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.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Games Done Quick - Starts Soon!

On Sunday 22nd June, the bi-annual 'Games Done Quick' happens again with Summer Games Done Quick, a weeklong streamed event hosted by Speed Demos Archive, with near-constant video game speedruns, and all donations going to charity (Doctors Without Borders).

If you don't know what the event entails, I'll try to explain. Speedrunning is trying to get through a game as quickly as possible, typically exploiting broken or overlooked issues and bugs to manipulate the game to progress much faster than normal. This includes skipping optional sections, skilled shortcuts, pixel-perfect controlling and so forth. There are different categories for speedruns which define what must be done in order for the run to be successful – an example would be an All Bosses category which means all of the bosses must be defeated otherwise it is an unsuccessful run (even if the game is finished). On top of these runs, there are races where two or more runners compete to beat the game first. With most runs, the runner is accompanied by friends and other runners who will help explain to the viewer and audience what's going on, why and how certain things work, as well as providing moral support. The runs usually take between 30mins and 1hr30mins, but a few take minutes and others a few hours depending on the way the game works or how much research has been done on it. There's even the chance a run might be the new world record!

The donations all go to charity, but some runs have incentive levels - these can be anything from something the runner will wear whilst playing, the file name of the game, the character used, a post-run showing of specific glitches (this also happens if the run comes in well-under target) or targets within the game. Funny things can also happen during the runs if big donations are met, so it's always worth keeping an ear or an eye out for those. The schedule is here, and it auto-adjusts to your time-zone so you can plan which - if any - you're going to watch. If you miss any, they'll end up on the Speed Demos Archive YouTube channel (and usually those of the runners themselves).

This isn't just about gaming. It's about a community coming together to raise money for charity – in fact, to date, the combined total from the events run by Speed Demos Archive is over $2m USD (half of that total was the most recent event, Awesome Games Done Quick 2014), so this isn't something small.

For more information, check out:
The Wiki page of Speed Demos Archive which explains speedrunning a little better than I did, and has information on past events.

The Speed Demos Archive website, with an extensive FAQ on their standards, methods and what speedrunning is.

The Games Done Quick site itself, which has a few details on the event itself as well as the event schedule.

Finally, I've added a video showing a short speedrun which should hopefully give an example of what the event will be like.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Noble Sacrifice - A Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Re-Watch

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy - even hint at its existence and a chunk of geekdom hisses like an insulted snake, baring its fangs as it readies itself to strike with years of anger, frustration and disappointment. It's no secret that the prequel trilogy is one of the most hated products of the Star Wars universe - if not 'geek' culture as a whole - and even today it still generates quite a strong negative reaction. I was about nine when The Phantom Menace arrived and at the time I really liked it, but I never had the same interest in the second and third films (in fact, I never saw the third film until around 2011/2012), so my own perspective on them has been a little different.

It does go without saying that the prequel films aren't as good as they should have been. We could be here all day listing the trilogy's flaws, but generally speaking these criticisms are valid and do point to issues that are still prevalent within Star Wars today – for example, my issues with the costuming of a lot of the female characters as well as the near-complete lack of LGBT+ characters in the official (and official non-canon) works. But I will say this much for the prequels. They have brought Star Wars to new audiences, they have captured the imaginations of millions of people, and we have had some good come out of them - an example being the extremely successful and popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon series, as well as arguably allowing the future fun of the quirky LEGO Star Wars mini-movies. They also keep us talking about franchises we consider important and show fans that their beloved properties aren't above criticism, but also could be argued to show production companies that bad products will often keep their negative reputations into the future.

I don't know what I will achieve by rewatching the films, but I hope that with a similar technique to my as-yet unfinished Harry Potter reading challenge I will find some merit in the prequels – moments to enjoy and to cherish – but also give my own take on why certain scenes or ideas are problematic. And yes, I will have a ~lot~ of fun with the much-loved and much-respected romantic scenes in Episode II.
Or just maybe I want to see two of my favourite bounty hunters again – Zam Wesell and Aurra Sing. Oh, girls, don't ever fail me with your awesomeness.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A New SF Signal 'Mind Meld' & More!

[I'm a little behind on posting this - Sorry Rob!] I was asked to participate in another of SF Signal's regular Mind Melds, this time by my ex-reviewing colleague Rob Bedford (of Rob's Blog o' Stuff, SF Signal, SFFWorld and more), and it was on the topic of how long you generally own books before reading them as well as what's the longest a book has sat unread. If you want to read my contribution - along with that of other fans and reviewers such as another ex-colleague, Mark Yon (also of SFFWorld) - then please head over to SF Signal and get reading!

