Carter, Gender & the Binary

In a Fairy Tale Fictions class I taught recently, while analysing the set text, a discussion was started concerning the gender-coding found in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter famously moves away from much of the gender expectations, by swapping gender-roles, or at time combining them. (Eg. In “The Bloody Chamber”, it is the mother, not the brothers, who come to the maiden’s rescue. In “The Werewolf”, ‘Red’ is both the young girl, and the hunter, while her grandmother is both Grandmother and Wolf.)

This discussion triggered a desire for me to lay-down to paper (or page) some ideas I had a while back regarding this topic. I will begin by saying that I have often been complimented and thrive off subverting gender-roles and expectations in my work. For example, In The Sons of Thestian, the prophetic royal in need of rescuing from a vicious step-mother is not a Princess, but a Prince, while the knight in shining armour who comes to his rescue is a fairy woman, not a man. It will come as no surprise that I actually wrote The Sons of Thestian whilst first studying The Bloody Chamber, during those delicate school years long ago. Whether I realised it at the time or not, I can see now that Carter’s writing—however much it was prone to make me squirm!—had a significant influence on how my feelings toward gender were initially shaped.

Carter, unfortunately, died the year I was born. And almost ten years after picking up her book for the first time, I cannot help but notice cracks in her particular brand of feminist writing, and re-analyse why in some parts I felt so disconnected by what she wrote. This is through no fault of Carter, nor should she be seen as anything other than a voice at the forefront of feminist writing and literature. Had she been alive today, as the conversation of gender continues to grow, her writing may have reflected the new discussions we are having. It feels cruel to poke at the work of someone who is dead, and cannot defend, explain, or allow their voice to grow in accordance with all modern information. So rather than hold Carter accountable, I will instead use the foundation she built to springboard into some new ideas.

To me, the problem with simply reassigning gender-roles is that ultimately it still exists within the binary. Once again, I say this as someone who frequently explores the dynamics of a story by switching the gender-roles, and swapping typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characters, tropes and ideas. The exploration of gender (and sexuality) is something I pursue in almost all of my works, and I believe it produces nuanced, three-dimensional and believable characters. I also tend to be influenced by fairy tales, which are massively gendered, thanks to the way they were shaped into moral tales for the middle and upper classes. What then can I do but subvert the roles for my enjoyment, just as Carter did? By doing it, however, and advertising it, I am acknowledging the fact that these tropes are gendered. It’s like the exception that proves the rule. I’ve done something new, by acknowledging, and therefore, reaffirming the ‘norm’. Now, this is really a product of society, more than my (or Carter’s) fault as authors. We, as people, gender the most inane things—hobbies, behaviours, objects, colours, names—and then reinforce these ideas in everyday life. You can’t go into any babies sections, without seeing the segregation of the girlish pink, and the boyish blue. From before our fragile minds can even process the information around us, we are inundated with gender specifics. So is it possible to write about gender without acknowledging the very ideas, tropes and expectations which promote and reinforce the arbitrary binary?

Personally, I think Carter’s writing was revolutionary and important, and I think her switching of the gender-roles was a rebellion against the expectation of women (and of men). I also think, however, it relies on the cis-gendered, straight perspective.

In today’s world, we understand that the subject of gender is much more complicated than genitalia. What defines gender is as much to do with brain chemistry, hormones and the general mysteries of the universe, then it is to do with the reproductive system, the mechanics of which is a complicated debate even of itself. The binary is an ancient concept, used as the simplified answer to a deeper conversation, based on a statistical average. And yet, we allow it to dictate the colours of our clothes, toys, hobbies, habits and lives? Essentially, trying to claim that 50% of all human beings are a certain way, must fulfil certain expectations, and all want certain things, based on an understanding they share a physically similar reproductive system, is…putting it bluntly, bat-shit insane. Were we to try and divide it in any other way, it would seem ridiculous. Do we create categories of blue and brown eyed people, and consider green, hazel and grey as outliers? Do we define intelligence, habits, capabilities by this?

Now, the matter of gender is more complex then eye colour. There are a mixture of biological factors that come into it, but these too fall under question the moment you accept that there are more than two genders, and that transexual and transgender people exist. You might say, the strongest man will always be stronger than the strongest woman, but in that example, what constitutes a man? And what constitutes a woman? Could a trans woman compete as the strongest woman? And if she were permitted, would she be forced to medically and hormonally alter herself to fit certain parameters first? Not to say anything about where one places intersex, genderfluid or non-binary people. The case of Renée Richards comes to mind, as well as Caster Semenya*.

Heading back to Carter, and without accusing her of being a TERF—because, as I said, she’s dead, and never even touched on the subject**—her ideas do still rely on the cis-gendered experience. Were I to present her with the ‘strongest man vs strongest woman’ conundrum—and again, I can only imagine, so I will not put words in her mouth—I assume she would answer the question from a limited, cis-gendered standpoint, and would not consider gender as being contained in the brain, but as being irreversibly tied to the body. Instead she might approach the question as I once did:

“Just because the strongest man is stronger than the strongest woman, does not mean all men are stronger than all women. For the strongest woman will still be stronger than the average man. And the weakest man stands no change against the average woman.”

I maintain this belief, which is grounded in the idea of merit being given to the individual’s strength, rather than there gender, but I also understand that there is no true basis in which we can irrefutably say that the physically strongest and weakest people on earth are and will always be a male and female respectively at any given time. (Unless we universally start measuring how much all new-born babies can bench-press?)

Once again, this is not an attempt to demonise Carter. I have genuine bones to pick with her, like some of her appraisal on De Sade and her occasionally maddening writing style, but her brand of feminism is merely a product of its time.  But Carter’s writing, despite the reassignment of gendered ideas, is still firmly stuck within the binary, because it does not acknowledge that anything beyond cis-gendered men and women exist. Her women may be nuanced, but their femininity is physically tied to their (straight) sexuality, and their (cis-gendered) body.

Carter’s exploration of female sexual liberty is unapologetic, and arguably still crucial in an era where it remains repressed and underexplored, but Carter’s writing remains painfully hetranormative in it’s exploration. To begin with, so far that I know (and please feel free to prove me wrong!) Carter doesn’t portray any homosexual or Queer relationships in her work. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but the dated hetronormative  angle of her work is pronounced even beyond this.  In particular it  shines through in the tropes she uses, with the undercurrent of power and empowerment going hand in hand with (hetro)sexual liberty. 

For example, when depicting her happy relationships, Carter brings the couples together under equal terms—there is consent, there is enthusiasm in both parties—but a traditional binary coding burns clear, either unconsciously or through deliberate choice. How often it is the men, antagonistic or not, who guides the sexual experience to a nervous, virginal girl? How often is the occasion marked by that archaic breaking of the hymen and the blood on the sheets? How often does the maiden swoon into the man’s arms? How often does the woman become the seductress, to try and induce the man to provide her with what she needs (not wants), be that liberty, purpose, or sustenance? How often is the woman described as beautiful? And how often is fulfilment supplied not by the self, but by the right man?   

A message shines through, right from the hellish landscape of De Sade’s writing, which equates sexuality with empowerment, the kill or be killed, or in this case, the dominate or be dominated. And while we can wax lyrical about the potential philosophical usefulness and realism represented in De Sade’s disgusting writing, it doesn’t change that it fits a traditional gender role, even if De Sade himself arguably disregarded gender (and even sexuality) as part of the equation. The role of the dominant, sexually capable and strong man, and the subdued, innocent – or perhaps coquettish – female who presents herself to him as a lamb for metaphorical slaughter, is a painful stereotype, and it’s one Carter uses, over and over. The trembling virgin woman and the sexually advanced man,  the man being the provider of wealth and home, the virgin myth and the breaking of the hymen, the first orgasm and sexual fulfilment being induced by a male hand… Even the idea of sex as a penetrative act between a man and woman. It’s all outdated. And when the woman is the dominant character, empowered through her sexuality, it is because through this she can control a man. A man then is still needed for her to fulfill her basic needs.

