Autodidact: self-taught


The Perfect Host

by V. L. Craven

Perfect Host

John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) has just robbed a bank of a considerable sum and the cops are after him so he has to dump his car.

He blags his way into Warwick Wilson’s (David Hyde Pierce) house by saying he’s just got back from seeing a mutual friend, Julia, in Sydney–he found a postcard from her in the post box.

But the airline lost his luggage and he’s been mugged and the cousin he’s supposed to be staying with won’t be home for awhile. blah blah.

Warwick is hesitant to let him in, as he’s expecting several guests for a dinner party. But Julia would never forgive him so… come on in complete stranger with the bizarre story.

One thing leads to another and eventually Warwick discovers his guest isn’t who he says he is.

That’s all right, though, because Warwick isn’t exactly the most stable of human beings in the world, either.

What's happening here is even better than it looks.

What’s happening here is even better than it looks.

I love bad-guy-meets-worse-bad-guy films/TV. I knew that was the premise of this one, but I didn’t know what I was in for and it was so much fun!

David Hyde Pierce was clearly enjoying the hell out of himself. I had no idea what was going to happen at any time but laughed out loud multiple times.

Look, petty criminals–you never know when you’re going to stumble upon a total lunatic. Just stay home.

Unpredictable and hilarious, I highly recommend this one.


[Oh yes, apropos of nothing–one of the detectives looking for Taylor was Nathaniel Parker. He plays Inspector Lynley. His American accent was perfect, but every time he was on screen I’d think  What? Why are you in California being American in this teeny indie film? ]


The Suicide Theory

by V. L. Craven


Percival (Leon Cain) has been having no luck killing himself. He’s tried–honestly he has–but it’s not working.

Eventually he hires Steven (Steve Mouzakis), a hitman, figuring if anyone knows how to terminate another person’s life it’ll be someone who gets paid to do so.

Steven listens to his newest client’s inability-to-die problem (not believing a word of it) and shoots him multiple times.

It doesn’t work.

The two men form an odd sort of friendship based on shared tragedy–they’ve both lost their partners to tragedy.

Percival tries to work out why he’s still here–he believes fully in Fate. There must be a reason he can’t die. He must need to do something before he’s allowed to die.

Steven doesn’t buy it, even after trying other ways to kill his employer and friend, there are always ways to explain how he survived.

Then something happens and he begins to come round to Percival’s way of thinking. What if even he , someone who’s killed who-knows-how-many people, was alive for a reason?

Fate’s a funny thing, though.

Suicide Theory2

Pictured: a man clearly loving life.

Netflix recommended this one to me based on other things I’ve liked, which can be hit or miss, but this one was a winner. Dark and unpredictable (though, I admit, at the end I did think, ‘I should have seen that coming.’) and occasionally funny, it was worth the watch.



The Autodidact Goes to New Orleans

by V. L. Craven

As mentioned in a recent post , I’ve just spent a week in New Orleans.

Here's the photo I promised in my last post about N.O. (blech.)

Here’s the photo I promised in my last post about N.O. (blech.)

I was there with some friends (15 and my husband–17 total) whom I’ve known for ten years or so.

We rented three flats in the Western Union Building in the business district. This plan was all right. We had several kitchens, which included things to eat off of and to eat with.

And they were modern and a lil bit swanky. (Though not without problems.)

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I lost one day to a migraine, and with 17 people trying to get groups together to do things was like herding cats that all wanted to do different things waaaaay earlier than I was capable of so I wound up not getting to do some things I’d wanted, but I still had a great time and enjoyed seeing my friends.

And the food was excellent.

On to the food.

Food I Paid For

Most of what we ate was prepared in our kitchens because we were a bunch of broke people, but on occasion I spent money on something.

Beignets. Everyone was telling me to have beignets. It’s a New Orleans doughnut (or a French doughnut, depending who was doing the talking).

Holy crap you guys. Have a beignet. They come in servings of three.

The first round was from Cafe Beignet :

I may or may not have just licked my screen.

I may or may not have just licked my screen.

