Autodidact: self-taught

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

Dec
30
2014

Mama

by V. L. Craven

Mama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mama wasn't a stickler for hygiene...

Mama wasn’t a stickler for hygiene…

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

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

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

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

Dec
24
2014

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

by V. L. Craven

Meditations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec
23
2014

Clash of the Titans Comparative Review

by V. L. Craven

Clash of the Titans 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

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

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

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa... Anciiieeent Greeeeece

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa… Anciiieeent Greeeeece

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

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

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

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

Meh.

Meh.

Whereas the remake make-up just…

Gah.

Gah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaaaaaand nope.

Aaaaaaand nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec
20
2014

What I Found Out About Her

by V. L. Craven

What I Found Out About Her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’

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

But I Existentially digress.

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

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

Dec
16
2014

Last Tango in Halifax

by V. L. Craven

Last Tango in Halifax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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