here’s Caitlin talking about the relationship between death and Halloween.

Oct
28
2014

Top of the Lake

by V. L. Craven

Top of the Lake

Continuing in the series of reviews of shows about female law enforcement taking no guff (previous posts were The Fall and Happy Valley ) is Top of the Lake.

The previous two were set in Northern Ireland and England, but this outing takes us to New Zealand, where a twelve year old girl tries to drown herself. It’s quickly discovered she’s pregnant and soon after she disappears. Sydney detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who is in Laketop to be with her ailing mother, is asked to join the team to find her as well as the person responsible for her pregnancy. The search brings her face-to-face with parts of her past she’d thought she’d left behind.

The missing girl’s father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), is shady as a bank of willows, volatile and entirely unwilling to assist the police, feeling he and his similarly shady associates will be able to find her on their own.

He’s also not above illegally interfering with the real estate concern of an area called Paradise, which has just been bought by a spiritual guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) to be used as a commune for women to heal their psychic wounds.

Robin finds herself once again entangled with Mitcham’s son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), rekindling a relationship from their teenage years. This displeases both their parents, but not for the reasons they originally think.

As time passes, it begins to seem that everyone in Laketop is hiding something. And they still have to find a little girl who only has a few weeks before she’s going to give birth.

And the opening is iconic. Simple but haunting.

Written by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee and directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, this six or seven episode series (it depends where you see it) is dark but beautiful. New Zealand itself is practically a character the nature shots are so gorgeous. The cast is expansive but well used and GJ’s all-female commune is so painfully accurate words fail me.

There are plot twists aplenty, as well as brutality. Trigger warning for a rape scene in the fifth episode of the 45 minute shows. I don’t know when it happens in the 60 minute show–probably the fourth episode. If you know, please leave a comment.

Gripping, it’s the sort of television where you don’t want to stop after one episode. Luckily, the entire series can be viewed in one day like they did at the Sundance Festival. Definitely a 5/5.

Oct
24
2014

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

by V. L. Craven

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

 

Rare book collector, Adam Diehl, is found in his secluded home, his hands severed, his books and papers in disarray. Upon inspection, it appears he was a forger of long-dead author’s signatures, which would increase the price of already valuable books many times over. Among the suspects are his sister’s boyfriend, Will, who had been a prolific and talented forger and who is also our narrator.

Meghan, the deceased’s sister and protagonist’s girlfriend, is also in the book trade, as she owns an independent bookshop in Manhattan. She found out about Will’s little hobby along with the rest of the world and stuck by him as he paid his penance. She’s the best thing Will has ever had in his life, which is why, when someone starts threatening him, using Arthur Conan Doyle’s handwriting, no less, he keeps it a secret, in an effort to protect her.

He doesn’t know who’s sending the threats nor what they want nor why they want it, all he knows is he’ll do what needs doing in order to keep safe the one bit of happiness he has, and to keep the promise he’s made to Meghan, which is that he’d stay out of the the forging game. But someone is trying to force his hand.

On the surface this book should have been right up my street–it’s about the book world and I worked in independent bookshops for years–but it fell a little flat. The main character was a criminal, but not a very interesting one. He kept saying how solid his relationship was with Meghan and how they fell for one another at first sight, but I didn’t feel it. That could be because Will wasn’t a real person–at one point he talks about forgers also forging who they are and not being true humans, which I interpreted as a type of sociopathy. He definitely has that flat affect going on and not seeming to really engage with the world, only being concerned with protecting his own hide, as well as being close to only one person. I definitely don’t need to like a character–any of the characters of a novel, really–but they do need to be interesting. Will wasn’t.

Writing-wise it was better than most books out there, but it wasn’t up to par with Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, which was excellent. The text suffered from ‘had I known-itis’, which is where the narrator kept telling us that things were about to get a lot worse or that his bubble of happiness was to be short-lived. It’s something of which lesser authors are often guilty but I found it surprising in this author.

The plot was what kept me reading–needing to know who did it and what was going to happen next, which is why I read it in two days. It moved at a clip, which is what you want in a thriller. I didn’t know where things were going and, though I worked out some things before the end, I still didn’t know the particulars.

