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.