Autodidact: self-taught


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


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by vladstudio

by vladstudio


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

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.


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.]


Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven


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


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.


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?


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.


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 . 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 .


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]


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 by Kendra Stout

This is a Graveyard Book mousepad from 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 — (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.


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.


The Trial of True Love

by V. L. Craven

Once again, William Nicholson has written a book that makes my mind spin. He wrote Shadowlands as well as a truly excellent, philosophical novel called The Society of Others . His books are the type where it seems he’s telling a simple story, but there are layers upon layers of other things happening. The one I’m reading now focuses on love, but seems to me to address any feeling people have at all.

I’m currently reading The Trial of True Love (about halfway through) and it’s made me consider the times I’ve thought I was in love with someone. Looking back, I would now term it ‘obsessed’ or that I was bored with my life and needed something to focus on and so was in the frame of mind that would allow me to pick out some random woman and say I was in love with her. If she doesn’t return the love that’s even better, as I didn’t really want a relationship–I just wanted something to obsess over–and it’s more romantic if it’s unrequited. Then you get to suffer for your love.

The book is about a writer who is writing a book about true love and love at first site. He’s thirty, broke and has never been in love. While working on the book, he falls into love at first site, which he takes to be a coincidence. I think it’s that he was thinking about it and writing about it and so he wanted to experience it and so did. It’s written in first person, so to hear him talk about the way he feels about this woman reminds me of how I ‘felt’ about one woman in particular. I put that in quotes because I had convinced myself I loved her and would do anything she asked, but that’s not what was happening in reality.

Another book I’m reading right now [Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert] addresses this sort of thing—how we define emotions we’ve experienced in the past. What is the true emotion? What we feel at any moment, which is influenced by if we’ve eaten/got enough sleep/our childhoods/our cultural background or how we view those emotions two days or a month or a decade later, when we can see the picture most clearly? I cannot remember if I was aware that I was lying to myself—I don’t believe I was. I recently found a large notebook’s worth of papers devoted to this woman. If she’d’ve returned the sentiment, it would have been romantic, but when it’s one-sided it’s creepy.

This also reminds me of the times men have told me they loved me when they didn’t really know me. One man was particularly adamant and we talking to one another enough (I never spoke to my inamorata) that I heard his side of things enough to see that he’d never accept that I simply didn’t love him. He seemed to take it that I was intentionally trying to be alone and that if I’d only try we’d be happy for ever. His ‘love’ for me was based purely in his mind, as my ‘love’ was. Even though he and I interacted and I had no real contact with the woman I was enamoured with I think our experiences were the same. I just knew if I had the chance she’d realise we were meant to be together. Ironically, these two experiences, which lasted several years, over-lapped by a considerable time and I did not see the similarities. We are blind to our own ironies, I believe.

Back to the novel, the protagonist (in his bid to get this woman to let him into her world) has explained to her why he believes in true love (she does not) and why he believes he could meet his true love and never stray. He says that true love is just that. Love that has to do with truth. His true love would know everything there is to know about him and still love him and if he were to have an affair he’d have to tell his wife about that affair to keep their love anchored in truth, which would be unthinkable. I find that idea simple yet interesting. Do the people who cheat NOT believe in true love—do they believe in keeping secrets from the person to whom they are supposed to be closest?

Personally, I really lucked out in finding someone who is my best friend and got to know that person over a long period of time. It wasn’t a being-struck-by-lightning sort of thing, but from my own experience, while being struck by lightning is dramatic and makes every second of every day beautiful or terrible it’s also painful as hell and one is never quite the same as before and not in a good way.

[I found this when going through some old files. It must have been written in May/June 2006, but I thought it was worth posting.]


The Monk Covers

by V. L. Craven

A great book for October is Matthew Lewis The Monk . It’s attributed with being the first Gothic novel, and it’s a classic in its own right. It has the best ending of any book I’ve yet read.

It was written in 1796, before the author was twenty and over the course of ten weeks. It’s about a man who was found on the steps of a monastery and is thought to be the most virtuous person–completely virtuous in every way–and the story is about his downfall. No one has ever fallen so far. This one is fantastic for fans of Titus Andronicus because there’s rape, incest, murder, sacrifice. Unlike Titus Andronicus, there’s no cannibalism (bummer, I know), but there is a Faustian deal that ends… If you want the ultimate plot spoiler, check the Wikipedia article . I’m just going to say that I have a very dark, cynical sense of humour and the end made me laugh and clap my hands with glee.

Now, this is the cover of the copy I read:

However, when I was looking for that cover, I discovered that several other covers were wonderful. And some…not so much.

This is the image used on the updated Penguin Classics version:

This is the cover of the Broadview Press Edition:

It’s all right. Gloomy and stark, which works.

This one is Vintage Classics:

I’m not usually a huge fan of a lot of red on book covers, but this one is evocative.

Then, the Most Boring Cover for a Rip-Roaring Book goes to…

Oxford World Classics, I would have expected more of you.

I’m going to finish this post with the covers most likely to turn on the people who’d love it most, but turn off the literary types (who would also love it).

The monk on this cover would appear to be a woman…possibly wearing nothing beneath her robe, which is not a super accurate representation of the book…

I don’t remember the character in this next one… Though it could possibly show up in the last few pages. I hope no one’s reading this for the red-eyed scary thing…

This one… I don’t even know… They took a great font and title piece and put… things on it.

And for the vintage, available at the grocery store feel:


Hell With the Lid Taken Off Book One: River of Mud

by V. L. Craven

Lee Adam Herold draws/writes Chopping Block , a wonderfully twisted webcomic about a serial killer named Butch. Butch is a cross between Dahmer, Bates and Gein.

And now he’s written a full-length novel set in Victorian-era Pittsburg (the original spelling). It concerns a young boy who is sent to Hell to run an errand for his uncle, who has made a deal with a demon of some description. The boy has a very rare coin that everyone in the Underworld would love to have.

The writing is superb, the characters engaging and the plot inventive. The atmosphere is palpable. It’s perfect for fans of Dickens, Gaiman and Dante.

This was the first book in the series and I’m looking forward to the next.


Apparently no longer available from Smashwords, you can get it through Barnes and Noble .


Dexter Part Trois

by V. L. Craven

If you’re a fan of the Dexter Morgan books by Jeff Lindsay and you haven’t read the third book then stop reading now.

In the third book we find out that Dexter is possessed by a three-thousand year old demon. Right. I’d like the books so much (prior to this one) because Dexter seemed like a real sociopath. Perhaps Lindsay really needed a third book and this was his only idea–to blame Dexter’s homicidal feelings on an evil that flits from one being to the next, as it has been doing since the dawn of time. Nice. This is up there with explaining Hannibal Lecter away by his childhood trauma. Monsters just need to be monsters. Leave my monsters alone, dammit!

At least Lindsay didn’t make him a normal person by the end, something that looked likely and frightened me more than anything Dex had ever done to anyone. I did like that the intense pain that he had to feel before getting his evil back was the realisation of what “normal” life would be like. It is rather terrifying.

And as a sidebar–The cover should have been my first clue. Just look at that travesty up there. How did we go from this:

and this:

to that thing up there?

[2012 Update: I stopped reading the novels after this one. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I simply lost interest. I still watch the show, which seems to be Lindsay’s way of fixing all of the problems in the books.]

[This post is from a previous blog. Original post date: 7 Dec, 2007]

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