I had a cafe au lait (which needed a LOT of sugar and was still seriously strong coffee, yowza, but it was great). And the beignets… So good. It’s just fried dough, but man alive. So good. I’d weigh 900 pounds if I lived somewhere I could eat those regularly.

During that first sitting I ate four because one of our group couldn’t finish all of hers. Several people were impressed with this for some reason.

Others were impressed I was wearing black and wasn’t covered in powdered sugar. What can I say? I have a rare gift.

The ability to not wear my food was tested on my third trip for the wonder that is the beignet (the second was a repeat trip to Cafe Beignet).

We went to Cafe du Monde . A place that, apparently, doesn’t own a sifter. They just dump the box of sugar over the dough.

There were lumps of sugar. Really.

There were lumps of sugar. Really.

Cafe du Monde is open 24 hours and some of my friends went out around 1 or 2 in the morning and they thought the place had closed for some reason because the chairs were upside down on the tables.

Nope, they were just hosing down all the powdered sugar that had fallen on the ground during the day. Probably to discourage ants.

So I highly recommend those. And I did prefer Cafe du Monde over Cafe Beignet. Both were excellent, but the former was slightly crispier. The former also offers iced cafe au lait which is delicious.

Note that Cafe du Monde only takes cash, though.

ALLIGATOR. I ate some. It’s another thing I’d eat all the time if it were available where I live. I know it’s bad for my GERD so it’s good I can’t get it here.

The first version was a fried alligator po boy from Felix’s and the second was an alligator sausage po boy from Daisy Dukes .

I *definitely* licked my screen this time. GRAAAAAH GIMME

I *definitely* licked my screen this time. GRAAAAAH GIMME

There’s an enormous alligator that lives near a lake in this area and all I can think is, ‘I know what you’d taste like on a sandwich!’

And I would be remiss if I left off the first thing I ate in N.O., which was:

Voodoo tastes like salt and vinegar, who knew?

Voodoo tastes like salt and vinegar, who knew?

They were quite inexpensive and could be found all over so if you like salt and vinegar (which I do very much) go for it.

Places I Went to & Things I Looked At

Boutique du Vampyre : Located at 709 1/2 St Ann St. this was one of the highlights of my trip. It had lots of handmade gothic gifts and items and books and such. One of the ‘and suches’ are custom fangs. (I didn’t get any.)

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The Pharmacy Museum : (514 Chartres Street) Second highlight of my trip right here. It was like being in Professor Snape’s storeroom. They had a giant mortar and pestle for making large quantities of drugs, which of course they’d have to do on occasion. It’s something I’d never considered before, though.

Also they have a wonderful array of torture implements. I mean, surgical devices from way back when. Brings a tear to your eye just to look at some of them.

Faulkner House Books : (624 Pirate Alley) This was a tiny, but fantastic little bookshop. Plus they stayed open a little late when I got distracted by their New York Review of Books section. I wish I had spent more money here. I certainly could have (they had Karl Ove Knausgaard’s trilogy and dozens of NYRB books).

Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo : Well, this was disappointing. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. It was very small. And the fact that more than one site listed this as a ‘must-see’ didn’t give me hope for other voodoo houses.

While there, a white woman asked one of the assistants, ‘Where is Marie Laveau buried?’
Guy: ‘Under our floorboards.’ :points down:
Woman: :knowing tone: ‘Yeah but, where does everyone in the world think she’s buried?’
Guy: ‘Saint Louis Cemetery Number One.’

That’s when I rolled my eyes right out of my head and sighed so hard I died.

Speaking of cemeteries, I genuinely tried to go to one, but they all close around 2 in the afternoon (I guess people don’t visit their dead after then?) Some have guided tours and require visitors to purchase tickets. A good reference for that information is Save Our Cemeteries .

I completely understand closing before dark. But 2 in the afternoon?! These people clearly don’t understand that some of us aren’t awake and mobile and able to get transportation *to* the cemetery before 2.

We drove past several. They looked cool from the other side of the fences.