These may be real experiences for some women, but in the Western world, I’m not sure I’d paint them all as the standard, even if we completely ignore the LGBTQA+ community. There’s nothing wrong with Carter’s writing, but as a modern conversation it doesn’t push any new boundaries in the gender conversation. It simply reinforces the old ones, which is an important job, mind, since as quick as those conversation go, someone out there tries to stamp them out again.

I think it’s important to recognise that for some women and men, cis-gendered or trans, their gender identity is tied to their physical body, and is expressed through their sexuality. For some, the gender-norms do apply, and this should not be snubbed, or disregarded. But as we enter a new age of feminist writing, as we explore the subject of gender and sexuality, we must question the binary nature of the discussion. No one quality belongs to a gender, be that strength, colour, or a predilection for knitting. If you want to empower your character, empower them as an individual, and remember; simply applying a male-coded trope to a woman does not equal empowerment.

 

* This case, beyond gender-politics, was heavily steeped in racism, which must be considered and acknowledged when discussing it.

** That I am currently aware of

This article has just been an expression of some of my thoughts, and I welcome opinions and ideas, whether they be contrary or an expansion of what I have written. I would ask you engage the subject with respect. Intolerance, rudeness or abuse will be deleted. Should you have your own thoughts on the subject, from another standpoint, I would love to hear them as well, and should you have any examples of Carter engaging with LGBTQA+ issues, I especially welcome it.

 

 

The King & the Korrigan – Folk Song

A folk song written for The Harmatia Cycle Universe, about a Korrigan and a foolish King who wanted to know the future. Written, composed and recorded in an afternoon, using Audacity and Live 10, and an AKG Mic. Performed on an Ibach baby grand piano.

LYRICS:

Silvery starlight, hair so fine
The lady sat waiting as fair as moonshine
Lady, tell me your secrets,tell me no lies
On the banks of the water before sunrise

Come closer, my King, come closer yet
To hear my truths you must get wet
Step into the water and into my arms
And I shall reveal all that you ask

The water is cold it bites to the bone
But I will wade in for the sake of my throne
Lady, tell me my future, tell me no lies
For I am safe, only until sunrise

Oh glorious King, how rich you shall be
You kingdom will flourish, your subjects will eat
Your wife will be the envy of every lord
Your son will grow as tall and strong as oak

But as they spoke, the sun did rise
The beautiful lady lost her disguise
Eyes as red as blood shone through her face
And teeth so white and long sank into his flesh

Oh heed now this story, for she told no lies
The King became rich in birds and in flies
From his body a kingdom began to thrive
And his bones were wed to the earth and embraced for all time

And in that spot, where he did lie
A tree did grow, so tall and so wide
Its branches shaded the lady and kept her cool
And there she remains waiting for her next fool

© Madeleine E. Vaughan

The Winter Festival – Harmatia Short

Howell was singing loudly in the front-room as Rufus stepped into the house, the snow clinging to his raven hair.

 

“Sweet boughs of Holly
to make the lord jolly,
And ivy all over the ’ouse!

Spiced mead and wine
And roast ’oney-swine
And a kiss when the sun goes down!

Season of ends, is just the beginning
And in spring will rise up the sun
So, sew your seeds now,
while you all be merry,
And at harvest a baby will come!”

 

“What are you singing?” Rufus demanded, stamping his feet as he unfastened his sodden cloak. Howell looked over his shoulder with a large smile. He was decorating the threshold with wreaths of holy, mistletoe and ivy.

“Tis an ol’ spell, Love,” Howell said, “for a warm Winter Festival.”

“Sounds more like a sex song in disguise.”

“Aye, well, you would think that.” Howell leant forward and accepted a quick kiss from Rufus, brushing the snow out of his hair. “But the Winter Festival means more to us down ‘ere than it does to you fancy folk from the Capital.”

“Is that right?”

“Tis. Our traditions are old and sacred.”

“And dirty songs are part of that?”

“Nothin’ dirty about love-makin’. Well,” Howell pulled off, “success?”

“Success.” Rufus held up his bag, pulling it open to let Howell expect the contents. “I managed to get all the ingredients. And I deserve high praise, because it was no easy feat.”

Howell picked through the food, running his hand over the packages of meat and game. “Aye,” he said, softly. “This’ll be a feast.”

“You know there are only going to be three of us, don’t you?” Rufus let Howell take the bag. “This is a ludicrous amount of food.”

“Tis a week of celebration, and the season of uninvited guests—the food won’t last, I promise.” Howell patted Rufus’s stomach. “Maybe we can fatten you up for the colder months to come.”

Rufus huffed, but didn’t say anything as something small and fast came shooting down the stairs toward him.

“Papa!”

Joshua flung himself from half-way up, and Rufus almost had a small heart-attack as he dove to catch the six year old. “Oof!”

Joshua squealed with delight, wrapping small, strong arms around Rufus’s neck. “Papa!” he gabbled. “There’s a troop passing—can we go? I want to see them!”

“A troop?”

“Actors,” Howell clarified. “Puttin’ on the Seven Days.”

“They’re performing here?”

“Nay—down the valley, in Tromoth.”

“Can we go?” Joshua begged, and Rufus tensed, hesitating. Joshua sensed his uncertainty immediately. “Please!” He wrapped his fingers into Rufus’s collar and looked him deeply in the eye. “Please!”

Rufus felt something unnatural tugging inside of him. Joshua had reached into his head and was forcefully trying to shove his uncertainty away, and draw out Rufus’s never-ending desire to please his brother. Rufus frowned. “Joshua,” he scolded, “I’ve told you not to use your powers like that.”

Joshua’s presence in his head snapped back out, and his brother blinked rapidly. “Sorry,” he said, and Rufus wondered whether he’d done it intentionally or not.

“I told him we’d talk about it with you,” Howell said gently, still holding the bag of food.

“I suppose you want to go?” Rufus didn’t intend it to come out as snappish as it did.

“Tis the season of story-tellin’, and the lad’s not seen any of the Seven Nights.”

“I’m not sure those performances are appropriate for a six year old.”

“He won’t pay mind to the parts which don’t mean anythin’ to him. An’ I only propose we go to see the first one—they’re performin’ one each for every day of the festival, startin’ tomorrow.”

Rufus slowly put Joshua down. “Take my bag to the pantry,” he said.

Joshua obeyed without a word, apparently keen to show what a well-behaved a good boy he was. Rufus waited until he’d left the room.

“Tromoth is a proper town,” he said.

“Aye, ’tis—but not so big I imagine there’ll be Magi frequentin’ the ol’ harbour theatre, especially not to see drunkards in costumes tryin’ to remember their lines.” Howell crossed the room and pulled Rufus’s hands clear from where he’d started to run them up through his hair. “Tis a fishin’ town, Love. Not fancy enough for your types.”

“They’re not my types.”

“Nay,” Howell chuckled, “I suppose not.” He cupped Rufus’s face. “The lad’s got a real longin’ for it.”

“He deserves to go,” Rufus agreed. “Perhaps you can take him. Alone.”

“I’m loath to leave you, Love.”

Rufus groaned. “Is it worth the risk?”

“The performance, no? But to be free for a night, Rufus—to unshackle you from ’idin’, I’d like that.”

“I’d like it too. But—”

“I know.” Howell pulled Rufus’s hand up his mouth and kissed it. “I’d rather you safe.”

 

*

 

It snowed all through the night, covering the ground in a thick, perfect blanket. Rufus cut a path from the door through with magic, so that Howell and Joshua could get the horse to the road. Joshua’s hair—dyed freshly black—peeked out from under layers and layers of clothing. They were always wary of winter colds and fevers, with his lungs.

“Have you got money for an inn?” Rufus asked. “Just in case the snow starts up again and you can’t make it back by tonight?”

“Aye—your Papa’s a worrier, isn’t he?” Howell kissed Joshua’s temple as the boy giggled. “Yes, Love, we’ve everythin’ we need and more. I’ll be spoilin’ the lad rotten.”

Rufus’s heart swelled, and he leaned up and squeezed Joshua’s arm. “You behave now. And have a good time.”

Joshua nodded. “I will, Papa.”

Rufus stood and watched them ride away, until the white landscape swallowed them up.

 

*

 

He spent the majority of the afternoon preparing the food for the next few days. He’d bought several books for both Joshua and Howell—as ‘story exchanges’ was one of the key traditions of the season—and bound them together with ribbon.

