Sunday, 30 November 2008

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

This is another fairly quick read, which I chose because I may well go and see the film and I don't want to repeat what happened with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (where I saw the film before reading the book). I was also hooked, in a giggly way, by a line on the back which described the book as "the thrilling tale of a vampire romance set in high school", which is pretty irresistible. But the actual book was so entrenched in teenage and romance cliches that it never managed to explore what for me was the most interesting part of the story (more on that later).

So, there's a suspiciously beautiful girl (tick), Isabella Swan (interesting name: tick), who even more suspiciously doesn't seem to realise how beautiful she is (tick). Her parents are separated (daughter of a broken home: tick), and she suddenly moves to live with her father in Washington state (emotional and physical upheaval: tick). All the boys at her school immediately fall in love with her and fight over her, but she's intrigued by this uncommonly handsome family, the Cullens, especially the boy Edward Cullen who seems to really hate her. Except of course he doesn't hate her - he's a vampire with super-human powers of strength and speed, who only appears to hate her because he's so overwhelmed by his attraction to her, and, more worryingly, to drinking her blood. Isabella works this all out pretty quickly, but doesn't seem hugely peturbed by the revelation that the supernatural is very much alive and kicking - and we never find out why this doesn't faze her at all, why she accepts happily enough that he's a vampire and so are the rest of his family. (The vampire equivalent of vegetarians, of course, meaning they have given up on human blood to live off animals in an attempt to save their own souls.)

Here the story could get interesting. Edward has never felt such a strong attraction to anyone before, and their early encounters show promising hints of both his physical coldness and his difficulty controlling his appetite. But he deals with this problem fairly easily, so for a large part of the story there isn't actually any real conflict. Only when they run into some less moralistic vampires, and Isabella becomes their prey, does the tension mount - but even then, I didn't find the action as gripping as I could, partly because it was all so very predictable, with one mildly eyebrow-raising twist. Also - and this is a big problem with the book for me - Isabella got on my nerves, a lot. She can't play sports, she can't even run without falling over, she isn't musical, she's not particularly clever. She's also not particularly nice to her father, mother or her friends, reserving all her spark for Edward. In fact her only distinguishing feature seems to be her beauty and her sense of humour, which - I suspect, like Meyer's - doesn't stretch beyond the odd sarky remark. Such, perhaps, is the American way.

Edward, on the other hand, is so gorgeous and clever and talented and able to run/play sports/ save Isabella from all her troubles/play the piano like a virtuoso that he too got annoying. His "perfectly muscled chest" seemed to crop up a bit too much, without any real exploration of the sexual attraction that Isabella clearly feels, except with romance-laden words like "longing". We don't see enough of his flaws, and in this context I just don't think being a vampire counts as enough of a flaw. Both characters spoke like characters from a bad nineteenth-century novel half the time, always professing how bloody much they love each other, Edward being mildly amused at her other suitors, said suitors being a bit pathetic and not showing any balls ... Essentially, I rather felt that, given a course in literacy and a stack of Mills and Boon, a monkey could have written this book. It is readable, fair enough, and cinematically-written, so it'll probably translate quite well onto the big screen, but I really can't see why this series has become such a bestseller, and rather regret spending my £6.99 on it. Shame.


Monday, 24 November 2008


One thing I thought I might do with this blog is write a review of every book I read (as is probably evident from the entry below). I'm just going to shove a list of books I've read recently on here without reviews - if anyone else has read them then get in touch and tell me what you thought - I love arguing about books!

Saturday by Ian McEwan
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Homer's Odyssey by Simon Armitage
'The Laying on of Hands,' 'The Clothes They Stood Up In' and 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' by Alan Bennett
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

There are more and the list above isn't chronological, but I can't really remember all of them. I'll add some more books as I remember them. Currently I'm reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Also, has anyone else ever seen Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods?


Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop



I read this 1200-page tome relatively quickly, on the recommendation of a friend. It's a fantasy series concentrating largely on the activity of magical humanoids, with various other races making appearances along the way. Characters move between the lands on threads of magic which interweave like roads, and you never see how the non-magic folk, the 'landens', actually live or do anything. Those with magic are called the Blood, and the most powerful possess magical Jewels, of varying colours depending on the strength (Black is the strongest). Anne Bishop has added a strong matriarchal flavour to this: each realm has a Queen, who is served by a circle of males and females, which means that ultimately females are more powerful than males. However, centuries of bitchy in-fighting and power-bloated females means that the Blood have been corrupted, and now the males who have been unfairly subjugated by these villains await the arrival of 'Witch', the 'dream made flesh'. She appears very near the beginning of the first book (which rather diminishes their apparent wait), and is a small, blonde, blue-eyed girl called Jaenelle, who turns out to have phenomenal powers and eventually purges the Blood of its evil taint (which means a mass slaughter, essentially).

One problem Bishop seems to have with this matriarchal premise is that she still portrays many of her female characters as healers and comforters, and almost all male characters as naturally violent, with filthy tempers. This means that most of the magical strength in the books comes from a trio of male characters, two of whom wear Black Jewels: Saeten, the High Lord of Hell; his son Daemon Sadi, the 'Sadist' and seducer of the series; and his other son Lucivar, an expert Eyrien (i.e. winged) warrior, who wears the second most powerful Jewel. I fell instantly in love with Daemon, the pleasure-slave turned Consort of Jaenelle, whose seductive power is everywhere emphasised. I especially liked the mix of feminine and masculine Bishop uses to create a character attractive to both men and women (there are odd prickly hints of an incestuous attractive between Lucivar and Daemon). Lucivar is pretty attractive too, although I couldn't help seeing him as a second-best to Daemon (the latter is characterised as a mirror of his father, whereas Lucivar often seems to have an ill-defined role), and indeed Bishop marries him off to a woman we've never met somewhere between the second and third books (I think), which is emotionally rather a blow for the reader - or at least this reader.

Since the book is dominated by these three, there isn't enough room for the other characters, of which there are A LOT. I found myself horribly confused between many of the minor characters, whose names were often very similar (there's a Lucivar, a Luthvian, a Ladvarian; a Titian and a Tersa, both old ladies; a Hekatah and a Hepsabah; a Karla, a Kartane, a Kaelas, and so on). There isn't a map included, either, so in between the various trips to the 'abyss' (the psychic location of magical power) and the 'Twisted Kingdom' (a physical imaging of madness), it's hard to imagine the physical existence of these places, and Bishop isn't giving much away. I found that there wasn't enough background information on the theory of Craft, the discipline of magic, or the interaction between the caste hierarchy of the realms and which level of Jewel you are allowed to wear. There are shops and shopping and occasionally money, but no real sense of where all these things come from - with the result that the trilogy ended up being rather limited and repetitive. Jaenelle's power is so much greater than that of her enemies, especially when bolstered by Saetan, Daemon and Lucivar, that you never once imagine she could possibly lose the battle against those lesser Queens who want to make her a puppet of their will, and the third book especially is a series of vague attempts at infiltrating this populous and absurdly powerful cluster of heroines and heroes, with predictably little success.

Stylistically, Bishop's prose is readable (apart from the eye-stumbles over all the near-identical names), but similarly limited: she endlessly describes Jaenelle's voice as 'midnight', which stops being neat after the eight-hundredth time. The characters always seem aghast to learn anything of how powerful she is - I wanted to scream at them, 'Haven't you learned to expect the unexpected??' - and always revert to a whispered 'Mother Night' to express surprise. The humour of the interacting characters becomes rather tedious because we're rarely allowed to see enough of the minor characters to warm to them.

I'm afraid the above has turned into a bit of a rant about this series' flaws, but that's mainly because it could have been so good, and ended up so disappointing. The first book is by far the best, with the most varied action and the least tedious repetition about the damages of rape and child abuse, which the other books obsess about (Jaenelle is raped at the end of the first book). One thing I did like is the unashamed inclusion of eroticism, and there's a nice little twist where we realise that Daemon, who has never been physically aroused by a woman until Jaenelle, must in fact be a virgin. If Bishop had been more restrained with the characters and worked on the plotting and the physical existence of her imaginative world, and let the reader see more of what is clearly a political as well as creative mind, then perhaps I wouldn't have been struggling by the end, and I'd be giving the trilogy more than 5.5/10. Read for the ideas rather than their actual crystallisation.


Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Today I went on a quick trip to London to see the Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which was marvellous. Lots of pictures of Susan Sontag, with the beauty that comes with intimacy. I was nearly seduced at the shop by Sontag's book about photography, but in the end bought a couple of postcards not from the exhibition. I wish I could have found a postcard of this Leibowitz picture, however, taken in 1994, of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. I managed to find it on the internet - there are a couple of pictures of her in the nineties with boyfriends, often naked or topless, and this one is just beautiful. It manages to be somehow posed and natural - she's doing her model thing, with that coy look at the camera, but she looks pretty relaxed, as if they're mucking around on a Sunday morning when he's just come back from picking up the papers to find her waiting for him. Or something like that. I'll try and locate the other picture of Moss. She's a complete chameleon in front of a camera, although I don't much like her collaboration with Topshop or her new liking for interviews - she's revealed herself as essentially quite shallow, or at least is adopting that kind of persona to appeal to people who read Glamour and Now! rather than, say, Vogue. More on her later.

Love and respect.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008


As if to add to the below 'Dilemma', I now have an EMAIL from a member of, with the subject 'sorry'. I can't read this email without paying. I've no idea what it might say - I winked at her, so she might be jumping the gun and offering a polite rejection or, since she's Dutch, may be apologising that she doesn't speak English.

I don't want you all to think that this dating website is suddenly the NUMBER ONE BIG ISSUE in my life. But it is pretty damn important. Help!

And along the same lines ...

Today I was at a school in Cambridgeshire again, observing English lessons. At the end of a Year 8 class, we were standing waiting to leave, when a boy asked, 'Are you a boy or a girl?' I was wearing trousers, boots with a slight heel and a rollneck, and I have short hair and am not tremendously big-breasted, so I suppose it's not a totally implausible mistake to make. At any rate, I don't think he was asking it to be rude - as far as I could tell - but seemed genuinely curious. (Actually, it may be that race has something to do with it: he was of Oriental origin, and I spent a month in China last year being stared at by passers-by who couldn't tell whether I was male or female. I think it's along the same lines as Westerners' difficulty, every so often, of mistaking one Chinese person for another, and our inability to pick up on the distinguishing marks of faces that are built differently. I realise 'our' should be in inverted commas: let's not start creating artificial commuities where none exists.)

So, back to the curious boy. I told him I was a girl in a curiously neutral voice, and explained briefly that some girls have short hair. I can't say I was particularly insulted. I'd much rather be the guinea-pig for these kinds of enquiries and set the occasional child on the path to realising that not every female has to be pretty than be affronted and treat the question as rude, which I honestly don't think it is. Perhaps a boy might be insulted at being asked this, but surely that simply proves that he's latently, and however unconsciously, a misogynist?


A Dilemma:

I've been browsing through a dating website called, looking for women. It's really not easy to find women that like women unless you're willing to get into the whole 'scene' and go clubbing, although luckily I've found a group in Cambridge who are rather nice. Anyway, the free membership extends to creating a profile, looking at other people's and 'winking' at them to let them know you approve. To actually contact any of them, you have to pay, the cheapest offer being just under £60 for six months. I'm 21, and that's a lot of money. But, as I'm sure is their intention, I'm being slowly tempted into spending it by the odd wink that comes my way, a couple by some really seriously attractive women. Is it worth it? Is there any chance I'd actually meet someone I really liked? Would the money be better spent on other things?

If anyone has a point of view on this - or, even better, can offer anecdotal reasoning - then please do let me know!

Love and respect.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Kids and blindness

I've been visiting a few schools in the Cambridgeshire area recently to observe lessons. I want to be a teacher and actually being in the classroom is really good fun. However, I still can't believe how many of the kids laughed or made comments about my hair, often to the effect of 'She's a man' or similar. Often these kids were boys with long hair. I really wanted to ask them calmly, 'Haven't you ever seen a woman with short hair? You ought to get out more,' but I guess it's no different to how frequently adults tend to slate people's appearance (often for being so mainstream rather than 'out there', in fact). I was also quite taken aback with what was essentially a form of bigotry amongst these kids, but I suppose you learn how flimsy your prejudices are one step at a time. I certainly have been, so blaming the children would be a bit hypocritical.

