29 December 2013

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75003 A-wing Starfighter

Whilst I’m not generally a big sales shopper, an impromptu post-soft play visit to Sainsbury’s recently yielded a rare bargain for me in the shape of LEGO’s 2013 A-wing Starfighter. Though not a set that was on my hit list, with its £24.99 RRP slashed in half it was worth the cost for its impressive compliment of minifigures alone.

For me, the main attraction here is the rare and highly sought-after Admiral Ackbar. Until this Return of the Jedi-themed set hit the shelves, the high-ranking Mon Calamari had only been available in 2009’s limited edition Home One Mon Calamari Star Cruiser set (#7754), and even then at significant expense. For that reason, until now I’ve always used my Nahdar Vebb minifigure, which shares the same bespoke headpiece as the Rebel fleet’s supreme commander, to utter that immortal phrase, “It’s a trap!”, when recreating the Battle of Endor in LEGO form, but at last I’ve got the admiral in uniform, albeit relaxed enough to be enjoying a cup of space tea.

His accompanying A-wing pilot may not be quite as central to the Star Wars saga, but as admirals generally don’t fly starfighters into action, he’s indispensible to this set, and welcome in my collection in any event as my Rebel troops are woefully thin on the ground when measured against their Imperial LEGO counterparts. His appearance here marks the first time that the A-wing helmet has featured in any LEGO Star Wars set, and he also boasts a reversible headpiece bearing a terrified expression (see right) that suggests he might be intended to be Arvel Crynyd, who famously took out Darth Vader’s Executor in the spectacular, suicidal dive that spearheaded the original trilogy’s cinematic climax.

The inclusion of Han Solo, whose attire has been tweaked again just enough to warrant the block-capitals “NEW!” on the front of the box, is similarly welcome, although as he was down on the forest moon while Ackbar was leading the attack on the Death Star to which this set pays homage, he does feel a little redundant. Personally I’d have preferred to get Mon Mothma (another #7754-exclusive) or, better still, a plain-clothes Lando (rarer still). At least if, like me, you own the recent Jabba’s Palace set, you can just stick its Lando’s headpiece on this latest Han’s body, and voila!

The 177-piece ship itself impresses with its sturdiness. Save for its comparatively-flimsy landing gear, it’s 19 x 14cm frame is solid enough to survive being hurled at the bridge of my Executor repeatedly (which is more than can be said of my Executor). It also has some cool features, including the obligatory flick missiles and a more spacious cockpit than I would have expected, though how LEGO can list its “removable engine” as a feature eludes me – it’s LEGO; everything’s removable! It’s not the prettiest of starfighters either - short and stunted, it lacks the elegance of the longer and sleeker ships deployed throughout the Clone Wars or the natural beauty of X-wings. For £12.49 though, it’s nonetheless a remarkable bargain, if not a belated Christmas gift.

The Star Wars LEGO A-wing Starfighter is available from LEGO directly for £24.99 with free delivery. Today’s cheapest retailer though is Sainsbury’s, where it has been reduced to £12.49.

24 December 2013

UK Christmas Countdown Deals

Until midnight on Boxing Day in the UK, my children’s e-book, Supersize vs Superskinny Santa, will be available to download from Amazon's Kindle Store for just 99p (almost 50% less than its RRP).

Those aged over five years may wish to check out my much more grown-up novel, The Tally, which, from Christmas Day until the year’s end, will also be on offer on Amazon's Kindle Store, this time with a whopping 75% off its RRP. The now-deleted paperback edition has also had its price slashed on Amazon if you’ve yet to go digital when it comes to your reading.

Supersize vs Superskinny Santa
Illustrated by Jemma Brown

Rudolph’s not had an easy life. Mercilessly mocked by his surprisingly mean-spirited peers for having a cosmetic nasal defect, he went on to carve out a place for himself in history by using his iridescent nose to guide Santa Claus through weather conditions that other reindeers couldn’t. But that wouldn’t be the end of his troubles.

As the years have worn on, Santa has become a slave to food and drink. He’s obese, indolent and selfish, and now his alcoholic corpulence threatens Christmas itself.

Can Rudolph help Santa to drop enough weight to fit down chimneys before it’s too late? Or will children the world over wake up on Christmas Day to find that Santa hasn’t been?

The Tally
(A Dark Tale of Danger and Diesel for the Student Loan Generation)

Welcome to the Student Bubble.

Welcome to a world where the DJs play the same songs in the same order every single night, and the one (and only) hit wonder reigns supreme. Welcome to a world of crude cartoon and misplaced melodrama; a world free of all but the most trifling of consequences, where exaggerated sensitivity is rife and a semester’s success or suicide hangs on the whim of a woman.

Young Tommo wiles away his evenings in a purple drunken stupor, lost to the tender mercies of what he desperately wishes was a hopeless love affair, but in reality isn’t even that. Gristle, meanwhile, is enraged when his weak-bladdered housemate Spadge moves out, only to be replaced by a neurotic freak named Jamal, who dares not only to bring books into his house, but to read them too.

And for poor Will, matters are even worse. Women are staying in of a night! How’s he supposed to rack up his ‘tally’ of conquests if women daren’t leave their digs? They’re all terrified that they’ll be the next to fall prey to the invisible menace that has started stealing students away from the streets of Hull. Will has nothing to fear though – after all, he has his recently arrived destitute father to watch his back. And the fearsome Gristle. And the zealously neurotic Jamal. And the dangerously depressed Tom…

The Student Bubble is about to burst, and when it does, the degenerate residents of 146 Worthington Street will find themselves drowning in a reality that they’re not equipped to comprehend, let alone survive in.

17 December 2013

Desert Island Disc Space #1 | Kaiser Chiefs: The Stronger Than a Powered-up Pac-Man Playlist

Back in the days when things had substance, when books were made of trees and music was engraved onto vinyl, a popular pastime was to think about which few LPs you’d want with you were you to find yourself bound for an uninhabited island with only a very limited luggage allowance. The digital revolution has left this game largely redundant, however, for as long as you’ve got a smartphone with something like Spotify on it, you could see out your well-tanned days to the sound of pretty much anything you fancy. But what if you couldn’t get a signal...?

In an effort to home in on my favourite favourites, and then wax lyrical about the same, I’ve set myself a challenge; a modern take on the old ‘desert island discs’ idea. I’m heading for a desert island with only a solar-powered 16GB iPod for company. Assuming my departure is going to be hurried, and I don’t have time to re-encode all my 256-320kbps tracks at lower bitrates to make their files smaller, then how would I fill up that space?