Howell had already seen to most of the decorations, but Rufus quickly found himself outside, gathering more material, until it felt like there was more of the garden indoors than out.

When he was finished, he practised his fiddle, read, attempted to take a nap, read a little more, played more fiddle, and finally abandoned all hope of distracting himself and went outside.

Darkness had descended quickly, the day hours shortening, as Athea’s reign won over the sky. It was bitingly cold; as Rufus trudged through the snow, his magic gathered to him, fighting off the worst of the chill. He walked down the path along the back of the house, toward the sparse woodland. Perhaps he could make snow sculptures. With a little magic he was sure he could crystalize them into ice, as clean and beautiful as diamond. There had always been ice sculptures at the Winter Festival in Harmatia—huge displays, each more intricate and wonderful than the last.

Don’t think about Harmatia! He forced the thought from his mind, but it was wistfully replaced by another…The smell of spiced soup rising from the kitchen to his small, crooked bedroom in their house above the tailor’s shop. Was there snow in the capital? Were his parents clearing the streets today, as he had cleared the path? How would they be celebrating the first day of the Festival? Would they go to one of dozen theatres in the city? Would they go to an ale-house, or tavern to hear a story-teller? What books would they exchange?

The longing for home struck him so hard he almost doubled over. Rufus gasped, arms clenching tight around his chest. Home. He could see it so clearly. The shop. His bedroom. His parents sat together in the kitchen.

And that wasn’t it, because he couldn’t stop the images of castle either—bedecked in light, hundreds of candles filling the feasting hall, decorated in green and red and white with huge wreaths. And his friends—Zachary, Marcel, Emeric…

Jionathan.

The spell was immediately broken. The longing for home gave way to something sharper, and more familiar.

What did it matter if the castle was dressed and beautiful? It was an empty promise. His ‘friends’ had betrayed him, he’d been divided from his parents and Jionat was gone. Forever.  Not home. Not anymore. Never again.

Something cold and wet touched his cheek, pulling him from his thoughts. He blinked, and looked up. It was snowing again. Rufus sighed and glanced back up the path he’d come. Distantly he could see the house, a dark speck against a royal blue sky. He didn’t want to return yet, and so he slowly lowered himself to the ground and watched the silent descent of snow across an untouched world.

*

He wasn’t expecting to see fire-light as he approached the house, an hour later, soaked and cold to the bone. The back door opened and Joshua came charging out. Howell followed with a lantern in his hand.

“There you are, Love! You ‘ad us worried!”

Rufus was thrown off as Joshua caught him around the legs, almost sending him toppling back into the snow. “What are you two doing back so early? I thought you wouldn’t be home for another few hours or so.”

Joshua didn’t reply, his face buried in Rufus’s waist.

“Oh well,” Howell said, shrugging, “we got ‘alf-way through the first performance, and this one suddenly announced it was time to go.”

“Didn’t you enjoy it, Joshua?”

Joshua pulled away only so far as to be able to look up at Rufus. There was something shrewd about his expression, an intelligence beyond his age. “I wanted to go home,” he said, simply, and he hugged Rufus again.

Oh. Rufus felt a lump forming in his throat, and had to swallow down the wash of emotion that welled up inside. Oh. That’s right.

It was stupid, how his little brother could come to the answer before Rufus did—how he could solve the problem so simply. Rufus had longed for home, and Joshua had brought it. Rufus felt that cold, hard sadness in him melt away just a little more.

“Come on now,” Howell said, smiling knowingly, “’ow’s about you two get inside before we let the whole winter in. I think I might have a good story to share instead, fit for weather!”

“That sounds perfect,” Rufus said, and stooping down he picked Joshua up, and stepped into the threshold, into Howell’s waiting arms.



 

Wishing you all a beautiful Winter Festival of your own. May the holidays be full of friendship, love and beautiful stories.

The Silver Cloak

 

There was something silver glittering in the forest. It twinkled in the corner of Sorcha’s eye, as inviting as a fishhook.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, they said, but Sorcha couldn’t look away.

The silver thing rippled. It was a cloak of light, shifting weightlessly in the air. It would be so soft against her skin, Sorcha knew, so breezy and cool, like chiffon woven from secrets.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the cloak was the loveliest thing Sorcha had ever seen.

The silver fabric rippled lazily, it’s trimming burning with an intricate weave of sunlit thread, as thin as spider-web. It was tailored for a God. Never-mind the scratchy woollen shawl around her shoulders, if Sorcha were to wrap that cloak around herself, she’d become the shimmering night sky itself, a constellation of stars.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but Sorcha stepped off the path, mind clouded by a green haze of envious desire.

At the corners of the cloak, translucent figures floated on dragonfly wings. They were sprites—small and fantastical, born from the first touch of sunlight on morning dew. Sorcha crept like a huntress, watching as they plucked the winter mist and spun it with dainty hands, weaving it into the beautiful cloak.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the sprites were so small, as fragile as insects, unaware of Sorcha’s watchful eyes.

And so, carefully—so very carefully—Sorcha reached out, and caught the closest sprite in her hand. One squeeze, and the body broke apart like a dried leaf, leaving a glistening stain of gold across her palm.

The second sprite’s scream was like a blackbird’s call, but with shimmering fingers, Sorcha silenced it, and the silver cloak drifted down into her waiting arms.

She threw it around her shoulders and its gleaming aspect transformed her instantly. Her dun brown hair shifted into a cascade of autumnal chestnut, her black eyes deepened into pools of night, and her pockmarked skin become as fresh, and lovely as new snow.  She was a Queen, in a cloak of secrets, mist, and stars.

I guess it’s true, Sorcha thought, admiring her reflection in her gold-stained hands. Monsters do hide behind pretty masks.




This piece of flash-fiction was written for one of my classes. We were told we could write about anything, but the story had be 365 Words, one for each day of the year. As someone who struggles to write short work, this was an interesting and enjoyable challenge for me.

I wrote a couple of 365 Word Stories, but this was my favourite. The traditional fairy tale structure lends itself to flash-fiction—a simple story, with strong imagery, ending with a conclusive lesson. The Victorians did a fine job of tailoring fairy tales to be about how good women should behave—dishing out punishments for ‘transgressions’ like confetti at a wedding. As such ‘fairy tale endings’ are often quite transparent. Justice served, goodness rewarded, evil vanquished. It’s so ingrained, not even I expected Sorcha to win, until she did.

It made the whole thing deliciously vicious, and rather than modern…I feel like I’ve ended up telling a very old story instead. One that was never sanitized. One that ought to be remembered.

The Rise of New Adult – Sex, Soap & Sales

For those of you on twitter, or deeply invested in the booklr, booktube or bookstagram community, you may have recently come across the disaster that was #SoapGate. It was a hashtag which exploded recently after a book-box subscription included some pretty risky merchandise in their A Court of Thorns and Roses inspired haul. Namely two very highly detailed penis shaped soaps which definitely made this box NSFW. I’m not going to even talk about the completely illegal published fanfiction also included in the box, which breached copy-right on so many levels, because honestly…I don’t have the time or energy to deal with that intense level of nonsense.

 

Instead, I want to take a different approach to the discussions that surrounded the whole #SoapGate fiasco. It seemed to me that many people were deeply offended by the soap which, whilst hilariously inappropriate, was ultimately harmless and precisely the kind of merchandise you’d expect in an ‘Illyrian boy-friend’ box. Why not enjoy some penis-shaped soap? You stick it to the wall, lather it up and have a giggle…just as long as you don’t try anything else with it, what’s the harm? The box was rated 18+, so no one should have been surprised.

But people were. Why? Not because of the illegal publications, not because of the (some would argue) questionable quality of the writing, but because A Court of Thorns and Roses  is a Young Adult book, and including dicks just wasn’t on.

And this really bothered me, because A Court of Thorns and Roses isn’t a Young Adult book. It’s New Adult. So why is no one calling it that?

Unless you’re into a niche in the American market, or you’ve kept your finger on the pulse-line of the book word, the term ‘New Adult’ probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to you. And why should it, when the book world routinely ignores New Adult as an age-group and genre? You go into a book-shop, and you’ll see the Children’s section, the YA shelf, and then adult…and no in-between.

