Friday, December 12, 2014

THOUGHTS: Puppy Love (BBC Four; 2014)

In November, the BBC aired the first episode of a new comedy series from two of the minds behind the brilliant Getting On, called Puppy Love. Starring Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, the story is of constant conflicts between the stubborn and self-important Naomi Singh (Pepperdine) and the brash and crude Nana V (Scanlan), with Naomi's prim-and-proper business manner contrasting heavily with the perpetually dodgy dealings of Nana V. Including guest stars including Phil Cornwell (Dead Ringers), Alvin Hall and Tobias Menzies (Rome, Game of Thrones), it's clear it's not been a chuck-on-TV affair and fits perfectly into the typical types of comedy currently shown on BBC Four (such as Detectorists, which finished just before this show broadcast). I think there's a lot to be said for Puppy Love and after watching the fifth episode (of six) today, I felt I had to talk about it.

Joanna Scanlan as Nana V and Vicki Pepperdine as Naomi Singh in 'Puppy Love'
The most striking thing you'll likely first notice about Puppy Love is its racial diversity. It does a reasonable job of showing the growing racial diversity of the UK, with many roles being played by non-white actors. This also goes alongside a fairly bluntly open attitude towards sexual matters, with many jokes about sex, a variety of sexual partners, and even Naomi's straight-forward yet over-descriptive talk about sex with her daughter Jasmine, and I found this refreshing. It's not often that a show basically says it's okay for teenagers to have sex, let alone containing scenes of them being encouraged. Both of these are positive things and it's good the BBC is showing a comedy that contains these aspects.

I'm not sure it is all fun and games, though. Pepperdine is both playing to her strengths but also her own self-typecast role, with Naomi Singh being almost identical to her role in Getting On (they share a writing team, with the addition of Jo Brand), and it has to be said that whilst initially charming, Scanlan's Nana V all too quickly becomes almost unbearable, with the same behaviours repeated again and again - and I can't help but feel she is all too willing to use her own body as the near-literal butt of the jokes. What may work once or twice as a parody quickly becomes tiresome.

There's one aspect I just can't get on board with, and that's the situation of Nana V. Something about it has never sat right with me, even from the start. Nana V is shown as a dodgy and somewhat tone-deaf character (as epitomised by her 'company' motto - "For All Your Dogging Needs", which also works as a double-entendre), but it goes beyond this. She lives in what can only be described as a modified pair of caravans, her ex-husband is housebound due to his weight (and vaguely complicit in the dodgy dealings), she's the adoptive mother of a young man (about 16-17) whose mother is in prison (not to mention his being caught taking drugs), her dog No Name is openly thought to be an illegal breed and not one of her business transactions is legitimate. Her fees are shown to change depending on her appraisal of that person and her dog training class often is paired with a small stall selling goods. It strikes me as being much too close to a number of negative perceptions of non-white groups within the UK, many of which in particular are applied to the various groups of traveller communities in this country.

I don't think that is something the show intends to do, but intent is not always the issue. Nana V is painted as a somewhat tragic figure, one desperate for attention and respect yet stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle of making things worse for herself. She tries to solve issues through sex, asks for inappropriate favours (e.g. asking a vet to give her a breast examination), and it seems like she is incapable or wholly unwilling to do things by the book. When this is contrasted with her way of life, and the current perceptions of travelling communities, poorer people and those on "benefits" (by that I mean the public perception of someone on benefits, not the reality), I feel like if it isn't adding fuel to the fire, then it is at least dangerously close to leaving the full canisters near the flame.

I will put my hands up and say I'm not talking from a personal investment in this. I could be wrong in my deductions about this character and what she represents. It's just to me it feels like she embodies many stereotypes about marginalised and wrongly-distrusted groups in society, and that the show does little to nothing to change them except try to show her as doing "The Right Thing". The positivity of the show goes hand in hand with the negativity, and it's important to recognise both.

THOUGHTS: The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I wasn't really going to blog about this - well, I tell a mistruth. I have been conflicted about doing so, but after a dozen dozen tweets sent at Adam of The Wertzone and upon reading his review, I think I have to. The film, the sixth and final of Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth adaptations, released today in the UK, and it's been on my mind most of the day.

