Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince: A Grown-Ass Man’s Book Review (Part 6)

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Oh Snape. You little devil, you.

We’re back again, with probably the most serious (not Sirius; he’s dead) installment so far. Thanks in-part to the introduction of some romantic entanglements of a more intense nature than the high school prom daliances from Goblet of Fire. It opens rather enjoyably with extra involvement from Dumbledore in Harry’s life. Less enigmatic than usual, Dumbledore is downright fatherly to Harry in this volume. He gives private lessons, takes Harry on recruiting trips, and speaks in more of a frank, direct manner than in any other book. And of course (spoiler alert) he dies.

This one’s easily the most grown-up, in terms of subject matter and the feels, than any volume in the series so far. Harry gets with Ginny (swoon) and that romance got almost no treatment in the movies, which is a shame. We start to see the ceaseless arguments between Hermione and Ron start to take on a more hormonal turn, and Rowling even delves into the world of adolescent relationships, jealousy, and heartbreak. And manages to do it all in a fairly even, un-annoying manner that had a grown-ass man buying into it.

Minus the feels, this volume was a little less…robust than some of the others. And maybe not in a bad way. It’s definitely getting dark in the wizarding world, potentially the darkest of any of the volumes since the good side wins in the next one. Outside of Dumbledore’s death, which didn’t strike me as all that tragic, we also get the revelation of the Horcruxes, and what they are. I found this particular bit of magic to be interesting, and one of the more nuanced treatments of the Dark Arts that Rowling introduces into the storyline. Apparently murdering someone allows you to split your soul into another object. Who knew. I could’ve done with some more details in this department, but I’m a nerd and always want more specifics (Why does murder let you split your soul? What does that entail? What’s it look like?). Again, hopeless nerd, and magic by definition defies description. It was dark, scary interesting, and an interesting addition to the meta-plot. Go Rowling.

Where I must take some points away is the handling of “the prophecy” in this volume. This particular point is a bit perplexing and confusing if you prod it with an intellectual stick and look beneath the surface. Madame Nostradam- I mean Trelawney apparently got her job trough a chance prophesy she made about a boy born near the end of July whose fate would be intertwined with the Dark Lord. Through a rather confounding process of explanation, apparently Voldemort chose Harry over Neville, and somehow fulfilled the prophesy. Could’ve been Harry or Neville, it was all up to Voldemort. Don’t make the mistake I did and think about it too much. Doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Getting a look at Tom Riddle’s past, and some of the motivations that made him into a monster, was a somewhat-overlooked key to this book. I thoroughly enjoyed Rowling’s handling of this key exposition through the Harry-Dumbledore interaction. From his twisted family history, his relationship with the Slytherin bloodline, and early forays into psychopathy and sociopathy. His early silver-tongue, his influence over Slughorn and the other teachers, it all makes the faceless evil Voldemort/Riddle was turn into something much more sinister. I have t hand it to Rowling, she has a knack for creating villainy and evil in a meta-plot you have to admire. Voldemort and Snape both are masterfully developed through the seven-volume series, and are quickly becoming some of my  favorite villains in any book series. Snape was already there (Mostly because Alan Rickman is…the man) but Rowling’s skill with long-term character development is something she relied on in all of her works…and with good reason. It more than supplements anything she may lack in the action writing department.

And now…Snape and Dumbledore. As big of a deal as everyone made about Dumbledore dying, and how the entire nation (it seemed) was in mourning for the character. That was my impression, but I was a freshman in college when it was released. I had other concerns. I found this scene to be a bit anti-climactic. Probably because it was an action sequence involving more than two characters, which seems to be her Achilles heel as a writer. The draw-down with Draco was suspenseful enough, but when the second and third Death Eaters arrive, it all goes ploin-shaped. Perhaps everyone was so focused on the event of the death they missed the  lack of drama in the lead-up. Oh well. We’ve seen before I am a nit-picker.

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Overall…a good addition. I always like when the bad guys come out on top. The Swerve from Snape, after feeling a bit sorry for him in Order of the Phoenix, was delicious, if a bit sloppily executed. The relationship messes, and the thank-god-finally moment when Ginny and Harry get to the snogging. And the amusement of Ron and Hermione arguing, then not speaking when Ron begins entangling himself in Lavender.The relationship-pieces were probably my favorite part of this book…that and the Snape.

Not my favorite, but not my least favorite. I’d say #3 behind Prisoner and Order.

Time to get down with The Deathly Hallows.

Signing off.

