Autodidact: self-taught

Feb
16
2015

An Interview with E.O. Higgins

by V. L. Craven
Author E.O. Higgins (image from courier.co.uk)

Author E.O. Higgins (image from courier.co.uk)

Last week I reviewed the enormously entertaining Conversations with Spirits wherein Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hires a not-very-personable, but highly intelligent logician to help him prove an up-and-coming medium is the real deal.

This week the author, E.O. Higgins, has agreed to answer some questions about Conan Doyle, spirits and his protagonist.

You’re clearly very well versed in the world of Sherlock Holmes–how many times have you read the stories and novels?

Oh, I don’t know – lots.

I’ve always been weirdly obsessed with the Victorian period – and when I was about seven this developed into a fascination with Jack the Ripper. This isn’t making me sound good, I know…

One Friday night, I stayed up late to watch the film A Study in Terror – in which John Neville’s Sherlock is pitted against the serial killer. From that point in, I guess I must have switched sides. (Which is for the best, when you think about it.)

I still dip into the books from time to time. Last weekend, for example, I was staying at a hotel on the Kent coast – and naturally it rained constantly – so I decided the best thing to do was to draw a chair to fireside in the hotel bar and read a few Holmes adventures.

I’m also blessed with an awful memory – so no matter how many times I read them, I can never remember the endings.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy interest in serial killers. Plenty of perfectly decent, mostly well-adjusted people are interested in Jack the Ripper. :ahem:

Anyway, do you have a favourite Holmes story?

I’m very keen on ‘The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.’

It’s spookier than the other Sherlock Holmes stories – containing, as it does, burnt human remains and nefarious late-night goings-on in a crypt…

Always my idea of a good time out, yes.

What sort of research did you do in order to write about Conan Doyle’s personality?

I read Conan Doyle’s novels and autobiographies. I also pored over his collected letters – which were extremely helpful in getting a better idea of where his mind was on certain topics – spiritualism and the ‘Cottingley fairies’ being the obvious examples.

Also, a few film and audio interviews with Conan Doyle survive – and these were really useful in getting to understand his general demeanour and in recreating the rhythm of his conversation.

When it comes to adaptations of his work do you have a favourite or are you a purist and stick to the written versions?

I’m really not a purist.

I love the Basil Rathbone version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I grew up watching – and loving – the Jeremy Brett Granada series. The new BBC series is obviously excellent too.

I recently caught an episode of the (not brilliant) American series Elementary – and was a bit confused by the addition of a glamorous female Watson. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong with the format this prompted this change – but, in fairness, she was still less annoying than Nigel Bruce.

Conversations with Spirits

Where do you stand on the ghoulies and ghosties and three-leggedy beasties front? Yay or nay?

Well, I haven’t seen any yet – and I’ve been looking.

I recently did a talk in front of members of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre – a spiritualist organisation based in Edinburgh – and spoke, in rather blunt terms, about the ‘psychics’ I had encountered whilst researching the novel, which provoked some fairly angry responses from the crowd.

So I have now learnt to temper my remarks about such things – and never refer to mediums as ‘shysters’ again.

Is Conversations with Spirits the beginning of a series?

It wasn’t supposed to be.

When I finished writing it, I started writing something entirely different – just because I felt I needed the change.

However, speaking to my editor at Unbound last year, she made it clear that they would be keen on another book with the same characters.

So, yes, it seems Trelawney will return.

Which, considering his physical condition in the first one, is a bit of a miracle really…

Perhaps Trelawney has a guardian angel. (Kidding.)

Conversations with Spirits was nominated for The Guardian/Edinburgh Book Festival ‘First Book Award’. That’s a pretty big deal. How did you receive that news and what was that like?

In around June last year, my publishers told me that I had been asked to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival to do a talk with Canadian author Steven Galloway on the theme of ‘fiction that blurs reality with illusion’.