Of course, there will be spoilers ahead.

On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Battle of the Five Armies, perhaps even moreso than The Desolation of Smaug (in its theatrical form!). If Adam's comments about it being the shortest are true, well... I have to say it doesn't feel like it! This may have been in part to the ignorant-as-heck couple in the row in front of me who couldn't stop muttering for longer than five sodding minutes - ahem, apologies - but on the whole I think the longer scenes did tend to drag out a little much. In particular, there's a scene with Thorin walking across the Implausibly Implausible Solid Floor Of Gold from the second film as his mind rallies against the 'dragon sickness' he has contracted from all of the gold, and it just went on too long. There's only so much of Thorin staring into the camera you can stand before getting bored (though your milage may vary on this).

I would like to tackle Adam's points about the battle sequences, if I may. I honestly found The Battle of the Five Armies itself to be as striking and as exhilerating as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, though sadly it lacks the I AM NO BRO moment that I love so much. I felt this is where WETA were at their best, with a glorious amount of relatively gore-free fighting going on. The Elves of Mirkwood jumping over the backs of the Ironfeet soldiers of Dáin, Thranduil beheading six orcs with one swing of his sword, the almost machine-like movement into formations by the Ironfeet, the sleek and efficient movements of the Elven warriors - even the Obligatory Comedy Cave Troll whose sole purpose is to take the phrase "use your head" too literally. All of these drew me in, irrespective of how implausible it would be, because that is what action sequences are meant to do. They're meant to get your attention, hold it, sustain it and make you gasp. And I did all of that. I would be lying if I said I didn't love it.

I do agree with Adam on the sections revolving around the assault on Dale, however. This is where I get my most critical about the film. I think there was a lot - maybe too much - of Bard running around for his family. It seemed oddly selfish for such a selfless man, but then again defense and love of one's family seems to be a very strong theme in Tolkien's world, and it lead to some fairly interesting sections, though it seemed like this is where even the implausible was overlooked for the entertaining, and even then it wasn't particularly entertaining. But there was a bigger issue running around Dale...


You remember the weasel from the second film, lackey to Stephen Fry's utterly abominable performance as The Master of Lake-Town? Yeah, well, he gets promoted to Comedy Vehicle in this, and does an awful job at it. Alfrid's main role in the last half of the film is to get in the way, sneer at people and think he's better than he is. He bosses people around, he lies, he looks out for himself and he generally disobeys orders. And this isn't the worst of it! A short while after being told to help Bard's son get all the women and children to safety, he does these things:
1. Pushes some disabled characters over and shouts something like "Abandon the cripples!"
2. Disguises himself as an old lady
3. Discovers and tries to steal loads of gold
4. Drops his gold as he's about to be attacked, and then picks it up and carries it in the ONLY WAY POSSIBLE if you are a male character in disguise as a woman - yes, he stuffs it into his chest. This is completed with a "plumping up" and exaggeration/cupping of the pseudo-breasts in a jovial manner.
As point four is over, Alfrid runs away, only to be collared by Bard, who shouts "Alfrid? Your slip is showing!". I thought these whole sequences were utterly appalling and added nothing to the film, nor did they do anything except reinforce the lack of women in The Hobbit (it says it all that the third most prominent character in women's clothing was Alfrid) and to further perpetuate the Man + Women's Clothes = FUNNY. What makes this even more striking was the fact that just before point 2 happened, some of the women picked up improvised weaponry and prepared to help fight against the invading orcs.

The last big point I'd like to pick up on is Adam's discussion of the number of armies involved. I've made a case on Twitter that there are four by Tolkien's counting, and Adam reckons six or more. I think I can easily make five, and my blog allows for a more eloquent argument. Absent from the book is a fifth army - the wolves (who ally with the goblins) - and that leaves us at four. So how do we make five again? Adam suggested counting the orcs and goblins as two separate armies (which makes sense), though one could easily argue that they're still one as their commander is shared - Azog - and they are fighting under overall leadership from the Necromancer (i.e. Sauron). His other point was that the bats were presented as another, but I disagree with this. The bats cannot be as they have very little input in the combat (less than the various types of troll/ogre and perhaps less than the Great Eagles), so I would put them to one side. Simply, the best way to make five is this. The 'Heroic' side is Thranduil's Elves, Thorin Oakenshield's Company and Dáin's Ironfeet Dwarves (considered as one), and finally the Men of Lake-Town, lead by Bard the Bowman. The 'Evil' side would be the Goblins and the Orcs, both fighting under Azog (and Bolg). The Eagles, the Trolls and the 'Bats' do not count as armies for this reckoning, simply as if you count every species and small faction, you end up with something like The Battle of the Five Armies and Their Friends and Two Wizards and a Hobbit and the Sandworms from Dune and Some Other Stuff I Guess.

