Autodidact: self-taught

Jan
20
2015

American Mary

by V. L. Craven

American Mary

Brilliant surgical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) has some not not-so-brilliant bills that must be paid. After looking into some less-than-savoury options, she’s invited to practice her fledgling medical skills for cash. This leads to some very dark places, which leads to more cash and a more extravagant lifestyle.

Eventually she becomes involved in the extreme body modification community where she’s something of a celebrity. Unfortunately, not everyone has been completely happy with her work. In her new life she’s made powerful friends, but equally powerful enemies.

Isabelle will be familiar to fans of the Ginger Snaps films and Margot Verger on Hannibal. She’s excellent at playing creepy people, is what I’m getting at and does another fantastic job here.

Less gory than I was expecting–it certainly wasn’t in the realm of the currently popular gore-porn films–it also went in unexpected directions. It’s the first film written and directed by the Soska Sisters , Jen and Sylvia, who have cameos, as well.

Their production company is called Twisted Twins Productions  and the script is of the theme I like to call ‘Men underestimating women.’ It’s one of my favourite genres.

Trigger warning for a pretty brutal rape scene, though the rapist gets his just desserts.

5/5

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

Jan
13
2015

The Babadook

by V. L. Craven

Babadook

Six-years-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) has become increasingly erratic. He can’t sleep. He frightens the other children at school. He’s obsessed with a monster and builds machines and traps to defeat it. His mother, Amelia, (Essie Davis) is doing everything she can, but she’s been alone since the day he was born–her husband died in a car accident whilst taking her to hospital to deliver their son.

Not long before his seventh birthday, Sam spies a book he’s never seen before and requests it as his bedtime story. It’s a pop-up book called Mister Babadook.

And they lived happily ever after

And they lived happily ever after

After reading the story the figure of the Babadook begins to appear to Sam whose behaviour becomes even more disturbing and dangerous. (Writer/director Jennifer Kent gets an incredible performance out of this child.)

Amelia, her own sanity reaching a breaking point, tears the book to pieces and throws it away. But, as all possessed items do, it returns of its own accord.

Hello, Clarice.

Hello, Clarice.

After setting it alight, she goes to the police station to ask for help, but they don’t have an X-Files department in Australia, I suppose, so things just go from bad to worse.

This is the worse.

This is the worse.

At first watch, The Babadook appears to be a re-hash of several horror films. A little The Omen here, a smidgen Poltergeist there with a dash of The Exorcist. Then there’s an almost Home Alone bit. Just because.

My friends were raving about it and, in general, my friends have pretty good taste in films so I was perplexed. Then I read  this (very spoilery) article and suddenly it made sense. It was really well-done. My friends weren’t having me on my metaphor sensors were just off.

As mentioned, the child actor was incredible, but Essie Davis as the widowed mother trying to deal with her own grief and the grief of her child was mind-blowing. The creepiness factor was through the roof. Kudos to everyone involved. This is a good one, folks. 5/5

If you’re already a fan, they’re making a copy of the book , which is being produced by Insight Editions. I have their pop up book for the world of Harry Potter and it’s impressive. And the information on the Babadook book is hilarious–even if you don’t plan on ordering it I recommend reading the page in the link above.

Jan
06
2015

Concussion (film)

by V. L. Craven

Concussion

Abby Ableman (Robin Weigert) is in a solid but boring relationship with Kate Ableman (Julie Fain Lawrence), with whom she has two children. After receiving a mild concussion–when her son hits her with a baseball–she begins to reevaluate her life and realises her life of domestic bliss may not be as blissful as she originally thought.

Kate is happy with their life and seemingly gives Abby permission to ‘go breathe’ and Abby does so in the form of hiring a lesbian prostitute. She meets this person through her business partner, Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), whose ex-girlfriend runs an escort ring. Said prostitute says Abby could make her own money with women ‘who want an older experience.’

And she’s off and running. In a lying down and naked sort of way.

Some experiences are good, some are…not. And then one of her appointments is with a woman from her town (she’s been meeting people in Manhattan). The woman is straight and Abby has found her attractive for some time. Complications arise and clothes come off.

The Red Band trailer which is entirely NSFW:

There are some problems with this film. More than a few, yes. The trailer isn’t accurate. Well, yes, there’s quite a bit of sexy lady time, which is really well handled. That probably had something to do with Rose Troche’s involvement, who co-wrote and directed Go Fish and was a writer and director of three seasons of The L Word.

