Autodidact: self-taught


Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

by V. L. Craven

Black Chalk

It began with six students from various backgrounds at the fictional Pitt College at Oxford University. And it ended in New York City in the present day. Sort of.

There are two stories being told. One of an American in England–Chad. Chad from the pig farm in upstate New York who managed to attend Oxford for a year.

The other story takes place fourteen years later. It is told by a person who has not recovered from that year at Oxford.

There were six of them–they’d invented a ridiculous, clever, devious, genius game–but it was only a game amongst friends, still.

And they’d been backed by an organization who made sure they played by the rules. The Games Society. There were loads of ‘societies’ at Pitt. Students were encouraged to join them. It’s healthy to get out there to do things. Engage.

So the gang from near and far invented a game and staked more money than some had on it.

And it wasn’t the game so much as the consequences .

You see, the consequences were specifically tailored to most destroy each person. Nothing physical, only psychological damage. You know, for fun!

Then someone died. Not during a consequence. But definitely due to the game.

There came a break in play but the final round must be dealt fourteen years later. To prepare himself, one of the final two is trying to remember what happened all those years ago, but his memory wasn’t all that outstanding to begin with and after basically allowing your cohort to give you PTSD it’s really shot to hell.

He writes and writes and tells his story and then goes about his daily routine. Trying to get his mind into some sort of shape to face the final round of this wretched game he started with his friends all those years ago.

* * *

I loved this book. I’m a big fan of anything set in Oxford and I love nefarious ‘games’ and little secret, incestuous societies. (Hello, The Secret History, which this book has been compared to in every single review and I’m going to do it again. But I loved them both.)

Yates has excellent insight into human psychology and gives the reader a range of believable reactions to increasingly stressful circumstances.

Black Chalk is hard to put down. If you’re still looking for something for a book lover for the holiday–look no further.



Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

by V. L. Craven

Trigger Warning

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for LibraryThing , as it’s through their Early Reviewers program that I received Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I had requested it (along with a few hundred other people) and the notification that I’d actually receive the thing had gone to my trash folder so I knew nothing. It just arrived one day. It was a day during a rough week–impeccable timing, it had–and I thought, ‘Of course. If any book is going to seemingly magically arrive just when I need something magical it’s a Neil Gaiman book.’

That is a long way to say I received this book for free.

Trigger Warning is a collection of poetry, fairy tales, science fiction-y stories and the like. It’s bits and bobs of Gaiman.

If you’re a fan you’ll like it. If you’re not a fan already, I wouldn’t start with this one, though I enjoyed every piece in it. It does showcase his ability to write in an array of genres, so if the reader isn’t interested in one piece they can skip to the next.

Something I particularly liked was, at the beginning of the book there was information about each piece–what inspired it, where he was when he wrote it, something. I find that sort of thing interesting so I’d read each section then go back and read the paragraph or so about the ‘making-of’ that bit. I wish more books had that. What fun.

The entirety of A Calendar of Tales is in the book, which was an interesting inclusion and was much shorter than I was expecting.

There was a labyrinth and various mythologies featured a few times, which is always appreciated by this reader, as were ghosts and leprechauns. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were in the same tale, but this time the women were the hero(ines) and things aren’t always what they seem.

There’s even a Sherlock Holmes tale that read quite true-to-source for me.

And of course there are creepy children, because children are creepy.

It’s difficult to choose a stand out, as the pieces were so different, but an homage to Ray Bradbury called ‘The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury’ was wonderful and touching. The background Gaiman shared only made it more so.

There’s another story called ‘The Return of the Thin White Duke’ and you can easily guess who it’s about, but it made me smile and was wonderfully inventive.

‘Feminine Endings’ was TERRIFYING. And the story behind that one was hilarious.

If you’re a Gaiman fan, this is a must-read. 5/5

If you haven’t read anything of his yet, I’d probably start with something else, though you’d still be able to find something in here to appeal. 4/5


The Addams Family Screenplay

by V. L. Craven

Addams Family

[This post is written with the assumption you’ve seen The Addams Family film. If you haven’t go! Watch it! It’s fantastic! Still, I’ll keep it spoiler-free.]