Other Things I Didn’t Get To See/Experience

I had wanted (and intended) to get to the house that was used in American Horror Story: Coven, but that didn’t happen.

We didn’t make it to the Garden District at all, in fact.

I didn’t try chicory coffee. Though, from what I’ve read , I’m not sure I’d like it.

I was intrigued by the Museum of Death , but it was $15 to get in and we were broke. Perhaps next time we go we’ll be able to afford it.

Miscellanous Observations

My friends and I did some walking around and chatting and looking at masks–there are mask shops everywhere.

There are gas lamps lit all the time.

Note how it is the middle of the day.

Note how it is the middle of the day.

Which is both beautiful and one of the least green things I’ve seen in some time.

Bourbon Street is the living embodiment of an anxiety attack. I’ve been on taxi rides in Rome that were less stressful than walking down Bourbon during the daylight hours of a weekday. I can’t imagine what a weekend night must be like. Sakes alive.

There were ‘Katrina Tours’ … I don’t know what those are exactly, but they were offered alongside ghost tours and alligator tours and that is terrible and wrong.

And finally, something I learned about myself

Up in the photos of the flat I mentioned Chekhov’s blanket.

Well. I’m not allergic to anything. Or so I thought. From the time I was in the flat the first night I found myself sneezing rather frequently when in our bedroom.

I tend to sleep with something over my face–it’s a comfort thing. At home it’s a pillow. I was using that cursed blanket because we only had one pillow each.

Look at it. Just... lying there.

Look at it. Just… lying there.

I don’t know what that… thing is made of (not a natural fibre in there, I’m sure), but by the third night my nose was running like it was crying and I was sneezing my face off.

I still hadn’t put it together it was the blanket, though, because I’m not allergic to anything.

I thought I was coming down with a cold… that only struck…wait a minute… when I’m anywhere near…hey, you guys… that blanket…

So I’m allergic to soft and snuggly, faux zebra blankets.


In summation, I learned a great deal on my trip.

Voodoo houses are tiny and overrated.

It’s impossible for beignets to ever be overrated.

Cemeteries in New Orleans close before the living dead can have their second cup of tea.

Alligators are quite delicious and, since they’re basically dinosaurs, a T-Rex steak would probably be tasty indeed.

Avoid Bourbon Street unless you’re drunk or planning to be in short order.


Interview with Louie Stowell

by V. L. Craven
Louie Stowall

Louie Stowell

In July I reviewed Louie Stowell’s delightfully dark School for Supervillains , which is about a young girl’s first days at the school her parents sent her to in order for her to become the best evil maniac possible.

She (Ms Stowall, not the evil maniac) recently agreed to answer some questions about writing and Fiction Express–the publisher of The School for Supervillains.

Fiction Express is a fun concept. Briefly explain it for my readers.

It’s essentially an online publisher. Schools subscribe, and each term they get a selection of stories (I believe it’s three now) at different levels. Chapters are published once a week, with cliffhangers at the end. The kids at subscribing schools vote online for the resolutions they want to each cliffhanger. Then the writer scuttles off and writes the next chapter, which is posted a couple of days later. More on the scuttling in a minute…

How did you get involved with it?

I think it began with a conversation on twitter. It sounded like such an interesting way of working and, as someone who grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure, having a chance to play in that sandbox was really exciting. I tend to think of stories as having many potential paths, so it naturally fits with how my mind works.

What was it like writing a chapter a week?

Madness. Utter madness. It’s not so much a chapter a week as a chapter in a day, as there’s not much time between the votes being counted and the next chapter being posted. Plus factoring in editing time (my editor at Fiction Express, Laura, is an utter badass when it comes to turning things around quickly. And she does it all year long, while I’ll do maybe one story for them a year!). However the adrenalin carries you through, and there’s a real joy to that kind of pace.

Was the concept of a school for evil little kids something you’d had before Fiction Express?

Yes. I originally had it in mind as just a short story, a what-if about a kid who came from evil parents, but they aspired to be good. So that conflict was there from the outset, the idea of parental expectations vs a kid’s desire. In the context of supervillainy, obviously.