Weigert does an outstanding job, as do all of the actresses. Janel Moloney (who played Donna on The West Wing) is a secondary character and does a great job as pseudo-therapist, but that couple needed a real therapist. And Emily Kinney did what she could with what she was given in her role as The Girl (the runner of the prostitution ring). Apropos of nothing–she looked so much like Luna Lovegood it was distracting. Or as a friend said Luna LoveREALgood.

Tchaikovsky is particularly excellent as Justin, Abby’s business partner–they buy ‘shitholes’, fix them up and flip them.

The problems are with the script. While there are some excellent moments and laugh out loud lines (that are intentionally amusing) there are plot points that don’t hang together. It’s never clear how the titular concussion affects Ableman’s decision to become a prostitute–I was extrapolating earlier–which is something of an issue.

Then there’s the ending, which will depend on how the viewer feels about unresolved endings . It’s unclear where the plot is going and it certainly doesn’t go where the average cinema-goer will expect. In a way it’s realistic, which isn’t typical of American-made films. But nothing about Concussion is typical of American-made films, so that’s par for the course.

If you’re interested in dramas about the emotional lives of women that doesn’t treat females over forty like sexless eunuchs then this one is for you. But for god sake, don’t watch it with your parents. 4/5

Dec
30
2014

Mama

by V. L. Craven

Mama

It’s 2008 and the financial crisis has just kicked off. Brokers and others involved in the industry are committing suicide, similar to the previous market fall in the Depression. One such person is Jeffrey D’Asange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who kills his business partners and his wife before taking his two very young daughters and fleeing.

Distraught and driving far too fast on an icy mountain road, he loses control of the car, which goes down a hill and crashes. He finds an abandoned cabin and the three-year-old, Victoria, tells him there’s someone in there, but he dismisses her (never dismiss the children). They go in.

Victoria is extremely near-sighted and her father takes her glasses away so she can’t see the gun in his hand. She also can’t see what picks him up and breaks his neck.

Five years later, the girls are discovered in the cabin–the search has been on-going thanks to Jeffery’s identical twin brother, Lucas. They are feral, but healthy. Someone, or some thing has been taking care of them.

Victoria and her younger sister Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) are assigned to a psychiatrist and eventually given to Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel, (Jessica Chastain) whilst still being under the doctor’s supervision.

The elder sister, now eight, adapts to the civilized world well, but Lilly, who was one at the time of their disappearance, remains feral, sleeping under Victoria’s bed and behaving more like an animal than a human. When asked who took care of them they just say, ‘Mama.’

Mama did not remain in the cabin. And mama is jealous of Annabel’s relationship with ‘her’ children.

Mama wasn't a stickler for hygiene...

Mama wasn’t a stickler for hygiene…

Mama is a fairy story in the vein of original fairy stories in that horrible things happen to small children and there’s not necessarily going to be a happy ending. This isn’t surprising, given that one of the producers is Guillermo del Toro.

The acting is solid all round but the child actors are particularly impressive. Andres Muschietti did an outstanding job and this was his directorial debut so it will be interesting to see how he develops.

The visual effects are excellent and understated for the majority of the piece leading to some truly creepy moments. Muschietti doesn’t rely on jump scares, which automatically earns points in my book–he relies on story-telling and atmosphere to do most of the scaring.

There’s nothing particularly new about anything in the film but it’s still worth the watch. I definitely recommend it for people who like their horror on a slow burn and minus the gore. 4/5

Dec
24
2014

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

by V. L. Craven

Meditations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec
23
2014

Clash of the Titans Comparative Review

by V. L. Craven

Clash of the Titans 1981

Growing up I probably watching The Clash of the Titans a dozen times, if not more. I loved Greek mythology. I loved Athena’s owl and the witches and Medusa and Caliban. I loved the entire thing. Then, in 2010, they decided to remake the film because Hollywood simply cannot leave well-enough alone. Out of loyalty (and the knowledge they would screw it up) I avoided it. But after recent assurances that it wasn’t ‘as bad as you’d think’ I decided to give it a go. Yes, years after the remake, but still.

The original Clash of the Titans had what now seems like the entire cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was written by Beverly Cross (Dame Maggie Smith’s late husband), which explains her involvement. Perhaps she brought everyone else with her. Whatever, I hope they all got second homes out of standing around in togas for five days of filming.