About a month before this, I was called up by a journalist for an interview and, as a kind of casual aside at the end of the call, she added: “Oh. I see you’re a contender for the Edinburgh First Book Award this year. How do you feel about that?”

Having heard nothing of this, I cleverly covered by hyperventilating down the phone.

It’s a great honour to be nominated for anything, really – and when you’ve endured decades of misery – and penury – trying desperately to ‘learn your craft’ (sorry) and get people to read your work, it’s actually quite a relief to know that you’re not completely terrible.

What’s next for you–are you working on anything right now?

I got married at the end of last year and my wife is expecting our first child in June, so besides buying baby things and being regularly crippled by panic, I am slowly piecing together the next Trelawney Hart book.

Since the protagonist doesn’t readily lend himself to taking on ‘cases’* it’s involved a bit of thinking about. Oh, and in the next novel the focus has shifted away from spiritualism and onto black magic.

*Unless I set him up as the world’s first ‘consulting arsehole’?

I’d love to see those business cards. And black magic is always a welcome topic around these parts.

I look forward to reading the next book. And congratulations on the impending bundle of human!

Feb
11
2015

Conversations with Spirits

by V. L. Craven

Conversations with Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

This mustache believed in fairies.

This mustache believed in fairies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb
10
2015

Calvary

by V. L. Craven

Calvary

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is hearing confession when a parishioner reveals he was sexually abused by a priest from the age of seven. He informs him he’s going to kill Father James a week from Sunday, as killing an innocent priest is more shocking than killing a bad one. (This isn’t a spoiler–it happens in the first two minutes.)

The priest then goes about his week as usual–meeting with people, comforting the sick, etc. He does take advice from the local bishop on the situation, though decides himself how to handle it. He settles his daughter (Kelly Reilly), who returns from London for a rest in Ireland after another suicide attempt into his house.

The Father has truly philosophical conversations with a local emergency room doctor (Aiden Gillen) when called in to perform last rites. And does his best to help an aged, possibly dying parishioner, who wishes to end his life on his own terms.

He tries to mediate the marital conflict between Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) and his wife (Orla O’Rourke), after she arrives at church with a blackened eye. That situation is more complicated than at first glance; as is everything else in this film.

Another person in the picture is a wealthy new landowner played by Dylan Moran, whose role offers a bit of levity, but it’s the dark sort of levity at which the Irish excel. There are other moments of humour but the overall tone is a grim one.

Every male becomes suspect to the viewer (Father James says he knows who it is). He vacillates between saving himself and sacrificing himself.

The week carries on with its joys and woes–no one else the wiser. The person who’s threatened the Father ramps up his campaign of intimidation.

The denouement is tense and startling and satisfactory.

Calvary Moran

Between the scenes of emotional tension, philosophical conversations and everyday interactions, we are treated to breath-taking shots of beauty–the Irish country-side is nearly a character in itself. Which was useful. ‘I can’t take anymore! Oh look, a beautiful cliffside.’

Many of the characters were stand-ins for the ills of the day. There was the cynical atheist (my personal favourite character), the cynical businessman who cared for nothing but money and whose life now had no meaning, there was a Buddhist, and a woman who embodied the randomness of the universe. In a film about religion–about a man who was choosing to die for his religion, that’s pretty thought-provoking.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned from this film is that, if you decide to watch something based on the cast alone always,  always read a synopsis anyway. I recognised the majority of the cast and, from that, assumed it was going to be a comedy.

Then it was over and it was 2am and I wasn’t sure what to do because a person can’t go to bed after watching something that heavy.

The Irish take the comedy and tragedy masks far too seriously. There’s a spectrum, my lovelies. Everything isn’t either hysterical, goofball comedy, or kill-yourself, lie-facedown-in-a-ditch-after drama.

Always read a synopsis.

Still 5/5. Just watch it during daylight hours.

