Last Week: Cage of Souls, Altered Carbon, The Girl Beneath the Sea, We Are What We Overcome podcast, MissImp Virtual Drop-Ins

BIrthday, Booze and Bumbling

Sure, it’s Friday – or is it? Who the hell knows. I can’t tell the difference, and worst of all I’m writing this (at last) on day one of our four day bank holiday weekend. Thank goodness my workmates told me, otherwise I’d have been working all day. So, with five days separating me from last week, what can I actually recall… I’m in luck, because I’ve started to keep a list. Genius plan, which I undermine as I fail to write stuff down. That feels a lot like our present state of lockdown – it all constantly slips away… I’m still feeling the massive contrast between the hysteria of 24 hour news and this just feeling like normal life. I’m also utterly thrilled to be spending so much time with my beautiful cats.

Still, we had my other half’s birthday, and I feel we made the most of it. Our usual birthday activities are something along the line’s of 1) get up very late, 2) take ages to eat breakfast and get dressed, 3) open presents while watching cartoons (this year we enjoyed Disney+’s Chip ’n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, which feels like it’s suffered the passage of time better than Duck Tales), 4) go to the cinema, 5) eat out somewhere, and 6) crash out on the sofa. On that scale we at least managed all but 4 and 5. So that’s not bad. The whole pandemic and not being able to choose to go out only really hit home when we wanted to complete our usual rituals. Nemmind. I snagged a piece of rather nice original Peter Firmin Bagpuss art, so part 3 of the day was pretty good. We celebrated with a few more folks in a large and very chaotic Zoom party. Weird, for sure, but nice to see peeps.

Obviously all independent businesses are struggling right now, and worse, some people are finding it hard to acquire enough booze to get through the melding days. No fear of that here in Beeston! I was over the moon to see our local independent brewer Totally Brewed (who have homes at the lovely micropub Totally Tapped in Beeston and The Overdraught at the top of Canning Circus) arranged for Friday home deliveries!

Doing: podcasting (live-ish) with We Are What We Overcome

On Sunday we the We Are What We Overcome podcast gang got together to attempt a Zoom to Facebook Live thingamajig. It worked so well in practice, but totally failed to work as expected. Not to worry. We recorded it anyway, and popped the video up on Monday afternoon. We decided to have a little check-in, like we usually do at the start of our episodes, but for longer as this is a strange time, and we all have different feelings about it. I think it’s quite a nice chat – you can watch/listen to it below. Rather nicely, it’s all four us, including Neil who’s usually behind the sound recording desk (or whatever it is that he does to magically trap our speech). At some point we’ll pop the audio out on the podcast feed, but there are a few in the bank already to be rolled out on schedule first. Even better news, we’re gonna try the Facebook Live thang again this Sunday, and every fortnight for the near future, or at least as long as we’re in lockdown. Future ones will show up on our Facebook page here, and I’ll stick a link on the WAWWO page of this website too.

Watching: Altered Carbon season two

I really enjoyed Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and its sequels – splendid fast-paced noirpunk with loads of action and murder/spy stuff. The central premise that your identity is contained in a stack at the top of your spine and can be swapped between bodies (the so charming “sleeves”) is fantastic, and the results of your body no longer being a part of who you are is ingenious and spun out well in the books. It translated pretty well into season one of the Netflix show, albeit with a lot of gratuitous nudity as we found ourselves in a pretty traditional cyberpunk setting of rain and holograms of hookers everywhere. I enjoyed it, but until I saw the ‘last time on Altered Carbon‘ I could not have told you what happened.