Speaking of togas–in the remake, the gods and goddesses are arrayed in clothes befitting their station. Which means Zeus (Liam Neeson) is wearing blindingly bright battle armour. If a toga was good enough for Sir Laurence Olivier I dare say it’s good enough for Mister I’ll-Kill-You-With-My-Fists. Gods and goddesses were generally depicted in togas carrying their assigned prop, but the costume designers weren’t having any of that. So we also get Voldemort playing Hades (perfect) but looking like Dracula.

Liberace would be jealous of this man's entrance-making skills, though.

Liberace would be jealous of this man’s entrance-making skills, though.

He even does a sort of Dementor’s kiss evil-power-transfer with Calibos at one point.

Which brings me to the characters. In the original I loved Calibos/Caliban. Here is a comparison between the two:

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

Not to be snide, but the original one looks like someone cursed by the gods (which is what happened). The second one just looks like he’s had a run in with a flaming machete. Or a first-semester special effects make-up student.

Then there was Medusa. Medusa was fantastic! I avoided the remake because I thought they’d CG Athena’s owl and I would have to burn the cinema down, but I wanted to see it to see the wonders they could accomplish with Medusa’s hair.

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa... Anciiieeent Greeeeece

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa… Anciiieeent Greeeeece

All of the characters had the builder’s in between the original and the remake–in the original our lady of the serpent-hair was living in the Chamber of Secrets–but in the interim she had apparently been playing loads of video games and asked to have her rooms in the Underworld made to look like those. There are fallen columns and lava and the whole deal.

Don't mess with a woman whose very *hair* has attitude.

Don’t mess with a woman whose very *hair* has attitude.

After Medusa, my favourite characters were the Stygian witches. Their eyes were clearly just sort of prostheticed down. I felt badly for the actresses, as they couldn’t see.

Meh.

Meh.

Whereas the remake make-up just…

Gah.

Gah.

I felt badly for my stomach, as it had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.

So, this epic adventure, which involves lots of English people ordering around (or being rescued by) one buff American, culminates in the infamous ‘Release the Kraken!’ line, which is supposed to be a fearsome Titan. A Kraken is supposed to look like a giant squid.

I don't think the Kraken was related to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I don’t think the Kraken was related to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I don’t know how many squids you’ve  seen…

This is closer. Though I'm not sure where the legs came from.

This is more like it. Though I’m not sure where the legs came from.

Story-wise it is what it is. Neither film is true to the original myth of Perseus , though the first one is closer in that Hades isn’t involved. But, seriously, Hades’ ridiculous entrances (really, the man CANNOT just walk into a room) are worth watching the film.

As expected the effects are larger, though the claymation of the first one will always hold a special place in my heart if only because I saw them when I was young. The scorpion-fighting scene… nope. Nope nope nope.

Aaaaaaand nope.

Aaaaaaand nope.

And now we need to have a conversation about something. See that person in the foreground in the above photo? That’s a Djinn. Djinn have exactly nothing to do with Greek mythology. They’re from Middle Eastern mythology. And this Djinn not only doesn’t speak the same language of our heroes, but it turns out he’s a suicide bomber . But in a good way! So that makes it all right! What? No. Did someone think, ‘Well, they’re in the desert and the Middle East has lots of sand so…’ and then the obvious connections were made.

But in a good way! So that makes it all right!

I honestly have no idea how to segue out of that, so I’ll just say one of the other characters is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal. But they gave him long hair, which makes him look like The Rock.

I could show you a picture of his face, but this one is better. You're welcome.

I could show you a picture of his face, but this one is better. You’re welcome.

It’s changed the way I watch Hannibal, that’s for certain.

Now that I’ve recovered from the Djinn debacle I can say that for the remake the filmmakers did bother to find some darkER people to play the Greeks than the first film, though I’ve been to Greece and… well, they might have tried harder.

If you’re younger and haven’t seen the first one already you should definitely see it, but it’s going to come off as very campy and the effects will be laughable. Just go with it. It’s a classic. I admit my prejudice when I say that one is 5/5

I know I’ve given the remake a difficult time, but I would recommend it–it was fun enough if you turn off your brain and don’t get too distracted by the disregard for the myth. 4/5

There’s a sequel to the remake entitled Wrath of the Titans, but this review has gone on long enough. I’ll give it a 4/5 and say that after you’ve fought the embodiment of a volcano you really should be a bit dirtier.

ps. I needn’t have worried about Athena’s owl; they way they handled it was my favourite part aside from Ralph Fiennes’ entrances.

