Autodidact: self-taught

Mar
03
2015

Secretary

by V. L. Craven

Secretary

 

Shortly after Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is released from a mental hospital following a self harm incident that accidentally went too far she attends a typing school.

With her certificate and very high marks she applies to be the secretary of an attorney, a Mr E. Edward Grey (James Spader, again playing a weirdo because the man can not play a well-adjusted human being).

After warning her the work will be boring and receiving the reply, ‘I want to be bored,’ Mr Grey offers her the job. This follows the most illegal set of interview questions imaginable.

Mr Grey notices his new secretary’s cuts. He catches her with her self harm travel kit one day and works out that she needs physical pain to help deal with emotional pain.

He recognises a submissive in this socially awkward individual who has been doing her best to please him. And he cares enough to not want her to hurt herself badly enough she may wind up in the mental ward again or worse.

Then one day she commits one typo too far.

Oh dear, oh dear. tsk tsk

Oh dear, oh dear. tsk tsk

And we’re off to the races. If races were kinky.

Their relationship changes then; while she’s still his secretary she also gets spanked on a regular basis (she’s clearly completely into this).

And he has informed her that she will no longer be injuring herself. She agrees to this because he is Dominant and she is submissive. He makes decisions about what she eats and where she walks, therefore it’s as though he’s with her all the time, which she’s fine with because she’s crazy about him. And she likes pain.

Then, like all romantic comedies (I promise that’s what this is), something goes wrong and they break up. Will they get back together? Well, it’s a romantic comedy so you guess.

But how it happens and what they go through to get there will surprise most people. Their relationship certainly isn’t what Hollywood generally serves up.

Secretary gif 1

Secretary gif 2

Secretary came out in 2002. And I loved it straightaway. It’s a damn sight better than that other BDSM film featuring a Mr Grey even though neither of them are entirely accurate in their portrayal of the lifestyle (there’s no pre-negotiation or aftercare in Secretary and …everything is terrible in the other film/books). A complete breakdown of the two films is here .

Back to the review at hand, though. It’s stylish and stylized. The soundtrack is by Angelo Badalamenti, who also did the music for Twin Peaks. E. Edward Grey’s office is gorgeous and bizarre in its own right, but so is everything in this film.

The writing is funny and real and unreal at the same time.

I recently re-watched it in order to write this review, showing it to a friend of mine who describes herself as a ‘vanilla weenie’. Around three quarters of the way through she asked, ‘What even is this film?’ Which I think is a good way of putting it. It’s not like anything most people have seen before.

It’s based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill included in the collection Bad Behavior, which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow. I give the film 5/5 and I’ll see you tomorrow for the book review.

Bonus: On the official Secretary website there’s a little typing game, as well as Lee’s CV that’s pretty funny.

Feb
24
2015

The Well (1997)

by V. L. Craven

The Well

Hester Harper (Pamela Rabe), a spinster living with her father on a farm in rural Australia, takes on Katherine (Miranda Otto) as a helper, letting go of the long-term help in order to do so.

The new girl finds the work too hard and decides to leave. But Hester has already become taken with the girl so she proffers a deal–she’ll bring back on the previous maid for the heavy work in order to keep on the younger woman. Her proposal is refused.

Katherine soon returns, though, much to Hester’s surprise. Long accustomed to being shut up on the farm she’s drawn to the young woman’s uninhibited energy.

The younger woman sees her opportunity and begins asking for gifts, which the enamoured Hester happily bestows.

One such manipulation involves the sale of the farm, the place where Hester was born, in order to afford a month-long trip to Europe and New York.

They wind up living in a lonely cottage which is the location of the titular well. Hester spent time there as a child and says the well has always been dry.

This is either a blessing or a curse, depending upon how you look at it, when Katherine accidentally runs over someone on the way back from a dance and they need somewhere to put said corpse.

And then things get…weird.

Pictured: Gold-digging, possible lunatic

Pictured: Gold-digger, possible lunatic

The Well is about obsession and greed. And jealousy and…insanity? It’s difficult to say at a certain point. I’ve watched it three times now and I’m still uncertain about the ending, but I have a high tolerance for ambiguous endings.

Folie a deux relationships are a personal interest so I found it enjoyable. It puts me in mind of Sister, My Sister in that it’s about an intense relationship between two women that leads to tragedy.

