Archive for February, 2012

I Swear I Will Finish This Even If It Kills Me And Brings About The Ending Of The Known Universe

Apparently, Tuesday is officially the most depressing day of the week. It’s too far from last weekend for us to still be happily reminiscing about the fun we had. It’s too far from next weekend for us to start getting excited about it. And there’s still more of the working week left to go than we’ve already got through. Also, if you’re the type who prefers the weekend to pass in a haze of Ecstasy, Tuesday is the day when you can expect the consequent endorphin deficit to really kick in and make you wish you’d never been born.

But hey, it’s not all bad, because we’ve got Chapter Eight of The Vampire Diaries to look forward to! And – after the disgraceful rape-apologist antics of last time – things are actually starting to look up. Maybe I might get to like Stefan and Elena after all!

Okay, I’m making that up. This book is still terrible. But Chapter Eight does have the odd moment which gives me hope. [Note from the future: why do I do this to myself, damn it?]

Elena’s in Stefan’s bathroom, mopping herself up and feeling angry. No, not with Tyler, the man who tried to rape her, because that would, you know, make sense and everything. She’s angry with Stefan, because he saved her from Tyler and didn’t curse anyone out while he did so and still has a wall around him, which is now apparently about the size and shape of the Great Wall of China.

Incidentally, Stefan’s Wall is rapidly becoming more annoying than Bella’s gigantic chest-hole.

If you're looking for a fun way to spend your evening, try googling "chest-hole" without the filters on.

Elena then decides she’s going to be annoying. To achieve this, she goes through some of Stefan’s stuff which he left lying around on his sideboard, and which consists of a dagger, an agate cup, a device which she describes as “a golden sphere with some sort of dial set into it” (over here we like to call that a Watch, but maybe it’s a Stateside thang) and some gold Florentines. I quite like this, because it’s an undeniable truth that when men get home, they all immediately turn out the contents of their pocket onto the nearest flat surface, then wander off again.

Also, it suggests that Stefan is still pointlessly carrying around the coinage of his youth, in the hopeless belief that somewhere, somehow, they will once again become negotiable currency. Bless.

By the way, wouldn’t it utterly suck to be perpetually eighteen? I don’t know about you, but when I was eighteen, I was an idiot. For me, those first few heady years of adulthood were just one long, glorious train-wreck of crappy relationship choices, excruciating moments of social ineptness and poor wardrobe decisions. Admittedly my body was in better shape, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make on the altar of experience.

For example, imagine never accumulating the life-experiences that allow you to see this and cry with laughter.

Anyway, onwards. To make up for the contents-of-a-perpetually-teenaged-Vampire’s-pockets moment of brilliance, we get a stupid conversation between Stefan and Elena. Demonstrating that even girls who remind relatives’ boyfriends of Helen of Troy are capable of having no insight at all into human psychology, Elena makes a big list of all the things she doesn’t like about Stefan, and splurges it out in one gigantic rant.

Things Elena Doesn’t Like About Stefan
1. He saved her without asking her permission first
2. He was in the graveyard without having an adequate explanation
3. He acts as if Elena is some kind of leper
4. She tried to be friendly to him (is that what we’re calling it these days? That strange I-shall-not-rest-until-he-is-mine performance in the graveyard?) and he threw it back in her face
5. He’s snubbed her in public “time after time” (incidental note to any young people reading: do not do this if you want the person in question to be speaking to you afterwards. Nothing annoys people more than being told they’ve done something bad repeatedly)
6. He’s humiliated her at school (I sort of love the implication that humiliating her in other places would have been better in some way)
7. He is only speaking to her because he just saved her life
8. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near her
9. He’s built a wall (again with the walls!)
10. He doesn’t trust anyone
11. He has had the barefaced bloody cheek to apparently fancy Caroline Forbes instead

Considering what just happened, this seems a little harsh.

A good conversation to have at this point
Elena: Thanks for saving me. That was very kind of you. Could you please call the police?
Stefan: I already have, and will be more than happy to be a witness.

In real life, this extensive listing of Stefan’s faults would pretty much guarantee they will never have a relationship. In Vampire World, this leads to Stefan kissing her, and the wall come tumbling down.

I'm hoping this means we never have to hear about Stefan's Wall ever, ever again.

