Autodidact: self-taught

Dec
20
2014

What I Found Out About Her

by V. L. Craven

What I Found Out About Her

Peter LaSalle has a talent for description of place. Whether it’s New York, Rio de Janeiro, the tunnels under Paris or Tunis, he brings them to vivid life.

He also captures specific moments in time in people’s lives really well and then puts them into context of their entire existence. It reminds me of films where you find out what happens to the characters after the action of the film occurs. I’ve always liked that, so this set appealed greatly.

LaSalle has chosen to follow the advice to ‘write what you know’ which is about academia, as his characters are either professors, in graduate school, or wish they’d stuck with higher education rather than venturing out of the ivory tower. This may turn off readers who don’t care about such things.

Another running theme is that people die. A lot. This is to be expected, as LaSalle has a gift for capturing entire lives in a short story and (spoiler) everyone dies, but many of his characters die whilst young or unexpectedly. George R.R. Martin had better look out.

There were no weak stories but highlights were ‘In the Southern Cone’, about an American dealing with anti-Semitism in Rio, ‘Oh, Such Playwrights!’, concerning the heyday of three New York playwrights and their waning fortunes, ‘Tunis and Time’, an edge-of-your-seat spy piece, and ‘The Manhattan Lunch: Two Versions’, in which two people have an episode of  Stendhal syndrome (though it wasn’t named as such.)

My favourite quote came from ‘Tunis and Time’. The protagonist is contemplating the ruins of Punic Carthage.

Ancient civilizations even had their massive collective dreams, of conquest and glory, and spreading out from this very hill, there had once been an empire equaled by none, what included not only this North Africa but much of Spain and Gaul, and almost the largest prize beyond that, as Hannibal marched his leathery elephants and his thousands of shivering, sandaled soldiers across the snows of the high Alps, with the City of Rome itself, for a moment, anyway, within his grasp. But maybe here was also the overlooked truth about the dreaming, that everything was gone before it started, and now contemplating what had once been triumphant, the scant rubble of Carthage corporeal, Layton realized that it yielded merely the message of nothing to nothing–or possibly nothing all along, the suspected void, because, when you thought of it, everything was inevitably heading toward nothing before it even started, before it even aspired or had the chance to be something.

Which reminds me of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But I Existentially digress.

I would recommend this one for fans of short stories particularly those with a bent towards academia-related stories or writers learning how to capture a believable life in a short space. 4/5

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

Dec
16
2014

Last Tango in Halifax

by V. L. Craven

Last Tango in Halifax

Sixty years ago, Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) was madly in love with Celia Dawson (Anne Reid). The sentiment was mutual, but due to a misunderstanding neither knew of the other’s feelings.

In the present day, after being pressed to join Facebook by their grandchildren, they find one another again. The misunderstanding is cleared up–it’s something similar to the premise of As Time Goes By–and they quickly realise they feel just as strongly as they did over half a century before so they decide to get married. ‘Quickly’ in this case means the same day they met in person.

Their daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker) arrive at the pub to hear this news and to say they have a rough start of it would be an understatement. Chalk and cheese, as it were. Caroline, Celia’s daughter, is a headmistress at a private school and lives in a house large enough for five families while Gillian, Alan’s daughter, is a sheep farmer who lives, well, on a sheep farm.

Caroline is married to a once-successful author, though that union is falling apart due to his philandering. She’s found an uneasy happiness with a teacher at her school (Nina Sosanya). That relationship’s repercussions affect her sons, as well as her mother’s new love, in profound ways.

Gillian is widowed from an abusive husband. She has the darkest past of the group (though Celia’s first marriage wasn’t a grand one) and, as the show progresses we learn more about just how dark that past was.

Last Tango in Halifax was created and written by Sally Wainwright and it’s based on real-life circumstances–her mother really reconnected with a childhood friend on Friends Reunited and they married six months later. Wainwright has a gift for capturing the complicated way alliances are formed when new groups of people are thrown together, particularly when those people wouldn’t naturally get on. The evolving friendship between Caroline and Gillian is especially compelling to watch. The bond between these two women with nothing in common except thinking their parents have gone mad feels very real. Part of that is down to Lancashire and Walker’s phenomenal acting and the other part is Wainwright’s script.