Caligula? [One of the kids in the book.] Really? Was that put in for the adults?

That was for me. I grew up reading Judge Dredd, and Judge Cal (based on the real Caligula) was one of my favourite characters. And it made sense within the world – supervillains seem highly likely to pick names for their kids based on historical villains. Though Mandrake got her name from a root that screams when you pull it up, because supervillains also love the suffering of others.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a teen novel about a boy who works for a secret government organisation, killing zombies. As I type this, I’m waiting for feedback from my agent, so I have no nails left…. :)

Do you have a website I could link to? I’ll add a link to your Twitter, of course.

I don’t update my blogs very often, but here you go anyway! One is my webcomic, the other is a general blog where I talk about publishing, politics, comics and other things that float through my brain…

Blog: Stowell’s Cosmology

Webcomic:  Gods Next Door  This is about gods from various pantheons living in suburbia.

Twitter: @louiestowell


Why There Are No Reviews

by V. L. Craven

I’m in New Orleans for a week so there will be no film or book reviews for a couple weeks.

I’ve actually left the house. It’s incredible.

It’s raining like nobody’s business here, which is what you want when you go on holiday. And I’m here with a group of friends from all over the U.S., U.K. and one from Australia, so people are handling the humidity and rain in various ways.

Those from the northern parts of the U.S. don’t understand warm + rain.

The U.K. people aren’t coping with humidity and heat.

The American Southerners are: What? This is strange?

And the Australian, being accustomed to living in a place where everything is trying to kill you, is happy to be somewhere relatively safe.

When we arrived at the airport the first thing we saw was a sign advertising crawfish strudel. This is an abomination. Our taxi driver asked if we’d tried one.


I should have taken a photo of the sign. I’ll try to get one on our way out of the city.



by V. L. Craven


Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) has difficulty living her life within the confines of the law. She’s been sent to various rehab clinics to no avail so, upon being caught once again colouring outside the lines, she’s sentenced to eight months house detention…at her mother’s (Rima Te Wiata).

As she’d left years ago without a glance back, this wasn’t her idea of a good time.

But back she goes and with an ankle monitor attached by security contractor Amos (Glen-Paul Waru). He shows her the distance outside she can walk (not nearly far enough) and explains any attempt to remove it will trigger an alarm.

That evening Kylie is listening to a radio show and hears her mother call in and talk about the ghost she saw in their house years ago along with all the other weird things that have happened over time.

Kylie may look like Lydia Deets but she most certainly isn’t in touch with the Otherworldly and doesn’t believe a word of it. This only furthers her belief that her mother and stepfather are the most boring humans on the face of creation.

But then, things start happening and Kylie begins to think perhaps her mother may be on to something. Luckily, Amos is an amateur ghost hunter and even has equipment to help look for disgruntled spirits.

Whilst the spirits are being prodded for information, our protagonist pokes about in the corporeal world and turns up unsettling information of her own. So which is it–reality or the otherworldly making her life a nightmare?

One of the gross bits

One of the gross bits

The plot is inventive–I didn’t know where it was going. The writing was witty–there was a part I was laughing about a couple days later. And the cast was excellent. Everything was really well-done. It was also occasionally gross. See above.

Housebound is the sort of film that can be watched repeatedly; I highly recommend this one.




by V. L. Craven


Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is out very late one night, doing something less than legal when he sees the aftermath of a fiery car wreck. Two men (one is Bill Paxton) are filming the carnage and rescue efforts to sell to the news. Bloom is fascinated by this and gets a camera and a police scanner.

He begins going to crime scenes (competing with Paxton) and selling regularly to one station in particular, dealing primarily with the morning news director Nina (Rene Russo).

But getting the most interesting shots and the best stories sometimes means doing little things the police frown upon. Like tampering with evidence…withholding evidence…putting innocent lives at stake to be in place when a story breaks.

Louis Bloom has no problem with any of those things, though. He’s found his calling. And nothing is going to stand in his way.

Looking a little Patrick Bateman-esque here. Fitting, really.