And you know what? We now actually get some plot. Hooray! Unlike “Twilight”, where everything happens in the last fifty pages or so, in this book we’re actually seeing some stuff happening that isn’t just two drippy virgins flouncing around in a meadow and counting each other’s eyelashes. Meredith, Bonnie and Matt’s grudging rescue mission may not have got there in time to drag Tyler off Elena, but they do get to rescue someone called Vicky Bennett, who (in true Hollywood tradition) is glassy-eyed, dirty-faced, inarticulate and in her underwear. Apparently she was attacked by something with eyes while she was making out with Dick, and it was all around them and had eyes, and they couldn’t run, and it had eyes, and it was the same thing that got the tramp under the bridge, and it had eyes.

In a rare but welcome moment of sensible thinking, Meredith insists they take Vicky to a doctor, and since she’s the Vampire-book equivalent of the red-shirt Security Officer on “Star Trek”, that’s probably the last we’ll be seeing of Vicky Bennett.

I want this shirt so much it hurts.

Back in Casa Salvatore, Elena and Stefan are kissing, and I am getting angry again. Here’s a sample from this page-long unrealistic-expectations-fest:

She felt the tender pressure of his lips on hers, and she could hardly bear the sweetness of it. Yes, she thought. Sensation rippled through her like waves on a clear, still pond. She was drowning in it, both the joy she sensed in Stefan and the delicious answering surge in herself.

See, I can still remember my first kiss. It was very nice, and the boy I was kissing was likewise very nice, and I still have a sneaking fondness for the particular cheap aftershave he was wearing at the time. However – and I don’t think we were alone in this – neither of us actually had an orgasm, which is clearly what’s being described here.

And okay, most descriptions of sex and sexual relationships in novels are pretty unrealistic; but isn’t this taking it a little too far? Is it fair to teach impressionable teenage girls that if a boy doesn’t actually get them off with the mere touch of his lips on hers, he’s clearly not the one for them?

Or maybe that long-ago boy and I were just doing it all wrong.

I was actually looking for a some suggestively-shaped lemons, but when I googled "Rude Lemons" and this young lady popped up, I decided she was much better.

But, since it’s nice to end on a positive, I am going to say again that at least this book has a proper plot. When Stefan and Elena wander back in a dreamy, post-coital fashion to Elena’s place, they find everyone else waiting for them, eager to discuss the freaky shit that went down in the graveyard earlier. Admittedly, everyone’s suffering from that strange blindness to the existence of Vampires that exists in all modern Vampire novels; but that’s okay, they’ll get there in the end.

Who could it be? Who’s behind the mysterious deaths / attacks / tramp-drainings? Stefan clearly knows more than he’s letting on, and I am betting it has something to do with that spooky lecherous crow from the first chapter, and that it’s going to be his brother or something [note from the future; yup], but Elena doesn’t care. Stefan kissed her, and everything’s fine, and they’re going to get married in a pretty white church with Meredith and Bonnie for bridesmaids, and go off to California and farm lemons for all eternity.

Reading this book is bad for my soul. I can feel it. What should I be reading instead? Leave me your recommendations as a comment and I promise I’ll read and review them. It doesn’t have to be YA (although YA is good) – just pick a book whose existence you think I ought to be aware of. Over to you…


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Strange but true.

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In Which Everyone Gets Angry About The Wrong Things

I’m starting to wonder if the problem here is that I’m way, waaay too old for this shit. I mean, rationally, of course I’m too old for it, since this is a Young Adult book, and I’m about two decades past young-adulthood. But maybe it’s deeper than just the cynicism of age: maybe the modern age operates to an entirely new set of morals and social codes, and all the stuff I tend to assume is part of the shared human experience doesn’t really matter any more.

Like Chapter Seven of this book, for example.

If you’ve been paying the kind of attention I know I can expect from my wonderful, discerning readers, you’ll remember that C6 saw Elena flouncing out of Prom on the arm of charmless meathead Tyler Smallwood (incidentally, I really, really want his name to be a pun). So naturally, C7 opens with Bonnie, Meredith and Matt deciding what they ought to do about this. How this goes down exposes all kinds of uncomfortable truths about the universe these guys inhabit:

“She went with Tyler Smallwood,” said Meredith. “Matt, are you sure you didn’t hear where they were going?”

Matt shook his head. “I’d say she deserves whatever happens – but it’s my fault too, in a way,” he said bleakly. “I guess we ought to go after her.”

“Leave the dance?” Bonnie said.

Now, let’s be clear. This being a YA Vampire book, I’m in absolutely no doubt that Elena is about to be nearly raped by Tyler [note from the future: sometimes, I’d actually quite like it if my faith wasn’t justified], because thanks to Edward and his Volvo, this is what always happens in YA Vampire books. This entire particular convention is, in and of itself, disturbing beyond words.