Though the show could be all twee, happiness and light, there’s a great deal of darkness and drama, as well, particularly in Gillian’s storyline and Caroline confronting her sexuality, which is handled with a deftness and humanity not typical of television today. I highly recommend this one–it’s just excellent television.

There are currently two series with a third that’s been filmed, but no air date announced yet.

I’d give the entire series 5/5, though, as with any television show, some episodes are better than others.

Bonus grumpy note: Because Americans can’t leave anything alone, Diane Keaton (I love her, but really) has acquired the rights to remake the show for U.S. audiences who, apparently, can’t understand a Yorkshire accent.

Dec
14
2014

Alice in Wonderland

by V. L. Craven

Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were so part of my childhood that I immediately recognised references in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls , though I hadn’t read the books. Then, last week, this article about commonly misinterpreted books found its way onto my browser.

People typically think Wonderland is about drug use. And that’s understandable–Alice is forever eating or drinking something that makes her smaller or taller. The caterpillar is smoking a hookah, for pity’s sake. And then, with the existential questions. Only stoned people talk that the kind of nonsense. I mean, really.

Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was actually a Euclidean mathematician who was entirely against the new maths being taught at Christ Church, Oxford, where he worked. From the article:

All the weird drug-trippy stuff that’s been misinterpreted since Woodstock is, we’re sorry to say, really just an elaborate satire of modern mathematics. … in the mid-1800s,… a bunch of irritating young people invaded academia and started bringing new concepts to math. Weird new concepts. Like “imaginary numbers” and other crazy stuff.

What incensed Dodgson was that math no longer had any real-world grounding. He knew that you could add two apples to three apples to get five apples, but once you start thinking about the square root of -1 apples, you’re living on the moon. The Rev. Dodgson thought the new mathematics was completely absurd , like something you’d dream up if you were on drugs.

So he decided to write a book about a world that followed the laws of abstract mathematics, purely to point out the batshit lunacy of it. Things keep changing size and proportion before Alice’s eyes, not because she’s tripping on bad acid, but because the world is based on stupid postmodern algebra with shit like imaginary numbers that don’t even make any sense god dammit. “Alice” was the sensible Euclidian mathematician trying desperately to keep herself sane and tempered…

Alice in Wonderland

It’s always important to have tea when reading about people almost drinking tea.

I decided I really had to read it, armed with this knowledge.

And it’s so much fun when read through that lens!

The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.

Then, during the croquet match where the arches and balls and even mallets keep moving:

‘I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them…’

And Alice, the sensible one, is usually told she is silly or ridiculous, but the Duchess sees her for who she is:

‘Right, as usual…what a clear way you have of putting things!’

Poor, logical Alice. Stuck with the imaginary numbers crew.

Alice in Wonderland

Imaginary numbers crew (on left) doesn’t look amused, either.

I was already quite familiar with both stories, having watched the cartoons and the live-action films many times as a child (I have still not seen the Tim Burton film somehow), but somewhere along the way I must have seen the books, as well, as the Tenniel illustrations were also well-known to me.

Dodgson was um…fascinated…by little girls and the stories were written for Alice Liddell–there is no doubt about this. But it’s possible he could have also been responding to the absurdity of the illogical acrobatics the new mathematicians wanted numbers to do. He enjoyed playing around with riddles and words, but numbers weren’t to be trifled with.

Alice in Wonderland

The dormouse is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pet wombat that slept on the table. I’m not making that up.

The version I read is the one shown at the top of this post–the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition, which includes both Alice books based on Carroll’s final 1897 revisions, as well as extensive notes, the original story Alice’s Adventures under Ground, Carroll’s thoughts on the stage play ‘Alice’ based on the stories and a brief biography of the author.

It also has the answer to that infernal riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk? In the preface to the 1896 edition Carroll wrote:

Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat, and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

It gets right up my nose that he didn’t originally have an answer and only came up with one after being bothered over it… Still. There’s an answer now.

The notes for Through the Looking-Glass include notes on ‘Jabberwocky’ and what many of the seemingly nonsensical words mean–some were supposed to mean something, others genuinely weren’t.

