Reading & Reviewing: The Handmaid’s Tale

Oh, hi.

You may have noticed that the title of this isn’t about my writing journey. And, sadly, it turns out that taking a writing course doesn’t leave that much time for it. As of now I’ve not got any deals offered to me, but will get on it as soon as I have more time.

Given the time constraints, why did I think that now would be a good time to write a blog post? My friends, I have absolutely no idea why I do what I do, and I think the sooner you remember that, the better. (OK, so technically, there was some planning to the timing of this but I’ll get onto that at the end…)

We’re back with another book review, and here I’ll be reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the book I read before the one I’m currently slogging through. Why am I slogging through it? Again, timing. It is in itself an enjoyable read, but y’know…

But what about the one I’m reviewing today? Is it any good? Well, yes. It is. But that conclusion took a while to come to even as I was reading.

The book, or at least its concept, doesn’t need that much introduction. It sort of established itself to me as one the ‘Big Three’ of dystopian fiction that really defined the genre in its modern form, along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – high praise indeed, given how much these books I hadn’t read cemented themselves as defining points in the genre. As of the time of writing this, I still haven’t read the other two, which has probably earned me a little booing from the non-existent crowd of onlookers.

For those not familiar with it, or at least want a more definitive overview, the book’s premise is essentially this:

Set at an undisclosed point in the near future, the United States government has been overthrown in a coup by ‘The Sons of Jacob’, a group of totalitarian Christian fundamentalists, who manage to keep a low profile to begin with, allowing them to slowly chip away at human rights until we enter the world we see at the beginning of the novel. In the newly formed Republic of Gilead, sex is ruthlessly controlled, particularly for women, who are assigned very particular roles in life, denoted by colour-coded dresses. The Handmaids are the caste given the most focus, and is the group our protagonist belongs to, coded by now iconic red dresses. Fertility is apparently a huge problem in this future, and the official policy of The Sons of Jacob is that male infertility does not exist – all fertility problems are the fault of barren wives. To get over this, the Sons have allowed the caste of Handmaids to engage in ritualistic sex with married men (though always with the wives present) in order to produce children that will legally belong to married couple and not the Handmaid – they provide Biblical justification for this as well, with the cases of Abraham and his wife’s handmaid Hagar (Genesis 16:2) and Jacob and both of his wives’ handmaids (Genesis 30:3, 9). I say handmaids, but to be honest, slave is a more accurate term. As is the case with the Handmaids in this story. Our protagonist goes by the name of Offred, although that is not her real name, as her Handmaid status means she’s only designated a name based on the man she’s assigned to (Offred=Of Fred, you see?) We get to see the world of Gilead through her eyes and her thoughts of the world that came before it.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about this book is the nature of our protagonist, who’s birth name is never revealed. She manages to be both incredibly dull, boring, and irritating, and intriguing, engaging and worth reflection at the same time. I say this with the recognition that she is meant to be – and the book’s epilogue backs up this interpretation – something of an unreliable narrator. Not that she’s lying about the situation she’s in, but rather her perspective is limited, self-centred, and to be honest, feels kind of suppressed. The situation she’s in certainly does elicit sympathy, but not much else. You increasingly get the feeling there’s many more characters in this piece you’d much rather hear about – take Moira, Offred’s best friend, who’s story is mostly told in flashbacks. She’s openly gay and was active in feminism before Gilead asserted itself, and that in itself is enough to engage a great deal of interest, and an opportunity for a window into the lives of queer people, feminists (and indeed queer feminists) in countries that suppress women and the LGBT community wholesale, theocracies being no slouch on that front. But instead, we spend most of our time with this rather unassertive straight woman. It’s enough to frustrate you, but then you realise it may well be the point. I mean, this is a frustrating situation, and not everyone has the means, capability or motivation to resist when the need arises, so it’s possible that you were meant to feel that hopelessness too – it’s not as if the hopeless tone isn’t felt throughout the book. In case Gilead thinks you have too much hope, they suppress that too by displaying the hanged corpses of political/religious dissidents, or just those they deem too sinful, in public, changing them daily so you don’t get too used to it.

The fact is, there a lot of characters in this book who’s stories we don’t hear, and that’s because Offred never heard them herself. Once again, the book is driving home the limits of one life and the frustrations that can result when you’re in, to put it mildly, a bit of a pinch.

And the way this was executed actually led to me to repeatedly question how well it was executed. Several times, I changed my mind on how much we’re supposed to like Offred, or how much of an ideal figure she was meant to represent. My final answer is that – she’s not meant to be an ideal at all. She’s meant to represent helplessness and be the victim of her circumstances. What makes me so sure about this? Well, the most obvious answer is that she simply never does anything.

I’ve seen ineffective protagonists before, and sometimes they’ll end up doing a lot of passive things in the time you spend with them (which, given they are the protagonist, is not surprising), but they’ll never make any active contributions to the plot. They’ll almost always have things done for them rather than take initiative themselves. Offred is this in spades. One of the biggest frustrations she offered to me was how many times her thoughts wandered to her bloody ex-husband. Hey, what gives? I thought this was supposed to be a definitive piece of feminist fiction, and all she’s doing is thinking in adoartion about the men who have dictated her life? (Not an entirely inaccurate description the more you read about their past together.) As for having things done for her, it has to be said that it’s not just the men of the story who do that, although they definitely do. Indeed, another one of the biggest frustrations this story had to me was, trying not to give too much away, was when another female character offered a very significant olive branch to Offred and she REFUSED, partially because of the sex she was at that moment having and the weird emotions that resulted from it. I made me want to holler at Offred and tell her how ridiculous she was being, but then again, she’s only human, and sometimes humans will go with their gut instinct in situations, something she readily admits herself. Worth noting is how the women who step beyond their boundaries for Offred (or around her, at least) never get away with it, being condemned either by Offred’s narrative, or by the ruthless powers in control of Gilead. The men who do the same, on the other hand? Nothing. They get away with it more or less perfectly. Again, deliberate? I can’t help but feel so. The story’s epilogue takes place at the end of the 22nd century, where a male historian is giving his opinion of Offred’s life as described in the book, and spends a great deal time speculating on the motivations of the men involved rather than trying to empathize with her.

This book’s frustrations may well be the best thing about it. The fact that I can read a work of feminist fiction and feel that the protagonist is entirely unhelpful, and above all, fails to consistently empathize with many of the women around her (not all the time, but enough) is really telling, and perhaps showcases a condemnation of totalitarian moralizing and thought control far better than descriptions of hanging corpses can, horrific as that is. This book I think was always meant to be a cautionary tale, but one that runs deeper just than the outset of a misogynist dictatorship, right into the veins of our unreliable narrator. This is a metafictional approach I have to salute in how well it was executed. Is it one I’ll keep going back to? It’s unclear – it’s certainly not a feel-good read, but definitely one which will probably light up the mind upon a reread, and, for those into books that challenge your thoughts in different ways with each turn of the page, it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

How accurately have I interpreted it? It’s really difficult to be sure. I want to bear in mind that my maleness may give me something of a blind spot when it comes to determining the aspects of feminist themes throughout, and I have to admit there were a few areas where I feel that my own personal tastes got in the way. For example – we have a heterosexual woman as our protagonist, which will inevitably make me pull faces at various points at the narrative trying and failing to make men attractive. (Spoilers: They’re not.) Not a failing of the book, just an issue of personal taste. And then there’s the whole smoking thing…yeah…I know this was published in 1985, when smoking was a more mainstream thing, but seriously, these characters treat cigarettes like fucking gold dust, using them as almost impervious bribes and reliefs. I utterly detest the smell of cigarette smoke, and am way too traumatized by graphic anti-smoking PIFs I saw as a child to take it up now. Obviously, I’m aware that nicotine addiction is no small thing to overcome, but it would appear as though I’d be difficult to bribe in Gilead.

OK, this brings me the reason for the timing of this post – something of a Real Talk time. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, but I fear its political talking points are very relevant at the moment.

Those who have been following the news know that Alabama has recently passed immensely restrictive anti-abortion laws. The bill in question seeks to prohibit abortion in nearly all cases, including rape and incest, and only makes an exception, as far as I can tell, for when both the survival of the mother and foetus are in question. This bill was inevitably passed by a group of cisgender men, people who’d never have to consider the consequences of this themselves. Ominously, the supporters are even anticipating the bill to be blocked in court (running counter to Roe v. Wade, 1973), but they are wanting to have it pushed to the Supreme Court so a big stink is made about it, and the possibility the newly and highly conservative judges overturning this landmark civil rights case. This possibility sets a worrying precedent that’s already present in the Supreme Court, given Brett Kavanaugh’s dangerous, authoritarian views on presidential power. No wonder Trump fought his corner.

OK, obviously I have my own opinions on the right to an abortion, but for those of you who do consider themselves pro-life, bear in mind that no law, even of this caliber, is going to prevent abortions from happening. All it will do is stop safe abortions from happening, and the kind of backstreet abortions I’m talking about used to be done all the time before people sat up and realized how ridiculously unsafe it was. That’s what we risk returning to if these kind of bills become commonplace – it already happens in countries were abortion is illegal. A 2006 report by the World Health Organization determined that at least 22,800 deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortions annually. Anyone who calls themselves pro-life should definitely take that into account. Also, if you think abortion is akin to murder, does that mean you should investigate every miscarriage that ever took place? Be aware of what you’re agreeing to…

I can’t do a great deal about this where I am, and I know I don’t have a particularly big readership. I don’t even know if any of them reside in the States, but those of you who are reading this, please spread the word, let everyone know that action needs to be taken. Voting in candidates who aren’t awful would be a good start. And for those who are anti-abortion – please consider your position carefully, what it means, and why you hold it. Take the time to learn a little bit more, don’t just react instinctively to the emotive language sold to you – or indeed, Trump’s ridiculous and bare-faced lies on the whole procedure.

Until next time (whenever that might be) everyone stay safe, and remember to fight for your rights.

 

 

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Reading & Reviewing: We Are Okay

It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these – I know I was meant to produce a lengthy series of reviews for books I had been reading en masse for the past however long, but then things happened, including my own writing taking me over. That’s still going on, and I hope to keep you updated on whether I’m nearing the stage of getting my work out there, or, on the other end of the spectrum, am nearing the stage of denouncing it from the rooftops.

Either way, I feel it’s worth writing a particular review for my most recent read. Firstly, because of just how exceptional it is, and secondly, because I was recommending it on Twitter, and after corresponding with the author herself, feel I owe her to actually do this thing properly. So…hi, Nina, if you’re reading…hope you like this review. The pressure’s on a little bit more than with previous reviews, what with the author watching, but hey, it’s still my blog – and it’s not as if I’ve got much negative to comment on.

So – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Not my first exposure to her work. I had previously read You Know Me Well, a collaborative novel between her and David Levithan, and Hold Still, her debut novel. Both I enjoyed, but my appreciation for her writing and recognition of it’s consistent good points reached their zenith in this particular work, and has probably now earned its place as one of my favourite books outright, although given how long my reading list still is, who knows how many favourites I’ll end up having…

So, what’s the story? Well, to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to summarize, and I felt that the blurb, when I first read it, didn’t reveal too much either. The story is narrated by Marin, a young woman who has recently started attending college (or uni, as we Brits might facetiously say) in New York, about as far away from her home in California as you can get. And this is quite deliberate – she feels the need to distance herself from what went on in the days leading up to her departure, to the point that she’s not contacted anyone from her old life for ages. Eventually, her best friend Mabel (who has recently been a bit more than a friend to her), comes to visit, admittedly upon invitation, to spend a few days with her during the Christmas holidays, whilst Mabel is otherwise completely alone at the college dormitories, and upon arriving, is, as you’ll imagine, quite curious to know what exactly happened, which slowly gets revealed to the reader via backstory.

One of the most immediately noticeable strengths about this book (and in fact, a consistent factor in all of LaCour’s books) is how well realized the characters are. I have rambled at length about how much I love characters before, and tend to get annoyed when they seem more like stereotypes, archetypes or tools rather than actual human beings. The author manages to avoid this trap however – even though a good chunk of the consists of just Marin and Mabel interacting with each other, every second of it speaks volumes about them, feels so organic, genuinely makes me think that these are two existing people with a convoluted and not fully worked out relationship to each other. One scene that really makes this stand out is near the beginning, where the two of them are having a conversation in an elevator (or, lift, as we boring Brits say), where the topic of discussion is naturally drawn to Marin’s disappearing act. Both characters manage to convey several emotions at once during this discussion – Marin manages to be both defensive of her decision, whilst simultaneously being guilty and trying to avoid upsetting Mabel even more. Mable, which for her part is even more impressive by not being a POV character, manages to display a subtle anger and hurt and Marin’s decision and radio silence, whilst also feeling joyous at their reunion, and I’m possibly detecting a bit of guilt there too, due to recent events in her life which makes the brewing romance she and Marin had previously now not possible. All of this just a few pages – that is some top quality character-crafting there. This kind of attention to detail can also be seen in LaCour’s minor characters. This is probably shown more in her other books, with a lot more characters to work with, but even here, it can detected. You don’t just know the names of background characters, you know their dog’s name too, their family life, their hobbies. No character is neglected, whether you like them or not, and in this book, I’m sure I do.

The degree by which the major characters’ focus is developed is immensely impressive too –  the reminiscing done by Marin and Mabel is just delightful, for lack of a better word. You simply don’t need to be told how close they are, because it’s evident, not just in Mabel flying 3,000 odd miles to reunite with Marin, but simply by how their conversations flowed in spite of the awkwardness that grew between them. Dissections of literary techniques, existential musings, all of these come naturally to the two of them, and it’s just perfect. These are definitely conversations I can see myself wanting to read frequently.

The connection gets even more personal for me, when I reflect on that I decided, halfway through reading, that Marin probably has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, having recognised a lot of her habits and thought processes in myself, particularly in how her concerns and worries tend to develop and worsen until death is considered a likely outcome, and also how later the worries become darker, and more closely related to her doubting the commitment the people important to her actually have, particularly her grandfather. Oh yeah, probably should have mentioned him…well, keep an eye on him, because he’s pivotal. Perhaps what hit closest to home though was how Marin manages to keep her anxieties under control by having the familiar and mundane recited or presented to her – when her roommate Hannah was there, it was the discussion of her biology course that gave her some comfort. With Mabel, it’s talking about her life, no doubt playing into the nostalgia factor, something that I know I find comforting. Rewatching episodes of TV shows or films that I’ve watched plenty of times before is a key way I relieve my anxiety, to the point that’s it become part of the process.