I did really enjoy The Battle of the Five Armies, but it would be a lie to say it was perfect or only had a few flaws. It continues the utterly awful CGI people, the scenes where your eyes can't focus properly because of the frame rate or the resolution or both, and many many scenes are simply talking heads. The Master and Alfrid's presence continued to drag the film down - yes, Stephen Fry is barely in it and he shat all over it - almost literally, as one of his lines is something like "I'm trying to evacuate myself!" and his character's death is a fist-pump moment until you realise there'll probably be more of him in next year's Extended Edition. But it still manages to be an exciting and fun film when it gets momentum, and for all of its flaws, I have enjoyed this trilogy - but will it be as important, as loved and as long-lasting as The Lord of the Rings has been?

No, it won't.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

REVIEW: Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

*Warning - Minor Spoilers!*

Since the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010, Pixar have continued with the franchise in the forms of short films, with three sub-ten minute shorts (Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex) and two twenty-odd minute shorts. The first of these, Toy Story of Terror, released October 2013 and saw near-universal praise, especially for how it handled Jessie and her fear of being put in a box. I never got around to reviewing it, but it is one of my favourite animated releases and is Pixar truly at the top of their game. The second short film is Toy Story That Time Forgot, and it released on the 2nd of December in the US, and the 6th in the UK.

Mike Mignola's teaser poster for the special
With Trixie (Kristen Schaal) taking the lead role this time, we go on a short adventure along with Woody, Buzz, Rex and another newcomer, Angel Kitty, as they encounter a new line of souped-up dinosaur toys, The Battlesaurs, led by both Reptillus Maximus (Kevin McKidd) and The Cleric (Steve Purcell; who also wrote and directed). Trixie and Rex are instantly enamoured with this new line of toys, especially as they are treated as equals rather than as side-characters (although it has to be said Rex, again, is a side-character), and even get to share in the accessories that the Battlesaurs have. What follows is a story of love, awakening and of confronting change, and of opening one's eyes.

It has to be said from the start that Time Forgot isn't as strong as Toy Story of Terror, nor as emotional as Toy Story 3. It even references the similarity of its own plot to that of Toy Story 1 (and Toy Story 2 to a smaller degree). I can't help but feel that there's something well-trodden here, and whilst it's not necessarily a weakness in this short, nor is it a strength. If Toy Story was a story of conflict between 'traditional' toys and newer, flashier ones (i.e. the contrast between Woody and Buzz), then Time Forgot is a story of conflict between flashier toys and contemporary video games, as evidenced by the initial unplayed nature of the Battlesaurs and Mason's later 'rediscovery' of imaginative play. The sad thing is that it doesn't really work, especially with every Pixar film getting its own video game and Purcell's own history of working in gaming, because whilst it can be seen to be a lament for children playing with toys, it arguably contributes to the opposite. A quick eBay search brought up some toys from this short as being in production (some of which don't exist within the film), but Pixar films rarely seem to have a substantial toy line behind them.

Six of the main characters (L-R; Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz, Rex and Reptillus)
There are many good things, however. Schaal is very much at her best in this, her voice work perhaps strengthened by two years of working on Disney's Gravity Falls as its co-lead Mabel Pines (in which she is utterly brilliant), and Kevin McKidd's performance is also incredibly strong. In about 20 minutes of film, Purcell managed to get across a lot of character development and the way he shaped Reptillus' conflict worked really well and it was thankfully different enough from Buzz's to feel like something new. Pixar's animators and designers were also firing on all cylinders for this, with some of the best and cleanest animation I've ever seen from them, again putting them near - if not at - the top once again. There were a couple of things that didn't quite work (I have no idea why Jessie was pulling such bizarre poses), but on the whole this was pretty much the best bit of animation I've seen.