I have a new favourite word now. Frabjous. Which is what this book was–the notes were particularly enlightening. If you’ve left off reading the Alice books because you’ve seen cartoons or films or whatnot I recommend doing so. They can both be snagged for free (legally and everything) from Gutenberg .

Alice in Wonderland If you’re already a fan of the books I highly recommend the Snark Buster games. There are currently three of which I’ve played the first two. Snark Busters (sometimes called Welcome to the Club) and Snark Busters: All Revved Up. The third is Snark Busters: High Society. These are extremely well-done hidden object puzzle games that take place in a steam-punk Victorian world that also has a mirror-world where actions in one world affect the other. They’re great fun and no doubt take their name from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ .

VladStudio also has some Alice themed wallpapers.

I particularly enjoy:

Alice in Wonderland

Cheshire Kitten by Vladstudio

 

Alice in Wonderland

by vladstudio

 

Alice in Wonderland

by vladstudio

 

Alice in Wonderland

by vladstudio

Dec
12
2014

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

 

[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

image from asylumrevue.tumblr.com

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn’t blend in with my theme.

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.

Dec
09
2014

Ripper Street

by V. L. Craven

Ripper Street

It’s London. 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t struck in a few months and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) is certain he’s gone for good. Members of the public need a bit more convincing when a the body of a woman bearing marks similar to those left by the Ripper is found in Whitechapel–his old haunt.

That’s where the series gets its name, though Jack doesn’t come up again. Rather, each episode is a self-contained one-hour mystery solved by Reid, his Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and his American police doctor–the Victorian version of  medical examiner–Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg).

Each of the main characters (and some of the secondary characters) have their own back stories–tragic, of course–and get their own episode to be tragic at us. While they have their problems, the crime du jour is more interesting, given the means and motives of the day.

Speaking of the day, the show will be of interest to fans of Victorian history, as there are the women’s libbers, the arguments over the superiority of AC or DC current and a rather heavy-handed episode about the sodomy laws. Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man, brilliantly portrayed by Joseph Drake) plays an important role in an episode of the second series.

The Tube was being built in one episode and, my, how it was going to change things. But the show isn’t as pleased with itself about emerging technologies as Murdoch Mysteries . Rather, we get to see the scheming and backstabbing that went into making our present lives convenient.

It’s a good show for people who like to say, ‘Everyone was so much nicer back then.’ Yes, those slums and the way people who lived there were treated was the picture of politeness. And the police! If you were being taken to the police station, you were getting the piss kicked out of you. Everyone was so much nicer back then.

Though the main characters are tragic in their own way they’re both likable and unlikable. They’re human that way. Reid is interesting in that he’s a detective without a crippling vice. He has problems, he’s just not constantly crawling out of a bottle or from under a pile of women for once.

The show does a good job with the guest stars–particularly in the first series. Including two of Jerome Flynn’s Game of Throne’s castmates Kristian Nairn (if you want to see Hodor in a suit saying words, here’s your chance) and Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont).

I’d recommend Ripper Street for Victorian history fans–the sets and clothes and whatnot are lovely. Beyond that, it’s fairly standard in terms of crime shows.

The third series is currently airing. This review is for the first two series, which I’d rate 4/5.

Dec
05
2014

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

by V. L. Craven

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

If you’ve seen the film The Cabin in the Woods (which you should because it’s awesome ) you know what happens, but because the book is based on the screenplay, you get all of the deleted scenes and cut lines (they actually played ‘Truth or Dare or Lecture’), as well as a lot of description of things you’d only notice if you freeze-framed every shot.

Some of the most interesting parts were seeing the casting decisions taken. For example, in the book/screenplay, the woman from the chem department is a six foot tall humour-free woman with a bun to rival  Lilith Sternin’s . In the film, the character has a ponytail and appears to be of average height. She also appears to have a personality.

Dana was also originally supposed to be a brunette. So glad they opted for a redhead.

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

They made the right decision.

There’s also a great deal of page space given over to the blossoming romance between Holden and Dana and those parts read like young adult fiction, but I suppose that was important or something. Whatever. I was just there for the monsters and Marty.