Unfortunately, a between does exist, both in the demographic of readers, and in the books which are being produced.

So what is New Adult? Well to answer that, we have to look at what Young Adult is. Young Adult is a category of children’s books aimed for 14-18 year olds. A good, and easy example of YA is probably Twilight. In YA the main characters are usually between 17 and 18, and there tends to be a romantic plot-line somewhere in the story. The books are more likely to dwell on feelings and thoughts than Middle Grade books, and there is usually a sexual/romantic awakening in some form or another.  YA books, especially YA fantasy, have a particular sort of feel to them—they will often be criticised by ‘critical’ readers because of their subject-matter, and are written off as shallow or dull, because anything that’s written for or enjoyed by teenage girls can never be considered valid.

YA also, however, has a knack of addressing subjects in new and innovative ways, through setting, character and story. We get LGBTQ+, Disabled, POC characters in YA books like Six of Crows or The Mortal Instruments. Other YA books comment on capitalism, racism and corruption, such as The Hunger Games and Noughts and Crosses.

These books tackle interesting topics, whilst being relatable to their readers by examining the difficult ins-and-outs of being an adolescent. It’s only natural their ‘film-franchise’ popular.

The problem, however, is the assumption that past 18, we all magically become adults, and 18 to 50 year olds are all the same…

Between the ages of 19 and 25, our personalities are still versatile and developing. From finishing school, most people this age are moving into University, which far from ‘adult life’ is just another phase of learning, adapting, and character building. The human brain is still developing during this time, and it’s only after the age of 25 that our identities and personalities really start to solidify—(and for some, it’s even later!).

So why is this generation of people, the last of the millennials and the eldest of the Gen Z, being completely ignored? We’re not Young Adults any more—that 17 year old girl who’s never kissed a boy isn’t relatable to us, on average. We are a generation who have possibly, if not probably, lost our virginity. We are a generation that has kissed, and flirted. We are a generation who can legally drink, and drive (not at the same time!), and don’t have a curfew. We are a generation who are panicking as we learn to manage our own finances, live alone, get into long-term, serious relationships…

And we are a generation that grew up with the first few cycles of YA books. There is a big, and marketable difference between Game of Thrones and Cinder, Saturday and The Fault in Our Stars. From my own experience, having dabbled in adult-fiction from a young age, even I still got whiplash when I tried to jump from one tier to the other all at once. To me, adult fiction felt too distant, too dense, too impersonal for me to fully enjoy, while with each passing year, YA became increasingly and frustratingly un-relatable. I felt like I was being tossed between two campsites, without ever being comfortable in either, and the Lord knows I wasn’t the only one.

And thus, like Excalibur rising from the lake, New Adult fiction rose from the murky depths of the publishing world. At first glance, it was essentially YA with sex—explicit and detailed, not the virginal, censored touches that made us blush and hide behind our books when we were teenagers. It existed almost primarily within the Romance genre, concerning itself with characters in their early twenties, getting up to some hot mischief—not yet mature, but not children either.

And then, slowly, those nineteen and twenty-year old characters began to leach into other genres as well. And suddenly, A Court of Thorns and Roses was on our shelf, staring a young sexually active woman, with a sexually-active mind, all packaged up in that glorious, readable way that made YA Fantasy so easy and enjoyable to read.

I should add, very quickly, that New Adult isn’t all about sex. Sure, portraying sexual relationships is a key part of it…But there are other avenues that are opened up by NA that YA can only brush on. Abuse, trauma, rape, abandonment, monetary issues—the list goes on, and while YA has been tackling this nest of nightmares for years, it could only ever be as mature as the youngest reader could cope with…And it was also governed by what was deemed appropriate for that age. I mean, when was the last time you read a gay sex scene in a YA book?

And yet, despite the fact that New Adult fiction is being produced, and it is being marketed to us, and it is being read, the prevailing belief that New Adult fiction doesn’t exist continues to burn a hole through my waning patience.

I walked into my local Waterstones recently and saw A Court of Frost and Starlight on the YA shelf. I crossed over, grabbed a copy, picked a sex scene and began to read it aloud. Within two lines, my friend nearby was squirming. Sure, Sarah J Maas doesn’t use the words cunt, fuck and cock, but, my god, all three are present in vivid enough detail that, had I been an old guy in a trench-coat, I’d have probably been arrested. If it’s not something you’d want read-aloud in the children’s section, you probably shouldn’t have it in the children’s section.

And so, back to the #SoapGate disaster then. Ignoring copyright scandals, you all need to stop worrying about phallic toiletries—they’re not the real problem here. The real problem is that a book written for 19+, is being shelved in the same place as books for 13+ because the industry is too afraid of dealing with a new market, when the YA one is already established. Why take risks, when you can make money?

But whether they’re ready to acknowledge it or not, New Adult is in demand, it’s being written, and with the success of each new book, it’s only going to grow. And with growth come cash.

So get used to the term, because New Adult is here to stay.

And so is the dick-soap. (Or not.)

‘Flight’ – Book Launch for local children’s author, Vanessa Harbour

On the 20th of July, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Flight, a middle—grade children’s book written by Dr Vanessa Harbour. Vanessa is an academic and lecturer of creative writing at the University of Winchester, as well as a mentor at the highly prestigious Golden Egg Academy.

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The crowd overflows into the street

In one of the old, quiet streets of the picturesque city of Winchester, beyond the magnificent cathedral and through the old stone gates, the book launch was held at PG Wells, a charming independent book-store with buckets of character. There was no better setting for the evening, as people gathered together in an excitable crowd, surrounded by walls of books. Glasses of sparkling prosecco and elderflower press were on hand, and fellow bibliophiles could all gather together in small groups and catch up before the main event began.

The launch was thrown into motion by an opening speech from Crispin Drummond, who runs the Winchester branch of the bookstore. This was followed by a word from Penny Thomas of ‘Firefly’, the publisher responsible for bringing Flight to us. A hush fell over the crowd, which had grown so large it was spilling into the street, people gathered eagerly around the doorway to hear. Stuck on the very edge of the crowd, and unable to slip closer without getting dizzily claustrophobic, I was privy to only every other word, but applauded loudly as Vanessa was asked to address her adoring fans.

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Introduction from Penny Thomas

As Vanessa stepped up to speak, she may well have been nervous, faced with so many people. After years of commanding the attention of sleep-deprived, hyperactive and occasionally volatile students however, I doubt there’s any crowd that Vanessa can’t easily charm with her natural warmth and humour.

Disappointingly, I only caught snippets of her speech, as noise in the street combined with my bad positioning meant I wasn’t able to get the whole thing. What I can tell you is that the atmosphere in the room was electric. Peering in through the windows to try and get a better look, all attention was focused on Ness. The address was followed by a short reading from Flight, performed by Sally Ballet.

From the first sentence, my imagination was snatched. Flight feels like a book that was meant to be read aloud—the tension, the description, the strong character voice all mingle together to paint a vivid impression. I had the pleasure of hearing the beginning of the book read by Vanessa previously, but was gripped with the same intensity as before. Vanessa’s natural story-telling ability brings the book to life, whilst the narrative is both original and yet classic at the same time. It feels like a book of all ages—the kind of story that will never really grow old.

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A selection of beautiful cakes

The reading was met with rapturous applause, and then the second half of the launch began. Two large queues formed—toward the till, and toward the author herself. At the beginning of the evening a copy of Flight could be found propped up on every shelf, in every corner of the room, but these quickly began to disappear as copy after copy was snatched up. By the end of the evening, around 100 copies had been sold, with plenty of guests anticipating the arrival of pre-orders they had already put in.

As I queued to see Vanessa, slices of the fantastic cake, which was decorated for the front cover of Flight, were handed out. An amazing book under arm, a glass of bubbly in one hand, and a slice of chocolate cake in the other, my evening was topped off by Vanessa signing my copy of Flight.

