Autodidact: self-taught

Mar
04
2015

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.

Feb
11
2015

Conversations with Spirits

by V. L. Craven

Conversations with Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

This mustache believed in fairies.

This mustache believed in fairies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
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.]

Dec
14
2014

Alice in Wonderland

by V. L. Craven

Alice in Wonderland Penguin Clothbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice teeeee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Tenniel

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

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

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

Alice Tenniel Tea party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VladStudio also has some Alice themed wallpapers.

I particularly enjoy:

Cheshire Kitten

Cheshire Kitten by Vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

Dec
12
2014

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

 

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

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

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

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

No one told her that, though.

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

Asylum Red Crayon

image from asylumrevue.tumblr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

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

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

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

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

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

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

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

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

Asylum Diary pages

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

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

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

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

Asylum Lithium

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

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

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

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

Oct
24
2014

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

by V. L. Craven

Forgers dust jacket

 

Rare book collector, Adam Diehl, is found in his secluded home, his hands severed, his books and papers in disarray. Upon inspection, it appears he was a forger of long-dead author’s signatures, which would increase the price of already valuable books many times over. Among the suspects are his sister’s boyfriend, Will, who had been a prolific and talented forger and who is also our narrator.

Meghan, the deceased’s sister and protagonist’s girlfriend, is also in the book trade, as she owns an independent bookshop in Manhattan. She found out about Will’s little hobby along with the rest of the world and stuck by him as he paid his penance. She’s the best thing Will has ever had in his life, which is why, when someone starts threatening him, using Arthur Conan Doyle’s handwriting, no less, he keeps it a secret, in an effort to protect her.

He doesn’t know who’s sending the threats nor what they want nor why they want it, all he knows is he’ll do what needs doing in order to keep safe the one bit of happiness he has, and to keep the promise he’s made to Meghan, which is that he’d stay out of the the forging game. But someone is trying to force his hand.

On the surface this book should have been right up my street–it’s about the book world and I worked in independent bookshops for years–but it fell a little flat. The main character was a criminal, but not a very interesting one. He kept saying how solid his relationship was with Meghan and how they fell for one another at first sight, but I didn’t feel it. That could be because Will wasn’t a real person–at one point he talks about forgers also forging who they are and not being true humans, which I interpreted as a type of sociopathy. He definitely has that flat affect going on and not seeming to really engage with the world, only being concerned with protecting his own hide, as well as being close to only one person. I definitely don’t need to like a character–any of the characters of a novel, really–but they do need to be interesting. Will wasn’t.

Writing-wise it was better than most books out there, but it wasn’t up to par with Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, which was excellent. The text suffered from ‘had I known-itis’, which is where the narrator kept telling us that things were about to get a lot worse or that his bubble of happiness was to be short-lived. It’s something of which lesser authors are often guilty but I found it surprising in this author.

The plot was what kept me reading–needing to know who did it and what was going to happen next, which is why I read it in two days. It moved at a clip, which is what you want in a thriller. I didn’t know where things were going and, though I worked out some things before the end, I still didn’t know the particulars.

I would recommend this one to fans of John Dunning’s Bookman series and people interested in literary thrillers like Matthew Pearl’s books. 4/5 stars.

[I was given a free copy of this book to review.]

Oct
17
2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven

Ghostwritten

The story begins in Okinawa with Quasar, a member of a doomsday cult, who has released a nerve agent in a subway in Tokyo and is now attempting to keep from being captured. He’s following orders from His Serendipity, a man who professes the abilities of teleportation amongst others. The doomsday in question is a comet that will be colliding with Earth in a few months. It will be up to Quasar and the other enlightened ones to rebuild society.

From there we move to Tokyo and a young jazz enthusiast experiencing his first love, then to Hong Kong where a financial lawyer’s illegal activities are catching up with him, then to Holy Mountain in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, Cape Clear Island (Ireland), Night Train (a radio show based in NYC) and finally the Underground.

Each section appears to be unrelated to the others, but characters from sections before makes an appearance in the current section until we get a clear view of the plot and the fate of characters from other parts. His characters often make terrible choices, but those choices make sense in their minds and to us, being there with them.

Ghostwritten is David Mitchell’s debut novel and it’s impressive in its beauty and complexity but also simplicity. Each section/character is completely believable, even when that character isn’t an actual person.  The section in Mongolia is told from a disembodied spirit that moves from person-to-person through touch. And Night Train concerns an AI obeying Asimov’s rules.