Looking a little Patrick Bateman-esque here. Fitting, really.

Nightcrawler is unlike anything I’ve seen–I didn’t know where it was going. The writing and acting and directing were superb.

Gyllenhaal was excellent. Louis Bloom relates to other humans in an unusual way–detached and almost Asperger-like, but with sociopathological undertones. He is a malicious, bizarre, but believable guy.

I highly recommend this one. 5/5


The Kings of Summer

by V. L. Craven

Kings of Summer

Parents can be infuriating and lame. In Joe Toy’s case (Nick Robinson) his father (Nick Offerman) is infuriating. In Patrick Keenan’s case (Gabriel Basso) his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are lame.

Really lame. So incredibly lame.

So one summer, after one too many crazy-making moments in both of their households, the boys decide to build their own house in a clearing in the woods. A place they can be men–away from the tyranny of parents. They’ve acquired a third somehow, Biaggio (Moises Arias) who is happy to help them out in any way and is…a bit creepy. But he’s all right, really.

Once built, they move in permanently–not telling their parents where they’re going, which prompts much fretting and police involvement.

The boys learn about themselves. The parents… well, some of them learn about themselves.

kings of summer pipe dance

Biaggio learns to dance on a pipe whilst his friends bang on it with big sticks. It ain’t easy.

The Kings of Summer manages to be heart-warming without making me want to die or vomit, which is saying something. Usually I’m allergic to that sort of thing. But it’s funny and unusual (if utterly unlikely) and there were moments of truth.

Nick Offerman as Suburban Dad Just Trying to Be a Good Father was a different role for him but felt real.

Seeing Megan Mullally play a ‘lame’ mom rather than a wacky, naked, swearing, drunk person was confusing. She nailed the character, though. It was uncomfortably accurate.

The boys performances were all excellent, as well. Arias was a particular stand out as the eccentric, vaguely disturbed Biaggio.

Something about it reminded me of Stand By Me. Perhaps that it’s one of the few coming-of-age films I actually enjoyed. Or about a bunch of boys in the woods? I don’t know. I just kept thinking of Stand By Me.

Oh, and watch all the way to the end of the credits. There’s a little bit at the very end.



Grace and Frankie

by V. L. Craven

Grace and Frankie

Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein (Lily Tomlin) have been married to their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), for forty years.

The husbands in question have been partners in the same law firm for that length of time, as well, and the women are ready for them to retire. They hope the men in their lives are going to announce their retirement (finally) at the fancy schmancy dinner they’ve invited them out to.

Or they could announce they both want divorces because they’d like to marry one another…because they’ve been having an affair for the previous twenty years.

That’s the other thing that could happen.

Like Transparent , Grace and Frankie is about what happens when an older person decides to start living their life honestly. The fallout, as it were, in regard to their family–their spouses, kids, lifelong friends, etc.

There are some very honest moments. There are also some rather contrived moments. Overall, though, the show is entertaining. It’s certainly nice to see people over 40 dealing with life (and technology) and sex and dating in a realistic way. More of that, please.

Netflix is on a roll with excellent shows. Last week I reviewed one and now this. (I promise I’ll return to films soon.) And they already have Orange is the New Black and I understand House of Cards is rather all right–no I haven’t seen it, give me a break.

Grace and Frankie can be a little uneven at times–the dialogue can go from laugh out loud funny to bad sitcom–but the cast makes it worth the watch.



Wet Hot American Summer

by V. L. Craven

Wet Hot American Summer Film

At the weekend I watched all of the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer, but it’d been awhile since I’d seen the film and so rewatched that first.

It’s a spoof of the teen sex comedies of the early eighties and captures every trope beautifully. It’s also just… bizarre and hilarious.

The actions of the film take place on the final day of camp when the slack counselors are doing their level best to not counsel any of the campers, choosing to try to have sex with whomever they have their eye on for the final (or first) time.

The day is ridiculously long and the number of things that occur are impossible, but the cast (a mashup of SNL and The State with Christopher Meloni, Elizabeth Banks and David Hyde Pierce for good measure) play it with the perfect amount of seriousness and self awareness. These people inhabit a cartoon world and we accept it because they accept it.