Has anyone ever found any fantasy literature with significant homosexual content? I'm not the widest ever reader of decent (non-erotic) fantasy, and I assume it must exist somewhere, but I'm currently trying to write something along these lines, about a made-up society that criminalises homosexuality and executes for it - and how it flourishes in a military school for girls, where all sexual stereotypes are stripped away and the body becomes simply a tool for work and violence, unsexed, streamlined. Of course it's the nature of society to recuperate these challenges to sexual values, and indeed some of the warriors who emerge from the school quickly become mistresses of the males in power - but what about the ones who find ways for their feelings to become acceptable? What if Twelfth Night meets the Taleban? What if, under the blind eyes of the law, the line between female and male can blur?

I'm getting a bit carried away with blurby hooks. But still. I think there are still stories to be told - or perhaps retold - to make people sit up and think. And that's why I'm in the business.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

On a rainy Sunday morning

'All change, please.' If we're talking about what's British and what isn't, this phrase will be familiar to anyone who's travelled on the Tube. What a polite way of saying, 'Right, everybody off this train!' I read over the summer Kate Fox's book Watching the English, a book about English (rather than British) behavioural patterns, especially as related to the class system. Of course she included a section on the English obsession with manners, and it's true that rude people are still one of the biggest sources of everyday fury for many of us, far more than, say, parters who cheat or dictators who commit genocide. I work in a bookshop, which I love most of the time, but occasionally you get people who refuse to believe that the book they want is out of print, or won't accept that their order (placed yesterday) hasn't yet arrived. One man threw a complete fit after the till computer didn't recogise a 3 for 2 offer and the sale had to be put through again. He demanded vouchers and a large discount from our floor manager, who refused politely, upon which he asked for the details of our Head Office to make a formal complaint. It seemed like he was really going to do it, too. This story was told over and over again in the staff room for the rest of the day - no one could believe his nerve, especially since the girl who had served him was quite new and had made a simple mistake, which was explained to him. There is no excuse for rudeness. By all means get a little wearily exasperated - we get frustrated with ourselves sometimes if we slip up - but, to be quite honest, a bad customer is more likely to receive lacklustre customer service than someone who is polite, recognises that staff are only human and our search engines are imperfect, and who is philosophical if we conclude that we can't get hold of a book. We have a statistics area on our computer called 'Sales/Customer Performance', which suggests a little comically that we expect the customers to perform as well as the sales team. This isn't so far from the truth, though, and acting like a human interacting with another human rather than a superior talking to an inferior will reap its own rewards.

Sorry about that little rant - which sounds a little pompous. And to be fair, I occasionally find myself playing intellectual oneupmanship with customers - like a girl, clearly a Cambridge fresher, who bought a copy of Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, which I read as revision for my first-year exams at Oxford. We're supposed to comment on customers' purchases if we can, so I said, 'Oh, I've read this, it's great,' in what I hoped was an affectionate way (towards the book, not the customer). The girl looked wary and her mother looked close to disgusted. Perhaps it was more the idea of an English Oxbridge graduate working in a chain bookshop, but I suppose I could have seemed like I was showing off. Very bad form.

I've forgotten what the original point of this post was. I think I was going to talk about whether or not sexually-active gay men should be allowed to donate blood in the UK, but I realised I hadn't explained the name of my blog at all. I still haven't, really, because this blog isn't going to be any kind of commentary on what makes us British. I think Jon Gaunt's got that covered (albeit in the form of racist, chauvinist nonsense). I like the phrase, and I suppose 'All Change Please' is a good metaphor for what I'd like to see happen to the way we think. We need to get off the train of 'men vs. women', because it has reached the end of the line. A new train will be leaving in a few minutes in the opposite direction, and you are strongly advised to board this train.