The characters are the stars, to my mind, the plot is interesting and I did want to know what was going to happen, but what person Mitchell was going to introduce next and how utterly real they were going to be was what I was most intrigued by. How was he going to blow my mind next?

I’ve read his Black Swan Green and 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, both of which are completely different from this one and one another. The only thing all three have in common are a deftness with the English language readers don’t see every day, unpredictable plots and fully-formed characters. If I’d read the three books without knowing the author I wouldn’t have guessed they were written by the same person, which isn’t something you can say about many authors–that depth of imagination and versatility is rare.

Very highly recommended. 5/5

Aug
22
2014

A Study in Scarlet

by V. L. Craven

A Study in Scarlet

I’ve recently undertaken to read all of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories in chronological order.

The first is the novel A Study in Scarlet, (1886) wherein a doctor who has been through hell after being injured in the military decides to rejoin life and needs to find a flatmate in order to remain in London. He’s introduced to Sherlock Holmes—an unusual sort, but compatible in domestic affairs—and they go in on a flat together.

Odd sorts from all strata of society show up at all times of the day and night, much to Dr Watson’s bemusement, until Holmes explains that he’s a consulting detective. He helps people with problems the police can’t or won’t handle.

Speaking of the police, Holmes is summoned by Tobias Gregson and Mr Lestrade of Scotland Yard to assist on a case. Gregson and Lestrade are in constant competition to be the better detective, which Holmes lets them get on with whilst he continues his investigations.

In brief, an American man is found dead in an abandoned house—apparently murdered, but with no visible wounds. There is blood on the scene, but it’s not from the victim—and it has been used to write the letters RACHE.

The reader is introduced to Sherlock Holmes through John Watson’s point of view, who finds him intriguing, as one would do. In this first novel we learn about Holmes’ general approach to life and how his mind works.

The book happens in two sections—the first taking place in the present day (that being 1886) and the second section going back several decades to explain how the American man came to be on the floor of an abandoned house in London. The second section was a surprise—I’d expected to remain in Victorian England the entire time, so to spend quite some time in a very different climate was something of a shock.  To have that very different climate be populated with Mormons… well… I thought some errant pages had made their way into my copy. Trust Conan Doyle, though.

Still, it was excellently written and intriguing. I absolutely recommend it for fans of Victorian literature or detective fiction. Or that show with the guy with the cheekbones and the Hobbit.

Jul
11
2014

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

by V. L. Craven

S. 001

S. is the name of the book that you purchase, which is in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped. The book in the slipcase, however, is titled The Ship of Theseus and is purportedly by ‘V.M. Straka’. It looks like a library book from the 50s or 60s completely with stamps and the paper even looks properly aged. A friend of mine (dragornaked89) pointed out the book doesn’t smell old, though, so it wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was still a marvel in printing. (Particularly for $35US.)

Part of the mind-bogglingness of the book is attention to detail. There’s a conversation being carried out in the margins between two university students—a male and a female. The book is left in the library for the other to pick up and leave further comments on both what they’re reading and what’s going on in their lives. The book is read three times by the characters (you only read it once) and it’s easy to tell by the handwriting and pen or pencil used which pass you’re reading. (It sounds complicated but I promise it’s not.)

And there are all sorts of bits and bobs between the pages—photographs and letters and hand-drawn maps on napkins and postcards that only add to the realism. Pro tip: I found the code wheel that was meant to be used right from the start near the end of my reading—it had got stuck to the inside of the back cover so I didn’t get to play along with some of the code-breaking. Check the inside of your back cover.

It's that round thing. It was hiding from me.

It’s that round thing. It was hiding from me.

The book, The Ship of Theseus reminds me of Nabokov in a way. That story is interesting on its own—a sort of nowhere but possibly European dream-state novel. I would like to discuss it specifically with anyone who’s read the book. I have some ideas of what certain elements represented but I’d like to discuss it with other people.

The overarching theme of the entire work is the question of identity and what it is—what defines us. This is embodied in S., who has amnesia and is trying to figure out who is he, much like the students—an undergrad nearly finished with a degree she took to make her parents happy but now doesn’t know what to do with her life; and a grad student studying Straka whose work has been taken from him, leaving him with nothing to show for his years of scholarship. Then V.M. Straka may or may not be a real person but whomever or whatever it was that wrote several incredible books still made a huge contribution to the world of literature—so does it matter if he was real?

