Review: Lipstick & Barbed Wire

Lipstick & Barbed Wire by Eric Stuart Band (2013) –  large_4

When I first discovered that Eric Stuart, voice actor behind two of anime’s greatest characters – Brock and James from Pokémon – was a country singer, it was mainly out of morbid curiosity that I bought one of his albums. To my surprise and admiration, it turned out that, not only was he a great singer, but he was a great songwriter too.

As I am oft inclined to do, it wasn’t long before I had acquired the five CDs that made up his back catalogue, each as fantastic as the last. When I heard that he was making a new album, and needed my help to fund it on Kickstarter, I didn’t hesitate to donate my money. This was back in early 2012, and although the album wasn’t finished until mid 2013, they say that good things come to those who wait. And when my signed copy of Lipstick & Barbed Wire arrived in the post last week, and I listened to it for the first time, I realised that this was an album that had definitely been worth waiting for.

*

The album kicks off with My Love Can Change That, an upbeat number with a great beat, a snappy little riff, and infectiously jolly vocals. As an opening song, it sets the tone of the album well. This is a feel-good record, through and through – even the breakup songs and slow ballads, particularly Best Mistake and Cry Thirty Days And Nights, will still have you stomping your feet and pounding your fists. One of the most impressive things about the music of the Eric Stuart Band is that it isn’t afraid to break away from conventions of country music. There is definitely a strong influence of good ol’ fashion rock’n’roll in the songs, particularly in the peppy and upbeat choruses, that gives the album a rather unique and memorable sound. The album also makes good use of a different assortment of instruments – some a staple in country music, others not – with violins and organs playing a big part in many of the songs, and the track Don’t Let The Door Hit Ya has a brilliant horn arrangement that makes for a very funky little number.

The production value on the album is very high as well, with every instrument and note ringing out with an impressive clarity. Every musician on the record excels, particularly guitarist Phil Nix and violinist Maria Cohen, who both get to lay down some great solos. And Justified, a nice slow number, features some absolutely cracking guitar work from Eric Stuart’s friend and mentor, special guest Peter Frampton, who injects real passion and care into his solos. Front and centre throughout, though, is Eric Stuart’s vocals, and his has an incredibly versatile and emotional voice. Sombre and slow (At The End), upbeat and joyous (Concrete Cowboy), pained and raw (Strangers In A Strange Love), he can comfortably match his singing style to the nature of the songs, and that really adds another layer to the quality of the album. One thing that has always impressed me with the Eric Stuart Band albums is the quality of the lyrics that Eric Stuart writes, and Lipstick & Barbed Wire is no exception. Never settling for simple or self-explanatory words, the songs are often loaded with subtexts and clever meanings that might be lost on a first listen. It’s rare to find a song with intelligent lyrics, let alone a whole album, so in that respect, this (along with his other albums) is a rare treat.

*

With just under an hour of music, and not a single dud song among its fifteen tracks, Lipstick & Barbed Wire is another solid entry into Eric Stuart’s back-catalogue. Packed with strong vocals, additively catchy music, and surprising profound lyrics, it’s not just a great country album, it’s a great album in general.

Stand out track: Lipstick And Barbed Wire – It’s easy to see why Eric Stuart chose to name the album after this track. With a memorable chorus and some great guitar work, it’s an instantly catchy and likeable song, but it’s the fierce and raw vocal performance from Eric Stuart that really raises this track up above the rest. An instant crowd pleaser.

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Review: The Old Kingdom Series

The Old Kingdom Series by Garth Nix

For my birthday this year, my girlfriend got me The Old Kingdom novels, a series of three books that would, apparently, “make me cry like a baby”. The last book she recommended was War Horse, which had much the same affect on me… As soon as I picked up the first book, I was instantly hooked, and read the trilogy back-to-back.

*

Sabriel (1995) –  large_5

Sabriel tells the story of Sabriel, daughter of Abhorsen, a powerful mage who protects the real world from the world of the dead. When her father goes missing, presumed dead, Sabriel is forced to inherit his title and role and claim the real world back from the clutches of the dead.

Set in both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre (a place similar to England in the early 20th century), the book follows Sabriel as she is forced to leave the comfort of Ancelstierre, cross the dividing Wall, and return to her homeland of the Old Kingdom. Both locations are fantastically described and brilliantly realised – Ancelstierre is familiar enough, yet subtly different, and the Old Kingdom is a fantastic creation, with a history and lore that really stretch beyond the boundaries of the book. The world Nix has created feels so real, and the book never suffers from the usual fantasy curse of explaining everything to the reader. Unlike some other authors, Nix doesn’t give you endless descriptions and explanations – you just accept what he writes. Things like the Charter or its various marks (which can be drawn, whistled, or spoken) are never really explained, but because Nix’s brief but telling explanations and his excellent control over his prose, his world feels completely real and fantastically realised.

