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Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

If you are into both detective fiction and supernatural adventure stories, then we’d be surprised if you haven’t at least heard of the Peter Grant novels. The long running novel series has recently spawned its own comic book spin-offs, novellas and a TV show is still in development. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel is the series proper, and we are happy to report that it’s still as fresh as ever.

Typically Peter Grant novels start with some sort of incident that can only be handled by Falcon; The Metropolitan Police’s own specialist supernatural crime division can handle. This time round though, we are pretty much dipped straight into the over-arching plot from the previous books. The mysterious Faceless Man, the villain from the last six books or so, is the focus of a major sting operation. This means changes for the team. It’s nice to see how things have developed.

In the first book of the series, Peter Grant was a humble Police Constable, still wet around the ears. By book seven he’s made it to Detective and regularly taking swims in rivers. His magical abilities are accomplished and reliable. His mentor, DCI Nightingale also feels much more powerful in both confidence and magical might. Even their cosy little base of operations, The Folly, has become a full-on operational centre, with everyday crime fighting professionals rubbing shoulders with the casual creepiness that lies in The Folly. This makes for solid development of the series; after all the characters must progress at some point and it’s been a joy so far to watch them strive through every little set-back.

Aaronovitch melds the magical and mundane extremely well. There’s a good mix of ‘London practicality’ and ‘unimaginable terror’ here; this isn’t a world where everyone can take the idea that magic is a real thing in their stride. Fear of the unknown keeps things in the margins, which provides a back-drop for the main characters struggles. Practical policing versus existential horror, to put in another way.

Lies Sleeping doesn’t try to catch up new readers, which is quite right. (Though if this sounds like your thing, do go and read Rivers of London first.). The plot dives straight into strands from the previous serious, tying up plot threads going all the way back to book one, whilst fraying new threads to keep the intrigue going. The pace is solid and steady, the action is as thrilling as ever and the whole thing ticks along like an old yet exciting friend. It would be unfair to call this more of the same, as the story delivers many answers. And at the same time, asks plenty of questions.

A must for fans of the series so far, and as always, we can’t wait to read the next one.

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

Speed Freeks

November 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Very, very short review of this Games Workshop game would be: It’s everything GorkaMorka should have been, but wasn’t. And it’s as much fun as Gretchiniz promised to be, but wasn’t.

Of course, if you don’t know what either of those are, or what an Ork is, you’ll be a bit lost. Let me unpack it – an Ork is a sci-fi version of an Orc, the rampaging monsters from fantasy tropes. They’re gadget obssessed brutes who can’t spell. GorkaMorka and Gretchinz are both racing games (via Games Workshop), which combine dangerous and crude technological themes with rally style racing.

Warhammer 40,000’s Orks are perhaps one of the most fun things about the franchise. A perfect storm of parodies, not only of British 80’s subcultures but fantasy tropes, creating a brutish, sinister and ridiculous band of villains that you never the less root for. They tend to be at their most interesting when the story is about them. SpeedFreeks is Games Workshops latest box that’s just about the Orks. Namely, it’s a miniatures racing game about these horrible monsters trying to prove who’s the better driver whilst making horrendous amounts of noise.

The box comes with enough for two players. Six warbikes and two larger vehicles unique to the set. The warbikes are nothing special; Ork fans will have seen them before. The other two items are something else, however. The Kustom Boosta-Blasta is a nightmare beach buggy with massive wheels and a huge gun. The Shokkjump Dragsta is a race car from doom, imagine the sort of Formula One vehicle that the devil would invent. These two pieces are your main counters for the game and they fight each other. The models come unpainted, but the two mobs are in different colours (mustard yellow and bright red), for ease of distinction. You have to glue the models together yourself, and this will take most of us a couple of hours to do.

We also get some solid looking scenery which can be used in other games, and component quality is thick and solid.

Game play wise, it’s a cunning and brutal game. Stats are split into Kunnin’, Speedin’ and Shootin’, and you allocate dice appropriately. Movement is by template (or gubbinz as the game calls them) and the idea is that these vehicles don’t move in a straight line. Instead they skid, drift and spin across the board, mostly in a controlled fashion but not always.

This adds a push your luck element to the strategy, making the game a faster, chunkier and more satisfying vehicle combat game than X-Wing. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in explosions. The game comes with four reversible boards and yes, these can be used in games of Kill Team if you must. We have four scenarios, which all use the boards in a different way, including a Mad Max style chase mode that will have you repositioning the boards as you zoom across a desert landscape.

