Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.

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Reviewing Emer O’Toole’s Girls Will Be Girls

One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to grow out and reshape my eyebrows and let me tell you, it has been a struggle. I plucked them so thin over the years – and from above which is a mortal eyebrow sin – that it has now been two months and they still look patchy and weird. I long for the day, around two weeks from now, that I will finally get them professionally shaped. I’m quite literally having dreams about it.

Anyway. Thanks to my wonderful housemate Hattie I managed to get an advanced copy of Emer O’Toole’s Girls Will Be Girls, and I knew straight away that I wanted to review it for Abstract. It’s all about the identity theory of performativity, which changed the way I think about a lot of different things when I first encountered it at my second year of university. But it’s often written about in such overly verbose academic language that it can be difficult to share with people. Girls Will Be Girls is the book I wish I could have written, because it not only explains the theory in a language that is accessible, but it is also hilarious and entertaining at the same time.

And because I have spent so much time thinking about my eyebrows over the last two months, I couldn’t help but talk about them too. You can read the review here.

Side note: we’re relaunching Abstract for our first anniversary on 12 March, so we’ve had some amazing new content coming in. There has been some particularly great lifestyle pieces: check out Kate Duckney on male feminists on Twitter, Bethan Williams on believing she will win the lottery (IN HER BONES) and Maura Flatley on moving to Spain.


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Concrete: Rewriting the Rules – review

The self-help section is a scary corner of any bookshop. There are hundreds of titles promising perfection in your love life, your career, your soul – if only you’d follow a few easy steps.

The obvious response, of course, is that if it is so easy to fix every aspect of your life by reading a couple of books, then why are so many published? And why do they seem to contradict each other?

Combating this problem, Dr Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules claims to be an “anti-self-help” book. Rather than giving a set of rules which must be followed to the letter, Barker draws on her career as a psychology academic and sex therapist to offer a critical look at the “rules” of relationships.Rewriting the RulesImage via

Do we really need to find “the One” to prove that we’re worth something? If we break up with someone, is that relationship now meaningless? What about sex – does that always have to be “normal”? What if we don’t want to be with just one person?

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Concrete: ParaNorman

Laika’s ParaNorman is the heart-warming tale of a young boy who sees dead people, which, as Bruce Willis knows, is always a winner.

More interested in hanging out with his dead grandma than the living people around him, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just your average misunderstood paranormal 11 year old until he has to help save his town from a witch’s curse (oh, and zombies).

While the story is a little predictable, it’s still sweet and entertaining. There are some endearing and funny moments, mostly dependent on the mix of conventional horror tropes and realistic domestic comedy, such as Norman and his sister being chastised by their mother for squabbling with one of the zombies in the back seat of the family car. There are also several more self-aware “adult” moments which set it apart from the average kids’ film. The stop-motion animation amongst the standard CGI gives it a classic edge, particularly alongside the out-of-proportion character design.

While there could have been a few extra horror references for the movie-buffs and more shocking twists and turns, ParaNorman is an enjoyable watch with a superbly balanced blend of mock-horror and comedy.


The internet is stupid: my existential ParaNorman crisis

So yesterday I did my first film review of the year for Concrete, the student newspaper that someone (for some reason) put me in charge of. I was super excited about it. A lot of what I’ve been doing since becoming editor involves answering emails and passing on the more interesting work to other people so that I can free up time to answer more emails. So when the film editors desperately needed a ParaNorman review at short notice, I jumped at the chance to go back to basics (and get a free trip to the cinema).

It was a pretty good film. There were better animations this summer (bravebravebrave) but overall it was funny and smart and cute.

Now for the angry ranting.

Before I went into the film, my housemate told me it was the first kids’ animation with an openly gay character. Awesome, I thought. I can totally write about that in my review!

In the end, I didn’t think it was really worth mentioning. The two “older sibling” characters are set up as a potential romance throughout the film (by which I mean the seemingly-shallow sister outrageously tries to get the attention of the oblivious older brother whose shoulders are four times as wide as his waist). After all the zombie shenanigans are over, she finally gets the courage to ask him to see a movie with her. He responds positively, and tells her that she’ll really like his boyfriend, who loves chick-flicks.