With the recent announcement of their fifth studio album’s release next Easter at the forefront of my mind, my first thoughts were of the Kaiser Chiefs. Ever since they burst onto the scene in 2004, predicting riots while falling out of love inside songs that couldn’t quite decide whether they were pop or punk, the lads from Leeds have been never been off my earphones for long. Their first record, Employment, is still one of my favourite debut albums, and the almighty Yours Truly, Angry Mob is one of my favourite albums full stop, despite its Americanised sign-off (it’s ‘Yours faithfully’ in this neck of the woods). And whilst the Chiefs’ third effort, the more avant-garde Off with Their Heads, doesn’t quite measure up to its outstanding predecessors, it’s still a great album, and one that I’m particularly fond of as I was listening to it a lot around the time that I got married. I have vivid memories of the current Mrs Wolverson reprimanding me for singing along to the opening lines of “Addicted to Drugs” just before we got hitched on holiday. The group’s fourth bountiful collection of songs (‘album’ doesn’t seem appropriate given its unique method of release) I found a little harder to get into, mainly because there were so many tracks to listen to, and it fell to me to separate the ten that I wanted for my unique edition of The Future is Medieval from those better suited to B-sides. The pick ’n’ mix process was ultimately more rewarding though, and indeed many of the most stirring tracks that I chose for my personalised album also appear on my desert island playlist.

My rundown opens with the extraordinary “My Kind of Guy” - a quite grisly ode to someone “as horrible” as the song’s protagonist. I find that it makes for a great opener as lyrically it serves as a fine example of the band’s penchant for peculiar subject matter, and musically it has a tangible sense of mounting momentum. I follow this with two Employment tracks in a row - a decision that wouldn’t sit well with some of my old ‘mix tape’-making friends, who held to some very peculiar rules about splitting up tracks from any one album or, on various artists compilations, from any one artist. “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” set out the Kaiser Chiefs’ inimitable stall on track one, turning the lovesong on its head in every respect, and to follow it with anything other than anthemic supertrack and preceding single “I Predict a Riot” would be an act as criminal as the insurgence that vocalist Ricky Wilson so tunefully prophesises.

But whereas the forty-five-minute Employment could curb its tempo a little for its third track, my two-hour list of tracks needs to maintain its initial push for just a little longer. As such, “I Predict a Riot” dovetails into the equally raucous, and almost equally enjoyable, “Never Miss a Beat”, before getting back into Employment with “Na Na Na Na Na” - a song that, whilst insidiously catchy, I still have absolutely no idea what it’s actually about.

“Everything is Average Nowadays” has for a long time been a favourite of mine from Yours Truly, Angry Mob; partly because I couldn’t agree with its sentiments more (if anything, I’d have gone on to bemoan modern society’s dutiful championing of moderation and balance), partly because it’s a cracking rock song that never lets up. “Kinda Girl You Are” which follows it escaped my own edition of The Future is Medieval, but only because it wasn’t available for selection when I assembled it. Had it been, I’d have built my personalised album around its accessible, rocky-romantic vibe.

From there, we get to the core of the Chiefs’ extant catalogue with a trilogy of anthems: “Ruby”, “Oh My God” and “The Angry Mob”. As will become more apparent the more of my disc space that I talk about, I’m generally quick to lose interest in super-singles like “Ruby”; singles that everyone knows, everyone plays, everyone tires of. “Ruby” itself, though, is the exception that proves the rule. “Oh My God”, similarly, is one of the band’s most popular tracks and with damned good reason. The debut single captures perfectly and mellifluously those many perceived light years between one’s work and one’s home, particularly if you’re stuck in one of those jobs “in a shirt with your name tag on it, drifting apart like a plate tectonic.” When it came out I was labouring in a call centre somewhere - RWE npower, if memory serves (and I have tried hard to repress it) - and I’d just stopped bloodsucking and got a flat with my now-wife, and so it was as if the song were sung just for me - just like all the best ones. Yours Truly, Angry Mob’s title track is by its nature more impersonal: taking the form of a scathing attack on a tabloid-controlled nation masked as a march to war, it’s a track worthy of Wall-era Pink Floyd.

An interesting collaboration with DCypha Productions’ Sway, “Half the Truth” fuses the band’s radio-friendly punk / rock sound with rap, and does so with surprising success. The more I hear it, the more I like it, but I still don’t like it as much as I do the appropriately-bonkers “Highroyds”. I first heard this song when I saw the Kaisers live in Leeds’ Millennium Square in April 2006 (along with a friend who once spent a little time in Highroyds, ironically), and though its lyrics have been watered down for the worse since (when I heard it, it went, “Picked up a girl from Boston Spa, did her on the boot of a car...”), I still love how it evokes both the hollow tests of mettle and utter rubbishness of youth.

“Little Shocks” is the first song on my playlist to really catch its breath. The track opens the version of The Future is Medieval that crystallised on CD, but rather than take the storming approach of the band’s first two album-openers, it’s more of a tension-building intro; a coiled spring that only briefly unfurls whenever Wilson croons about the derision of his “imaginary dynamo”. I love its lyrics as well as it is sound, particularly its core idea of being unable to devote oneself fully to someone or something - sentiments that I acutely appreciate given the many, many competing demands on my too-short time.

Treading similar ground to the Arctic Monkeys’ seminal “Fluorescent Adolescent”, “You Want History” pulls its comfortable “lord of the bored” and “slave to the beige” subject out of his lounge and sends him off for a night on the tiles - a night that he’s now trying to recall. You see, the song’s title isn’t a question - it’s a statement, and its ever-oscillating sound reflects every up and down of his forgotten, intoxicated misadventures. Up next, “Born to Be a Dancer” is one of Employment’s most ambitious efforts, not to mention one of its most successful. A poetic delight, the song tries to get inside the head of a feller whose lover has moved to London to become a stripper - a development that he could probably cope with, if she didn’t bloody love it so much. Each verse is a careful account of the jilted John’s misery, syllables even spilling across beats, but every swelling chorus then serves as a rapid riposte: “Do you know my real answer? I was born to be a dancer.” Brilliant.

“Getting married in the morning; it’s hardly peaches and cream. We haven’t got a lot in common, except the daily routine...” is the opening refrain not of some dirge for a loveless relationship, but the misleading introduction to what is perhaps the most jubilant ever song about substance dependence. The way that Wilson blithely belts out, “You might as well face it...,” you expect him to end the sentence with, “...that just doesn’t suit you,” or, “...we’re gonna have to work late.” Drug addiction is the last thing conjured by the cheerful beat and backing vocals, or for that matter the litany of little disappointments listed by the lyrics - yet somehow it works.

“Thank You Very Much” has, over time, become my favourite track on the band’s second album. One of the less obvious of the many reflections on the trappings of fame that are out there, its honest lyrics openly give thanks for the group’s fame and fortune, whilst at the same time lamenting the prison of the limelight and remembering how it was “really nice” being “on the other side” of the divide. This ambivalence is reflected in the track’s tempo and tone, which frequently shifts from the measured reason of the verse to the frenzy of the chorus, which is repeated like some self-soothing mantra.