But this little exchange is possibly even worse.

Firstly, Meredith clearly knows Tyler Smallwood has form for sexual aggression. No-one asks her to clarify what she’s just suggested, so let’s assume this means this is common knowledge. So why the actual FUCK is he still walking around in the world? Of course, we all know why, and I’ve written about it more seriously here. But if the support of the legal system is too much to hope for (and clearly, it is) is it too much to ask that the people who commit these acts experience some form of social approbium? Specifically, does he have to be welcomed to the Prom?

Letting this man into your party not legal obligation, human race finally realises

And then, Matt steps up to the plate. “I’d say she deserves whatever happens.”

I’d say she deserves whatever happens.

Matt’s supposed to be a nice guy; Mr Average who doesn’t get the girl, but can be counted on in a crisis. I’d say, says Mr Nice Guy, that this girl I’m supposed to be in love with deserves sexual molestation, administered by the Kangaroo Court of Mr Tyler Smallwood, for the crime of liking a boy who isn’t me, and flirting with some other boys who are also not me. Is this really how young nice guys think these days? “I suppose we’d better go after her,” he grudgingly adds. Yes, Matt, I too suppose that you’d better make some sort of effort to save Elena from the known sexual predator in your midst, because that might allow you to make some small recompense to women everywhere for allowing the thought of “She deserves it” to cross your mind. Why don’t you get right on with that, then?

Oh, right; because Bonnie doesn’t want to leave the dance.

Dear God.

Let’s leave this sorry group of individuals and head over to the cemetery, where Elena’s ignoring every instinct in her which is telling her to run away. Tyler proves his meathead credentials by attempting to throw a rock at the moon (srsly), then invites her to “flick my Bic” before desecrating a grave or two. This all combines to make Elena “uneasy”. As Gavin de Becker brilliantly explains in his justly famous book The Gift Of Fear, ignoring genuine fear signals is one of the most dangerous things we can do. Sadly, this is a mistake hundreds of us make every hour, so it’s not fair to tear into Elena for doing the same. Also, what happens to her next is not her fault; it’s Tyler’s fault, and although society says he’ll probably get away with it, he absolutely shouldn’t.

So, after everyone’s fooled around in the cemetery and drawn on the tombstones a bit, Tyler charmlessly detaches his victim from everyone else and takes her off into the bushes to tear the clothes off her. Elena fights back a bit, Tyler’s winning, Stefan does a bit of angsting about how the last time he went to the cemetery he accidentally ate a passing tramp, and then he finally goes charging in to the rescue.

Incidentally, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is much better than “The Vampire Diaries” in every possible way.

Now let’s look at what Stefan says to Tyler while he takes him apart:

“When I first met you, I knew you hadn’t learned any manners,” said Stefan… “But I had no idea that your character was quite so under-developed…a gentleman doesn’t force his company on anyone…he doesn’t insult a woman…and above all, he does not hurt her.”

So on the plus side, Stefan is at least approximating some variety of righteous anger at Tyler’s criminal behaviour. On the very big minus side – the opposite of “gentleman” is not “rapist”.

According to Wikipedia, the definition of “gentleman” is as follows:

“The term gentleman (from Latin gentilis, belonging to a race or gens, and man, cognate with the French word gentilhomme, the Spanish gentilhombre, the Italian gentil uomo or gentiluomo and the Portuguese gentil-homem), in its original and strict signification, denoted a well-educated man of good family and distinction, analogous to the Latin generosus (its invariable translation in English-Latin documents).”

So basically, “gentleman” means you had rich parents, went to school, had some good conversation and knew which fork to use for the fish course. These are mostly good things, or at least things which are not automatically bad. However, when putting together the typical profile of a rapist, “is unable to correctly identify a soup spoon” does not traditionally appear.

This is because rape is not an act of bad manners. Rape is a crime.

Why this matters is because learning how to correctly judge which men are likely to harm us is something of huge importance to all women, everywhere. As we all know, it’s already difficult enough. During our lifetimes, one in five of us will make the wrong call, and be temporarily fooled by one of these wolves in sheep’s clothing. Suggesting that nice, good-looking men with impeccable table manners can’t possibly have malign intentions towards women is stupid and dangerous.