I'm also hoping to spend tonight tweaking my blog a little. There'll be no major changes, but over the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to get a few posts done as well as a potential 'viewing' challenge. If anyone pays attention to my Twitter feed they may well have a good idea of just what I have in mind.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two More SFSignal Contributions

This week I've been featured twice over at SFSignal!

The first is my review of Douglas Hulick's Sworn in Steel, the follow-up to his earlier Among Thieves. A good read, certainly! My other contribution is within one of Paul Weimer's Mind Melds, focused around books we've "worn out". I have just one book that fits that category, sadly, but I try to give it a fair go.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

RELEASE: Charity Anthology 'Invisible' Is Now Live!

Invisible, as curated and edited by Jim C. Hines, is now live! An anthology about diversity in SF/F works, including an essay by me (my first published essay!) is now available for sale. All proceeds go to charity, and I'd just like to state (again, and for the sake of transparency) that I did not take my fee for this, and instead asked for it to go to the charity.

For more information and links, please see this post on Jim's blog.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

'Among Thieves' Review on SF Signal

My review of Douglas Hulick's debut, Among Thieves, went up over on SF Signal last week.
"Douglas Hulick’s debut novel, Among Thieves, is best described as a fun, exciting and compelling adventure. Taking place over the course of a couple of days in the city of Ildrecca, we follow the thief Drothe and his companion-in-arms Bronze Degan as they get drawn into the vicious maelstrom created by high-stakes gang warfare. Add into this mixture forbidden magic, being under threat from the Empire’s most powerful troops, and a careless death perpetually looming over their heads — and the main characters become the underdogs in the battle against almost-insurmountable odds."
If you haven't read it, go check it out! And once again, I'd like to just thank John over at SF Signal for both the book and the opportunity. Keep your eyes peeled closer to Sworn in Steel's release date - May 6th - for another review.

Monday, March 3, 2014

ANNOUNCEMENT: A Not-Quite Surprise!

As anyone who follows me on Twitter or who follows Jim C. Hines will be aware, I recently wrote a non-fiction post for Jim's blog about my views on transgender representation in fantasy. It went down really well and I had great feedback, and... well, that's not the end of it.

Jim is in the process of putting my essay - and others - into a collection which will be released some time in the not-too-distant future as a $2.99 ebook, with all profits going to the charity Con or Bust, which seeks to give financial aid to genre fans of colour who are financially unable to attend conventions. I also feel for the sake of transparency to mention that I have asked Jim to donate the payment for use of my essay to this organisation. The release date for Invisible is yet to be announced, and it depends on legal and production issues at the moment, but I will definitely post when it's available.

This marks my first published work, and my first time being in a book. I'm honestly still processing it and I would once again like to thank Jim Hines for giving me this opportunity, but also just say a thank you to those who read my post, commented or even just retweeted it on Twitter.

And I totally just need to use this.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

OPINION: On Ellen Page...

So, this weekend, Ellen Page purposefully outed herself at a conference for LGBT teens, and the response was generally positive but I have to admit I don't think I've seen a single person express surprise over it - less so because it's becoming normalised, and more I think it was akin to the situation with Jodie Foster, and with celebrity followers (fans, the paparazzi, etc.) hounding every single breath of famous people, a lot of people put two and two together and came out with an answer somewhere in the (now) correct region.

What I have seen a lot of, however, are comments along the lines of "Good for her but it doesn't affect me". I've gotten quite annoyed over these, even when from people I respect. Why? Because it isn't about *you*. Ellen Page did not come out for you. She came out for herself. It is something she has done, on her own terms, for her own peace of mind - something I believe was essentially stated in her talk, but I've not listened to it so I must confess I'm going off reports here. I don't think she even came out for the hundreds and thousands of QUILTBAG teens, but I'll come to that later. It's a selfish yet selfless act, yet to say "it does not affect my life" is really annoying... especially as it seems to generally come from straight people. Sorry, guys and gals, but this really isn't about you and never has been. In fact, it's that behaviour itself that is part of the problem.

See... Ellen Page has taken a huge risk here. No, that sounds stupid. She's opened herself up - by being honest - to a lot of ignorance, hatred and professional issues. She's starred in blockbusters, in highly successful indie films, she's voice acted and even had the lead role in one of the most unusual and ambitious video games of the soon-to-end current console generation, Beyond: Two Souls (by Quantic Dream). She is now not just an actress, but a gay actress. Yes, she certainly can find success and support - and considering her frequent performances in indie or less 'corporate' movies - it's likely she will continue to be a very visible, popular actress (and she IS great, too), but stand back for a moment and tell me some A-list Hollywood stars who are out. Give me a list of blockbuster, named-on-poster stars who are gay. You are really going to struggle with this, especially if we go the extra step and ignore British actors. See? This is kinda part of the problem.