The film was released in 2001 and people didn’t get it. The budget was $1.8 million and the box office was a little under $300.000. Ouch.

Still, it became a cult hit because it’s a riot. Which brings me to

Wet Hot American Summer TV

Fourteen years later Netflix has released a TV show–eight episodes–that take place eight weeks prior to the film.

All eight episodes take place eight weeks prior to the film–on the first day of camp.

The first day of camp is also insanely long, but this time it seems a bit less nutso, as several episodes follow certain characters on their separate journeys.

It also explains certain things that are established parts of the universe of the film–like the talking soup can.

Incredibly, they got the entire cast back together–more than a few of whom have gone on to be rather well-known. So it must have been a fun time they wanted to re-live. They certainly looked like they were having a blast.

The TV show brings in Jon Hamm and he and Christopher Meloni have a scene together that made my day (and probably made theirs, too).

Generally, I dislike goofball comedy. I don’t get it and think it’s juvenile. (I know, I’m a curmudgeon.) But this bunch of doofuses paired with the script were great. I was constantly laughing out loud and saying, ‘What is WRONG with these people?’

It’s a great time if you like weirdness or implausibility.

My only question is this: If all of this happened on the FIRST day and then we’ve seen the FINAL day, which really seemed to pick up where the first day ended… Was every day in between really long re-set days, where you end up where you started each day until the last day of camp?

I suppose I do have one other question: how is it that half the cast looks exactly the same fifteen years later and the other half actually looks fifteen years older? Talk about ouch.

One more question because it’s my site and I can ask as many as I’d like: Do they have a warehouse of 80s crap for these sorts of things? The cars and clothes and those braided bracelets and the giant boomboxes. It was so authentic and…painfully accurate.

The film is a 4/5 the TV show is 5/5. You can watch all of it in a day, though and laugh and laugh, which I recommend.


Suburban Gothic

by V. L. Craven

Suburban Gothic

Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) has intelligence and fashion sense and an expensive degree from business school.

What Raymond does not have is a job. Therefore, he has to move back to the small town from which he hauled ass directly after high school. And back into his childhood home. Oh, joy.

His mother still loves him, her little boy, and his father, Donald, (Ray Wise, ever hilarious and awful) is the same racist homophobe he ever was.

Dear old dad is having work done in the yard and the people doing the work just happen to unearth an old coffin, which they open, as you do.

Then things go badwrong.

Raymond has always had a bit of a seeing-spirits-problem, which went away when he moved away. But now that he’s back, the spirits are a-plaguing him again. (He doesn’t know about the coffin at first.)

Unearthed spirits aren’t his only issue, though. The living are giving him difficulty, as well. They were the reason he got the hell out of there in the first place. Luckily, just before his old tormentors from high school can pick up where they left off, he befriends a fellow former fat kid, Becca (Kat Dennings) and they become buddies.

And that’s just as well, because he’s going to need all the help he can get when it comes time to fight the malevolent entity rearing it’s disembodied head.

Kat Dennings looks more like Lydia Deets in this film than Bewbs O'Klok up there.

Kat Dennings looks more like Lydia Deets in this film than Bewbs O’Klok up there.

I watched this film because I wanted to see Dr Spencer Reid swear–I’d seen a gifset on Tumblr of him calling someone an asshole and just had to see it in context. It was worth it. He drops the ‘f’ bomb a lot, too.

‘Quirky’ is the first word that comes to mind. It’s the next three words, as well. Suburban Gothic was released in 2015 but the special effects were…special. So I’m thinking they were an intentional homage to 60s horror flicks.

The script had some genuinely laugh out loud funny lines. Ray Wise was hysterical as the All American bigot. He nailed it. I have the feeling some of his lines came from things someone’s (Richard Bates Jr or Mark Bruner’s) actual father said and they were so over-the-top they just had to put them in.