We get to see inside the other characters’ minds, as well, including Marty’s, who is a much more three-dimensional character than we see in the film. And between that and being able to ‘see’ more of the sets and learning more about the monsters, it was worth the read.

I definitely recommend it for fans of the film–5/5. As a book on it’s own, it’s maybe a 3/5–it’s sort of young adult but with a lot of pot and beer and sex. And gore. So, young adult for the people who still read YA when they’re 25.

Dec
02
2014

The Cabin in the Woods

by V. L. Craven

The Cabin in the Woods

 

The title The Cabin in the Woods says to me, ‘Bunch of nubile youngsters go to a wooded area and somehow end up in a cabin–by choice or misfortune–and something picks them off one my one. Could be a malevolent force or it could be homicidal hillbillies.’ Or just unfortunate hillbillies a la Tucker and Dale vs Evil .

But Joss Whedon is a man who knows what he’s doing. Why did I doubt you, Whedon?

What really happens is:

Several nubile university students go to a wooded area to stay at a cabin owned by the cousin of one of their number (Curt, played by Chris Hemsworth) where they are picked off one-by-one by cannibalistic hillbillies who are also zombies. So, you know, there’s a twist.

But then we learn something about all horror films that should have been obvious. Something that explains why everyone makes the same mistakes–people split up, the girls who take off their tops die first, etc. It’s all being manipulated by a corporation in deference to higher powers. (This is not a spoiler, we learn this at the start.)

Watching the people behind the scenes (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) is both hilarious and eye-opening. It will certainly make viewing subsequent horror films less infuriating knowing there’s an entire team of people manipulating teens into making poor decisions for the greater good.

There’s a great, split-second moment where we see the monsters at the disposal of the corporation. Thanks to pausing and screen-capping capabilities, though:

The Cabin in the Woods

If you want to know about everything on the board, there’s an unofficial, but excellent, fan-made wiki for the film that catalogs all of the monsters . That site is home to all of the spoilers. It lists the monsters available to torment whatever kids are up for grabs this time around, as well as what summons them. It includes monsters mentioned in the book but only glimpsed in the film. (Kevin is my favourite. Oh, Kevin.)

This is the part of the review where I tell you if the acting and writing was any good. It’s Whedon, people. The casting was excellent, the writing was hilarious and smart and didn’t go where expected (except when it had to, but then only so it could tweak the tropes of the genre). I wanted to make out with this film.

This is definitely one to own , as there are so many details that beg for further explanation and the physical versions have loads of extras.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan, there’s an Official Visual Companion , which has the screenplay, interviews with Whedon and the special effects crew, lots of conceptual art and photos of monsters and sets, etc. I haven’t looked at this one myself so check the reviews before you order.

There’s also the official novelization by Tim Lebbon, which I’ll be reviewing on Friday. I wanted to read it after seeing some of the notes on the previously mentioned wiki.

The film is a 5/5 for definite. I watched it two days in a row because I had to show it to a friend posthaste.

Nov
28
2014

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

by V. L. Craven

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

The complete Locke and Key comic written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez is now available in a beautiful slipcase  that would look fantastic beside your Sandman and Lucifer comics (and don’t tell me you don’t have them).

Joe Hill’s storytelling is inventive, his characters are believable and the Locke family are easy to root for. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork is beautiful–the attention to detail is particularly noteworthy and Keyhouse feels like a real place. He’s brought Hill’s character’s to life. The partnership is a most complimentary one. The comic is immanently re-readable so the slipcase is worth it.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

The first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, collects the first six issues of the comic and introduces us to the Locke family who relocate to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the father is murdered by a peer of the eldest child, eighteen year old Tyler. They move into the family home, Keyhouse, a rambling, Gothic pile located on a remote island. As you’d expect from such a house in such a place, the house has secrets, such as, certain doors, if opened with certain keys allow the opener to do different things or go different places.

The youngest, six-year-old Bode, is the first to discover one of these keys and doors. He also discovers someone (or some thing ) living in the well in the abandoned well house. Someone should have kept a better eye on the little one.

Meanwhile, Sam Lesser, the teenage psychopath who killed the patriarch of the Locke clan, escapes the mental institution and makes his way to Lovecraft. He’s not your run-of-the-mill lunatic, you see, he’s been sent on a mission to find a key. A very special key.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

The second volume is comprised of the six issues in the Head Games arc and is concerned with the powers of the second key, known as the Head Key for marvellous and terrifying reasons, as well as the return of an individual who is the spitting image of a friend of the Locke children’s father. In his previous incarnation he was known as Luke Caravaggio, but now he’s calling himself Zack and has insinuated himself into Tyler’s life. All he has to do is avoid anyone who may recognise him from twenty years ago. Because if someone does, well, he can’t risk being exposed and people die every day, right?

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

Volume Three is the six issues that make up the Crown of Shadows story arc, where several more keys are discovered. Some that are quite useful and two with powers that are beyond terrifying. Zack uses one to try and find the real key he’s after and the other is used to combat him in an epic showdown.

Sam Lesser, the teenager who murdered Rendell Locke and nearly killed the rest of the family before Tyler put him down returns (as a ghost–this is one of those dead-people-aren’t-always-dead deals) and we learn more about Zack’s homicidal motivation, as well as what happens to people after they die.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

The fourth volume is Keys to the Kingdom (collecting the six issues of that series) and is much more action-packed than the previous three. The third chapter in this volume is my favourite in the entire series, as it shows how the kids are becoming accustomed to living in a house with supernatural elements. It must be what living in Sunnydale would have been like.

Kinsey and Tyler deal with relationship problems–Kinsey’s stemming from choices she made regarding the Head Key. And we finally learn what is at stake if Zack finds the key he seeks.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

Volume five collects the six issues of the Clockworks arc and explains the origins of the magic of Keyhouse, as well as the how Zack/Luke became possessed by the evil entity that makes him impervious to death. Tyler and Kinsey find a key that allows them to travel back in time (as observers) and they witness not only their earliest ancestors’ brutal past, but also learn the truth about their father’s part in the death of a classmate.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

Volume six, Alpha and Omega (four issues of Omega and two issues of Alpha), wraps up the series with an epic showdown involving the powers of multiple keys and a battle between darkness and light (literally). The fate of the world hangs in the balance and the Locke children are the only ones who can save us all.

As with most things these days, there is a Locke & Key wiki with all the super-spoilery information you could desire, if you need help keeping up with the sprawling amount of characters and plotlines.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan of the series Skelton Crew makes physical versions of some of the keys.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

There’s also a game . I haven’t played this, but if you have I would love to hear your thoughts.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

Nov
25
2014

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

by V. L. Craven

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

 

Jack (Simon Pegg) is an author who has been researching Victorian serial killers. His research is starting to get to him, though, causing the fantastic fear of everything from the title. His agent gets him a dinner meeting with someone interested in publishing his book, but that requires Jack to a) leave the house and b) go to the launderette to clean what appear to be his only set of clothing.

Jack has an absolute terror of launderettes for reasons that become clear later and have nothing to do with his research on Victorian psychopaths.

Meanwhile, there’s a very modern-day psychopath killing people and cutting off their fingers in the area of London in which he lives. This all ties together, sort of.

It does. On paper. All of the elements connect with one another and there is a beginning, middle and end. But I watched this with two other people and when it was over the collective response was: ‘What just happened?’

It wasn’t confusing–everything is very straightforward–the film just seemed to have no focus. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next, but then whatever  does happen next and then another thing happens and another and then it’s the end.

According to Wikipedia , Slate called it a ‘semicomedy’, which is correct, but I’m not sure what the other part of the film is supposed to be. It’s based on a novella (Paranoia in the Launderette) by the writer and director of Withnail and I, which I love, so one wonders how it would have turned out if Bruce Robinson (said author/writer/director) had handled the screenplay and direction.

There was one particularly clever sight gag that was … clever. There’s quite a bit of physical comedy and Pegg is as reliable as ever. But I would really only recommend it to fans of his work. That said, I’ll probably watch it again, as it has a certain dark tone that’s enjoyable and the music (90s rap) is great.

Sadly, I have to give this one 2/5 stars.

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.

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