Another often-overlooked gem is “Heard it Break”, a curious little number that uses an electronic beat and calypso to convey a truly beautiful idea: a man who’s heart isn’t broken, this time, but merely sprained. Not that it hurts him any less - in fact, he thinks that it hurts more, “...but they do say a sprain hurts more than a break, or is that just to make you feel better about it?” Another one of The Angry Mob, “I Can Do It Without You” beautifully mourns an unspoken loss; a loss that’s projected onto a changing city skyline rather than tackled head on. For the most part driven by determination, the singer’s resolve finally breaks in a moving, last-minute admission of defeat: “...but it wouldn’t be very good.”

“Listen to Your Head” is one of those annoying ‘best of’-exclusive tracks that you’d have had to also buy fifteen songs that you already own to get your hands on in the days before iTunes. Whilst it probably wouldn’t be worth such expenditure, for £0.99 it’s a lovely little number that knows its role as one of “the million combinations” of words and music out there. “Love’s Not a Competition (But I’m Winning)”, conversely, is well worth the price of an album on its own; it’s right up there with REM’s “The One I Love” as an anti-lovesong for the ages as far as I’m concerned. Presented as a gentle ballad, Wilson sings of points-scoring and trying to get chucked with an eloquence that feels at odds with the subject matter. Balance is duly restored by “You Can Have it All”, a much more conventional romantic number by contrast, though still one that uses similes as extreme as amputation to convey a significant other’s significance. “I’ll tell you what it’s going to feel like...” A haunting piano piece sung by the now-departed Nick Hodgson then caps the playlist’s trilogy of ballads, but rather than focus on the ups and downs of heterosexuality, “Boxing Champ” instead speaks of schoolboy submission; of a weakling youth hardened by the bullying of his boxing champ buddy.

The frenzied, electric interim single “On the Run” kicks the playlist back into first gear as it questions and accuses with an aggression not felt since Yours Truly, Angry Mob. This is followed by “Dead or in Serious Trouble”, a track so utterly Blurry that you’d swear the Kaisers had nicked it off The Great Escape and then forced Damon Albarn to sing it. 

“Like It Too Much” is Off with Their Heads’ utmost triumph. Sometimes I think that it’s about lust, sometimes narcotics (“You get the first one free...”), sometimes cake. As its lyrics highlight humanity’s often-avoided chemical, animal nature, it could well be any or all of those things. “Modern Way”, the final single from Employment, could be either about juggling or regret depending on whether you’re listening to the track or watching the video. Perhaps it’s about both. Another Hodgson-sung track, “Man on Mars” is one of The Future is Medieval’s obvious standouts, its idle languor belying the same sort of discontentment that begat the much louder “Everything is Average Nowadays”. It goes on a bit, mind.

“Saturday Night” has to be one of the most overused song titles of all time, but, free from Whigfield’s synthetic glee or even Suede’s eager-to-please melancholy, the Kaisers’ take on the nation’s favourite smash-up night is far from common. I applaud any song that can use the word “pneumothorax” in its lyrics and get away with it, but even this outdone with a bad sitcom joke that, against all the odds, makes the track sound cooler than it already is. “Retirement” follows, a song that despite its chorus’s unequivocal statement seems to be more concerned with wanting to have retired, and to have made some sort of mark, than it does simply wanting to clock off for the last time. More grandiose with each verse, Wilson makes no bones about wanting to have assured his place in history - something that, by 2007, he already had.

The counter-Beach Boys “Caroline, Yes!” begins the playlist’s slow crawl to climax. With its morose and subdued beat punctuated only with a haunting, artificial whine, the track shows the group at their grimmest, acknowledging inadequacy in what seems to be a lovesong to lover-stealing idol; perhaps even a son. “Try Your Best” is only a little lighter aurally, but it’s more optimistic lyrically, and more inventive too. Few lyricists would have the gall to rhyme ‘see’ with ‘sea’; fewer still would continue the sensory-nautical trickery with “...as far as the ear can hear, the wave is coming loud and clear...”

“If You Will Have Me” was my first pick for The Future is Medieval, and the first track added to this playlist. It’s a simple song, really, and one that’s more traditional than most of the Kaisers’ catalogue, yet it’s one that I find extraordinary moving despite the odd clumsy line (“...the longest of goodbyes, so many lows and no real highs...”). It sums up everyone’s worst day; that moment when you feel so wretched and defeated that all you want to do is clamber up into that picture of sheltered four-year-old you, only to realise that that world, and those who made it go round, aren’t there anymore.
To close by way of an enlivening encore, I must turn to “Time Honoured Tradition” - the only song that I know to extol the virtues of getting your five a day while bluntly outlining the inevitable consequences of “...too much red meat and ale.” You want a three-minute digest of the Kaiser Chiefs, then look no further than this track.

All told, I don’t think that my Stronger Than a Powered-up Pac-Man playlist is a controversial rundown by any means; there are no shocking omissions or championed obscurities here. If you want a more thorough souvenir of the group’s first eight years than the sixteen-track singles collection, you could do a lot worse than throw this together while you await Education, Education, Education and War.

10 December 2013

Book Review | The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh

“Who called the cook a cunt? Who called the cunt a cook!”

Within a canon of works famed for its truculent one-word titles, a name like ‘The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs’ certainly stands out – but not quite as much as the story that it crowns. Encompassing as many sundry themes as its title does words, Irvine Welsh’s 2006 “guilty lunchtime purchase” takes the gritty realism of the then-recent Glue and Porno and throws it into a tale that blends the supernatural and the sensual with the much more mundane malt and barley blues.

“Is alcoholism the product of bastardism, or is it just another fucking excuse? Discuss, discuss, discuss…”

The enthralling narrative follows Leith bastard Danny Skinner, a twenty-something employee of the fictional Edinburgh Council who spends half his life inspecting kitchens and the other half inspecting the bottoms of bottles. He’s a character a little higher on the social ladder than Welsh’s most renowned subjects, and one with a demon that’s tacitly tolerated by society, making him a great deal easier to identify with, particularly if you’re of the same binge-drinking “metrosexual” generation as me. Indeed, countless passages of the book are eerily evocative of my own experiences at Danny’s age – besotted voyages of “drunken camaraderie with friends and sneering antagonisms with foes” always crashing into waking up with puke and piss on your expensive designer gear; a morning full of convulsive, dry-heaving spasms ahead of you and an irremovable taint of sleaze decimating your psyche.

Only our Mr Skinner finds a way to eradicate that taint, unwittingly stumbling upon the powerful, hate-fuelled recipe that allows him to enjoy all the deleterious effects of alcohol, but without suffering any of its adverse effects on his health.