If I’m allowed to interpret, I’d argue that the main themes of this book are loneliness and the fear of simply not belonging, which becomes more apparent in Marin the more you read on, and seems quite cemented as its central theme by the end. And again, it’s something I know all too well, everything from avoiding the unknown and emotionally painful, to undue guilty, to unrequited love, and something that can be eased with just some of the simplest actions from people you care about which you nevertheless realize was quite an undertaking on their part, done simply for you. Many of us will feel lonely, anxious about our place in the world, and sometimes betrayed very often, and recovery is not always straightforward. But if you have a Mabel in your life, definitely hold onto them.

Do I have any criticisms? Honestly, very little stood out to me as worth criticizing. Even though a good half of the book is told in flashback, explaining how Marin got to where she did, a narrative technique I can easily get tired of, it’s perfectly easy to follow and serves the story well. It helps, I guess, that neither story, either the flashback one, or the one of Marin and Mabel in New York, is boring. In a less talented author’s hands, they could easily have been.

If I were to pick one thing, I’d say the ending seems a little off compared to the rest of the book. Endings are difficult, I know, and for spoiler-related reasons, I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll summarize in saying certain things about it seem a little abrupt, and somewhat different in tone to everything else, and perhaps I’m just saying that because I would have been happy for the book to be many times longer, but who knows.

Point is, this is a brilliant book – I’d highly recommend it to anyone, and it has encouraged me to read LaCour’s other books that I haven’t yet. Nina, I’m quite jealous of your talents, but you do deserve this praise.

Reading & Reviewing: Looking for Alaska

I’ve always found one of the most prominent challenges when it comes to finding entertainment for a young man like myself who’s so in touch with his feminine side that it’s practically the only one there, is that romance doesn’t seem to often be marketed with a male demographic in mind. When it comes to interactions with the opposite sex from the male perspective, sex seems to be the most heavy theme, with emotions coming second, and I think this is a shame. People often underestimate how emotional and sentimental guys can be too, and this goes without mentioning the under-representation of same-sex romances.

As it was, I had to contend myself with your standard female-oriented romances, which I find has less of an effect when I can’t find the object of affection remotely attractive. Perhaps this was why I didn’t take to Levi when I read Fangirl. Or maybe he was just a poorly-written archetype. Perhaps both. The point is, you can probably imagine my intrigue when I happened to stumble across John Green’s debut novel on TV Tropes when looking him up. Avoiding as many spoilers as I could, the summary sounded like something I’d be waiting for for a long time – a YA romantic storyline from the perspective of a guy pursuing a girl…? I suppose it’s a sign of not much else going on that I became pretty hyped before I even got my hands on this book.

Of course it turned out that this was an oversimplification. I knew there would be more to this book, but this was the primary motivator, because I felt that I could connect with the protagonist far more than I was used to. Ironically, the main motivator and storyline wasn’t even there, at least not in it’s expected format, but that isn’t to say I didn’t end up impressed by it or that there wasn’t anything I found both relevant and relatable. A good, important chunk of the plot is kind of crossing into spoiler territory given an event that takes place about halfway through. People who’ve read the book will know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, I’ll try and explain the impact this had without actually giving it away, but I can’t be sure I won’t be too obvious, so proceed at your own risk.

The story concerns a young man named Miles (I say young man, he’s 16, and sometimes I still feel that age) who has the habit of memorizing famous figures’ last words. Inspired by the last words of Francois Rabelais, he decides to attend a boarding school called Culver Creek to seek his own Great Perhaps – essentially opening up himself to potential life experiences. He’s given the nickname Pudge (because he’s really skinny, get it?) by his roommate who goes by the name of The Colonel, and he meets a whole host of interesting characters including the eponymous Alaska. Alaska is a stunning, erratic and extroverted girl whom Pudge falls for pretty much instantly. The many activities the students get up to at Culver Creek include a potentially dangerous prank war, occasionally skipping class, a lot of smoking, and much of this is spearheaded by Alaska, who drinks hard, plays hard and certainly gives reason for Pudge to consider her the key to his Great Perhaps. Does this description of her seem uncomfortably familiar? Well, it should, because this time it’s deliberate.

John Green has gone on record to say that virtually all of his books attempt to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype to some degree, including a gender-flipped example in The Fault in Our Stars. He’s the first to admit he’s not always successful, and in fact one of the reasons he wrote Paper Towns is because he didn’t feel he did a good enough job in this one of taking the archetype down. Given that this is his debut novel, I think it’s quite interesting to see the beginning of his own take on it. Because one of the things I think Green does best is capture the joys, crossroads and particularly in this case, the sheer naivety of youth.

Pudge himself is not the strongest protagonist I’ve seen, but I feel that part of that may well be just how much of an avatar for the reader I find him. He’s not physically adept or overly confident, and he rightly feels awkward due to the socially awkward habits he has. Now, I never used to memorize people’s last words, but believe me I memorized some other weird things. And just like Pudge, the geeky side I had which led some people to believing I was wise beyond my years didn’t stop me from being a slave to my emotions and naively hold people in the highest regard, and this is exactly what Pudge does to Alaska. And this is where the deconstruction comes into play. Pudge begins to view her almost as this angel sent from heaven who’s only role is to guide him to his Great Perhaps, and whilst Alaska is a perfectly friendly and playful individual, being a real person, she of course has her own agenda too, her own history and priorities that don’t seem to register with Pudge straight away. This is so similar to the kind of crushes I’ve had in my past that it’s almost laughable. I too have idealized those who have seemed to have the perfect combination of personality and physical traits, practically creating my own Manic Pixie Dream Girls as I did so. I don’t know whether my inability to see things from their perspectives contributed to how this didn’t always end well for me, but I can see how it would be a factor.

Because despite her being a drinking, smoking, loud-mouthed party girl who decides to steal porn just because and waltz around the campus and play matchmaker and tell a teacher they’re full of shit to their face, Alaska shows plenty of signs that she’s not quite as clear-cut as this. And for the most part, Pudge and the others pretty much ignore these things.

For one thing, she has a boyfriend. Obviously false romantic leads are a huge trope in this kind of genre, but I feel it shows already that there are different priorities to be had here. She’s also quite open about the sex she has, which for female supporting characters, particularly stock ones, is usually considered taboo by people who have this weird idea that women should be prudes or something. In fact, this book was quite often challenged due to the level of sexual references, swearing and drinking that came from it’s teenage characters. This is quite funny to me, because firstly, apparently these moral guardians don’t know anything about teenagers, and secondly, the book I read after this one made Looking for Alaska seem about as profane and sexually explicit as the Mr Men.

But more than this, Alaska’s moods swing quite dramatically. Sometimes she’s her usual MPDG self, other times she’s crying her eyes out over something far beyond Pudge’s control. These are further advanced by rather morbid comments she makes or references to certain things about herself that I won’t go into too much detail about here, which again, is mostly just brushed off by the main cast. They have no reason to concern themselves with the mental well-being of her too much, they seem to decide, because she’s the life and soul of the party. As it happens, Takumi, a friend of Pudge, Alaska and the Colonel’s, is revealed at the end to have a similar kind of crush to the one Pudge nurtures throughout this story, so it’s understandable that he’d have a similar reaction. Now I’m sure those who haven’t read the book among you have probably worked out by now that this neglect is going to come back to bite them later. And…yeah…

Perhaps more curious than that though is that (slight spoiler incoming) Pudge and Alaska don’t actually get together. They closest they get is constant flirting and a make-out session when they were drunk. And, given that Alaska is still with her boyfriend at this point, this raises a few questions…but more on that later. The point is, this again showcases another reality of teen life. If you got together with the very first person you were attracted to and are still happy with them now then…you’re one of a very rare minority and I’m trying my best not to resent you.

Alaska does in fact hook Pudge up with a girl named Lara and there’s a scene where they try oral sex…and haven’t got a clue what to do, which Alaska finds absolutely hilarious, of course. I don’t know, it’s little touches like that which I really appreciate.

I guess I should talk about the other characters too. The Colonel, Pudge’s roommate is good, because it again showcases an understanding of inter-personal relationships. Him and Pudge naturally become very close friends. There’s not really much to elaborate on there, it just feels very real. He’s given a background and a family, and perhaps most importantly serves as something of a voice of reason later on, given that he shares a close, entirely platonic relationship with Alaska and is therefore is the character that sees her as most like a human being. He even has a go at Pudge later for not treating her like a human being. It’s played a little obviously, but I’d argue it’s cause is just.

There are plenty of other more minor characters in the students and staff and Culver Creek, and they’re all pretty distinctive so I don’t really have any complaints there.

Were there issues? Well, yes…perhaps.

See, after finishing this, I found myself thinking that this felt a bit like half a story. But then again, I’m not sure whether or not that was the point. By the end, a great deal doesn’t feel resolved. Whatever Pudge and Alaska had going on certainly wasn’t, and nor was a great deal of Alaska’s character arc. But these all had very good reasons, and like I say, it’s arguable that was all very deliberate. Real life, again, isn’t all about resolution or answers, or even getting to know people you don’t know all that well, because it’s complicated and uncertain and sometimes you’ve just got to work it out as best you can. Maybe what threw me off-guard the most is how a little essay by Pudge at the end tries to resolve certain themes that the novel had, and honestly, sometimes it does feel a little half-arsed. Looking back, I do get what it was going for, talking about people being greater than the sum of their parts, but I dunno, maybe it just didn’t fit the tone as well as it could have done, because it doesn’t resolve as much as maybe you’d want it to. It’s not a very long essay, and I don’t he said as much as he could have. Again, the line between intentional and not is a little blurry. Perhaps it could have benefited from one more rewrite? It’s all a little unclear, because if Green’s intention was to tell half a story based on the limited perspective our inward-focused protagonist had, or if it was to tell a complete story, I’m not sure he did either one perfectly.

All the same, the ideas behind it is all still there, and they are good ideas. But perhaps we should look at this as Green finding his writing style, in terms of structure, character and theme. Given what he has written since, I think he has certainly honed his style, or at least exploited it’s many uses. As debut novels go, it certainly could have been a lot worse. I personally enjoyed it, and may well reread it at some point if I’ve got nothing better to do. At some points it feels like half a story, but given all that he could have written, maybe we could look at that and everything he planned on writing afterwards as another Great Perhaps…?

GOD, I’m so witty. Look at me lazily trying to make a connection to the topic. Yeah, I’ll shut up now…feel free to like and comment and I’ll post…something at some point. Yes, it’s vague, but that’s how my schedule operates…

Reading & Reviewing: Fangirl

So, I haven’t posted one of these in ages, largely out of what could be a sheer sense of apathy, but also because I’ve been trying to sort poorly defined things…

But whatever, if I get some of my old audience (that may have existed?) looking at this again, on top of maybe some new people who’s interest may have been peaked by the new subject matter, that’ll be something. So, this is a start of (hopefully) a series of opinion pieces pertaining to books I’ve read recently.

As a young, feeble, insufferable know-it-all, I used to devour books. Harry Potter is a prominent example – I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve reread (or re-listened to, thanks to my old friend Stephen Fry, who doesn’t know me at all) that particular series. However, as I entered my adolescence, for some reason, I found that my ability to devour books was waning, maybe because people expected me to read more adult books, or, God forbid, more masculine books. Whatever the reason, I found my interest in books wasn’t what it once was, which, for an aspiring writer, is not a great sign. But since I’ve tried to take a more serious approach to getting on with, what I hope are decent literature ideas, it’s probably best I see what other authors have to offer. In no particular pattern, I decided on some books to read, and here I shall be reviewing the first of these, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

I acknowledge first and foremost that as a heterosexual male I’m not the intended primary audience for this book, and also that, being it a little while since I’ve finished this book (hooray for procrastination), my memory on some of the scenes might be a little fuzzy…
That said, the subject matter of this book is what endeared me to it in the first place, so I can’t be that far removed from the audience. Given what I did end up enjoying in this book, I don’t think my issues with it should just be dismissed outright. What did I enjoy? What did I find issue with? I suppose I’d better let you know.

First, a brief summary. The protagonist of this book is a girl named Cath, approaching 18, and starting college (or university, as we say in the UK) with her twin sister Wren. Despite the fact that the two of them have been inseparable since their childhood, they acknowledge the inherent differences between, notably that Cath is more withdrawn, and Wren has the slightly more outgoing, sociable resolve. These differences deepen as they arrive at college, and are separated for the first time, Wren opting for separate rooms to allow herself to develop more, and Cath withdraws even more, mostly sticking to herself and writing the fanfiction that she and Wren had done during their teen years.

Oh yeah, should probably mention that…
Both of them are huge fans of a fictional series called Simon Snow, which, whilst sounding like a rather generic fantasy series, is presented as being a phenomenon that’s an obvious expy of the Harry Potter franchise, quite amusingly so. At the moment at which the story starts, the eighth and final installment of Simon Snow is in the making, and Cath is getting on with her lengthy fanfiction which a lot of her readership consider to be the true eighth installment, or at least should be what the eighth installment should be like, and includes a common selling-point of having the main character (Simon, duh) engaging in a romantic story arc with Baz, the character who’s portrayed within the context of the canon series as a bitter rival. Clearly, Gemma T. Leslie (the author of Simon Snow) hasn’t done her research when it comes to the way fan communities treat rivalries, particularly male ones. Whether it be Harry and Draco, Naruto and Sasuke, or Light and L, there’s going to be love-making in the fanfiction…

The point is, Cath’s so content to retreat into that particular world, that the effect it has on her interactions within her college life is obvious – she takes an instant dislike to Wren’s roommate and the two of them begin to drift apart, and she struggles with general socialization and her classes. She is willing to give up on the higher education several times throughout the book, but the people who stick by her, notably her father, her cynical roommate and her cynical roommate’s slightly overly-saccharine ex (watch out for him, more on him later) soon help her to get on with it…I’ll try not to go into too much detail of the plot here, but I will say that there’s not much to spoil. Pretty much what you expect will happen happens.