I fucking love Anthony Mackie, he’s immensely charming, fun, and credible in action, drama and comedy (having re-watched Captain America: the Winter Soldier just this afternoon, he is confirmed in my mind as a splendid human). But there’s something wrong with season two – it’s just drifted into the quest for Takeshi Kovacs to find his long-lost love, and while that’s in the books, it doesn’t feel like the driving force of the story. The noir detective element is here, but it feels lost and forced. Added to that are the continued tribulations of his AI hotelier pal, Poe (yep, Edgar Allan), who is very appealing as he finds another AI who he clearly kind of fancies as his grasp on the world deteriorates, but it doesn’t matter. The AI subplot is completely irrelevant and its lack of importance kept punching me in the face. Alas, this season has lost me and I kept drifting away while watching. Maybe I’ll have a rewatch after this nonsense time is over, and perhaps I’ll focus better.

Reading: Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I cannot help reading Adrian’s books – it’s a kind of addiction. This one had languished for a while on my Kindle TBR because I’d incorrectly associated the cover with fantasy, and I’ve been in a science fiction mood for a while. Reading definitely feels tougher than usual, and it takes something extra (or just really fast) to captivate my attention. Here we have far-future post-every-apocalypse with Shadrapur, the last human city on (presumably) Earth. Humanity stumbles on, pretending that the end is not very close, echoing the civilisations that have fallen along the way. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stuff (not so much the usual zombies). This has much more of JG Ballard’s The Crystal World and a bit of Brian Aldiss Hothouse vibe, with the natural world running riot, overwhelming our vain attempts at order and showing every chance of becoming something else. Cage of Souls takes us through the life of one of these last men, Stefan Advani, and how it is that he ended up in a ghastly prison cast out in the middle of nature. This is a big fat book, and for a while it was slow going, though that’s rarely an issue with Tchaikovsky’s glowing prose and this most alluring world of the end-times, but as the depth of the world and its strange inhabitants unfolded I was happily engaged. The Count of Monte Cristo feel is strong, with our unjustly imprisoned academic turned accidental rebel, dealing with an appallingly dangerous prison that the guys in Oz could only hope for, with monsters seizing inmates through the bars of the lowest levels and an absolute monster in charge of the prison. The novel really opens up when we explore the misadventures that preceded Stefani’s arrival, and (spoiler), what happens afterwards. It’s a delight of a book, full of surprises, possible callbacks to novels I adore, an unreliable narrator and a weird, weird world to engulf them.

Reading: The Girl Beneath the Sea by Andrew Mayne

After a big book I needed a short book, and this was waiting for me on my Kindle. A short, quick detective thriller with a slightly different setup (though with hefty shades of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt stories), of Sloan McPherson – 50% diver with a family dedicated to shady treasure hunting, and 50% auxiliary cop in the Florida quays. There’s nothing exceptional about the plotting – Sloan gets a body dumped into the canal while she’s diving, and quickly finds herself implicated in a conspiracy linked to her dodgy criminal uncle and the aforementioned shady family. It had everything I needed, from snappy dialogue and snarky characters to gunfights and underwater shenanigans. Very satisfying, and I may well dig up the next in the Underwater Investigations series.

Watching: Virtual Improv Comedy Workshops with MissImp

Time blurs, and I discover that the workshop I wrote about last week was actually from the week before! Who’d’a’ thunk it. But that’s cool, it means there are two workshops for you to catch up on. First up the splendid Ki Shah and Russ Payne on Physicality, Objects & Movement. This is a genuinely charming two-hander and I think you’ll be smiling all the way through. Second up is LA improviser Jay Sukow on Solo Improv. I confess I’ve not yet watched this one, which puts me at least two behind as well… Both vids are below – enjoy!

Next Week

Sabrina the Teenage Witch season 3, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch, LEGO Ideas Dinosaurs and probably The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (if I finish it this weekend). I should do an MCU quick review thing at some point too.

Last Week: Sabrina season 3, The Hanging Tree, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Collapsing Empire

Short Week, Long Weekend – Does it Even Mean Anything?

I think I’ve fully adjusted to working at home now. Got my Wii Fit running on the spot for half an hour before starting work routine sorted. The cats come and sit with me for few hours, which is lovely. The lack of urgency is vexing, but I’m still getting things done. The evenings continue to be filled with LEGO and the usual TV watching or book reading. I’m beginning to wonder if this whole pandemic thing is just for me… being at home is kinda great.