The most surprising thing about Sabriel is that, despite being advertised as a children’s book, it is incredibly dark and frightening. The story is told a breakneck speed, as Sabriel flees from one danger to the next, always fearing for her life and the future of the Kingdom. Nix’s makes sure that you never forget that Sabriel is still a child, and makes the horrors that stalk her truly terrifying. It’s nail-biting stuff and you really do care about Sabriel’s fate, always fearing that the next peril she faces will be her last. It is not a happy book, but there are enough brief moments of levity to grantee that the novel is as enjoyable as it is unnerving.

Sabriel is also packed with great characters. Sabriel herself is a fantastic protagonist, instantly likeable and very relatable. She is plunged head-first into a very dangerous situation that she has no control over, and that sense of unknowing and insecurity makes her a very sympathetic character. Fantasy seems to breed such compelling strong female protagonists – like Philip Pullman’s Lyra – and Sabriel is no exception. Her companions, the brave but tortured Touchstone and the snide and sarcastic Mogget (my personal favourite), are just as convincing and just as engaging. Even the supporting characters, especially Colonel Horyse, are all just as compelling. And although only briefly seen, Sabriel’s relationship with her father is very tender, but sadly bitter-sweet, centrepiece to the book.

*

Lirael (2001) –  large_4

Unlike Sabriel, which focused entirely on its title character, Lirael’s narrative is split between Lirael, a young daughter of the precognitive Clayr, and Sameth, the son of Sabriel. Set almost two decades after the events of the first book, the ruined Old Kingdom has been given time to heal, and it now described in all it’s former glory, rather than as the ruined wasteland of Sabriel. It’s brilliant to see Nix expand upon his world, particularly the awe-inspiring High Bridge, and the much-teased Clayr’s Glacier, with their truly mind-blowing library.

Like Sabriel before it, Lirael is a dark book. After all, any novel that starts with its main character planning to commit suicide is not going to be much of a farcical affair. But again, Nix knows when to naturally use the right about of humour, and the book never becomes depressing. As often with the second entry of a trilogy, the stakes are higher this time round. The undead threat is much more dangerous, and the cost, despite being a global threat, is much more personal. Unfortunately, the book is mainly used as a way to set up the inevitable showdown between good and evil that takes place in the third book, so although still an excellent read and packed with thrilling action, Lirael lacks that urgency and sense of peril that made its predecessor such a stand out.

Another reason as to why Lirael isn’t quite as good as Sabriel is that, to start with at least, its central characters just aren’t as strong. Although they do mature and grow on you as the book goes on, for the first half of the novel both Lirael and Sameth are a bit too self-pitying and insecure for either of them to be as compelling a protagonist as Sabriel. Thank goodness, then, for the Disreputable Dog, who proves, like Mogget before her, that talking animal companions are not always a bad thing. Full of an easy charm and sharp wit, she is a great addition to the cast, and her tension-filled banter with the returning Mogget is a true highlight of the book.

*

Abhorsen (2003) –  large_5

Set immediately after the cliffhanger ending of Lirael, Abhorsen more than makes up for previous book’s lack of urgency and peril and straight away throws the main characters straight into a mad dash across the Old Kingdom to where an ancient and terrible threat is being unearthed. The breakneck pace of the first book returns and the novel progresses as an edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster ride. Garth Nix is an author who doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t afraid to take any risks – there are moments in this book that will make your jaw drop open in shock and other moments that are so horrifying that you will be left feeling numb. It is a cruelly emotional and unrelenting book, and the harsh realism only serves to elevate the quality of the story.

Both Lirael and Sameth are much more engaging protagonists this time round. Gone are their moping ways, replaced with a burning desire to save the world, and the book benefits greatly from this. Determined to do what they can to stop the threat, instead of wallowing in self-pity at their own failings, their new-found purpose gives the book a fantastic drive and structure that was lacking in Lirael. It also helps that the enemy and his servants are truly terrifying creations, once again raising the stakes and lifting Abhorsen above the other fantasies out there. There is a real sense of danger here, and with good reason, you are never sure if the heroes will survive their battle against evil. Nix’s ability to play with readers’ emotions and twist their expectations is another reason why the book is such a heart-pounding and horrifying thrill to read.

*

The Old Kingdom Series is an exquisitely well written trilogy, with beautiful descriptions, fantastic characters, and a real sense of danger running throughout. Nix never mollycoddles his readers, and that is incredibly satisfying and commendable – death is cruel and brutal, loss is painful and hard, and fear is very real. These are dark, well crafted books, with incredibly mature stories, that succeed in both satisfying and shocking.

The Old Kingdom is a brilliantly crafted world that feels very real, inhabited by characters that you really care about. The trilogy is a bold and brave creation and Garth Nix has created a wholly unique fantasy world that both inspires and terrifies at the same time. A rare and refreshing work of true genius. And yes, I did cry.