Feb
06
2015

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

by V. L. Craven

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb
04
2015

The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter

by V. L. Craven

Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb
03
2015

Orgasm Inc

by V. L. Craven

Orgasm Inc

Men got Viagra, which gave them the ability to have sex whenever they wanted (though if they could do it for more than four hours they should see a doctor) and then, suddenly, it was annoying pathological that women didn’t want or weren’t as sexually responsive as men were.

And suddenly, wouldn’t you know it, 43% of women had some sort of sexual dysfunction.

That’s not hyperbole. The actual number was 43%. Left handed people make up 10% of the population. Redheads make up 2% of the world’s population. Gay people are 10% of the world’s population. None of those groups are deemed fixable (unless you’re a crazy person). If a number is nearly half of a group then it’s normal. You can’t fix normal. Because it’s freakin’ normal.

But the men could take a pill to be eighteen again and men have been taught that ‘real men’ can go all night (no one asks what real men’s sexual partners want, apparently). So they take the pill so they can be real men again. Then they tell 43% of their wives and girlfriends something is wrong with them and to take a pill or use a patch or a cream or have surgery to bring them up to par, too.

Pills and patches and creams and surgeries bring money in so the medical establishment said, ‘Well h’okay! We’ll get right on that!’

[Now, I fully believe that medicine can be a wonderful thing. Vaccines have saved the world millions of times over and anti-depressants have literally saved my life and migraine medication has given me the ability to actually  have a life. Drugs can be enormously useful when used to treat actual problems.]

Orgasm Inc is about the pathologization of the perfectly natural female sexual response. At the start of Liz Canner’s documentary there are five products trying to get approval in the US including pills, a patch and a cream.We follow the stories of some of the drugs, including the one that was most successful, as its pushers, I mean makers, attempt to get it approved.

We also meet a woman who has an experimental new surgery on her spine that’s highly dangerous but is supposed to allow a person to reach climax by using a remote control-like device. She can have orgasms, just not through intercourse with her husband. You know, like nearly every other woman on planet Earth. We follow the woman through the entire process of her spinal surgery; before, during the testing phase and the final result.

Canner also goes to a medical convention where she meets someone (a woman, which just…what) who advocates labioplasty. (This is a word my computer’s spell check doesn’t recognize and I refuse to add to my dictionary because it shouldn’t be a word.) The woman wasn’t comfortable showing before and after pictures of satisfied clients to the camera, but Canner saw them and said, ‘They look like little girls.’ The other woman’s response, ‘Oh yeah, I hadn’t noticed that before, but they do.’

This other person was a woman. A HUMAN WOMAN.

Finally, we meet a woman who had vaginal rejuvenation surgery in an effort to orgasm more easily. And we find out how that went for her.

On the upside there are also women’s health advocates who actually know how women’s bodies work as they age and explain what parts of the anatomy receive the most pleasure and which receive little to none. I wonder how many of these women would feel the need to consult doctors if the men in their lives talked to these advocates.

Orgasm Inc gets a 5/5 because more women should see this. Strike that, ALL women over 18 should see this. So should men over 18. Forty-three percent is normal. Bodies change, desires change. Pills can’t ‘fix’ what isn’t broken.

Learn about your bodies, ladies. Learn about ladies’ bodies, men and don’t expect them to work the way yours do. If you want to be with someone whose body works like yours then sleep with dudes. If you love the ladies then you have to love the ladies.

This post brought to you by the sounds RAWR and Big Feminist Feelings.

Jan
30
2015

The Sign of Four

by V. L. Craven

Sign of Four

Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, is bored. And when he’s bored he injects himself with one of two types of drugs–cocaine or morphine. His housemate and biographer, Dr Watson, hates to see the genius in such a state so when Mary Morstan turns up at 221B Baker Street with a puzzling case he is relieved. Relieved, and other things. Miss Morstan is rather fetching.

