Recommendation: The Johnny Maxwell books

I find it strange how there are some of Terry Pratchett’s books that tend to get forgotten. Maybe people have come to blend him and the Discworld so much that his books outside that series don’t get the same recognition? Or maybe they just aren’t aware of them? But, as a whole, I believe his children’s books don’t get the recognition they deserve.

fullsizeoutput_40ff

The Johnny Maxwell books are examples of these. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996) tell three separate stories about Johnny Maxwell, a boy who seems to have a ability to see through the world into something more; whether it be entering a computer game while he sleeps to save the aliens from the players, speaking with the ghosts of the dead to save their graveyard from destruction, or travelling back in time to the Second World War.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett had a real knack for children’s books. He was able to take the ideas and themes found in all his work and streamline them for a younger audience. Rereading them now I find it a little odd and oversimplified, which is maybe why they are overlooked, but as a child I remember them being incredibly real. They felt like adult books to me. I was already reading the Discworld novels at this point, but I know now that a lot of the details went over my head.

I prefer the Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) (a separate series, but there are enough connections to assume these two series are in the same universe) but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Johnny Maxwell books. If you’re a fan of Pratchett but not given these ones a go, I highly recommend it. 

For the record, Johnny and the Bomb is my favourite.

One final point: having been introduced to these book through the audio book versions I cannot read them without hearing the words in Tony Robinson’s voice. I don’t get that with the Discworld books. There’s just something about these three that sticks in his voice. Weird how that happens. 

Wonder Woman

Okay, so a while ago on this blog I officially announced I was gaving up on the DC Cinematic Universe. After sitting through Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, I was fed up of watching films that insisted on squandering their potential. All three of those films could have been excellent. They had so many interesting ideas and could have given us fascinating new takes on the characters of the DC universe. Instead, you could see the tooth marks where the studio executives had chewed them up and spat them out. 

And so I had decided I wasn’t going to waste my money on films whose studios couldn’t treat them or their audience with respect. 


However, with the release of Wonder Woman I decided that I would call myself a liar and go see it. I always try to keep my promises, but I will also change my mind if given sufficient cause. There were 3 main reasons why I changed my mind on this matter: 

  1. I wanted to support a prominent blockbuster with both a prominent female lead and director; 
  2. The reviews were basically universally positive, leading me to think it might be worth my time; 
  3. I had two free cinema tickets to use, so if it turned out to be rubbish I wouldn’t have wasted any money. 

And I am glad I did. I admit I went into this film expecting to be disappointed, but I ended up having a great time. Wonder Woman is a solid, well made superhero movie that makes very few mistakes. Sure, there are plot holes, and in any comic book movie there are elements you have to take with a pinch of salt as the move from the page to the screen – it’s a good job German soldiers never aim for the thigh, where she has none of that useful bullet proof armour – but there is nothing here that ruins the movie by its inclusion. Lighten up, it’s a comic book movie, not a gritty urban drama. It’s not groundbreaking. Plot-wise it gives us nothing we haven’t seen before, and most people over the age of 20 will see the story twists coming a mile away. But in a way that’s why it does so well. It seems that director Patty Jenkins realised that when you need to rejuvenate a failing franchise with a solid success – and when the multitudes of 4chan and internet “men-anists” – or, as they used to be called, “sexist people” – are going to be actively gunning for you to fail –  you need to create a solid, stable film. She didn’t need to take stupid risks or try and be “creative” or “unique”. She needed to show that a woman can direct a big budget action movie, that a woman can be the lead role in a big budget action movie, with that movie being a financial success. 

And she has succeeded. 

And while I really don’t want to single out a guy for a main point of praise in a film where the emphasis so much needs to be on the women who made and starred in it, Chris Pine needs a lot of credit here for showing how you can take the leading male role in an action movie and keep it as a secondary character to a woman without any sort of male ego. This is Gal Gadot’s movie, and at no point does he try to take it from her. Unlike, I’m sure, a lot of Hollywood actors out there, I fully believe he had no problem playing second fiddle. 

So yeah, despite myself I had a great time. I still don’t know if I’ll go see any more of the DC films. The trailer for Justice League promised to be everything the previous movies were and less. But I’ll probably go see Wonder Woman 2 if the same team are behind it. 

Oh, and if you have a young daughter and you don’t take her to see this film, you’re missing out something that will likely stay with her for life. I haven’t seen a cinematic role model for girls like Gal Gadot’s Diana in a very long time. Screw it, you should take your son as well. 

Recommendation: Free Fire

When you’re pretty certain that a film is going to be good, but then when you start watching you discover Sharlto Copley is in it…


We had a great time watching ‘Free Fire’ and highly recommend it. It’s wonderful to see a film that sticks to a nice, tight 90 minute run time. The plot of this film couldn’t be simpler – a gun deal goes bad and turns into a multi-sided shootout – and with no padding or unnecessary vanity, it’s a slick, fun, exciting movie.