I thought this was pretty cool, but ultimately not really something I wanted to write about when there was so much else going on – the storytelling, the humour, the cute stop animation effect. With only 200 words to play with, Mitch’s sexuality was not really relevant to my enjoyment of the film.

And then I started reading all of the other reviews people had written. My aforementioned housemate found this terrifying collection of responses from parents who were outraged at that one line which had very little to do with the rest of the plot. Let’s illustrate this point with a randomly selected sentence: “had to try explaining it to a nine year old that we hate the sin, love the sinner, and that some boys are just confused by their gender.” Followed by more exclamation marks than could fit in a single line of text.

God dammit, mothers on the internet.

My immediate response was to completely rewrite my own review in defence of a children’s film’s choice to not only include a gay character, but to include a gay character whose sexuality is of absolutely no consequence. Sort of like, you know, everyone in real life who is defined by more than one aspect of their identity, which is in itself a fluid and ever-changing process.

But then, after the second half of my review became a thinly-veiled backlash to the film’s politicised responses, I realised exactly what I had done. Part of what annoys me most about those other reviews is that they let something which shouldn’t even be important colour their whole opinion of the film. So by giving such a disproportionate amount of space to defending the action, I was really doing the same thing.

The fact that Mitch is gay is not a big deal. He admits it freely, and clearly no one else in the film has an issue with it. His line takes up maybe four seconds of screentime, in a film which is 92 minutes long (roughly 5,520 seconds). That means that Mitch’s sexuality makes up 0.072% of the movie.

I’m so mad about this issue that I did maths, you guys.

In the end, for me, or anyone else, to spend most of my supposedly objective review talking about 0.072% of a movie actually does it a disservice. And it politicises something which shouldn’t be political in the first place.

Chris Butler, who wrote and co-directed the film, had this to say on the matter when speaking to Indiewire: “I wanted it from the start, absolutely. It seemed like the best bookend to that whole tolerance thing and to do it as a joke, a kind of throwaway thing, but something that has NEVER been done before. I think we’re telling a story about intolerance, so you have to be brave about it.”

And he’s exactly right. It’s important that gay people are included across the media, and it may be even more important that their sexuality is portrayed as only a small part of their identity. Not every gay character on TV or in movies needs to struggle with coming out and defy ignorant bullies by spreading glitter and rainbows wherever they go. A lot of people just happen to also be gay, and that should be reflected too.

In the end, I took the response to the film’s responses out of my official 200 words. For me to rise to the unfairly negative reviews and focus on that one issue would just invalidate my own argument, and ignore everything else about the film which I enjoyed.

Cue angry blog post instead.

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Not quite the same thing: HBO’s Newsroom and my week at work experience

Stay classy.

This week, two significant things have happened to me so far:

1) I finally started work experience at my local paper.

2) I finally started watching HBO’s The Newsroom.

Now, I should point out that by “started watching”, what I mean is I watched all five episodes available so far in just two nights. For some reason, I can’t stand that much TV in a row when I’ve got nothing to do with my time, but going out and having a purpose makes me feel perfectly justified in coming home and doing nothing.

Plus, I need to entertain myself while I finish knitting the tea cosy I promised my aunt and uncle six months ago.


Anyway, it was only logical that while I am doing journalism again for a week, I should also start watching TV about journalists. You know, as inspiration in case the residents of my town suddenly decide to overthrow their local council and govern themselves in a quaint ex-manufacturing town revolution. Power to the people! If you don’t mow out our publicly-owned grass right, we will mow YOU right! (Note: I am pretty sure this hasn’t happened yet, and that if it did they would have better slogans.)

Despite my optimism, my newsroom and HBO’s portrayal of an American broadcasting newsroom are a little different. While Will informs America on primetime TV that BP has caused the biggest environmental disaster in many years, I inform the local area that a questionnaire is being sent out to pensioners and disabled people asking what they think of their free bus pass. I don’t write about the results, mind you. Just that it’s being sent out and here is how you can have your say.

