Autodidact: self-taught

May
06
2015

Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

As mentioned in yesterday’s review of the film , I’ve been a huge fan of Harold and Maude for some time and watch it at least once a year. So when a novel by the same name came up on NetGalley I requested it, thinking it was the source material for the film.

At first I thought it was the most true-to-source material film adaptation I’d ever read–the cover does say ‘a novel’–but it turns out it’s a novelization of the screenplay. Higgins wrote both the screenplay (it was his master’s thesis at UCLA film school) and the screenplay so it has the same atmosphere of the film.

The novel exists in that same darkly comic, wonderfully bizarre world. Nineteen-year-old Harold Chasen is just as obsessed with faking his own death and seventy-nine-year-old Maude is just as in love with life. Harold’s mother is just as exasperated with all the nonsense and then, of course, there’s the car.

It’s a quick, entertaining read and there are little differences here and there that fans of the film will find interesting. It’s fun to see how scenes were originally written versus how they were edited in the final version and what was cut or changed entirely. Scenes with Uncle Victor, the brigadier general, are different in the novel, for instance. And bits and bobs that weren’t fully explained in the film (how did Harold turn that Jaguar into a mini hearse?) are laid out quite neatly.

The film is such a part of my consciousness I can’t say what a person unfamiliar with it would think of the book or how they’d read certain characters. While reading it I was laughing out loud because I was hearing/seeing the actors in my head.

5/5 for people who’ve seen the film this is a must-read.

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

Apr
30
2015

The Well Film vs Novel

by V. L. Craven

Similarities and Differences Between Elizabeth Jolley’s Novel The Well and the Film Based Upon It

This post includes spoilers for both the 1986 Elizabeth Jolley novel The Well and the 1997 film of the same name. There are spoilers everywhere and will not be behind the usual ‘here be spoilers’ tags. If you need a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading, here is a photo of Pamela Rabe.

The Well Pamela Rabe

If you’ve decided to stick around, then here we go.

There are more similarities than differences and the film sticks very close to the book–closer than most adaptations do. Many of the same conversations happen, though perhaps in different places.

The most noticeable difference, however, is the choice of casting Pamela Rabe as Hester Harper. In the book, Hester is menopausal or after–she’s fifty-something if she’s a day. Whereas, Rabe wouldn’t have been forty when she played the role. (Don’t get me wrong, they made the correct decision, but I was surprised by how much older the character was in the book.)

Per usual, there’s more about everyone in the novel–films don’t have the ability to capture the inner world of the characters the way books do–and we learn more about Hester’s beloved governess Hilde and Mr Bird and Katherine’s friend Joanna, as well as Katherine’s time at the orphanage.

Hilde had to leave one day after having a miscarriage (or giving birth? it’s difficult to tell from the description) when Hester was fourteen. Hester found her in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom bleeding profusely and crying. The next day her father took Hilde away and Hester was sent to boarding school. This gave Hester quite a dim view of bearing children or childbirth or relations between men and women.

Mr Bird dies suddenly near the end of the book but was trying to look after Hester right up until his end. There is some intimation that he was romantically interested in her, possibly. He certainly had affection for her, as he’d sent her cards on special occasions her entire life. She hadn’t wondered why until it was too late to ask. The original Hester Harper is remarkably self-involved.

Joanna, Katherine’s friend who spends most of the book and film on remand, sends letters and plans a visit. She eventually becomes an evangelist and her final letter in the book arrives on white paper with a gold cross on each page. She invites Kathy to join her for a tour of the States.

The Hester Harper of the book seemed much more frivolous and less capable than the one in the film, who was always in control and knew what was what. The Hester of the film also seems to have more of a sense of humour and a better singing voice.

The Katherine of the book (she’s never given a surname) is more annoying, but she also looks after Hester. She’s less conniving in the source material, whereas in the film, she comes across as money-grubbing and manipulative. This could be because the book is very much from Hester’s point of view, but the film has to be from a more objective viewpoint. However, in the book, Katherine never refers to her benefactress as ‘Hester’, as she does in the film. She always calls her ‘Miss Harper’.

The original Hester Harper is much less likable. She’s insanely possessive and absolutely will not allow Katherine to bring a man into their house and certainly not allow her precious Kathy to have a baby, even though, as she ages, these are things the younger woman expresses an interest in. She’s jealous of Joanna, as well, but not to the same degree, and, by the end of the novel, she’s resigned to letting Kathy go with Joanna to America if she wants.