So, the strengths of this book lie in how well it’s able to capture the image of a dedicated fan. As a fan, and an author of fanfiction, as it happens, a good chunk of Cath’s internal monologuing about her fan community resonates heavily with me. Several times I found myself going ‘oh yeah, that’s totally like that…’ and was furthermore amused by how the author managed to avoid dreaded copyright issues by the age-old but lovely trick of making terribly similar things to known brands to cover her tracks. For example, instead of Fanfiction.net, we have FanFixx.net, and instead of Wikipedia, we have Encyclowiki. The book opens with an Encyclowiki article on Simon Snow. For some reason, the whole de-fictionalization process she attempted to go through I found really enjoyable. I can’t help it – it’s a way of seeing the world in which the story’s set seem a lot more real. Complete with extracts from the books and Cath’s own fanfiction!

Ah, yes…let’s talk about those, shall we?
As much as I appreciated the attempt to flesh out fictional worlds within fictional worlds, they did start become a bit tedious as time wore on, partially because they really did serve no purpose to the continuation of the plot, but also because…well, Gemma T. Leslie’s writing isn’t very good. Whether that was intentional on the actual author’s part or not isn’t entirely clear, but in between chapters there are extracts, sometimes from Simon Snow books, and I always found myself rolling my eyes at the terrible narm spoused from the character’s mouths and the way they’re described with their bishounen hair and all the rest of it…again, it may have been intentional, but I’m not sure what purpose it served. I also had a few minor nitpicks with Rowell’s writing style, often because she randomly describes a character’s appearance in the middle of conversation. If you don’t mind that kind of thing, that’s fine, but I happened to find it quite jarring.

What about the characters? Ever my favourite thing of nearly any story, this book had to carry itself with mostly character design and development and…eh, it does OK. Cath and Wren’s relationship is the highlight of it. You do begin to get a sense of the history they’ve shared as it moves on and the ache that Cath feels during the times in which they’re not speaking to much. Wren herself is a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of books (or indeed WattPad stories) I’ve seen in this kind of environment, because she’s never shamed for extroversion and her rather hedonistic attitude, and her character is further deepened by the understanding that she is nearly as geeky as Cath still, and, as revealed later on in the book, is still loyally reading her fanfiction, to which Cath is moved.

Cath is OK as a character too – not the strongest protagonist I’ve ever seen, but perfectly serviceable. Her character arc is pretty clear, but it works fine – learning to embrace things out of her comfort zone and acknowledging that there’s no shame in changing herself somewhat, if it’s for a benefit. There’s this pretty poignant scene early on where Cath hands in an assignment of creative writing. Sticking to what she knows, she writes a short story about Simon and Baz, and her teacher/lecturer/whatever, who goes by the fantastic name of Professor Piper fails her for it, pointing out that what she did was essentially tantamount to plagiarism. This shakes Cath quite a bit, and confesses that she’s not all that good at coming up with original stories, but Piper, bless her, believes in her and continues to encourage her. What Cath eventually turns in is a nice conclusion, which I’m not going to give away, but essentially it does reflect a truth that any writer will find – better writing comes with experience.

Cath’s roommate Reagan is an interesting beast, but I have to say, I really like her, or at least, I like the role she plays. From the beginning she is cynical, fairly loud and unapologetic in her dealings and about as different from the introverted Cath as you can imagine. And yet…well, you can probably see where this is going. They do get on. I’m not going to go into details about it, it’s a nice touch, just read it for yourself.

And then there are the guys. *Sigh*

OK, my biggest issue with this book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the romance. The guy Cath ends up being involved with is called Levi, and once upon a time, he was with Reagan. The fact that he spends a lot of time with Reagan is a pretty nice set-up, because they play a role almost like parental substitutes to Cath in the beginnings of the book, Levi’s cheeriness being a foil to Reagan’s cynicism, and that really works. And this is where the problem comes in – with such a dynamic, I always found Cath and Levi’s interactions to be sibling-like, with Levi acting as an older brother to her. And so, the later romantic interactions they had were…revolting.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I remember reading them and pulling faces the entire way through, although part of that could be also to do with the awkward way they way written. In some cases, that was probably intentional, but not in all. Maybe my own cynicism is showing, but the subjective incest aside, Levi’s character commits a much graver sin.

Let me try and set it out for you – this is a guy who spends most of his time in an unbridled, extroverted cheeriness. He gets on with anyone, but for reasons that aren’t properly explained, he has an instant (yes, that is confirmed by him later) romantic attraction to Cath the second he claps his eyes on her, and would like nothing better that to have her read him the fanfiction she wrote all day. Without much of his own backstory or life fleshed out, his role in this story is to get Cath out of her shell, boost her confidence and allow her to do new things. Is this description beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar?

Through what I have observed, Levi is essentially a textbook version (albeit a gender-flipped example) of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

A point could be made in that he is given something of a backstory and character traits beyond how Cath defines his role – he is revealed to, because possibly dyslexia, attention deficit disorder or maybe something else, struggle with reading and therefore come close to failing some assignments, but really that serves the purpose as to have him invite Cath to read things to him. He also had an apparently rocky history with Reagan, given that they broke up because she couldn’t stay monogamous. But he doesn’t seem particularly upset about that, and it just gives all the more reason for him and Cath to be together, Cath’s introversion being very important to the focus she gives on him. Although props to the story for not slut-shaming Reagan for her insatiability. Although infidelity is another matter…actually, the narrative weirdly breezes over the whole thing. Hm.

It feels a shame to have to bring this up, because Levi is a merciful break for all the love interests that have to be total dicks in order to be love interests. He’s a genuinely nice person, and not someone I’d mind meeting. It’s just a shame how obviously flat he is. The reason this matters is because Rowell spent so much time crafting a real world seperate from the fictional one that Cath enjoys staying in, and part of coming-of-age is acknowledging the flaws and and issues that the real world has. And neither Cath or Wren are idealised heroines, mercifully. The differences in personality they have are accepted as just differences, and things that they can work through. The transition Cath makes from a shielded fictional world to a flawed, but ultimately more rewarding real one would be so much more poignant if there was a more difficult, more realistically portrayed romance. And I’m not saying that Cath and Levi’s relationship is entirely without minor dramas or disagreements, but these are resolved remarkably fast, or else based on complete misunderstandings, because Levi REALLY needs Cath for…I have no clue. Cath’s development makes her a much more interesting character than she is without her cardboard cut-out.

Perhaps realising this, the story does actually intend to fake us out in terms of romance, but unfortunately not well enough. It’s never in any doubt who Cath’s going to end up with (particularly as Levi’s on the cover with her), but it’s not as though I didn’t vainly hope…

First there’s Cath’s actual boyfriend at the beginning of the story. He’s called Abel, for which he has my greatest sympathies, and apparently is…well, we know very little about him actually, other than that he may be more introverted and awkward than Cath herself, and he breaks up with her pretty fast. The sheer boringness of how he’s displayed do unfortunately create an all too obvious and appealing contrast to someone like Levi.

Oh, and then there’s Nick…
Nick seems a strange choice for my preferred love interest, because, if you cast your minds back to That Life, he carries a great deal of the traits that annoy me. He’s muscular (something that Levi isn’t, interestingly), something that Cath notes, apparently attractive enough to gain the attention of other girls, and possesses a rather smooth flirtacious banter that I distinctly lack. So, yeah – he has every reason to bring back my own personal insecurities, but the role he plays in this story is actually fairly interesting.

A fellow of Cath’s Fiction Writing class, he pairs up with her in various assignments so they can assist each other in their own writing drawbacks, although Cath does end up helping him a lot more, because he has the tendency to create one-note protagonists that Cath notes are very similar to him. There’s a bit of conflict near the end where he attempts to pass of an assignment that she helped him edit simply with his own name, which everyone finds a pretty douchey thing to do. And…yeah, it is, but the fact that his politeness to Cath never wavers makes me think that he might not even realise what the problem is. Narcissistic and self-obsessed? Or just ignorant? Maybe both? At any rate, this is the set-up for a much more interesting and controversial romance.

But wait! I hear you cry. Didn’t you just say you hated it when love interests were total wankers? Why yes, I do, but there are many ways you can make someone’s flaws be genuine issues without them being completely horrible. And Nick didn’t seem to be completely horrible, just a bit misguided and clearly in need of decent emotional intelligence. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if both Cath and Nick worked through their own personal flaws together whilst helping each other with their writing? Nick helping Cath with original characters, and Cath helping Nick with decent characters? That would be a romance I could get behind. I might even forgive Nick for being more attractive than me. Personally, I think it was a tragically missed opportunity. TEAM NICK!

So, overall, what do I think of this book? It’s pretty good. Definitely better than you might expect, but at the same time suffers from some rather glaring problems and…is probably too long. Still, I’d recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in some of the themes I’ve laid out here, and even for those who are annoyed by the same things that annoy me, you may interpret it differently. Who knows?

I’ll post again soon, likely reviewing the book I read after this, or an another anime series. Until then, feel free to comment and share with your friends…y’know, all that good stuff…

 

Reviewing When Marnie Was There

I’ve been meaning to post this for quite a while, actually, but I’ve never been in the right frame of mind for it. Now? Yeah, it’ll do. Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get to the end of this without some emotional response though…

So, a while back, I posted a list of my favourite animated movies, and whilst for the most part that list does still hold up, I have to say, if I had seen this movie back then, it would have definitely been on there. Not quite sure where, but definitely near the top. Studio Ghibli has long been associated with quality animated movies, and even with the very real possibility that this is their final gift, what a gift to leave on!

Based actually on an English novel by Joan G. Robinson, this film tells the story of a young girl named Anna, who’s artistic, highly introverted, suffers from asthma and lives with a foster family who worry about connecting with her, and her connecting with other people. Truth be told, Anna suffers from a degree of self-loathing. But when a doctor suggests to her foster mother that she get away from the bustle of a city life, she agrees, and sends Anna to live with her sister and brother-in-law in a seaside town near Sapporo for the summer. Although initially about as disconnected as before, including upsetting some of the locals, Anna discovers an apparently abandoned mansion across a marsh, but occasionally sees lights on there too. One night, she discovers a girl her age living there, a girl named Marnie, who’s full of unbridled openness and friendliness towards Anna, and the two of them pick up a very dependable and close friendship, which is very open to interpretation in the way they act, particularly at how Marnie jovially declares Anna to be her ‘precious secret.’ It eventually becomes clear however, that Marnie is incredibly elusive. Occasionally, Anna will find the mansion completely derelict, despite being very full of life when Marnie’s there. It’s obvious that there’s more to Marnie than meets the eye, but given the insight Anna’s had to Marnie’s life in that mansion, one rather isolated and full of neglect, leads to her resolving to help Marnie however she can, no matter who she is, where she came from, or even if she’s even real…

Perhaps what makes this movie stand out to me more than the other Ghibli ones I’ve seen is how this has much more of a story to it than something like Kiki or Spirited Away, which may have something to do with it being a novel first. Kiki is just a slice of life movie, and whilst Spirited Away had a goal accomplished at the end of it, it’s still mostly focused on Chihiro’s interactions in a strange environment. Both these things work fantastically for the movies, but as someone very interested in narrative, this just caught my attention more. I felt like there wasn’t a single thing I could miss about it. Marnie’s introduction gave me all kinds of questions, and continued to intrigue me as the movie played out. Having to know an ending is a true sign of an engaging film. The characters are also fantastic, both the supporting and the main – perhaps Anna’s just all the more relatable to me, particularly how she talks about an ‘invisible magic circle’ in the world, representing social interactions, and how she is on the outside. The emotions Anna runs through throughout the flick is actually reminiscent to what I often go through. See, I told you it would be emotional for me to go through this…but anyway…

The way these two characters work off each other is incredible. There’s a scene where they have a long conversation about their feelings which doesn’t feel heavy-handed or forced or in any way boring…I mean, I love characters talking about their feelings, but this does it all the better with scene transitions relating to what they’re saying, and as it’s Studio Ghibli, you know the backgrounds are just going to be gorgeous-looking. This film is, and it knows it. Just the shots of the marsh, the town, the water, they’re all so beautifully drawn, and despite being hand-drawn, just look and feel so real. It translates well into the pacing of the movie too, as even though the story is plot-driven, they sometimes just allow you to experience the atmosphere of the place, and it really works. The eponymous Marnie isn’t actually introduced until about half an hour in, allowing for you to feel as Anna does, just the way this little town works. There’s a scene with Anna walking home at sunset, and she passes a cyclist as she turns a corner. Why was this detail included? I don’t know, remove it and the story would still be complete, but it’s just such a nice detail. I can’t explain it. It’s just wonderful.

For all my gushing about this movie, you might wonder if it has any flaws. Well, yes, I’d say it did – but it’s difficult to talk about them without going into spoiler territory. I will do my best though.

By the end of the film, you are given an answer as to Marnie’s identity. It certainly fits, although on reflection, the explanation does raise a few questions which might distract a keen viewer, particularly about the nature of Anna and Marnie’s relationship as shown, and the possibilities of Anna’s role in all of this. Again, difficult to word without giving anything a way, but I imagine it could give some audiences a less than resolved feeling by the end. It did in my case when I first watched, but upon re-watching it recently, most of that vanished, because in all honesty, the vagueness presented to you didn’t change the strength of the relationship that we had seen develop throughout the story, nor the strength of Anna’s character development. It does end on a distinctly positive note, so it’s not as if these characters we’ve grown to care about are robbed of a happy ending. It’s just perhaps not as robust to analyst as some others might be. Sure, it raises a few questions, but it solves the major ones and does wonders for your emotions as you do so. Ultimately, these flaws are minor and don’t dent it by much of a margin.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone, even more so for fans of anime and/or hand-drawn animation. It’s emotional, it’s engaging, it’s beautiful to look at, it’s beautiful to listen to, I’ve gone on about it long enough, so go and see it if you haven’t already.

 

That Life II Commentary: Chapter 9

The difference in the amount of uni work I have compared to a lot of people I know is only just starting to sink in. Mine is practically minimal in comparison, but I only realised after I’ve finished all of it.

And now I’m kind of bored.

So, I though I’d get on with this. With just one more post after this to go, I’m not sure how I feel about this series coming to an end. On the one hand, it’ll be great to blog about some other things, but on the other, it’s still something coming to an end. But this is me assuming anyone actually reads it.