I don't think Toy Story That Time Forgot will go down as Pixar's best moment. Whilst on a technical level it has some of the best design and animation they've ever produced, and the voice work from start-to-finish is well-polished, the story leaves a lot to be desired. Trixie and Reptillus are both excellent characters and work well in this, but it feels like it's quite a forgettable story with no massive impact on the direction of the franchise. I think it could have been much stronger if it was of a longer length to allow Pixar's designs to shine and to allow the new characters more time to settle in the imagination of Toy Story fans - child and adult alike - perhaps even so much as needing a film with them. I hope in fact that Toy Story 4 sees a return of the Battlesaurs, as they could help refresh the cast again.

Pixar should be proud of what they've done here. I fell in love with Toy Story again, and I thoroughly enjoyed a return to this franchise. I just don't think this is their strongest nor most impacting release, and instead falls back on safe narrative choices that the franchise has already covered, and has covered more than once.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THOUGHTS - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Extended Edition)

Warning: I WILL be discussing spoilers.

This time a year ago, I sat down and watched the first third of The Hobbit's film adaptation, An Unexpected Journey, in its extended form. On the whole I enjoyed it, whilst thinking it should have been done a little differently. A month and a bit later, I was sat in the cinema waiting for the first showing of part two, The Desolation of Smaug, to begin. Three hours later I walked out thinking it was an excellent film. Today I watched the Extended Edition of the second part, a day after its release in the UK, and I have to confess my feelings have changed.

And not for the better.

Before I start to air my issues, I would like to state first and foremost that I think doing The Hobbit as a trilogy with stronger ties to The Lord of the Rings is an excellent idea, and one I wholly support. A number of the changes also work well, such as the creation of Tauriel, even if it has upset some purists. I'm not a purist, and if there's one positive here that I will wax lyrical about, it's Tauriel.

My issues with The Desolation of Smaug (DoS from here) are a mix of what's given to us in the Extended Edition and noticing core flaws within the original film. A lot of the scenes that were added tend towards the pointless, if not the outright ridiculous, and I suspect they're partially to play for the sudden jump towards a 15 rating (from a 12 in its theatrical cut), making this the most adult of the films by its classification - the lowest being The Fellowship of the Ring at a PG. This is strange because there's nothing particularly objectionable bar some addition of strong language, the violence is exactly the same. 

DoS does continue with the faults of the first part in that it has some exaggerated design within a sober world. The look of the Dwarves becomes less noticeable as the film goes on - though I still maintain that the designs are pretty terrible - but the looks of characters such as  The Master of Laketown and Alfrid (The Master's lackey) all stand out as being overly exaggerated. They would look fine if this was an animated film or a comedy, but to see such incongruous designs against relatively sensible ones makes them stand out all the more. I'd even argue that The Master of Laketown, the interior of his house and Alfrid all look as if they'd been cut out of an abandoned comedy show or film and spliced into The Hobbit - they stand out THAT much. The tone with these characters also doesn't fit in, if anything it's even less bearable than The Goblin King's Disney Villain song from the first film.

No, really. This is what The Master of Laketown and Alfrid look like.
The CGI also falls flat, with some of the scenes obviously being rendered with 3D in mind, leaving a couple of brief sections as either disorienting or a knock on the fourth wall. For all of WETA's expertise and brilliance, all too many of the CGI scenes look absolutely dreadful. One that sticks in my mind is of Legolas racing out of Laketown on his horse, and I thought it looked good... for a video game. Indeed, it had the same quality to me as the CGI one would find in a video game (and perhaps then, of the last generation) and looked just as natural. We're also treated to Bombur as a rolling ball of doom, and it speaks for a love of ignoring physics and mass (Bombur is basically a walking violation throughout the film, including a scene at the start when he runs) that runs through the film, culminating in the mind-bogglingly bad forge sequence - where the laws of pretty much everything are ignored, including the random generation of literal tons of molten gold to fill the make-shift pool that covers Smaug.