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The beaming author herself, signing books

All together, the event was a huge success, and I feel very proud to have been in attendance. A colleague, a teacher and an inspiration, Vanessa has been a role-model to me for years. It was she who introduced me to the Golden Egg Academy—of which many ‘Eggs’ were in attendance to share in Vanessa’s celebration—and it was she who pushed me and supported me through some of the hardest times at University. How one woman can be so full of love, courage and talent I can’t tell, but I feel privileged to have been able to share this moment Vanessa, who deserves every success.

My copy of Flight now sits by my bed, waiting for me to delve back into the 1945’s Nazi-occupied Austria, where Jakob and Kizzy must face perilous odds to save the dancing horses.

Be sure to purchase your copy of Flight from your local bookstore today, or order it online and find out what all the fuss is about!

 

The Gentleman Bastard Sequence – Locke Lamora is a Trans Man.

I’ve just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora and thought I would share some of my thoughts on my reading of it. I have had a few things spoiled for me about the next couple of books, but for the most part everything I am about to say is based on my reading of book one of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read the books.

I realise it isn’t canon, but I have been reading the first book through a ‘Queer’ lens (in the Literary Theory kind of way), and have been analysing the story and text with the idea that Locke Lamora is actually a trans man.

This is based on a number of things, and whilst it isn’t supported by anything which couldn’t otherwise be given an explanation, there are some interesting ideas that make the reading possible.

1) Locke’s size. He is decidedly and noticeably thinner and smaller than the others. This is put down to malnutrition when he was younger, but he was adopted into Chain’s care at around 6/7, and was well fed from there. Despite this, he remained small and thinner than the other characters.

2) Locke rejected and doesn’t go by his ‘birth name’, and chose a new name for himself. He only reveals his ‘birth name’ to his best-friend/brother Jean at the end of the book, and the readers don’t see it. Jean professes that he can understand why Locke decided to call himself Locke instead, by stating that he would have changed his name too (Lynch, p. 529). Once again, we find out this name in book 3,  but within the context of the first book alone it fits in with the reading that Locke rejected his birth-name because it was female.

3) Locke is a master of disguise and ‘mummery’ with access to a great number of resources. Considering the Gentleman Bastards have a million disguises, lotions and potions to change their appearance, and also had Sabetha in their ranks, it would be strange if they didn’t have a binder among all of those things. Locke would have had access to all of the materials he might want or need to battle any dysphoria.

4) So far as I remember Locke never refers to his own facial hair or a need to shave. In-fact, in chapter 12, part 1, Locke notes of Jean: ‘Normally fastidious, he was now several days unshaven’ (Lynch, p. 383). This suggests they do not have access to a razor during this period of the book. Despite this, Locke’s only complaint about himself is the fact his hair is greasy (Lynch, p. 397). Not once does he mention a stubble of his own. Seeing as Locke was unconscious for several days prior to this point, we know he didn’t shave himself, and it is unlikely Jean shaved Locke. We know Locke doesn’t have any facial hair during that time, however, because he later applies a false bread and a mustache.

The biggest oppositions to the reading are the following:

  1. Locke is kicked in the groin and is almost sick.
  2. Locke goes to a brothel but isn’t able to ‘perform’.
  3. Locke is topless in a scene.

All three of these can be fairly easily argued.

In Chapter 3, part 6, Locke breaks into Don Lorenzo’s house and ends up getting into a scuffle with Conte. In the ensuing struggle, Conte fells Locke by kicking him specifically in the ‘groin’ (Lynch, p. 129). At no point does the narration, or Locke himself refer to the injury as being to the balls, the testicles, or any other specific terminology. Indeed, when asked to describe the pain, Locke states it’s ‘As though I’m with child, and the little bastard is trying to cut his way out with an axe.’ (Lynch, p. 129). Locke’s need to vomit and unsteadiness, as well as the pain of being kicked in the groin, can be ascribed to the fact he was also punched three times in the stomach and solar plexus (Lynch, p. 129).

In Chapter 6, Part 5 Locke has gone to a brothel to ‘get [his] brains wenched out’ (Lynch, p. 251). Despite his intentions however, the next section has Locke lying naked in bed, stating that, ‘This isn’t working’ (Lynch, p. 252). His companion, Felice offers him an aphrodisiac, and we are given the impression that Locke just isn’t getting an erection.

Once again, however, nothing is explicitly named. There is no mention of a penis, or testicles. Felice is described as rubbing Locke’s inner thigh, and Locke refers to himself as ‘nothing resembling aroused’ (Lynch, p. 252), never once using language such as ‘hard’ or ‘stiff’ or other words often ascribed to an erection in fiction. The fact that Locke has a ‘slender line of hair’ (Lynch, p. 252) that runs down his stomach is also not direct evidence that he is cisgendered man.

Finally in Chapter 12, part 1, Locke is topless during a scene. The only two people present, however, are Jean, Locke’s closest friend, and Master Ibelius, a physiker (Doctor). Locke is topless because he had been heavily beaten, and Ibelius applied a poultice to his chest to help heal him. This all occurred while Locke was unconscious. Whilst this does play into the rather uncomfortable trend of trans characters being outed through un-consensual nudity, it never-the-less does not rule out the reading, especially if Jean was already aware of Locke being a trans-man, which would be very likely. This would explain why there were no questions asked when Locke woke up, and Locke did not feel overly uncomfortable. Given that the world contains alchemy which is used to recreate a number of technologies, such as lights, heating and other modern day conveniences, it also isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Locke – given his substantial wealth – was able to purchase a testosterone or hormone equivalent, or even have surgery.

Once again, I am aware this idea was not Scott Lynch’s intention, and that Locke was almost certainly written and conceived as a cisgendered man. However, the book lends itself to the reading, and it is definitely worth considering the text with that literary lens in mind. So far as I currently see it, Locke Lamora is a trans man, and I have yet to find any sufficient evidence that really jars my interpretation.

 

Bibliography:

Lynch, Scott, The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gollancz, London, 2017)

 

Good News, Everyone!

So for all those who weren’t able to catch my announcement on Facebook the other day, here is the run-down!

Book 3 & 4 of The Harmatia Cycle

Yes, you saw that right. After much deliberation, I have decided to split the third installment of The Harmatia Cycle into two books. This decision came when I found the book was getting far too big, and that I was having to cut important parts out. The story demanded to be two books in order to be told properly, and so I have obliged. Book 3 will be released this year, all being well, with Book 4 coming shortly after. Titles and covers will appear a few months before release.

The Prequel No-One Asked For

Another discovery I made whilst writing Book ¾, was that there was an empty space in the back-story of how everything came to pass. As such, I am going to be writing a short novella following Torin Merle and Eliane of the Delphi, and the events that transpired between them before Rufus’s birth. This will not be necessary reading for anyone who wants to finish the series, but will add an extra layer for those readers who love a big fantasy world!

The Scene Re-Write

I have also been working on a short scene which will be released soon. This is a section from Blood of the Delphi, but told from another character’s point of view. The short-story follows Marcel during Zachary’s illness in book 2, giving an insight into the character dynamics as seen by Zachary’s more observant, clear-minded and fiercely loyal second in command. I wrote this as part of a writing exercise, but thought my readers may enjoy this insight during a time that wasn’t covered by the book. This will be released soon (on what platform, I haven’t decided), but you can sign up to my newsletter to get a FREE copy before anyone else.

Thank you everyone for your support, and I hope you’ll all stick with me as we finish the Harmatia Cycle adventure together!

THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER FOUR: HAKONE!

The penultimate part of our Japan adventure took us to one of my absolute favourite places in the whole country. Hakone, oh Hakone—manju, mountains and hot-springs!

Hakone has long been a popular get-away place for people in Japan, and there are frequent trips to and from Tokyo. By Shinkansen, it takes half an hour, or so. However, we were coming up from Kumamoto, with a change at Shin Osaka. The journey took us just over five-hours, but was—as always—very comfortably on the Shinkansen. We spent the trip writing, snacking on bento boxes and treats, and I had to stop myself peering over Dad’s shoulder every twenty seconds, as he read a little Blood of the Delphi.

Staying at the Mount View Hotel in Sengoku, we arrived in Odawara, (rather than Hakone station), and took the bus up. This took approximately an hour and the roads were quite winding. People who suffer from travel-sickness may want to take something before-hand to help them get through it. Fortunately, the bus-stop was literally right outside the hotel, and we were welcomed with great occasion and shown to our rooms.