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2015 Banned Books Challenge

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix: A Grown-Ass Man’s Book Review (Part 5)

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Holy hell in a hand basket. We done come off the rails for this one.
In the longest installment of the Harry Potter series, we find Harry and the gang back at it, in a full 760 pages of magical mayhem. This book, however, felt shorter than the last one (although Time assures it wasn’t). Goblet of fire was a little too teenage-romance for me, although the introduction to the larger wizarding world was a welcome ingredient halfway through the series. A little less open but much more entertaining, Order of the Phoenix packs plenty of insanity, and keeps a better pace than its predecessor as well, despite the longer page count.
First, the angst. Oh in this volume Harry is the angstiest angster who ever had angst. Everyone thinks he’s nuts. And a liar. He saves his cousin’s life only to be (almost) expelled for his trouble. His friend’s doubt him. Dumbledore ignores him. And he gets extra lessons with Snape (that would brighten most people’s day…but not Harry’s). Rowling lets him get a little more human in this one, although he had his emo moments in earlier entries. They felt barely justified previously, but he gets the shit end in Order and Rowling very much lets it affect him. He yells at his friends, runs his mouth to his teachers, and even fantasizes about hitting Dumbledore. We find out this is sort of because Voldemort possessed him, but I don’t buy it. Harry’s a whiny little bitch (most of the time). The inclusion of Harry’s instructor-type role with the DA lightened some of the heavy load Rowling heaped upon her poor protagonist, and I found this to be a very cool, captivating, and well-executed facet of the story. It feels like occasionally she tries too hard to make Harry beaten down by life’s events, so it’s nice to see some of his tribulations pay off in admiration from his fellow students, even when he’s at his lowest point.
Second, the Evil. There is a lot of evil in this story, most of it centered around the lovely Dolores Umbridge (Sometimes Rowling’s naming is a little too cutesy for me…but this one always makes me smile). Rowling must have had a nasty experience with a female school administrator at some point in her life, because she nails this character. From the irritating cough, to the fake simpering, to the smiling while having underage children scrimshaw the backs of their hands as punishment for minor infractions. By the end of the story, I thought to myself, oh thank God it’s Voldemort. He’s way less scary. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
I think this installment pulled me back in because Rowling went back to her strength: the characters. There was no big event, like the Tri-Wizard tournament, that was the focal point for this book. It was all about watching the characters driving the plot. I’ve been told by several reliable sources that Order tends to be the where most readers start hitting the Harry Potter fatigue point, but the opposite was true for me. After Goblet I was feeling a little bogged down, even after it started so well, and this volume re-energized me, especially the last 100 pages or so.
In a very brief stretch of time, both in the story and in page count, several very important and captivating events occur: The prophesy, the ministry fight, the death of Sirius, Dumbledore vs. Voldemort, and pre-empting all of it, some justification for some of Snape’s brooding angers, and a glimpse revealing Harry’s pop as a bit of a prick, and Sirius equally prickish by association. Rowling weaves all these events together, and sets up probably the most exciting and satisfying climax to any Potterverse book yet. This more than anything made me forget the preceding 600 pages, because the pay-off made slogging through them worth it.
My bone to pick with this volume is the blocking and execution of one piece of this climax: the fight at the Ministry. I’ve seen Rowling improve her description and spacing of action sequences dramatically throughout the stretch of volumes up to this one, mainly in smaller, one-on-one situations. I’m far from an expert but I do read a lot of war-based fiction, both science and not-science, where action sequences are key to the plot and the appeal, and perhaps that makes me a purist. Oh well. It’s my bone and I’m picking it.
She makes a valiant effort at keeping the point-of-view focused on Harry, and what he can see of the action, and the frenetic pace she sets fits the adrenaline-fueled aspects of the scene. She goes a bit too far in some instances, particularly when Harry is pursued by the Death Eaters, that the action is difficult to follow. Hermione teleports a few times (and not on purpose). Neville pops out of nowhere (Also not on purpose). The whole scene confounded me. And then the large-scale wizard fight, which was a big missed opportunity, felt disjointed and campy. Wizards from both sides kept falling, but you never knew how. Or what happened to whichever other wizard felled them. You couldn’t keep track of anyone. The whole time I kept seeing Death Eaters go down, but no one could help Tonks or Sirius? Supposedly the Order was outnumbered, but where were the two-on-one conflicts? Just exactly how many Death Eaters were there? Did we keep the number vague so the resolution could be cleaner? Dumbledore came in and tied a nice bow in everything by apparently capturing the baddies, but not before Sirius “passed beyond the veil” (Bit too on the nose there, Ms. Rowling). Which of course made angsty Harry all the angstier.
This cornucopia of cluster-fuckery was saved, however, by the epic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort. Here, Rowling shined. In a well-paced, one-on-one fight between the two most powerful wizards we ever meet, the battle did not disappoint, from Dumbledore’s calm, effortless maneuvers to the intensity of the Dark Lord’s attacks, I had no trouble following their movement. For the first time, I can say I preferred one of Rowling’s written descriptions of a conflict to what I saw in the movies. It was brief, intense, quiet (No trash talking, just wizarding. Straight up, yo) and wholly satisfying.
My nit-picking of the fight scenes aside, I enjoyed Order of the Phoenix immensely. The characters were back at the forefront, as I’d mentioned before: Sirius plays a more prominent role, Lupin’s back, as well as Moody (the real one this time), the Weasley family is delightfully dysfunctional, with the disowning of Percy, the drop-out twins Fred and George, and Ginny growing up. Harry dabbles in romance, with predictably disastrous results (pile on the angst), Ron becomes a quidditch hero (shortly after becoming a quidditch zero), and Hermione’s streak of awesomeness continues (Who’s idea was the DA? That’s right, it was hers). We meet Kreacher the evil elf, Bellatrix LeStrange the insane-in-the-membrane kin- killer, and of course Dolores Umbridge, who brings a whole new kind of kitten-cuddling, tea-sipping evil to the franchise, and frankly makes everyone miss the Death Eaters for most of the prose.
And Snape. Perhaps Rowling’s crowning achievement of the whole storyline so far is the development and execution of this character through this side-piece of the meta-plot. She created this evil, dark, almost-irredeemable semi-antagonist, and through just the right amount of revelation, made him one of the most revered characters in modern literature. Her choice of Alan… …Rickman… was perfect, and the control she requested on advising him how to play the character in the movies is justified. This character, more than any other, translated to the screen with as much impact as he had on the page. Finally seeing some explanation for his vehement hatred and brooding personality makes us feel the glimmer of a connection with Snape, now somewhat a victim and less of a perpetrator. Because I watched the movies and ruined it, I know what’s coming in Half-Blood Prince, so I can see the swerve back coming, and then what ultimately happens in the final volume. Regrettably, I don’t have any of the anticipation or wonder about what Snape really is, but it speaks volumes to Rowling’s execution that I still look forward to Snape’s storyline almost more than Harry’s.