“A powerful speculative fantasy gnawed at Skinner: wouldn’t it be fantastic if Kibby could take his hangovers and comedowns for him! If he, Danny Skinner, indulged in the pleasures of life in the most wanton, reckless way and fresh-faced, clean-cut, mummy’s boy wanker Kibby could pay the price!”

The victim of Skinner’s strange hex is the upright and uptight Brian Kibby, Skinner’s rival at work and unsuspecting nemesis. One of Welsh’s best-observed creations, Kibby is the antithesis of everything that Skinner believes in; a fit, wholesome and painfully pious young man who enthuses over model railways with the same ardour that Skinner does women, and spends as much time online gaming as Skinner does down the pub at the centre of a social web. At the outset, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is unashamed in its bias towards Skinner. Kibby one-liners like, “I dinnae like football, but I like Manchester United because they’re the biggest team in the world, so you’ve got to follow them,” instantly attract readers’ scorn, probably even the hardcore Man U-supporting contingent’s, while Skinner’s natural, unassuming charm endears him every bit as quickly. Yet as the novel progresses and Kibby’s health deteriorates, so does our repugnance for him. His condition hardens him in a way that almost benefits his character, while Skinner finds himself more emotionally vulnerable than ever despite his veritable bullet-proof vest; arguably, because of it. With hangovers and comedowns no longer on the menu, Skinner finds himself staring into the father-shaped hole that he once used drink to fill. And so, armed with the knowledge that his long-lost pop was once a cook, Skinner seeks to expose the bedroom secrets of the master chefs and find his old man, but little does he know that his curse on Kibby is reciprocal – and Bri’s about to start fighting back.

“…my kitchen and my bedroom: how they disintegrate around me, as my smile gets bigger and my heart emptier.”

By turns comic and cripplingly sad, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is a study of symbiosis ad absurdum; an all-out contest between alcoholism and abstinence that quite candidly highlights the perils of both. Kibby and Skinner are two sides of the same coin, each invisibly scarred and fatally flawed, and each too arrogant to ever recognise it, let alone admit it. Evoking the ghosts of both The Acid House and Trainspotting (albeit with the ale in place of skag), The Bedroom Secrets of the Chefs is a unique and gripping high-concept piece that showcases its Scots scribe at his most inventive.
The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is available to download from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £5.22 or from iTunes for £5.49. A paperback edition is still in print, with today’s cheapest online retailer being Amazon, who have the book for sale for just £5.59.

17 November 2013

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75021 Republic Gunship

Between 2008 and 2012, LEGO released dozens of sets inspired by the animated television series and one-off movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but comparatively few from the live action films sat either side of it. However, the premature demise of Dave Filoni’s hit series would leave the doors wide open for 2013’s first wave of Star Wars sets to be dominated by the often-underrated Episode II, with more than half a dozen sets taking their inspiration from that initial attack of the clones.

I’ve been in the market for a Republic gunship for some time now, and so was delighted to see it taking pride of place as the top-tier 2013 Attack of the Clones set. Save for the Venator-class attack cruisers, which from an aesthetic point of view I rate even more highly than I do the colourless star destroyers of the original trilogy, these gunships are my favourite vehicles from the Clone Wars, and they’re definitely one of the most iconic. Their presence was felt throughout the conflict, appearing in countless animated episodes as well as the decisive Revenge of the Sith, but I don’t think that they’ve ever had quite the same impact that they did when they first set the burnt orange skies of Geonosis alight in the Clone Wars’ opening battle depicted in Episode II’s final act. And, unlike its 2008 Clone Wars movie-inspired LEGO incarnation (set #7676), it is that spectacular cinematic sequence that this set strives to recreate.

With almost 1,200 pieces, this 18” gunship boasts more elements than the attack cruisers meant to house hundreds of its type. As a result, this set feels very much like a special collector’s edition set in the mould of the recently released Red Five, such is its detail, but of course here everything is minifigure scaled for maximum playability. The belly of the craft, which can be accessed via side doors that don’t quite close, is easily large enough to house a decent-sized detachment of clone troopers and their Jedi generals, and this is before we even consider the gun turrets and cockpits that can also be manned. The thoughtful design also contains five storage containers in which the minifigures’ weapons can be stored whilst they operate their various stations, as well as separate compartments to the aft and stern, one of which can be used to house Anakin’s swoop bike (which is admittedly a little out of place here, far from the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine) and the other either more minifigures or reserve flick missiles or lightsabers. Best of all though, the gunship is a dazzlingly clean white adorned with proud Republic red, and to a lesser extent, lime green liveries. It’s spectacular to behold, if not reflective of the grim realities of war.

The set’s minifigure complement is every bit as extraordinary, offering seven characters for the £109.99 RRP, including brand new Attack of the Clones iterations of Obi-Wan Kenobi; Anakin Skywalker; and Padmé Amidala. The floppy-haired and facially-hirsute Obi-Wan is the standout; he’s instantly redolent of Ewan McGregor’s dry Episode II portrayal. Similarly, the Anakin minifigure is by far his most convincing Episode II LEGO interpretation, the added detail in the outfit and hairpiece (woefully miscoloured though it is) offering a good likeness of the troubled teen Romeo. And after years in yellow and then even longer in absentia, a flesh-tone Padmé is now cropping up all over the shop in minifigure form, but never more welcomely than here. With her tight bun and even tighter outfit, duly frayed by the Patrenaki arena’s rampaging nexu, she’s every inch the gun-toting Juliet that Natalie Portman was on screen. All three stars boast reversible headpieces, as is fast becoming the LEGO standard, allowing you to alter their expressions from mildly vexed to utterly enraged. The two clone troopers aren’t by any means as exciting, though the captain is the first of his rank to enter my personal LEGO Grand Army of the Republic, and the super battle droids are wholly dull and grey – just as they are on screen, so no complaints there.

The only real problems with this set are its overreliance on stickers – I hate the damned things, and for this price LEGO could surely afford to manufacture some bespoke pieces that won’t rot or be applied cock-handedly – and its almost amusing fragility. I’m a relatively dexterous man in his early thirties, and I managed to break off several extremities just getting the thing up into my loft, so I shudder to think what damage nine to fourteen-year-olds might wreak should the craft find itself in their age-appropriate thrall. Of course, rebuilding is half the fun of LEGO – provided you can find the tiny pieces again, that is.

A final thought is that you simply can’t buy this set in isolation. Even if you’re immune to the marketing of all the associated Episode II sets released alongside this one, the set looks distressingly incomplete with its skeleton crew of just two clones. You need at least four or five battle packs’ worth of troopers to make this thing look anything like the business, so if you are considering adding it to your empire, you’ve got to be prepared to make a few expensive trips to Kamino to boot.

The Star Wars LEGO Republic Gunship is available from LEGO directly for £109.99 with free delivery. Today’s cheapest online retailer though is Smyths Toys, who are currently selling this set for £83.99 with free delivery.