These were lovely and very comfortable, with tatami mats and comfortable beds. I believe some of the bigger rooms offer futons too, for those who want to go the whole mile. These are actually surprisingly comfortable to sleep on, and the experience is very enjoyable. I’ve done it several times and liked it very much.

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A Feast in every sense

Dad and I settled into our rooms, and then went down to enjoy the first of a series of decadent dinners in the dining room. These were set meals, and varied from night to night, offering seasonal food and vegetables. Crab, in particular, was a prominent feature on the table.

Finishing dinner, I then stopped by the onsen (hot-spring), which was an absolute luxury. In particular, I’d not been feeling particularly well, having developed a head-cold, but they say there are healing properties in the slightly sulphated water, and I did start to feel much better after a long soak.

 

Day 1 – The Venetian Glass Museum

With rain promised for the afternoon, Dad and I decided to make a gentle day of it. Enjoying a relaxed breakfast, we set out on our first adventure of the Hakone chapter.

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Crystal Trees

Hakone is peculiar in that there are a lot of surprising attractions in the area. This includes ‘The Little Prince’ Museum, The Venetian Glass Museum, Lalique Museum, and the Open Air Museum. Having had our fair share of cultural art pieces in previous chapters of the holiday, Dad and I decided to stop off at the Glass Museum.

This is a small, but fun exhibition which includes some surprisingly old, and rather spectacular glass works in their collection. You are greeted, on entry, but three trees which—on closer inspection—are actually made of metal with crystal glass blossoms.

Going into the museum, you walk through a garden, under arches of glimmering glass-beads, into the exhibition hall. This is decorated in a faux-venetian style, with iconic paintings across the ceiling. Be careful to note the dates on the pieces as you pass, because their age may really surprise you.

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A Chinese Blue Flycatcher (I think?)

Having finished in the exhibition, don’t be rushed to then leave. One of my favourite parts of the museum is the little walkway down the bank on the other-side. This is above a river, and provides some excellent photographs for the surround foliage, trees and wildlife, including lots of lovely little birds!

Dad and I then took some tea together, before deciding to head up to Hakone Machi-Ko, beside Lake Ashi, in order to get some information for our escapade the following day.

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Lake Ashi in the mist

It was raining at this point, and despite the miserable weather, there is something quite captivating about seeing the mist hanging over the lake, and the surrounding mountains. It really is quite mysterious.

Having planned our route, we headed back to the hotel. After another long soak in the hot-springs (these really are utterly heavenly), we had another outrageously delicious dinner, and then chilled over a cup of sake, and a manju each before bed.

 

Day 2 – The Rope-Way and Lake Ashi

 

Day 2 of our Hakone Chapter was the adventurous one. Taking a bus down to Gora Station, we met up with a friend, and old choir-buddy of mine, Kanako, and went up the Cable Car to Sounzan.

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Mordor!

From Sounzan, we took the Ropeline up to Akanawara. To any first time (or second time!) this is a must-do trip that takes you up to the very top. The views as you rise up from Sounzan to the slightly ominous mountain side, with huge billows of fumes billowing up from the natural fumaroles, the earth stained yellow with sulphur, has a vaguely Tolkien-esque feel to it.

As Dad said, “It looks like Mordor.”

Stepping out at the top, we were greeting by a spectacular view of Fuji…

Or at least, we would have been, had the clouds not been in the way. Even despite seeing this impressive and iconic volcano, the atmosphere still provided a feast for the senses. We were fortunate to be going during the week, and thus did not have to contend with crowds such as the area usually sees.

Stopping off briefly in the Geology Museum first, Kanako and I then moved on ahead of Dad in order to secure ourselves some Kurotamago (Black Eggs). Kurotamago are eggs that have been boiled in the hot-springs up on the mountain. Sometimes the walk-ways are open, giving people access up to see the process, and walk up the mountain path. On this occasion, due to an increase in fumes, much like on Mt. Aso, the walk-ways were closed for our safety. Even so, the egg boiling was still happened, and the eggs were available in a packet of five. Each egg supposedly lengthens your life by seven years, so we added a little time to our life span.

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Kanako-Chan with a Hello Kitty Kurotamago

Having taken a brief nosey at the souvenir shops, we rejoined Dad for a drink and some freshly cooked manju. (For anyone who enjoys, or wants to try this tasty treat, nothing compares to having it handed to you, hot and fresh, at the top of a mountain where it’s been cooked!)

Dad rolled his eyes as Kanako munched away, simultaneously chiming, “Oishii!” (Delicious).

We dallied around at the top for a few hours, hoping for the clouds to clear a little more and offer us that view of Fuji. This was not uncomfortable in the least, with lots of food and treats on offer, and in fine company.

After some time, we decided to give up the ghost and head down to continue the Rope-way back down to Hakone-Machi-Ko. Again, the views offered to us on the Rope-way down were excellent, though hard to photograph through the glass of the bubble, which was suffering from some general wear and tear.

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Lake Ashi

Reaching Lake Ashi, we had an half-hour before the next voyage, so having purchased our tickets, we took a short walk along the wooded area right of the pier. This was great fun, and gave us some of our best views of the lake from Hakone-Machi-Ko. As Kanako and I walked, we couldn’t help but fall into old habits, and before long we were both singing merrily together.

“Kyoshi, konoyoru—hoshi wa hikari!”—Silent Night, in Japanese. Not entirely season appropriate, but I only know three songs in Japanese by heart, so it was between that and Princess Monoke (which we sang next).

Sneaking our way back onto the pier, we then boarded a ‘galleon’—a large ship, decorated to look like something from Pirates of the Carabean, with faux-sales and slighty gaudy, painted pirate/sailor statues on the first-class deck.

Whilst you can take your seat in comfortable cabins, we all rushed to the top deck to take everything in as we set out. Lake Ashi glittered invitingly beneath us as we cut through the waters.

DSC_0059.JPGA little on Lake Ashi. It is several hundred meters above sea-level and was created after volcanic activity in the area caused a crater, that waters then rushed into and filled. It is known as the Lake of Reeds, ‘Ashi’ meaning ‘reed’.

The journey across the water takes about half-an-hour, and we didn’t leave the top-deck for the duration, even when the lake-wind began to bite a bit.

At the terminus, we caught the bus and Kanako and I parted ways, all of us agreeing it was a great day.

Getting back to the hotel, Dad and I took our soaks in the hot-springs, had another extraordinary dinner, and then dropped off to bed.

 

Day 3 – The Not-so-much Castle and the Open Air Museum

 

The last day of our Hakone adventure, and Dad and I decided to actually head down into town and visit Odawara museum. After a small hiccup with buses—we ended up going to Hakone station, instead of Odawara, we found our way across to Odawara Castle.

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Odawara Castle

From the outside, this was an impressive structure, though it is among the smaller of the castles you can find in Japan. The inside, however, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment.

Now—before I continue, I should stress that this is no way means Odawara Castle isn’t worth a visit. The inside is museum which details the history of the castle in excellent detail. Whilst the written displays are in Japanese, there is Wifi, and you can download an app onto your phone, which provides all the information in English as you reach each display.

However, if you are going to castle—as we were—in the hopes of seeing some actual history, you may be disappointed. The castle inside has been refurbished and is entirely modern. In-fact, there was very little to show that we were in a castle at all, which was an incredible shame.

Feeling a little hard-done by, we popped across the courtyward for the ‘Heart of the Samurai’ exhibition, which, though small, lifted our spirits. The exhibition included suits of armour, katana and a small, artistic video.

Coming out, and with Dad in full-steam-ahead mode, I was able to convince him to hold back. There was a small booth, and much like some castles in England offer visitors the chance to try archery, this one was offering three goes with a shuriken (throwing-star). Dad waited as I queued up and had a try. Of the three tries, only one of my shuriken actually hit the mark…

Conclusion—I probably shouldn’t try out to be a ninja anytime soon.

Getting the train up to Gora, and the bus back down to Sengoku, Dad and I headed across to Hakone’s Open Air Museum.

