Autodidact: self-taught

Mar
20
2015

The Devil’s Detective

by V. L. Craven

Devils Detective US

Hell, present day.

Thomas Fool has been sent to escort a delegation from Heaven for the periodic Elevations. Some souls are going to be released up to salvation, which is occasionally visible through the dark clouds always shifting above Hell.

Fool is one of the Eternal Damned City’s three Information Men–a detective. He and his colleagues investigate crimes against humans and demons alike. Or they’re supposed to. But Hell is wide and they’re only three and no one really cares. No one really expects them to solve anything.

Except for the canisters marked with blue ribbons.

You see, their assignments arrive in their rooms in pneumatic tubes like banks (Hell is extremely similar to Earth only much, much filthier and with demons) and the canisters are wrapped in ribbons. Most ribbons are red and the parchments within can safely be stamped DNI (Do Not Investigate) and returned to the tube.

Blue ribbons must be looked into, however.

The day the Heavenly delegation arrives, which consists of Adam, a beatific fellow, Balthasar, of the old school who misses the way Hell used to be run with the lakes of fire–think Dante, and an archive and scribe for assistants, a blue-ribbon-wrapped canister arrives and things get chaotic even for Hell.

A human was killed–this happens all the time, so what–but his soul was removed afterward. Only something ancient, evil and very, very powerful could do such a thing.

We’re talking about the sort of ancient and evil and powerful that frightens the present-day demons of Hell.

The Bureaucracy who runs Hell (ancient demons) want answers enough they’re willing to put their trust and resources in a mere human.

They’re also rather curious about something that used to be a human, but who is now known as The Man of Plants and Flowers. He’s become one with the flora and fauna of the underworld and this is threatening, as he can no longer be quantified as human or demon.

Fool’s assignment is to find out what’s eating souls and what The Man is, exactly. This assignment will take him through the worst and worst-er parts of Hell. (There are no good parts just less-terrible.) He will come face-to-face with an array of types of demons.

On his quest to discover the truth, Fool will also find out just who he really is.

Devils Detective UK

The Devil’s Detective takes place in a fully-realised Hell. Unsworth’s gift of description and atmosphere are vivid and creative. The reader learns about the darkest areas of perdition along with Fool and walks alongside him into some chilling situations.

Things are a-changin’ in Hell and we get to come along for the ride.

And the ending was great.

Well-written, dark fantasy, great fun. 5/5

Mar
04
2015

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

by V. L. Craven

Bad Behavior

The characters in Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories Bad Behavior are unlikeable across the board. The stories themselves are snapshots of humanity–warts and all.

Mostly warts, really.

All of the stories are of deeply flawed humans, many using their fellow humans for their own needs, whether those needs be sexual (more than one story featured BDSM practices and prostitution) or emotional. Gaitskill has an impressive eye for detail.

As mentioned yesterday, one of the stories in this collection, ‘Secretary’, is the source material for the film Secretary. It’s one of the few times a film vastly improved upon the original piece, as the story version of the secretary (Debbie in the story/Lee in the film) was mostly unsympathetic. And the lawyer (unnamed in the story, E. Edward Grey in the film) wasn’t as fleshed out in the story.

Something about it reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates’ outstanding Them, though I can’t quite put my finger on what it was. Perhaps the level of detail and the dirty reality of the characters’ lives.

The stories all seems to link into one another to the degree I kept expecting characters to cross paths with characters from other stories.

This is not a collection of happy stories about happy people or happy endings, or even endings that wrap up things neatly, but if that’s your cup of tea (as it is mine) then I can recommend this one. 4/5.

Feb
18
2015

The Match Girl and the Heiress

by V. L. Craven

Match Girl and the Heiress

The premise of Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress sounds like the worst sort of contrived Victorian social commentary. Well-to-do young woman (soft white hands and all) gives it all up to venture into the slums of London and befriends a factory working match girl who, in her turn, idolizes her. Together, they try to change the world.

It’s non-fiction, however, so I was very excited. It sounded like romantic friendship , which is one of my favourite topics. As is the Victorian era. So I thought, ‘real life romantic friendship in my favourite time period?’ Result!

Alas, it was not to be. While the book was very well researched. It was, at times, dry even for an academic work. I learned a great deal about the way World War I shaped Britain’s view of pacifism and other social causes. And the rise and clash of different sorts of feminism was quite interesting. But other parts were something of a slog.

The best sections (though few and far between) were analyzing the unequal relationship of the women–Muriel Lester (the heiress) and Nellie Dowell (the match girl), which were nearly perfect mirrors of the way well-meaning middle class whites in the U.S. try to help poor people, especially blacks in the present day. There’s a genuine desire to provide assistance but due to a lifetime of wearing the blinders of privilege they make mistake after mistake.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this for those specifically interested in class and social issues of the time. 3/5

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

Feb
11
2015

Conversations with Spirits

by V. L. Craven

Conversations with Spirits

Trelawney Hart wakes up on the floor of the reading room of his club. It’s still England in 1917–just as it was when he fell asleep the previous night–and even his location isn’t all that strange, as he’s taken up residence there since the death of his beloved wife some months before.

No, indeed, waking up, wrapped around a bottle of brandy, on the floor of his club’s reading room is entirely par for the course.

What  isn’t par for the course is being informed that the pre-eminent author of the day, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is coming to have a bit of a chin-wag.