The other part of the problem, as mentioned above, is the attitude towards her. It doesn't affect me. Well, not directly, no. Chances are you'll never be in the same room as her, let alone meet her. Even then her sexuality is irrelevant. But it *does* affect her, and by saying it doesn't matter, you're hand-waving it and dismissing it as a triviality. Hollywood has very little 'true' QUILTBAG representation in its top stars, and a gay actor or actress may very well be seen as less desirable to cast than a straight one - yet at the same time a gay actor or actress may very well end up as typecast. I don't think it's so much a Gay People Playing Straights or Straights Playing Gays (though the latter is something Hollywood - and the media in general - could perhaps look to address) issue, but the casting of QUILTBAG actors does seem to be limited.

Another benefit of Ellen Page's coming out is just the fact she's a visible role model now, but also a voice of QUILTBAG people in the public eye. It's important to younger people (in particular) to see people of different groups - not only to provide a good range of experiences, but it gives QUILTBAG children and teens someone to look up to, to point to and say "They're like me". It's similar to the famous quote from Whoopi Goldberg about seeing Uhura from the original Star Trek, how that single woman changed the lives of countless young black girls by showing them that they too can be intelligent, confident, etc., etc. It's hard to explain to those who are straight and/or white, because that's the overwhelming majority from the media. It's Men & Women, not Men & Men or Women & Women except for specific shows.

I guess I lost track a little bit, but what I really what to say is that Ellen Page should be applauded and supported in her coming out, and I know I have gained even more respect for her for doing so, but also that whilst it may not affect your day-to-day life specifically, it is something that *does* matter, and for many reasons. As said in a tweet that appeared in my feed whilst writing this - her coming out matters to the many QUILTBAG people who live closeted and in fear of not just what they are, but also how people - and society - will react to them.

So yes, it does matter. It matters a lot.

Friday, February 7, 2014

OPINION: On Passing The Buck (*Updated: 7/7 4:50pm*)

UPDATE: I would just like to point out that myself and the blogger in question have discussed this and I think it's - as I perhaps thought after writing this - a case of working at cross-purposes to the same end. The post in question (and my comment deleted) was edited in response to my post, and a lot of the tone/comments were made in response to something that wasn't put into context. I will still leave my post up, because whilst the context has changed, one could argue it's a piece that shows how important making sure the context is there is. I'd like to publicly offer my apologies to Sarah at Bookworm Blues if I've implied she has unsavoury beliefs or thoughts, and for assuming the worst.

Last night a post by an established and well-respected blogger, Bookworm Blues, appeared in my feed, with a topic related to the recent discussions on gender within genre works. I decided to check it out because, hey, you never know, someone might actually talk about things other than Men and Women, or at least raise awareness of other genders/trans* identities. Yeah. I was disappointed, but also outraged. And in a late-night fit of anger, I left a comment. Woke up, the comment had gone and the post had been altered. A victory? No, not really. I'd been silenced, and it left the author to essentially claim to their followers they'd been the victim of an offensive comment.

Wow. Really? Is that what we're playing at? She Said, She Said? Just because you've got a group of people who will defend you without knowing what happened, and because you can present a one-sided view of affairs that don't *at all* say what you've done - after all, you've edited the post, they probably won't have seen the original - it's easy to put the other person into the shoes of 'bad guy'. Well, hey, I'm that bad guy, and I gotta say your shoes ain't so clean either.

I'm going to start out by quoting the content written by Bookworm Blues in its entire form from a Google cache of the post, taken from around 10:30pm GMT on Thurs 6th Feb. I have provided a link, but with all such things, the links tend to be very inconsistent and may not be around for long. I've taken out the quote from Kameron Hurley's AMA, and also the picture of the blogger 'cos there's no real need for it. Without further ado, here it is.
Hey guys, I want to break some important news to you.

I am a woman.

That’s me, looking like a female because I am one.

Astounding, right?

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way books became genderfied. Or something. I’m saying this because yesterday I received an email from someone who was talking about a book and said, “but you’d probably not enjoy it because you’re a woman.” The sad thing is, this isn’t even the twentieth letter or comment I’ve read that said something like that. Not even the thirtieth.