Recently, I re-watched The Addams Family, which came out in 1991 and I’m an old person, as I saw it twice in the cinema. I had magazines with interviews with the cast and costumers and set designers and pull out posters–I still have the Morticia one. It’s not on the wall, but I still have it.

There was a drawing for an Addams Family pinball machine in one of the magazines. You know I sent in my information for that. (I have just learned it’s the best-selling pinball machine of all time. Well, of course it is!)

I read the novelization of the screenplay, as well, which would have been around twenty-four years ago.

When I was re-watching it, there’s a place where Gomez tries to get Fester to say their secret name for one another. Fester, newly returned after twenty-five years away in the Bermuda Triangle, can’t recall it and winds up saying, ‘You almost killed me you demented freak.’ In the film, Gomez says, ‘Poor man! What did they do to you in the Bermuda Triangle?’ but it’s said off-screen and sounded, to me, like it was dubbed in.

And I could have sworn I’d read in the book Gomez saying, ‘Demented freak! You do remember the password!’

I’d sold or given away the book many years ago, but the internet exists so I searched and it turns out you can download (or just read) the actual shooting script here .

So I did that one afternoon.

It was great fun, actually, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t seen the film.

Boy, did it go through a lot of revisions.

There were several scenes that were cut from the film–including something that happened in the TV show, which was that Pugsley was a little chemistry genius and could turn himself into other things. During the opening section of the film he turned himself into a mouse.

Then there were all sorts of little details I’ve missed in the film that would have taken place in the background when I would have been watching the actors in the foreground.

Aside from cut scenes there were also lines here and there that didn’t make it to the screen. And Abigail Craven (a nefarious surname if ever I heard one)–her original first name was Virginia, apparently, as they didn’t change all of the times her first name appeared in later versions of the script.

But the most disturbing thing was that Cousin Itt–are you ready?

Originally had arms.

Excuse me while I go outside and scream to the heavens.


That’s bad creepy.

He sees Margaret at the dance and runs his hands through his hair.


No no no no.

And for some reason they spell it ‘Cousin It’ in the film script, rather than ‘Itt’ like on the TV show.

I know my Addamses. It’s Itt, dammit.

Then again, they changed some other things, geneology-wise. Fester was Morticia’s brother on the show and Gomez’s brother in the film. Grandmama was Gomez’s mother on the show and was Morticia’s in the film and was called Granny or Mama, depending on who was talking. (On the TV show, Morticia’s mother was played by Margaret Hamilton–the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West. Inspired.)

But still, Itt was Itt.

And this is Morticia. The poster that was on my wall for years.

And this is Morticia. The poster that was on my wall for years.

Other things I recall from reading those articles a quarter of a century ago:

Cher was up for the role of Morticia at one point.

The actor who played Cousin Itt was allergic to hairspray and the way he got the part was by doing Hamlet’s soliloquy in the Itt voice.

The nutso sounding music that plays when Gomez and Fester are going down the slide to the vault is by the duo the Kipper Kids, one of whom is Bette Midler’s husband, Martin von Haselberg.

During the ball, the composer of the orchestra is played by Marc Shaiman, Bette Midler’s composer of many, decades, as well as the composer of the original score for The Addams Family. (He’s the guy playing the piano in the opening of Beaches, as well, if you’d like to see him out of Addams garb.)

After the film was released multiple offers were made to purchase the Addams residence, but it was just a facade.


The Book of Speculation

by V. L. Craven


Simon Watson’s family has a dark secret–the women in his family are mermaids who keep drowning on July 23.

They’re women who hold their breath for a long time underwater in travelling sideshows (billed as mermaids) and, eventually, they all commit suicide by drowning themselves on July 23. His mother, her mother.  Her mother and back and back.

Simon didn’t know about the previous generations until he was given a book by an antiquarian bookseller who felt the younger man should have it, somehow.