It’s also a reminder that if you put good actors together they spectacle or computer graphics to make the scene watchable. When you boil this film down there is hardly anything to it, but the actors work together so that you don’t even notice. I know very few directors who could pull that off. The great thing about Wheatley as a writer and director is that he never gives you anything more than you need to get the film. It’s always there, but he’ll never put it out there or draw attention to it. His films don’t even know the word “flabby”. It’s a Ben Wheatley action movie. With Sharlto Copley. Why wouldn’t you go and see it?

I’d happily watch a *bad* movie with Sharlto Copley and go away happy.

The best trailer for Trainspotting 2 was made 20 years ago

I had forgotten just how good Trainspotting is.

When a film is as enduring as this, it can be easy to allow it to slip into a strange category of “good” that doesn’t do it justice. I haven’t actually watched it in what must be over 10 years, but I “know” Trainspotting is a “good” film. I remember the plot, and the characters, and the music, and the style. All of it. I remember the impact it had. The way it resounded as a snapshot of our culture at that time.

But I actually sat down and watched it again this weekend, and suddenly it all came back with an immediacy that I had lost in the intervening years. Experiencing this film again, for the first time in over a decade, it’s impossible to ignore just how good it is! It’s no longer a “classic movie” in a dusty, academic sense. I’ve seen and felt it all afresh. The storytelling is just so tight and clear. The characters fleshed out and real. The world a gloriously aware snapshot of the dark side of the “Cool Britannia” world of twenty years ago.

I hadn’t really been that excited for the sequel before this. I had categorised it as just another throwback by studios lacking in original idea that would, at best, be a rehash of the original but with the actors twenty years old. But now I find myself hoping against hope that I’m wrong. I remember how good the director and the actors are and can be, and I’m aware that I trust them enough not to ruin it for everyone. That they’ll want to do right by the original as much as we what them to do so. Maybe even more than we do. That it’s quite possible that they will create something new that resonates just as much to the same generation it electrified twenty years ago.

If they fail, I feel it will be because the task was impossible, not because they didn’t try.

I’ve allowed it to give myself hopes and expectations that T2 will be worth the wait.

Danny Boyle, please don’t let us down.

 

My 2016 Game of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

While SOMA came out in 2015, I played it over the winter and completed it in 2016.

soma

Suffering from brain damage after a car crash, Simon Jarrett agrees to an experiment brain-scan. Blacking out half way through, he wakes to find himself in a seemingly abandoned deep sea research facility in the year 2104. What follows, as Simon tries to work out what has happened, is a terrifying exploration of the nature of the human soul and the sense of self.

This is one of those games you irritatingly can’t say much about in a review for fear of giving too much away. Half the appeal of SOMA is the experience of playing and discovering the story for yourself.

If you’ve played any of the Amnesia series of games, then you’ll have an idea of the gameplay. But SOMA is a massive step up in terms of story and voice acting. This is a story-driven, survival horror game, so you’re not going to be battling monsters. Rather, you’ll be running from them, helpless, as you solve puzzles and try to work out what the hell is going on. But as you creep or spirit through the game world you discover a plot that’s both depressing and fascinating. It will make you really think about who “you” are, and then leave you in a deep, existential mire.

Honestly, when I finished this game I lay awake at night with an honest to god existential crisis. It will make you question your very existence.

soma2

I wouldn’t exactly call this a “fun” game, although I don’t want to give the wrong impression from that statement. What I mean is, this isn’t something you throw on after a stressful day at work when you just want to switch your brain off for some mindless entertainment. You’re going to have to think through this one. Not because it’s especially hard, but because the story is so smart and thought provoking that you will need to pay attention to get all the benefit. But don’t worry, it’s so well written and perfectly balanced that it never feels like a chore to do so.

I would say the better descriptions for this are “rewarding” and “satisfying”, rather than “fun”. But, damn, is it both of those in spades.

 

My 2016 TV Show of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one gave me a little difficulty. We all know that we’re in a so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and as much as that phrase is tired and overused I can’t deny that with subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime I’ve had copious excellent television to get through. By rather than one of the series that everyone’s already raved about online, I’m going to pick one that we started watching on a whim without knowing anything about it and turned out to the be one of the cleverest TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

ceg

On the day Rebecca Bunch is finally about to reach her lifelong goal of being made a Partner in a prestigious New York legal firm, she is suddenly struck by just how miserable she truly is. Then, mid-breakdown – she runs into an old boyfriend. Releasing that the time she dated him – for just 3 months one summer over a decade ago – was the last time she was truly happy, Rebecca drops everything and follows him across the country to win him back.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest pieces of television writing I’ve watched in years. While the premise could be one of a thousand bland rom-coms or generic sitcoms, writer and star Rachel Bloom instead created something that’s both a fun musical show and a deep look into the divide between what society has taught us to think we want and what we actually need.

Rebecca drops a high-flying legal career to be with the boy of her dreams. Why wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? They had a Meet-Cute on the day she needed it the most. That’s what television and movies have taught us; that our fairytale will come true if we just believe enough to fight through all obstacles. Why should it matter that she’s stalked him across the country? Or that he’s been with the same girlfriend for fifteen years? Or that her actions throw the lives of so many people into chaos? It’s meant to be!