Whatever. This is actually the last complete chapter I ever wrote in the That Life franchise, as chapter 10 I sort of stopped in the middle of. If you remember last time, I was trying to balance too many different storylines, and in this one it gets even worse, with a bit too much focus on some and not enough on others, and with the return of contrived nonsense, I think we’re in for a treat. So, here we go – Chapter Nine: Hit and Run. This time, the title’s actually relevant…

So, we start off with Caleb (THE SUAVE, MAGNIFICENT, AND WHATEVER) heading over to Woodgreen Primary to deal with his abusive stepdad randomly showing up to greet his brother. Now that I think about it, why exactly did the school contact him and not his mother…? She was probably busy looking for fortunes in beer bottles…

But never mind that! Because we’re doing the whole scene cutting thing again! Back to Ian, (the boring and superfluous), who, if you remember, was arrested…for some reason…

Actually, what was the reason given?

Ian was sitting in an interrogation room wondering what was happening. Why had been arrested? Had he been framed or something?

Apparently, no reason was given, thereby making this arrest, by British legal standards, unlawful. You can’t arrest someone without given them a reason, and given that Ian is a minor as well, this is going to raise some serious questions.

Although given that Boris Johnson was Mayor of London at the time this was written, maybe we should have expected it…

A policeman does eventually come in to tell Ian that they have been given information suggesting he’s connected to Seb Kythner. Well…fine, but you don’t need to arrest someone for that kind of information. Just ask. Investigate. What source of information are they acting on anyway…?

The door opened again and Ian’s worst nightmare walked in:
Aiden Gorse, accompanied by Detective Richard Price.

What? You believed Aiden? A guy who has a track record of thuggery, kidnap, arson and just generally being a horrible person? Not to mention being a drug addict, which apparently just means you’re sheer and irredeemably evil? Aiden’s motive seems really odd as well. This is the explanation he gives Ian…

“Yup. After all, you’re Caleb’s best friend right? And he was involved-”
“Shut up!” Ian yelled, not wanting to get Caleb arrested as well.

Oh God…OK…

  1. Calling him Caleb’s best friend is a bit of stretch. Caleb pretty much forgot about him after he buggered off to America – as a matter of fact, everyone except Ruth did…I know everyone wants to be Caleb’s best friend, but it’s a position that’s difficult to hold.
  2. Why didn’t Aiden just give them Caleb’s name?? I actually wrote this in because I wanted Ian to actually do something in this story, but then I had to work the story around it, and, as you can see it really didn’t work. Did the police just refuse to go after Caleb because he’s too suave and magnificent, and doing so would lead to a full-scale revolution?
  3. What is Aiden’s deal? It’s become apparent throughout this story that he has a vendetta against Kythner, which is fair enough, but what good is getting Ian, one of the only people in this story who Kythner ISN’T involved with, arrested, going to do, except make him look far less reliable as an informant?

Well, apparently Aiden has more information to give…

 “And that’s not all,” Aiden continued, his evil grin growing wider. “I’ve heard of her. Trace Temple, constantly getting men to pay her for sleeping-”
“SHUT UP!!!” Ian roared. If anything, he did not need anyone to know that his mother, who he hadn’t seen for at least five years, was a prostitute.

Oh for God’s sake, what is this…?

Suddenly Ian has a mother. Who’s a prostitute. For some reason? And Aiden’s heard of her. Because he slept with her? I can’t even begin to fathom how this is remotely related to anything. Unless of course Kythner slept with her as well as Queenie and Carol’s sister? Again, this was simply put in to add depth to Ian’s character…without actually adding depth. He hasn’t seen his mother for five years, but apparently she paid men to sleep with her. I don’t know why. Ian, forget about it, it’s really not a massive issue.

The police do in fact let Ian go after he tells them what Caleb told him, the treacherous bastard. Well, I’ve got to love a pointless scene…

Going back to Caleb, he tells his stepdad he doesn’t want him crawling back into his family’s life, which is fair enough. The stepdad, of course, so cowed by Caleb’s radiant Sue-ism, immediately leaves. I’d love to have a scene that goes somewhere at some point…it does, however, occur to Caleb how odd it is that the stepdad’s suddenly trying to make amends. Take a wild guess at who he’s connected to, and we’ll come back to it later…

Going back to Ian, it would appear the police have a grudge against him for some reason.

“Don’t think this is the end of it,” the young officer who had arrested Ian told him, as he went to get his possessions that the desk sergeant had confiscated from him.
“We know full well that your mother was a prostitute. We will be looking into that.”

“Yeah, because it’s totally your fault!”

The laws surrounding prostitution in the UK are as follows – the act itself (exchanging sex for money) isn’t illegal, but brothels and such are. However, we don’t get any indication that Ian’s mother was involved in that way, and even if it were, how the hell is it Ian’s fault? Obviously, because of the stigma surrounding prostitution,  he’s going to want to keep it under wraps hence any slut-shaming idiot decides to get truck out of it, but why should this get him into trouble with the law?

“Great,” Ian growled sarcastically. “I’ll just add that to my other heap of problems shall I?”

Oh, it’s a hard life, isn’t it Ian? What problems is he even referring to?

“I’ve got enough on my plate with trying to actually do something in this story, without you probing into my past and giving me loads of angst to work on…! Wait a minute…”

Even he seems to realise what a pointless act it was of Aiden’s to tell the police about him…

Why had Aiden told the police that he was involved with Kythner? It probably hadn’t been so that his sentence would be shortened, now that it was obvious that he had been lying. 
So what?

He does eventually discover that he’s lost his phone, and it wasn’t even among the confiscated items he got back from the desk, and concludes that Aiden stole his phone, and that it was all a rouse to get his hands on it…! Why…?

Well, stealing people’s phones seems to be Aiden’s style, but honestly, I have no idea. I never got as far as to detail more of Aiden beyond this scene, so we never got to see whatever plan he may have had get put into action. I presume he wants to get in contact with Caleb somehow, but wouldn’t any one of his toy boys friends worked? And how exactly did he manage to steal his phone, given he’s an inmate in custody? He can’t just stroll up to the desk and grab it, unless the police are completely useless, which, given what we’ve already seen of them, is more than likely...

We cut to none other than Kythner, who’s interrogating Caleb’s stepfather (yeah, big surprise) about how his interaction with Caleb went down.

“So then what happened?” he asked.
“He yelled at me to get out,” the man replied, swaying slightly with a reek of alcohol about him.
Kythner scowled. So he was still headstrong was he?

THE STEPFATHER AND KYTHNER ARE NO MATCH FOR CALEB’S SUAVE-NESS AND MAGNIFICENCE. KYTHNER MAY HAVE MURDERED HIS MOTHER, BURNT DOWN A WAREHOUSE, BROKE OUT OF PRISON AND WAS HAPPY TO SIT IN BROAD DAYLIGHT SMOKING CRACK WITHOUT ANYONE NOTICING HIM, BUT CALEB ACTUALLY TOLD SOMEONE TO LEAVE. MY GOD. CAN NOBODY STOP THE SUAVE AND MAGNIFICENT??

Jesus, this fucking story…

Also, did the stepfather really think it was good form to be drunk on this job?

Kythner’s not happy…

He swore loudly, causing Dirk nearby to jump slightly.

I love that. Dirk’s a psychotic drug pusher, perfectly happy to make an allegiance with a murderous sociopath, but swearing? Oh no, that’s a bit too much for him. We’re pushing him to the edge!

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to tail him,” he said, dropping the butt of his crack cigarette and grinding it out with his heel.
“Alright, but what about by payment?”
“You’ll get it after you’ve found out where all of Byker’s friends live, particularly that Head kid. Now get on with it.”

OK – this plan has quite a few problems, most notable of which is the fact that Caleb’s stepdad tailing him is going to be immediately noticeable. Someone whom Caleb doesn’t know (like Dirk or Phil) is going to be a lot less conspicuous. Also, Kythner’s paying him for this…with what? I wouldn’t have thought that someone who’s the target of a manhunt like this would be the most reliable source of income. Maybe he’s selling drugs, but…

So, Kythner wants to know where everyone of Caleb’s friends live…why? I don’t think that a bunch of schoolkids wrapped up in their love lives are a massive threat to you, even if they are being led by Caleb. In the case of Ryan, obviously Dirk and Phil are worried that he’s going to dob Charlie (a friend of their’s) in, but if he hasn’t already, I don’t think he’s going to bother. He’s got more than enough to worry about. And anyway, Jack’s probably going to finish him off for them…

We return to Ian, who’s pleading with the most patronising policeman ever about his missing phone. With absolutely no luck in getting through to him, he promptly leaves, and runs into Fraser.

You might remember Fraser – he was Ruth’s older brother, who was both at uni and training as a paramedic and rescued Amber from the Thames before proceeding to be really creepy with her.

And then he tells Ian he’s working with the CID.

…….

I don’t know how many more contrived subplots I can handle. Nothing about this makes sense.

“I’m not actually at uni,” he explained. “When I said I was…I was actually doing voluntary work for the CID.”

Do you do voluntary work for the CID? I’m fairly sure that a specialised branch of the police doesn’t take chances. Although, given the state of the police force in this story…

“Right…so you didn’t tell Ruth and your mum this because…?”
“Look, do you realise how much crime is happening in this area of London alone?” he asked rhetorically as he put his ID card back into his pocket.
“Seb Kythner. The whole drug marketing thing. They know they’re in danger from us, and if Ruth and mum knew, they would be endangered.”

“But I have no qualms against telling and endangering my sister’s boyfriend.”

Seriously, why did he feel the need to tell Ian about this? Furthermore, whether Ruth and her mother know isn’t going to stop Kythner’s thugs from targeting them if their brother is working with the police. In fact, them not knowing is going to ensure they’re not on guard about the possibility. Fraser, you’re useless.

Over the next few days, everyone seemed to know about Ian’s arrest. It was one of the major discussion topics. Of course, Whitney tried to convince everyone that Ian had been arrested because he had mugged someone, but not many people believed her.

Oh, bless you Whitney.

“He beat up someone with a cricket bat, honest!” I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to believe that, it seems to be contagious among this group…

Here’s an interesting question – how much about Ian’s arrest do they know? Do they know what information had led to the arrest? If the whole thing about Ian’s mother being a prostitute got out, then my respect for Whitney has increased for not actually making a thing about it. Also, not many people believed her – implying that some people did. Is her relationship with Summer back on track? 😀

It had been two weeks since Sofia had joined the school, and she was pretty popular and everyone seemed to like her.

That went slightly tautological near the end, didn’t it?

She was pretty popular, everyone seemed to like her, she was well-liked, she was adored, she was respected, and she was popular. Not to mention everyone liked her.

This had also got Amber out of her shell, and she was socialising with most people too.

Well, that’s good…although a quick search shows me that this is the last time Amber is mentioned in this story…oh dear. She can’t have done that much socialising…

So there it is – the character who’s supposed to be the protagonist is saying her farewell…we’ll miss you, Amber. Given that this goes on to talk about more of Sofia’s interactions, I’m a little worried that the implication is that Amber’s become more isolated than before…but anyway…

One person who had taken to Sofia a lot more than most others was Jack (who still wasn’t talking to Ryan or Carol). He admired her sense of humour and thought pattern – it was one shared by him and Toby. He had even let her take part in their blog.

Oh, I wonder where this is going…?

I don’t know how accurate the comparison of the sense of humour is, given how little of it’s been shown, but given the nature of this mysterious blog, I imagine that it’s sort of accurate…? What’s Sofia going to do? Do impressions of Gollum…?

Of course, Ryan and Carol’s weird relationship is continuing…

One day, after an English lesson, Carol held Ryan back as everybody else filed out.

Time for sex!

She promised Miss Verb to lock the classroom after she and Ryan had left, and the English teacher handed her the keys and left, smiling to herself.

Why do you need to lock the room? Locking rooms is how everyone nearly died in the fire, remember? Also, MISS VERB? SERIOUSLY? I’m getting fed up of this…whilst we’re at it, why not introduce the maths teacher, Mr Numbers, or the History teacher, Mrs Dates? Or the Drama teacher, Miss Unnecessary, because this story is full of unnecessary drama, you see? Or the science teacher, Mr Bunsen Burner. Oh no, wait, the science teacher’s called Mr Rug, if I remember rightly…

Anyway, back to Ryan and Carol.

Now the two of them were alone. Carol turned to face Ryan, wondering how to word this.

I can think of several ways.

“Ryan, you’re a racist twat who’s full of himself and thinks girls are interchangeable. Go fuck yourself.”

Again, I find it interesting that I decided to write this scene from the girl’s perspective…at least to begin with.

“Ryan…I want to thank you for consoling me after…well, what happened.”
“You’re welcome,” Ryan said, but he knew there was more.

Ryan, just because you’re getting a stirring in your pants doesn’t mean she’s feeling the same, OK? Also, if Ryan was the only one who consoled Carol after a break-up, we’re talking about some really shitty friends here…and given that Ryan probably only did it to get in her good books…

Yeah, anyway, the build-up is painful, so I’ll just get to the point: they kiss. The description of the kiss is…weird…but also pretty funny, given what happens at the end…

Their lips met, and all strife left Ryan’s head left instantly. This was absolute bliss. In the world there was only him and Carol. She was all that mattered. It was just her and him.
Well, and Jack of course, who unfortunately chose that moment to walk in.

It’s almost as though Jack can never leave Ryan’s mind. The true romance of the story…?

Jack has forgotten his bag, but, understandably, he has a few mixed emotions about this whole thing. Who’s he even jealous of, in this situation…?

Carol’s naturally worried that wholesale murder is about to occur, but Jack assures her otherwise…

“I’m not going to fight him,” Jack replied, turning away to reach for his bag that was under his desk. “He’s probably still stoned from the drugs that him and his best mate Charlie take.”

The insults these character’s fling at each other are always so much fun…!

Ryan is naturally ready to fling himself at Jack at these words, but Carol holds him back.

Jack paused at the doorway, with his back to them, waiting for Ryan to come and attempt to throttle him. When nothing happened, he walked out.

He was actually WAITING for Ryan to leap upon him…! If that’s not suggestive, I don’t know what is…

So, yeah, Jack is naturally contemplative and having a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Toby noticed these troubled signs instantly.

