Autodidact: self-taught


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.


The Cabin in the Woods

by V. L. Craven

The Cabin in the Woods


The title The Cabin in the Woods says to me, ‘Bunch of nubile youngsters go to a wooded area and somehow end up in a cabin–by choice or misfortune–and something picks them off one my one. Could be a malevolent force or it could be homicidal hillbillies.’ Or just unfortunate hillbillies a la Tucker and Dale vs Evil .

But Joss Whedon is a man who knows what he’s doing. Why did I doubt you, Whedon?

What really happens is:

Several nubile university students go to a wooded area to stay at a cabin owned by the cousin of one of their number (Curt, played by Chris Hemsworth) where they are picked off one-by-one by cannibalistic hillbillies who are also zombies. So, you know, there’s a twist.

But then we learn something about all horror films that should have been obvious. Something that explains why everyone makes the same mistakes–people split up, the girls who take off their tops die first, etc. It’s all being manipulated by a corporation in deference to higher powers. (This is not a spoiler, we learn this at the start.)

Watching the people behind the scenes (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) is both hilarious and eye-opening. It will certainly make viewing subsequent horror films less infuriating knowing there’s an entire team of people manipulating teens into making poor decisions for the greater good.

There’s a great, split-second moment where we see the monsters at the disposal of the corporation. Thanks to pausing and screen-capping capabilities, though:

Cabin in the woods Whiteboard

If you want to know about everything on the board, there’s an unofficial, but excellent, fan-made wiki for the film that catalogs all of the monsters . That site is home to all of the spoilers. It lists the monsters available to torment whatever kids are up for grabs this time around, as well as what summons them. It includes monsters mentioned in the book but only glimpsed in the film. (Kevin is my favourite. Oh, Kevin.)

This is the part of the review where I tell you if the acting and writing was any good. It’s Whedon, people. The casting was excellent, the writing was hilarious and smart and didn’t go where expected (except when it had to, but then only so it could tweak the tropes of the genre). I wanted to make out with this film.

This is definitely one to own , as there are so many details that beg for further explanation and the physical versions have loads of extras.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan, there’s an Official Visual Companion , which has the screenplay, interviews with Whedon and the special effects crew, lots of conceptual art and photos of monsters and sets, etc. I haven’t looked at this one myself so check the reviews before you order.

There’s also the official novelization by Tim Lebbon, which I’ll be reviewing on Friday. I wanted to read it after seeing some of the notes on the previously mentioned wiki.

The film is a 5/5 for definite. I watched it two days in a row because I had to show it to a friend posthaste.


Locke and Key by Joe Hill

by V. L. Craven

Locke and Key Collected

The complete Locke and Key comic written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez is now available in a beautiful slipcase  that would look fantastic beside your Sandman and Lucifer comics (and don’t tell me you don’t have them).

Joe Hill’s storytelling is inventive, his characters are believable and the Locke family are easy to root for. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork is beautiful–the attention to detail is particularly noteworthy and Keyhouse feels like a real place. He’s brought Hill’s character’s to life. The partnership is a most complimentary one. The comic is immanently re-readable so the slipcase is worth it.

Locke and Key 1

The first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, collects the first six issues of the comic and introduces us to the Locke family who relocate to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the father is murdered by a peer of the eldest child, eighteen year old Tyler. They move into the family home, Keyhouse, a rambling, Gothic pile located on a remote island. As you’d expect from such a house in such a place, the house has secrets, such as, certain doors, if opened with certain keys allow the opener to do different things or go different places.

The youngest, six-year-old Bode, is the first to discover one of these keys and doors. He also discovers someone (or some thing ) living in the well in the abandoned well house. Someone should have kept a better eye on the little one.

Meanwhile, Sam Lesser, the teenage psychopath who killed the patriarch of the Locke clan, escapes the mental institution and makes his way to Lovecraft. He’s not your run-of-the-mill lunatic, you see, he’s been sent on a mission to find a key. A very special key.