The young woman presents her story, which involves her long-missing father, pearls that began arriving mysteriously a few years ago and, now, a note promising to explain everything if only she meets a stranger that very evening and doesn’t bring any police. She may bring two friends, though. Holmes and Watson will do nicely and they’re certainly up for it.

Off they go and are soon mired in a story involving a locked-room murder and missing treasure and a boat race on the Thames.

And casual racism. Sakes alive, the casual racism. One has to be prepared for it in fiction from 100+ years ago–the Victorians in particular loved some anthropologically-based racism. They started stumbling across new races of people and immediately began ascribing all sorts of negative and offensive characteristics to them. This novel is particularly rife, though.

Story-wise I’d give this one a 4/5. Holmes is doing his typical deductive thing, which is why I like reading the stories and why I assume others do, too. If you’re a completest and want to read all of them then it’s a fine read, though if casual racism puts you off stories, this one is going for gold.

The Sign of Four is the second story featuring Sherlock Holmes. The first was A Study in Scarlet .

[Completely off-topic editorializing: Dang, white people are awful. Just because you own the world doesn’t mean you’re the barometer against what everything else should be measured. Reading it from the point of view of a person writing from the country that had the largest empire on Earth at the time is interesting in terms of getting a sense of ego. It’s a digression, but I kept thinking about it while reading the book so it became part of the experience of the novel for me.]

Jan
27
2015

Wentworth

by V. L. Craven

Wentworth

Wentworth is a prison drama–as with all dramas (or shows in general)–we are introduced to the workings of this new world by way of a particular character. In Wentworth’s case it’s Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack). She’s on remand for the alleged attempted murder of her abusive husband.

Upon her arrival we learn the rules of prison life and who the major players are on both sides of the bars. The main one to keep an eye on behind bars is sassy, inveterate lesbian Frankie Doyle (Nicole da Silva), who has been in control since mafia matriarch Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) has been out of the picture. When Jacs returns Frankie’s status as top dog becomes tenuous. It’s turf war time, ladies.

The other side of the bars has Governor Davidson (Leeanna Walsman) and her complex relationship with Frankie Doyle. The spouse of one of the officers (who also worked at the prison) is murdered during a riot and the first series is partially about finding what prisoner–or other officer–did it.

Wentworth 1st Series

First series cast

The second series sees the arrival of the deliciously devious Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson (Pamela Rabe) and a couple of other cast changes. The characters that remain grow and the show improves, though the first season was entirely decent. Friction that began between prison officers in the first series continues in the second. Meanwhile, a milquetoast officer from the first season begins to grow a backbone under the sinister tutelage of Governor Ferguson.

One of the officers falls off the wagon, another is playing both sides of the bars and yet another is being stalked by …someone. And paranoid people make stupid decisions. The only thing that separates the screws from the inmates is that the officers haven’t been caught for what they get up to.

I don’t want to say more for spoiler reasons. The third series can roll on any time now.

Series Two Cast

Second series cast

As I was watching the show I kept thinking various story-lines were similar to ones on Bad Girls or Orange is the New Black, but then discovered Wentworth is a reimagining of Prisoner (Wentworth Prison or Prisoner: Cell Block H in other countries), which was itself inspired by a UK show called Within These Walls. The original Prisoner ran for 692 episodes from 1979 to 1986. So it’s more like the more recent shows are the copy-cats, though I suppose there are only so many plots you can have in a prison.

A friend of mine lives in Sydney and she wants to know why I don’t visit. I say it’s because she lives on the moon. Watching this show has proven to me just how distant the country is. Australia is so far away they’ve had to duplicate their own versions of people in the Northern Hemisphere, because I swear half the cast look like actors from up here in the Land of Correct Seasons.

My evidence:

From the first series we have Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) standing in for Jane Atkinson.

Wentworth Kris McQuade

Australian actress Kris McQuade

 

English-American actress Jayne Atkinson

English-American actress Jayne Atkinson

For the life of me I cannot work out who Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) looks like, but she reminds me of someone. Help.