SpeedFreeks is a smoother, quicker game than we expected. As fans of the 90’s Ork racing game GorkaMorka, we were expecting something deeper and where pleasantly surprised. GorkaMorka was a gang war game with vehicle rules; SpeedFreeks is a racing game and not much else. That’s a good thing. A must have for Ork fans, and a welcome addition to anyone who likes racing board games.

Best iteration of this idea so far, a must for fans of Orks or Mad Max movies.

Categories: Games, Old Reviews

How To Invent Everything by Ryan North

October 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Ryan North is as funny and he is smart, and he is very funny. Known for things such as Dinosaur Comics, Squirrel Girl and To Be or Not to Be, a book which turned the events of Macbeth into an adventure game. North’s signature style is funny yet informative, and with his latest How To Invent Everything, he completely outdoes all his previous work.

The premise of How To Invent Everything is that it’s a copy of survival guide for a stranded time travel. Allegedly discovered by North in the fossil record, it tells the reader that there is no way to repair a time machine. Instead, it advises the reader to rebuild civilisation from scratch, this time without making as many mistakes.

The first chapter is a description of both history and Earth’s place in the cosmos, cunningly disguised as a ‘how to work out where the time machine as dumped you’. Next we are onto the very basics; the fundamental technologies for civilisation turn out not to be fidget spinners and yodelling, but spoken and written language, scientific method, numbers that work and having some spare food. We then get into farming, mining, animal husbandry and so. All the good stuff.

Though disguised as a technical manual, this is anything but. It’s a fun history and explanation of humanity’s scientific achievements so far, with an added ‘how to’ on top. One of the recurring themes is exactly how long it took humans to come up with simple ideas such as wheelbarrows or keeping infants warm. They are fascinating (and carefully researched) facts here, all relating to human nature and their relationship with technology.

The conversational tone is charming, as well as the occasional gag about time-travel. (The fictional author in the book is angry at his boss at the time travel agency, for example.) It’s filled with lovely touches, such as all the historic quotes being from you, because you’ve gone back in time and nabbed those quotes. (They are also properly attributed, as is everything else)

Clever and well observed, it’s filled with everything you need to reboot civilisation. It includes substantial notes in the appendices and a general guide to useful animals and plants. This book is an almost essential primer on the story so far when it comes to science. We even go as far as basic computing, whilst also covering music, art and medicine. How To Invent Everything follows the Reithian principles of information, education, and entertainment, though it has the latter in spades.

I’ll be installing my copy in my personal time machine, of course. And getting copies for all my adventurous friends.

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

Art Matters – Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

September 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Any type of creative work will create outliers who combine skill, talent and a sense of cool into something unique. Neil Gaiman has, over the years, become a rock star of genre literature. Though not easily pigeon-holed, Gaiman has produced a wide and varied array of iconic and memorable work. Charismatic, creative and clever, he’s easily an icon of geek culture.

As such, he has a lot to say about working in the creative industry and on the subject of being a writer. And he says it all in such a pretty way that it deserves illustration. Art Matters brings together four of Gaiman’s well regarded musings on the subject of creativity, and combines them with art from former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.

The first piece is Credo, which originally appeared in the New Stateman. It’s about the nature of free speech and how ideas are pretty hard to stop. It’s a notion that is unpalatable to some and inspiring to others, and a rallying speech about freedom of expression. Inspirational and strong.

Next up is a thing called “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”, and it was originally a lecture given to The Reading Agency. It’s a short, sharp speech on why reading is good for the soul and good for society. It’s something that shouldn’t need saying, but obviously does, and it’s wonderfully put.

Making a Chair comes from a CD called An evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. It’s about making a damned chair. Because sometimes you have to make a chair. There’s a clever metaphor here, we are sure. The illustrations are great and it is quite funny. Finally we get to Make Good Art, originally a keynote speech for The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

It’s a speech about how Gaiman got to where he is today. It’s filled with clever little observations and witty little asides, but it’s essential message is Make Good Art. It’s a good speech, one designed to make people struggling at the creative process to keep going. It’s a reminder that the task ahead is possible. It’s filled with hope, and very useful, especially when things seem gloomy.

Riddell’s artwork is delightful throughout, punctuating Gaiman’s intent and making powerful words all the more poignant.