The book explains where Hester gets Kathy (see my review ) which I had found confusing in the film. And in the book the Harpers didn’t have Molly–the woman they let go in the film–to make room for Kathy. The girl also didn’t find the work too hard and strop off only to return. Films need conflict, though. Something else the book explains that the film doesn’t is what Katherine sees in Hester. She seems to like looking after the woman–she brings her sweets at the dance, for example, in the book. But in the film it’s unclear why she’d return that day early on when she’d decided the work was too hard.

In the book, Katherine wears the yellow dress to the dance that Hester makes for her. It’s cause for some snide comments because Mrs Borden thinks Hester is trying to keep Kathy like a child even though she’s twenty-one, but Katherine likes it–she certainly doesn’t intentionally ruin it the way the character in the film does.

After the man is put down the well everything goes the same in both media. However, in the big argument in the film, Kathy says something to the effect of, ‘If you give me the key I’ll do anything you want, I’ll be so good.’ Intimating sexual favours. This line doesn’t appear in the book, though earlier Hester reflects on how her enjoyment of watching Katherine dance makes her feel and:

She groaned. The dance was for her the only physical manifestation of physical love. Hester did not feel guilty about the feeling. It was private. She pulled off onto the gravel for a few precious minutes alone on the edge of the great emptiness.

Afterwards, in her weakness, she cried a little…

So clearly there was sexual attraction on Hester’s side, even though Kathy doesn’t mention it in the book and that’s really the only mention

The last scene of the book is Hester with a petrol can in the car with Mrs Borden and a bunch of her children. She and Kathy had run out of fuel and the older woman felt like a walk so the younger woman stayed in the car to work on her sewing for an upcoming fete. Joanna will be arriving by then for a week-long stay.

The well has just been permanently covered over after the downpour, which nearly filled it. Hester had it covered as she thought Kathy would realise the men working on it all morning would have surely heard anyone alive if, indeed, there had been a living soul down there.

Hester has also set herself on the plan that, if Kathy decides she wants to go to America with Joanna, she’ll simply have to let her and fill the emptiness of her days by constantly finding things to do with her time.

The film ends with Hester in the Bordens’ car with the brood and Kathy hitch-hiking with a bunch of money. The book is never clear on if Kathy has the money or not. In the book Hester doesn’t look for it the way she does in the film.

 

Oh, and in the book the woolly hat is red, rather than yellow.

Apr
29
2015

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

by V. L. Craven

The Well

In February I reviewed an Australian film called The Well and found the ending confusing. In said review I said I’d like to read the screenplay to see if the ending was less ambiguous.

So recently I read the novel the film was based on–The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, which was published in 1986.

It tells the story of Hester Harper, an Australian spinster who has spent the majority of her life on a remote farm with her father.

One day she meets an orphan–a young woman named Katherine–who’s been helping out at a local shop but who is about to be returned to the Home, as the man of the house no longer wants her around. On a whim, Hester takes the girl home with her to help with chores.

She grows possessive of the girl. Protective. And Katherine cares for Miss Harper, as well. She certainly likes her money and helps spend it with an abandon the older woman had never felt the need for before meeting the girl.

The girl has awakened something in the woman. An appreciation for life. Her inner world is more vibrant for Katherine coming into it even if her outer self is as old and broken as it was before her arrival. Most of all, she loves watching the young woman dance.

Hester’s father dies and the decision is made to sell the farm her family has lived on for generations and she and Katherine move to a little cottage even further from civilisation, but who cares, as they have one another.

It’s the first time that Hester Harper has been happy since she was a child so she is willing to go to great lengths to preserve her precious, shared life when a sinister event threatens to disrupt what they’ve built.

The lengths she is willing to go to, though, may do irreparable harm to her beloved Kathy, who may not be as innocent as Hester believes.

the-well

There’s an old-fashioned feel to The Well. Not being familiar with the songs or dances Katherine mentions (and assuming it was because they were Australian) the book ‘felt’ like it took place in the late 60s or 70s. It wasn’t until the end of the novel when one of the characters makes a passing mention of AIDS that I looked at the copyright. This could be because the book takes place from Hester Harper’s p.o.v. and she’s a queer sort of bird but old fashioned in her way.