There are some other key differences: Will gets paid millions; I do this for free (in fact, I am beginning to have nightmares where endless faceless figures chant “It will look great on your CV!” as they dangle a career on a stick in front of me, and I am left eating raw potatoes for all of my adult life). Their team tries to come up with the most accurate and moral way of informing a nation about complex international events; I try to think of puns about woodchipping. The staff in America are caught in a series of complex love triangles and rivalries; we throw grapes at each other across the desks.

(Side note: what is it with America and cute floppy-haired Jims tortured by unrequited love? I keep expecting Steve Carrell to show up and do an inappropriate impression of Gadaffi on national TV.)

Pam, is that you?

Basically, there are highs and lows each way. The point I’m trying to make is that I really enjoy them both so far. I love being at a proper local paper, and I’m actually learning a lot about what makes good news articles. And The Newsroom is also pretty fantastic. Did I mention it has Dev Patel being an adorable nerd? Because it does.

Plus it is well-written and intelligent and saying some cool things about journalism, even though a lot of journalists apparently hated it. But if my life does not end up like Mackenzie MacHale’s, I will just be really sad.

Maybe now that I’ve been spending so much time reading about local council decisions, I will also get around to catching up on Parks and Rec.

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I talk about John Green a lot: a review of Jonathan Safran Foer

I have been struggling for a couple of days to write a blog post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s two novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I absolutely loved them both – halfway through reading each, I declared it to be my New Favourite Book, slightly illegitimising my own statement – but when I tried to explain why, I couldn’t.

But, dedicated new blogger that I am, I kept struggling on, determined to share my Safran Foer epiphany with the world in a well-written and structured post which would inspire people to open up a new tab, head straight to Amazon and order them both. But I couldn’t. I should have known that I couldn’t – when trying to explain the book to my housemate a few days before, I had said, “He just – he uses all these – it has all these, like, different ways, you know?” Needless to say, I am far more eloquent on paper (or rather, through screen) than I am out loud, and my housemate was left looking confused, and also amused.

But even through-screen, I couldn’t really get my thoughts across. The literature student took over and I just banged on about “narrative voice”, put the word “about” in quotes (a pretentious habit picked up in a Contemporary Writing class), and reverted to rather dry phrases like “non-traditional methods”. Now, that would all be fine if I was writing an essay about the two books, and I kind of hope one day I’ll get the chance to, because writing essays about things you love ought to be the whole point of writing essays, and often sadly it isn’t. But I was writing a blog post, and kind of boring even myself.

In the end, crippled with post-book sadness and frustrated that I couldn’t accurately portray my mid-book rapture, I just started copying out whole chunks of quotations in the hope that they would do my work for me. Spoilers: this is also not how you write a good review.

And then I just gave up completely and wrote a post about Fifty Shades of Grey for someone else’s blog instead, because it is a whole lot easier to just make fun of all the stupid stuff in the world than it is to write something meaningful. Finally, I decided to just put the review aside and come back to it later, and instead went about my daily life, giving my various siblings lifts to various places, answering emails about Concrete (my university’s student newspaper, which I am editor of and without which this summer I feel bereft of all purpose), and moving on to the next book waiting in the pile – in the form of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

This was also a good book. I mean, it wasn’t Safran Foer good, but it was pretty great. It’s a Kids With Cancer book, but the kids are doing their utmost to avoid the Kids With Cancer stereotypes, and frequently point out that most of those stereotypes are a load of crap. It did really well at portraying Kids With Cancer who were actually just kids who wished they didn’t have cancer any more, because they are too young and it’s not fair and the universe can be kind of terrible. But they were also incredibly funny, and the book made some beautiful observations about life, while acknowledging that life can often kind of suck. I enjoyed it a lot.