03 November 2013

Blu-ray Review | Star Wars: The Clone Wars – The Complete Season Five

It was Christmas 2008 when the missus presented me with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie on DVD. I wasn’t impressed. I’d seen the movie’s posters that summer, of course; even caught its trailer a few times. But I wasn’t interested – the combination of the recently-released Star Wars: Droids DVD and Genndy Tartakovsky’s three seasons of vapid Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts had put paid to any interest that I might have once expressed in animated Star Wars. But I watched the film, dutifully, and I thought that it was alright. The CG animation was in a different league to Tartakovsky’s highly-stylised two-dimensional renderings, and the blend of authentic movie voice talent and convincing soundalikes conspired to present something that approached the look and feel of the Star Wars movies (particularly the CGI-heavy prequels), but that sadly lacked any of their weight. The movie told a story that didn’t really need to be told; one that focused on spectacle at the expense of substance. Fortunately Dave Filoni’s subsequent TV series would correct that mistake in its very first episode, the deep but action-packed “Ambush”, and ever since then I’ve not only been hooked, but awestruck.

Indeed, the series’ animation belies some surprisingly adult and sophisticated themes – themes that are invariably meshed delectably with what Doctor Who fans would call “fanwank” and that are always encapsulated by a bite-sized title sequence slogan. The show’s second season, for instance, caught up with Boba Fett in the wake of his father’s demise, and shed some light on how his quest for revenge against the Jedi leads him to a life spent hunting bounties. The next year showed us the beginnings of Tarkin’s ascent to power; explored Chewbecca’s pre-Solo solo adventures; it even featured a number of episodes that explored the intricacies of the prophecy that Anakin will bring balance to the Force, offering viewers a more literal interpretation than the anything-but-balanced “He’ll destroy the Sith…” one, while at the same time allowing them to see him impossibly raging against the dark future literally crystallising before him. The following season upped the ante further, reintroducing the now delectably-deranged torso that was once Darth Maul, and teaming him up with his equally-monstrous Zabrak brother, Savage Opress, to battle the odd couple of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and fallen (risen?) Sith Asajj Ventress. All the politics, all the subtext, all the myth and all the legend – it’s all here, all punctuated with stunning set piece after stunning set piece.

Whilst there are stand-alone episodes strewn across its five seasons, most of the series’ stories are told over arcs that span three or four episodes, and to the series’ credit it doesn’t concern itself with presenting them chronologically. Unusually for a spin-off series, let alone one produced for a children’s network, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an anthology that zips back and forth in time on a whim, allowing stories to flourish backwards almost as often as they do forwards. Not only is this true to the spirit of the two inverted Star Wars trilogies, but it gives the writers and producers tremendous freedom to develop successful characters and threads without much, if any, advanced consideration.

Interestingly, one of the things that I disliked about the 2008 movie was the introduction of a Padawan learner for Anakin, Ahsoka Tano, played then and since by the dazzling Ashley Eckstein. However, from today’s perspective it’s hard to imagine the series without her as she’s its centre. This show is her story, in the same way that the original Star Wars movie is Luke’s. And, as was also the case with the farmboy turned Jedi Knight, it’s her effect on Anakin that makes things really interesting. On the silver screen, we get to see precious little of the hero conjured by Obi-Wan’s stirring précis of his “good friend” in the original trilogy; Anakin’s either an annoying kid, a moody teenager, or on the edge of a precipice. Ahsoka, however, really brings out the dashing hero in him, as well as the considerate mentor. Every ounce of virtue inside him is eked out by his snippy Padawan, whether it’s in battle; round the negotiating table; or even, as we come into the fifth season, when weighing matters of the heart against matters of duty.

In a departure from previous releases, the inconsistency of which is bound to annoy people irrespective of whether they approve of the move or not, the Blu-ray release presents the fifth season’s episodes in story order, rather than as they were aired. This means that the explosive season opener isn’t even on the first disc – instead, the Blu-ray season creeps to life with the four-part Onderon serial that sees Ahsoka tasked with turning an ailing group of freedom fighters, her last-season crush and friend in need amongst them, into a fighting force. Whilst slow to start, the story is an appealing one as it subtly sows the seeds of next year’s new Disney XD spin-off series, Star Wars Rebels, by showing us how the stretched-thin Jedi began to foment rebellions on clone-wary Separatists worlds towards the end of the Clone Wars, unwittingly putting in place the infrastructures for what would eventually become the Rebel Alliance. It’s also an intriguing story from a personal perspective as it explores the gulf between Ahsoka, the commander in the Grand Army of the Republic, and Ahsoka, the infatuated teenage girl, and how that chasm is bridged by the most unlikely of Jedi.

Rather than accompany each arc with an in-depth video commentary, such as those found on the preceding season’s Blu-rays, here we are instead presented with a short featurette for each individual episode originally produced for StarWars.com. Whether this is due to the series “winding down” or straightforward disc space restrictions (as there are fewer episodes this year, everything is crammed onto just two discs) I don’t know, but it does feel like the bonus material has been hastily cobbled together, particularly when compared with the last couple of seasons’ sterling efforts. Fortunately, the StarWars.com features are as informative as they are fleeting - the experience of watching them isn’t a million miles from watching the first season’s comprehensive but convoluted Blu-rays with their countless four-minute features.

Of more concern is the audio mastering on the episodes themselves. To say that Blu-ray is supposed to represent the zenith of audio and picture quality, I’ve been burnt twice by it in the past year or so – something that has not happened to me once with DVDs (or, for that matter, iTunes downloads). Here, rather than have to suffer the tinny distortion of much of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first HD season, I’ve had to sit through an audio soundtrack that is frequently out of sync with the picture – particularly, as per Sod’s law, in the most significant episodes. It’s only by half a second or so, if that, and it’s not usually all the way through an episode, but if anything that makes the aural injury worse as you’re constantly doubting yourself. “Is it me?” Well, no - it isn’t. I Googled it.

Thankfully an arc as compelling as the set’s second one adequately compensates for any technical shortcomings. In fact, the four episodes that focus on the younglings and recurring antagonist Hondo is one of the series’ best. Deliberately harking back to the swords and sorcery of the original Star Wars film, the story set in motion by “The Gathering” is the one that would have been Luke’s, had his father not turned to the dark side and exterminated most of his former kinsmen just prior to his birth. It takes a disparate group of Jedi younglings, each with his or her own limitations, and guides them through the process of constructing their lightsabers. Aided by an ancient droid whose personality constantly flits between quirky and authoritative (characteristics that the actor voicing it, a certain Mr David Tennant, is well-versed in portraying), the younglings must each overcome their personal demons to discover the unique crystal that will power their weapon, and then use the sheer power of the Force to assemble it. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, as a raid from the suave Weequay buccaneer draws the younglings right into the heart of the Clone Wars. I can’t call to mind another serial that so deftly juggles the magic of the Jedi and the horror of the Clone Wars; it’s a perfect effort in every sense, driven yet deeply pensive.