Locke and Key 2 Head Games

The second volume is comprised of the six issues in the Head Games arc and is concerned with the powers of the second key, known as the Head Key for marvellous and terrifying reasons, as well as the return of an individual who is the spitting image of a friend of the Locke children’s father. In his previous incarnation he was known as Luke Caravaggio, but now he’s calling himself Zack and has insinuated himself into Tyler’s life. All he has to do is avoid anyone who may recognise him from twenty years ago. Because if someone does, well, he can’t risk being exposed and people die every day, right?

Locke and Key 3 Crown of Shadows

Volume Three is the six issues that make up the Crown of Shadows story arc, where several more keys are discovered. Some that are quite useful and two with powers that are beyond terrifying. Zack uses one to try and find the real key he’s after and the other is used to combat him in an epic showdown.

Sam Lesser, the teenager who murdered Rendell Locke and nearly killed the rest of the family before Tyler put him down returns (as a ghost–this is one of those dead-people-aren’t-always-dead deals) and we learn more about Zack’s homicidal motivation, as well as what happens to people after they die.

Locke and Key 4 Keys to the Kingdom

The fourth volume is Keys to the Kingdom (collecting the six issues of that series) and is much more action-packed than the previous three. The third chapter in this volume is my favourite in the entire series, as it shows how the kids are becoming accustomed to living in a house with supernatural elements. It must be what living in Sunnydale would have been like.

Kinsey and Tyler deal with relationship problems–Kinsey’s stemming from choices she made regarding the Head Key. And we finally learn what is at stake if Zack finds the key he seeks.

Locke and Key 5 Clockworks

Volume five collects the six issues of the Clockworks arc and explains the origins of the magic of Keyhouse, as well as the how Zack/Luke became possessed by the evil entity that makes him impervious to death. Tyler and Kinsey find a key that allows them to travel back in time (as observers) and they witness not only their earliest ancestors’ brutal past, but also learn the truth about their father’s part in the death of a classmate.

Locke and Key 6 Alpha and Omega

Volume six, Alpha and Omega (four issues of Omega and two issues of Alpha), wraps up the series with an epic showdown involving the powers of multiple keys and a battle between darkness and light (literally). The fate of the world hangs in the balance and the Locke children are the only ones who can save us all.

As with most things these days, there is a Locke & Key wiki with all the super-spoilery information you could desire, if you need help keeping up with the sprawling amount of characters and plotlines.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan of the series Skelton Crew makes physical versions of some of the keys.

Skeleton Keys

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

Locke and Key the Game


A Fantastic Fear of Everything

by V. L. Craven

Fantastic Fear of Everything


Jack (Simon Pegg) is an author who has been researching Victorian serial killers. His research is starting to get to him, though, causing the fantastic fear of everything from the title. His agent gets him a dinner meeting with someone interested in publishing his book, but that requires Jack to a) leave the house and b) go to the launderette to clean what appear to be his only set of clothing.

Jack has an absolute terror of launderettes for reasons that become clear later and have nothing to do with his research on Victorian psychopaths.

Meanwhile, there’s a very modern-day psychopath killing people and cutting off their fingers in the area of London in which he lives. This all ties together, sort of.

It does. On paper. All of the elements connect with one another and there is a beginning, middle and end. But I watched this with two other people and when it was over the collective response was: ‘What just happened?’

It wasn’t confusing–everything is very straightforward–the film just seemed to have no focus. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next, but then whatever  does happen next and then another thing happens and another and then it’s the end.

According to Wikipedia , Slate called it a ‘semicomedy’, which is correct, but I’m not sure what the other part of the film is supposed to be. It’s based on a novella (Paranoia in the Launderette) by the writer and director of Withnail and I, which I love, so one wonders how it would have turned out if Bruce Robinson (said author/writer/director) had handled the screenplay and direction.

There was one particularly clever sight gag that was … clever. There’s quite a bit of physical comedy and Pegg is as reliable as ever. But I would really only recommend it to fans of his work. That said, I’ll probably watch it again, as it has a certain dark tone that’s enjoyable and the music (90s rap) is great.

Sadly, I have to give this one 2/5 stars.


We Are What We Are

by V. L. Craven

We Are What We Are

A woman goes grocery shopping in a downpour and suddenly begins bleeding from the mouth. She collapses into a ditch where she drowns, leaving her two daughters to carry out the religious duties for their father and younger brother. Due to the mysterious nature of her death, an autopsy is ordered and it’s discovered she had Parkinson’s. A teenage girl goes missing then the local doctor finds a human bone fragment in the creek, which leads to finding more bones. Things are not going well in the small town, is what I’m saying.