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Review: A Trilogy of Spring Blockbusters

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a film review, despite having been to the cinema several times in the intermediate months. So to make up for that, I’m going to give you three reviews for the price of one. But before you shout “Huzzah!” and sing my praises, I should warn you that I’m not that generous, so the three reviews will be quite short, especially when compared to some of my other, more loquacious, posts.

*

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) –  large_4

J. J. Abrams’ follow up to his own spectacular Star Trek had a lot riding on it. The first film still divides audiences even after all this time – while most cinema goers and Star Trek fans loved it, the die-hard trekkies were less than impressed – and while Star Trek Into Darkness is an unquestionably brilliant film, it will probably only serve to further alienate the fans who so disliked the first one. But that’s their loss.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a pure adrenaline rush of entertainment. With fantastic set pieces, brilliant action, and a truly meaty villain, the film certainly rises to the standard set by its predecessor. There are some great nods for the fans, moments that will make you laugh and cry, and just an all-round sense of epic splendour.

The returning cast all once again excel at portraying these iconic characters, and once again bring a little something extra to the roles. But the main talking point of the film (apart from Alice Eve in her skivvies) is Benedict Cumberbatch, who is truly breathtaking in his role as John Harrison. Cold, calculated, ruthless, brutal, he is a strangely compassionate and incredibly dangerous character, equally capable of breaking bones as he is outsmarting minds. He is a revelation, and brings a fantastic sense of gravitas to the proceedings.

What lets Star Trek Into Darkness down is its reliance on what has come before. While Star Trek respectfully homaged the original television series and films in smart and subtle ways, Into Darkness, apes entire plots and scenes, giving you an unnecessary sense of déjà vu. While it doesn’t exactly detract away from the film too much, you can’t help but wonder how good it would have been if they’d tried writing a completely original story instead.

It’s still a great film though.

*

Iron Man 3 (2013) –  large_5

It was always going to be hard to be the follow-up film to The Avengers, but who better to carry that burden than Robert Downey, Jr., Marvel’s most bankable star. The Iron Man films have always been great. The first one set a new benchmark for superhero films, and Iron Man 2, while not as good as the first, is still one of the better comic book movies out there. So I was confident that Iron Man 3 would be a great film. And everything I heard about it seemed to back that up – they brought in the Mandarin, they based the script on the well-loved Extremis comic book run, and they cast Guy Pearce, one of my all time favourite actors. What could possibly go wrong?

Then the posters and the trailers started coming out, and it became apparent that, while the film looked fantastic, Tony Stark was going to have an army of Iron Man suits at his disposal. That was when I started to worry. Was it going to be a case of too much of a good thing?

It turned that my fears were completely unfounded, and Iron Man 3 may well just be the best film in the trilogy. With a sharp and funny script, the film shocks, awes, and amazes. There are some brilliant action sequences, some excellently played character twists, and the whole film is grounded by that charming and sarcastic wit that RDJ does so effortlessly well. While Tony Stark might have grown a heart since The Avengers, he is still the lovable dick that he always was, and he is by far one of the most watchable protagonists I have seen in a long time.

The rest of the cast is just as strong (especially Guy Pearce), with not a single dud performance in sight – even the kid sidekick is great. Guy Pearce really lays on the smarmy charm as the slick and myterious Aldrich Killian and is a great new addition to the cast and a great foil for Tony Stark. But enough about my secret man crush, because the main focus of the film is on Sir Ben Kingsley.

Despite being teased at in both the other instalments, the Mandarin was always going to be hard to bring to the big screen. A borderline racist Fu Manchu stereotype with magic rings doesn’t really seem to fit into the Marvel cinematic universe, so the way that the writers brought the character into the 21st century is rather brilliant. By making him a very realistic and very dangerous terrorist leader, the threat he poses to Iron Man is made all the more potent, because it is a very real threat. There is nothing glamorous or magical about the Mandarin – he is just an ordinary man with a lot of guns and a large army, and that makes him all the more scary. And Ben Kingsley plays the part brilliantly, throwing himself into the challenges of the role with gusto. He is impassive yet threatening, his voice both completely calm and a menacing growl. It is an excellent performance and one that will be talked about for a long, long time.

Iron Man 3 is a bold, brave, and emotionally satisfying ending to the trilogy. With fantastic action, a sharp script, and unforgettable characters, old shell head has once again helped to set the benchmark for superhero movies.

*

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) –  large_3

After Sam Raimi was cruelly shafted during the production of the never to be Spider-Man 4, I have felt a certain obligation to go and support all his other films. It also helped that the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful looked pretty good.

And it was a pretty good film. The main problem is that the original The Wizard of Oz is such a timeless classic, that it was always going to be a hard act to follow. While Oz the Great and Powerful looks stunningly gorgeous, especially in 3D, it never quite manages to recapture the magic of the original. But it’s not for want of trying – like I said, it is both technically and naturally beautiful, with Raimi getting the most out of his magical CGI landscape, and he certainly knows how to handle 3D as well. While he does occasionally throw things out of the screen, most of the time he just sits back and lets you enjoy the depth.