The tricks that don't necessarily (or exclusively) rely on CGI can also be bad. We all remember the scene in Helm's Deep where Legolas slides down the stairs on a shield. It looked pretty good, albeit implausible, right? Well, this time he does it with a goblin (it's CGI) and it's terrible. Sliding does occur in other places too, with a number of scenes involving characters sliding down slopes on flat feet - Gandalf does it once or twice, Bilbo does too - and it's as if they have a tiny bag of tricks that they have to reuse. Even many of the action sequences that blend CGI and live action look extremely unnatural with an almost jarring effect. Whilst less pronounced than it was on a 4k screen at the cinema, the first-person camera during the barrel escape sequence is still of lower quality than the other footage and it comes across as a little pixellated, though I suspect many won't notice.

There are only a couple of new scenes in the Extended Edition, the majority of the extensions adding dialogue or plotlines, such as Gandalf finding Thorin's father in Dol Guldur, and many of these come across as clumsy (including the bizarre use of a Wilhelm Scream for the death of Thorin's father) or pointless. Very little is added that makes an impact on the story itself, instead revealing things we generally already knew. One new scene - technically an extension - is absolutely obscene, though. The Master of Laketown is interrupted by Alfrid shouting "Bollocks!", and then presenting a plate of cooked testicles to him. We are then treated to The Master eating these testicles in a disgusting fashion (I suspect this is why the film got bumped up to a 15) as they discuss how they can stop Bard through corrupt lawmaking.

This is pretty much how I felt by the end.
In truth, I don't think there's a single reason to go for the Extended Edition over the standard, at least for this film. You spare yourself almost half an hour of pointless and/or terrible scenes, many of which should have stayed cut simply because they're beyond poor. I still think The Desolation of Smaug in its theatrical form is a better film than An Unexpected Journey, but upon rewatching I noticed more flaws than I wish I had, and it's made me think less of it than I had done previously. I'm still looking forward to the final part, The Battle of the Five Armies, next month, but not as much as I thought I would.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thoughts: A follow up on my 'Invisible' piece.

It's been just over six months since I made my publishing début with my essay in Jim C. Hines' Invisible, in which I wrote about my perception of a lack of transgender representation in fiction. At the time I was excited to be published, in a way to be almost validated, but as time marches on I've barely even thought about it – heck, I suddenly remembered in the shower that I was published. Looking back, it's almost with a sense of regret, and no pride whatsoever, that I view my piece.

Whilst I am legally an adult (I'm in my mid-20s) and more than capable of making my own decisions, I can't help but feel that on some level my piece was a mistake. I haven't heard any feedback about it directly, nor has Jim alerted me to any, so I assume that it went down okay (if people read it), which is both good and perhaps not so good.

The core of the issue is, for me, responsibility. Whilst I spoke for myself and myself alone, to the reader I may have been representing the transgender community, and that's a responsibility I cannot shoulder. Whilst I have known for coming on a decade that I am not a male-identified person, my lack of progress in that area and my reluctance to come out and a dozen other factors put me in a place where I am continually unsure of my own identity and feelings, my own lack of internal 'correctness' giving me a perpetual case of self-doubt. It's fun. But I don't have the experience of living as an out or transitioning transgender person, I don't have the bit of paper that says everyone who calls me by male names is wrong. All I have is an inner turmoil.

I do believe I made valid points at the time, and ones that are still valid today. I believe transgender representation is something we certainly need to work at in all forms of media, and whilst I'm especially grateful to authors and figures such as Mark Charan Newton for creating a transgender icon of mine (Lan in his The Book of Transformations), Alison Croggon for discussing with me how transgender issues could be dealt with in her world of Pellinor, Cheryl Morgan for her years of guidance and support, and a dozen other creators for either including transgender characters or talking about those issues with me, I feel like I have an erratum to release.

I don't speak for the transgender community, and in hindsight I feel I should not have participated. I don't think it's out of fear of causing damage or saying something wrong, but simply because I put myself in a position I'm no longer comfortable with and I assumed a responsibility I don't feel is or ever has been mine to take. It is one thing for me to talk about how these issues seem to me via Twitter, Tumblr or my blog, but it is another to publish under what is technically a pseudonym and to possibly be considered a spokesperson for other transgender-identified people. I won't withdraw my piece from any possible revisions, but I will be much less hasty to sign up to projects in the future.