Love and respect.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The un-climax of beginning

So, here we go. Despite writing some form of original material every day I have never kept a blog, which seems a bit strange. Perhaps because I've lived in gossip-dominated communities my whole life, and now I'm half in, half out I've realised that I really can't bear gossip, although I suppose it has its function in the creation of community - it's just a shame it has to isolate someone by making them the object, not the participant, of the conversation. Anyway, perhaps I've always felt too uncertain of myself to keep a blog. This doesn't mean I feel any less sure about things now; just I've realised that most people are as inconsistent and whirly in their views as I am.

I suppose a useful way to begin would be to set out some basic things about myself, but I'd rather let it evolve more organically, and not have to summarise 'me' before I begin. I've just returned to this post after watching 'We Are Much Amused' on ITV, the series of comedians performing to celebrate Prince Charles's 60th. Mostly very funny, but I think Stephen K. Amos ought to stop talking about being black. His other material is extremely good - quips he's made on Mock the Week, for instance - and I can't help but feel we'd all forget about his skin colour if he talked about a variety of things, rather than a series of variations on one subject. If he didn't restrict his subject matter so much we might just start to think of him as a very good comedian, rather than wondering what insights he'll have about racism this time.

I have the same thoughts about women's rights and gay rights. It's noticeable that, say, kd lang is often referred to as 'lesbian singer kd lang', whereas male gay celebrities are not marked out in this way. Perhaps this is because lang has spoken quite openly about being gay, and indeed Sandy Toksvig's sexuality is not often mentioned, or Clare Balding's, but frankly I don't think it should necessarily be mentioned at all. You wouldn't refer to Leona Lewis as 'black singer Leona Lewis', would you? It's the same principle - a part of your identity, more or less unchangeable (Michael Jackson being the exception to this rule as he is to many), and as unremarkable as the colour of your hair. That homosexuality is still 'remarked' upon so frequently and with such intrigue - who could forget the lyrics of that infuriating Katie Perry song, 'I kissed a girl ... It felt so wrong, it felt so right'? - suggests that it hasn't yet become any kind of norm.

Saying that, the relatively chilled-out attitude of gossip magazines (at least in this country) towards Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson, who is these days usually referred to as her 'girlfriend' or 'partner' without any flagging-up of their sexuality, is definitely encouraging. Perhaps this great excitement over a fairly public gay relationship will mean that the next time a similar revelation occurs, we'll be a bit less excited, and eventually we won't give a damn whether someone's gay, straight or anywhere in between, or none of the above. Perhaps eventually we'll dispense with the very ideas of 'gay' and 'straight' and 'bi'. I can't help smiling when men say things like, 'I'd go gay for Johnny Depp' (a popular choice for this kind of confession, by the way). It's as if acknowledging that there is a part of your personality which is attracted to the same sex, but doing so whilst highlighting that you're not gay for the moment (and, if you carry on using a celebrity for this kind of statement, you're not likely to 'be' gay in the future) is like a safety valve on sexual drives. 'I'd go gay for Johnny Depp' means that a little part of you, at least, already is gay, but you'd have to be tempted by something seriously covetable before you'd 'make the switch', as it were. Why is it seen as such a big risk? I know guys who are quite happy to admit they fancy other men every so often - and it doesn't make them any less macho, not that they want to conform to such a tightly-regulated social structure as machismo apparently is. (I don't speak from experience but from conversations I've had with males about their relationship with machismo.)

This has ended up being a longer post than I intended. In a way the Stephen K Amos thing turned out to be a rather good starting-point for something I'd quite like to see change in my lifetime, the idea that there should be any kind of norms for men or women, gay or straight people, or any race at all. Most people, even those who aren't racist or homophobic (sometimes especially them) seem to believe that men and women ought to be fundamentally different, and do behave differently and therefore ought to. I'm not disputing that men and women often behave differently and that generalisations can be drawn. But for every rule there are thousands of unremarked exceptions, and we need to realise that statistics are meaningless. Just because something is more common does not mean the less common people can be ignored. And the fact that a norm is does not mean it ought to be. Look at racism. Look at homophobia. Look at sexual inequality. The 20th century has seen spectacular revolutions in patterns of thought in these three areas. I believe the 21st century can push further, into an era where we are not 'men and women', we are simply 'people'.