James Franco is great as the initially unlikable Oz, all smarmy smiles and exaggerated winks, but as he slowly comes to realise that he has to be a hero, the bravado and the swagger fade away, replaced by a genuinely charming desire to be a better person. Mila Kunis is great as the naive Theodora (although how they got away with those leather pants in a family film, I’ll never know…), as is Rachel Weisz as the elegant Evanora, and Michelle Williams as the optimistic Glinda. The three women all portray the witches with a slight otherworldliness that works wonders for the characters.

But the real stars of the film are Zach Braff as Finley the flying monkey, and Joey King as the China Girl. Both characters as brilliantly realised CGI creations, and both make up the heart and soul of the film. They both have great emotional character arcs and both manage to snag most of the film’s best lines. It also made me realise how much I miss seeing Zach Braff on the screen. I wish he’d do more stuff.

So while Oz the Great and Powerful can’t quite live up to the legacy of The Wizard of Oz, it is a more than welcome return to L. Frank Baum’s world. With beautiful visuals and a talented cast, there is still a lot to like here.

And yes, this is the first time I’ve given something a rating that was below four stars, but remember, three stars still means ‘good’, so watch the film if you get a chance.

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Review: Neverwhere

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996) –  large_5

Neverwhere is an odd book. That might seem like a fairly redundant thing to say about something written by Neil Gaiman, but what makes Neverwhere so odd is not just its content, but also its inception. It started life as a television series, created by Neil Gaiman and his good friend Lenny Henry. Gaiman, upset at the amount of story that ended up on the cutting room floor, decided to adapted his own TV series into a novel and include all of the missing content. After the book was published in England, it then had to be re-written for an American audience, adding extra detail and description to prevent all the references to London from going right over their heads.

Eventually, Neil Gaiman combined both the US and the UK editions of the book, creating an all together more comprehensive and definitive version of the novel. It’s a suitably odd beginning for a brilliantly odd book, and the end result is something magical.

*

Unlike American Gods, it’s easier to identify the genre of Neverwhere. Whereas American Gods was a sprawling epic that contained and explored a great number of genres, effortlessly flipping from science-fiction to fantasy to horror, Neverwhere is a much trimmer and much more focused book. It it firmly centred within the realms of fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that it is an any less poignant or astounding book, for it is just as impressive, but in different ways.

Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish businessman who moves down to London to work (a scary enough prospect in its own right), and soon finds himself trapped in the terrifying world of London Below. Richard is in instantly likeable character, under-appreciated at work, put-upon by his pushy girlfriends, he is the everyman we can all relate to, and there’s something undeniably charming about his permanently flustered demeanour. Also, the fact that he is plunged into this hellish otherworld for doing the right thing makes his plight very sympathetic.

The other characters that populate London Below are just as compelling as Richard, but in completely different ways. Be it the determined but fragile Door, the sarcastic and untrustworthy Marquis de Carabas, or the stoic and mysterious Hunter, Gaiman had created a rich tapestry of characters, each as bizarre but believable as the world of London Below.

All the characters in the book will stay with you long after you have finished reading, and in the case of the villainous Croup and Vandemar, they will probably haunt your nightmares as well.

*

I said earlier that London Below is both hellish and terrifying, but that is not the case. That is how Richard first sees it, so, by proxy, that his how the reader sees it as well. But over the course of the book, Richard starts to see the charm of London Below, and Gaiman’s descriptions start to shift from nightmarish to fantastical. By the end of the book London Below seems like a glimmering utopia when compared to the mundaneness of the real world, and the subtle way that the change in descriptions shift our perceptions is nothing short of masterful. Gaiman has created a dirty, grimy, dangerous world that is nevertheless thoroughly seductive and appealing.

London Below is a fantastical place, where the Angel Islington is an actual being, where the Black Friars are a real religious order, where there is an Earl in Earl’s Court and shepherds in Shepherd’s Bush. In the hands of a lesser author, all these wordplays might have come across as little more than bad puns, but Gaiman makes them work in a original, funny, and often perfectly logical way. But there is much more to London Below than clever twists on London landmarks. Gaiman’s world is a place where rats are worshipped as royalty, where not minding the gap on the Underground has truly horrific consequences, where just about anything and everything is possible. The book is a truly remarkable love letter to London and Gaiman’s appreciation and adoration for the city really shines through.

*

Like American Gods, Neverwhere deals with a great many number of themes. Within its pages are betrayal, death, acceptance, sanity, deception, and loss of identity. These are all themes that run through the bulk of Gaiman’s writing, but he is always able to present them in such a fresh and profound way, that they never feel derivative of his other work. Neverwhere is no exception, presenting themes and questions that, while familiar, make you think about them in a completely new way.