This is a small, pocket sized book filled with inspirational words and ideas. It’s the sort of thing that can brighten your mood during a gloomy English winter, when everything is dark, work feels like it’s too hard and every time you try and do something creative, something else gets in the way. This is a lifeline of sorts, something to keep the creative spark going during a storm. Invaluable for anyone who creates, which is pretty much everyone

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

Escape The Dark Castle

July 1, 2018 Leave a comment

For those who grew up in the 80’s, it’s odd to think of that decade of having its own distinctive style. The distinctive and simple style is immediately recognisable to many; not just the faded VHS and faux-neon look, but a simpler, scrappy style common amongst fringe magazines and books. Rapid fire adventure game Escape the Dark Castle taps into this retro vibe to create something that feels it could have been 1985’s hot new thing.

Escape the Dark Castle is elegant in its simplicity. You pick a character (A miller, a cook, a smith) etc. You’ve been imprisoned in the Dark Castle and you’re trying to escape. Each character has a bespoke dice and this reflects their strengths. The Smith does well in physical challenges so has lots of fist icons on their die. The Tailor isn’t that strong but is smarter and their die reflects this and so on.

Each round you draw a card called a ‘chapter’. You read out the encounter and roll dice to pass the test. Typically, this is a fight, but not always. You work together to defeat the encounter and move on, until you face ‘a boss monster’. Aesthetically, the whole thing looks great. A jet black box with a line art illustrations that look like they’ve come screaming out of some dark abyss of 1980’s style gothic fantasy. Big chunky dice. All the monsters are ghosts, demons, skeletons, proper old school nightmare fuel, the sort of thing aged moral guardians would make a fuss about. Cracking stuff. Quick to play as well, takes about 20 minutes.

It’s a fun team game with a solid narrative and a proper look and feel. It’s so retro I can imagine the Stranger Things kids playing it, but that just makes us love it even more. Like all good games of this sort, it generates fun stories amongst players. For example, when playtesting we ran into an encounter that lead to some particularly hilarious mental images where one of our heroes kept foul of traps. In-jokes where swiftly formed; it’s that sort of game.

This is a game that feels like it’s from the 80’s and is so good it’s survived the test of time. It’s a new game with an easy to pick up mechanic and feel that makes it feel like a classic. I understand the games producers have big plans for the future, so that’s exciting.

Categories: Games, Old Reviews

When Titans Attack

June 1, 2018 Leave a comment

The Attack on Titan series proves the point that you can make even the most ridiculous idea and make it all dark and serious.1. I watched the first season ages ago, and enjoyed it for the high-tension nonsense that it was. I also got to interview Bryce Papenbrook, who does the English dub for the shows main character, Eren Yeager.

The interview is somewhere out there in the Starburst archives, but the thing that stuck in my mind is the Bryce was very proud of his ability to act and shout at the same time.

In case you’ve no idea what I’m on about, The Attack on Titan series is a pseudo flintlock fantasy world which takes place in a vaguely German like country. Mankind is under siege and lives in a massive walled city, with the upper classes living in the thickest wall in the center, with thinner walled bits of the city protecting the peasants.   

The threat everyone is hiding from are giant man-baby monsters2 with grotesque heads that walk like toddlers and eat people whole.  These are the titular ‘Titans’. It’s utterly daft and the animated TV show and accompanying comic books are hugely popular across the world, especially in their native Japan. 

The main protagonist is a chap called Eren, who shouts a lot and hates Titans. He works with a team of scouts who swing around on gas powered grappling hooks smacking the monsters in their weak spots with huge swords.

The Roar Of Awakening is the third ‘movie’ instalment of the series. You may note that I’d only seen the first season at this point, though I’d read some of the manga (comic books) and felt up to speed. I was wrong. Between the blood, the shouting and the silly plot twists I had no idea what was going on.

‘Roar’ ramps up the conspiracy and paranoia, but it’s mostly lots of characters jabbering on at each other about nothing until another fight scene happens.

This is because Attack on Titan: The Roar of Awakening is a compressed and re-edited version of season two of the TV series.  The editing makes for some interesting scenes; dramatic freeze frame with some dialogue over the top is used quite a bit in order to stitch the narrative into something vaguely understandable. The result is action scene after action scene, with lots of dramatic music, shouting, violence and the more shouting. The animation really shines at these points, with some great cinematic scenes of huge monsters punching normal sized people. Then eating them.

The problem is that if you didn’t know any about the series going in, well this is part three in an ongoing series; this is going to make no sense .  It’s hard to really understand what this is for. Fans of Attack on Titan will want to five the full series a watch, rather than this butchered shorthand. At two-hours, it’s a heck of a long recap.

Though I get why these things exist, I really wish they didn’t. Honestly, if you’re going to watch this weird and macabre thing, you need to invest the time into it.


1: Genuinely not a good thing. Not everything has to be dark and edgy, after all.

2: Yes you read that right.