Bubo is sceptical, but I promise it's true.

Bubo is sceptical, but I promise it’s true.

Dec
20
2014

What I Found Out About Her

by V. L. Craven

What I Found Out About Her

Peter LaSalle has a talent for description of place. Whether it’s New York, Rio de Janeiro, the tunnels under Paris or Tunis, he brings them to vivid life.

He also captures specific moments in time in people’s lives really well and then puts them into context of their entire existence. It reminds me of films where you find out what happens to the characters after the action of the film occurs. I’ve always liked that, so this set appealed greatly.

LaSalle has chosen to follow the advice to ‘write what you know’ which is about academia, as his characters are either professors, in graduate school, or wish they’d stuck with higher education rather than venturing out of the ivory tower. This may turn off readers who don’t care about such things.

Another running theme is that people die. A lot. This is to be expected, as LaSalle has a gift for capturing entire lives in a short story and (spoiler) everyone dies, but many of his characters die whilst young or unexpectedly. George R.R. Martin had better look out.

There were no weak stories but highlights were ‘In the Southern Cone’, about an American dealing with anti-Semitism in Rio, ‘Oh, Such Playwrights!’, concerning the heyday of three New York playwrights and their waning fortunes, ‘Tunis and Time’, an edge-of-your-seat spy piece, and ‘The Manhattan Lunch: Two Versions’, in which two people have an episode of  Stendhal syndrome (though it wasn’t named as such.)

My favourite quote came from ‘Tunis and Time’. The protagonist is contemplating the ruins of Punic Carthage.

Ancient civilizations even had their massive collective dreams, of conquest and glory, and spreading out from this very hill, there had once been an empire equaled by none, what included not only this North Africa but much of Spain and Gaul, and almost the largest prize beyond that, as Hannibal marched his leathery elephants and his thousands of shivering, sandaled soldiers across the snows of the high Alps, with the City of Rome itself, for a moment, anyway, within his grasp. But maybe here was also the overlooked truth about the dreaming, that everything was gone before it started, and now contemplating what had once been triumphant, the scant rubble of Carthage corporeal, Layton realized that it yielded merely the message of nothing to nothing–or possibly nothing all along, the suspected void, because, when you thought of it, everything was inevitably heading toward nothing before it even started, before it even aspired or had the chance to be something.

Which reminds me of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But I Existentially digress.

I would recommend this one for fans of short stories particularly those with a bent towards academia-related stories or writers learning how to capture a believable life in a short space. 4/5

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

Dec
16
2014

Last Tango in Halifax

by V. L. Craven

Last Tango in Halifax

Sixty years ago, Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) was madly in love with Celia Dawson (Anne Reid). The sentiment was mutual, but due to a misunderstanding neither knew of the other’s feelings.

In the present day, after being pressed to join Facebook by their grandchildren, they find one another again. The misunderstanding is cleared up–it’s something similar to the premise of As Time Goes By–and they quickly realise they feel just as strongly as they did over half a century before so they decide to get married. ‘Quickly’ in this case means the same day they met in person.

Their daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker) arrive at the pub to hear this news and to say they have a rough start of it would be an understatement. Chalk and cheese, as it were. Caroline, Celia’s daughter, is a headmistress at a private school and lives in a house large enough for five families while Gillian, Alan’s daughter, is a sheep farmer who lives, well, on a sheep farm.

Caroline is married to a once-successful author, though that union is falling apart due to his philandering. She’s found an uneasy happiness with a teacher at her school (Nina Sosanya). That relationship’s repercussions affect her sons, as well as her mother’s new love, in profound ways.

Gillian is widowed from an abusive husband. She has the darkest past of the group (though Celia’s first marriage wasn’t a grand one) and, as the show progresses we learn more about just how dark that past was.

Last Tango in Halifax was created and written by Sally Wainwright and it’s based on real-life circumstances–her mother really reconnected with a childhood friend on Friends Reunited and they married six months later. Wainwright has a gift for capturing the complicated way alliances are formed when new groups of people are thrown together, particularly when those people wouldn’t naturally get on. The evolving friendship between Caroline and Gillian is especially compelling to watch. The bond between these two women with nothing in common except thinking their parents have gone mad feels very real. Part of that is down to Lancashire and Walker’s phenomenal acting and the other part is Wainwright’s script.