Sep
13
2013

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

by V. L. Craven

Ghost Story

The Chowder Society–a group of older men who tell one another ghost stories–is having a bit of a problem that may or may not be supernatural in nature. Or they could all be going mad. Either way, a year after the mysterious death of one of their members, another dies, also mysteriously. In other parts of their small, New England town, animals are being killed in inexplicable ways–completely drained of blood. Some say it’s aliens. Others say it’s a ne’er-do-well in town.

The Society invites the nephew of the first of their number to die–a writer–to perhaps help sort out what’s going on. He tries to do so, but in the process he uncovers a secret the close-knit group thought they’d buried decades ago.

Ghost Story 2

Straub’s descriptions are incredible and the story is multi-layered, the characters are well-rounded and believable. Ghost Story is the sort of novel that can be considered horror in the strictest sense, but I would recommend it to anyone. It’s the sort of book you want to read by candlelight with a mug of hot cocoa by your side.

It’s an excellent story for fans of American Horror Story looking for something to tide them over until the new series begins next month, as it’s spooky as hell and takes place over several generations. There’s something else going on in this one that is also very AHS, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

It’s also excellent for people in parts of the world where it’s currently ridiculously hot, as it takes place during a very snowy winter in New England. I was reading a chapter that took place during a snow storm and had to take the dog out and was genuinely surprised by the oven-like blast of hot air that hit me in the face upon opening the door.

The book was originally published in 1979 and a film adaptation was released in 1981. I shall be reviewing the film version next Thursday. See you then.

Jul
19
2013

Freelancing and Notes from the Past

by V. L. Craven

As my regular readers know, Friday is book review day, but I’m currently wrestling with the side effects of some new medication–mainly the fact that my eyes want to be closed all the time–and launching a comic with my husband. Which is semi-autobiographical and very fun. Writing a comic is far more difficult than I would have ever thought.

Speaking of writing, I’m also starting to freelance. So if you have writing that needs doing and would like to give me filthy lucre for doing so, please see my author site for info or email me at my freelance email .

VLCraven.com Header

See how classy? Because I am classy & will write classy things for you. Or not. Your call.

For the above reasons, this week’s book review is notes from a previous blog that is no longer easy to find on the internet. The notes are still relevant, as books worth reading are still books worth reading. The original post date was September 27, 2006.

Here we go:

Art of Murder I’ve finished The Art of Murder , which held my interest, but felt a bit forced at the end. I’m a notorious end-niggler (it’s not as dirty as it sounds) so it’s probably just me. If you enjoyed Never Let Me Go I highly recommend this, which I’ve recently discovered is called speculative fiction. Making History by Stephen Fry is another (excellent) example of this type. If you have read any of these three you should try the others.

In classic fashion, I picked up a book fresh out of the Baker and Taylor box (rather than one of the, you know, thousand or so I have at home I haven’t read). It’s Al Franken’s The Truth (with Jokes) which is exactly what I thought it would be: amusing, infuriating and depressing. I usually don’t read current event/political books because politics annoy/bore me–it’s amazing how something can be simultaneously boring as hell and annoying as shit, no?–but I do enjoy Mr Franken’s dry wit. I figured something amusing would keep me reading.

Meaning of Night cover And I’ve hit a wall. Every reader goes through it. Nothing compels you. It’s frustrating, I must say. Bizarrely, I’m just not in the mood for Victorian fiction so I’ve set aside The Meaning of Night because I’m tired of feeling guilty for not reading it. I’m no longer going to feel guilty, because it’s just not the right time for me. We’re in different places, you know? We should take some time off and maybe try again later… It really isn’t you, you’re like The Alienist , which I loved, you have all sorts of things I like about Victorian fiction, your pages even feel nice. For whatever reason, it simply isn’t happening for me right now. I’m truly sorry. Don’t give up on me.

End of post.

Clearly, I recovered from my reading slump, thank goodness, or this blog would have never been created. Next week, I promise a new book review if I have to sell my soul to the devil to make it happen.

I also dedicate all the work I’ve done today to Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans. I’ve accomplished quite a bit today and it’s about 35% love of writing and 65% these babies .

May
23
2013

Excuse Me, is It 1880 Outside?

by V. L. Craven

I spent my three-day weekend cleaning. [Labour Day weekend, which is sort of the unofficial end of summer and one of the few bank holidays in the States.] But now that my house is practically immaculate I can really get some reading and commonplacing done. Currently reading The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Dalhquist, which is a steampunky sort of Victorian tome. I’m not very far in, but I’m enjoying the various points of view–I do like it when novels are told by different characters. The novel is sprawling and intriguing and all those good things, but it could do with a little editing.