The daughters of the woman, Iris and Rose, have a difficult time taking over for their mother. Though they know the ritual has been carried out the same way for generations they have some objections and they discuss escaping their suffocating lives or upholding the tradition. Meanwhile, it’s discovered that Parkinson’s shares symptoms with a rare disorder called Kuru, which is only contracted one way and it’s not a good way. And it looks like the woman had Kuru.

As a commentary on extreme religious observance, it’s pretty much bashing you over the head and then gnawing on your arm. As a creepy horror film with nicely built atmosphere, it’s definitely one to watch.

The colour palette is particularly fine–it’s just lovely to look at–and the translucence of the girls’ skin and hair combined with them nearly always wearing white added to the effect. The younger daughter, Rose (Julia Garner) was especially good, though Bill Sage hit all the right notes as the stern patriarch of an extreme religious sect. (Though I’m not sure one family of five constitutes a sect.)

There’s relatively little blood or violence for a horror film (excepting one scene that was shocking in its violence if only because the rest of the film was so restrained). In this day of torture porn it’s refreshing to see films that rely more on story-telling than viscera to get the audience’s attention.

There is a sequel and a prequel planned and if they don’t turn both of those into gore-fests and retain the same level of plot and character development as the original, they could be interesting. Keep an eye out for those. Or pull an eye out for them. (Sorry. I’m so sorry.)

Overall I’d give We Are What We Are 5/5 because I like cannibals and I’d watch this one again. It’s definitely a step above most horror films. If you want fast-pacing or nudity or gore galore then this one isn’t for you, though.


Best European Fiction 2015

by V. L. Craven

2015 Best European Fiction

With thirty stories representing twenty-eight countries (twenty-seven of the thirty were originally in languages other than English) the scope is vast. And not just geographically. Genre-wise, as well.

There is literary fiction, which often took the form of snapshots of people’s lives. The poignant ‘Hospital Room Nr 13.54′ by Olga Martynova stands out here.

There’s magical realism like Adda Djorup’s ‘Birds’, which was lovely in that Iris Murdoch I-think-I’m-missing-something-but-I-love-it-anyway sort of way.

‘The Second-Hand Man’ by Michael O Conhaile covered the humour area fairly well in a story that was very Irish. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a church and the Devil and God and a man with two tools. And I don’t mean pliers.

If you’re looking for straight up erotic ‘Somavox’ by Christopher Meredith definitely has that one covered, as does ‘Dungeness’ by Edy Poppy, though the former is a mix of science fiction while the latter is literary fiction.

Want to have your heart broken? ‘What the Dying Heart Says’ by John Toomey. There you go.

If modern vampire fiction is your thing there’s a story for that. And other types of science fiction and eastern European dream state stories. There’s even a choose your own adventure.

What’s most impressive is that it all hangs together. There’s a story near the beginning ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’ by Rein Raud about a man who creates incredible meals out of dishes from around the world where a flavour from one dish perfectly sets off something in the following or previous dish. That’s what West Camel has done. It’s the best anthology I’ve read yet.

With its variety of genres (and not a weak contribution in the bunch), Best European Fiction 2015 has something for every taste. I would definitely recommend it for fans of short fiction or people interested in expanding their reading life beyond works written originally in English.

An enthusiastic 5/5.

[I received a free copy of this book to review, but it genuinely was spectacular.]


Tucker and Dale vs Evil

by V. L. Craven

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Tucker and Dale are a couple of good ol’ boys who’ve bought a house out in the boonies of West Virginia as a ‘vacation home’  and they go out to start fixing it up. On their way there they stop to pick up some beer and other supplies and run into a group of nubile university students. Dale (Tyler Labine) takes a shine to a particular blonde, Allison (Katrina Bowden), and tries to talk to her. Self-awareness not being his strong-suit, he happens to be holding a scythe at the time and follows his buddy’s advice to laugh and smile a lot, as that puts women at ease. She does not swoon into his arms.