Though the show could be all twee, happiness and light, there’s a great deal of darkness and drama, as well, particularly in Gillian’s storyline and Caroline confronting her sexuality, which is handled with a deftness and humanity not typical of television today. I highly recommend this one–it’s just excellent television.

There are currently two series with a third that’s been filmed, but no air date announced yet.

I’d give the entire series 5/5, though, as with any television show, some episodes are better than others.

Bonus grumpy note: Because Americans can’t leave anything alone, Diane Keaton (I love her, but really) has acquired the rights to remake the show for U.S. audiences who, apparently, can’t understand a Yorkshire accent.

Dec
14
2014

Alice in Wonderland

by V. L. Craven

Alice in Wonderland Penguin Clothbound

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were so part of my childhood that I immediately recognised references in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls , though I hadn’t read the books. Then, last week, this article about commonly misinterpreted books found its way onto my browser.

People typically think Wonderland is about drug use. And that’s understandable–Alice is forever eating or drinking something that makes her smaller or taller. The caterpillar is smoking a hookah, for pity’s sake. And then, with the existential questions. Only stoned people talk that the kind of nonsense. I mean, really.

Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was actually a Euclidean mathematician who was entirely against the new maths being taught at Christ Church, Oxford, where he worked. From the article:

All the weird drug-trippy stuff that’s been misinterpreted since Woodstock is, we’re sorry to say, really just an elaborate satire of modern mathematics. … in the mid-1800s,… a bunch of irritating young people invaded academia and started bringing new concepts to math. Weird new concepts. Like “imaginary numbers” and other crazy stuff.

What incensed Dodgson was that math no longer had any real-world grounding. He knew that you could add two apples to three apples to get five apples, but once you start thinking about the square root of -1 apples, you’re living on the moon. The Rev. Dodgson thought the new mathematics was completely absurd , like something you’d dream up if you were on drugs.

So he decided to write a book about a world that followed the laws of abstract mathematics, purely to point out the batshit lunacy of it. Things keep changing size and proportion before Alice’s eyes, not because she’s tripping on bad acid, but because the world is based on stupid postmodern algebra with shit like imaginary numbers that don’t even make any sense god dammit. “Alice” was the sensible Euclidian mathematician trying desperately to keep herself sane and tempered…

Alice teeeee

It’s always important to have tea when reading about people almost drinking tea.

I decided I really had to read it, armed with this knowledge.

And it’s so much fun when read through that lens!

The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.

Then, during the croquet match where the arches and balls and even mallets keep moving:

‘I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them…’

And Alice, the sensible one, is usually told she is silly or ridiculous, but the Duchess sees her for who she is:

‘Right, as usual…what a clear way you have of putting things!’

Poor, logical Alice. Stuck with the imaginary numbers crew.

Alice Tenniel

Imaginary numbers crew (on left) doesn’t look amused, either.

I was already quite familiar with both stories, having watched the cartoons and the live-action films many times as a child (I have still not seen the Tim Burton film somehow), but somewhere along the way I must have seen the books, as well, as the Tenniel illustrations were also well-known to me.

Dodgson was um…fascinated…by little girls and the stories were written for Alice Liddell–there is no doubt about this. But it’s possible he could have also been responding to the absurdity of the illogical acrobatics the new mathematicians wanted numbers to do. He enjoyed playing around with riddles and words, but numbers weren’t to be trifled with.

Alice Tenniel Tea party

The dormouse is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pet wombat that slept on the table. I’m not making that up.

The version I read is the one shown at the top of this post–the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition, which includes both Alice books based on Carroll’s final 1897 revisions, as well as extensive notes, the original story Alice’s Adventures under Ground, Carroll’s thoughts on the stage play ‘Alice’ based on the stories and a brief biography of the author.

It also has the answer to that infernal riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk? In the preface to the 1896 edition Carroll wrote:

Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat, and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

It gets right up my nose that he didn’t originally have an answer and only came up with one after being bothered over it… Still. There’s an answer now.

The notes for Through the Looking-Glass include notes on ‘Jabberwocky’ and what many of the seemingly nonsensical words mean–some were supposed to mean something, others genuinely weren’t.