Generally speaking I don’t think people even realize how something like that comes across, but it really rubs me the wrong way and makes me ask a few important questions. Can woman write a masculine book and can a man write a feminine book? And just what the hell is the definition of a masculine a masculine and feminine book? Are there rules in place that authors and readers need to be aware of so they write and read only books that appeal to their gender? Does a female book have female parts? I don’t get it. Honestly, I wonder what these beliefs and viewpoints automatically make people infer about my reviewing.

I enjoy books for a lot of different reasons, but one of the primary reasons is because books don’t tell me what to enjoy or how to enjoy it. I can read whatever I want, and I can enjoy it to whatever level I desire. It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. A book doesn’t do physical exam and refuse to open if my plumbing isn’t right. It doesn’t care.

I’m not sure why people apply these gender rules to books, because they don’t make any sense to me at all. Books transcend gender. I know some male reviewers who enjoy urban fantasy (a subgenre that is often referred to as a “chick” genre by lots of people) far more than I do (and I’m a “chick”). I tend to enjoy darker, bloodier, and grittier epics than a lot of men I know whom I review with. Does that mean I need gender identification therapy? Maybe I’m the outlier, but when I talk books with people, I don’t really care what gender the person is, as long as they have something to contribute to the conversation.

The thing that really gets me about these viewpoints is how absolutely limiting they are. If I only read books that were considered “girl books” then I’d be so stunted (that’s if anyone even agreed on a definition of what a “girl book” was). It’s not just limiting reading material that bothers me, though. That sort of segregation stunts on so many levels. However, It’s the fight that so many authors have to put up just to write the stories they want to tell without any assumptions from readers that gets me. Saying things like, “you probably wouldn’t like that book because you’re a girl” just continues the trend and feeds into the stereotypes, slamming readers and careers into cookie-cutter boxes without even realizing it.

Believe it or not, women can write gritty fantasy and SciFi. Women can also write male characters, fight scenes, and cursing. And on the flip side, all you need to do is talk to this guy to know that men can write some pretty touching, emotional books featuring female characters and steamy scenes. Maybe we all need gender identification therapy.

Books don’t depend on gender, and authors don’t check the Gender Rule Book before they set down to tell a story. There aren’t “Masculine Story” rules and “Feminine Story Rules” and the fact that some authors and readers out there think that stories are “masculine” and “feminine” actually kind of insults me. That sort of lingo puts rules and stipulations on something that I enjoy purely because it has no real rules. I do not go to a separate section of the library to pick my books out. Are authors like Stina Leicht, Janny Wurts, and Teresa Frohock doing it wrong because they write vibrant, well-developed male characters? Should we send them all a letter saying, “Hey, I’m sorry but your dudes are too dude-ish and you are too woman-ish so you should probably stop now.”

My sarcasm aside, it’s rather humbling to see just how much female authors still have to battle in the genre. While it seems to me that sexism should be a nonissue – it seems so logical that gender just shouldn’t matter – it’s still very much an issue. As I touched on in Kameron Hurley’s AMA:
*Snipped Quote*
I think Hurley’s statement is probably true for a lot of women out there writing and enjoying the genre. Most women don’t dress like video game characters. Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I automatically go to the romance section of the library, crave alpha males, and love to read about the woman who nurtures the lost and looks to fall in love. There’s nothing wrong with those stories, but I tend to prefer my literature a bit bloodier, and a whole lot darker. And that’s fine. Furthermore, the women authors out there can, and do, write just as well as any man – sometimes even better. The genre is alive and well purely because of diversity. Speculative fiction pushes boundaries and questions the norm. It demands that its readers do the same, so why are so many of us so hooked on these old gender ideals? And has anyone stopped and thought about the effects of these gender-centric viewpoints on authors, readers, and even society?

I want my daughter to go to the library and pick up any book she wants – a book about trucks or a book about dolls. I don’t care. I just want her to read and love reading. I never want her to read what girls are “supposed” to read. I never, ever, want that thought to enter her head. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but when I’m told that I won’t like a book because I’m a woman, or hear that women can’t write masculine stories, I start wondering if my dream of a gender-less library is too far fetched. What are we doing to ourselves?

To summarize this rambling diatribe:
  1. I can read whatever the hell I want, and I can enjoy it however I so choose.
  2. Authors can write whatever the hell they want, however the hell they want to write it.
  3. So can you.
    1. Regardless of your plumbing.
So yes. I think there are some good points there. I think it's true there's no such thing in a real sense as a Masculine or a Feminine book, because books can be read by everyone, and there's no inherent quality that defines what is or isn't one. Modesitt writes books where his protagonists fall in love - is that something feminine? Not really. I mean we do certainly segregate books in subtle ways - okay, much less subtle if we're talking about romantic or children's fiction - but largely it's a pointless way to describe the content of a book, especially when there's better ways around. We have action books, we have military books, we have cooking books, we've got romance books. Not one of those qualities belongs to Masculinity or Femininity. Women play sports and fight (action), women are in the military (uh, military), men are often the top chefs (cooking) and men try to 'woo' a romantic partner (romance). Books also don't question what you are before you open them, so there's no way to really say This Is For X or These Are For Y.

Anyway. The problems lie in the details of this post, and there's quite a few problems I had. Let's start from the top and work down. Firstly, we have the line "That’s me, looking like a female because I am one." - Well, what to say? You identify as female, therefore you must look like one? A bit nit-picky, sure, but I think this straight away gives a hint that just maybe the author doesn't understand the difference between gender and sex.

Secondly, "Does a female book have female parts?" Well, considering a book is sexless, no. But it's again a mixture of gender and sex. Feminine and Masculine are traits we attach to personalities and behaviour. You can have a masculine woman, and a feminine man. A masculine woman may have 'female parts' (i.e. a vagina), and a feminine man a penis, but their sex organs are irrelevant to the traits of their behaviour. A feminine woman might very well have a penis, okay?

Of course, so far it's taking lines and making them more abstract, but I feel there's at least some misunderstanding of the differences between gender, sex, and how masculinity/femininity tie into that. Let me just expand on that last point. Masculinity and Femininity are two words we use to group together attributes and traits we see in human behaviour, generally linked to the roles we expect men and women to play in society. We see bold, brash, aggressive, war-like, active and even scholarly interests as being terms we associate with masculinity. In the past men were expected to embody masculine traits - they were dominant, they were serious and so on. On the flip side, we see femininity as encompassing things that are more delicate or practical with relation to the house - cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, decorating (e.g. cakes), emotions (especially sadder ones). Of course there were traits that fall into neither category (such as randomness in one's behaviour), and they still largely seem to be outside of these categories. Either way it's an outdated concept, but one that still has a large part to play in our society, and yes - even in our fiction.

We then come to this: "It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. A book doesn’t do physical exam and refuse to open if my plumbing isn’t right." and I believe it's still in the edited post. Right, so firstly we have - again - the conflation of gender and sex. There is no right plumbing for a gender except for what society defines. A woman can be a woman with a penis, a man a man with a vagina. Society tells us this is not right, but society's a bag of issues all on its own. A book doesn't care what gender you identify as, no, nor what sex you are, but your readers do care if you start implying women can only have vaginas, or if gender and sex are two inseparable ideas.

It moves on and there's a good point about books 'transcending' gender... in the sense that some men like urban fantasy more than the blogger (maybe this is because Urban Fantasy =/= Paranormal Romance, two very close and similarly-marketed genres, and UF includes popular authors like Jim Butcher and, I believe, Kevin Hearne, whereas the Harris' and the Carrigers and so-on are all more PNR), and I think it's certainly true a male-identified person could pick up a very woman-centric book as Rachel Pollack's Godmother Night and enjoy it, but I think that's less transcending gender and more... just being a good book. Transcending marketing might be a better way of putting it. But then we hit this absolute stunner. "I tend to enjoy darker, bloodier, and grittier epics than a lot of men I know whom I review with. Does that mean I need gender identification therapy?"




Just no. No. No. No. No. No. Just no. They did not need to bring trans* topics into this, and they certainly did not need to do that again later on in the post. It's not even funny. THIS is the core of what pissed me off, and caused me to leave the comment, and I'm pretty sure this is what most of the defenders did not see. Gender identity dysphoria is no laughing matter, and considering the clumsy approach to gender/sex earlier in the post, this just hit like a hammer blow. There was no need to bring it up, and it's such a trivialising point.

The blogger in question seemed to assume I was offended. I wasn't so much offended as angry. Carelessness and comments born of ignorance can be hurtful, but there was utterly no need to bring issues like gender identity dysphoria into this and then trivialise it as the butt of some terrible joke. We've had that Baen author and his friends jump on us recently, to start with, and many of these gender posts we've seen since that incident a few weeks ago have largely ignored trans* people, we've had this week Piers Morgan acting like an even bigger arsehole than usual to a transperson and then spouting transmisogynistic bullshit when called out, and in general we're spat down upon by those with identities that match their birth sexes (i.e. 'cisgendered' people), and even at times the gay and lesbian communities. 

Look. I am female but I don't look like one. I read "masculine" fiction as well as "feminine" fiction. I try to understand where these descriptions and traits come from, and I accept they're still part of daily life. They are parts of life that negatively affect trans* people every day, from being publicly outed because they might look a bit "masculine", to being abused online with numerous slurs, through to actual violence. Disproportionately so. So really, what I'm saying is fine - I agree that we need to talk about gender in fiction, but also why the feminine/masculine divide is rather stupid. But what we don't need to do is try to define what a woman is, what her genitals may or may not be, and what we certainly don't need to do is trivialise the utter lack of real, genuine help that trans* people find when trying to get support from their doctors, friends, family, etc. by turning it into a repeated punchline. It's all too real.

So, Bookworm Blues - I am not going to stand here and let you imply I'm the bad guy here because I dared say I found what you said insensitive. I'm not going to let you implicate me on Twitter without even having the decency to call me out by name or let me defend myself. You made insensitive, hurtful comments in your post - intentional or otherwise - and by deleting my comment and those aspects of your post you may have repaired that... except you went and played the victim to your followers. There's two sides to every coin. Here's mine.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

OPINION: On Reacting To Controversies, etc.

So, once again, Twitter brought word of yet another author opening their mouth (or, more accurately, vomiting onto their keyboard) to alert the world to just how much of a bigoted, opinionated pillock they are. Both Justin Landon and Jim C. Hines have done excellent deconstructions of this utter rubbish. This is, sadly, nothing new. It did give me an idea for a blog post, however, and one I think I've perhaps touched on in the past - reacting to controversies, boycotts and so on.

The manly men of genre fiction being manly in a manly way.
Personally, when an author such as the one in question makes statements like that, I put them onto a mental list of authors to not buy, or even read. Or engage with on social media. Or anything. It's not a particularly long list, and I don't generally keep it in mind until one of the members of it pops up in my feed, when I'm shopping and so on. It's also quite fun to note that it is generally white males on that list, of a right-wing persuasion, and they also tend to write science-fiction. Yes, indeed, Larry Correia, Michael Z. Williamson (after his comment in support of Correia), John Ringo and Orson Scott Card - four white males from America with right-wing leanings who write sci-fi. Well, only fair to describe them in the same way they talk about people of other political stances, no?

One thing I look forward to with such situations are the posts from other bloggers, who invariably do excellent deconstructions. Justin Landon, mentioned above, is one I find tends to be on the front line with these things, calling attention via Twitter to get it out there whilst a more constructive, well-rounded post is formed. And it's important other bloggers - and indeed other authors - do this. We need to call out authors on their behaviour and hold them accountable for what they say - that is basically the point of free speech. You can say what you want, but you're never divorced from being held accountable for it.

On the other side of this, I would love to see publishers distance themselves from this. This is not the first time a notable author from the Baen stable has been involved in online controversy (one author in particular being a kind of meme amongst genre fans), and I'd like to see publishers take a more pro-active stance against being linked to this behaviour. It does come with the potential of politicising publishing houses, but we already have that in a more general sense, and I do believe that publishers are responsible on some level for their authors - just as a business is responsible for its workers, or even its contractors (which is arguably a more accurate description of the author/publisher relationship). If publishers don't distance themselves from this, or even acknowledge it, it can be potentially taken as a sign that they either agree with it or at least condone these kinds of attacks, but also it affects their image - would you want your publisher to be thought of as the home of ultra- views? Or would you want your publisher to be thought of as the home of good books? The latter, obviously.

However, I think it's important to distinguish between authors who are utter voids and those who are just not to your taste. I would not list Gail Carriger and Philippa Ballentine alongside Orson Scott Card in any capacity except for "Authors I Will Not Buy Or Read", and this is for a good reason - my reasons for not buying their books are different. Both authors wrote things I didn't like and reacted strongly to, but I do not necessarily view them as bad people. OSC, however, probably hasn't written much I would react against (exempting Hamlet's Father, which alone gets him a boycott from me), but I do view him as a bad person, ergo he doesn't get my money either.

And then you get such brilliant things as Mike Shepherd's upcoming novel (he is also published as Mike Moscoe, and under both names is well-known for his military sci-fi relating to the Longknife family), Vicky Peterwald: Target, which has this lovely cover:

And an even lovelier blurb, with the most positive bits of it thoughtfully highlighted by yours truly:
BEAUTY AND THE BATTLEFIELD Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Victoria Maria Teresa Inez Smythe-Peterwald, daughter of wealth and power, was raised to do little except be attractive and marry well. Then everything changed--her brother, her father's favorite and the heir apparent, was killed in battle by Lieutenant Kris Longknife, daughter of the Peterwald's longtime enemies. Vicky vowed revenge, but her skill set was more suitable for seduction than assassination, and she failed. Angry and disappointed, her father decided she needed military training and forced her to join the Navy. Now Ensign Vicky Peterwald is part of a whole new world, where use of her ample charms will not lead to advancement. But her father is the Emperor, and what he wants he gets. What he wants is for Vicky to learn to be efficiently ruthless and deadly. Though the lessons are hard learned, Vicky masters them--with help from an unexpected source: Kris Longknife.
So, essentially, this book is Redhead With Giant Knockers In Space. Lovely. But how do you react to that? I enjoyed what little I've read of Kris Longknife so far, but the second one goes a bit strange, with Kris essentially dressing as a sex worker as a disguise, not to mention semi-frequent references to her breasts (or lack thereof), and an admittedly humorous (but pointless) inclusion of bulletproof knickers. How do you react to it? I think I've done all I can, and that's just walk away. It doesn't sound, to me, particularly respectful or even tasteful, and I can just about imagine how it's going to work out.

Of course, I'm just as guilty as consuming and buying content I sometimes find distasteful. I don't deny that I've found aspects of the Harry Potter books or the Star Kingdom/Stephanie Harrington novels to be problematic - even just wrong - yet I stick with them out of determination and frustration. Is that hypocrisy? I reckon so, but at the same time you cannot dig yourself into a hole and only read things that are - to you - saccharine and safe and clean. Whether that means you only read male-only military science fiction that's surprisingly free of homosexuality, or you read only the most diverse books, if you limit yourself then you do yourself a disservice. I don't boycott David Weber. I don't even avoid his works. Why? Because I think there's something to enjoy there, and just because he's a Christian, white, straight male, it doesn't mean I cannot enjoy his works (or L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s, for the sake of including an author I read a fair bit of). And whilst I might disagree with some things Modesitt says on his blog, I don't think he's said or done anything worthy of boycotting him (yet), which is arguably offset - in my opinion - by the content of his books.

And that's the crux of the matter, to me. Whilst it should mostly be about the books, you cannot deny that the author is a part of that, and why would you want to support or read an author who so freely attacks other people, or says representation is wrong or not important? There's a difference between supporting someone who you disagree with and supporting someone you find to be actively repulsive, who spreads hate and/or surrounds themselves by an unquestioning group of people. I support Modesitt because he tells us to think for ourselves, I don't support Card because he tells others that they should be locked up for their way of life. It's about taking the information that is publicly available and verifiable and drawing your conclusions. It's about taking that, looking at it, analysing it, comparing it to your own opinions, and deciding whether you feel you can support that or not.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #5 - The Order of the Phoenix

And here we are. The longest of the Harry Potter books, and the book I stalled on all those years ago. It starts almost as soon as the fourth book has finished, and whilst it takes place over the same length of time as the rest of the series (i.e. a school year), it's almost four times the length of the first book, and boy - does it feel it! Of course, it goes without saying that there are spoilers ahead.

It didn't take long for me to work out why I stalled on this entry. Harry Potter starts off angsty. He continues to be angsty. And then continues some more. We have pages dedicated to Harry helping clean a house. We have pages dedicated to Harry having a whinge and a shout and almost a cry. We have... Eugh. Really. It's basically Harry Has a Bad Day And Cannot Deal With It, and he has the same fault he did for a part of The Goblet of Fire in that he cannot get over his damn pride. Add into this hefty doses of jealousy, feelings of abandonment, teenage angst and so on, and you just end up with something that represents an attempt by Neville Longbottom in potions class.

The book mostly isn't that exciting, and aside from a certain new character, I find very little to like here. It's very formulaic. I felt like the same few actions were being repeated, just in different places and with slightly different outcomes. Harry becomes very insular and self-centered, and it quickly becomes insufferable. Ron also seems to lose some of his charm, and Hermione seems to do almost a three-sixty and end up as stuffy and bossy as she did in the first book. It becomes very hard to care about the main three characters - which is a major issue when they're the protagonists - because they get divided. It's kind of like Rowling took something she said from the last book (and repeats a few times in this one), and sledge-hammered it in. The personality changes are so quick it's surprising the characters don't have whiplash.

It's understandable that the characters would change after the traumatic events of the fourth book - especially Harry - but never is it said to be due to those events, more the situation after. I find this quite problematic because I think Harry should have been put in a position to deal with the events of the last book, and whilst a lot of his frustration is understandable, Rowling never really gives us any reason or way to sympathise - or even empathise - with him. This is not aided by a lot of it just not being mentioned - I found Cedric really only came up in extreme cases, whereas I - personally - think that Cedric's death would have been the most traumatic of Harry's experiences.

