Autodidact: self-taught

Jul
26
2015

The Book of Speculation

by V. L. Craven

book-of-speculation

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

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

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

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

The thing is, Simon has a sister, Enola.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul
17
2015

The School for Supervillains

by V. L. Craven

School for Supervillains

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a minor snag, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul
10
2015

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by V. L. Craven

Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man unaware of his beauty and what it brings him. He has become the muse of a painter, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with him.

One day whilst Gray is in Hallward’s studio being painted, one of the artist’s friends, Lord Henry, stops by. He’s immediately taken with the young man and begins espousing his hedonistic philosophy. He makes Dorian aware of the fleeting nature of beauty–especially his own.

After they return inside Hallward has finished the painting and proclaimed it his finest yet. Dorian realises he’ll never be as young or as beautiful as he is in the picture and makes a Faustian oath before it. It takes some time before the consequences of that oath become apparent, but once it does he begins to become fascinated and horrified at the implications.

Lord Henry’s words have begun to work their dark magic upon him, though, and he goes in search of new experiences, corrupting others along the way.

This is in the 1890s so reputations are easily ruined, mind. But people also believe that sin is worn on the face and Dorian Gray is beautiful. He’s one of those people who remains blemish-free and so must his soul be.

Sin will out, though, as they say.

Lippincott Dorian Gray

I read the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, which has all sorts of notes and other useful information. It’s also beautifully bound and has a sewn-in bookmark. I do recommend the series.

There’s not much to say in terms of critical review. Everyone else has already said everything of intellectual import.

It’s excellent–the sort of classic that makes modern writing seem drab (as opposed to the sort of classic that works brilliantly as a soporific).

It turned out that all the quotes I’d thought Wilde had said at parties and people had written down were actually said by his character Lord Henry. And indeed, the novel is hilarious, as well as thought-provoking.

The fact that I thought Lord Henry was Wilde’s stand-in was apt, as the author himself said: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray highlights the hypocrisy of the age, which was more pronounced at the time, though it’s still so today. The people shouting most loudly about other people’s perversions are generally the ones doing the worst behind closed doors.

And it’s good to know beauty and money can still put people’s minds to rest about corruption. That certainly hasn’t changed in the last 120 years.

Though, hey, gay people can get married now rather than being sent down for hard labour for two years. So… progress?

This is a must read for fans of excellent writing, Gothic literature, the Faust legend, social commentary. Just read it. 5/5

Jun
05
2015

Lifted by the Great Nothing

by V. L. Craven

Lifted by the Great Nothing

 

Max is twelve years old. He’s of Lebanese decent (though his father, Rasheed, says they’re just American now); he drinks mixed vodka drinks; he spends time with the Yangs next door.

Max’s father is the centre of his world. He keeps the house clean for him and makes his food–special, fancy meals, because his father works several lowly jobs to make ends meet.

Max’s mother died when he was a baby then they fled war-torn Lebanon. That’s when they became Americans. Rasheed doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so they don’t discuss it.

Eventually, Kelly moves in. Kelly is very socially aware and teaches Max about things like injustice, civil war and genocide and he begins to wonder what happened to his mother.

Karim Dimechkie’s debut novel Lifted by the Great Nothing is about a young man (it’s told in three parts–when Max is 12, 16 and 26) trying to figure out who he is and where he comes from. And in the process he learns a few hard truths about the choices people make in order to protect the ones they love. 4/5

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

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.)

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