I don’t know from fixing a curse, but the filmmakers really captured the special hell that is returning to your tiny, small-minded hometown. Except when I go back to mine I don’t pair up with a fellow outcast and have wacky adventures. I just deal with whatever unholy purpose has drawn me there and get the hell back to civilisation as quickly as possible.

As a comedy it succeeds. As horror, it’s not scary in the least, but most 60s horror films aren’t all that frightening today, either. YMMV, but I’d give this one a 4/5.

If you’re not interested in either of the leads you’ll probably think I’ve overrated it by a star.


The Book of Speculation

by V. L. Craven


Simon Watson’s family has a dark secret–the women in his family are mermaids who keep drowning on July 23.

They’re women who hold their breath for a long time underwater in travelling sideshows (billed as mermaids) and, eventually, they all commit suicide by drowning themselves on July 23. His mother, her mother.  Her mother and back and back.

Simon didn’t know about the previous generations until he was given a book by an antiquarian bookseller who felt the younger man should have it, somehow.

The book is some sort of log of a travelling sideshow from the 1800s and it marks the coming of their mermaid and her complicated relationship with the tarot reader, which sets off a chain of events that will change hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

The thing is, Simon has a sister, Enola.

Enola can hold her breath for an extraordinarily long time and she travels with a carnival, reading the tarot.

Enola’s been acting very strange lately. And July 23 is only a few days away.

Interwoven with their story–every other chapter–is about that original sideshow, when the curse that has been drowning women who shouldn’t be able to drown was set in motion.

Both stories are vibrantly told and compelling; it’s not one of those cases where the reader is rushing through one set of chapters to get to the story-line they really care about.

The novel is about magic and family history and being bound to others by more than blood. It’s also beautiful and, at times, painful.

The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s first novel and, as a reader, I’m thrilled because it’s wonderful. As a writer, I hate her just a little.

And I can’t wait to see what she does next. 5/5

[I received a free copy of this to review through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, but it’d be one of my top books of the year anyway.]


Higher Learning

by V. L. Craven

Higher Learning

Malik (Omar Epps) is a young, black, incoming freshman track star. A little cocky–all right, more than a little.

Kristen (Kristy Swanson) is a white, naive freshman with no clue who she is or what she wants.

Remy (Michael Rappaport) is also white and a freshman but he’s odd. A loner. He can’t seem to fit in anywhere.

Out of their hometowns for the first time in their lives–and for some of them, having to deal with people who aren’t the same race, for the first time as well–they scramble to make sense of the new world they’re meant to fit in to.

Malik ends up with a group of guys led by Ice Cube (another guy in the group is Busta Rhymes). Some of their scenes are excellent examples of the way racism is alive and well (the film is twenty years old, but it remains accurate) on campuses. Malik also begins romancing Deja (Tyra Banks).

Kristen starts off hanging out with two friends from back home but after a traumatic experience she finds solace and solidarity with Taryn (Jennifer Connelly).

Then there’s Remy. Remy’s the sort of person the average human gets the urge to inch away from so of course the campus skinheads think he’s just swell and the feeling is mutual.

All of these characters; stories collide in one way or another and no one comes out untouched by the repercussions.

One of the professors is played by Laurence Fishburne and, in case I need to say it, he’s amazing.

John Singleton knows how to handle an ensemble cast and tell several stories at once whilst making a larger point.

I was reminded of this film after watching Dear White People last week. Mostly because the average film about American university life is about parties and hooking up and other things I could not care less about. Just in case you were wondering why this one seemed to be getting dragged out of the mothballs.

Do yourself a favour and watch this one. 5/5


The School for Supervillains

by V. L. Craven

School for Supervillains

Mandrake DeVille is the daughter (sort of–she was grown in a lab) of two of the most nefarious villains to ever villain. [lightning crash]

Much is expected of her. Perhaps she will even, one day, finally topple that blasted Superhero Guild once and for all! [insert maniacal laughter here]

In order to prepare her for her life of dastardly deeds, she must attend the most prestigious of all evil schools, of course. Which is St Luthor’s School of Supervillains. [dun dun DUUNN]

The best villains send their progeny there from all over the universe–one of Mandrake’s peers isn’t from this solar system–so you know this school is top-hole. I mean, you’re not going to send your child a few thousand light years and then choose the second best school, amirite?