I'm not sure Rowling even improved that much. We see her clumsy descriptions continue, with Angelina again having her race mentioned - she's re-introduced as "a tall black girl" at one point - whilst Cho Chang (the most obvious example of a non-white character), nor most of Harry's fellow students, being described in such a manner. It seems odd that Rowling persists in pointing this out for the one or two characters she describes as black, whilst the other non-white characters aren't described in similar ways. Heck, they're not even really described. I don't know if it's just an attempt to show there is diversity at Hogwarts, but it comes across as a little odd.

And yet... the last third of the book - whilst not excellent - does finally pick up. Neville comes into his own, Ginny gets a little more agency, Ron and Hermione take less of the brunt of the story but are still important and do interesting things, and we have a new character called Luna Lovegood (she's in the book for maybe 500 pages) and I have to say she instantly became my new favourite character in the series. It really does speed up towards the end, and the last third of the book flies past, in stark contrast to the sluggish, bloated first two-thirds.

We interrupt this review for Luna's hat from the film (it's also in the book), so y'know.
I found the final talk between Dumbledore and Harry both interesting and frustrating to read, at least to start with, but it felt like a good way to transition the story into what it will become in the final two volumes, and it explains various plot points rather clearly and sensibly - although one of them (Harry not being a prefect) seemed to be more a vague attempt to reason something that didn't need reasoning. There's a hundred thousand reasons why Harry could or should not be a prefect, and the explanation we have is... a little weak. It works, but I think it was more Dumbledore trying to be nice rather than a genuine explanation.

Summary: I really don't have much love for this entry in the series. The final third is good but does not, in any way shape or form, redeem the weak showing that is the first two-thirds. I'd rather just read a bullet-point summary of the first 500 or so pages and then top it off with the rest of the book - it'd be a lot simpler and get across the vast majority of the same information without the frustration. Whilst characters like Luna are good and a refreshing addition to the cast, and although characters like Neville finally and wholly break-free of their status as comic relief, it cannot be denied that The Order of the Phoenix is almost self-indulgent, longer and more drawn-out than it ever needed to be. Gone is Rowling's short, sharp, waste-no-time prose from the first book, instead we have a focus on repetition and stating-the-obvious.
Favourite Moment: Basically any with Luna Lovegood, but I'd possibly have to go for her final moment where she's talking with Harry. Such a great look into her character, but also how others treat her.

Least Favourite Moment: Pretty much anything involving Harry shouting or Professor Umbridge.

Improvements From Earlier Book(s): Most of Neville's scenes, the fact Luna exists, more development for Ginny, and (eventually) a decent, firm set-up for the last two books.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

OPINION: Shawn Speakman's "Unfettered" Gets a UK Cover

This evening, Orbit (UK) released the cover art for the UK edition of Shawn Speakman's anthology Unfettered. I came across it via a tweet by contributor Peter V. Brett, and despite having little-to-no interest in the anthology itself, I found myself rather annoyed by Orbit's change of cover art. And as I dug deeper, I realised something rather wrong had occurred. For those who don't know, Unfettered is an anthology edited by Shawn Speakman that was created to help pay for his medical bills after a battle with cancer, and around twenty mid-to-high profile authors contributed stories to it.

(Image unashamedly nicked from Peter V. Brett's website)
You see, the cover for the original release was created specifically for the anthology by Todd Lockwood, who also had his writing debut with this anthology, and it's supposed to represent Shawn as having broken the chains that cancer bound him with, and it actually incorporates Shawn's face into the piece. It's clearly an important, special work - and it's actually rather good - and there's nothing better to cover the anthology with. It is personal, it is created with a specific purpose. There is no reason not to use it - plus not to mention it'd save money on getting new cover art.

So why - why why why - have Orbit gone and done this?
Aside from the cover having nothing to do with the title, Shawn's name is at the bottom in much smaller print, whereas in the original edition it's actually in a slightly larger font. It's also just pointlessly generic, falling into the same old Heavily Photoshopped Arsery that seems to dominate UK genre cover art. Did they just have to give their art team something to do?

I tend to have a reasonably strong dislike for UK cover art, but I think this crosses the line for me. Orbit have twisted and changed an anthology with a specific goal and aim into some generic anthology, and I think it's wholly wrong of them to do so. Yes, they acknowledge the history in the announcement post, but these changes just seem wrong to me - and the tagging of the post hardly helps matters.

And the sad thing? There's no way for UK readers (nor those in the other mentioned regions) to get this in print or eBook any other way, unless a used copy is bought, which doesn't benefit Shawn.

Again, I ask a simple question - Why, Orbit? Why?