Categories: Old Reviews, Reviews, TV

BANANAMAN – The Musical

I first heard of an adaptation of Bananaman in the works a couple of years ago. Originally intended as a movie, they aimed much lower as it developed and turned it into a musical.

We are currently living in a world where comic-books are king. However, notably, missing from the huge roster of comic book reboots are characters from The Beano.1 This national treasure has never taken itself seriously and is packed with very silly fun. Enter Bananaman The Musical, an attempt to add this unique voice in the world of comics to growing chorus of superhero stories. The result is highly pleasing; A hilarious musical for Generation X and their kids.

For those who weren’t lucky enough to be young in 80’s Britain, Bananaman is a deeply silly take on boyish power fantasy comics such as Bill Parker’s Shazam, Siegel & Shuster’s Superman or Mick Anglo’s Marvelman. Eric Wimp is a schoolboy who, when he eats a banana, turns into a yellow and blue musclebound idiot who can bend steel and fly. Many of us will remember the 1983 cartoon, featuring the vocal talents of the Goodies. Sightline Entertainment, the producers of this show certainly did. As we entered the Southwark Playhouse’s main stage, the interlude music was a collection of 80’s kids TV show theme tunes.

The show opens with an explanation of how boring Eric Wimp’s life is, how dull Acacia Road and introduces the characters. Notably, Fiona the Newsreporter is re-imagined as a schoolgirl reporter with own YouTube channel, and is an actual character rather than a prop. In proper Beano style the girls are just as awesome as the guys, thank you very much.

Jodie Jacobs tackles the difficult task of Crow exceptionally well. This is a crow that flaps around and sings, and the puppet is very charming, very witty and carries much of the narrative on its slender feathered shoulders. Mark Newnham sells the earnest rubbishness of Eric Wimp perfectly, and Matthew McKenna is clearly having the time of his life as Bananaman. His comic timing his perfect.2

The show is stolen, in part, by the villains. Which is exactly what you want. Marc Pickering is Doctor Gloom, and chews the scenery as the smartest buffoon in the room and has all the best songs. Carl Mullaney’s General Blight tempers Pickering’s performance with an absurd sense of manic outrage and the two bounce off each of as cackling baddies throughout.

The songs are fun, cracking and catchy. They tell the story but are the sort of songs you’d listen to again and again. They mock the recent seriousness of the superhero genre with a playful sense of fun and are quite memorable.

They are some flaws with the storytelling; Eric’s intelligence is established early on, in fact his nerd and geek credentials have their own song. When Eric turns into Bananaman, fans know that the hero has the muscles of twenty men and brains of twenty mussels, but this isn’t established until much later. It’s a minor detail, but one that could be easily fixed. The scenes at the end rush slightly too quickly, but that’s fine. By now you’ve climbed aboard the Banana boat of fun and are laughing so hard it’s tricky to keep up with the gags.

The venue also delivered a few sound issues early on, but these where swiftly resolved. That said, this isn’t a super-slick production and nor should it be. The source material is chaotic and silly and that’s part of the appeal. A highly professional production throughout though one with a deliberately anarchic vibe.

I particularly loved the way some of the ensemble cast where dressed as ‘brown-coat and flat cap’ janitors when moving bits of the set around, and that they were actual character.

A splendid fourth-wall shout out that was instantly recognisable to the target audience. Costume Supervisors Nia Evans and Daisy Woodroffe have done an amazing job getting the look the characters spot on, right down to the socks and the titular hero looks as silly as he does wonderful. They are some lovely Easter Eggs in the show’s design, from the mortar-board hat on the teachers to a sign pointing to Bash Street. Director Mark Perry has nailed it; this is The Beano come to life.

Bananaman The Musical is a lovely ripe banana, dipped in nostalgia and fun, served with glee and manic silliness. Sadly it looks like it won’t tour. The press junket we attended seemed focused mostly on the London theatre scene, and this is definetly a show aimed more firmly at what marketing types call ‘Facebook Families’3.

This sort of thing is exactly what British Theatre needs – fun, friendly and commercial. It’s a huge shame that not even the soundtrack is available anymore. Hopefully someone will bring it back to life.


1: A fine and fun kids comic from DC Thompson, and an amazing example of British humour.

2: I confess that the first quick-change caught me unawares and I was utterly impressed. Then I realised that Wimp and Bannanman are played by different people. I am a muppet.

3: Middle Class families looking for something for the kids that won’t bore the adults. But cost is king. We all know a Facebook Family, they’re the ones with their little ‘uns in the profile.

Categories: Geek, Old Reviews, Theatre