So little Miss DeVille is being set up to rule the world…erm, the Underworld.

There’s a minor snag, however.

She doesn’t want to be evil. She wants to be a superhero.

(Sometimes, as a parent, you just never know where you’re going to go wrong. You try to instil malevolent hatred for the whole of humanity and beyond and still, they will decide to fight for good. What can you do?)

Unfortunately for Mandrake and her tender appendages, the adults (and her peers) generally take the opinion that ‘the only good superhero is a dead superhero’, so she must keep her wishes to herself. And the mind-readers around her. Did I mention there are mind-readers? There are mind-readers. And all sorts of other inventive types and creatures.

Will she find a sympathetic ear? Will she work out whom to trust before it’s too late? Or will the Master (the head of her school) and her chief rivals Caligula (yeah, I did a spit-take, too) and Livia work out what she’s up to first?

The School for Supervillains is suitable for ages 9 and up. At 71 pages, it can be read in a sitting if a grown up is helping. It’s the sort of book I would have read more than once as a child. Though I probably would have wondered why she didn’t want to remain a bad guy, but that’s beside the point.

I’m giving this 4/5 because I wanted it to be longer. More story!

Something that’s especially fun about it is that it was done through Fiction Express , where one chapter was released per week and then readers voted one what would happen next. So the story was guided by the readers. I’ll be interviewing Louie Stowell in the coming weeks and we’ll discuss what that experience was like so stay tuned!

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


Dear White People

by V. L. Craven

Dear White People

Winchester is an ivy-league university with a minority number of minorities. One recent Halloween a very white dorm sent out invitations to their very racist themed party.

Dear White People is the ‘re-enactment’ of the five week lead up to that party.

Okay, it’s all fiction, but barely. We’ve seen the photos of the racist costumes–the black-face and brown-face; the Native American headdresses and sombreros. As though white is a blank canvas of normal humanity and everyone else is putting on a costume every day and pretending to be ethnic.

The invitation in the film is a near-verbatim copy of an actual invitation to a 2010 party at the University of California, San Diego. The party in the film is based on an actual event, as well, though it didn’t turn into a riot. And over the closing credits are photographs of real life university students doing the same things satirized in the film. (That must have been an uncomfortable day on the set. Hoo boy.)

The supposed ‘re-enactment’ starts with Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) at the beginning of his sophomore year. He’s been moved from house to house (people live in large, gorgeous houses rather than prison-cell-like dorms at Winchester) as he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Uncomfortable with his sexuality–he doesn’t like labels–and unsure what to do with his hair (he tells fellow black students he’s growing it out and they laugh and say it’s gaining sentience) he doesn’t know what he wants or who he is. He doesn’t even have a major anymore.

Then there’s Sam White (Tessa Thompson) revolutionary media arts major with a radio show called Dear White People. She wants people to pay attention. She wants to make a difference. But Sam has her own struggles with race to deal with.

Next up is Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris). She wants people to pay attention, too. To her. She wants to be famous. So when a producer shows up at the university looking for a certain sort of person she tries to get his attention by being provocative.

And finally we have Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell). His father is the Dean and he has aspirations for law school and, eventually, his own firm one day. He’s currently head of the house he lives in and is one of those All-American types. He’s Barack Obama, basically.

He has a white girlfriend, though, and that goes over just as well as you’d expect with his cohort. His girlfriend is the sister of the son of the President of Winchester. Who is also the man who beat out his father for that position. The long-term political fallout of this cause all kinds of problems.

Dear White People is funny as hell–there are exchanges and one-liners galore. But it also holds a mirror up to our society and shows how much further we have to go in terms of racial equality. It is accurate and perceptive while being witty.

This one is a must-see. Watch it. 5/5

We all know this guy, right? We know him and we hate him. Don't be this guy.

We all know this guy, right? We know him and we hate him. Don’t be this guy.

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