Autodidact: self-taught

Jan
30
2015

The Sign of Four

by V. L. Craven

Sign of Four

Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, is bored. And when he’s bored he injects himself with one of two types of drugs–cocaine or morphine. His housemate and biographer, Dr Watson, hates to see the genius in such a state so when Mary Morstan turns up at 221B Baker Street with a puzzling case he is relieved. Relieved, and other things. Miss Morstan is rather fetching.

The young woman presents her story, which involves her long-missing father, pearls that began arriving mysteriously a few years ago and, now, a note promising to explain everything if only she meets a stranger that very evening and doesn’t bring any police. She may bring two friends, though. Holmes and Watson will do nicely and they’re certainly up for it.

Off they go and are soon mired in a story involving a locked-room murder and missing treasure and a boat race on the Thames.

And casual racism. Sakes alive, the casual racism. One has to be prepared for it in fiction from 100+ years ago–the Victorians in particular loved some anthropologically-based racism. They started stumbling across new races of people and immediately began ascribing all sorts of negative and offensive characteristics to them. This novel is particularly rife, though.

Story-wise I’d give this one a 4/5. Holmes is doing his typical deductive thing, which is why I like reading the stories and why I assume others do, too. If you’re a completest and want to read all of them then it’s a fine read, though if casual racism puts you off stories, this one is going for gold.

The Sign of Four is the second story featuring Sherlock Holmes. The first was A Study in Scarlet .

[Completely off-topic editorializing: Dang, white people are awful. Just because you own the world doesn’t mean you’re the barometer against what everything else should be measured. Reading it from the point of view of a person writing from the country that had the largest empire on Earth at the time is interesting in terms of getting a sense of ego. It’s a digression, but I kept thinking about it while reading the book so it became part of the experience of the novel for me.]

Jan
17
2015

The Rabbit Back Literature Society

by V. L. Craven

Rabbit Back Literature Society

Ella Amanda Milana is a literature and language teacher at a high school in Rabbit Back, a smallish town in Finland. She’s grading essays one day when she comes across one that insists Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov killed the pawn broker with piano wire and was shot by the prostitute with a heart of gold. Upon confronting the student, she’s handed the book he read, which is, indeed a legitimate copy of Dostoevsky’s classic.

She consults the town librarian, Ingrid Katz, (who is also a famous author and member of the elite Rabbit Back Literature Society) who behaves rather suspiciously and says the book is probably a misprint or joke and puts it away. After stealing a stack of books Crime and Punishment is part of, she hurries home and looks through them, learning that, in the ‘new’ versions quite different things happen from the ones she’d read. (Meursault is rescued by Joseph K for one.) But that’s only the beginning of the mysteries about to be laid at Ella Amanda Milana’s feet.

An aspiring author, and long-time devotee of both the town’s most famous resident, world-renown children’s author Laura White, as well as the carefully chosen nine writers White began nurturing three decades before known as The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Ella is beside herself when she is invited to become the tenth, and final, member.

Then there is a tragedy, as will happen, which reveals a decades-long mystery, as will also happen. Ella sets her mind on solving it and is quickly introduced to something called The Game, which sounds like great fun but is something much more sinister. It’s useful for her mystery-solving purposes but she’s going to have to sacrifice a great deal of herself.

And off down the proverbial rabbit hole they all go.

Rabbit Back alternate cover

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen is about books and writing and memory. And the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and what happens when doing so is no longer an option–when we’re forced to let go of words and allow pure emotion to take over or risk losing the thing that means the most to us.

Within the first two pages this book was clearly barreling right up my street and with every page it came closer like that boulder in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With that sort of connection to a piece of writing the risk of the pay off not, well, paying off, looms large. I am notoriously hard on endings, but in this case I actually clapped my hands on the last page. I don’t know if a book ending has ever provoked that response before, but if so I don’t remember.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society will speak to readers who enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt or Ghost Story by Peter Straub. All three books are about insular intellectual societies with something dark at their hearts. All also have scenes of frigid beauty–snow and ice are nearly their own characters in both Rabbit Back and Ghost Story.

There’s also a bit of Haruki Murakami about the thing. Just enough to keep appearing at the edges of the reader’s mind after putting down the book. The book jumping–books altering their plots–put me in mind of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. Something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on also reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, as well. At any rate, if you enjoy any of those books, give this one a go.

This one is definitely going on my best of 2015 list. We’re hardly a fortnight into the year, but I loved everything about it. The writing was top rate (it was translated by Lola M. Rogers) and it’s the sort of book that lingers in the mind.

I recommend this one for those who like a little magic and mystery with their literary fiction. 5/5

[I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review but I’ll be pressing copies on several people quite voluntarily.]

Jan
16
2015

Vano & Niko

by V. L. Craven

Vano and Niko

Typically, this is the part of the book review where I write about the plot then I review the construction. Vano & Niko and Other Stories by Georgian author Erlom Akhvlediani (translated by Mikheil Kakabadze) doesn’t lend itself to that format.

That’s because the stories are more like poems…but not poems. I wouldn’t normally use a phrase like ‘word pictures’ but it’s difficult not to. Please don’t let that put you off. Each piece–they’re short pieces of a few pages each–paint a portrait of a relationship or a person or a way of being. They’re very true and real. I can’t say I understood every one of them but some of them were so immediate they were breath-taking. Those will be personal for each reader, but the ones that spoke to me most were so powerful I had to resist the urge to post them in there entirety. They’re the sort of thing you want to press upon everyone you meet and say, ‘Read this piece of insightful writing immediately.’