Hart wishes to be left in peace with his floor and booze, but good manners dictate he at least speak with the man and thus Sir Arthur is shown in. What he has to say isn’t entirely welcome, though. He wants to commission Hart, a renown sceptic and logician, to come to Kent at the weekend and see an up-and-coming medium, J.P. Beasant. Sir Arthur is a committed Spiritualist, but he’s convinced this show (which involves the medium walking through a solid ten-foot brick wall) will change Hart’s mind and having him on-board will lend credence to the Spiritualist movement.

Reluctantly, and believing not a word of it, Hart agrees to go. They travel separately in order for Hart to remain as incognito as possible, but this also leads to our man becoming lost (no doubt partially due to the heroic quantities of alcohol he consumes) and getting himself into various other difficulties. He may be a genius, but suave he is not. Nor particularly likable.

Along the way he picks up an assistant of sorts–someone who knows how the real world works. Well someone has to. And off they trot to the seaside town where this Beasant is going to change the way we see this world and the next.

This mustache believed in fairies.

This mustache believed in fairies.

The first time I learned the creator of the most rational fictional character in history believed in supernatural things it was at a bookshop I was working in. To my incredulous response my manager said matter-of-factly, ‘He wanted to believe in fairies.’ And, indeed, the Cottingley Fairies make a brief but vital appearance.

Higgins addresses the most-rational-character-in-literature vs author’s-beliefs issue very early on in a discussion between Hart and Sir Arthur. He addresses pretty much every argument a pro-logic person could have with a pro-belief person throughout the book at one point or another. The conversations come across as quite natural and realistic, rather than an author trying to make a point, which often happens in these cases.

He also covers the pitfalls of attempting to be a purely rational being–the protagonist’s father had raised him to be a maths and logic prodigy without nurturing other aspects of his humanity, which leads to some personality problems later on.

Tightly-plotted, E.O. Higgins’ Conversations with Spirits doesn’t have a superfluous scene or unanswered question. The reader is engaged on page one and remains so until the very end.

Higgins clearly knows his material, deftly capturing both the tone and atmosphere of the Holmes novels. Though I must say the characters drank so much I felt I was inebriated half the time. I’m glad Hart (who has the makings of a great series character like Holmes) wasn’t shooting up morphine or cocaine, but the occasional glass of water or cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss. I suppose it seemed like more booze than it was because the characters were drinking the entire time they were awake and I read it in one 5 hour sitting. So I was reading all of the alcohol consumption of a raging alcoholic and his chums over a four or five day period but in five hours.

Fans of Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George will like this one. (My review of that book is midway down this page .)

Do I need to say I give this one 5/5?

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

Feb
06
2015

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

by V. L. Craven

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

The ancient Greeks looked at the world as it was and thought, ‘We can improve upon all of this. Just…all of it.’

Well, not really. But that’s what they ended up doing. Whether it was in ways of warfare, poetry, politics or philosophy–even how we thought about being alive and our place in the world–they had their hands in it and minds on it. They wound up creating Western civilization.

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea follows the Greeks from the time when they were separate, warring tribes with very different personalities to the era of Greece’s unlimited power, to its fall to Rome. It tracks the various movers and shakers of each movement through those times and makes them as real as if they were standing before you. (Pythagoras was a cult-having hippie and the politicians of the first democracy are as unscrupulous as the ones we know today. The more things change…)

Cahill provides translations of poetry and plays and speeches (some from Robert Fagles and some of his own) to illustrate the changing Greek mind over time. There are also images of sculpture, pottery and other types of artwork and architecture, showing the evolution of each of these throughout the golden age of Greece.

Entertaining and informative, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea is an excellent introduction to the history of ancient Greece and its contributions to Western civilization. At 352 pages it’s not for the established Greek scholar, but it is a good overview and gives some idea of the scope of their influence. For those reasons I give it 5/5

[This is the fourth book of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series, which aim to bring to life the people and events of the turning points of civilization.]

Feb
04
2015

The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter

by V. L. Craven

Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter

‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter’ by Jeff VanderMeer came to me by a serendipitous route. Because I follow Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen on Facebook, I saw his work was featured in an anthology called It Came from the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction , which looked intriguing.

Being a broke writer, I went in search of the publisher to humbly beg for a review copy. Said publisher turned out to be Cheeky Frawg Books , which has one of the best publisher websites I’ve seen. It hasn’t been updated in awhile, which is a shame.

Poking around the homepage of said great, if somewhat neglected, website I found what was called The Free, which turned out to be a free epub version of the subject of this review (yes, I will get to the review momentarily). I’m not going to tell you where it is–just go look at their site. Everything is excellent. The covers, which are reminiscent of McSweeney’s covers in a good way, overall design, the ‘atmosphere’ for lack of a better word.

Surprise free book converted via Calibre, I started ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter’ immediately and read it in one sitting (it’s 48 printed pages so not exactly a feat of readerly endurance, but it kept my interest the entire time.) It’s a long-form essay about all of Angela Carter’s works.

Very well-written, critical but also appreciative, it’s a nice introduction. She’s one of those authors who’ve been on my to-read list for years. VanderMeer calls out my sort of people when lamenting how under-appreciated her work is. There are two camps, it would seem: the people who haven’t heard of her and the people who have heard of her but haven’t read her. Whoops. I own some of her books… do I get any points for that?

There are some spoilers if you haven’t read anything of hers, but I found it enormously useful in deciding where to start. The Passion of the New Eve is first on my list. I’ve always enjoyed how books lead to one another as though making introductions. Like networking with people except much better because rather than people there are books.

Now I just need this sort of essay for Muriel Spark.

(I wound up buying It Came from the North on Amazon. It’s only $5.99 and it supports a great publisher and at least one excellent author. Look forward to that review in the coming weeks. Probably also a review of The Passion of the New Eve.)

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.

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