And it was talking about The Fault in Our Stars that I finally realised what I wanted to say about Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. My dad asked, as I was around 20 pages from the end and hadn’t moved in a while, probably looking quite distressed, how it was. I told him that it was sad, “but then it is a book about cancer.”

“Oh. So not a comedy then?”

“Actually, it’s really funny. Just not right now. The best sad books are also really funny.”

It was a slightly pretentious-literature-student comment to make (what the hell gives me the right to decide what makes the best sad books? Maybe what makes the best sad books is being sad ALL OF THE TIME, with no humorous respites to remind you of the beauty of life whatsoever) but it made me realise that it was also exactly what I wanted to say about Safran Foer.

Because both his books were also immensely, heart-breakingly sad. The first was about (or maybe “about”) the Holocaust. The second, 9/11. These are not fun topics. Neither, I don’t need to tell you, is cancer. It doesn’t take a literature student, pretentious or otherwise, to make this observation.

But it was the humour of all three books I am writing about which made me love them the most. And it was Safran Foer’s humour which I enjoyed more – the difference between “I really like this sad-funny book” and “this is my New Favourite Book, no really this time, I can’t even put it into words, please just read it and find out for yourself.”

It was all in the language. Everything is Illuminated is narrated – partly – by someone who learned English through a thesaurus (“all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name”), while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is narrated – partly – by a nine-year-old boy who can’t stop inventing (“… or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine”, which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know.”)

Safran Foer created totally unique and hilarious characters, who were also completely traumatised and deeply sad. But it wasn’t one-minute-you’re-laughing-the-next-you’re-crying. The laughter and the sadness were all mixed up into one, each trying to conceal the other, adding to the other, taking away. I’m getting pretentious again, but I sort of can’t help it. I really loved these books.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, especially, stuck with me. It’s very visual – there are photos and diagrams; two pages of numbers and punctuation as a man who can’t speak tries to communicate what may be a lifetime’s worth of thoughts down the phone to his wife, but we’ll never know; partially-overheard conversations with huge gaps missing in the text; a flip book of a man falling from the World Trade Centre in reverse, so he appears to be flying upwards.

These could easily come across annoying, gimmicky or too Literary (capital L), but I enjoyed them – and they worked just perfectly at their own points in the novel, adding just enough to make it stand out from all the Good Books I’ve read to become Maybe My New Favourite Book. I absolutely adored it, and if I could, I would force everybody I know to read it just so that I could look them in the eye and say “I know, right?”

But then again, I’ll probably change my mind in a couple of weeks.

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The Capitol is bad: an analysis of The Hunger Games

So, The Hunger Games. I haven’t had the free time to read them until the last couple of weeks, which left me out of many debates, mostly between people trying to put their finger on what, exactly, bothered them about this series. And now, because everybody else has moved on, I will try to articulate my response to that problem in a blog.

Because it’s true that as a story, they are very good. Children murdering each other! Creepy wolf mutations made out of aforementioned dead children! Dystopian politics, mind games and rebellions! A love triangle!

The problem, for me, was that there was just not a single ounce of subtlety. Absolutely everything was explained to an excruciating degree. Every metaphor came with a giant parade several floats long, declaring “Look everyone! Over here! Do you see me? I AM A METAPHOR.”

See that bread? IT IS A METAPHOR. Also the Capitol is bad.

It was all just so heavy handed. Like this moment, detailing Katniss’ inner turmoil in book one:

I avoid looking at anyone as I take tiny spoonfuls of fish soup. The saltiness reminds me of my tears.

Excuse me while I vomit everywhere.

Or this moment:

But if this is Prim’s, I mean, Rue’s last request, I have to at least try.

Because did you know that Rue reminds Katniss of Prim? It’s kind of a secret that she only mentions every time the girl shows up. Let me just take a moment to prove this, because seriously, the heavy-handedness bothered me, and this is just one example of over-explained symbolism among many.

When she first arrives, Katniss observes:

… she’s very like Prim in size and demeanour.