Ah, look at me, always the supportive friend! :3

Jack tells me what happened, and I am sympathetic, but remind him that he was the one who ended it with Carol in the first place.

Jack gave Toby a look that would have been better suited to Ryan, and stalked off.

WELL, FUCK YOU.

I know you’re upset, but you don’t have to be a dick about it. Honestly, I try and be a sympathetic and caring BFF, and you treat me like the one you tried to murder.

Presumably, I promptly ran off to wail into Naomi’s bosom, but as this is actually my last appearance in this story, it’s just as likely that I decided to hang myself.

Of course, given the subtext that is laden throughout Jack and Ryan’s interactions, such a look could have easily implied something else, but I’m not going to get into that now, because I don’t have time.

So, Jack buggers off to contemplate some more, and Sofia approaches him, explaining that I told her (presumably through my tears) what had happened, and she at least has he decency to say that I was right in what I said, and furthermore…

“I think that was a very good choice.”

Well, that’s a bit rude. Poor Carol’s ears must be burning if Sofia’s slagging her off all the time. Sofia has a lot more to say on this matter as well.

“Well,” she said eventually. “If they can…why can’t we?”
And before Jack could do or say anything, she kissed him.

Wow, she’s a fast mover. She’s only been her five minutes. Not to mention really forward! Jack was probably naked and in bed with her before he even realised.

So yeah, this is how I resolved the Jack-Ryan-Carol love triangle, and for all it’s contrived-ness, I’m glad at least that nobody was left single forever. At least I wanted to tie up such loose ends, and given that Sofia’s only role in this story so far had been to be Amber’s friend, I’d say I did relatively OK, given what I had.

But trust me, this is some of the only half-decent stuff in this, because directly following that comes this…

Keith stood up, and glared at Ross with a look of deep dislike.
“So, that’s it is it?” he asked.
Ross nodded, smiling in spite of himself.

Ross has finally let Keith violate him, but the joke’s on Keith – Ross is the most unsatisfying partner ever.

No, I’m joking. Although I have to say, I really don’t know what they were talking about. Apparently, the decency Keith displayed previously had all been a front to get Ross on his side for this particular bomb-shell.

“It’s my dad, innit?” he grinned. “He’s thinking of…what’s the term…?…Re-adopting us.”

There are multiple problems with this. The most obvious of which is simply the fact that a guy who abandoned his children would not then be allowed to ‘re-adopt’ as Keith put it. He’s fighting a losing battle. Fuck it, it’s a LOST battle.

And is Keith really happy to go along with this given that his father was a shit to him too?

Of course, Ross is having none of this and promptly beats Keith up.

“Tell your dad, my answer is no,” he said, and stalked off.

Well, that solved that remarkably quickly.

Oh, but wait…

As he turned away, he could have sworn he saw somebody he knew. He turned back, but it was just a four-year-old girl, watching the fight like many others had.
But she did have a stunning resemblance to Queenie and Carol.
Or was it Seb Kythner?
What was he on about? There was no connection between them.

Yeah, subtlety wasn’t my strong point back then. Yeah, she’s obviously Kythner and Carla’s child. What she’s doing there is anyone’s guess, unless Carla just abandoned her and they couldn’t find any foster mother or whatever…this is all far too convenient, and what’s more, children don’t really look like both their parents at once. At least, not to that degree. Considering I never finished this, she never appears again, so…

We then get a brief scene with Caleb (THE SUAVE ETC), fearing he’s being followed, which is about as subtle as Sofia’s attempts to court people, and then we return ONCE MORE, to Jack.

Jack groaned.
There he was. The idiot. He was walking along the road, chatting into his mobile. Chatting to Carol, no doubt?

Are you EVER going to get over her? I would have thought that Sofia engaging you in coitus would be sufficient, but apparently not. AND HE WAS THE ONE WHO ENDED IT.

So, yeah, Jack’s glaring at Ryan, so what else is new?

Well, Ryan’s crossing the road, and apparently a car’s coming in his direction.

Jack glanced at the driver. He was a thickset, ugly man with a bald head and thick lips.

Judging by his appearance, I’d say he’s an antagonist.

It is in fact Phil, who’s now preparing to take Ryan out. How does he plan to do this? Well, in a way that’s about as subtle as my plot devices.

Normally drivers would slow down when somebody was crossing the road. But this guy was actually speeding up. He was accelerating, his eyes fixed on Ryan, who still hadn’t noticed what was happening, and nor were the few people who were walking along the street.

Well, Ryan’s an idiot then. He shouldn’t be so distracted. And I can tell you from personal experience that crossing the road while on the phone is NOT a good idea. It was fortunate for me that I was only hit by a bike and not a car. And that someone wasn’t trying to assassinate me, of course.

Actually, that makes Ryan particularly unlucky that Phil managed to choose the exact right time to pull off this elaborate and highly conspicuous homicide, which would only have worked if Ryan happened to be crossing the road at the right time and was distracted enough not to notice a car ploughing very fast in his direction.

That’s some seriously bad luck.

Seriously, even if they insist on having to kill Ryan, can’t they do so in a different way? They could abduct him, suffocate him, and leave his body somewhere inconspicuous and even after they find it, they’d never know who did it. But no. They had to rev it up, literally.

Lucky Ryan has his boyfriend knight in shining armour there, really.

Jack had about half a second to make his decision. Even though he hated Ryan more than anybody else in the world, could he really let him be killed?
Of course not.

Well, I dunno. You were perfectly happy to do it yourself back when you were viciously assaulting him with a cricket bat.

Of course, he goes into the road to try and pull him to safety. Ryan makes it onto the pavement, and Jack gets run over and killed.

No, I’m joking, but that probably would have made a more intense story.

The car just runs over his leg and breaks it, and he passes out from the pain. And Ryan?

Ryan put his hands under Jack’s arms and hoisted him onto the pavement. Then he put Jack into the recovery position, and picked up his phone to call an ambulance. As they say, one good turn deserves another.

So, if he hadn’t just saved you, you’d have just left him there? Our hero ladies and gentlemen!

Oh, and Phil conveniently buggers off.

That’s where that chapter ends. As you can see, my grasp on the narrative was slipping considerably. I really had no idea what I was doing. And it’s a shame, because in my writing style and my characterisation, I had made considerable improvement from the original. The fact that I tried to amp it beyond what was needed really was my undoing. The love triangle was fine as it was…sort of…

Anyway, let me know what you think, and join me next time when it all ends…

That Life Commentary – Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen

And we come to final two. With everyone out of the fire despite not being able to locate fire exits for the longest time, we get the run-down of this incredibly bizarre work of fiction. How will it pan out? Well, let’s take a look…Chapter Fourteen: Not Over Yet.

Yeah, I needed to let my readers know that they can’t rush for the door just yet…

The scene opens with Ian, bizarrely, spending his time at home recovering from jet lag (don’t ask) until he discovers that his school’s been set on fire.

“Umm…dad?” he said uncertainly.
“Yup?”
“I know I need to spend today resting from jet-lag, but do you mind if I go to school?”
Roy stared at Ian as if he’d just announced his undying love for David Cameron.

To be fair, I’d stare at someone who announced that…then I’d probably slap some sense into them.

Roy concedes though…

“OK…if you want,” he replied. So, Ian set off.

I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t have been that simple. First, doesn’t he need to reapply to school? Secondly, Roy’s acting remarkably casual, letting his son bugger off to a school that’s been set on fire. Thirdly…considering his dad’s name is Roy, I’m starting to think that Ian is the yellow puppet from Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared.

Back at the school, the fire’s been put out, and Mr Ealing is informed that there have been no deaths. Lucky for him, as it would probably have been his fault, considering he let Aiden wander around the place. He then complains about losing hair.

“I used to have a full head of hair!” he moaned. “Stress, that’s what this is, stress!”

Get some perspective you idiot! Also, the fire brigade seem to be a little too optimistic at the moment. Maybe nobody has died in the the building, but there are some pretty oxygen starved students with severe smoke inhalation problems. One of them might still die. And Mr Ealing’s complaining about his going bald. I’m suddenly not surprised that Mr Ealing was willing to let Aiden wander amongst innocent children.

The bastard.

One ambulance had Toby Jack and Sean sitting in it, receiving oxygen.

Hey, look! Sean’s still not trying to kill me. Apparently something has finally clicked. Why it took a fucking fire for him to realise that I’m not an evil rapist is an interesting subject for a book in and of itself.

Another had the unconscious girls in it. A paramedic had said that with a bit of oxygen and a few days rest and recuperation, they should be fine.

Apparently these girls have miracle lungs. I wish I could be so fireproof. I also love how that sentence implies that they haven’t even been given oxygen yet, and they’re just lying in a heap in the back of an ambulance.

Ryan, who apparently managed to get out unscathed, has other things on his mind.

Ryan was standing a short distance away from the ambulances, looking closely at Jack. He was sure Carol would like him more after the heroic deed.

WHAT HEROIC DEED? All he did was approach them and hold her briefly. In which time she probably inhaled more fucking smoke. The only thing that really counts as heroism on Jack’s part is the fact that he stayed in the burning building to try and save people, and really, that’s not being a hero, that’s being a silly twat.

Also, will anyone in this story stop thinking about getting laid for one minute?

“Ugh! I bet Carol’s going to like that Fenton kid more than me for saving her…”
“But Ryan, he didn’t actually save her…”
“Then I bet she’s going to like him more than me for trying to save her!”
“Ryan, Carol’s died. She breathed in too much smoke.”
“Oh……….well, at least her body will still be warm from the fire…”

Eventually these miracle-lunged girls do start waking up, to be embraced by their boyfriends, because…apparentley I salivated over the idea of guys looking after oxygen-starved girls. Especially where Caleb the suave, magnificent and getting-really-fucking-annoying-now is concerned.

Queenie woke up and saw Caleb.
“Hey, you alright Queen Bee?” Caleb asked her.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Queenie, whatever you do, DO NOT LET CALEB NAME YOUR CHILDREN.

So, Ryan approaches Jack and seems pretty determined to bury the hatchet. Again, it’s nice to see here that I understand the concept of character development, but it’s just the most ridiculous of things have to happen before we can see any of it…

Ryan cast a look at the girls.
“You…did a good job,” he said, as if he were congratulating Jack on doing a good essay.

Except he didn’t. He did fuck all whilst almost getting himself killed in the process. Ryan’s tone of voice should be far more condescending than described here…

Jack looked at him.
“What are you saying?” Ryan stuck out his hand.
“May the best man win!” he said. Jack smiled. So perhaps Ryan wasn’t as bad as he first thought!
He shook Ryan’s hand.

Aw. So, do you think these two have finally learnt their lesson about being entitled little shits thinking that they’re owed relationships, and will finally allow Carol to make her choice about who she, if anyone, likes the best?

LOL!!! You give this story way too much credit.

“Ready?” Ryan asked. Jack nodded. They both started running.

In case you’re confused as to what the fuck they’re doing, they’re both actually running towards the ambulance with the unconscious girls in, under the idea that whoever gets their first wins Carol’s heart.

That’s several different types of wrong right there. I’m not even sure how I managed to mature.

Almost at once, Jack realised that Ryan was as bad as he first thought, and he’d tricked him! Jack had until recently been rather oxygen deprived, so Ryan easily had the upper hand.

Well, as I’ve already explained, THAT’S NOT THE POINT. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run, it’s for Carol to decide, unless you’re planning to be a rapist, which wouldn’t surprise me. Ryan can outstrip a cheetah, but if Carol found Jack’s pointless gesture to be charming, then he’s the one she’ll choose.

Then out of nowhere, Summer appeared.

Wait, what?

HI RYAN!!!” she shrieked. Ryan, slightly taken aback by this sudden greeting, lost his footing and tripped. Jack grinned wryly as he passed him. He never knew he’d be so glad to see Summer. It looked as though Ryan now had a stalker on his hands.

…………………..

No. No. No. NO. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NOOOOOOOO, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! MOST UNAMBIGUOUSLY AND INCOMPARABLY NOOOOOOO!!!! IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS, NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT UNLESBIANIFY SUMMER, YOU SHIT. IT IS FORBIDDEN. IT’S WRITTEN IN THE BIBLE. OR SOME OTHER SACRED SCRIPT.

There, see!

‘Thou shalt not make the characters of Whitney in Summer in any shitty story not lesbians. To do so would be an opprobrious offence.’

– Book of Ellen 1:1 (Rejected at the First Council of Nicaea.)

I should really go and meet my 13-year-old self and slap him as hard as is necessary…

Though, in all fairness, Summer having a crush on Ryan seems to be Jack’s assumption. She’s never shown any sign of being interested in him before, and her greeting him there seemed so ridiculously hammy and out of nowhere that one has to wonder how sincere she is about it. We know of course that Summer’s social skills, are, to put it politely, in need of some work, but I think maybe her and Whitney have reached a pretty rough patch in their relationship, and, to reconfirm what she means to her, Summer is trying to make her jealous. Yeah, that’ll be all it is – besides, there’s no reason Summer shouldn’t be bisexual…if she even is that.

Carol came round to the same sight she saw when she passed out. She smiled as she saw Jack. She managed to find her strength to sit up and slipped her hand through his.

You see, that’s surprisingly subtle. So subtle, it may not even mean she’s into him at all…just saying.

Then, Ian shows up. Literally just like that. This is the line he uses to make his entrance…

“So…everyone alright?”

Oh, Ian. If only you knew…

Naturally, he goes straight over to Ruth, who wakes up pretty quickly.

“Hi Ruth!” he said. Ruth wasted no time, and she sat up and kissed him.

Oh, thank God for that. Now let’s stop trying to pad this romance out any further.

Then Mr Ealing makes an announcement that genuinely made me snort with laughter.

“If I could have your attention please! Thank you. I’ve spoken with the fire brigade and the ambulance crew and I was told that it will take a few days for those who have been affected to recover, and a few days for the parts of the school to be replaced that have been damaged by the fire, so I’m closing the school for a few days.”

Nice and vague as always! Unless few is a new number that our mathematician overlords decided to add so we’re firmly under their thumb once again.