Out of character Nicole da Silva

Out of character Nicole da Silva

When she’s in character & makeup as Frankie/Shane she reminds me of Frankie from Lip Service.

Yeah, she knows it.

Yeah, she knows it.

 

Ruta Gedmintas, English actress, smirking it up

Ruta Gedmintas, English actress, smirking it up

Ditto to Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton)

Shareena Clanton, looking like...someone

Shareena Clanton, looking like…someone

Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements) isn’t around too very long, but she’s doing an excellent job of looking like Valerie Harper.

Antipodean Catherine McClements

Antipodean Catherine McClements

 

American, Valerie Harper

American, Valerie Harper

Special kudos goes to Erica Davidson (Leeanna Walsman) who manages to look like both Ellen Pompeo and Claire King, who played the Governor for some time on Bad Girls .

Double look-a-like winner, Leeanna Walsman. Well done.

Double look-a-like winner, Leeanna Walsman. Well done.

 

American Ellen Pompeo

American Ellen Pompeo

 

English actress Claire King

English actress Claire King

And, as I was looking up photos, I discovered Boomer (Katrina Milosevic) actually looks like Dawn French. They do a good job on the show of making her…not look like Dawn French.

Australian Katrina Milosevic

Australian Katrina Milosevic

 

English actress Dawn French

English actress Dawn French

The only person to whom this rule does not apply is Pamela Rabe, but that’s because she’s from Canada.

There is only one Pamela Rabe.

There is only one Pamela Rabe.

There are other secondary characters who are look-alikes, but I think I’ve proven my point. Leave a comment if you recognise other people.

Wentworth is like a Bad Girls in a soapy drama way, but the first series is like Orange is the New Black in that the audience gets to see the characters’ lives and choices that led them to prison.

Bonus: Once you’ve watched the first two series (and you absolutely should) I highly recommend the AfterEllen recaps , which are hilarious but spoil everything.

Bonus bonus: I’ve started watching the original Prisoner and ‘reimagining’ is a good word for it. I’m only a few episodes in, but it currently looks like they’ve taken the characters and plots, put them in a Yahtzee cup, given it a good shake and let them land where they may.

Jan
26
2015

Author Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

by V. L. Craven
Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Author Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society –a darkly magical ode to books and writing that will be a stand out of 2015.

Through the magic of social media, I connected with Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, who graciously agreed to an interview.

The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society write in different genres but the leader of the group is a world-famous children’s author. What books did you like most as a child? What books most influenced you as a writer?

Sometimes I think I spent my whole childhood reading books, just like young Ella in my novel. I have forgotten most of the books but I could never forget how much I enjoyed the Narnia chronicles, especially the first one. Later I felt a little bit betrayed when I realized that Aslan is actually Jesus, but in the end, that didn’t really matter so much – if anything, works of C.S. Lewis made me see how all religions are but stories, new versions of old mythological narratives like Heracles.

That moment when Lucy isn’t anymore in the wardrobe but in Narnia affected me greatly and made me thirst for more of that kind of reading experiences. At that time there wasn’t that much fantasy available in Finnish (unlike these days) and it was hard to find that kind of sense of wonder but every now and then I found something.

Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy is another one that has haunted me since my childhood – it’s beautifully dark and scary and I loved its atmosphere. Later I naturally read Lord of the Rings and every horror book I could find – but back then horror stories were not published in Finnish almost at all. Only Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and classics like that.

Laura White chose the initial members of the Society when they were quite young–how old were you when you began writing? What were your early writings about?