The book is some sort of log of a travelling sideshow from the 1800s and it marks the coming of their mermaid and her complicated relationship with the tarot reader, which sets off a chain of events that will change hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

The thing is, Simon has a sister, Enola.

Enola can hold her breath for an extraordinarily long time and she travels with a carnival, reading the tarot.

Enola’s been acting very strange lately. And July 23 is only a few days away.

Interwoven with their story–every other chapter–is about that original sideshow, when the curse that has been drowning women who shouldn’t be able to drown was set in motion.

Both stories are vibrantly told and compelling; it’s not one of those cases where the reader is rushing through one set of chapters to get to the story-line they really care about.

The novel is about magic and family history and being bound to others by more than blood. It’s also beautiful and, at times, painful.

The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s first novel and, as a reader, I’m thrilled because it’s wonderful. As a writer, I hate her just a little.

And I can’t wait to see what she does next. 5/5

[I received a free copy of this to review through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, but it’d be one of my top books of the year anyway.]


The School for Supervillains

by V. L. Craven

School for Supervillains

Mandrake DeVille is the daughter (sort of–she was grown in a lab) of two of the most nefarious villains to ever villain. [lightning crash]

Much is expected of her. Perhaps she will even, one day, finally topple that blasted Superhero Guild once and for all! [insert maniacal laughter here]

In order to prepare her for her life of dastardly deeds, she must attend the most prestigious of all evil schools, of course. Which is St Luthor’s School of Supervillains. [dun dun DUUNN]

The best villains send their progeny there from all over the universe–one of Mandrake’s peers isn’t from this solar system–so you know this school is top-hole. I mean, you’re not going to send your child a few thousand light years and then choose the second best school, amirite?

So little Miss DeVille is being set up to rule the world…erm, the Underworld.

There’s a minor snag, however.

She doesn’t want to be evil. She wants to be a superhero.

(Sometimes, as a parent, you just never know where you’re going to go wrong. You try to instil malevolent hatred for the whole of humanity and beyond and still, they will decide to fight for good. What can you do?)

Unfortunately for Mandrake and her tender appendages, the adults (and her peers) generally take the opinion that ‘the only good superhero is a dead superhero’, so she must keep her wishes to herself. And the mind-readers around her. Did I mention there are mind-readers? There are mind-readers. And all sorts of other inventive types and creatures.

Will she find a sympathetic ear? Will she work out whom to trust before it’s too late? Or will the Master (the head of her school) and her chief rivals Caligula (yeah, I did a spit-take, too) and Livia work out what she’s up to first?

The School for Supervillains is suitable for ages 9 and up. At 71 pages, it can be read in a sitting if a grown up is helping. It’s the sort of book I would have read more than once as a child. Though I probably would have wondered why she didn’t want to remain a bad guy, but that’s beside the point.

I’m giving this 4/5 because I wanted it to be longer. More story!

Something that’s especially fun about it is that it was done through Fiction Express , where one chapter was released per week and then readers voted one what would happen next. So the story was guided by the readers. I’ll be interviewing Louie Stowell in the coming weeks and we’ll discuss what that experience was like so stay tuned!

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


The Picture of Dorian Gray

by V. L. Craven

Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man unaware of his beauty and what it brings him. He has become the muse of a painter, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with him.

One day whilst Gray is in Hallward’s studio being painted, one of the artist’s friends, Lord Henry, stops by. He’s immediately taken with the young man and begins espousing his hedonistic philosophy. He makes Dorian aware of the fleeting nature of beauty–especially his own.

After they return inside Hallward has finished the painting and proclaimed it his finest yet. Dorian realises he’ll never be as young or as beautiful as he is in the picture and makes a Faustian oath before it. It takes some time before the consequences of that oath become apparent, but once it does he begins to become fascinated and horrified at the implications.

Lord Henry’s words have begun to work their dark magic upon him, though, and he goes in search of new experiences, corrupting others along the way.