But, of course, once the fire is now dealt with, people’s minds turn back to Naomi, and their concern continues. Sean’s figures she probably won’t ever speak to him again whatever happens, but then sees an unlikely saviour…

Sean’s attention was caught by Russell, who was talking to one of the policeman who had arrived at the school. Seeing Russell struck Sean as odd. He was so certain that Aiden had started the fire and scarpered, but if he had, why hadn’t he taken Russell with him?
Russell had now finished talking to the policeman, and was walking over to Sean.
“Sean…” Russell began.
“Yes?” Sean asked, somewhat sharper than he had intended.
“I know where your sister is.”

Perhaps Aiden should have considered that he’d informed Russell about every detail of his plan once Russell had decided to bugger off, but I think we’ve pretty much established how unhinged Aiden is.

We cut to Naomi, who’s making a desperate attempt to escape from her confines…but I’ll spare you the details, because I’m sure you’re fed up of ridiculously drawn-out escape scenes. At least I’m expanding them beyond Caleb this time.

She goes inside a house near the garage (with a conveniently unlocked door) and picks up a phone, but Aiden comes in before she can dial a number…

We then get this insight about the rescue party…

A huge group of police cars and police vans were tearing up the road. The group was this big because it was not only police officers who were coming. Russell, Sean, Toby, Jack, Caleb, Ian, Ruth, Queenie, Carol, Mrs Marsh and Mr Ealing were also coming.

Are this many people really necessary? Russell and Sean I get, and maybe me and Mr Ealing, but why everyone else? Half of these are oxygen-starved, so I doubt they’d be much use…

Detective Richard Price turned to Russell.

Detective what? My ignorance about the British police force was showing I see – DETECTIVE IS NOT A RANK.

“So, what’s this garage that Aiden’s using?” he asked.
“It’s our great-uncle’s,” Russell replied.

Oh, not another great-uncle! Fortunately, this one isn’t stupidly rich and does in fact have to frequent the hospital, which is why his house is empty. At least I knew to cover that plothole.

Back with Aiden and Naomi, Aiden actually tries to throttle her. Well…OK…

But the police come in pretty quickly and she gets free. Again, I’ll spare you the details.

 “I wonder what’s going on inside?” Ian asked Caleb.

Remind me why the hell you’re here again?

Anyway, Aiden’s arrested etc etc, and he’s really pissed that Russell told the cops, but really, he only had himself to blame, and then he gets taken away.

Naomi reconciles with Sean, and Sean gives her and me his blessing to date. And so, all loose ends are tied up, right…?

We move onto Chapter Fifteen: Christmas.

Yeah, because it was the autumn term, remember?

We open with Naomi buying presents, and there’s not much to it, except this weird little bit…

She had already bought Sean’s: A book entitled: What to do when your sister acts up. She thought he would find it useful.

Yeah, perhaps in more ways than you meant…

We then get a scene with Caleb, jubilant about finally living in a house rather than a flat, one with Ryan debating whether he should inform the police about Charlie’s involvement with Aiden, having read an entire section in the paper about Aiden getting sent down…followed by a completely contradictory scene about Sean getting pissed because there’s almost nothing about Aiden in the paper…

Of course, they could be reading different papers. Ryan, judging by his attitude towards towards foreigners, probably gets the Mail or the Express.

Anyway, soon the aforementioned school-prom-disco-whatever the hell it is, soon arrives. And we swiftly learn that some things never change…

Ryan was still seething about Jack’s piece of luck with Carol. So, he wanted to take it out on him.

Oh, here it comes…he goes to Jack’s house briefly before he’s due to go to the event with Carol, and we get this…

“I’ve something interesting to show you,” Ryan told him. “Come out here,” Jack went out and suddenly Ryan dashed into his house and slammed the door.

Seriously, Jack, why do you keep trusting Ryan? It’s incomprehensible…

When he was inside Ryan set about finding Carol. Where was she?

This took an unexpectedly dark turn…is he expecting everything will turn out alright if he spends a few minutes alone with her…? Luckily it doesn’t come to that…

Then, he looked through the window and saw Jack and Carol walking away together. Ryan gave a scream of fury and ran out of the house.

A very pointless scene, I don’t doubt.

However, when Jack meets up with me later, he’s a little upset – apparently Carol has crippling self-doubt and can’t seem to comprehend the informed deep feelings Jack has for her in his penis heart. I tell him not to worry:

“Don’t worry about it Jack!” Toby reassured him. “She’ll fall for you. People always do.”

I don’t know…this was probably a not so subtle jab at the fact that my BFF always seems to be better than me at everything…

Apparently, in the context of this story, we had a girl fall for both of us in our primary school called Anita Lawn. Because I had run out of borderline sensible names at this point. Oh, who am I kidding? QUEENIE AND CAROL.

“All right guys!” called Mr Ealing through a microphone. “I hope you’re all ready! Later we’ll have Mr Mothman doing his amazing break-dancing.”

Oh, well, got to hang around for that…

The rest of this scene goes largely without incident, although we do get a scene in which Sean approaches Russell, who’s looking a little lost, considering the negative reputation people still associate him with. Sean seems to have forgiven him, due to him helping rescue Naomi – it’s pretty nice to see actually. Again, I’m gaining an understanding of how human relationships actually work.

Then there’s this bizarre scene when Caleb goes over to speak to Ross, who you might barely remember as being Scottish…

Caleb sat down next to Ross and saw that he was looking somewhat unhappy.
“Cheer up mate,” he said to him. “It might never happen.” Ross looked at him. Caleb shrugged.
“Sorry. That’s just something my mum says. Has is already happened.”
“No,” Ross replied. “It’s happening.” He stood up.
“Gotta go,” he said, and left.

At this point you might be thinking, ‘why all the cryptic hints? The story’s drawing to a close, isn’t it?’ Well…I’ll get to it later…

Caleb wondered what was wrong with Ross, but then Mr Mothman started break-dancing and he quickly forgot.

Perfectly reasonable…I would too…

The final scene we get in this story is just a weird as the rest of it though…

Down an alleyway in some old warehouse, a tile slipped off the roof. Then another, and another.
Eventually a silhouetted figure scrambled up through the hole, and off the roof. Then the figure looked closely at the building that all of the students were flocking out of. He smiled to himself.
Hyde Park Comprehensive.
Oh yes.
He had chosen the right place.
He turned away and walked off into the night.

Oh, look at me trying to be all suspenseful! Badly…

But why the need, if that’s the end? Well…

Following this story, my juvenile mind thought it would be a good idea to write a sequel. Yes, you heard that correctly. Even at the time, I was aware the story didn’t quite connect as well as it could, so I decided to re-align the story a little bit and make it more focused, but with the same characters (evidently I hadn’t learnt that much). The result was me writing a successor to this.

I do plan to show it at some point, in the same format as this. Probably not straight away, because I want to be posting other things too. The sequel in question was never finished, but despite this, I still managed to write more of it than this one. It…takes an interesting direction, but the level of ridiculousness is still pretty much there. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know and thanks for reading.

That Life Commentary – Chapters Twelve & Thirteen

FIYAH! HELLFIYAH!

Thanks to consultations from other people, I now have more material for what else to post – coming up soon, expect a review of the anime series Strawberry Panic and a highly political poem written by yours truly. For now though, I really wanted to get on with this, because these next two chapters serve as the climax for this entire train-wreck, whereas the two after it just serve as a dénouement. How will this culminate? Well, just as hilariously awful as the rest, but it does raise some interesting questions about what I considered made a good climax. Let’s take a look. First, Chapter Twelve: The Resident Physco of Year 11, because I couldn’t spell ‘psycho’ and for some reason I felt like laying on Aiden’s reputation once more.

This chapter starts where the last one left off…

Aiden gazed with satisfaction upon Naomi’s unconscious body.

Oh dear, we’re back to that again…

I don’t quite know why I didn’t really notice the incredibly creepy rape undertones to this, but, y’know…he didn’t have that it mind, just revenge on Sean, because…reasons…

“Hey Russell, help me move her.” But Russell was looking white-faced at him.
“She’s not dead!” Aiden laughed humourlessly. “Look, feel her pulse if you’re worried.”

Something tells me you’ll be feeling more than that, Aiden…

 Russell was still staring in horror.
“Aiden…you’re sick!!” he blurted out. “How can you do this?”

Why exactly is Russell growing a conscience right this second? Wasn’t he just seconds earlier perfectly happy to restrain Naomi whilst Aiden prepared the syringe? It’s not as if the fact that they’re planning to kidnap her wasn’t known to him before this. Either he too has picked up on the rape aspects, or he thinks Aiden has crossed a line because he used DRUGS!!!!!!!!!!!! Is there no God???

Aiden, naturally, isn’t happy that his only minion has become a turncoat to him.

“Fine!”Aiden snarled. “Go then! I didn’t need you anyway!” Russell turned and fled.

“That’s right, I’ll save my own skin and not care about the 13-year-old girl you’re about to violate!”

It gets worse, don’t worry…

“Pathetic,” Aiden muttered, pulling some parcel tape out of his school bag and tying it tightly around Naomi’s wrists. Next, he got a length of material and tied it tightly around her mouth, gagging her.

Bloody hell, why has it gone so Fifty Shades all of a sudden? Naturally, physical restraint is no mystery to a 13-year-old, but I was eager enough to put my designated love interest into it…what the hell does that tell you…?

Aiden’s next tactic is a little…interesting…

Finally, he pulled a large tarpaulin sheet out of his bag and wrapped her unconscious body in it. Then, he carried her away.

OK, well, the good news is, I was at least aware enough to know that he’d have to find some way of making her broad daylight abduction inconspicuous. But at the same time, I’m sure wrapping her unconscious form in tarpaulin would make her look very much like A DEAD BODY. Is that not going to draw any stares…? Also, tarpaulin…

Naomi came round with blurry lights dancing mockingly in front of her vision[…]She was dimly aware of her hands being bound tightly together by something, and there was a tight and painful gag cutting into the mouth.

Back to the BDSM again…oh Lord…

I refrained from mentioning whether or not she was naked, so I’ll leave that to your imagination…you perverts.

Aiden manages to show up at the exact right time she awakes and decides to gloat. Although his taunts are getting a little less effective…

“I wouldn’t concern yourself. This is entirely your brother’s fault. You’re not to blame. But…you’ll die anyway.” Aiden then smirked wider and left.

I mean, I meant with the wording…but now Aiden has just admitted to attempted murder…what is this story becoming…? And the worst part is, we still can’t take him seriously…

After all this, Aiden actually then decides to go back to school…

It was just like Aiden to swagger into a lesson halfway through conceitedly and making no apology, and this time was no exception.
“Aiden you’re late!” snapped Mr Rug.

MR RUG…! It really would be worth going to this school just to hear all of the teacher’s names…

At lunch, Aiden sets up the rest of his master-plan…which is far-fetched, to say the least…

. He needed to think about how to do this carefully. So, first we swaggered towards Mr Ealing’s office. He opened it cautiously to make sure the headmaster wasn’t still inside. He wasn’t, so Aiden quickly searched to find the keys for all the locking doors in the school. When he found them, he scooped them up and pocketed them.

Conclusion: Mr Ealing is a completely useless head. Why the fuck does he leave those keys lying around when he knows Aiden is in the school? Naturally, Aiden’s master-plan wouldn’t have worked without the many bumblings of this fool.

Next, he went round the school locking any doors that people had to get through the get outside.

That’s…rather a chore, isn’t it? Obviously he wants to trap people inside, which, by the way, shows a very disturbingly developed psychotic mind, but hasn’t it occurred to him that other people will have keys for these doors? What’s more, fire exits are not lockable, for the very reason that they are fire exits. How exactly does he plan to sort them out…?

Then he walked into an empty corridor and pulled the can of petrol Charlie had given him out of his school bag[…]

Wait, he kept a can of petrol in his SCHOOL BAG? This was on top of the tarpaulin presumably…? Is his bag the TARDIS, and bigger on the inside…?

[…]poured it onto the floor, pulled his lighter out of his pocket and dropped it onto the pool of petrol. Flames ignited at once.

So, Aiden’s plan was indeed to start a fire. His name means ‘fire’ anyway, so it’s quite fitting…was that deliberate…?

In any case, the fire exits still present a problem for him, if he’s planning to trap everyone inside a burning building because he’s really messed up like that…unless he’s just a pyromaniac and is fine with people surviving provided the school burns…? Also, would just having the floor on fire be enough…? I’m no expert on pryotechnics, and I will confess to never having tried to set fire to a building before. I promise…but I do wonder whether this would have worked or not.

Finally, he exited the school using his handy set of keys.

You don’t need your keys, Aiden, you just need a fire exit. As will most other people. You idiot. Unless this school doesn’t have fire exits. Considering the terrible architecture, what with windows that can be shattered by briefcases and lockers that nobody can find, it wouldn’t surprise me…

Then we get this interesting moment…

Then he stopped dead. Should he fetch Russell? Nah. He was a stupid pathetic wimp. What did Aiden care if he burnt to death, really? Aiden shook his head and walked away.

Does Aiden hold any brotherly affection for Russell or not? It doesn’t seem likely, given his disregard for human life, but…you never know…

And so onto Chapter Thirteen: Arson. A rather convenient name, one must agree…

We start off with Caleb (THE SUAVE, MAGNIFICENT, SUE-ISH, CONTRIVED,  FORTUNE-MAKING, IRRITATING, CREATOR’S PET-LIKE AND not actually used for a while up until this point…) struggling to get through a locked door…

Caleb forced himself to calm down. He would just have to find another way, or at the very most wait until somebody found him.

There’s always a fire exit. Just saying. Although we don’t actually know where Caleb is. The descriptions are never very clear, so he may very well have gone into a small room for a little private time after Queenie once again complimented his ability to find long lost wills in old beer bottles.

Caleb then smells the smoke and hears the fire alarm going off, and realises that his need to get out quickly has become a lot more dire.

How was he supposed to get out? There was a window nearby but it was locked.
Wait. What was he saying?
A locked door and window, and the need to get out quickly. Now where had he heard that before?

Ah yes. Caleb recalls the time he left Mr Mothman for dead in his office, and decides to use a similar escape mechanism on the ridiculously fragile windows.

His eyes immediately fell upon a large red fire extinguisher. It was carbon dioxide, so he couldn’t use it against the fire in this confined area unless he wanted to suffocate. 