I would recommend this one to fans of John Dunning’s Bookman series and people interested in literary thrillers like Matthew Pearl’s books. 4/5 stars.

[I was given a free copy of this book to review.]

Oct
21
2014

Happy Valley

by V. L. Craven

Happy Valley

At the start of the first episode of Happy Valley, no frills police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is called to the scene of a young man doused in petrol, threatening to set himself alight. While she’s talking to him, stalling so the negotiator from the nearest town can arrive, she says:

I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroine addict. I’ve two grown up children. One dead. One who doesn’t speak to me. And a grandson. So…

The guy asks why he doesn’t speak to her and she says, ‘It’s complicated.’ Which is one of those English understatement sorts of things. ‘Complicated’ barely begins to cover her life, as the person responsible for her daughter’s suicide has been released from prison that day and is back in town.

Then there’s Steve Pemberton, in a rare dramatic role, as Kevin Weatherill, an utterly useless sort of individual. When his boss denies him a pay rise so that his daughter may go to a nicer school, he makes a decision that will devastate multiple lives.

James Norton (playing Tommy Lee Royce) rounds out the primary three characters. Royce, an unrepentant, violent criminal, has just been released from prison and winds up being connected to Weatherill’s plan. He is also determined to insert himself into the police sergeant’s life.

These three are the good (Cawood), the bad (Royce) and then the grey area between the two (Weatherill). As the show progresses we watch each character change (some more than others, but there’s change all round). We are reminded that no one is all good or all bad and desperate circumstances make for desperate, and sometimes violent, choices.

Lancashire’s performance is spot on, as is everyone’s, really, but Pemberton’s character was particularly surprising. His growth from nonentity into … well, no spoilers here, but the show is dark and our man owns the role. Lancashire’s Cawood behaves in ways unusual for female law enforcement on television, which was refreshing.

Happy Valley is ultimately about the far-ranging consequences of the actions of the few and the imperfect people trying to right those wrongs. It’s compelling television.

And there’s blood–people get booted in the face and slammed against brick walls and other things I don’t want to spoil for you, but the make up people don’t go easy on the viewers. But it wasn’t gore-for-gore’s sake, either.

From the writing to the directing to the acting it was outstanding television and we need more of it. Happily, it’s been renewed for a second series, though no word yet on when that will air.

Oct
17
2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

The story begins in Okinawa with Quasar, a member of a doomsday cult, who has released a nerve agent in a subway in Tokyo and is now attempting to keep from being captured. He’s following orders from His Serendipity, a man who professes the abilities of teleportation amongst others. The doomsday in question is a comet that will be colliding with Earth in a few months. It will be up to Quasar and the other enlightened ones to rebuild society.

From there we move to Tokyo and a young jazz enthusiast experiencing his first love, then to Hong Kong where a financial lawyer’s illegal activities are catching up with him, then to Holy Mountain in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, Cape Clear Island (Ireland), Night Train (a radio show based in NYC) and finally the Underground.

Each section appears to be unrelated to the others, but characters from sections before makes an appearance in the current section until we get a clear view of the plot and the fate of characters from other parts. His characters often make terrible choices, but those choices make sense in their minds and to us, being there with them.

Ghostwritten is David Mitchell’s debut novel and it’s impressive in its beauty and complexity but also simplicity. Each section/character is completely believable, even when that character isn’t an actual person.  The section in Mongolia is told from a disembodied spirit that moves from person-to-person through touch. And Night Train concerns an AI obeying Asimov’s rules.

The characters are the stars, to my mind, the plot is interesting and I did want to know what was going to happen, but what person Mitchell was going to introduce next and how utterly real they were going to be was what I was most intrigued by. How was he going to blow my mind next?

I’ve read his Black Swan Green and 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, both of which are completely different from this one and one another. The only thing all three have in common are a deftness with the English language readers don’t see every day, unpredictable plots and fully-formed characters. If I’d read the three books without knowing the author I wouldn’t have guessed they were written by the same person, which isn’t something you can say about many authors–that depth of imagination and versatility is rare.

Very highly recommended. 5/5

Oct
14
2014

The Fall

by V. L. Craven

The Fall

I can be a little slow on the uptake with popular media. Sometimes it takes a prod or two. This article about shows featuring British women taking control finally got me to press play on some television that had been in my Netflix queue for awhile. So that’s what I’ll be reviewing in the upcoming weeks.