The two groups go their separate ways–Tucker and Dale to their cabin and the students to their camping area. That evening the men decide to do some fishing and the kids go swimming. They happen to be doing these activities at the same lake. When Allison slips and hits her head, rendering herself unconscious, our hapless heroes come to her rescue, pulling her into their boat and shouting to the others, ‘We have your friend!’ For some reason the students find this terrifying and run away to regroup.

The men take her back to their ramshackle cabin for the night, figuring her friends will come looking for her tomorrow. But that isn’t exactly how things go. Because, to their minds, they have to save their friend from a couple of insane hillbillies.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is about miscommunication on a large scale. It plays with all the tropes of the killer hillbillies genre, as well as serial killer films like the Friday the 13th series. Labine’s ‘dumb as a stump’ Dale is endearing and genuine and Alan Tudyk’s Tucker, the brains of the operation, has some of the funniest lines and moments. He just wants to help his friend gain some self-confidence, but it will be at the cost of much physical pain and confusion.

Eminently rewatchable, it’s on par with Shaun of the Dead for laugh out loud hilarity both in terms of dialogue and physical humour. And don’t worry, nothing happens to the dog. 5/5


The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

Empire of Death

Humans haven’t always tried to hide death away–it’s only relatively recently (and in Western culture)–that we’ve decided death has nothing to do with life and we want nothing to do with it. As though not thinking about something will keep it from happening. (This is something Caitlin Doughty addresses wonderfully in her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , which I reviewed last week.)

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

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

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris is what it says on the tin, but it’s so much more, as well. It has 290 photographs, 260 of them are in colour. The average person wouldn’t be able to visit all of the sites he did, so perhaps the tag should have been: The Empire of Death: Koudounaris Confronts Mortality in Seventy Places Since You Couldn’t Afford to.

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

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

Because that’s essentially what happens when looking at the photographs. If you really take the time to look at them it has a similar humbling effect of contemplating the size of the universe. Every skull was once a person with hopes and dreams and families who fought and laughed and loved. It’s an exercise in existentialism.

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

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

Which was the intent of the original designers. They were created for people to sit in and contemplate their own mortality–to be aware that they weren’t going to live forever and so they’d better act properly because eternity was a very long time to spend in hell and/or separated from their loved ones who would no doubt be in heaven. Often there would be quotes on the walls, one of my favourites was from the Chapel of Bones of Valleta, Malta:

The world is a theater and human life is the boundary of all worldly things. Life is the personification of vanity. Death breaks and dissolves the illusion and is the boundary of all mortal things. Let those who visit this place ponder well these maxims and carry with them a lively remembrance of death. Peace be with you.

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

I’ve long been a fan of charnels–since I visited the Capuchin crypt by the Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini in Rome and was rushed out before I could properly appreciate the chandeliers made of human bones. And all of the well-known sites are included including that one. Sedlec , the Paris Catacombs , etc, but many that I hadn’t heard of and quite a few that had been destroyed, either by nature or humans, were covered, as well.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

People weren’t all bad, there was a resurgence in charnels in the 19th century where several were restored and some are being restored now. The Eggenberg charnel in Austria has something of a Hannibal touch, where they created an eye shape, as it was meant to be viewed from the top of a well with skulls as the pupil, looking back at the viewer.

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

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

It’s well-researched and well-written and with maps and notes galore it’s sure to please those interested in unusual facts about history or interesting sites to visit. Or people comfortable with their impending doom (or who want to become so). So if you’re looking for something for that person on your shopping list this holiday season, here’s something to consider.

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

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

Koudounaris has a website empiredelamort  that has loads more photos.
He’s also on Instagram under hexenkult.
And on Facebook .

Dahlia Jane also wrote a lovely review, with more photos, on her blog Upon a Midnight Dreary .


The Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Killing

Rounding out our series of shows about female law enforcement is The Killing, bringing the final count of countries covered to four. Northern Ireland ( The Fall ), England ( Happy Valley ), and New Zealand ( Top of the Lake ). This one is set in the States–Seattle, Washington. Female police aren’t interested in your nonsense no matter the geographic location.