I have a new favourite word now. Frabjous. Which is what this book was–the notes were particularly enlightening. If you’ve left off reading the Alice books because you’ve seen cartoons or films or whatnot I recommend doing so. They can both be snagged for free (legally and everything) from Gutenberg .

Snark Busters If you’re already a fan of the books I highly recommend the Snark Buster games. There are currently three of which I’ve played the first two. Snark Busters (sometimes called Welcome to the Club) and Snark Busters: All Revved Up. The third is Snark Busters: High Society. These are extremely well-done hidden object puzzle games that take place in a steam-punk Victorian world that also has a mirror-world where actions in one world affect the other. They’re great fun and no doubt take their name from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ .

VladStudio also has some Alice themed wallpapers.

I particularly enjoy:

Cheshire Kitten

Cheshire Kitten by Vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

Dec
12
2014

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

 

[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

Asylum Red Crayon

image from asylumrevue.tumblr.com

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

Asylum Diary pages

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

Asylum Lithium

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

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

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

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.

Dec
09
2014

Ripper Street

by V. L. Craven

Ripper Street transparent

It’s London. 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t struck in a few months and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) is certain he’s gone for good. Members of the public need a bit more convincing when a the body of a woman bearing marks similar to those left by the Ripper is found in Whitechapel–his old haunt.

That’s where the series gets its name, though Jack doesn’t come up again. Rather, each episode is a self-contained one-hour mystery solved by Reid, his Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and his American police doctor–the Victorian version of  medical examiner–Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg).

Each of the main characters (and some of the secondary characters) have their own back stories–tragic, of course–and get their own episode to be tragic at us. While they have their problems, the crime du jour is more interesting, given the means and motives of the day.

Speaking of the day, the show will be of interest to fans of Victorian history, as there are the women’s libbers, the arguments over the superiority of AC or DC current and a rather heavy-handed episode about the sodomy laws. Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man, brilliantly portrayed by Joseph Drake) plays an important role in an episode of the second series.

The Tube was being built in one episode and, my, how it was going to change things. But the show isn’t as pleased with itself about emerging technologies as Murdoch Mysteries . Rather, we get to see the scheming and backstabbing that went into making our present lives convenient.

It’s a good show for people who like to say, ‘Everyone was so much nicer back then.’ Yes, those slums and the way people who lived there were treated was the picture of politeness. And the police! If you were being taken to the police station, you were getting the piss kicked out of you. Everyone was so much nicer back then.

Though the main characters are tragic in their own way they’re both likable and unlikable. They’re human that way. Reid is interesting in that he’s a detective without a crippling vice. He has problems, he’s just not constantly crawling out of a bottle or from under a pile of women for once.

The show does a good job with the guest stars–particularly in the first series. Including two of Jerome Flynn’s Game of Throne’s castmates Kristian Nairn (if you want to see Hodor in a suit saying words, here’s your chance) and Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont).

I’d recommend Ripper Street for Victorian history fans–the sets and clothes and whatnot are lovely. Beyond that, it’s fairly standard in terms of crime shows.

The third series is currently airing. This review is for the first two series, which I’d rate 4/5.

Dec
05
2014

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

by V. L. Craven

Cabin in the Woods

If you’ve seen the film The Cabin in the Woods (which you should because it’s awesome ) you know what happens, but because the book is based on the screenplay, you get all of the deleted scenes and cut lines (they actually played ‘Truth or Dare or Lecture’), as well as a lot of description of things you’d only notice if you freeze-framed every shot.

Some of the most interesting parts were seeing the casting decisions taken. For example, in the book/screenplay, the woman from the chem department is a six foot tall humour-free woman with a bun to rival  Lilith Sternin’s . In the film, the character has a ponytail and appears to be of average height. She also appears to have a personality.

Dana was also originally supposed to be a brunette. So glad they opted for a redhead.

They made the right decision.

They made the right decision.

There’s also a great deal of page space given over to the blossoming romance between Holden and Dana and those parts read like young adult fiction, but I suppose that was important or something. Whatever. I was just there for the monsters and Marty.

We get to see inside the other characters’ minds, as well, including Marty’s, who is a much more three-dimensional character than we see in the film. And between that and being able to ‘see’ more of the sets and learning more about the monsters, it was worth the read.

I definitely recommend it for fans of the film–5/5. As a book on it’s own, it’s maybe a 3/5–it’s sort of young adult but with a lot of pot and beer and sex. And gore. So, young adult for the people who still read YA when they’re 25.

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