The Fosters and incest

(Contains spoilers for the whole of The Fosters season one.)

The Fosters may be the most warm-hearted family drama on TV, but at the same time, it’s also making a surprisingly dark and nuanced exploration of incest.

When, in The Fosters’ season one finale, the show’s teenaged hero, Brandon, hooked up with his dad’s girlfriend, Dani, it could have been dismissed as a finale stunt. However, I’m more inclined to read it as a natural progression of a story that has cast Brandon as the central figure in a rich examination of incest.

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TV review: Catfish’s easy-going travelogue style transcends its hokey reality show set-up

Catfish is a TV show that I deliberately avoided for a long time: its tales of internet romance gone bad seemed to me to represent the worst of exploitative reality TV. As a newfound fan of the show, I can’t say that my first impressions were all wrong. But, amidst its sensationalistic Reality schlock, Catfish also manages to be a delightful road-trip travelogue, hosted by my new favourite TV duo.

Each episode of Catfish has a very definite formula—

(Here is the formula: we join a hapless young person who’s met someone online and “fallen in love” despite never meeting them in person; some low-level detective work immediately reveals the internet lover isn’t who they say they are; shaky cameras accompany our hapless hero/ine as they meet the internet lover and realize they could/couldn’t learn to love them as they are. Couldn’t most of the time, because our hapless hero/ine is usually shallow as fuck.)

—and this formula gets stale pretty quickly, but what makes the show unexpectedly charming is the ‘in-between’. As co-hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph criss-cross the USA in search of “catfish” (internet fakers), the audience gets glimpses of their journey and their light-hearted impressions of each place they visit. In this way, Catfish is more than just a standard reality show. It’s a travel show. It’s a road movie. And Nev and Max make for fun road trip buddies.

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Book review: Blueprints for Building Better Girls – Elissa Schappell (short stories, ***)

Stylistically, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is right up my alley: it serves up punchy, character-driven short stories about women that are told with humour and grit.

Although the stories tread familiar themes – women wronged (benignly, maliciously) by the men in their lives; women with eating disorders; women pushed to the side of their own lives by the demands of family – I was surprised at how memorable I found many of them.

These are character studies more than plotty works, but in many cases, the contents of the story spools out far beyond its 5,000-word boundaries. For instance, I’m still thinking about the first story of the collection, which matches ‘the school slut’ with the fat loser punchbag of a boy – with only one of those characters able to transcend their label. (Hint: It’s not the girl. It’s never the girl.)

I enjoyed these stories and a couple of them may even stick with me long-term, but nonetheless my overriding feeling was one of: “yeah, and…?” When you’re picking story themes, it’s a fine line between familiar and safe, and Blueprints errs too far on the side of ‘safe’, if you ask me. Do I need to read another story about dissatisfied young mothers? Or another story where the ‘twist’ is that the protagonist has been raped?

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Book review: The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh (fiction, ***)

With its languorous descriptions of a rustic village in Mallorca, The Lemon Grove is a novel that effortlessly whisks you away to a sunny day spent abroad (even if you’re reading it on a miserable wet day in England). The sticky heat of Helen Walsh’s setting is compounded by emotional heat, as the middle-aged protagonist, Jenn, struggles with her growing attraction to her stepdaughter’s teenage boyfriend, Nathan.

This holiday-romance-with-a-disturbing-twist is described alternately in terms of breathless abandon and suffocating disquiet. Walsh handles the fine line between erotica and literature deftly (the sex scenes aren’t the purposely unsexy type usually found in literary fiction, but they’re also not the soft-focus liaisons of the romance genre).

Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel that the central relationship was quite enough to fill a whole novel. There’s a thriller element to the story – an encroaching sense of dread; a narrative peppered with Things That Will Become Relevant – but there’s ultimately not enough drama to earn the badge of ‘thriller’.

Walsh tries to pad out the story with a few subplots and mysteries, most of which I found frankly banal. Jenn agonizes over the fact that she didn’t get her kicks while she was young enough to do so. (Yawn.) Jenn’s husband is being messed around by New Business types at work. (Yaaawn.) Talk about #firstworldproblems: all of the concerns in this book are so middle class that my eyes were rolling out of my head by the end.

Add in the fact that the novel ends with an unconvincing crisis (Jenn’s stepdaughter is lost in a storm, OHNOES!!!!) and a lazy, dot-dot-dot conclusion, and I became a bit tired of the whole thing. Read it on holiday for its great resort-town observations, but don’t expect anything too thrilling.