The US version is based on the popular Danish show Forbrydelsen  (The Crime), which ran for three series. Unlike the original, the remake follows one case through the first two series, then one case each for the third and fourth series. Like the original, each episode is one day of investigation of the current case.

The Killing Series 1 & 2

The first two series are about the kidnapping and murder of Rosie Larsen, a 17 year-old girl who goes missing the weekend her parents are on a camping trip. Everyone within fifty feet of the Larsen family seems to have motive and means. It’s more about the way a violent, tragic crime reverberates out like ripples in a pond and how pain turns us into people we may not recognise. The strongest of the three cases, this one keeps the viewer guessing until the end. Of particular note is Michelle Forbes, who plays Rosie’s mother.

The start of the first series also introduces the viewer to detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Linden is told to show Holder around, as it’s her last few days as a detective in Seattle–she’s moving away to get married. But as always happens when detectives try to leave their jobs, they catch one last case, so she and Holder wind up working together.

While Linden is the obsessive type of cop–a previous case nearly destroyed her–Holder has his own problems. Chiefly with drugs, which he got into working with Narcotics. Now he’s newly clean and moved into Homicide, where he works cases his own way. He’s a vegetarian, go-with-the-flow, Buddhist/Christian, laid-back sort of person. Linden is the focused on the case before her to the exclusion of life itself.

The Killing Series 3

The third series concerns the lives of several street kids–one of whom goes missing. In Holder’s search for her, the bodies of several other murdered kids are uncovered. Linden, retired after the previous case, begins to suspect the man she put away several years ago (and who is about to be put to death) has been wrongly convicted. Her investigation reveals chilling information that brings her back into the police department and reinstates her as Holder’s partner, as it becomes obvious their cases are connected.

Stand out performances this series are given by Peter Sarsgaard, as the possibly wrongly-convicted murderer and Bex Taylor-Klaus as Bullit, one of the street kids playing at being tough who befriends Holder whilst trying to find her friend. Sarsgaard’s performance of a man on Death Row is almost difficult to watch it’s so immediate. It’s truly spectacular.

The Killing Series 4

The fourth and final series, which was released in its entirety in August 2014 on Netflix, is about the massacre of a seemingly perfect family, the only survivor being the seventeen year old son who was shot in the head and has no memory of that evening. In the will, the boy, Kyle Stansbury (Tyler Ross), is sent to St George’s Military Academy where his guardian will be Colonel Margaret Rayne (Joan Allen). Stansbury’s classmates–one specifically–doesn’t make his life easy and is the one Kyle suspects killed his family.

Allen’s performance as the only woman in charge of a school full of male cadets, a woman with her own cache of secrets, going head-to-head with strong-willed Linden is compelling to watch. And Ross’ depiction of a boy who lost what little bit he had is impressive. The two main cadets (played by Sterling Beaumon and Levi Meaden) were convincing, if disturbing.

Throughout the fourth series Linden and Holder deal with the consequences of their actions at the end of the third series, and their respective responses are fascinating. Watching that situation play out was anything but boring.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the very end, which dealt not with the case, but with Linden and Holder. That will be the sort of thing that each person will feel differently about. It depends if you need everything to be wrapped up neatly or not.

The Killing end

The Vancouver landscape (where they film the show) stands in beautifully for Denmark (and Seattle) and the cinematography–all blue-greys–sets a chilly, serious tone. It reminds me of Henning Mankell novels, which is definitely a good thing.

There really aren’t any likable characters. Relatable, yes. It’s easy to understand why characters react the way they do to certain situations, but I can’t say I want to befriend any of the people on the show. So if you’re looking for that, go elsewhere, but if you’re looking for character-studies set in a morally (and visually) grey universe, then stop looking and watch The Killing.

Some episodes are hit-or-miss, but overall 5/5.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

by V. L. Craven

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Having previously waxed poetic about my love of Caitlin Doughty and her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and website Order of the Good Death  you can imagine my glee upon learning she had written a memoir about her early years as a crematory assistant, mortuary school student and work in the death industry after graduation.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more than just a memoir of the macabre–it’s a meditation on the way Western culture treats death with Doughty as a stand-in for the average American who wants to see dear ol’ Mother Deadest looking ‘natural’, even though the process to make her appear that way is about as unnatural as possible.