This is in the 1890s so reputations are easily ruined, mind. But people also believe that sin is worn on the face and Dorian Gray is beautiful. He’s one of those people who remains blemish-free and so must his soul be.

Sin will out, though, as they say.

Lippincott Dorian Gray

I read the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, which has all sorts of notes and other useful information. It’s also beautifully bound and has a sewn-in bookmark. I do recommend the series.

There’s not much to say in terms of critical review. Everyone else has already said everything of intellectual import.

It’s excellent–the sort of classic that makes modern writing seem drab (as opposed to the sort of classic that works brilliantly as a soporific).

It turned out that all the quotes I’d thought Wilde had said at parties and people had written down were actually said by his character Lord Henry. And indeed, the novel is hilarious, as well as thought-provoking.

The fact that I thought Lord Henry was Wilde’s stand-in was apt, as the author himself said: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray highlights the hypocrisy of the age, which was more pronounced at the time, though it’s still so today. The people shouting most loudly about other people’s perversions are generally the ones doing the worst behind closed doors.

And it’s good to know beauty and money can still put people’s minds to rest about corruption. That certainly hasn’t changed in the last 120 years.

Though, hey, gay people can get married now rather than being sent down for hard labour for two years. So… progress?

This is a must read for fans of excellent writing, Gothic literature, the Faust legend, social commentary. Just read it. 5/5


Lifted by the Great Nothing

by V. L. Craven

Lifted by the Great Nothing


Max is twelve years old. He’s of Lebanese decent (though his father, Rasheed, says they’re just American now); he drinks mixed vodka drinks; he spends time with the Yangs next door.

Max’s father is the centre of his world. He keeps the house clean for him and makes his food–special, fancy meals, because his father works several lowly jobs to make ends meet.

Max’s mother died when he was a baby then they fled war-torn Lebanon. That’s when they became Americans. Rasheed doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so they don’t discuss it.

Eventually, Kelly moves in. Kelly is very socially aware and teaches Max about things like injustice, civil war and genocide and he begins to wonder what happened to his mother.

Karim Dimechkie’s debut novel Lifted by the Great Nothing is about a young man (it’s told in three parts–when Max is 12, 16 and 26) trying to figure out who he is and where he comes from. And in the process he learns a few hard truths about the choices people make in order to protect the ones they love. 4/5

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


Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

As mentioned in yesterday’s review of the film , I’ve been a huge fan of Harold and Maude for some time and watch it at least once a year. So when a novel by the same name came up on NetGalley I requested it, thinking it was the source material for the film.

At first I thought it was the most true-to-source material film adaptation I’d ever read–the cover does say ‘a novel’–but it turns out it’s a novelization of the screenplay. Higgins wrote both the screenplay (it was his master’s thesis at UCLA film school) and the screenplay so it has the same atmosphere of the film.

The novel exists in that same darkly comic, wonderfully bizarre world. Nineteen-year-old Harold Chasen is just as obsessed with faking his own death and seventy-nine-year-old Maude is just as in love with life. Harold’s mother is just as exasperated with all the nonsense and then, of course, there’s the car.

It’s a quick, entertaining read and there are little differences here and there that fans of the film will find interesting. It’s fun to see how scenes were originally written versus how they were edited in the final version and what was cut or changed entirely. Scenes with Uncle Victor, the brigadier general, are different in the novel, for instance. And bits and bobs that weren’t fully explained in the film (how did Harold turn that Jaguar into a mini hearse?) are laid out quite neatly.

The film is such a part of my consciousness I can’t say what a person unfamiliar with it would think of the book or how they’d read certain characters. While reading it I was laughing out loud because I was hearing/seeing the actors in my head.

5/5 for people who’ve seen the film this is a must-read.

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


The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

by V. L. Craven

The Well

In February I reviewed an Australian film called The Well and found the ending confusing. In said review I said I’d like to read the screenplay to see if the ending was less ambiguous.

So recently I read the novel the film was based on–The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, which was published in 1986.