Straddling the two discs is an adventure that is everything that the mid-’80s Droids spin-off should have been. Carried largely by R2-D2, a few of his fellow droids and their hilarious Napoleon complex-suffering commander, the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon, these four episodes really push the series’ boundaries, experimenting with nihilistic, existential themes while at the same time bringing the show right back to its core Star Wars values. Artoo may have shone throughout The Clone Wars series, but in this arc he’s given the opportunity to personally change the course of the whole conflict, as he later would the rebellion against the Empire.

Next up on the second disc are the season’s four Maul / Opress episodes, beginning with the fast and furious season-opener. Picking up precisely where the fourth season left off, “Revival” sees Obi-Wan and Adi Gallia track the Sith brothers to Hondo’s pirate planet, where an electrifying double duel costs both sides dearly. From there, we’re launched straight into what is, perhaps, the finest trilogy of the entire series, as it’s not only a technical masterpiece, but also a compelling and fan-serving saga that’s typified by set pieces so breathtaking that you’ll find yourself in need of a Vader-like iron lung if you watch them in HD. Bringing together elements as sundry as Maul and his brother’s conquest of the underworld, Pre Vizsla’s Mandalorian Death Watch sect’s ascent to power, Obi-Wan and Duchess Satine’s unrequited romance, the Hutts and a couple of the expanded universe’s most famous criminal clans, these three episodes are bursting with heartbreak and horror, not to mention a few moments that will leave you violently shaking your head in disbelief. Are Maul, Opress, the Death Watch and Black Sun really storming Jabba’s palace? Are Maul and Vizsla actually duelling, bloodshine Sith lightsaber against mythical Mandalorian darksaber? And surely Darth Sidious couldn’t be so bold as to risk revealing his true identity simply to rein in his erstwhile apprentice, who’s rapidly becoming a rival? There can only be two...

After that slobberknocker of a serial, the production team needed something really special to finish the season, and, as it would turn out, the whole series. And with “The Wrong Jedi” arc, they delivered something that’s every bit as alluring as the blockbuster Maul saga, albeit in equal and opposite ways. This time around, we don’t follow the villains, but the heroes – if they are still heroes, that is. Segueing beautifully into the greyscale world of Revenge of the Sith, the series’ finale explores the subtle shifts in the war-weary public’s opinion of the Jedi, who have demonstrably strayed from their path of peacekeeping and become unwilling warriors, and how this is carefully exploited by those such as Palpatine and Tarkin for their own nefarious ends. Caught in the middle are Ahsoka, Anakin and Ventress: the young Padawan finds herself accused of a crime that she didn’t commit, and so her master does all that he can to clear her name, but finds himself pent by his closed-minded and condemnatory superiors on the Jedi High Council, who seem more concerned with appeasing the Senate than they do Ahsoka’s guilt or innocence. Count Dooku’s former assassin, meanwhile, finds herself in the unprecedented position of sharing the unjustly-excommunicated Jedi’s cause, particularly when finds herself similarly framed. It’s a beguiling and defining tale; one that cleverly lays the foundations for Anakin’s Episode III dissent, and answers the obvious question that’s burned ever since we first met Ahsoka. The final episode’s closing scene is ruefully beautiful, on a level pegging with some of Revenge of the Sith’s most seminal scenes. Even George Lucas had to, uncharacteristically, defer to Dave Filoni’s adamant fade to black as the series’ final moment is so very emotive that the obligatory, bombastic Star Wars iris-out would have been preposterously out of place.

Of course, that blazing instant may not prove to be the end for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as I understand that a number of episodes pencilled in for the Disney-slain sixth season are being completed by Filoni and his team for a tentative 2014 commercial release, which hopefully will continue the superlative standards of this fifth season and tie up the remaining loose threads to boot. Wherever we go from here though, Filoni’s series has already earned its defining definite article. To anyone like me who was put off by its impulsive theatrical pilot, I’d urge them to trust in the Force and check it out before the impending rebellion steals its thunder - it really is one of the most addictive and groundbreaking shows of the past five years, if not the millennium.

Until the Blu-ray release is reissued with its audio issues remedied (and in any event, if you don’t care much for bonus material), I would recommend that you download Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 1080p HD from iTunes, where you can buy a fifth season pass for £38.99 or just cherry pick individual episodes for £2.49 each.

27 October 2013

History Boy Turns Pro

Former History of the Doctor contributor and prolific Doctor Whoniverse fan fictioneer, Daniel Tessier, has been commissioned to pen a short story in Obverse Books’ upcoming Iris Wildthyme anthology, Iris Wildthyme of Mars. Daniel has previously been published in the Factor Fiction charity anthology, Shelf Life, but this is the first time that he will be paid for his efforts.

Daniel explains that his story is “…a sequel to Edwin Lester Linden’s 1905 novel Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, better known as Gullivar of Mars, which was something of a milestone in science fiction and fantasy. It comes across as very dated now, and is ripe for the Wildthyme treatment.” Tentatively entitled “Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend”, Daniel’s gin-fuelled homage is sure to be the perfect fit for the transtemporal adventuress.

The Immaterial blogger’s only regret is that licensing issues prevent the use of any Doctor Who characters in his tale. “I’d love to have Sil the Mentor turn up, just so that he can sneer “Gullivuuurrgh...”, he quips.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars, edited by veteran of Obverse Books and Big Finish Productions, Philip Purser-Hallard, will be available next summer from Obverse Books.

Is Mars a dead and sterile desert, or teeming with life? Are the Martians long gone, or waiting still? Will we become the Martians? Will humanity settle Mars in gleaming antiseptic domes, or terraform it into a lush new paradise? Will invaders from Earth come from the skies, raining down death on the innocent canal-dwellers? Are the Martians beautiful humanoids or tentacular monstrosities? Unfallen angels, devils welcoming us in order to corrupt us – or worse? Will humanity’s Mars colonies be utopian or hellish? How many different colours can you put in front of ‘Mars’ to make a clever title?

These Marses are, of course, mutually incompatible, contradictory and in many cases quite impossible. And Iris Wildthyme has visited them

26 October 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Typhon Pact – The Struggle Within by Christopher L Bennett

The United Federation of Planets’ expansion of the Khitomer Accords is, in many respects, significantly less surprising than Pocket Books’ extension of its Star Trek: Typhon Pact saga beyond its initial four-book run. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed two of them, and quite liked another, general reaction was considerably more mixed, with many readers lamenting the arc’s languorous pace and failure to capitalise upon the potential of the Pact’s hitherto-uncharted societies, such as the Holy Order of the Kinshaya and the Tzenkethi Coalition. It’s ironic, then, that an almost afterthought of an e-book not only sets the storyline off on its finish push towards climax, but also sates much of the hunger that the initial run left unsatisfied.