I’d give this one a 4/5. It’s a slow boil, but I really enjoyed it.

Personal thoughts for those who’ve seen it and want to know what I think:  I really have no clue. We see that Katherine has some of the money, but it doesn’t appear that she has all of it–there was far too much and her suitcase didn’t seem large enough to hold all of it. Also, we saw her in her bedroom alone and she seemed to really believe the guy in the well loved her, even though the fall alone would have killed him. So… yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to read the script and see if it’s clearer and if they edited it to make it more ambiguous.

Feb
23
2015

Mythic Articulations

by V. L. Craven

Mythic Articulations , 3D printed skeletons of creatures from mythology as well as cryptids, was brought to my attention by a friend who saw Cerberus in a can (he’s poseable and you build him yourself!) and immediately thought of me. My friends know me well.

Meet Snuffles, Ruffles and Bob.

Meet Snuffles, Ruffles and Bob.

After admiring the work on the etsy shop I contacted the owner/artist, Brian Richardson, who answered some questions via the electronic mail.

How long have you been interested in mythology and mythological creatures; how did you become interested?

I’ve been interested in mythology for as long as I can remember. I can’t recall what started the interest, it’s sort of just always been there.

What is your design background & how did that lead to 3D printing?

I’ve been drawing since I was about 5. I first learned of 3D printing about two years ago, and took up 3D modeling over the next few months. I didn’t really do a whole lot of sculpture prior to learning 3D modeling, due to material costs and the inherent mess of working with clay or wood or metal. Being able to make basically anything virtually, with no mess, and then have it printed into a 3D object really brought about an interest in sculpture.

Everyone has that neighbour who simply refuses to mind their own business, don't they?

Everyone has that neighbour who simply refuses to mind their own business, don’t they? (Rokurokubi skeleton)

Do you have your own printer or do you outsource your creations?

I outsource to a local 3D printing bureau. I have considered getting a desktop printer, but the quality of the prints from most printers just isn’t good enough yet. Maybe in a few years.

In terms of anatomy design–do you have formal training in medical anatomy or are you self-taught?

I took biology classes all through High-school, but that’s the extent of my training. Most of my knowledge of the skeletal system comes from looking at lots of pictures. I probably couldn’t name all the bones, but I know what they look like and how they fit together.

For the Harry Potter fans--it's a Hippogriff. There's also a centaur available.

For the Harry Potter fans–it’s a Hippogriff. There’s also a centaur available.

Walk me through the process of creating a new piece, from deciding what it will be to finished product with certificates and paperwork.

I usually just pick which ever creature I think would make a good skeleton or be popular. There’s lots of scouring Google images and Wikipedia to get good interpretations and descriptions of the various beasts. I’ve also got a few books I look through on occasion. I use the program ZBrush to sculpt each one. I start from a virtual ball of clay, and push, pull, cut, and move it around until it looks like whatever part I’m making. I use lots of reference photos of actual animal skeletons.

I’m to the point where a lot of the parts for new creatures are already made (skulls, wings, spines, etc.) and I can just mix and match them with some adjustments to have a new skeleton. After that, it’s off to the printers and a week later I’ve got the skeleton. The paperwork is as simple as swapping out text and photos.

If you're more interested in modern myths there's the Flatwoods Monster and other cryptids.

If you’re more interested in modern myths there’s the Flatwoods Monster and other cryptids.

Customers can request custom orders–what are some of the more interesting requests you’ve had?

The most interesting custom order I’ve done so far was a poseable model of a customers original creature design. It looked a bit like a “big-boned” Godzilla.

MA Cockatrice

Cockatrice. That tail looks a bit dangerous.

Would you be open to the idea of sending a piece through some place like Shapeways to have it printed in metal or glass for a customer–do you plan to offer skeletons in other materials in future?

I have actually had a skeleton printed in bronze by them. The only problem is the relativity small size that they can print in metal. I may be offering select models at a reduced size in metal at some point.

Do you have a personal favourite?
It’s a three way tie between Cthulhu , the Wolpertinger and the Cockatrice .

Elder gods never looked so cute

Elder gods never looked so cute

What pieces do you have in the works?

I’m currently testing a Bakeneko (a large, intelligent cat that walks on two legs), a Nekomata (a Bakeneko, but evil and with two tails), and a Wanyudo (a giant flaming head in an ox cart wheel). These are Japanese monsters called Yokai , and there are hundreds of them, many of which I’d like to model at some point.