First up is The Fall .

DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought in from the Met in London to help the Belfast police on an unsolved murder. The night she arrives there’s another murder, which is initially treated as a separate incident, but which Gibson connects to the original case. When they realise Belfast has a serial killer on their hands she’s assigned the full case and they begin looking for previous killings that could be the work of the came person.

Simultaneously, we watch the killer (Jamie Dornan) living his life, playing with his daughter, doing his job, stalking the next woman. He likes to break into their homes once or twice and hang out, leaving one small thing out of place, before the night of the actual kill. And when he discovers his pursuer is an attractive woman he becomes intrigued and wants to engage.

Stella Gibson is the coolest detective on television. Not sunglasses and leather coat cool, but never raising her voice no matter the situation cool. Utterly unflappable. She has her one big fault, though, as all television detectives do. I’ll not spoil it for you, but it’s not something I’ve seen before. She’s also operates within a moral grey-area, which is refreshing to see in a woman, as usually it’s male leads who get to decide they’re not going to operate within social mores. Gibson lives her life and eloquently calls anyone on their double standards.

Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector, is chilling in that dead-behind-the-eyes sort of way. He plays the part well and there are moments it’s clear ice water runs through his veins. But the more Gibson pushes him–even without knowing what he looks like–the more his exterior begins to crack.

The secondary characters are also used well-enough, though I would like to see one in particular, PC Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), developed more in the next series. The relationship between the two women is a dynamic that could be something viewers don’t see every day.

It was interesting to watch something set in Northern Ireland that wasn’t entirely based around politics. They were always questioned as a motive, as would be expected, but when you live in a place where there’s a constant threat of violence it becomes more commonplace and The Fall shows that. During a scene when people are throwing glass bottles at an ambulance trying to save someone’s life, Gibson comments to a police officer, ‘This is one fucked up city you’ve got here.’ And by the time she says that you’re right with her, as the show does rather paint most people from Belfast as violent lunatics just looking for a reason to turn someone into a stain on the pavement, including some of the police.

Nevertheless, it’s compelling watching and I’d recommend it to fans of Prime Suspect, though it’s less gritty.

The second series is due to begin in November, so roll on November.

[Vulture also has a longer list of places to stream shows about British women getting things done –not just on crime shows.]

Oct
13
2014

Back in the Net(Galley)

by V. L. Craven

Back in the Net(Galley)

When I purchased my first Kindle (what was then called a Kindle Keyboard) in 2010 I had no ebooks, but there was a wonderful service called NetGalley that would remedy that situation. Publishers listed soon-to-be released books with the service and provided a digital copy to readers in exchange for a review.

I read like a crazy person. All of these books! For free! And all I had to do was write a review of them, which I would have done anyway? Remove yourself from my proximity because I don’t believe you. Happiness ensued.

I got to read several excellent books I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up. It was like the days of being a bookseller when the big white box arrived with all the ARCs (advance reader copies). Except I didn’t have to get off my sofa.

Eventually I fell away from NetGalley–it wasn’t intentional–I acquired my own ebooks and read physical books I had at home. I was writing, I fell into a depression and stopped reading, etc. These things happen.

Then, last week, a lovely person from Grove Atlantic contacted me through this site and asked if I would be interested in reading Bradford Morrow’s newest book, The Forgers. I’d really enjoyed his novel The Diviner’s Tale , so I said yes. She sent the link through NG and I went in (after working out my password) and found this info on my profile:

Back in the Net(Galley)

Now, maths and I… we have a long history of just… we’ve decided to ignore one another as much as possible. But even I know that 100% is as high of a percentage as a person can earn.

I thought that since I’d read 16 books, somehow the algorithm they use had given me 100% for all 16 books, but on the page that explains the Feedback to Approval Ratio it says that 80% is if you’re approved for 10 books and you review 8. So exactly what you’d expect 80% to mean. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I submit my review of the Morrow book (which is compelling–look for that review in a couple of weeks). Will the algorithm correct itself? Will I suddenly have 1700.0%? Stay tuned!

