To every generation

August 1, 2018 Leave a comment

There’s a Buffy The Vampire Slayer picture book. It’s aimed at children. Or more accurately, the parents of kids who have fond memories of the show.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a show that came out over 20 years ago. It’s more than reasonable to assume that the people who loved the show growing up have since gotten older, settled down and decided to pass on their love for the show to their offspring.

To every generation a Slayer may be born, but Buffy fans stretch across generations. Of course, it’s a pretty scary show, so how young should you start a potential Buffy fan? How about with an adorable Picture Book that has Buffy, Willow and Xander go on a sleepover? Kim Smith is no stranger to creating books firmly aimed at small hands which happen to be based on more grown-up fare. She’s nailed it yet again; this is a book that will delight kids and make adults grin in a silly sort of way.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer – A Picture Book is a charming affair. Like many of the Pop Classic s before it, it reduces an iconic bit of pop culture down into its simplest form. The story is pretty straight forward. It focuses on a young Buffy Summers who’s afraid of the monster in the closet, so she gathers her friends together to figure things out. Obviously there’s also a trip to Library to meet Giles, and there’s plenty of surprises for fans. By which we mean some very nice illustrations of notable things from the Buffy Mythos.

Compared to previous works, it’s much more simplified than the other books. Smith’s version of Back to the Future had a meatier story to compress, as did the Pop Classic version of ET an Extra-Terrestial. It is however, just as fun. We aren’t convinced that this could really be called baby’s first horror though. You have to be a certain age to really get spooky stuff, and that’s what the Goosebumps books are for.

A little bit of spookiness is good for anyone. Horror (and it’s upmarket cousin, Crime drama), is our way of coping with the more mundane nastiness in the world after all. So a little bit of spooky magic fun is always welcome.

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Categories: Books, Geek

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

Book Review – 84K

April 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Claire North1 is always a delight. Her book The Sudden Appearance of Hope ended up on the short list for Brave New Words Award, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of my favourites, it being my short of time-travel what-if weird.

84K is anti-utopian fiction set in a near future, and extrapolates current British politics to an utterly bleak (and seemingly inevitable) conclusion. A world where freedom is just another word and every life has a price tag, assessed, stamped and added to a spreadsheet. The story revolves around a man who is called Theo Miller. He works at the Criminal Audit Office, an organisation owned by The Company. But then everything is.

Theo’s life is one spent under the radar, never running too fast or raising his voice. He assesses the cost of individual crimes for a living. This is a world where those with little or no money are sent to work menial roles to pay off the cost of the simplest misdemeanours. It also means that those who can pay can pretty much do what they like. Inevitably, he finds himself in a situation where the books cannot be balanced, and his past, long held in check, drives him to act.

It is a thrilling read; taut and well balanced. This is both literary fiction and science-fiction, in the same vein as A Handmaids Tale or 1984. 2 Given the title, comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 are inevitable, and though they are some strong similarities in tone and approach, North’s writing is brighter, sharper and much more engaging than Orwell’s.

The narrative is tighter and though the tone and message are just as bleak, the story is more resonant and relevant. 84K has the advantage of being a new story set in a recognisable world, of course, but it every bit as thought provoking as other dystopian classics such as Farenheit 451 and Brave New World.

There is no Big Brother in North’s world; instead The Company fills the omnipresent space. Theo Miller is a deeper and more motivated character than Winston Smith and so on. They are parallels, certainly but 84K is more relevant, more vital and much harder to ignore. It’s also much, much more angry. There’s a really rage underneath the page, a powerful stab at current heartlessness and greed of our modern world. This makes the work truly gripping, though if you’re in the process of despairing over UK politics, you’ll either find the cathartic or a just a little bit much.

This is a dystopian anthem for modern activist, a warning of an all to near future and a wake-up call for anyone who believes justice should not come with a price tag. 84K is an important book but also a cracking thriller and a great bit of near-future speculative fiction.

A version of this review appeared in Starburst Magazine. This is a revised version.

1: Aka Catherine Webb, AKA Kate Griffin. Writers with multiple names are always a delight, especially when we have them on the podcast, because we can claim we have multiple guests.
2: Books can of course be more than one genre; those who tell you otherwise are trying to sell you something.

Categories: Books

Brave New Words Award 2018

March 31, 2018 Leave a comment

So 2018 saw me be the head judge for Starburst Magazine’s Brave New Words Award.