Tyler is a mannerless pig, who thinks that offering a cigarette lighter to Elena and inviting her to “flick my Bic” is a masterpiece of witty sexual badinage. Tyler is also, as subsequent events prove, a rapist. But Fact A does not cause, equate to or in any other way enable us to spot Fact B. It’s perfectly possible to scratch your belly in a restaurant and still understand in the very heart of your being that rape is wrong. It’s perfectly possible to be able to correctly interpret a wine-list and still be a rapist.

I’m glad that Stefan rescues Elena. I’d have preferred a story where Elena gets herself out of trouble by her own efforts, or even a story where Elena listens to what her own best and wisest self is telling her, and runs like hell out of that cemetery before Tyler gets anywhere near her; but I’ll settle for Stefan saving her, in the approved Vampire manner. But if I do nothing else with what was meant to be a light-hearted deconstruction of an entertainingly bad piece of fiction, I’d like to point this out these few simple facts. In this chapter, we see a man tell two women that their friend deserves to be raped, and they don’t challenge him on it. In this chapter, we see a woman who would rather stay at a dance than help protect her best friend from rape, and she never seems to be ashamed. And in this chapter, we see a man seriously suggest that Not Committing Rape is the sole preserve of the gentleman, who was trained from birth in the ways of civilised behaviour.

Here are some alternative things you could do with the £4.66 it would cost you to buy The Vampire Diaries from Amazon:
1. Buy two copies of The Gift Of Fear, by Gavin de Becker – one for you, and one for a good friend.
2. Buy a copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which is a much better read all round.
3. Make a donation to your local Women’s Aid organisation.

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I don’t blame them.

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Miss Marple Was Never This Terrifying

Over the course of fourteen years in Marketing, I worked with a lot of PR executives, from really quite a lot of companies. They came in two basic varieties: young girls who intimidated me by being prettier, slimmer, better-dressed and posher than me; and older women who intimidated me by being richer, tougher, cleverer and with a better car than me. (There were a few men as well, but they had a henpecked look about them and never seemed to last long.)

The factor that united these groups, however, was that I couldn’t get the hang of any of them. I suspect the feeling with was entirely mutual, because – despite all the Darlings and the air-kissing and the biscuits – I was always utterly convinced that they secretly hated me too, for being Northern and scruffily dressed and cynical, and for being the client and therefore being someone they had to be nice to, even though under ordinary circumstances they would just have given me a scornful glance and flounced off to a party in Chelsea.

But – in the same way that my son is fascinated with the Undead levels of Skylanders – I do really quite like watching people like this from a distance. Also, I really really like the works of Agatha Christie. Discovering wonderful blogger Mme Guillotine’s pleasingly 3am review of a book I’d never heard of before, about a horrible PR executive who retires to the country and solves mysteries, was a very good moment.

"Turn your back on me, darling, and I'll kill you."

Plot summary. Agatha Raisin, recently-retired PR wonder-woman, has sold her hugely successful Mayfair PR firm and retired to the annoyingly idyllic Cotswolds village of Carsely. After making a deadly enemy of her next-door neighbour Mrs Barr by employing ruthless recruitment tactics to blatantly steal her cleaning-lady, Agatha decides it’s time to raise her profile by entering the Village quiche-making contest. Since she can’t actually cook, she enters a quiche from the wondrous Quicherie, a chic London delicatessen owned by Mr Economides.

Unfortunately, the quiche doesn’t win (this is because the judge, Mr Cummings-Browne, only ever gives the Quiche prize to his secret squeeze Mrs Cartwright). Even more unfortunately, it turns out to be poisoned. Most unfortunately of all, the person it poisons is Mr Cummings-Browne, who is discovered horribly dead behind the sofa the day after the Quiche contest. Suddenly, Agatha is in the frame for murder. Determined to clear her name and impress all her neighbours with her brilliant crime-solving expertise, Agatha starts poking around in the investigation to see if she can work out what happened.

Almost certainly not deadly.

Having said how much I love Agatha Christie, I should probably say at once that – despite its clear debt to the world and sensibilities of Miss Marple – Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death isn’t much like a Miss Marple book. Christie’s special authorial trick is being cleverer than the reader. She constructs intricate mysteries that you almost never see the solution to (I say “almost never” only because over the course of nearly a hundred books, it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll stumble over the right solution before the last page). M C Beaton’s mystery, by contrast, is pretty un-mysterious. Mr Cummings-Browne was murdered by the person you’d expect to murder him, and for more or less the reason you’d expect. Christie writes detectives who are charming and likeable, clever students of character whose personal eccentricities are more than made up for by their wisdom and kindness. Agatha Raisin is horrible, and motivated entirely by personal benefit.