Doughty starts her journey terrified of death, of facing her own mortality, (the current response of most Westerners). She takes a job as a crematory assistant at Westwind Cremation and Burial and, due to her interactions with the decendents that pass through, her entire philosophy on death (and, necessarily, life) changes. It’s a philosophical journey that encompasses history, religion, mythology and biology, is frequently hysterical (I was laughing out loud every other page) but also deeply affecting.

Of particular interest to anthropology-types were the parts about how we’ve come to deal with death the way we do in this part of the world at this point in time, as opposed to the way other people have done. Or do deal with it but simply in different places on earth like the tribe in Brazil that practises cannibalism as part of the death ritual. They’re not having a gourmet, Dr Lecter-style feast whenever someone dies, either. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s what they do. (Next time you have to go to a wake of a family member you hardly knew be grateful you at least don’t have to eat them whether you want to or not because, ‘That’s just what we do. It’s how we say goodbye. Now be polite and finish off Cousin Martha’s foot.’)

Doughty’s writing style is personable, like chatting with an old friend, if that friend is Wednesday Addams. If you’ve watched many of her Ask a Mortician videos you can hear her voice in your head when reading, which makes the funny bits funnier and the moving bits that much more gut-wrenching.

Speaking of guts, this book is most definitely  not for the squeamish. Human bodies are organic matter and  things happen to organic matter when it begins to break down. Or when it’s embalmed or cremated. Doughty believes in lifting the veil on what death practitioners do and she’s straight-forward about everything that goes on in all its messy, sometimes amusing, human glory.

This book  is, however, excellent for fans of Mary Roach, particularly the one about what happens to the body post-mortem, Stiff . I would also recommend the poet and mortician Thomas Lynch’s wonderful Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade .

This one is definitely 5/5.


And because it’s Halloween, here’s Caitlin talking about the relationship between death and Halloween.


Top of the Lake

by V. L. Craven

Top of the Lake

Continuing in the series of reviews of shows about female law enforcement taking no guff (previous posts were The Fall and Happy Valley ) is Top of the Lake.

The previous two were set in Northern Ireland and England, but this outing takes us to New Zealand, where a twelve year old girl tries to drown herself. It’s quickly discovered she’s pregnant and soon after she disappears. Sydney detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who is in Laketop to be with her ailing mother, is asked to join the team to find her as well as the person responsible for her pregnancy. The search brings her face-to-face with parts of her past she’d thought she’d left behind.

The missing girl’s father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), is shady as a bank of willows, volatile and entirely unwilling to assist the police, feeling he and his similarly shady associates will be able to find her on their own.

He’s also not above illegally interfering with the real estate concern of an area called Paradise, which has just been bought by a spiritual guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) to be used as a commune for women to heal their psychic wounds.

Robin finds herself once again entangled with Mitcham’s son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), rekindling a relationship from their teenage years. This displeases both their parents, but not for the reasons they originally think.

As time passes, it begins to seem that everyone in Laketop is hiding something. And they still have to find a little girl who only has a few weeks before she’s going to give birth.

And the opening is iconic. Simple but haunting.

Written by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee and directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, this six or seven episode series (it depends where you see it) is dark but beautiful. New Zealand itself is practically a character the nature shots are so gorgeous. The cast is expansive but well used and GJ’s all-female commune is so painfully accurate words fail me.

There are plot twists aplenty, as well as brutality. Trigger warning for a rape scene in the fifth episode of the 45 minute shows. I don’t know when it happens in the 60 minute show–probably the fourth episode. If you know, please leave a comment.

Gripping, it’s the sort of television where you don’t want to stop after one episode. Luckily, the entire series can be viewed in one day like they did at the Sundance Festival. Definitely a 5/5.


The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

by V. L. Craven

Forgers dust jacket


Rare book collector, Adam Diehl, is found in his secluded home, his hands severed, his books and papers in disarray. Upon inspection, it appears he was a forger of long-dead author’s signatures, which would increase the price of already valuable books many times over. Among the suspects are his sister’s boyfriend, Will, who had been a prolific and talented forger and who is also our narrator.