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Order of the Phoenix did not supplant Prisoner as my favorite volume to date, but it did cure my HP fatigue. The meta-plot(s) have me hooked, and as I write this I’m already halfway through the next installment.
Lord, I’m drinking the kool-aid. And I don’t care. Because it’s delicious.
Signing Off.

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2015 Banned Books Challenge

The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 5: Warren Ellis

EllisOkay, you may have heard of this guy. He’s pretty famous. What I’m endeavoring to do is introduce you to his prose work. Eventually. So bear with me. Please.

To say I’ve been waiting since this blog’s inception, that quite possibly the only reason I started this blog was to write this post, would not be inaccurate. I am so in the bag for Warren Ellis it borders on embarrassing. I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid, all sorts of superhero stories with the same uber-stretchy plots, and sub-par writing (I’m looking at you Spider-Man: The Clone Saga…looking at you and choking down vomit). Warren Ellis was a part of some of this: He wrote some Excalibur back in the day, kind of a British version of the X-men.

He was the first graphic novelist I picked up post-high school that pulled me back into the world of graphic novel geekdom. He wrote a 10 volume ditty call Transmetropolitan, a sort of futuristic fictional meta-biopic of Hunter S. Thompson, that has stuck with me for years, given me warmth when I was cold, and made me smile when I was sad. I really, really wish I was exaggerating. The complex story, the writer-writing-about-writing angle, the over-the-top dialogue that has influenced my own writing, it all adds up to awesome. I’ve read everything (just about) he’s writtien, from lesser-known indie and underground titles like Lazarus Churchyard and Switchblade Honey to the DC-Marvel works like Thunderbolts and Justice League.

Alright, the fan-boy portion is finished. Promise.

Ellis is a bit on the cutting edge of literature. Or he was. Might be a bit of an old curmudgeon now, but about 10 years ago he was at the forefront of social media interaction. A pioneer in the world of online integration with his writing, his availability and interaction with his fan-base may be part of the reason he’s gained a modicum of popularity, particularly in the “underground” of the graphic novel scene. He also wrote a very dark, gritty short graphic called Red that was (very) loosely the basis for the movie and the sequel of the same name. Hopefully he got a check from that.