In part an unlikely sequel to the 1990 TNG episode “Suddenly Human”, Christopher L Bennett’s novella sees the Enterprise visit Talar, where Jono – the young man raised by the Talarians following the death of his human parents – has grown into a diplomat of some note, and is now assisting his adoptive father, Endar, to negotiate an alliance with the Federation that it is hoped will strengthen both in the face of mounting Typhon Pact antagonism. However, through they mirror the traditional veiling customs of the Middle East more closely than they do, say, calculatedly oppressive Ferengi practices, Talarian attitudes towards females don’t sit well with Federation ideology. A group of militant freedom fighters decide to take advantage of this, as well as the Federation’s famous championing of freedom of expression, by using the Enterprise’s visit to mount an attack Talar’s patriarchy under the cover of a peaceful demonstration, kidnapping Dr Crusher in the process and leaving her husband and captain in the conflicted position of having to weigh the mother of his son’s life and the Federation’s desperate need of an ally against not only his strong views on Starfleet’s deep-rooted non-interference doctrine, but also his personal sympathy for the women of Talar’s cause, if not their methods. Meanwhile, T’Ryssa Chen and Jasminder Choudhury, the next generation of Next Generation bridge officers, are recruited by Starfleet Intelligence to go undercover on Kinshaya. There they are to pose as Romulan members of Spock’s Unification movement who are visiting the world to show their support for the under-heel Kinshayan masses, with a view to helping them to foment rebellion, and perhaps even bring about a regime change that could tip the delicate balance of power within the Pact in favour of those less aggressive towards the Federation.

The Enterprise half of the story is an impressive and intricate tapestry of both welcome fan service and clever, careful storytelling. Its “Suddenly Human” heritage is something of a red herring for readers as, save for Jono’s unique pedigree playing a hand in the conclusive events of the story, the events on Talar could easily have unfolded on any non-aligned planet. The real meat of its drama turns upon how Picard balances his duties as captain – essentially his duty to his conscience – against his personal responsibilities as a husband and father. Ever the remote bachelor on television, Captain Picard’s never had to struggle against his feelings in the way that he does here, and he can’t even rely upon his first officer’s counsel to help shape his decision as the otherwise-redoubtable Commander Worf has a solitary black mark on his own service record, earned through his deliberate dereliction of duty when trying to save his own wife’s life whilst posted to Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War. It’s an enthralling read in every respect, and, like Paths of Disharmony before it, both bold and surprising in its resolution.

Bennett also uses the Talar storyline to finally take a more detailed look at the elusive Tzenkethi, further fleshing out the basics of their form and examining the history of their species as it is understood by other races. A species of matchless ethereal beauty, the once-fragile Tzenkethi were long exploited as “novelties and slaves”, eventually driving them to turn inwards, closing their borders and even going so far as to edit their own genomes to instil an innate loathing of offworlders – their newfound Typhon Pact friends included, towards whom they feel little but paranoia and a fanatical need to control. Unfortunately the nature of the Tzenkethi involvement in the plot and the brevity of the piece conspire to keep them in the wings here, but it’s nonetheless a testament to Bennett’s skill that he’s able to convey more through one well-written character appearing in just a few fleeting chapters than had been done across the whole media spectrum previously. The Kinshaya, conversely, are explored in immense detail by the author, who seems to share T’Ryssa’s enthusiasm for the race. As the Enterprise’s unconventional contact officer so succinctly sums up, “They’re basically griffins… xenophobic, isolationist religious fanatics, but still, griffins!”

“I know, I know. It’s like they teach us in Prime Directive 101: A cultural change doesn’t really take hold unless it comes from within.”
            Jasminder smiled. “Nor does a personal one.”

In his acknowledgements, Bennett tellingly dedicates The Struggle Within to “the courageous resistance movement in Egypt, whose members provided that nonviolent action can achieve what violence cannot,” and these sentiments are keenly felt in the Kinshayan limb of his narrative, which serves as inspiring counterbalance to the women of Talar’s violent deeds. But the mission to Kinshaya is as much a sabbatical for Jasminder as it is an intelligence operation, as the once-serene Denevan looks to put the destruction of her world and the comfort that she’s since found in aggression – and, by extension, the arms of Worf – behind her. But shaving her head and adorning it with Romulan mourning tattoos, á la Eric Bana’s Nero, isn’t nearly enough to help her bury the past and find her centre again – for that, she needs the company of the Enterprise-E’s loveable and exuberant half-human, half-Vulcan Spock antithesis, who has to suffer like she has never done before her commanding officer and friend can find herself anew.

But the most wonderful thing about this book isn’t its deft handling of action, intrigue, or even character. It’s most outstanding quality is that it feels exactly like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – or, at least, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Next Generation. The limited word count of the piece instils the sort of pace that the television series used to deliver on a weekly basis, even mirroring the two-thread narrative structure invariably found in most stories. The only things that set The Struggle Within apart from a bona fide TV episode are its heavily-featured non-humanoid contingent (that even TNG’s budget probably wouldn’t have convincingly stretched to realising on screen), and its heavy grounding in post-Nemesis arcs, both of which I feel add to rather than detract from the piece in any event. If you’ve a TNG itch that needs scratching, but find that time or funds are in short supply, then you could do a hell of a lot worse than throw a few pounds at The Struggle Within – without a doubt Star Trek: Typhon Pact’s finest hour.

The Struggle Within is currently available only as an e-book (£4.41 from Amazon’s KindleStore or £4.49 from iTunes).

26 September 2013

Book Review | Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh

I’m a pretty typical human being when it comes to attitudes towards other species. If it has a couple of arms and a pair of legs, I’ll invite it into my home, feed it, and probably clean up its excrement. Indeed, one such furry mammal has been knocking about the Wolverson homestead for the better part of a decade now. If it has a beak and wings, however, I’m much more cautious. Depart even further from the human form, and all bets are off. Only yesterday I perpetrated a massacre of dragonfly in my garage gym (though only, I should add, after turning off the light and opening up the door for a few minutes, giving them at least the chance of street-lamp salvation).

And so the esteemed Mr Welsh chose well when he selected a Marabou Stork to embody the rottenness and evil festering in his second novel’s storyteller’s soul. The African vulture-like scavenger, often nicknamed the ‘Undertaker Bird’ due to its funereal countenance, has little about its appearance or conduct that make it either attractive or sympathetic to most readers. It looks and acts in such a way that is so far removed from what we might vainly endorse that it’s easily dismissed as irredeemably abhorrent – just like about three-quarters of the characters in Marabou Stork Nightmares, which, for all its transcendental trappings, ultimately boils down to an ad absurdum examination of prejudice in at least two of its most ‘popular’ contemporary forms.