Perhaps the most important theme in the book is loss of identity. The book refers several times to ‘the people who have fallen through the cracks’. The characters in Neverwhere are the outcasts, the ones the system has failed, the ones who don’t feel like the belong. The suggestion the book makes about these people, that they cease to exist once they fall through the cracks, that they become invisible and we choose to ignore them unless we are forced to have to acknowledge them, is an all to true reality, and it makes for a sobering thought among all the fantastical adventure.

*

Neverwhere is an excellent book, full of memorable characters, brilliant imagination, and a heart-warming story about a man who loses his place in the world, only to find it somewhere else. Equally as dark and violent as it is bold and magical, it is unafraid to make you stop and think, but is altogether a thoroughly enjoyable read. And once you’ve finished, you’ll never look at London again in the same way.

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Review: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013) –  large_5

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that raises the bar. I’m talking about programs like 24 and Band of Brothers, shows that really glue you to your television set and make you go “Wow!” But it’s not just live-action ‘adult’ programs that are able to do this. Sometimes an animated ‘kids’ show raises the bar as well, and we are gifted with series like Reboot and Avatar: The Last Airbender. The most recent animated program to do this is Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the latest (and greatest) incarnation of the classic series.

The previous ten series of Scooby-Doo are something of a mixed bag when it comes to quality. They ranged from the good (Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and What’s New, Scooby-Doo?) to the downright terrible (The New Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show and Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue!), but despite the massive fluctuations in overall quality, they all suffered from the same problems: the stories were predictable, the formula quickly grew stale, and the characters were all quite bland stereotypes.

Mystery Incorporated puts an end to all that though, delivering a show that is both comfortably familiar yet refreshingly new. The stories are full of shocks and surprises, the formula is knowingly and intelligently subverted, and the characters are finally given interesting personalities.

*

Mystery Incorporated is unique for a Scooby-Doo show, because rather than just having an unconnected ‘monster of the week’, formula, it adopts a serial format. By having an overarching storyline that slowly unfolds over the show’s 52 episodes, the show is instantly made far more gripping and engaging. The episodes still has a weekly villain to unmask, but there is a bigger, darker mystery involving the disappearance of the original Mystery Incorporated that constantly keeps the audience guessing and keeps them watching.

The program also features some of the sharpest dialogue that I have seen this side of a Joss Whedon script. It’s consistently laugh out loud funny and authentically sentimental, and it is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. But the show is also unafraid to explore the darker side of mystery solving, and is surprisingly mature for an animated program. Friendships and tensions are brought to boiling point, villains are driven by incredibly dark motives, and there’s  betrayal, torture, and even murder. It’s Scooby-Doo as you’ve never seen it before, and it is brilliant.

Another of the reasons the script is so sharp is that the writing is so self-aware of the Scooby-Doo formula, and is more than willing to make a few jokes at it’s own expense, often leading to some of the show’s best gags – in one episode Fred actually says “Come on gang, into the abandoned factory! We’ll be safe among all the dangerous machinery.” It’s this level of self-parody that makes the program such a joy to watch.

*

In having an ongoing story, it also means that the characters develop over the course of the show as well. They are given wants and needs, relationships, and conflict, and they are far more fleshed-out and rounded because of it. Fred is still the macho de-facto leader, but now he has a naivety that’s frankly adorable. Daphne is a much stronger character than she has been in previous series, unafraid to stand up for herself, yet always willing to see the best in people. Velma is still the smart one, but there is a loneliness and wanting behind her sarcastic and superior tone, which makes her very sympathetic. Shaggy is still the guy that wishes he could just coast through life, but that desire is no longer treated like the butt of a joke. And Scooby-Doo, far more than a simple sidekick in this show, is portrayed as a loyal and protective friend who is unwittingly forced into the role of a hero. And while everyone always knew that Daphne was in love with Fred anyway, it is a joy to finally see it become cannon.

The voice acting of the main five has always been a strong point on Scooby-Doo, and this show is not exception. Frank Welker, the one true voice of Fred, fits back into the role brilliantly and does equally great work as Scooby. Grey DeLisle (always a personal favourite of mine) and Mindy Cohn, returning from What’s New, Scooby-Doo!, are both fantastic as Daphne and Velma, respectively. And just like he did in the live-action films, Matthew Lillard once again perfectly embodies Shaggy, the part he was seemingly born to play.

The supporting cast, voiced by a plethora of seasoned character actors such as Gary Cole, Patrick Warburton, and Vivica A. Fox, are just as strong.  While Sheriff Bronson Stone and Mayor Fred Jones, Sr. are the runaway favourites, stealing every scene they’re in, all of the supporting characters are brilliant, and add another layer of much needed personality to the show. In particular, the relationships between the kids and their respective parents, particularly Fred’s, gives the show a great dynamic and adds a surprising amount of tenderness and heart. And casting Linda Cardellini as Velma’s rival was a stroke of genius.

The guest cast is very impressing as well, amassing actors such as George Takei, Tricia Helfer, Mark Hamill, and James Marsters to add their vocals to the proceedings, and each do with great aplomb, raising the sterling of an already quality show.