Meghan, the deceased’s sister and protagonist’s girlfriend, is also in the book trade, as she owns an independent bookshop in Manhattan. She found out about Will’s little hobby along with the rest of the world and stuck by him as he paid his penance. She’s the best thing Will has ever had in his life, which is why, when someone starts threatening him, using Arthur Conan Doyle’s handwriting, no less, he keeps it a secret, in an effort to protect her.

He doesn’t know who’s sending the threats nor what they want nor why they want it, all he knows is he’ll do what needs doing in order to keep safe the one bit of happiness he has, and to keep the promise he’s made to Meghan, which is that he’d stay out of the the forging game. But someone is trying to force his hand.

On the surface this book should have been right up my street–it’s about the book world and I worked in independent bookshops for years–but it fell a little flat. The main character was a criminal, but not a very interesting one. He kept saying how solid his relationship was with Meghan and how they fell for one another at first sight, but I didn’t feel it. That could be because Will wasn’t a real person–at one point he talks about forgers also forging who they are and not being true humans, which I interpreted as a type of sociopathy. He definitely has that flat affect going on and not seeming to really engage with the world, only being concerned with protecting his own hide, as well as being close to only one person. I definitely don’t need to like a character–any of the characters of a novel, really–but they do need to be interesting. Will wasn’t.

Writing-wise it was better than most books out there, but it wasn’t up to par with Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, which was excellent. The text suffered from ‘had I known-itis’, which is where the narrator kept telling us that things were about to get a lot worse or that his bubble of happiness was to be short-lived. It’s something of which lesser authors are often guilty but I found it surprising in this author.

The plot was what kept me reading–needing to know who did it and what was going to happen next, which is why I read it in two days. It moved at a clip, which is what you want in a thriller. I didn’t know where things were going and, though I worked out some things before the end, I still didn’t know the particulars.

I would recommend this one to fans of John Dunning’s Bookman series and people interested in literary thrillers like Matthew Pearl’s books. 4/5 stars.

[I was given a free copy of this book to review.]


Happy Valley

by V. L. Craven

Happy Valley

At the start of the first episode of Happy Valley, no frills police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is called to the scene of a young man doused in petrol, threatening to set himself alight. While she’s talking to him, stalling so the negotiator from the nearest town can arrive, she says:

I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroine addict. I’ve two grown up children. One dead. One who doesn’t speak to me. And a grandson. So…

The guy asks why he doesn’t speak to her and she says, ‘It’s complicated.’ Which is one of those English understatement sorts of things. ‘Complicated’ barely begins to cover her life, as the person responsible for her daughter’s suicide has been released from prison that day and is back in town.

Then there’s Steve Pemberton, in a rare dramatic role, as Kevin Weatherill, an utterly useless sort of individual. When his boss denies him a pay rise so that his daughter may go to a nicer school, he makes a decision that will devastate multiple lives.

James Norton (playing Tommy Lee Royce) rounds out the primary three characters. Royce, an unrepentant, violent criminal, has just been released from prison and winds up being connected to Weatherill’s plan. He is also determined to insert himself into the police sergeant’s life.

These three are the good (Cawood), the bad (Royce) and then the grey area between the two (Weatherill). As the show progresses we watch each character change (some more than others, but there’s change all round). We are reminded that no one is all good or all bad and desperate circumstances make for desperate, and sometimes violent, choices.

Lancashire’s performance is spot on, as is everyone’s, really, but Pemberton’s character was particularly surprising. His growth from nonentity into … well, no spoilers here, but the show is dark and our man owns the role. Lancashire’s Cawood behaves in ways unusual for female law enforcement on television, which was refreshing.

Happy Valley is ultimately about the far-ranging consequences of the actions of the few and the imperfect people trying to right those wrongs. It’s compelling television.

And there’s blood–people get booted in the face and slammed against brick walls and other things I don’t want to spoil for you, but the make up people don’t go easy on the viewers. But it wasn’t gore-for-gore’s sake, either.

From the writing to the directing to the acting it was outstanding television and we need more of it. Happily, it’s been renewed for a second series, though no word yet on when that will air.


Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven


The story begins in Okinawa with Quasar, a member of a doomsday cult, who has released a nerve agent in a subway in Tokyo and is now attempting to keep from being captured. He’s following orders from His Serendipity, a man who professes the abilities of teleportation amongst others. The doomsday in question is a comet that will be colliding with Earth in a few months. It will be up to Quasar and the other enlightened ones to rebuild society.

From there we move to Tokyo and a young jazz enthusiast experiencing his first love, then to Hong Kong where a financial lawyer’s illegal activities are catching up with him, then to Holy Mountain in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, Cape Clear Island (Ireland), Night Train (a radio show based in NYC) and finally the Underground.

Each section appears to be unrelated to the others, but characters from sections before makes an appearance in the current section until we get a clear view of the plot and the fate of characters from other parts. His characters often make terrible choices, but those choices make sense in their minds and to us, being there with them.

Ghostwritten is David Mitchell’s debut novel and it’s impressive in its beauty and complexity but also simplicity. Each section/character is completely believable, even when that character isn’t an actual person.  The section in Mongolia is told from a disembodied spirit that moves from person-to-person through touch. And Night Train concerns an AI obeying Asimov’s rules.

The characters are the stars, to my mind, the plot is interesting and I did want to know what was going to happen, but what person Mitchell was going to introduce next and how utterly real they were going to be was what I was most intrigued by. How was he going to blow my mind next?

I’ve read his Black Swan Green and 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, both of which are completely different from this one and one another. The only thing all three have in common are a deftness with the English language readers don’t see every day, unpredictable plots and fully-formed characters. If I’d read the three books without knowing the author I wouldn’t have guessed they were written by the same person, which isn’t something you can say about many authors–that depth of imagination and versatility is rare.

Very highly recommended. 5/5


The Fall

by V. L. Craven

The Fall

I can be a little slow on the uptake with popular media. Sometimes it takes a prod or two. This article about shows featuring British women taking control finally got me to press play on some television that had been in my Netflix queue for awhile. So that’s what I’ll be reviewing in the upcoming weeks.

First up is The Fall .

DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought in from the Met in London to help the Belfast police on an unsolved murder. The night she arrives there’s another murder, which is initially treated as a separate incident, but which Gibson connects to the original case. When they realise Belfast has a serial killer on their hands she’s assigned the full case and they begin looking for previous killings that could be the work of the came person.

Simultaneously, we watch the killer (Jamie Dornan) living his life, playing with his daughter, doing his job, stalking the next woman. He likes to break into their homes once or twice and hang out, leaving one small thing out of place, before the night of the actual kill. And when he discovers his pursuer is an attractive woman he becomes intrigued and wants to engage.

Stella Gibson is the coolest detective on television. Not sunglasses and leather coat cool, but never raising her voice no matter the situation cool. Utterly unflappable. She has her one big fault, though, as all television detectives do. I’ll not spoil it for you, but it’s not something I’ve seen before. She’s also operates within a moral grey-area, which is refreshing to see in a woman, as usually it’s male leads who get to decide they’re not going to operate within social mores. Gibson lives her life and eloquently calls anyone on their double standards.

Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector, is chilling in that dead-behind-the-eyes sort of way. He plays the part well and there are moments it’s clear ice water runs through his veins. But the more Gibson pushes him–even without knowing what he looks like–the more his exterior begins to crack.

The secondary characters are also used well-enough, though I would like to see one in particular, PC Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), developed more in the next series. The relationship between the two women is a dynamic that could be something viewers don’t see every day.

It was interesting to watch something set in Northern Ireland that wasn’t entirely based around politics. They were always questioned as a motive, as would be expected, but when you live in a place where there’s a constant threat of violence it becomes more commonplace and The Fall shows that. During a scene when people are throwing glass bottles at an ambulance trying to save someone’s life, Gibson comments to a police officer, ‘This is one fucked up city you’ve got here.’ And by the time she says that you’re right with her, as the show does rather paint most people from Belfast as violent lunatics just looking for a reason to turn someone into a stain on the pavement, including some of the police.

Nevertheless, it’s compelling watching and I’d recommend it to fans of Prime Suspect, though it’s less gritty.

The second series is due to begin in November, so roll on November.

[Vulture also has a longer list of places to stream shows about British women getting things done –not just on crime shows.]

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