It’s very … Australian. In a way I don’t have the words to describe. Some books simply feel like the countries they were written in. Some books are American or English or Australian. There’s an Oz sensibility about it. And also a slightly English. Perhaps it’s the ‘single, eccentric woman living in the countryside giving no cares’ that rings the English bell for me.

That’s not a criticism (the Australian thing, I mean); it simply is what it is. If you’ve never read Australian books before this may seem sparse or if you haven’t liked other ones you probably won’t like this one but I enjoyed it. Hester Harper is a fully-formed character and the reader gets to know her, warts and all. She is stubborn. And, ultimately, a very lonely person. Her loneliness makes her blind and blind people do stupid things.

This is a satisfying, but not uplifting read.

I give this 4/5 but if you’re looking for straight-forward answers or a happy ending keep driving.

My next post will be about the similarities and differences between the source material and the film. Needless to say, this didn’t clear up much for me, but as a fan of the film, I’m glad I read it. It also stands on its own as a novel.

Apr
17
2015

The Winter Family

by V. L. Craven

The Winter Family

In the final days of the Civil War Quentin Ross (who grew up wetting his bed and pulling the wings off flies) is sent off by General Sherman on a mission. Ross puts together a small band of people who have a, shall we say, tenuous  connection with morality and set off. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they’re wanted for desertion.

In the wake of the war, the Klan is formed in the South and several members of the gang hire themselves out to combat them. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they have to split up to save their lives.

Luckily, this was in the early days of the Union. There were huge swathes of uncharted land to get lost in. Violence-loving thugs and those with nothing to lose lead by two sociopaths could easily get lost.

Then came the Chicago election of 1872. The Republicans had held the city forever but the Democrats were beginning to organise. All the working-class people and the various ethnicities–the Irish, German, Polish, etc, were coming together in order to face the rich Republicans. President Grant has promised the gang pardons if they help maintain order on election day.

Except Augustus Winter (sociopath number two of the group) his brand of violence was beyond the pale. He was not up for pardon and he was not invited to Chicago.

So the gang is reunited in Chicago–Winter finds out, of course–and it wouldn’t be a Winter Family reunion without copious amounts of violence. Once again with the unfortunate decisions and having to split up.

Eventually they wind up coming back together in Oklahoma in 1891 for the big showdown with their arch-nemesis, Matt Shakespeare, brother of one of their former members.

The main events of the book take place in Georgia 1864, Chicago 1872, Phoenix 1881 and Oklahoma 1891. Between each section are summations of what was happening in American history and what the characters did while they were apart. This could feel a little disjointed, though the narrative device is understandable because otherwise the book would have been 2,000 pages long.

The Winter Family is about race and violence and what really lives in the hearts of men. It’s well-written and was difficult to put down and it covers a vast area both geographically and historically–Jackman definitely did his research–I learned a lot about parts of American history that wasn’t covered at school.

Overall I’d give The Winter Family 4/5.

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

Apr
10
2015

Deep Shell

by V. L. Craven

Deep Shell

Harkel is a surgeon. His job is stitching the wounds that appear in the ground they live on. And the ground is alive.

Four decades prior, four ships crashed onto a planet mostly made of water. They landed on a living organism they call the behemoth. The survivors are doing the best they can and have got on with things in the intervening period.

When there are fleshquakes (think earthquake but gory) people like Harkel go in, assess the damage and suture things up.

Lately there have been more, and more violent, fleshquakes. What resources the humans have are running out and will only continue to do so so when Harkel is given the opportunity/order to help save the planet he has to take it.

Deep Shell is available on Kindle for $.99 and it’s definitely worth that. It’s worth more, really. There’s lots of action and blood and gore, and feels like an hour-long sci-fi episode of a well-produced show. I’m not sure which one, but something dark.

Kelly has a gift for creating atmosphere, which in this case can be a little stomach-churning (don’t eat spaghetti whilst reading it). There were some questions about the overall world that were left unanswered, but it left room for other stories set in the same universe called The Conflux, which I would definitely read.

It’s a short read–16,000 words, but great fun. If you’re looking for some sci-fi with plenty of viscera that can be finished off in an afternoon, look no further. 5/5.

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

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