*

One of the most obvious and charming aspects of the show is the fact that it has clearly been made by people who love the classic incarnations. Just some of the ways that this love is shown is through the inclusion of characters like the Hex Girls, the empty costumes of former villains,  including Captain Cutler, Miner Forty-Niner, and Charlie the Haunted Robot, on display in the Museum, the background character who looks just like Don Knotts, and the single excellent reference to Scrappy-Doo.

And it’s not just Scooby-Doo that the creators love, it all the classic Hanna-Barbera shows. This is the most obvious in the episode Mystery Solvers Club State Finals, which is drawn in the style of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and features classic characters such as Speed Buggy, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman, and the Funky Phantom. Other episodes feature fleeting cameo appearances from famous characters, like Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, and the entire cast of Jonny Quest. Other characters play a more intricate part in some episodes, like Heart of Evil, which features Dynomutt and a brilliantly OTT Blue Falcon, re-imagined here as a Frank Miller-esque vigilante. All of these aspects make the show a brilliant love letter to a famous era of cartoons and show just how important the source material is to the creators.

It is also obvious that the creators are fans of classic and cult horror as well. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, The Shining, An American Werewolf in London, the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Poltergeist, Saw, and even Twin Peaks, and many others are all referenced in note-perfect homages, making it obvious that the show is intended to be enjoyed by an older audience as well.

*

Unfortunately, Cartoon Network didn’t seem to realise what they had, and like Fox, chose to bury one of their best shows in a stupid time slot with little to no advertising. Because of this, Mystery Incorporated is something of an unknown gem. I only found out about it when I stumbled across half an episode that someone had posted on YouTube, and became hopelessly addicted to it, then forced my siblings and my girlfriend to watch it. So when you finish reading this, go out there and tell all your friends and family about this show and spread the word about just how good it is.

*

Hilarious and heart-warming, scary and suspenseful, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is brilliant in ever sense of the word. With characters you really care about, and mysteries to keep you guessing, it is fantastic viewing whatever your age. The meddling kids and their dumb dog have finally got a show that lives up to the legacy.

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Review: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013) –  large_5

I am considered to be something of an oddity within the gaming world, and not just because I liked the ending of Mass Effect 3 or think Carth Onasi is a great guy. It is because I am one of those rare gamers who loves Blizzard games for their single-player campaign, rather than for their online multi-player. Don’t get me wrong, I like the multi-player in StarCraft II, but there are only so many times you can get pwned by a Zergling Rush five minutes into a match and still find it that enjoyable.

It always annoys me when I read a review for a game like StarCraft or Call of Duty, and it summaries the single-player in a short sentence, then states “But we know why you’re really here…” and proceeds to dedicate the rest of the entire review to the multi-player. I am always left thinking “Actually, that’s not why I’m here”.

So this review is for people like me, the ones who want to know about the single-player and the storyline, the characters and the cut-scenes, and don’t want to hear about how awesome it is to get Zergling Rushed before you’ve even had time to build a Barracks…

This is my review of Heart of the Swarm’s campaign.

*

The last game, Wings of Liberty, ended with Jim Raynor finally managing to restore the Queen of Blades’ humanity and turn her back into Sarah Kerrigan (albeit with added Zerg head-tails). The two former lovers, finally reunited after years of conflict, walked off happily into the sunset, and millions of gamers worldwide rubbed at their eyes and tried to pretend they weren’t crying. It was the perfect ending to a perfect game, and well worth the 12 year wait since the story of the original StarCraft concluded with Brood War back in 1998.

And now, three years after the release of Wings of Liberty, comes Heart of the Swarm, the second part of the StarCraft II trilogy, and it is a more than worthy follow-up to the series’ brilliant first act. There’s revenge, betrayal, deception, even romance and heartbreak. Each one of these different elements is told so well, and feels so real and compelling, that it is impossible not to get completely drawn in by the story. And it’s all framed by some of the best real-time strategy gameplay you will ever experience.

*

Heart of the Swarm starts shorty after the last game ended, with Kerrigan housed in a testing facility, still getting used to her new/old body and watched over by Raynor. It soon becomes apparent that some of Kerrigan’s Zerg abilities have remained, along with some of the ruthless blood-lust of the Queen of Blades. The opening few levels serve as both an introduction to new players and a refresher for returning fans. Unlike some training levels, these ones actually advance the story rather than hindering it and soon introduce you to the new features of the game.

The biggest new feature is Kerrigan’s role within the missions. StarCraft has always had its protagonists appear in-game as playable units, but aside from a different paint-job and increased damage, they have always been fairly nondescript. Heart of the Swarm changes this. Kerrigan is in every mission, comes with a set of unique abilities, and can gain XP to level up, granting her increased power and new, more powerful abilities. She is very reminiscent of the hero characters from Blizzard’s own WarCraft III, and her constant presence on the battlefield gives the game a distinctly RPG vibe, making it a very different beast to Wings of Liberty.