Then when she learns her name a few chapters later, a subtle comparison is made once again. But careful, you might miss it:

Rue is a small yellow flower that grows in the Meadow. Rue. Primrose.

In case putting their names side by side isn’t enough to make the comparison clear, Katniss later spells it out for us once more:

But I want her. Because she’s a survivor, and I trust her, and why not admit it? She reminds me of Prim.

Why not indeed? You know we really hadn’t noticed that before, Katniss. By the end, it’s not really a surprise that she gives up on any kind of narrative and just says “Prim, whoops, I mean Rue.” Because, at that point, there’s really no use even pretending that there is any kind of subtlety going on here.

See the flowers? THEY ARE A METAPHOR. Also, the Capitol is bad.

When Katniss starts talking about everything their “ancestors” did to screw things up, it gets so excruciating I can barely keep reading:

I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them.

Man. It’s almost like the entire series was created to make a point about the decline of a contemporary society which is concerned only with public image, entertainment, and who has the most powerful weapons.

Unfortunately, while all of Katniss’s thoughts and emotions are explained to an absurd degree, there are also a lot of things that are left completely unexplained, or just feel really rushed. Like the last part of Catching Fire – after the first two parts built the tension and established that whole rebellion plot, everything in the arena was very quick and hard to follow (there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere).

Sure, portraying a plot which is out of the main character’s hands and which she herself has no idea about (despite all the unbelievably obvious clues) is difficult with a first-person narrative. But even the stuff Katniss did understand was kind of rushed through. I swear the rest of the tributes died every other paragraph, and then the penultimate chapter was basically just “EVERYONE TURNS ON EACH OTHER NO WAIT EXPLOSIONS” and then it was over and I was confused.

The same thing often happened in Mockingjay. After the first two parts were just following Katniss around while she acted really stupid (this time other characters were ALSO following her around while she acted really stupid, with CAMERAS, to make PROPOS, which just made me giggle every time they were mentioned in a serious situation, because that is an unnecessarily comic name), all the action in the final part was rushed and badly explained.

Finnick dies before we even remember he’s there, and Prim shows up for about a line before she’s blown up in front of Katniss’ very eyes.

I mean, I have a lot of respect for Suzanne Collins for going ahead and killing Prim. I wasn’t sure she’d have the balls to do it. But was there really no build up whatsoever? She just showed up for no reason then exploded? Okay.

See that mockingjay? IT IS A METAPHOR. In case you miss it, every single character explains its symbolism at every opportunity. Also you know the Capitol? IT’S BAD YOU GUYS.

And that’s the real issue I had. There was so much potential for these books to be fantastic, but they just kept finding new ways to annoy me. When they should have been focusing on the rebellion and the politics of the dystopian world, they were focusing on who Katniss enjoyed kissing more. When they should have been all action and horror, it was rushed and then we were back to Katniss explaining her feelings and not understanding anything that happens around her.

And when it was really good – such as in the final chapters, when everything had fallen apart, Prim was dead, there was so much moral ambiguity that no one could be considered truly good anymore, especially not Katniss herself – even then, it still managed to annoy me. I was so excited – my first post here was about how much I like it when characters are killed off, and admittedly the series did not shy away from that. Sure, the novel was kind of lame up to that point but it was finally getting something right! Katniss’ narration didn’t get on my nerves at all when she genuinely seemed to have lost her grip on reality after everything she had been put through. But then suddenly she decided that she could live with it after all? And the cheesiest final lines ever written happened? And then she and Peeta had kids in the stupidest 20-years-on epilogue since Albus Severus Potter?

Not impressed.

And there were some really great parts too. The plot of the actual Hunger Games in the first book. The rebellion scenes in Catching Fire (even if Katniss was kind of oblivious to their significance). The genuinely dark moments of Mockingjay which, unfortunately, were often never brought up again. How much Peeta loved bread.

And because of that, despite making fun of it consistently all over twitter, I couldn’t hate it too much. Let’s be fair: it was still way, way better than Twilight.

See my fancy beard? IT IS A METAPHOR. Also, the Capitol is bad.