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Glass Exhibition at the Open Air Museum

Whilst neither Dad and I are particularly interested in modern and abstract art, we both agreed that the Open Air Museum is well-worth a visit (It was actually my second time there!). The artwork is beautiful and, as shown by many of the promotional pictures in the museum which display a series of their statues in rain and similar weather, the museum is good viewing in any weather (though we were glad of the sunshine!).

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Figure Statues at the Open Air Museum

The walk around was pleasant, with some truly outstanding examples of extraordinary artwork, and with the views and landscape offering as much in the way of aesthetic pleasure, as the exhibition itself.

By the end of the day, we were exhausted and my leg was throbbing a bit. The clouds had come in, the wind was picking up, and it felt like just the right time to get back, have a long hot soak, eat our final, delicious dinner at the hotel, and discuss the best and worst bits of the Hakone chapter, over sake.

Worst bit—Odawara Castle wasn’t what we’d been hoping for.

Best bit—good company, great food, and excellent onsen.

THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER THREE: KUMAMOTO!

Having finished out adventure in Kyoto, we caught the Shinkansen to Shinkobe late in the morning, and then changed there for Kumamoto. This journey, which took between 3 to 4 hours was a little less comfortable then some of the others, simply because it involved going through a lot of tunnels, which I found a little irritating on my ears. Dad had no similar qualms, so it may have just been me! People who are prone to discomfort at atmosphere and pressure changes may want to take some gum with them, and a hefty set of headphones!

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There are no ninja in Japan

It was bright and sunny when we arrived in Kumamoto. We were immediately greeted by the disembodied head of a rather large (cartoon) bear in the entrance of the station. This is the mascot of the area, and visitors to Kumamoto will find him almost everywhere they go in the region. It took me a few days to put two and two together and realise why ‘Kumamoto’ had chosen a bear to represent them—(Kuma means bear in Japanese).

Our hotel, the APA was fairly standard and straightforward, but was well priced and put us in a good position for access to the rest of the city, the trams and the large arcades where we went to eat most nights.

Kumamoto is boasted as one of the friendliest places in Japan, though I will warn visitors that this area is a little more off the beaten track! Unlike Kyoto, which caters for vast amounts of tourists, we were among very few foreign guests at the hotel and in the city. A few of the restaurants had English menus, but on our first night we had to contend without—my Japanese was rather put to the test!

Fortunately, a lot of Japanese restaurants have a rather useful habit of including pictures, if not full-scale model displays of their food. This is incredibly useful for both those pesky tourists and for people who love a good visual when deciding what to eat.

We had soba noodles, then wondered back toward our hotel, stopping off in a bar-restaurant which would actually become a regular haunt of ours for the duration of our visit to Kumamoto. Dad got himself a beer, and I ordered some delicious plum wine.

For those who enjoy sweet or dessert wines—plum wine is the treat for you. That being said, they’ll offer it to you straight or with soda. Get it with some soda—even just a little. The wine is quite thick, and having finished a glass of it straight, I did feel a little queasy afterward and had to lie down. I corrected my mistake the following night and had no similar problems.

As a city, our first impression of Kumamoto was that it was bright and lively. It helped that we came out on a weekend, because there were lots of people about, but there was definitely the feel of ‘life’ here. The city was one that enjoyed sunshine and it had a slight ‘sea-side’ feel to it. Dad insisted that the sea wasn’t that close, but I smelt the difference in the air, even if there wasn’t a beach nearby.

 

Day 1 – The Crumbling Castle and the Golfer’s Nightmare

 

Kumamoto castle is one of the city’s biggest attractions, and draws a decent number of visitors every year. However, as Dad and I approached it, cameras at the ready and smeared in sun-cream, we weren’t expecting the crowd that greeted us.

The main entrance to the castle was closed, but signs directed us around a small shopping area where a three pronged queue of hundreds of people curled all the way around a grassy verge, up a flight of stairs and toward the castle-grounds.

Like any self-respecting Brits, we joined the back, and were pleased that—despite its size—the crowd was quite fast moving.

“This castle must be really popular,” I mumbled, whilst Dad craned his neck, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Hm,” he said.

After some time, we were able to make it up toward the castle entrance, only to find a huge mass waiting for us. Massive beach-balls were being thrown into the air, and someone was talking on a mic. There was music and chatter, and mile long queues for cabin toilets.

“Did we step through a portal into Glastonbury?”

“Hm,” Dad said, eyes still narrowed.

We advanced toward the wall of people, trying to see if there was actually anyway into the castle itself, which was on our left. Some investigation later however, and we discovered that there was no way into the castle because it was closed.

Upon closer inspection we saw exactly way.

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Kumamoto Castle – Damage from the Earthquake

In 2016 Kumamoto suffered from a significant earthquake. The castle suffered significant damages to the outer walls and the roof, behind which a huge orange crane (work machine, not the bird) sat poised, paused in its work.

This was, as you can imagine, rather a disappointment—we’d been keen to see the castle, but understandable safety regulations prevented us from even getting close to the rather impressive building.

We pushed through the dense crowd, like Scott and his men wading into the Antarctic—mystified, wary, and—in my case—grossly unequipped for the environment. Dad, a regular festival goer, and almost a head-taller than most of the people around him, was fine as he slipped through the crowd. I—claustrophobic, bad-legged, and at just the right height to be blinded by wide-brimmed hats and parasols—struggled a little more.

As we broke through the thicket into a slightly clearer area on the other side of the mass, we noticed that most of the crowd were facing toward the castle, watching it keenly. Clearly something was about to happen.

For a wild, and terrible moment, I thought we were about to be witness to the castle being bulldozed, and then I had the good sense to just ask someone who was poised ready, with a camera facing up to the sky.

“What everyone wanting to look at?” I asked in my broken Japanese.

The cameraman replied. I blinked stupidly and asked him to repeat. He did so. I continued to blink stupidly.

I didn’t understand a word.

Fortunately for Dad and I, a rather lovely young lady in-front of us turned around and explained in perfect English that that there was going to be an air-show. The event was to raise money for the castle repairs, and one of the pilots in the show was actually local to Kumamoto. Everyone had come out in force to see the spectacle, and support one of their own.

We got into conversation with the young lady, who had the most endearing accent—Japanese, but with the occasional twang of pure Australian! She’d spent some time in Perth, hence her impeccable English. She recommended a few places for us to go in the area, which we were very grateful for, as castle plan had fallen through.

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A Surprise Air-Show!

The conversation was cut off by the arrival of the aeroplanes. We watched, impressed, as they flew in perfect synchronicity across the sky, creating shapes out of cloud, and performing daring twirls and tricks. I pointed out that we were never at risk of missing a moment, because every time the planes disappeared, the crowd would quickly signal their return with a loud “Ooooh!”

Having seen our fill, and thanking our impromptu tour advisor, we detangled ourselves from the crowd and circled around the castle back onto the main-street.

There, we caught the tram—which was as efficient as the rail and bus service—and went down to Suizenji, an attractive garden park that circles a large pond.

Surrounded by city on all sides, the garden was a stretch of perfectly mowed knolls and hills, with trees, humungous fish in the water, and an attractive tea-house on the water’s edge.

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The masochist’s golf-course (Suizenji)

As I looked out over the immaculate grass, a Japanese flag flapping on the other side of the garden, I made the observation to my father that it looked like a masochist’s putting range. Dad snorted loudly.

The rest of the walk was occupied by internal observations on how this garden was unequivocally unsuited for golf. Robin William’s sketch, and my own brief experience with Golf came to mind several times.

We stopped at the Tea-house for a drink. The waitress looked aghast when I asked if they had any coffee, (for Dad, that is—I’m not a heathen) and quickly informed me that there was only one thing on the menu, as the name of the place suggested. Tea.

We accepted this, and sat by the water, taking in the sights as we sipped our hot beverages and nibbled on delicious Japanese cake.

As the afternoon came in, we were driven back to the hotel by an unmistakable force that neither cared what time it was, where we were, or that we were on holiday.

Glastonbury ticket resales.

Having missed the chance to grab tickets in the first go, Dad, Jonathan and a number of his friends had formed a team to try and grab tickets on the resale for the famous festival, which Dad and Jonathan have attended for nine consecutive years. The ultimate father-son tradition.