–Queen of Impossible Numbers

Oct
11
2014

Steering Toward Normal

by V. L. Craven

Steering Toward Normal

Diggy Larson is thirteen and smaller than his peers, but for the past four years he’s raised a steer from a calf to an adult weighing nearly a ton and entered it into the State Fair for 4-H. Last year he won a blue ribbon (the second highest honour) this year, though, he plans to win purple–Grand Champion. However, he hasn’t had his calf two days before a truck pulls up at the end of the road and out falls Wayne Graf–a boy from his class–and his suitcase falls out with him. His mother died three weeks prior and during that time it came out that Diggy’s father was also Wayne’s father, which had been something of a shock to the man who’d been married to Wayne’s mother and had raised the child as his own.

So now, on top of trying to raise the best steer the state of Minnesota has ever seen, Diggy is stuck with someone who claims to be his half-brother. All he wants is to spend time with July, a girl he likes–the one who won Grand Champion the year before and who’s left it up to him to win this year, but Wayne has arrived and disrupted his happy life.

I haven’t read a book intended for the nine to thirteen set in a few years, but Steering Toward Normal is excellent. Rebecca Petruck doesn’t shy away from some grown up subject matter–abandonment of a child by a parent, alcoholism and how difficult it can be to quit (Wayne’s father takes being widowed badly) and what impact that has on children. There’s also laughter and love and the importance of family and compassion. Every character is fully-formed–even the steers have their own personalities.

This book is the very definition of heart. Steering Toward Normal is full of heart.

The plot takes place between Diggy getting his calf and showing at the State Fair a year or so later. It moves at a clip and can feel a bit rushed at times, but Petruck probably didn’t want to saddle a nine year old with a 500 page book about raising a steer. Though, I must admit, the process was fascinating. Those kids put an impressive amount of time, energy and love into bringing up their animals.

There was one other subplot that concerned Diggy’s other hobby that seemed slightly unbelievable in terms of time–he was spending hours a day with his steer and had to do homework and presumably chores and had to eat and sleep–I simply wasn’t sure when he was working on this other, seemingly time-intensive hobby. Still, that didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the book and I would definitely recommend it to middle grade students, whether they were interested in farm animals or not, as they most certainly would be by the end. 4 of 5 stars.

[I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

Aug
29
2014

Orange is the New Black (book)

by V. L. Craven

Orange is the New Black (book)

This review has spoilers for the book (which will be behind spoiler tags), but not the show. They’ve changed so much for the show you can read this with no worries. If you plan to read the book, here be spoilers. If you’re just curious as to what they changed between the book/real life and the show, read on.

First, in real life she was in Danbury in Connecticut, which is the prison Martha Stewart requested to be sent to, if that tells you anything. The book takes place during Stewart’s trial and sentencing so that plays some part of the plot, as it were (she was sent to a prison in West Virginia, ultimately) . The real prison was much nicer (for a prison) than the one in the show.

Second, the real life Piper is annoying like you wouldn’t believe. She’s regularly telling us about how the other prisoners are grateful for her presence and love her so. And how none of the guards can figure out why she’s in there. She also has the unending support and love from every single family member and friend (and friends-of-friends) on the outside.

People send her dozens of books a week to read. And she keeps all of them in and on her locker in her bunk (complaining about lack of space) rather than donating them to the rec room. In the second series of the show you see her going around taking all of her books back from people–even the ones she’s already read. That’s the real Piper. Who cares that you’re bored and will get yourself into trouble or fights without something useful to do like reading. Give me my books back!

Her visitors’ list is full (25 people) and then her counselor breaks the rules and lets her put on as many people as she wants. Rather than refusing this as it’s not fair to the others she just goes on and lets all the worshippers come to visit.

I’m sure it was difficult being away from her regular life for thirteen months, (she was sentenced to fifteen but got two months off for good behaviour) but if I hadn’t been reading it to try to work out who each person was in the show I would have put it down ages ago. They made an excellent decision in focusing on other characters in the show. The book would have been loads better if Kerman had spent less time talking about how great she was and more about other women. She says she learned to be less inside herself but you wouldn’t know it.

The most interesting parts of the book were about the travesty that is the criminal justice system and the real prisons, which she ends up in a couple of times during trials. It’s inhumane what’s going on, but this is not the book to tell you about it. I would only recommend this to hardcore fans of the show. 3/5 absolute tops. And I love fish-out-of-water stories.