Nonetheless, Agatha Raisin, in all her nastiness and spite, is what makes this book such a delight.

When it comes to fiction, there are few things more delightful than a really well-written monster. Beaton, on the other hand, reeled me effortlessly in with this particularly excellent description of Agatha in the first chapter:

Agatha was aged fifty-three, with plain brown hair and a plain square face and a stocky figure. Her accent was as Mayfair as could be except in moments of distress or excitement, when the old nasal Birmingham voice of her youth crept through. It helps in public relations to have a certain amount of charm and Agatha had none. She got results by being a sort of soft-cop / hard-cop combination…

When I first read this, I thought, “But, but, you can’t print that, you can’t! That’s so clearly meant to be -” and remembered a long-ago PR foe, whose name I’m not going to mention here because 1) I’m probably wrong and 2) I don’t want to get sued. If you’ve spent any time around the PR industry, you’ll probably have your own real-life analogue for Agatha. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of being fed and patronised by well-dressed people who are pretending to like you, you’ll probably feel a sense of recognition. Agatha, like all the best literary monsters, is our own worst selves; snobby, spiteful, venal and petty, self-interested, self-absorbed but not in the least bit self-aware.

And yet, somehow, despite all this, she’s likeable. Mrs Bloxby, the near-saintly vicar’s wife, likes her. Bill Wong – the amiable British-Chinese detective who breaks all the rules of Detective fiction by being cleverer than Agatha – likes her. Damn it, I like her, even though I roundly hated all the real-life people she reminds me of. (Her neighbours Mrs Barr and Mrs Cummings-Browne both hate her, but they’re awful, so they don’t count.)

Why is it enjoyable to read a story in which a charmless woman solves the murder of a charmless man by his charmless nemesis, in a series of events set in the small, snobby, us-and-them world of an insular Cotswold village? I think the answer must lie in the gleeful pleasure of looking at awful stuff from a distance. In the same way that I loved watching alligators eating the bloated corpse of a hippo on “Nature’s Wild Feast” (but would run a mile from actually being there in person), I love watching Agatha as she rampages around the Carsely, upsetting half the village on a daily basis and not giving a damn about any of it.

The Biologist equivalent of the shockumentary

This isn’t to say “Agatha Raisin” is perfect, because it’s not. While Agatha and Bill are delightful, well-drawn and well-rounded, the minor characters are a bit cardboardy and two-dimensional. The dialogue is wooden in places, and Agatha’s Cowbane-recognition skills strains the reader’s credulity. But the overall result is so charming that you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to forgive it. I can see the Agatha Raisin books attracting the kind of cult following who have in-jokes and code-words and special costumes, and enjoy getting together in hotels for weekends and trading their favourite lines of dialogue. I won’t be one of them, but I’ll certainly be passing several more happy, undemanding hours by reading more in the series.

You can buy “Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death” from Amazon as either a proper book for about a fiver, or a Kindle download for the bargain price of 89p.

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Surprisingly, as it turns out, they’re not too keen on you photographing them either.

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You know how sometimes you’re walking through a garden centre and you see a garden ornament in the shape of, for example, a Meerkat dressed in a Fireman’s coat and helmet? And you stop and look at it for a minute, and wonder what on earth would make anyone buy it?

And then you decide you’re being really uncharitable, because it would be am awfully dull world if we all liked the same stuff? And after all, who’s to say there’s anything objectively wrong with wanting to have a garden ornament in the shape of a Meerkat dressed as a fireman, but only from the waist upwards – leaving its tail and haunches entirely naked and bare?

And then sometimes, you see a garden ornament, and you’re all like –

Truly. Who is there, on this entire frickin’ planet, who would ever, EVER want to own a stone which can unzip a massive scary eyeball so it can look at you from behind the begonias?

Tim prefers to accessorise his garden with adorably Emo zombie-girls, the severed heads of his enemies, and life-sized statues of Johnny Depp.

Just in case you thought this might just be some strange, one-off buying error – like the time I accidentally bought a bright orange batwing jumper made out of nylon wool, under the temporary delusion that it was a brilliantly fashion-forward choice that would win me great kudos at the school disco – there are an entire fixture of these things.

Really. A huge, three-tier rack of disturbingly realistic eyeball stones. Staring out at us from between their unzipped eyelids.

But hey, it’s only an eyeball, right? These stones can look at us, which is certainly pretty awful; but they can’t actually do anything to hurt us. It’s not as if they can unzip a gigantic mouth full of disturbingly white and well-formed –

– teeth.


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