Feb
18
2015

The Match Girl and the Heiress

by V. L. Craven

Match Girl and the Heiress

The premise of Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress sounds like the worst sort of contrived Victorian social commentary. Well-to-do young woman (soft white hands and all) gives it all up to venture into the slums of London and befriends a factory working match girl who, in her turn, idolizes her. Together, they try to change the world.

It’s non-fiction, however, so I was very excited. It sounded like romantic friendship , which is one of my favourite topics. As is the Victorian era. So I thought, ‘real life romantic friendship in my favourite time period?’ Result!

Alas, it was not to be. While the book was very well researched. It was, at times, dry even for an academic work. I learned a great deal about the way World War I shaped Britain’s view of pacifism and other social causes. And the rise and clash of different sorts of feminism was quite interesting. But other parts were something of a slog.

The best sections (though few and far between) were analyzing the unequal relationship of the women–Muriel Lester (the heiress) and Nellie Dowell (the match girl), which were nearly perfect mirrors of the way well-meaning middle class whites in the U.S. try to help poor people, especially blacks in the present day. There’s a genuine desire to provide assistance but due to a lifetime of wearing the blinders of privilege they make mistake after mistake.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this for those specifically interested in class and social issues of the time. 3/5

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

Feb
17
2015

Hysteria

by V. L. Craven

Hysteria_Movie_Poster

It’s the 1880s in England and all of women’s emotional problems stem from their uteri. They must be brought back into alignment and this was done by inducing hysteria… which involved, um… manipulating the lady bits. You know .

[The filmmakers weren’t making any of this up–this was actual medical science of the day.]

After being fired from his job for believing in the clearly made-up germ theory–whoever heard of doctors changing bandages or washing hands, I mean, really–Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has a difficult time finding new employment.

That is, until he’s taken on by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who is pioneering the new technique of digitally manipulation (see the first paragraph) in order to restore women’s uteri to their proper position. (People used to believe they moved around and cause all sorts of trouble. I swear to you.)

He calls this work ‘tedious’.

Granville would call it debilitating–he winds up with something akin to carpal tunnel, poor, giving soul.

Luckily, he happens upon an invention his great friend Edmund St-John-Smyth (Rupert Everett) is working on to make housework easier for women. Granville quickly realised that, with a few adjustments, it will make something else far easier for women, as well.

And it ain’t dusting, ifyougetmydrift.

In the midst of all this is Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters. The eldest, Charlotte, (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a feminist trying to assist the down trodden in nineteenth-century England–so there’s no worry of her running out of people to help; the younger is obedient Emily (Felicity Jones) who will marry whomever her father says, including Mortimer, if he so wishes.

A contrived thing happens because it has to and we have a subplot.

Pictured: Anna Chancellor being underutilized

Pictured: Anna Chancellor being underutilized

The film starts off with Anna Chancellor’s voice. So I had high hopes. Then she has one other, very short scene. This did not bode well.

For something that was about female ‘paroxysm’ it certainly wasn’t sexy. The two scenes that showed women having their uteri replaced to their proper locations were played for laughs (because female pleasure is funny). Though I swear I want women to say that now. ‘Honey…I think my uterus is out of joint. Help me out?’

It also showed how things haven’t changed. Women are stilled called hysterical when expressing an opinion–something men are never called–and if a woman is being a bit too forthright, well. She needs a good seeing to.

Oh, and you’ll love this. The reason what the doctors were doing wasn’t considered sexual was because women couldn’t receive sexual pleasure without insertion of the penis. Le sigh. So the bit on the front of the ladies–That’s just there as a sort of mechanical part to bring inner bits back in line. It’s nothing to do with anything else. I knew this was the received wisdom of the time going into it, but still.

But I digress.

The costumes were great. The acting was fine. Everything was somewhat interesting and pretty to look at. I’ll just sit here and damn with faint phrase, shall I?

It was typical Hollywood fare with the ending obvious a mile off. Still fun enough. 3/5. 4/5 if you’re interested in the period.

I was a bigger fan of The Road to Wellville , even though that one was more about the early twentieth-century push to keep people from touching their naughty bits.  They prescribed cornflakes and vegetarianism. (Again, no joke.)

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

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