Still, those who asked, “What the fuck’s a Marabou Stork?” when they saw this title were missing the point rather. Whilst the Stork is, in most respects, the slow-beating black heart of the novel, its façade within the fiction is arbitrary; more to do with the protagonist’s keen interest in ornithology, time spent living in South Africa and - above all else - physical attributes than it is a dispassionate impression of evil. The real question here is, surely, “What’s the fuck’s a Marabou Stork nightmare?”, and it’s a question not so easily answered by Wikipedia. Allow me to explain.

“The Stork’s the personification of all this badness. If I kill the Stork I’ll kill the badness in me. Then I’ll be ready to come out of here, to wake up, to take my place in society and all that shite.”
From the novel’s earliest passages, it’s apparent that the eponymous nightmares aren’t just dreams of the type that would make your pillow ache, but snapshots of another level of existence; a purgatory of sorts, where Roy Strang, erstwhile Hibs Cashie and constant centre of sexual abuse, is driven to exterminate one particular Marabou Stork that, for some reason, he views as the distillation of all evil. Meanwhile, his body lies comatose in an Edinburgh hospital, where it plays host to all manner of eccentric visitors, each of which threaten to distract the once-top boy from his all-consuming Stork hunt, stirring memories of his unsavoury past and bringing the reality that he’s so desperate to flee ever closer. It’s Life on Mars - only earlier, backwards and Scottish. Let me take you DEEPER…
                        DEEPER  - - - - - - - - - - - - The novel regularly segues between Roy’s hunt for the Stork in Africa and the story of his real life, with his near-vegetative impressions of his hospital room serving as a bridge between the two. Some cuts are measured; reflective, even. Others are abrupt as Welsh sucks the reader down into the Marabou Stork nightmare without warning, or blasts them up and out Africa and into Fat Hell (Fathell, Midlothian, population 8,619) where stylish men with decent IQs are getting “into the violence just for itself.”

“The largest of the Marabous came forward.
            - Looks like it’s sort ay panned oot tae oor advantage, eh boys, the creature observed.
            It tore a large piece from a bloodied flamingo carcass with a ripping sound, and swallowed it whole.”

Throughout, though, the two parallel tales are constantly mirroring each other, almost serving as allegories of one another, until they eventually become inseparable. The leptoptilos crumeniferus hunt reads like a Victorian explorer pastiche, albeit one unfettered by the morality and decency championed by the heroes of those tales. Roy’s youth in Scotland, adolescence in Apartheid Johannesburg, and early adulthood as a Hibs hooligan are presented in the author’s trademark phonetic style, creating a powerful contrast with the more prosaic coma world that only serves to emphasise the cross-pollination of themes.

Naturally, I gravitated towards what I’d call the ‘main narrative’ – the story of Roy’s life. Whilst the stream-of-consciousness elements do their job well, I’d always be itching to ditch the literal chase and cut back to the figurative one. It’s clear from early on that Roy isn’t a patch on any of the central Trainspotting characters, but in a sense that’s what makes him so interesting. He isn’t so much a fascinating character as he is a dull one that interesting things happen to. And when I say ‘interesting’, obviously I mean ‘horrendous’. Born into a family as low on the social ladder as they are high up in their tenement, Roy is offered a brief beacon of hope in his youth, when his family emigrate to South Africa, where the colour of their skin passports them to the opposite side of the class divide. It doesn’t take long, though, for Roy’s resident uncle to start molesting him, or for Roy’s lunatic father to run into trouble with the law, resulting in a swift return home to the schemes of Scotland, where Roy drifts into a life of computer-programming during the week and swedgin’ at the weekends. But, inevitably, the scheduled swedges soon lead to something far more sinister.

“I realised what we had done, what we had taken. Her beauty was little to do with her looks, the physical attractiveness of her. It was to do with the way she moved, the way she carried herself. It was her confidence, her pride, her vivacity, her lack of fear, her attitude. It was something even more fundamental and less superficial than those things. It was her self, or her sense of it.”

As the Marabou Stork nightmares unfold, it becomes clear that the Stork is representative of more than just “badness”; it’s representative of something specific, a most particular evil. The book’s most harrowing chapter tells of a stunning flamingo that runs afoul of a muster of Storks, who strip her of everything that she has but her life. They imprison her, rape her, demean her. And when she tries to pursue justice, she finds herself put on public exhibition; a defendant in all but name. Subjected to Freudian models of justice (“Female sexuality is deemed by nature to be masochistic, hence rape cannot logistically take place since it directly encounters the argument that all women want it anyway…”); accusations of not saying “no the proper way”; and even allegations of being a “rape fantasist”, Miss X is systematically destroyed, all the while her face registering “disbelief, fear, and self-hate” at her own impotence. It’s not much of a spoiler by this point to say that our boy Roy was amongst this muster of Storks, his guilt and shame fuelling not only his fugue, but the quest that his comatose mind has devised for itself – destruction of evil, destruction of self. “Self-deliverance with a plastic bag”.

“It came tae ays with clarity; these are the cunts we should be hurtin, no the boys wi knock fuck oot ay at the fitba… …we screw over each other’s hooses when there’s fuck all in them, we terrorise oor ain people. These cunts though: these cunts wi dinnae even fuckin see. Even when they’re aw around us.”

As ever, though, with Welsh, there’s a sting in the tale. I thought that I had Marabou Stork Nightmares all worked out from the ‘Miss X’ incident onwards, but the wily Scot employs Easton Ellis-esque trickery to completely throw off the idiot savant reader. Roy’s candid narration gradually engenders sympathy for the devil, and in a late twist Welsh uses this perverse compassion to powerfully drive home the patterns of nature – predators preying, scavengers scavenging, the abused abusing, the powerless seizing power – and circumstance that underpin both his plot and, I suspect, his point. Marabou Stork Nightmares would have been brilliant without the misdirection. With it, it carries all the hallmarks of genius.

A note of caution for e-bookers: Marabou Stork Nightmares uses a lot of creative typography, most of which hasn’t been typeset in the iTunes e-book, but cut and pasted in as low-resolution images. Not only does this look terrible (due to excessive pixilation), but the text is unreadable if being read on a mobile device as it can’t be enlarged. Worse still, this particular digital edition is riddled with typographical errors not present in the paperback edition, and hasn’t even been properly typeset (there is a superfluous double space between every line break, as per the above right iPhone screengrab). Unless you’re in love with trees or passionate about the preservation of shelf space, either get the paperback (which is currently cheapest online at Play, where it’s being sold for £5.37 with free delivery) or save a few pennies more and get the Kindle edition from Amazon for £5.22. I’ve only tested the free sample of the Kindle edition, but it doesn’t seem to be plagued by the same typesetting problems as the iTunes version, and the text-based images are fewer and farther between.