OK, so we have a confirmation that he is in quite a confined area. Fair enough – but this raises a few issues…

  1. First off, where even is he?? A confined area is all we get…how many confined areas are there in a school?
  2. Why is he in this anonymous confined area? Masturbating honestly seems to be the most viable reason at the moment…
  3. What sort of room was it that Aiden thought to lock?
  4. Why is there a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher in such a confined area with no fire exit? Surely that would have been condemned the last time a health and safety inspector came around…

So, Caleb takes the fire extinguisher, smashes the window and opens it from the outside. Why do these windows lock from the inside but not the outside? Again, a much better architect needs to come to this school…

However, Caleb discovers that amongst those who have evacuated the building, me, Jack and all of the girls aren’t among them.

Yeah. It literally says ‘all of the girls.’ I don’t know if it means literally every single girl that attends the school, or just the ones in our class because they’re the only ones we care about, but this does raise two observations.

  1. Is this just a horribly sexist insight, and that I thought women were helpless in emergency situations?
  2. I love how Jack and I are categorised among the girls. Makes quite a lot of sense…

“I can’t see a thing!” Jack complained, peering through the smoke and coughing.

Why are we so useless at this procedure? We somehow managed to get ourselves lost…find a fire exit, you losers!

Also, has Aiden’s fire really spread that quickly around the school, or are we just unlucky enough to stumble across it?

“W-well,” Toby coughed, “we need to get some wet material and put it over our-” he choked “-mouth and nose.”

Again, not a bad response to try and avoid smoke inhalation, but we don’t need to do that right now. The first thing we need to do is get the fuck out of the burning building.

“Hey, do you think Caleb’s all right?” Jack asked.

We seem to know he’s gone off somewhere secluded to masturbate…

“Course,” Toby replied, setting off in the direction of the staffroom. “He’s as resourceful as Alex Rider. But I’m more concerned about the girls.”

Wait…

OK…

Let’s analyse this…

  1. If we can see well enough to navigate ourselves to the staffroom, then perhaps we could MAKE OUR WAY TO THE NEAREST FUCKING FIRE EXIT AND NOT END UP DYING IN THE FUCKING FIRE. YOU FUCKING IDIOTS HAVE A DEATH WISH.
  2. OK, obviously, we want to try and get the girls out. What the hell makes us assume the girls can’t get out themselves? That’s probably the most misogynistic moment of the story, coupled with the whole, ‘ooh, redheads!’ part. Other than blatant chauvinism, the only other explanation I can think for us being desperate to get the girls out is that, like Caleb, we know they’re in a tight spot. Perhaps they locked themselves away for an orgy or something. I wouldn’t put it past me to write something like that in, even at 13, but…
  3. What makes us assume that we would be remotely good at getting the girls out? Presumably, this is all the girls in our form, and there’s only two of us. If it were a case of unlocking the door, then maybe, but we would, realistically, be utterly useless at this. Leave the heroics to the fire brigade, you twats.

So, we make it to the staffroom, only to discover that the door is locked. Aiden’s pretty thorough…

And then we get a moment that, despite being as cheesy and ridiculous as anything…is still pretty funny and kind of cool…

Jack called Aiden something that suited him. “He must have locked the doors as well!”
Then he coughed.
“I’ve had enough of this!” Jack declared. He went into the nearest classroom and came back with a chair.
“I know Mr Mothman and various others will skin us alive for this but…” he ran at the locked door, driving the chair directly into it. The legs of the chair broke through the woodwork, and it was just a simple matter of Jack unlocking the door from the inside.

OK, apart from the fact that that classroom probably had a fire exit, and the fact that that has got to be the cheapest door in existence to have a chair so easily go through it, and that once again the protagonists are doing more damage to the school than probably the fire itself, this scene…is just so damn funny. CHAIR-FU!

We get some wet tea-towels (wet with what?) tied over our mouths and noses and go to find the girls, because apparently we’re nothing without them. That’s a slightly better way of looking at it, especially considering it’s probably true given the awful personalities we’ve displayed throughout the story.

Also, wouldn’t any teachers be doing rounds of the school? They have a duty of care after all, and they should check for stragglers. And somehow I don’t think half a class of girls and two boys breaking down the staffroom door would go unnoticed. All these teachers appear to be shit.

Queenie staggered through the smoke, her eyes streaming, until she came across Carol and Ruth, both of them choking morbidly.
“I can’t see the way out!” Ruth coughed. “What are we supposed to do?”

For God’s sake, why does nobody know the layout of the school? There have got to be exits everywhere, and I doubt the fire is blocking off every single one, Aiden only set on corridor alight. Is the entire school made out of ethanol? Furthermore, EVERY SINGLE YEAR 9 GIRL IS THERE. Well, with exceptions…umm…just read it…

[…]through the smoke she could make out the distinctive figures of Cordella, Meena and all the other year 9 girls (apart from Whitney and Summer who had seemingly got out selfishly before them).

WAIT A FUCK.

WHAT THE HELL KIND OF COMMENT IS THAT???

WHITNEY AND SUMMER ARE NOT CONTRACTUALLY BOUND TO STICK AROUND AND WAIT FOR EVERY SINGLE CLASSMATE OF THERE’S WHILST THE BUILDING BURNS AROUND THEM, ALRIGHT???? THEY HAVE MORE FUCKING SENSE THAN ANYONE ELSE STUCK IN THIS SCHOOL BECAUSE THEY CLEARLY REMEMBER WHERE THE FUCKING FIRE EXITS ARE!!!! YOU LOT AND JACK AND I PROBABLY DESERVE TO DIE BECAUSE WE’RE TOO FUCKING STUPID TO TRY AND GET OUT WHILE WE CAN. WE’D EVEN WIN DARWIN AWARDS FOR IT, TAKING OURSELVES OUT OF THE VERY WEIRD AND MESSY GENE POOL THIS STORY HAS…

ALSO, CALEB GOT HIMSELF AND HIMSELF ALONE OUT OF HIS MASTURBATORY CLOSET. WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU NOT CALLING HIM SELFISH??? ‘OH, WHEN THE SUAVE AND MAGNIFICENT GARY STU WHO THE AUTHOR MIGHT EVEN HAVE A CRUSH ON DOES IT, IT’S RESOURCEFUL AND A CROWNING MOMENT OF AWESOME. WHEN THE LESBIANS GIRLS YOU DON’T PARTICULARLY LIKE DO IT, IT’S FUCKING EVIL AND SELFISH, OF COURSE!!!’ YOUR HATRED FOR THEM IS BLINDING YOU TO THE REAL DANGER. YOU JUST ASSUME THEY GOT OUT BECAUSE YOU ASSUME THE WORST ABOUT THEM, WHICH DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE BECAUSE LEAVING A BURNING BUILDING IS A PERFECTLY SENSIBLE COURSE OF ACTION. FOR ALL YOU KNOW, THEY COULD BE TRAPPED IN A ROOM WHERE THEY WENT TO KISS WITHOUT ALL THE ACCUSING STARES FROM HOMOPHOBES, AND WITH NOBODY ELSE WHO LOVES THEM, WILL EMBRACE ACCEPT THEIR FATES AS THE FLAMES LICK AROUND THEM, JUST HAPPY TO BE TOGETHER AT THE END. ONCE THEIR INTERTWINED BODIES ARE PULLED OUT OF THE ASHES, YOU WON’T BE HAVING A GO AT THEM THEN, YOUR HEARTLESS FUCKS. YOU’LL BE WRITING THE GREATEST LOVE STORY EVER TOLD, ‘WHITNEY AND SUMMER: FUCKING TOGETHER IN DEATH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’

*heavy breathing*

What the hell just happened…? Let’s never refer to this again…clearly I have been spending too much time with only my stories for company…

So, Carol works out an ingenious solution to try and get out…

Carol started pacing back and forth. Eventually she pointed to the right and said,
“Let’s move this way. It’s warmer the other way, so I’m guessing that’s where the fire is.”

Relying of thermoception because you can’t remember the layout of the school and where the fire exits are. Good a way as any I suppose…

So, as the girls try and make their way through with many of their party collapsing (yes, I’m serious), we cut back to me having lost Jack in the smoke. WHY IS THIS SMOKE UNNATURALLY THICK?

However, I see another figure in the smoke…none other than Sean. Clearly in not state to kill me this time…

As Toby moved closer, he could also make out the sign he’d been hoping for. A green rectangle with the words: PUSH BAR TO OPEN on it. A fire exit.

The only one in the entire school by the looks of things.

Because Sean is coughing like a theatrically ill victim, I put aside the fact that he has tried to kill me on several occasions and help him to stand and lead him out of the exit. Even in such a weird situation, I’m glad that I did recognise the element of concluding a story arc that concern two people with animosity overcoming their differences. It was a sign of things to come, I feel.

Meanwhile, all the girls are continuing to collapse until only Carol (the only resourceful person, it seems) is left standing, BUT BARELY. The smoke inhalation I seem to brush off as just knocking people out rather than potentially killing them…

But just before she passes out, Jack comes along to…hold her. Yeah, that’s literally all he does before passes out and the fire brigade show up (at fucking last) to rescue these pathetic stragglers.

Jack sighed with relief. Everything was going to be all right.

Well, maybe not. The girls have breathed in a lot of smoke. They could still, y’know, die. But in any case, that was the climax of the story everyone, and as promised, it was just as stupid as the rest!

There are only two chapters left in this story, where they wrap up a few more things (including the fact that Naomi’s still being held captive, so don’t worry…) so join me whenever and thanks for reading.

Images belong to respective owners.

 

Anime Analysis – Haganai

Whoa!

It’s like a reunion party.

Yeah, OK, so it’s been quite a while since my last blog post. I’ve been busy. Lol, brilliant joke that, I should be busy with all my work, but you tend to care less about things that matter when you get the feeling you don’t matter…

Sorry, this kind of thing settles in during the holidays, when I discover all of my friends actually have lives and they’re busy doing all this cool stuff whilst I’m just willing away the time and trying to stop my cat coming into my room, which is more difficult than it sounds, because she’s very stubborn.

Anyway, I was going to write a little piece about shipping in the fandom communities, but my mind’s not nearly together enough to write something like that at the moment. So, instead, I thought I’d do another anime review, this time of a little show that I like to call Haganai. Why do I like to call it Haganai? Because it’s less of a mouthful than Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, which is it’s full name. Trust me, I’m not the only one.

Haganai is a harem anime based off of a light novel. Now, I can imagine that’s already ringing faint alarm bells. For those not in the know, a harem series is basically a set-up with a main male character who’s surrounded, either romantically or in any other way, by a whole load of attractive girls. They will all want him at various stages. There’s also reverse harem, which has the genders flipped. Now, obviously this kind of set-up is there for one purpose only – fanservice and wish fulfilment. OK, that’s two purposes, but if  you really care that much, come over to my house and we’ll have cake.

A lot of people in the anime community see harem series as largely glorified porn without anything resembling a decent storyline, and who can blame them? I certainly thought this way when I started discovering various harem series and was bitterly disappointed about how uncaring the writer seemed to be. But I get the feeling that my experience in harem anime was ruined beforehand by Haganai – after seeing that particular harem anime, nothing I saw since then measured up to it.

Haganai may be a harem anime, but honestly, I really love it, it’s one of my favourites. That is a personal preference though, to be very straightforward, I can see why some people may be put off. It is still, as I keep on reiterating, a harem anime, and an ecchi one at that. Whilst there is a lot to recommend in terms of story and character, you will find that the common harem tropes, including the less desirable ones, keep on creeping back in.
screenshot-12_17_2011-11_46_33-am
Oh Lord, we’ll get to that in a minute…

No, let’s start with the story as it is.

A new transfer student to St. Chronica’s high school, Kodaka Hasegawa, hasn’t made a single friend in the month he’s been there. Why? Well, the blond hair he inherited from his late English mother makes him look, in the eyes of all the other students, a delinquent. And a miscommunication on his first day has cemented the image of him as a thug. One day, he finds a classmate of his, Yozora Mikazuki, chatting animatedly and cheerfully to an apparently empty room, which surprises him, as she is normally very sullen-looking. Yozora seems shocked to see him enter the room and is quick to defend her actions – she claims she was talking to Tomo, her best friend ever – who’s made of air.

As the two discuss the role of friendships, Kodaka quickly learns that Yozora has no friends either, but something they discuss gives Yozora an idea – soon enough, she announces to him that she’s founded a club known as the Neighbour’s Club, the purpose of which is to allow people to make friends and practice social events with said friends. Eventually the club begins to fill with a whole range of misfits, including Sena, a ridiculously hot, popular rich girl who’s fed up of being ogled and wants real friends for a change, Yukimura, a very feminine-looking boy (or so he says…) who looks up to Kodaka as the epitome of masculinity, Rika, a sex-obsessed reclusive teen genius who speaks in the third person, Kobato, Kodaka’s 13-year-old sister obsessed with vampires (whom Sena has a really creepy thing for…) and Maria, the club advisor, a religious sister of the school who Yozora finds very easy to manipulate considering she’s only 10 years old. Although a lot of episodes are just focused on the activities of the club, a story arc concerning the relationship between Kodaka and the main girls is made obvious early on, although I don’t wish to spoil it here.