But like its predecessor, Heart of the Swarm has a necessary variety between the various missions, with differing environments and gameplay shaping the way you can complete the missions. Victory is not always a simple case of destroying all the enemy’s buildings, with some levels featuring unit freezing ice-storms or deadly waves of gas, and others requiring the completion of specific objectives before the level can advance. These variation between the different levels guaranties that the game never becomes repetitive or boring, with players having to take all of these changing factors into account before planning their strategy.

*

One of the most surprising things about the original StarCraft is that, despite the main characters being little more than a pixellated animation loop, you really cared about them. There’s a reason why Raynor was included in the list of the top 10 video game heroes and why Kerrigan, the queen bitch we all love to hate, was recently voted the greatest video game villain of all time. Something about the characters resonated with people, made them invest in their story and form emotional connections. The writing and voice work in the original StarCraft was so sublime that you forgot about the graphical restraints and fell in love with these characters.

StarCraft II continues this tradition of well-written and relatable characters, people you want to get behind and cheer on, and Heart of the Swarm has some of the best character arcs and development of the entire franchise so far. The love between Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan has always been the heart and soul of the series, and forms the emotional backbone of this game. It is a joy to see them together again. Their dialogue, preformed impeccably by Robert Clotworthy and Tricia Helfer, sparkles with real affection and tenderness, and it’s all you can do to stop yourself going all misty-eyed when they’re together.

This is a Blizzard game, though,  and that means the happiness can’t last. And sure enough, it isn’t long before the couple are separated and left with little to no chance of finding each other again. This moment acts as the game’s catalyst, and sends Kerrigan on an explosive character arc, that knocks her down to her very lowest and then builds her back up again, but at a terrible cost. It’s all you can do but watch, your fist clamped in your mouth, as Kerrigan makes sacrifice after sacrifice to get what she wants: the destruction of Arcturus Mengsk, the man who wronged her so many years ago. It’s her drive for revenge that drives the story and makes for a heart-pounding and thrilling game, full of raw emotion and brilliant conflict.

*

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is another brilliant addition to Blizzard’s catalogue. Suitably epic and additively entertaining, it’s a different enough from it’s predecessor to justify its standalone release. Following the age old tradition of the second instalment being a darker affair, Heart of the Swarm pulls no punches with its storytelling. Vengeance is reaped, debts are repaid, hearts are broken, and an ancient evil lurks on the horizon.

It’s another perfect game with another perfect ending, and once again, tears will be shed by millions of gamers worldwide. Like BioWare, Blizzard excel at getting you emotionally attached to their characters, which is rare for a real-time strategy, and it is to their eternal credit that StarCraft II contains one of sci-fi’s greatest love stories.

All we can do now is wait for the third and final act of the series. If the first two instalments are anything to go by, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void should be a game worth waiting for.

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Review: Temeraire and Throne of Jade

Temeraire by Naomi Novik (2007) –  large_5

It was based on the recommendations of both my girlfriend and my older brother that I decided to pick up a copy of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire – and obviously, the quote of endorsement by Peter Jackson on the back of the book might have had some influence over me…

Temeraire is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but is set in a world where dragons exist, and tells the story of Will Laurence, a naval captain who is inadvertently paired with a newly hatched dragon, Temeraire, and is forced to leave the life he knew behind and join the Aerial Corps with his new companion.

*

Naomi Novik’s début novel is a  very busy book. Not only is it a daring retelling of history, or a swooping historical fantasy, or a nail-biting adventure, but it is also a story about finding your place in the world, about triumphing against all odds, and most importantly, it is about friendship and companionship.

The success of Temeraire hinges on the central relationship between the two main characters, Laurence and Temeraire, and Novik does a fantastic job of making sure we care about them. Both are utterly compelling and realistic characters (no easy feat, considering one of them is a mythical creature), and their almost paternal relationship is a sweet and tender one, although Laurence’s propensity for calling Temeraire “My Dear”, even into the dragon’s adulthood, does tend to grate at times.

The dynamic of this central relationship is strange. Laurence, the stern and formal captain with a bleeding heart, and Temeraire, the wide-eyed and naive dragon whose arrival causes the end of Laurence’s comfortable existence. Yet despite their differences, they make a delightful odd couple and their interactions guarantee that there is a strong heart at the core of the story, and as Laurence’s stiff and formal personality starts to crack and fall away, making him a far more human and relatable character, that heart only gets stronger and warmer.

*

But there is much more to Temeraire than just a simple ‘one man and his dragon’ story. There are battles and betrayals, tragedy and treachery, friendships and foes, danger and death. Amazing though, the book never feels crowded, and zips along at a very nice pace. Novik’s writing style, although occasionally a little too wordy, is both accessible and interesting, making for a comfortable read. She has also cleverly adopted the sentence structure and syntax of the era in which the book is set, making it an altogether  more historical and immersive story.