The book is short–not even 200 pages–but profound. It encompasses a trilogy. Vano and Niko, which is a collection of short pieces about the various sorts of relationships between people as demonstrated by two people named Vano and Niko. Proving that no matter the names, all humans are the same. The second set of short pieces are The Story of the Lazy Mouse, which are about animals taking on certain human characteristics and what it gets them. The third set are the most philosophical and is called The Man Who Lost Himself.

It’s the sort of book that makes a person wonder how many books are written in other languages that are waiting out there to be discovered.

In Mikheil Kakabadze’s introduction he explains:

it is well known that poetry and meaning disappear to some extent in a translation. However, I would like to ask the reader, when he or she comes across something apparently incomprehensible in these stories, instead of trying to dig too deeply for meaning, to think in images…

It’s a different way of reading, but doing so helped me immensely.

I give this one 4/5 only because it may be slightly inaccessible to some readers. If you’re willing to put in the work, though, it’s so rewarding.

[I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Jan
14
2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

by V. L. Craven

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

It’s 1951 and twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce has been shipped (literally–the book opens with her on a ship) from her happy home in England to a boarding school in Canada. She’s been given over to the protection of the less-than-genteel Rainsmiths, who happen to be on the board of an elite boarding school called Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. She knows she’s going for a very particular and important purpose, but no one will tell her what that purpose  is , precisely.

It is  most frustrating.

Miss Bodycote’s used to be a convent so it’s not at all forbidding or off-putting. And then there’s the headmistress, like someone out of Dickens, but whose motives are difficult to read. Flavia is beside herself.

Luckily, she’s barely there a day before a decapitated, charred corpse makes itself known. Now  this is the sort of thing a young woman can take an interest in! (I like this Flavia girl.)

So our girl is trying to fit in as best she can, work out what her greater purpose is at the school three thousand miles from her beloved home and work out exactly whose remains had tumbled out of her chimney that first night. Was it one of the three students who’d apparently vanished over the last few years? Or someone else entirely?

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is like what you’d get if you sent Wednesday Addams to Malory Towers  or St Trinian’s . So I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have loved it as a macabre little ten year old, but it’s just as much fun as a grown up–it’s that sort of book. This is the seventh in the series and, though I haven’t read the previous six, it wasn’t difficult to keep up. This is a good one for fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events. 4/5

Dec
24
2014

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

by V. L. Craven

Meditations

Marcus Aurelius (born Marcus Annius Catilus Severus) was co-emperor of Rome and a Stoic philosopher. He wrote Meditations in Greek whilst on campaign between 170 and 180. Originally titled To Myself, it was meant to be a source for his own guidance and self-improvement and was not intended for public consumption. We are fortunate it has been made available because it’s incredible and still applicable today.

It’s difficult to say what Meditations is ‘about’, as it’s rather about everything. Stoics were primarily concerned with finding contentment in life by not becoming too attached to anything, similar to Zen Buddhism. It’s about minimising desires and being rational. It’s fine to love and have material possessions and such, but if those desires and emotions threaten to overwhelm one’s natural, rational state, thereby bringing about unhappiness they should be avoided.

There’s overlap between some Buddhist belief and Existentialism and Stoicism in the idea that everything we know and see will soon fade away, as will all the people and things that come after that, as did all the things that came before. So there’s no reason to get worked up about anything, really, because how important is anything at all in that context?

Aurelius was quite civic-minded, though, and viewed all people as brothers and felt that people should be allowed to do whatever they pleased as long as they were not hurting other humans–no one else’s thoughts about you had any actual effect on you. There’s excellent advice on how to deal with the purely bloody-minded (those he calls the ones who know nothing about the difference between good and evil).

There’s just general excellent advice all round. It’s a call to find your chief aim in life and devote what short time you have on earth to it, eschewing trivialities like gossip and fads. It’s a call to be your best self and to try to improve the lot of your fellow humans. It’s a call to be true to yourself, to know yourself and be honest with yourself about your own motives and desires.

I have two editions of Meditations. The Penguin Great Ideas series is the one I’m reviewing, which was translated by Maxwell Staniforth. They are smaller books–they can fit in a pocket.  The Harvard Classics edition, which is translated by George Long is the other one in my library. The Penguin edition is much more accessible, though being that the Harvard Classics was from 1909 this is hardly surprising. Staniforth’s translation was highly readable. There were a few times I had to re-reading passages due to incomprehension rather than having had my mind-blown (though those moments occurred, as well) but that was entirely down to my own intellectual shortcomings.

This makes an excellent graduation gift. Everyone should read it. Everyone. 5/5

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
14
2014

Alice in Wonderland

by V. L. Craven

Alice in Wonderland Penguin Clothbound

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 teeeee

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 Tenniel

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 Tenniel Tea party

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 .

Snark Busters 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:

Cheshire Kitten

Cheshire Kitten by Vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

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.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

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.)

Asylum Red Crayon

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?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

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…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

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.

Asylum Diary pages

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.

Asylum camera

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.

Asylum Lithium

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:

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

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
05
2014

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

by V. L. Craven

Cabin in the Woods

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.

They made the right decision.

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.

Nov
28
2014

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

by V. L. Craven

Locke and Key Collected

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 1

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 2 Head Games

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 3 Crown of Shadows

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 4 Keys to the Kingdom

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 5 Clockworks

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 6 Alpha and Omega

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.

Skeleton Keys

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

Locke and Key the Game

Nov
15
2014

Best European Fiction 2015

by V. L. Craven

2015 Best European Fiction

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
07
2014

The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

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.)

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

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.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

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.

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

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.

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

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 .

Oct
31
2014

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

by V. L. Craven

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

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
24
2014

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

by V. L. Craven

Forgers dust jacket

 

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
17
2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven

Ghostwritten

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

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