The plus side of this, however, is that I have not profited at all from this – as I stated when the collection released, I forfeited the payment and any royalties so that all the money goes to the chosen charity.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #7 - The Deathly Hallows

And here we are, on Harry Potter and the Oh Thank The Gods This Is Over. Rowling has been content in the past to literally magic things into the book, but The Deathly Hallows takes the absolute biscuit. It rivals The Order of the Phoenix for the title of Worst Harry Potter Novel... Yet it's not that clear cut. But as always - Spoilers, sweetie.

Our best friend angst makes a stunning return. Harry is angsty because Dumbledore had the sheer lack of manners to die and not tell Harry every single minute detail he has ever known,
Ron is angsty because Harry is angsty and because his family is under attack, and Hermione is angsty because Ron is angsty. Oh and they find an amulet that gives +10 to angst... so they decide to take turns wearing it. Jeez. The plot is absolutely dreadful, too, and the pacing is beyond dull. A lot of the book is set in a variety of wooded locations in which Harry, Hermione and sometimes Ron have a sit around, fight and then move to another location.

I think this book really highlights the flaws with the cast. They consistently fail to prepare for the unexpected yet are faced with it almost every step, they haven't got a bloody clue what they're doing, they manage to pull of extremely remarkable feats because This Is Their Book So Neener Neener Neener, they're still stupid enough to walk into traps, they're ridiculously careless and... well, I guess it's just a great big case of Daenerys Syndrome. They're too stupid to live (yes, even Hermione). One moment that stood out was Hermione created some flowers to put on the grave of Harry's parents... whilst they were trying to avoid being tracked or traced by Death Eaters. I wonder if there was a more obvious thing they could have done to show they were in this particular place?

The problematic comments about women continue to happen through to the near-end of the book, too. There was another comment about mothers which seemed really out of place, with relation to Dumbledore's hushed-up sister. And Harry takes a turn for the worse - he actually 'stalks' Ginny Weasley via the Marauder's Map, and at one point actually watches the map as she's in the dormitory and it's really kinda creepy. I was also extremely surprised to see Mrs. Weasley call Bellatrix a "bitch", as it marks the strongest use of language in the books (bar Ron's "effing"), one of the few gendered insults and is printed entirely in capitals. It must also be said that at times that the writing slips. In about a page-length of text a doe patronus is described twice as having a "beautiful head", for example, and the way some characters talk or repeat information just gets tiresome.

However, something happens about 150-200 pages from the end. The book suddenly remembers that it's meant to be good, and what follows is Rowling suddenly hitting her prime. Aside from pages of Voldemort and Harry exchanging really bad battle taunts, the final chapters are an exhilarating and compelling string of events that glue you to the pages. You race towards the end, and it's fairly satisfying, albeit brief. Yet I can't really say much beyond that, because there's not much to say except the end is pretty good.

I'm not going to pretend that I think the last quarter of this book makes up for over 1000 pages of problematic, dull, angst-ridden, repetitive and cyclic dribble over the last three books. I don't think Rowling ever really worked on the flaws over the course of the book, and problematic ideas or themes continue - I especially think the way she handled her female characters was consistently poor - instead the books got so padded out with time-wasting that it's hard to decide whether their strongest parts are actually strong or whether they seem so in contrast. The Deathly Hallows does bring some interesting depth to the world of Harry Potter, but much of it seems paper-thin upon even brief inspection.

I won't end this like the other challenge posts, instead I'll end on a wider note.

This reading challenge has been interesting, to say the least. It's easy to see why Harry Potter took the world by storm when it first came out, and how it managed to do so for many years after. The first four books are not free of issue, but are on the whole some excellent reads that grab hold of you. The last three stumble and fall more often than they succeed, and though they bring good things to the table, they never really justify their presence, nor the pages upon pages of angst-ridden, meandering nonsense. Maybe the last three are better on re-reads, but I found them disappointing.

Will I read these books again? Maybe, but I may forget about the last three...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #6 - The Half-Blood Prince

I've had a little bit of a break from Harry Potter, as reading five of the novels (and watching the corresponding films) can be quite exhaustive, especially the angst-laden The Order of the Phoenix. The sixth book is noticeably more cheerful in terms of Harry's outlook, but that vibe of angst doesn't go away. As always, spoilers ahead.