It tells the story of Hester Harper, an Australian spinster who has spent the majority of her life on a remote farm with her father.

One day she meets an orphan–a young woman named Katherine–who’s been helping out at a local shop but who is about to be returned to the Home, as the man of the house no longer wants her around. On a whim, Hester takes the girl home with her to help with chores.

She grows possessive of the girl. Protective. And Katherine cares for Miss Harper, as well. She certainly likes her money and helps spend it with an abandon the older woman had never felt the need for before meeting the girl.

The girl has awakened something in the woman. An appreciation for life. Her inner world is more vibrant for Katherine coming into it even if her outer self is as old and broken as it was before her arrival. Most of all, she loves watching the young woman dance.

Hester’s father dies and the decision is made to sell the farm her family has lived on for generations and she and Katherine move to a little cottage even further from civilisation, but who cares, as they have one another.

It’s the first time that Hester Harper has been happy since she was a child so she is willing to go to great lengths to preserve her precious, shared life when a sinister event threatens to disrupt what they’ve built.

The lengths she is willing to go to, though, may do irreparable harm to her beloved Kathy, who may not be as innocent as Hester believes.


There’s an old-fashioned feel to The Well. Not being familiar with the songs or dances Katherine mentions (and assuming it was because they were Australian) the book ‘felt’ like it took place in the late 60s or 70s. It wasn’t until the end of the novel when one of the characters makes a passing mention of AIDS that I looked at the copyright. This could be because the book takes place from Hester Harper’s p.o.v. and she’s a queer sort of bird but old fashioned in her way.

It’s very … Australian. In a way I don’t have the words to describe. Some books simply feel like the countries they were written in. Some books are American or English or Australian. There’s an Oz sensibility about it. And also a slightly English. Perhaps it’s the ‘single, eccentric woman living in the countryside giving no cares’ that rings the English bell for me.

That’s not a criticism (the Australian thing, I mean); it simply is what it is. If you’ve never read Australian books before this may seem sparse or if you haven’t liked other ones you probably won’t like this one but I enjoyed it. Hester Harper is a fully-formed character and the reader gets to know her, warts and all. She is stubborn. And, ultimately, a very lonely person. Her loneliness makes her blind and blind people do stupid things.

This is a satisfying, but not uplifting read.

I give this 4/5 but if you’re looking for straight-forward answers or a happy ending keep driving.

My next post will be about the similarities and differences between the source material and the film. Needless to say, this didn’t clear up much for me, but as a fan of the film, I’m glad I read it. It also stands on its own as a novel.


The Winter Family

by V. L. Craven

The Winter Family

In the final days of the Civil War Quentin Ross (who grew up wetting his bed and pulling the wings off flies) is sent off by General Sherman on a mission. Ross puts together a small band of people who have a, shall we say, tenuous  connection with morality and set off. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they’re wanted for desertion.

In the wake of the war, the Klan is formed in the South and several members of the gang hire themselves out to combat them. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they have to split up to save their lives.

Luckily, this was in the early days of the Union. There were huge swathes of uncharted land to get lost in. Violence-loving thugs and those with nothing to lose lead by two sociopaths could easily get lost.

Then came the Chicago election of 1872. The Republicans had held the city forever but the Democrats were beginning to organise. All the working-class people and the various ethnicities–the Irish, German, Polish, etc, were coming together in order to face the rich Republicans. President Grant has promised the gang pardons if they help maintain order on election day.

Except Augustus Winter (sociopath number two of the group) his brand of violence was beyond the pale. He was not up for pardon and he was not invited to Chicago.

So the gang is reunited in Chicago–Winter finds out, of course–and it wouldn’t be a Winter Family reunion without copious amounts of violence. Once again with the unfortunate decisions and having to split up.

Eventually they wind up coming back together in Oklahoma in 1891 for the big showdown with their arch-nemesis, Matt Shakespeare, brother of one of their former members.