Also still reading and loving Great Expectations and My Wars Are Laid Away in Books , which is a biography of Emily Dickinson. I read Tom Bedlam by George Hagen last week and enjoyed it very much–it was quite Dickensian. It’s rather Victorian around my house these days–it’s interesting how you occasionally get into reading … not ‘rut’ really, just when you wind up unintentionally reading quite a few books in a similar vein. Or perhaps that only happens to me.

[This is a post from a previous blog. Original post date: 4 September 2007]

May
17
2013

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

by V. L. Craven

  Graveyard Book cover

Title and author: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean.

Genre: Fantasy fiction suitable for teens but equally enjoyable for adults.

What led you to pick up the book? It had ‘Neil Gaiman’ written on the cover.

Summarize the plot without revealing the ending . One night a man named Jack breaks into a house and kills an entire family…nearly. A toddler escapes and winds up in the cemetery at the end of the road, where he is taken in and raised by the resident Dead.

Graveyard Book mousepad from Neverwhere.net by Kendra Stout

This is a Graveyard Book mousepad from Neverwhere.net. It’s designed by Kendra Stout and it’s neat.

What did you like most?  Learning what ‘life’ is like for the Dead and what abilities they have. His relationship with Silas, his father figure, was touching. I also liked that the reader was left to work out the… race? of one characters–Gaiman knows his readers are intelligent.

What did you dislike?  That there wasn’t enough of it.

Graveyard Book illustration by Dave McKean

Graveyard Book illustration by Dave McKean

Thoughts on the main character : Each chapter has Bod (short for Nobody Owens) a few years older so we get to see his progression towards adulthood, which felt true.

Share a favourite scene.  The scene beyond the ghoul gate (Ghulheim) was particularly inventive–it put me in mind of Neverwhere. The bizarre physics and characters were pure Gaiman. The danse macabray chapter was great fun, as well. There was a suspense as to where the on Earth the chapter was going and why.

Ghulheim

Ghulheim — (poss. by Simon Dalton)

Opinion on the ending. It worked and didn’t bring a tear to my eye at all. Nope.

Overall rating: 10/10. If you’re a Gaiman fan and haven’t read it because it’s ‘for kids’ or something, read it anyway.

Jan
25
2013

Poe & Pearl, The Beginning of an Obsession

by V. L. Craven

It's a raven reading a book! When I was twelve, we had to memorise a poem for English class and the teacher said if someone chose ‘The Raven’ they’d automatically get 100 percent. I was on it. It was a few months after I’d realised wearing all black meant never having to think about clothes reciting the entire poem–the class growing more incredulous with every stanza–solidified my status as creepy weirdo (now it’d be ‘goth’, I’m sure).

Aside from the grade (I got a 99 because I didn’t knock on the side of the podium when the titular bird did), I loved the atmosphere of the poem and carried around the book it was in [see the cover to the right] everywhere for at least a year like some sort of literary safety blanket. I may have been some sort of macabre freak who read too much, but Poe was on my side! My favourites were the gloomier stories (Usher, Red Death, and Silence: A Fable were my favourites). If it didn’t look like someone was going to go mad, die of some unnamed disease or just die horribly some other way I quickly lost interest.

I did reports on short stories in class the following two years (‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’) and freaked my classmates right out. It was brilliant. The second year we had to do something creative based on the story, so I made up an advert where you could buy tickets to the masque. I was a fun teenager.

The Poe Shadow Flash forward many years, and other macabre authors, and I came across Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow , which hypothesizes about the events of Poe’s final days. [Incidentally, I picked it up because I’d loved Pearl’s The Dante Club . You should read it. It’s very good.] While writing this post, I came upon a page on Pearl’s website with bonus content for his novels. Now I want to re-read the book, and I may do once I’ve finished the two Poe bios I’m reading.

Reading Pearl’s book reminded me of the man who’d started me on my journey into the dark corners of literature and I picked up (read: got from Amazon  for free) all five volumes of Poe’s fiction. I’ve now read all of them and my favourite quotes are  here . I’m still adding some, but that’s a good portion.

Though I still prefer his horror stories, I can now appreciate his descriptions of nature in ‘The Landscape Garden’ and Arnheim, as well as find the humour in ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’ and ‘The Angel of the Odd’ amongst others.

Some of his short pieces were baffling, however, and I found  this Wikipedia page with information on most of his short fiction to be very useful.

Once through the man’s work, I wanted more and began looking for novels and stories that featured Poe as a character. I’ll begin reviewing those next week.

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