On to:

Differences Between the Book/Real Life & the Show

Larry’s love and devotion did not waver for one second. He was there to visit every chance he could.

Piper was good friends with Pensatucky.

Piper was never in the SHU. Indeed she didn’t seem to witness any fights or actual sex.

Piper did not get furlough. (Her grandmother did die whilst she was in prison.)

Piper was not involved with any women in prison—she never told anyone she had ever been involved with a woman in the past.

Alex (in the book called Nora, in real life called Catherine) was in a different prison.

Piper knew she was going on the transport plane to Chicago. Not when, but she knew it was going to happen. She was then flown to Oklahoma to a hellhole of a prison (it’s the U.S.’s hub of the federal prison transport circuit) for several days and no access to phones. Nora/Alex was there, though for their first meeting in over a decade. As was Nora/Alex’s sister who was also involved in real life.
They were then flown to Chicago together to await their turn to testify and that prison was an even bigger hellhole than the one in Oklahoma, incredibly.

The person they were testifying against was a lower player in the group than on the show. It was someone Piper had never even met.

Characters from the show & Who they were in the book

Kerman changed the names of real people for the book and then most of those names were changed again for the show for some reason. I’m trying to work out who everyone is suppose to be. Drop me a note with your thoughts if you’ve read the book.

Piper Kerman = Piper Chapman
Nora Janson = Alex Vause
Pop = Red [In the book Pop is an enormous homophobe, which is clearly not true on the show]
Crazy Eyes = Crazy Eyes [completely different race, though]
Big Boo Clemmons = Big Boo Black [in the book she has a 200+ pound girlfriend named Trina]
Yoga Janet = Yoga Jones
Miss Malcolm = Miss Claudette [in the book she never got into a fight with a guard]
Vanessa = Sophia [she arrives after Piper in the book and isn’t accepted as well as she is in the show]
Delicious & Pom-Pom = Taystee? [it seems like this character is bits of both of those women]
Warden Kuma Deboo = Natalie Figueroa
Mr Butorsky = Mr Healy
Gay Pornstar = Pornstache
Annette = Anita
Miss Luz = Miss Rosa
Sister Ardeth Platte = Sister Ingalls [Sister Platte was one of the few people who allowed Kerman to use her real name in the book]
Joyce? = Nicky?
I’m not sure who Morello is based on, either. Perhaps Nina?

Aug
22
2014

A Study in Scarlet

by V. L. Craven

A Study in Scarlet

I’ve recently undertaken to read all of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories in chronological order.

The first is the novel A Study in Scarlet, (1886) wherein a doctor who has been through hell after being injured in the military decides to rejoin life and needs to find a flatmate in order to remain in London. He’s introduced to Sherlock Holmes—an unusual sort, but compatible in domestic affairs—and they go in on a flat together.

Odd sorts from all strata of society show up at all times of the day and night, much to Dr Watson’s bemusement, until Holmes explains that he’s a consulting detective. He helps people with problems the police can’t or won’t handle.

Speaking of the police, Holmes is summoned by Tobias Gregson and Mr Lestrade of Scotland Yard to assist on a case. Gregson and Lestrade are in constant competition to be the better detective, which Holmes lets them get on with whilst he continues his investigations.

In brief, an American man is found dead in an abandoned house—apparently murdered, but with no visible wounds. There is blood on the scene, but it’s not from the victim—and it has been used to write the letters RACHE.

The reader is introduced to Sherlock Holmes through John Watson’s point of view, who finds him intriguing, as one would do. In this first novel we learn about Holmes’ general approach to life and how his mind works.

The book happens in two sections—the first taking place in the present day (that being 1886) and the second section going back several decades to explain how the American man came to be on the floor of an abandoned house in London. The second section was a surprise—I’d expected to remain in Victorian England the entire time, so to spend quite some time in a very different climate was something of a shock.  To have that very different climate be populated with Mormons… well… I thought some errant pages had made their way into my copy. Trust Conan Doyle, though.

Still, it was excellently written and intriguing. I absolutely recommend it for fans of Victorian literature or detective fiction. Or that show with the guy with the cheekbones and the Hobbit.

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