The main events of the book take place in Georgia 1864, Chicago 1872, Phoenix 1881 and Oklahoma 1891. Between each section are summations of what was happening in American history and what the characters did while they were apart. This could feel a little disjointed, though the narrative device is understandable because otherwise the book would have been 2,000 pages long.

The Winter Family is about race and violence and what really lives in the hearts of men. It’s well-written and was difficult to put down and it covers a vast area both geographically and historically–Jackman definitely did his research–I learned a lot about parts of American history that wasn’t covered at school.

Overall I’d give The Winter Family 4/5.

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


The Devil’s Detective

by V. L. Craven

Devils Detective US

Hell, present day.

Thomas Fool has been sent to escort a delegation from Heaven for the periodic Elevations. Some souls are going to be released up to salvation, which is occasionally visible through the dark clouds always shifting above Hell.

Fool is one of the Eternal Damned City’s three Information Men–a detective. He and his colleagues investigate crimes against humans and demons alike. Or they’re supposed to. But Hell is wide and they’re only three and no one really cares. No one really expects them to solve anything.

Except for the canisters marked with blue ribbons.

You see, their assignments arrive in their rooms in pneumatic tubes like banks (Hell is extremely similar to Earth only much, much filthier and with demons) and the canisters are wrapped in ribbons. Most ribbons are red and the parchments within can safely be stamped DNI (Do Not Investigate) and returned to the tube.

Blue ribbons must be looked into, however.

The day the Heavenly delegation arrives, which consists of Adam, a beatific fellow, Balthasar, of the old school who misses the way Hell used to be run with the lakes of fire–think Dante, and an archive and scribe for assistants, a blue-ribbon-wrapped canister arrives and things get chaotic even for Hell.

A human was killed–this happens all the time, so what–but his soul was removed afterward. Only something ancient, evil and very, very powerful could do such a thing.

We’re talking about the sort of ancient and evil and powerful that frightens the present-day demons of Hell.

The Bureaucracy who runs Hell (ancient demons) want answers enough they’re willing to put their trust and resources in a mere human.

They’re also rather curious about something that used to be a human, but who is now known as The Man of Plants and Flowers. He’s become one with the flora and fauna of the underworld and this is threatening, as he can no longer be quantified as human or demon.

Fool’s assignment is to find out what’s eating souls and what The Man is, exactly. This assignment will take him through the worst and worst-er parts of Hell. (There are no good parts just less-terrible.) He will come face-to-face with an array of types of demons.

On his quest to discover the truth, Fool will also find out just who he really is.

Devils Detective UK

The Devil’s Detective takes place in a fully-realised Hell. Unsworth’s gift of description and atmosphere are vivid and creative. The reader learns about the darkest areas of perdition along with Fool and walks alongside him into some chilling situations.

Things are a-changin’ in Hell and we get to come along for the ride.

And the ending was great.

Well-written, dark fantasy, great fun. 5/5


Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

by V. L. Craven

Bad Behavior

The characters in Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories Bad Behavior are unlikeable across the board. The stories themselves are snapshots of humanity–warts and all.

Mostly warts, really.

All of the stories are of deeply flawed humans, many using their fellow humans for their own needs, whether those needs be sexual (more than one story featured BDSM practices and prostitution) or emotional. Gaitskill has an impressive eye for detail.

As mentioned yesterday, one of the stories in this collection, ‘Secretary’, is the source material for the film Secretary. It’s one of the few times a film vastly improved upon the original piece, as the story version of the secretary (Debbie in the story/Lee in the film) was mostly unsympathetic. And the lawyer (unnamed in the story, E. Edward Grey in the film) wasn’t as fleshed out in the story.

Something about it reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates’ outstanding Them, though I can’t quite put my finger on what it was. Perhaps the level of detail and the dirty reality of the characters’ lives.

The stories all seems to link into one another to the degree I kept expecting characters to cross paths with characters from other stories.

This is not a collection of happy stories about happy people or happy endings, or even endings that wrap up things neatly, but if that’s your cup of tea (as it is mine) then I can recommend this one. 4/5.


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.]


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.]


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.]

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