I have always made up stories, for example I told my own fairytales to my kid brother when I was about 10 years old. And I used to write silly stories at school. I also remember trying to write a couple of goofy short stories with my mother’s old typewriter which was really hard to use, it took more strength than I had in my tiny fingers. (I still have very small hands, they’re more like cat’s paws than hands of a man…)

I think I was about 15 years old when I made my first attempt to write a horror story. There were vampires and zombies in it and it really sucked ass. I tried again when I was 24. I wrote a horror story, “The Disciples”, participated in a certain writing contest and won a 2nd prize in it – and so it began…

Rabbit Back alternate cover

The Game was fascinating–the idea of being able to ask absolutely anything and know you’re going to receive the unvarnished truth is both liberating and terrifying. What would have to be at risk for you to play The Game with someone?

Considering that the members of the society had to avoid each other because of the game, well, I hope that if I should ever play that game (while someone I love being under a death threat), it wasn’t with anyone I would have to face afterwards. Self deception – to a certain extent – is something we all need in order to be happy, and losing one’s illusions may lead to misery…

The Game did remind me of an extreme form of therapy sessions, which can often be emotionally exhausting and make a person need a nap. Like Ella needing to rest for days afterwards.

Do we get to know all of the rules of The Game and the variations/maneouvres? I admit, I wanted a copy of the book with all the variations in.

It might be interesting to write the rulebook and put it on the market! On the other hand, the Game would destroy friendships, marriages and lives. So, it really would be interesting… (evil laughter). I don’t think the Game is fully revealed in the novel, but I guess it wouldn’t stop anyone to try it anyhow. Actually I was told by some young Finnish dude that he and his friends had once played it – or tried, at least.

It would need to come with a vial of yellow [something they use to loosen their tongues when playing The Game] .

Where did you get the idea for such a …terrifying game, anyway?

I may have invented it after reading Ibsen’s Wild Duck. In that play, Gregers Werle wants truth at any cost, he wants to force people to abandon their comforting self deception and face the naked truth about themselves and their life, with horrible consequences. And as a writer I’m interested to harvest other people’s deepest emotional experiences in order to better understand life and to write about it – and of course as a writer I have to be ready to harvest my own deepest thoughts, too, and sometimes see behind those beautiful lies we all tell ourselves so we could feel good about ourselves.

It is definitely a useful tool for writers. But so…sadistic…and masochistic, as well.

Rabbit Back Literature Society

Mythological mapping [where people find out what mythological creatures live in their gardens] is an interesting concept. Is it something you invented for the novel or something that actually occurs in Finland?

I invented it, but a couple of years later I found out that some Finnish woman actually had launched a business similar to that.

Some of your shorter works have been translated into English [see the end of this interview for links] . Are there plans for your other novels to be translated into English?

I certainly hope so. So far my agent has been selling The Rabbit Back everywhere (so far it has been sold to UK, US, France, Germany, Lithuania, Czech, Spain and Italy) but I guess it’s about the time for my other novels to spread outside the borders of Finland. There are two novels waiting, The Cinematic Life: a novel and Souls Walk in the Rain, and although they both are somewhat different from The Rabbit Back, they all are about combining realist approach with fantasy elements, so if The Rabbit Back finds readers enough, there shouldn’t be a problem with selling other two novels. But you never know.

Are you going to be doing signings in the States or the U.K.?

So far I haven’t been invited in UK or US. I’m going to Milan, though, in order to sign books and stuff like that in next May.

What is next up for you–Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes, I have done some groundwork with my fourth novel and one of these days I’ll begin writing it. But it takes time to write when you have a day job – and teaching doesn’t leave too much extra energy to do things after work.

Do you talk about your works in progress or do you keep them to yourself?

Sometimes I may talk about my writing with some, selected people, at some point of the writing process. It’s like letting off steam from boiler when the pressure is getting too high to keep it all just to myself. But before this happens, I have already spend numerous nights alone with my manuscript.

These things won’t be rushed. They percolate at their own rate, I find. I look forward to your future works and thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

It has been a pleasure, Victoria – thank you!

Jaaskelainen’s fiction in English (free to read):

Novella: Where the Trains Turn
Short Story: ‘Those Were the Days’ (downloadable as PDF)
Short Story: ‘Letter to Lethe’

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

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