It was an interesting experience, if I’m honest. Essentially, an awards panel is a super-specific book club where you and a bunch of people you respect read the same books and then get super specific in their opinions of the book.  It all came down to a rather extended chat over skype.

And I honestly didn’t know where  we’d end up by the end of it. It was super close. It was super fun to judge.

The Winner was Margret Helgadottir for Pacific Monsters. The prize (Starburst’s iconic Roboto) went on a fantastic journey, from Manchester, to Wales and finally to Norway.

Categories: Uncategorized

On awards and clever titles

February 7, 2018 1 comment

So this Monday1 Starburst, that magazine I write for, announced the nominees for the Brave New Words Award, which can be found here.

It’s a bit exciting. It’s also a bit different, in terms of its aims. It’s not a simple best2 book award. For a start, it’s not for a work. It’s for an individual, based on their work3. It’s also based around the name; Brave, New and Words.

Before I break that down though, let me explain how the award came about:

Back in 2016, Starburst had a film festival. It was rather special. Like many of the adventures that magazine has taken me on, it wasn’t the smoothest of affairs. However, it was also pretty amazing. People came from all over the world to show quirky and different genre movies. Stuff that was new and interesting. I met a whole load of actors, directors, FX types and of course script writers. It was a ‘2am in the morning, talking nonsense with interesting strangers’ sort of affair.

And amidst the more mainstream panels and movie showings, were some brilliantly curated gems.  Features like Blood of Tribades, a valiantly silly homage to 70’s Italian horror movies. Or Good Tidings, a flick about a rampage of killer Santas.  The latter won  ‘Best  Feature’ at the festival’s award ceremony.

But what really caught my eye was the Independents Day4 Award, given to  Christian Nicolson for This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy. Nicolson’s movie is a gem. It’s from New Zealand and it’s a different sort of low budget sci-fi comedy. It does things that mainstream movies would never dare try and it’s clearly cobbled together with love and grit. Of course it won.

PapierMacheBoulder-1-1000x600

Papier Mache Boulder has done quite well at festivals

I walked away from the festival reminded that since it’s rebirth in Manchester, Starburst’s mission has been about encouraging and highlighting new talent.  After all, it’s first ever issue was founded on an indie movie, and it’s been promoting brave and clever stuff ever since. I knew then that we needed an award for people who wrote rather than people who acted or directed. Naming the award after the magazine’s book column, Brave New Words5, seemed obvious, and that helped define what the award would be about.

The ‘Words’ bit is obvious. We wanted written works. To widen it out though, the idea was to make it cross-discipline. We got a good variety of entries this year, which is encouraging as the award is in its first year and ‘what it’s for’ isn’t really set in people’s minds as yet.

‘New’ was easy as well; works from the previous year 6. But also new as in different, new as in fresh. New as in eye-catching.  New of course, doesn’t automatically mean debut. We have some quite illustrious types on our shortlist, because they’re all doing stuff that’s fresh and exciting with their writing.

‘Brave’ is perhaps the most nebulous. In a way, we mean striking. Different. Clever. Something that stretches the scope of the genre. Boundary pushing. Or simply something that needed writing that no one else seems to have written.

I think this award will fit in well with its fellow Starburst awards.  This year’s Starburst Festival should be fun.

In the meantime, I have six works to critically analyse, and an amazing panel of judges to debate with. See some of you at Starburst’s Media City Festival, for the results of the inaugural winner.

BNWshort

The shortlist for the Brave New Words Award, courtesy of the BNW Instagram.


1: As I write this.  Chances are you’re reading this in the future. Always check the dates. This applies as much to blog posts as it does to bacon.

2: There’s nothing wrong with ‘best’, of course. Except simply saying ‘best’ tends to obscure criteria. Besides, the name of the award rather tells you what it’s for.

3: Simply put, making the prize about the writer not the work makes it harder for the prize to become predictable over the years.

4: Independents Day is the name of a regular feature in the magazine.

5: Brave New Words is also the name of a podcast. Which is eligible for the Best Fancast, if you’re the sort of person who nominates Hugos. Just saying.

6: The Sudden Appearance of Hope got in thanks to the paperback version coming out in 2017. We’ll probably tighten that next year.  

Bonus Note: By the way, if want more cool book related pictures, check out the Instagram feed for the Brave New Words podcast.

Categories: Brave New Words