I opted to join in with their efforts, and at 17:00 sharp Japanese time, our afternoon transformed into a frenzy of button hitting as we refreshed the Glastonbury ticket page again and again.

It was over in a matter of minutes, and unfortunately—despite best efforts—we weren’t able to secure tickets for the Vaughan men. Disappointed, but counting the fortunate of having attending nine years in a row, Dad wasn’t in too bad spirits as we set out for dinner.

We went to Kome no Kura, a great little, Japanese restaurant, with private, tatami floored booths, and a menu that included local Kumamoto dishes. We tried a few of these, avoiding the horse dishes out of personal preference, and the whole meal was very much enjoyed! I can’t recommend the place enough!

 

Day 2 – The Christian Islands

Day two of our visit saw us heading out to explore the coast. One of the main reasons we chose to go to Kumamoto, was that I was curious what life along the sea was like.

The sea is the centre of many island communities. It is a giver and taker of life—it has inspired generations of stories and mythology. As well as dividing countries, it connects them through trade routes. It gives us beautiful shells and pearls, provides one of the main sources of food in Japan, and is a place of wonderment and beauty.

It’s also a frothy, thrashing pit of death, where you can ironically die of dehydration, if the exposure, hyperthermia, drowning or large flesh-eating aquatic animals don’t get you first.

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Tomioka Beach

It stands to reason then that I wanted to see how the Japanese lived alongside this turbulent monster, especially considering the occurrences of earthquakes and tsunamis in the country. In particular we wanted to see rural fishing life, so we headed up to Tomioka Magarizaki, taking the costal road from Kumamoto. Once again, we hired a car for the occasion, and the journey took about two and a half hours.

The beach, on arrival, was small and almost entirely deserted. Dad and I enjoyed walking up and down it, and collecting some shells. The smell of the sea was incredibly strong, and there was very little in the way of commercial spots. Two restaurants that looked over the beach were closed, and there were no shops of any kind. Visitors coming here for a classic day out on the beach with parasols and ice-cream, would certainly be disappointed.

Having done the beach, we went further inland up to Tomioka castle. This has an interesting history, in particular with reference to Christianity in Japan.

A little bit of a history lesson. During the 16th Century, Catholicism arrived in Japan via the Portuguese. Catholicism took hold in some areas, boasting up to 100,000 converts at the height of its success. In particular, Nagasaki and the Kyushuu area became a centre for Catholicism, up until the point it was outlawed by the Shoganate in 1620.

Between 1637 and 1638, the Shimabara rebellion broke out. Most of the rioters—peasants in the Shimabara peninsula and Amakusa—were Catholics. This is often cited as the reason for the turmoil, despite the facts the rebellion probably had a lot more to do with over-taxation and hunger, than religion.

After the rebellion was ended, special enforcements were thrown down against Christianity. It was punishable by death, and so Christians went underground. Believers who continued to practise their faith in secret became known as the Kakure Kurishitans (Hidden Christians), and little signs and clues can be found across Kyushuu of their presence.

During the rebellion, Tomioka castle, one of the Shoganate strong-holds, was attacked three times. After the rebellion ended, the castle was succeeded by Suzuki Shigenari. He recognised much of the true cause of the rebellion, and submitted a request to the shogunate to reduce the tax. The request was denied, and it is said that—in protest against this—Suzuki Shigenari actually committed hari-kiri (a very painful form of ritual suicide).

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The View from Tomioka Castle

Back to the castle itself—it was actually destroyed in 1670 by Toda Tadamasu. The building that now stands in its place is a reconstruction, with very few original features on the inside. That being said, it is still well worth a visit. For one—it’s free entry, and contains a pleasant exhibition. There’s also a museum on the site which you do have to pay for, that contains historical artefacts. Visitors should be warned, that the majority of the information and writing is in Japanese, though you are provided with a free English pamphlet that goes into detail about the history of the castle.

Outside, you will find four statues stood looking out of Tomioka. One of these is the rather grim-faced Suzuki Shigenari. Beside him is his brother, Suzuki Shosan, a priest and Shigenari’s political advisor. The other statues are of Katsu Kaishan and Rai Sanyo.

Standing at the top of Tomioka Castle and taking in the stunning view of the island and sea, you can understand why it was such an important stronghold, particularly during a time of great national isolation in Japan.

Having completed the Castle, Dad and I decided to go back along the costal route and stop off in Tsuji Island. This is a popular place to go Dolphin watching, and indeed most of the shops and businesses had Dolphin themed signs.

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A Tanuki pops out to say hello!

The Island is actually quite small, and is mostly residential, with a small diving club and a local harbour. Dad and I drove around the island and enjoyed the views, as well as spotting some surprise wildlife in the form of wild tanuki (Japanese racoon-dogs) and lots of cats.

We ended our tour of Tsuji island by stopping off at the Youmeru Spa, an onsen located in the middle of the island, up at the top. We didn’t have time for a dip, so we opted for some lunch instead, and then began the long, scenic journey back into Kumamoto city.

We ended the night with Ramen, having been advised to check out Ramen Komurasaki, another restaurant in the arcade. We both ate the signature ‘King Ramen’ dish, along with some steaming gyoza.

 

Day 3 – Into the Volcano

 

So, around when we were still planning our trip, and I expressed a desire to go to Kumamoto, Dad had a look at the area and said he wanted to go and see Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. Dad was adamant about wanting to get to the top of it.

Cut to October, 2016 when an 11,000 metre column of ash was blown out of Mt. Aso as it erupted, ash reaching as far as the Island of Shikoku, 300 kilometres away.

I sent Dad a link on facebook. “Is this the Volcano you want us to go up?”

“Yep,” Dad replied merrily.

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Andrew Vaughan – Explorer Extraordinaire!

And thus, on our third and final day in Kumamoto, Dad and I got into the car and drove up to Mt. Aso. One of the things I have repeated again and again is how scenic the drives always are. I am not particularly taken by modern Japanese architecture, when it comes to cities. Houses aren’t really built to last, which in a country ravaged by earthquakes, seems rather wise. Driving through cities isn’t particularly fascinating, as far as views go. However, Japan is taken up hugely by mountains, and the moment you hit that lush natural world, there really is nothing like it. The colours, the variation…It’s magical.

We reached our destination, stopping off at Aso Volcano Museum. Unfortunately the cable-car that sometimes takes visitors up to the crater, wasn’t running. Toxic gas emissions were rising up from the mouth of the volcano, and Dad and I were pretty understanding on why it may not be a good idea for us to get too close.

Instead, we looked around the museum, and took the chance to take several thousand photographs of the amazing views around us.

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Fumes rising up from Mt. Naka

A little bit more on Mt. Aso.  It has a humungous caldera, with a circumfrance of around 120 km, and actually consists of five peaks, known as the Aso-Gogaku. It is Mt. Naka, on Aso, which is the current active volcano, and from where we were, Dad and I could see billowing fumes rising from its crater.

We also saw even more evidence of the destruction of the earthquake that had occurred the previous year. A monument stone up at the top of a hill had collapses, and the museum itself was undergoing repairs. Despite this, everything was open, and we were welcomed warmly. Dad, being the Science nerd he is, profited more from the museum that I did—though I do have a soft-spot when it comes volcanoes, however macabre that is.

Having exhausted ourselves with photographs there, we drove across to Daikanbo lookout, further north, to take a few more photos. The lookout, though quite busy, did offer some really breath-taking views and was worth the detour.

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Views from Mt. Aso

Then back to Kumamoto we went, and stopped off in a small restaurant that truly pushed my Japanese to the limit. No English menu, and no pictures either. I thought we were doomed until I spotted one word on the menu that I recognised (though, I didn’t actualy remember what it meant!). Taking a leap of faith, I ordered two of the dishes with some rice.

All turned out well as we were delivered cutlets of succulent, breaded pork and delicious steamed rice.

Dad and I then stopped off at the little restaurant close to the hotel, for our ritual drink (that plum wine really is delicious).

In conclusion for Kumamoto—

The Worst Part, on a touristy level, was not being able to see Kumamoto Castle, though this very understandable.

The Best Part was the warmth in which we were received, the excellent food, and the unique experience of seeing a less tourist driven, new side to the country.