Before I start - Romance alert! Eugh. Yeah, The Half-Blood Prince does have a series of subplots revolving around the romantic interests of some of the characters, and Rowling's sometimes problematic treatment of her female characters rears its head again. Ginny is bouncing between boyfriends, Ron is trying to be protective of her whilst dealing with girls he's interested in (and they begin to get interested in him), Hermione is trying to wrestle with her feelings for Ron, Harry suddenly begins to be interested in Ginny (it could have been a clever reversal of Ginny crushing on Harry, but Rowling goes almost Freudian with it) whilst struggling to deal with Cho's rejection of him, Bill Weasley is engaged to Fleur (from The Goblet of Fire, her 'Allo 'Allo French accent still present), Fleur's presence turns Hermione, Mrs Weasley and Ginny into extremely catty people, etc., etc., etc. It's a big mess, and the way it's handled doesn't help. Many of the girls come off as jealous and spiteful, whereas the boys have more interest than they can seemingly deal with. It feels like just another way in which Rowling puts down her female characters - if they can't have physical flaws then they must act in flawed ways that relate to their sex or gender. Would Luna or Hermione have their behaviour put under so much scrutiny within the books if they were male? These problems are further compounded by the suddenness of the changes - I felt as if Rowling had realised she had just two books left of Harry's tale (as this is the penultimate entry) and that certain content had to be put in.

We're introduced to a character as "a tall black boy" (reminiscent of the "tall black girl" description from the fifth book), and this stands out as it's one of the few - if not only - times a character's race is implied via a description. Other characters of a racial minority generally have names that work as racial identifiers (e.g. Cho Chang and the Patil sisters). Towards the end of the book I found another jarring gender-based comment (I am ignoring the idea of Crabbe and Goyle using the Polyjuice potions to turn themselves into girls as disguises for a dozen reasons), this time from Professor Slughorn. When faced with the idea of closing Hogwarts, it's implied that keeping the school open is the right choice but closing it is the wrong one, so when Slughorn backs the idea of closing it's implied he is in the wrong to do so. He asks the other professors if mothers will allow their children back after all that's happened. Not parents, but mothers. I find this comment particularly odd because of the number of characters who have lost their mothers in the series - Harry, Luna, Neville (in a way), etc. - or those who look negatively at theirs or who don't know them (Hagrid, the discussions about Tom Riddle's past, etc.), so for mothers to be singled out is not a positive thing, not least because it implies that mothers are over-protective.

At one point Rowling actually calls out herself on reusing a plot point - Harry has a used textbook that contains improved potions recipes as well as hand-crafted spells, and he blindly forges ahead and uses them. This is picked up by Ginny not long after this discovery and she chastises Harry for using it, but after some light testing from Hermione, the book is deemed safe. As might be predictable, the book gives Harry the tools that get him in trouble later on. Other prominent plot points in the book are often moving down predictable paths, but thankfully there are moments where unexpected and interesting things happen. Except that one about the book very near the end. Oh dear. Talk about hamfisted.

Well, what's good? I'll just put that in the summary. Seriously.

Summary: You know, I'm hard pressed to pick out any one thing I like about this book. Ginny and Luna, two of my favourite characters, aren't really shown as anything except accessories, though they have their moments. I think that actually typifies this book - the memorable good moments are exactly that. Moments. They're one-liners or they're small details, or they're the way Rowling moves from one moment to the next. It feels like things are building up, but less like a skyscraper and more like a Jenga tower. There's holes in the plot, there's leaps of logic, there's a dozen things you can pull out, analyse and find poor. And yet Rowling's greatest strength is in making you overlook (but she can't make you forget) when this happens. I devoured these 600-odd pages in a couple of days and I am left wanting to see how this ends.

I suspect it has something to do with nargles...

Favourite Moment: Harry and Ron's one-liners to Snape during various Defence Against the Dark Arts classes.

Least Favourite Moment: Harry getting a bit angsty and shouty again.

Improvements From Earlier Book(s): It's not The Order of the Phoenix.