Ultimately, this show is about the delusions we build for ourselves to hide from the truths we don’t want to face.

While also being a light-hearted musical.

Did I say the writing on this show was really clever?ceg1cast3_0509ra-max-620x600

It’s the layers to the characters and the plots that make this show unmissable. They’ve managed to avoid or subvert every trope in their path, without a single lazy path taken. If two characters have an ‘amusing misunderstanding’, rather than stretching that out for an entire episode they will talk it out and focus instead on the underlying issues. We’re introduced to characters such as “the boss who wants to be everyone’s friend”, or “the controlling bitch girlfriend”, or “the love interest”, but as the series progresses you see how none of them are solely defined by these labels. You also see why they are this way. Why does the boss so desperately want people to like him? Why is the love interest’s girlfriend such a controlling bitch? Why does the love interest stay with his girlfriend even though she’s so unpleasant and demanding? And, most impressively, all of them change and grow in a way that suit the character rather than the longevity of the show. Or getting preachy.

Basically, if you’ve not caught this show I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do. It’s currently half way through its second season, and you won’t find many shows so that subvert television character tropes so well.

 

My 2016 Film of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one was pretty easy. My film of the year has to be The Witch, from director Robert Eggers. I’ve already written about it here so I won’t go into too much detail again when you can just click the link. The passing of time has not quenched how much I love this film.

the-witch-spoiler-free-review-a-good-film-rarely-scary-849198

Exiled from their settlement for their extreme Puritan views, Samuel’s family settles their own farm on the edge of a distant forest. After a year of toil, dedication, and hard work, their new-born child is stolen from under the nose of their eldest daughter by a witch living deep in the woods. What follows is a spiral of fear, persecution, blame and madness, as grief and petty grievances tear the family apart. 

This film is creepy, sinuous, creative, and beautiful. Every shot is a portrait. The story a masterpiece is isolation and the collapse of sanity in the face of forces we can’t understand. Eggers firmly roots his film in a grimy sense of reality, using only natural light, researching the world and the lifestyle of the time, and utilising documents from the period to ensure the dialogue is authentic to the time.

Don’t expect jump scares. Don’t expect gore. Expect steady burning, character driven fear. Expect to be left creeped out and unsettled. This movie is truly what a horror film should be.

My 2016 Book of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

I had to put a bit of thought into my favourite book from this year, as the one that I’ve ultimately decided upon was actually released back in 2011. But as I was given this as a gift last Christmas, and therefore only read it for the first time in 2016, I have decided it can count. Because this is my personal list, and I get to make the rules.

ready-player-one-book-cover

In a world where real-life has become almost unliveable, where the class and wage gaps are bigger than ever and a majority of people live in poverty, most of the world live within OASIS; a fully immersive virtual world, that functions as both an MMORPG and online society where most people go to school and hold their jobs. But when the creator and owner of OASIS dies, he leaves ownership of it to whoever can solve a complex treasure hunt based on obscure 1980s trivia. And whoever owns OASIS becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the world.

When teenager Wade Watts manages to solve the first riddle, his life becomes a race between him, his friends and peers, and the multinational corporation which will stop at nothing to gain control of OASIS.

This book is just so fresh and clever. Well researched – Cline obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ‘80s and early computer games – and expertly written, Ready Player One perfectly encapsulates my generation’s culture and attitudes. Cline manages to mine the current fashion for modernised nostalgia while commenting on how just fragile the line between the real world and escapism has become.

It’s just such a shame that his follow up – Armada – which did come out this year, is so mind-bogglingly awful. Seriously, don’t bother wasting your time unless you want a perfect example of an author buckling under the pressure of a smash hit debut.

Recommending… Ninja Sex Party

Sometimes you’re introduced to something that you can’t get out of your head. Something that, if you didn’t love, you’d have to have a long hard think about why you hate fun.

Ninja Sex Party are one of these things.

11008393_10152722398503927_4442193898478250834_n

If you can imagine a band that’s a mix of Tenacious D and Flight of Concords, that’s basically Ninja Sex Party. Made up of Dan Avidan and Brian Wecht – who portray their characters Danny Sexbang and Ninja Brain – they’re synthpop/rock comedy band.

I’ve had these songs basically on a loop – either on my phone or ear-worming me – all week.

Most of their songs are a lot shorter, but when you have a spare view minutes go and watch the video for their Rush inspired epic, 6969. Trust me.

tumblr_o10e8rzngz1rbi0tuo1_500

Or do you hate fun?

Recommendation: Chester 5000

My latest acquisition from the world of webcomics via Kickstarter; Chester 5000, books 1 & 2.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 15.22.42

I love Jess Fink‘s work. Both playful and sexy, she manages to capture both the beauty and excitement of the erotic without being overly titivating. Yes, there’s sex in these pages, but it’s always infused with romance. You can see her love for the art and the history she’s influenced by on every page.

Also, I’m a sucker for any artist who can create both story and distinct characters without using any dialogue. Everything is done through the images to the point where you don’t even notice no one has spoken.