Although several of the book’s plot-points were fairly easy to predict, this does nothing to diminish  the quality and enjoyability of the story, and while it’s fairly obvious how the book will end from quite early on, the way the Novik gets to that ending may just surprise you. The world that she has created though, is so beautifully realised, that it is almost impossible not to get completely caught up in the story. It is definitely one of the most interesting fantasy worlds that I have visited in recent years (the most interesting being Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series).

*

Although the main focus of the story is on Laurence and Temeraire, the supporting cast are just as strong and believable. Personal favourites include that loyal and outspoken Granby, and Captain Roland, a steely but surprisingly tender character. On the dragon side of things, favourites include the delightfully simple Volly, and the enormous but endearingly childlike Maximus. All the great supporting characters help to increase the believability and richness of the story and of the world that Novik had created. She makes sure that there are enough likeable characters, both human and dragon, to keep you fully engrossed.

*

With a strong central relationship and a fast-paced and action packed story, Temeraire is one of those rare treats – a historical fantasy that never feels unnecessarily meandering and has a real heart at its centre. It also establishes Naomi Novik as a writer to look out for. On the strength of her first book alone, it seems she has what it takes to become one of the great new authors of fantasy.

*

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik (2007) –  large_4

It was always going to be hard for Naomi Novik to follow up her brilliant début novel, and despite the second book in the Temeraire series still being an very good read, it never quite manages to reach the same soaring heights of its predecessor.

One of the main reasons for this is down to the fact that there was so much going on in Temeraire, and in comparison, the plot of Throne of Jade feels quite sparse. The book deals with Temeraire being ordered to return to his native China, where he will be separated from Laurence. Naturally, this doesn’t go down to well with either of the main characters, but under orders from the British Government, they agree to travel to China, knowing that, once there, they may never see each other again.

That synopsis paves the way for a very interesting and tension filled book, where characters and their emotions are really put to the test, but unfortunately, it doesn’t really live up to its intriguing premise.

*

One of the main reasons the story isn’t as compelling as the first book is down to how much focus is put on the eight month journey to China. It takes up the main bulk of the book, but very little happens, making the book slightly ponderous. True, there is heart-pounding battle with a sea-serpent, a foiled assassination attempt, and tension between the Chinese and British passengers reach boiling point at times, and each one of these moments plays out brilliantly, but the majority of the journey is uneventful and consists of Temeraire learning more about China, and Laurence worrying about it from afar. While this slow pace does tend to drag at times, the book is certainly never boring, with Novik knowing exactly when to place another set-piece to grab the reader’s interest again.

There is still much to be admired here though. In contrast to the slow-paced main bulk of the story, the last few chapters of the book, which deal with their arrival in China, fly past at great speed, and contain two huge action sequences, making for a thrilling and breathless finale to the book.

Novik’s expansion of her world is effortlessly handled, with her dragon filled Imperial China brilliantly realised, as are the many differences between Western dragons and Chinese dragons, particularly there status within society. And she is not afraid to kill off characters, no matter how young or how likeable they are, giving the book an often lacking sense of realism.

*

One of the strongest elements of the previous book was it’s central relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, and that is once again the case here. Their friendship and their real fear over being separated is the real drive behind this book, and Laurence’s constant fear the China’s exotic ways will tempt his friend away from him, coupled with Temeraire’s obstinate refusals to be separated from his captain makes for some very tender and heartfelt moments between them.

Temeraire’s influence once again brings out the best in Laurence’s character. His transformation from stuffy captain to lovable rogue continues, and his devil-may-care attitude towards authority and his growing loyalty to his friends in the Aerial Corps make him a very endearing character.

Unfortunately, Temeraire’s character goes the other way in this book. No longer the curious child of the first book, he has matured in body, but certainly not in mind. Seemingly stuck in the terrible teens throughout this book, and acting like a spoiled brat, it’s all you can do but wish that Laurence would give him a good slap on the head occasionally. Despite this, he is still a very compelling character, and his new attitude makes his interactions with Laurence much more interesting.

*

Like the last book, the supporting cast is once again very strong, and features some very welcome additions. Captain Riley, Laurence’s naval friend and former second officer, makes a reappearance in this book, this time with a much bigger part, and his friendship with Laurence, occasional put under strain in this book, adds more layers to both characters. Hammond, the stereotypically slimy diplomat, makes a great foil for Laurence, and has a few surprising moments up his sleeve. Granby and Captain Roland are still firmly on my list of personal favourites though.

It’s a shame that the story is so focused on the journey to China, as it means that the other dragons and captains from Laurence and Temeraire’s formation are hardly in this book, and their interactions with the two main characters are always entertaining to read. But I’m sure they’ll be plenty of time for that in the other books in the series.

*

With a more narrowly focused story than its predecessor, Throne of Jade sometimes feels a little too meandering at times, but the characters are still lovable and the action still delights. There is plenty here to keep you reading, and to make you reach for the next book in the series.

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