One of the things that I think really appeals to me about this series is the concept – as someone who’s own social skills are hardly advanced and has often lamented about the role and significance of friends in my life, this spoke to me in a way that I’m sure any other harem series I started with wouldn’t. In this way, I feel like an equal to the members of the club, because no matter how they differ, their crippling lack of social skills puts them on a level of something I can relate to, and I think in fact most people can – although not everyone has such crippling social problems, I’m sure most people have felt insecure about who they can rely on. And not only can you identify with the characters on this level, but they feel very much like they’re on an equal level with each other too. Nowhere in the series did I feel that one character was being bigged up too much or too little, and I think that may have been deliberate on the author’s part to make the characters seem this equal and therefore, however subtly, strengthen their bond. Even Kodaka never felt like too much of a Creator’s Pet – although he very often played the straight man in whatever comedic punchline the story felt like dishing up, sometimes he was also the butt of the joke, and he also had his moments of being slightly unhinged…

And, significantly, I think I will bring up the humour – even if the plot or characters rub you the wrong way, this is one of the best comedy shows I have ever seen. The best part is, most of it literally comes from the members of the club just sitting around talking. The topic of conversation is normally relevant to whatever they plan on doing that day, but it often goes off on various tangents, whether it be Yozora and Sena’s inability to stand one another (which often leads to Sena overreacting to something Yozora said and flees the room crying), or Rika just being…Rika…
There is a reason she’s my favourite character in the show…
6aSf2

Another key strength is the characters, which I’ll got into more detail about now. Kodaka might just be one of the best leads I’ve seen in anime series ever – and this makes a really nice contrasts to a lot of harem leads who are just as dull as driftwood. He isn’t some pervert who the world craps on from a great height, nor is he a pinball protagonist. He’s intelligent, fairly sane and values friendship and loyalty – perhaps even more significantly, he’s flawed in spite of his good nature. Apart from the fact that he’s incapable of telling a joke properly, he also suffers from the crippling need to maintain the status quo. His value of the present compared to the past or future that Yozora and Sena value respectively (more of that will become clear as the plot develops) puts him at odds with his life forcing him to make important choices. Although he acts oblivious, he is fully aware that the girls, particularly Yozora and Sena, are making moves on him, and he knows he’s going to have to confront it one day, but his inability and unwillingness makes for good drama – his refusal to face up to the changing motions of his life drags the conflict on, and allows for more drama, perhaps more than you’d expect from such a show.

This is also where Rika comes in – I’ve already established she’s my favourite character, but my preference stems from far more than just her wonderful desire to make love to every boy/girl/robot/jellyfish/train she sees (I’m sure there are more such things, these are just examples invoked in the show). She cottons on, quite early, to Kodaka skirting around the elephant in the room, and this comes into brilliant fruition in the second series. She seems at first willing to let it go, but she becomes more confrontational with Kodaka about it when his refusals begin to tear the club apart, as it’s something she can’t bear to lose, as the club has offered her the greatest experiences of her life.

OK – so what issues are there with this series?

Well…mainly the fanservice. On the one hand, being a heterosexual male, I’m certainly not going to say no to plenty of shots of cleavage, prominent female rear ends and girls in cute outfits. But there is a line to be drawn, I feel, for the sake of the plot, and well, there are occasions where they go too far – it may be a case of crossing the line twice, in that they go so overboard it suddenly becomes funny, but on other occasions it just serves no purpose.  Take the above picture as an example – it’s from the beach episode (standard for this genre) where the Neighbour’s Club stay at Sena’s family’s private beach as they’re not great with massive crowds and they’re putting on sunblock. Yozora takes the opportunity to humiliate Sena by applying some via her foot onto Sena’s back and pressing down hard on her centre of gravity to prevent her from getting up. The sunblock makes a very obvious and poignant noise, and it’s resemblance to a certain discharge is obvious enough – the main problem is, the scene goes on for a few minutes…and at the end of it you’re just really uncomfortable. More weirdly, Yozora is saying all sorts of things you’d expect to hear a dominatrix say. Now, she does have a fly-swat that she hits members of the club with to keep them in line, but this scene has nothing to do with it and is really out of nowhere.

And…OK…it’s got to be said. Lolicon.
Both Kobato and Maria play this role – they both see Kodaka as a big brother, which I think is fair enough. But they also get nude shots. Kobato is 13, and Maria is 10…and even though the scenes are in non-sexual contexts and are only brief, they are VERY uncomfortable to watch. I would completely understand if you couldn’t see past that, although it may provide you some comfort to know that, as Kobato and Maria are animated, there aren’t any real under-age girls being exploited or exposed. But admittedly, the idea is still very off-putting.

Oh, and then there’s the ending. The last episode of the second series (the current final episode) isn’t bad in an of itself, but the very end is ridiculous. I’m not going to say why, all I’m going to say is…brace yourself…

But overall, Haganai has some wonderful characters, hilarious comedy, very good writing for the genre and overall, despite the hiccups, it’s a personal fave. If you’re in the mood for something new, I’d say go and check it out. I hope you liked this review and I hope you’ll let me know what you thought.

All images belong to their respective owners.

Anime Analysis – Sound! Euphonium

Well hello there, and Happy International Women’s Day! If you’re reading this on the day it was posted…or you know, annually since then.

My day’s been pretty standard as it is, and I’ve felt, as someone who strongly identifies as a feminist, and who believes society’s gender roles are a restrictive, throttling obstruction, I feel I should make some small contribution to this day. Obviously there’s no obligation, but it feels right to do so. Soooooo, this post, whilst serving another purpose (made obvious by the title) does kind of connect to the theme of today in a convoluted way that makes sense in my head at least. Please note that I may be doing more anime reviews, or indeed film reviews at a later stage, and if this is well-received, feel free to comment on what you want to me analysing.

A bit of background – Sound! Euphonium, also known as Hibike! Euphonium (the exclamation marks are present at that point for some reason) was originally a Japanese novel, which was then adapted into a manga, and more recently into a 13-episode anime series produced by Kyoto Animation, which I started fairly recently and finished only a few days ago. I have to say, I was wonderfully impressed by it. I had seen other music anime before – Love Live! School Idol Project is one that springs to mind immediately, and I had also seen a bit of K-On! before getting bored and stopping…sorry, K-On! fans…

The genre itself is one that I think, in many ways, you either like or you don’t. I happen to love musicals (except maybe Grease), and even jukebox musicals, the genre which makes use of existing songs for it’s musical numbers, can have a charm to them if used in the right context, in something like Fox’s musical dramedy Glee. But more on that another time. In the case of music anime, they tend to be focused around certain genre of music – K-On! was about light music, whereas Love Live was very explicitly and obviously about idols. This one concerns classical music and concert music, which is something I haven’t immersed myself in before, but I do enjoy the genre of music, so I was willing to give it a go. But what really grasped me is the story itself.

Our protagonist is a bright young spark, a first-year high school student called Kumiko Oumae. She has a history of playing brass instruments, specifically the euphonium, but questions her dedication and ability to be swayed by the opinions of others. She joins her school’s orchestral music club along with two friends she makes – one, a chirper beginner at music with a slightly tomboyish style named Hazuki Katou, and a soft-spoken contrabass player named Sapphire Kawashima, though understandably she prefers to be called ‘Midori.’ However, a few problems are afoot with the club – firstly, Kumiko is reunited with Reina Kousaka, a girl she knew from her old school who was reduced to tears when their concert band was unsuccessful in a competition and was highly indignant at Kumiko’s dismissal. Kumiko is uncertain how to act around her, and is seemingly reminded of her own issues with her personality when encountered with her. Reina herself seems to act aloof and indifferent, and focuses on her trumpet expertise. The other issue concerns the new instructor to the group – a professional who seems very serene and smilingly polite, is revealed to be very blunt and unapologetic about his criticisms and the groups rustiness. Most of the story concerns the band ascending to improve themselves, partially in indignation, and also for many of the members to resolve any personal issues they may have throughout the process.

One thing that really stands out to me about the quality of this show is the characters. Let’s start with Kumiko herself. Knowing what I did about music anime and female characters in school-related anime in general, I was expecting Kumiko to be cast from the same mould – the high-pitched, cheerful, naive everygirl who has a ditzy personality and the strong intent to never offend, who gets bad grades on top of that. All anime fans know the type of character – people like Yui Hirasawa, Honoka Kosaka, Nagisa Aoi, Madoka Kaname, all very much the same archetype. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad or unlikeable characters. Madoka, I think, has a character type that works very well for the series she’s in, but I’m indifferent to Yui and whilst I don’t really dislike Honoka or Nagisa, they’re far from the most interesting characters in their respective series (Love Live and Strawberry Panic). The problem is, as I’ve said, you’ve seen this character so many times you just find them boring. In this sense Kumiko was a pleasant surprise. I think I first noticed her distinction when she first arrived at her new school and saw the concert band giving a performance outside the school to welcome new arrivals. They gave a fairly standard display of their talents, and Kumiko’s first reaction was to say to herself: ‘Wow…they suck.’

Perhaps is because she’s based off a character from a novel, but Kumiko’s character strikes me as a lot more three-dimensional than a lot of other protagonists. Whilst she’s not entirely well-spoken and is swayed by others, she nevertheless knows her own mind and is far from polite when she needs to express it, and whilst she’s quick to judge the quality of some people and how the perform, her own insecurities come bubbling up to the surface in a very realistic way. She doesn’t just say, ‘oh, I’m no good’ and apologises a lot, she’s quite angry and adamant about it and seems to convince herself that there’s not much point in getting other people to help her – that this is a mountain she should climb herself. Self-determination and the goal to be the best sets her apart from the aforementioned female protagonist archetype, who don’t tend to have much of a goal at all. For this reason, she’s very entranced by Reina, who’s another interesting character.

Kumiko’s and Reina’s relationship is definitely one of the main selling points of this anime too…and when I say relationship, well…
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I didn’t edit this, this is an actual screenshot from the series, subtitles and all.

It’s interesting, because in the original book, Kumiko has a romantic subplot with a childhood friend of hers, a guy named Shuichi, who’s also part of the music club and plays the trombone. It seems obvious to me the that the overseers of the anime and possibly the manga too had a very different ship in mind. And…yeah, I ship it too. Shuichi’s role is reduced to supporting and it bigs up the romantic subtext between Kumiko and Reina, so much so that Sound! Euphonium is firmly in the ranks of those anime which aren’t technically yuri (female-female love), but much like Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Love Live, the subtext is so strong that it might as well be.

The thing is, their relationship does really work. Kumiko has big ideas, but nevertheless feels tied to people’s perceptions, and whilst she wishes to break free from that, still feels guilty if she thinks she’s upset someone. Reina is single-minded in her ideas of self-improvement, and whilst talented, she seems to know that she’s an elitist. She admits that she likes Kumiko because she has a ‘horrible personality’ but was concerned about being awarded the solo trumpet part at their upcoming competition, as she’ll be depriving a much loved popular third-year student of that opportunity, and that she’ll be ‘a villain.’ Kumiko’s response? ‘Then I’ll be a villain with you! Also Reina, I think I really want to finger y-‘

Are they bad for each other? Well, maybe not – Kumiko constantly tells Reina that she wants to be ‘special’ like her, and is an obvious point of accomplishment for her. Perhaps in more ways than one…
What’s more, Reina becomes a lot less frosty with everyone as the series progresses, largely because she has Kumiko as a morality pet, someone who’ll shut up and listen for a few minutes and who is willing to do what other people want of her, even if she’s not shy to give her opinions. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit I wished they kissed at some point, perhaps a very strong platonic bond is far better for terms of a decent, developed, female character. See me trying to make a loose connection here…?
Kumiko rejects most of Shuichi’s advances in the series, displaying, first and foremost, that she has interests outside of getting a guy, which is sadly a flaw of many female leads in anime (and everything else really) in the past. We’re looking at you, Sakura Haruno. It’s not just Kumiko and Reina who are different in this regard – the majority of the members of the music club are girls, and most character development seen from their perspectives are unrelated to the few boys in their group. Hell, Shuichi is the only guy that ever really does anything. And this, to me, reflects an evolving world.  Debatable? Well, feel free to say what you think, but I love Kumiko and Reina’s ambition, and I love everyone else’s habit of not being tied down by what restricted their gender in the past, both in fiction and reality. There’s even a scene in which Kumiko’s close friend Hazuki, whom I briefly mentioned, invites Shuichi, whom she has a crush on, to one of those staple Japanese festivals that seem to crop up in a lot of anime series. (Kumiko, of course, was up the hill with Reina.) She confesses her feelings to him at this festival, to which he awkwardly replies he doesn’t feel that way. Her reaction? She sucks it up and says, stubbornly, that with that out of the way, she’s going to try and get him and Kumiko together, as it’s obvious he’s into her. No moping, no anger vented towards Kumiko, this girl reacted a hell of a lot better than I would have done.

Most of the other characters are reasonably standard, but they’re all likeable enough. There’s no character I dislike, and some really stand out as being very memorable and some of my favourites. I’ve already talked about Kumiko and Reina, but there’s also Taki, the music instructor I mentioned. What’s interesting about him is his blunt delivery – he wastes no time on telling anyone who’s struggling or not keeping up that they should practice or else they won’t be good enough for their competition. He’s kind of ruthless in this regard, and yet at the same time, he’s polite, soft-spoken, unabashedly democratic and fair, and, nearer the end, expresses a great pride at how far everyone’s come. And he is a main driving force as well – naturally, many band members feel resentment towards him, and resentment that drives them to improve themselves.

Another character that really stands out and might be my favourite is Asuka – she’s the vice-president of the music club, and, much like Taki, you never entirely know what she’s thinking. At first, she’s quite loud, energetic, and very eager to induct girls into her section of the band, in a way that once again brings to yuri undertones bubbling to the surface. It really doesn’t help that she keeps on talking about fingering. In regards to holding brass instruments, of course…

But as time goes on, it’s revealed that she’s a little more complex than that. A lot of people constantly ask why she doesn’t opt for president of the group, as she has the kind of charisma. She replies that such a position doesn’t interest her, and it seems to me that her reasoning may simply be she’s very good and noticing people’s strengths and insecurities, and prods them in the right direction ever so subtly. She just enjoys it that way. Whilst she is a cornerstone of the band, she’s definitely not someone to cross.
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What else can I say about the series? The art is gorgeous and very real-looking, the musical moments are wonderful. I still listen to the opening theme constantly. I also love the tone of the story. Things like Love Live were very much about comradery, and whilst there’s definitely elements of that, there’s much more of a steer towards the message of perseverance and personal accomplishment, something that you feel in both the characters you’ve got to know, and the atmosphere created. When they’re performing in front of an audience, I feel the ringing nervous silence proceeding the performance in the same vain, thrown back to my recent performance in a showcase, and my not as recent performance in a musical – I feel this as the characters do, it captures it very well.

I can’t think of much wrong with this series, other than occasionally it does move a little slowly. I found some story points in some episodes being milked for a little too long, but this is nullified in the later episodes, and the fact that I rushed to finish is telling that it certainly isn’t boring. Ultimately, I would recommend this to anyone, particularly if you like music anime. In my opinion, it’s 13-episodes-worth of your time worth giving up.

So, thanks for reading this, give me your opinions in comments either here, or if you’re coming here from a link on other social media I have, that’s also fine to comment on there. And as a special treat, before I finish off here, here’s more of Kumiko and Reina:
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All images belong to their respective owners.