Catching up with a bunch of the MissImp Thursday drop-in regulars was very reassuring – it’s my only specific evening of any week, and it was good to reestablish some kind of weekly calendar. I need to take some pics of the amazing LEGO Ideas Dinosaurs set that I’ve eked out over this week, they really are very pretty and need to be reviewed! I’ve also washed a lot more LEGO, so that’s news for anyone who needed it. Cleaned this whole box, and I reckon about 15% was Mega Blocks.  It took a lot more bags than that to dry out though! We’ve just started watching Star Trek: Picard, and I’m very excited.

Watching: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, season three 

I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be watching TV shows I don’t deeply care about. I have watched all of Sabrina, and I do enjoy it, but I’m damned if I can tell you what’s actually happening. This season it’s more of the same except that Sabrina’s heading for being queen of Hell (quite fun to spend some time in Hell itself, with its attendant Star Trek alien-style demons). Lots of things happen… including the introduction of a priestess Voodoo (with a murderously awful creole accent) and killer pagans. Everyone remains chipper and fun to watch – if you enjoyed season one and two, you’ll enjoy this as well! 

Reading: The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

A rare re-read for me… I’d finished The Girl Beneath the Sea, couldn’t face getting out of bed, and had re-added this to my Kindle because I couldn’t remember where I was in the series. It’s a good re-read! For those not following the Rivers of London series: The Dresden Files crossed with The Bill. London copper Peter Grant gets dragged into the near-forgotten magical police as a huge resurgence of magic begins. The books have a similar light-hearted feel to Charles Stross’s excellent Laundry Files, though they’ve yet to become quite as dark. The police procedural aspects appeal greatly to me, completely eclipsing my general loathing of SFF set in London, plus Grant’s West Indian family, his dad’s love of jazz, and Grant’s relationships with his old-school magician guv’nor, and the literal rivers of London embodied in stunning female form have made this a really fun series for me. The Hanging Tree continues to pull story threads related to the Faceless Man who is the magical Moriarty for this series, the general rise of magic and diving a little deeper into how magic actually works. It’s an enjoyable read, even though I can already see why I’d forgotten if I’d read it – there’s no enormous story arc shift here, it’s firmly in the “another Peter Grant case” zone. I’m looking forward to the next one.     

Watching: Marvel Cinematic Universe

Sure, I’ve seen most of these films multiple times anyway, but I’m enjoying taking advantage of Disney+ to watch them all back to back without the sheer hell of opening and closing DVD cases. I still think the MCU is one of the most extraordinary cinema achievements. No one has managed a watchable ten film series with such consistency and purposeful story arcs, let alone one with twenty-plus instalments and half a dozen excellent TV shows to back it up. Even Star Wars, which I adore, spectacularly fails at planning and consistency, and for all that I really love the new sequel trilogy, it’s afflicted with the same inability to plan for the next film that plagued the originals and prequels. So, Marvel – our literal movie superheroes.

Iron Man (2008)

It remains a delight that the MCU begins by rehabilitating Robert Downey Jr into what will undoubtedly prove to be his signature role. In retrospect this looks oddly low budget, with its gritty video feel. That certainly softens later, making Stark appear to age backwards for a while. As in several of Marvel’s origin stories, this is a small film with big bangs, but introduces us to the central theme of ordinary people becoming exceptional and having to make a moral choice about how to use their powers. Stark of course, is already a genius, but losing his freedom when captured by the Ten Rings terrorist organisation, and realising the harm his weapons industry does inspires him to become so much greater. It also has the first demonstration of how Marvel manages its extraordinary characters, by constantly undercutting Stark’s smugness and arrogance with slapstick injury and being put in his place by his closest companions. All the “building a better suit” montages do this wonderfully, and we’ll see it again for Thor. He’s a massive dick though…  particularly with Pepper, and less so with Happy than in later films. I’d completely forgotten the villain of the piece is Jeff Bridges’ corporate monster. Very topical then, and even more so now. Lt Colonel Rhodes in Terence Howard’s hands is utterly bland and he is sadly not at all missed for Iron Man 2 and onwards. I’m watching Agents of Shield from the beginning again, and it really does deepen all of my fondness for Agent Coulson (and Nick Fury) throughout. Stark’s suit is endearingly angular, and I rather miss the physical effects which are later replaced with nano suits by the time of Infinity War.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Cruelly, a distribution deal with Universal means I already had to reach for my DVDs for the second MCU film. This one gets a lot of stick, but for anyone who played the Playstation 2 game The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, this is an absolute joy. Borrowing not just the main storyline, but the actual moves Hulk pulls in the game, like ripping a car in half to make boxing gloves, earthquake punches and many more, means that I adore this film. Sure, I can’t imagine Edward Norton continuing in the MCU, but Hulk does us a massive favour by bravely embedding the complete origin story in the splendid comic book style opening credits (largely leaning on Ang Lee’s horribly dull Hulk) before introducing Bruce Banner hiding in South America. It’s a marked change of pace from Iron Man, with much larger and more frequent action set pieces and a pleasingly psychotic Tim Roth becoming Abomination – a bit closer to a big bad villain than a CEO in a metal suit. This one’s unusual in that very few of the hints and leads from it have yet been followed up – we’ve seen no more of his love interest Betty, her father General Ross, or scientist Samuel Sterns who looks like he’s turning pretty Hulky at the end. With the Ruffalo Hulk now all chill and contented with his dual forms, and feeling like he’s at the end of his character development arc, I wonder if we’ll get a proper gamma villain to rile him once more.   

Iron Man 2 (2010)

It’s hard to believe this was a whole two years after the first couple of movies, but then I hadn’t realised they were only released a month apart! This is probably one of the weakest entries in the whole MCU, although most of them fade away if you watch it back to back with the first movie (a bit like Gremlins  but less so Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters 2 is really bad). It feels very much like filling time before we can get to some more characters and a proper villain. On the plus side we get the infinitely more fun Don Cheadle as Rhodes (suiting up as War Machine), and I’d forgotten that this is when we first meet Black Widow (fantastically introduced beating up Happy in the ring). We also see some of Howard Stark and his relationship with Tony, which proves much more important in Captain America: Civil War and is finally, beautifully paid off in Avengers: Endgame. So yay, for that! I suspect these weaker films are all going to be much better with the rest of the story in my head. Iron Man 2 continues the Stark arc of atoning for years of enabling mass murder, and this cleansing punishment probably is necessary for him to later appear in the Avengers films on an equal standing with the super-upright Captain America, Thor, and the rather humble Hulk. The story, um. Well, a Russian dude Vanko (a hopelessly miscast Mickey Rourke) who’s dad co-invented the arc reactor with Tony’s dad takes Iron Man’s success rather personally and sets out to destroy him. Cue laughable Zardoz costume with arc whips. It’s a rehash of the first movie after that, with an underused Sam Rockwell trying to build iron man suits / robots / whatever for his very similar company using Vanko’s genius. The CGI man fighting nearly identical CGI men problem that later besets Avengers: Age of Ultron appears here. Other than that, it’s more of Iron Man doing Iron Man things, upgrading the suit, the arc reactor, getting comically injured and being sweet with his robot arm. All the dialogue is still fun and snarky, but the film overall is just fine. I recall being enormously excited by the end credits tease of a hammer found in New Mexico…

Reading: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

A fun and quickfire space opera, reliably easy to read with engaging and smart-mouthed characters. There’s not a lot more to it than that though. This is the first of Scalzi’s big new space opera series featuring the intergalactic human empire, the Interdependency. It’s all connected together by “the flow”, a convenient natural anomaly like a slow wormhole which links the various chunks of humanity together and takes months to get from one end to the other. Ruling over it all is an emperox and a bunch of semi-feudal merchant guilds who own complete monopolies on very granular products like “grapes.” Given that only one guild can provide chickens (or something) everything has to sort of work together. Big shock: the flow’s going to disappear, and so humanity and their present system are fucked. There’s a plenty of good stuff here: the time delay in communications, rival guilds vying for power, a massive cataclysm, space pirates and fun action scenes, and yet it all feels rather thin. That might be because there’s no sciencey stuff to this space opera, other than dropping big words like “phsyics”, and the interdependent guild setup feels both forced and like something I’ve read a hundred times before. While I enjoyed this as a quick read I’m not racing to find the next in series.     

Doing: MissImp’s Virtual Drop-In

 This week we had Claudia Behlendorf from Germany with a fun workshop on creating big characters fast. We also instituted our first post-improv virtual pub event for regular MissImp folk on Zoom. That was a very uplifting web chat! While improv on Thursdays has been part of my life for more than fifteen years now, it’s the being with people in person and chatting in the pub afterwards that I’ve actually been missing. We had eighteen folks at one point, including some real out-of-towners and people we haven’t seen for a long while. Very nice! It’s on again next week. 

Last Week: The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin, Agents of SHIELD, LEGO Hagrid’s Hut

For all that most weeks are quiet now, last week seems to have been especially so. I imagine that’s in part from accepting the new terms of existence, and from it being another four day week with its concomitant blurring of time. I feel quite ineffectual a lot of the time, which I suppose is OK, since there’s damn all I can do about our situation other than moan about it.  I feel a lot like Hulk with tiny arms: full of emotions but unable to do anything with them.

It’s certainly taken me a few hours to finally sort all that washed LEGO back into their neatly sorted containers, and I’ve had Agents of SHIELD to accompany most of that. Much of the weekend was dominated by admiring the vast quantity of Easter chocolate my other half acquired at Tesco where they’re pretty much burning their excess stock. Eighteen pence for a bag of mini eggs?! We have many. And thus shall grow the belly further…

It’s been a nice weekend to spend time in the garden reading, and looks set to continue for a little while. I continue to be quite happy at home with my cats.

The most exciting thing of last weekend (apart from my parents’ peculiar psychic link causing them to both ring me at almost the same time) was a work thing – we’ve finally got the evidence that we at Aconyte Books have been doing something for the past year – we got books! Hurray! I can’t show them to you, because they’re awaiting appropriate fanfare, and won’t be in bookshops till September, but having our labours physically realised is really quite thrilling. These are the first books I’ve designed and laid out the internals and externals for (with a lot of support, approval, tsking and head-patting) so it’s a pretty big deal for me personally, as well as for the whole team. I don’t think showing the spines will get me killed, but I guess we’ll find out soon. 

Reading: The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin

At last, I’m a mere four years behind with reading the very best of modern science fiction and fantasy! This is the second of the incredible Broken Earth trilogy which won a Hugo Award for each installment. Like so many of my favourite SFF novels, Jemisin has blended aspects of science fiction and fantasy together, so that we explore a truly post-apocalyptic world, riven by irregular “Seasons” of environmental catastrophes, driving humans into their comms (communities) and hoping they have enough supplies to last the season. This has been happening for thousands of years, since some event split the Earth, leading to repeated collapses of civilisation and a species directed solely toward survival, at any cost. There’s delightful social commentary on how humans behave when facing these awful threats, with rivalries between comms and the complex psychologies of those living in them, with their dwindling knowledge and science. Supporting / protecting humanity are the Guardians with their enslaved orogenes – essentially geology wizards who can manipulate the earth itself – feared and despised for their awesome powers, despite being used as a protective shield against the unreliable Father Earth. This book follows the even more catastrophic events of The Fifth Season in which Alabaster, one of the most powerful orogenes (or “roggas” if you hate them), triggered a vast tectonic split to destroy the home of the Guardians. We travel with his apprentice/lover/friend Essun as she assists in bolstering a comm against the season her mentor has unleashed. He has a plan… for Essun to undo the appalling damage that the Earth suffered when it lost its moon. On the other side of the story we see Essun’s lost and estranged daughter being taught to develop her own powers of orogeny by someone who seems to be completely insane. There’s a tonne of fascinating detail on orogeny – science or magic? – and I find the characters completely captivating. The stakes are wildly high, all of the time, and the second-person storytelling is surprisingly engaging, though it took me a little while to get into it again. This is one hell of a series, especially for reading right now: maximum apocalypse, beautifully written!

Doing: LEGO 75947 Hagrid’s Hut: Buckbeak’s Rescue

I’ve no idea what part this set plays in the films or books (I gave up on em fairly early I’m afraid), but I was very much drawn to the hexagonal shacks, and the lovely little pumpkin elements. It was a pretty quick but satisfying assembly – the roofs and floor are neatly done to produce this shape, and it’s definitely something I’ll try to keep in mind for the next MOC I start on. It’s a slight shame they’re only half-hexagons, with their backs missing. I guess I could probably source the parts from my various boxes… Buckbeak the gryphon is rather nice, and I’m sure I’ll find a use for him. I also enjoy this odd-seeming executioner (?) who comes with the set. I’ll admit I haven’t even put together the Harry Potter minifigs, but this set is quite lovely with or without the brand association. The fetching doors use massive stickers which even with my trusty scalpel I found tricky to apply. That might just have been because I was drinking beer, watching Agents of SHIELD and lying horizontally on the sofa at the time. Who’s to say, eh. It is however, brutally expensive at £49.99, even with half a dozen minifigs with the cool poseable mini-legs. I got it waaaay cheaper than that without a box, otherwise I’d not have been building it at all.  

Watching: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one

I can’t believe this started seven years ago, and only now am I rewatching it from the beginning. Hurrah for Disney+ and sitting in front of the TV for hours at a time playing with LEGO. I’m not entirely sure how far through the show I’ve watched, since its appearance on UK TV and streaming services that I use has been kinda erratic. I’ve definitely seen the amazing season where they’re in a virtual world run by HYDRA, but I haven’t seen them go into space… WTF? So I’m quite excited about catching up. Part of my confusion comes from this having full length TV shows – 24 episodes! It’s like being back in the nineties, and I love it. Those long seasons mean so much happens in season one. Can’t wait to reach the seventh and final season.

Agents of SHIELD brilliantly picks up after Avengers: Assemble with the surprising reappearance of Agent Coulson, who quite definitely died in that movie. But that’s a mystery for later… In the meantime we’ve got a team to assemble, and then deal with cyborg/jacked-up dangerous folks running around as part of Project Centipede, followed in short order by the collapse of SHIELD (following Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and the rise of HYDRA. It’s quite a ride! The cast is pretty delightful though, from the warm, tough and lovable Clark Gregson as Coulson, his badass kung-fu sidekick who will not smile, Agent May by the splendid Ming-Na Wen, mysterious hacker turned agent Skye (Chloe Bennet), the wonderful duo “Fitzsimmons”: Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as Fitz and Simmons respectively, our ace scientists and darkly handsome agent Grant Ward, played by Brett Dalton. The vibe is so “NCIS with superheroes” it hurts: packed with banter, action and an unfolding season arc that I really thought lasted several seasons. The revelations of HYDRA’s subversion of SHIELD cut all the harder, with the betrayals and fear that follow – and all reinforced by having relatively recently seen all of the MCU. I’d vaguely remembered season one as being quite weak, but it isn’t – it’s just the first three or four episodes of them establishing characters before it all properly kicks off. Watch it! I’m already into season two…

Doing: MissImp’s Virtual Improv Drop-In

Last week we got a great workshop on science fiction and fantasy in improv from Philippa Stazicker, part of one of my very favourite shows Four Far Away. Well worth a look in whether you’re an improviser or not.