He also has prose, which as promised, is what I’m going to focus on here. A hilarious private eye story, featuring all sorts of terrifying glimpses into the seediest, most shadowy nooks and crannies of American society (One word: Macroherpetophelia). It’s called Crooked Little Vein, and I highly recommend it. His second, and maybe a little more professionally fleshed out, is called Gun Machine, a bizarre serial-killer story based in New York.

I recommend you read both of them, and here’s why:

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1) Dialogue/Monologue – As with most graphic novelists, the verbal interaction and internal monologue of Ellis’ characters is by far the most compelling facet of his writing. From the gloriously insane to the darkly direct, he has a way of spinning very far-out ideas into often-hilarious diatribes that run inside his character’s heads or spills our of their mouths. What makes his work supremely unique is the dialogue is not the main driver of the storyline, yet as a side-facet it grabs you immediately and makes you look forward to the next profanity-laced exchange between his characters. You’re taste needs to slant towards the…ahem, “unique” to fully appreciate a lot of his writing, particularly in Crooked Little Vein. Gun Machine is a little more controlled, and I’d probably recommend trying that one first. If you’re into it, then dive into Vein and have your mind blown.

2) Characters – Another big strength of many graphic novelists dabbling in prose work, Ellis creates people and puts them in places that captivate. They tend toward the insane end of the spectrum, but he makes them relatable enough that you don’t have to be a nutter yourself to appreciate them. In both works he challenges himself by writing from the perspective of an American. It kind of gives both books an “American from the outside looking in” perspective,as Warren himself is staunchly British. Staunchly. This makes the characters a bit…exaggerated, but still thoroughly enjoyable. And it’s something you don’t see everyday. Or Read.

3) Weirdness – He’s just out there. No other way to put it. He doesn’t write in a weird Joyce or Thompson-esque stream of consciousness; its all very understandable stylistically. He just likes the weirdness of the world, and sharing it with the uninformed. It can be a bit jarring at times, but I promise you’ll never read about a lot of his subject matter in any other place. And his gift of taking this weirdness, and spinning compelling, page-turning stories around it, is what makes him an incredibly unique writer. He can take the fantastic, the oddly scientific, the weird fact, and make them relevant to everybody, not just super fan-boys like me.

You can check out Warren Ellis here. Yeah. He blogs.

I cannot recommend this guy enough. If you are looking for a great graphic novels, look under E for Ellis. Do the same thing if you want some mind-altering fiction.

And please try not to judge for the rampant fawning.

Signing off.

The Awakening : A Ghost Story Not Really About Ghosts…Or Is It?

the-awakening-2011-movie-posterI just finished watching the awakening with the SO. We found it on a whim in the Netflix horror section and figured why not? It’s won some superfluous English film awards, and a few even less prestigious indie horror honors, how bad can it be? The answer was surprisingly good…and then surprisingly mediocre.

The acting’s damn decent. Rebecca Hall, who if youve never seen her, all you have to do is picture a British Scarlett Johansson built more like a supermodel than a superhero, and that’s her (and you totally see her boobs for like .3 seconds). Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. She’s a myth de-bunker in post WWI London, which by itself is an interesting enough concept to merit giving this movie a try. Lots of dead young folks left lots of grieving, mentally unbalanced mothers as easy prey for con men and charlatans of the time.

Then Dominic West (or the Asshole guy from 300 who tries to swoop in on Gerard Butler’s wife while he’s off killing Persians) plays a very convincing wounded vet with just the right combo of angst and vulnerability that he totally gets to bang Supermodel Scarlet Johansson. Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge to you Harry Potter fanatics) rounds out the main three as the housekeeper who is sweet and lovable…until the last 10 minutes. Then she goes full-Umbridge on everybody. And it is glorious, if a bit contrived.

The interesting setting and strong acting is also coupled with an intriguing story. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you like a good ghost-oriented yarn, or would rather see a real person get gaslighted into thinking they were nuts by a poltergeist, this one’s for you. The pacing, acting, and story are enough to keep you guessing, and there’s enough jarring, jump-out-of-your-seat moments to keep a horror fan happy.

And then the ending. I like a twist just as much as the next guy, but when basically everything gets twisted for no apparent reason, I have questions. Like why I do feel like I need a shower-type questions. And you feel a bit cheated because apparently nothing you thought was real was. I liked part of the twist, really, I did, but it all happened at break-neck speed, in contrast with the controlled pacing of the rest of the film.

While I do kebitz, the ending wasn’t terrible. And if you like shocking for the sake of shocking its defintiely for you. And if you don’t, its still a very good movie I’d recommend if you’re spending an evening in and want something to keep you occupied, it can’t be beat.

I’d give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars.