Minuscule – Mandibles from Far Away

I thought I had talked about the Minuscule series previously on this blog, but a couple of searches didn’t turn anything up so I shall have to file that under Things I Meant To Do But Didn’t Get Around To. It’s a shame because the series of short films is a superb collision between the documentary style of National Geographic and the universe of Tex Avery in which animated insects experience their adventures against a background of real-world sets. The films are short, dialogue-free and very, very funny.

Many of these short films can be found online and there is also a DVD box set available if you prefer to watch in comfort.

What I hadn’t realised is that the folks behind the short films had also released a feature film (in French, of course, but when there is no dialogue this really doesn’t matter) in which a stranded young ladybug forms an alliance with a squad of black ants in order to retrieve a rather unusual treasure to the ant hive.

And now there is a sequel.

When the first snow falls in the valley, it is urgent to prepare its reserves for the winter. Alas, during the operation, a small ladybug is trapped in a box – to the Caribbean. One solution: reform the shock team.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

In Binti, Nnedi Okorafor created a fascinating universe that drew on an often different set of inspirations to those usually found in space opera to give us something that felt both fresh and original. In Binti: Home, Okorafor expands on this — both in terms of the society and environment of Oomza University and also the cultural environment from which Binti comes.

The emphasis in this novella, as in the previous one, is very much on the character of Binti and her struggle to develop in the face both of conflicting expectations.

After having left her insular community to become the first member of the Himba to enrol at Oomza University, Binti now returns home. But home is not quite home any more. Binti has seen and done too much and grown in directions that make it impossible to fully fit in with the community in which she grew up.

The Australians have a term, Tall poppy syndrome which describes resentment towards people who are visibly successful in comparison to their peers. It’s a phrase I have seen used within various expatriate communities, specifically in the context of returning home, and it’s a phrase that came to mind several times as Okorafor describes the resentment of family members and the refusal of friends to accept, or even understand, the person Binti has become.

Of course, intolerance works in many directions and, while Binti has to deal with the reactions of those she left behind, she also shares their prejudices against the Desert People who are generally seen as primitive and unstable. It is Binti’s necessary reassessment of her prejudices that form the culmination of this novel, and which sets things up for the third novella in this series.

Binti: Home is an engrossing continuation of the first novella that challenges you to think about the way in which prejudices are unthinkingly adopted. It also ends on the sort of cliff hanger that left me wanting to dive straight into the next novella, Binti: The Night Masquerade.

While this novella suffers a bit from being the middle book of a trilogy, it is a satisfying read that works well in the context of what we understand of Binti’s world. I will definitely be reading the third, and final, book in this series and am looking forward to discovering how Nnedi Okorafor brings Binti’s journey to a conclusion.

Quote of the Day: He’s going to be prime minister, isn’t he.

The Official Secrets Act, surprisingly not a Jacqueline Wilson book but actually a serious, government-level agreement, surely only exists to spell out the importance of basic confidentiality to cretins who aren’t in the room on merit, but apparently it wasn’t clear enough.

Ryan Priest on Gavin Williamson, the former defence Secretary who was sacked for leaking confidential conversations.

Avengers: Endgame

May 1st — Labour Day — is a public holiday in Belgium so, on Wednesday, wee all trooped to the nearest Mutiplex to see Avengers: Endgame. The reason we made the trip to the multiplex rather than the smaller, cheaper and close cinema we normally go to is that they were screening an Avengers: Endgame Marathon. This comprised of a double bill of Infinity War immediately followed by Endgame, or six hours in front of a big screen. It was fun, and an excellent way of reminding ourselves of the events that led up to Endgame.

I was expecting this to be a single film in two parts, but it really isn’t. The Thanos storyline is closed off very quickly and we jump forward five years to find what’s left of the Avengers trying to deal with the ongoing fallout. Things pick up with the return of Ant-Man, who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, and he’s come up with a plan.

What follows is less of a film and more a series of sub-plots as various Avengers dash through time and space as they try to reverse Thanos’ actions. Much of this involves returning to the events of previous films and allows several of the characters to bring their story-arcs of the past decade to a close. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that not all of the Avengers survive and, of the survivors, it’s quite possible that some of them will hang up their capes after this.

In many ways, then, Endgame is a long goodbye to the characters we have been watching for the past decade. That’s not to say that the film isn’t entertaining, it is. And, of course, things come together for the inevitable climactic battle which is both well executed and thrilling to watch.

For me, Infinity War is the stronger of the two films, but Endgame continues to maintain the high standard we have come to expect from Marvel and provides a solid send-off for the original Avengers. I look forward to seeing where they go from here.

My Spoiler Senses are tingling

Avengers: Endgame is out and… I haven’t seen it yet.

May 1st is a public holiday in Belgium and a local multiplex is showing an “Endgame: Marathon”. We have nearly six hours of superhero antics to look forward, starting with Infinity War and then, after a short popcorn break, we are straight into Endgame.

We thought it would be wise to book the comfy seats.

This is all well and good, but I hadn’t realised just how many sites I visit that carry potentially spoliery content about the latest blockbuster. I have managed to avoid seeing any spoilers so far, but it has been a bit of a challenge.

Still, only two more days and then I can go back and look at all of those articles in my RSS reader that are currently sitting there screaming “Read Me!”

Dropkick Murphys: Until The Next Time

The Groezrock music festival takes place every year in the Flemish village of Meerhout. The festival has been going for some time and, by tradition, is the festival season opener in Belgium.

The festival offers a range of punk, hardcore, metalcore, skapunk, and exceptional music and has become one of the largest punk festivals in the Lowlands.

This year, I managed to acquire a couple of free tickets. Better still, none other than Dropkick Murphys were headlining the main stage on Saturday.

Unfortunately for me, the tickets I had were for Friday.

This is what I missed.

Only in Belgium: The adult egg roll

More than 10,000 people search for sex toys in Walloon field

An adult version of the “egg roll” in which children search for eggs that have been hidden by the organisers took place in Wepion in Namur Province on Sunday. However, it wasn’t eggs the 10,000 participants searched for in a field in the Walloon municipality best-known for its strawberries.

Indeed it wasn’t. The aim was to find vouchers for sex toys. The event has been running for nine years and this was the most successful so far with a total of 10,000 people taking part. It’s becoming international, too:

As well as the many Belgian participants, 250 French people took parts, as well as people from the Netherlands and even Portugal and Spain.

I have to wonder about what sort of person travels all the way from Spain on the off-chance of winning a free sex toy.

The Alleyman by Pat Kelleher

This is the third installment in the No Man’s World series written by Pat Kelleher for Abaddon books. The series is set in 1916 and follows the 13th Pennine Fusiliers, who found themselves explosively transported from the Somme to a horrifyingly alien world. Horrifying being the operative word here — the soldiers very quickly discover that every plant and animal on the planet is out to get them.

If you are thinking that this all sounds very pulpy, you would be absolutely correct. It has also proved to be a crackingly good read. The strength of Kelleher’s characterisation, combined with his attention to detail, keeps everything grounded no matter how far he stretches the plot.

And so to The Alleyman

Four months after the Pennine Fusiliers vanished from the Somme, they are still stranded on the alien world. As Lieutenant Everson tries to discover the true intentions of their alien prisoner, he finds he must quell the unrest within his own ranks while helping foment insurrection among the alien Khungarrii.

Beyond the trenches, Lance Corporal Atkins and his Black Hand gang are reunited with the ironclad tank, Ivanhoe, and its crew. On the trail of Jeffries, the diabolist they hold responsible for their predicament, they are forced to face the obscene horrors that lie within the massive Croatoan Crater, a place inextricably tied to the history of the alien chatts and native urmen alike.

Above it all, Lieutenant Tulliver of the Royal Flying Corp, soars free of the confines of alien gravity, where the true scale of the planet’s mystery is revealed. However, to uncover the truth he must join forces with an unsuspected ally.

You really do need to have read the first two books in this series (The Black Hand Gang and The Ironclad Prophecy) before embarking on this one because Kelleher jumps straight into the action. There’s no recap and no explanation of anything that has been previously explained.

That said, the major characters have started to feel like old friends. I have already mentioned the characterisation and it is this, more than anything, that provides a sense of familiarity that makes it very easy to pick up the narrative, even after a couple of years.

With an ongoing narrative, it’s hard to separate this novel from the series as a whole, and the whole series is well worth a look. If the idea of Edgar Rice Burroghs populating the worlds of HP Lovecrat appeals to you, then this series will be right up your street. Alternatively, if you want a fresh take on a straightforward adventure story, then this is right up your street as well.

The Alleyman is an unashamedly pulp adventure story. But by making it an ensemble story centred on a platoon of WWI, Pat Kelleher avoids the problem endemic in many of these types of story of a square-jawed hero single-handedly defeating a horde. This makes for a narrative that both holds together much more effectively and which is consistently gripping.

As far as I can tell, there are no plans to publish a fourth novel in this series, which is a shame. I, for one, would love to see what the Pennine Fusiliers do next.

Shazam!

DC has finally made a Marvel movie. Almost.

Shazam! is a film that is both silly and self-aware enough to know just how silly it is. This makes for a fun, and frequently funny, film about a 14 year old boy becoming an adult superhero, and behaving exactly as you would expect a 14 year old boy to behave.

The 14 year old in question is Billy Batson who was separated from his mother in an amusement park when very young and never reunited. Young Billy has spent the subsequent years bouncing from foster home to foster home until he ends up being taken in by Rosa and Victor Vasquez where he joins the five other foster children under their care.

Following a run-in with a pair of local bullies, Billy finds himself face to face with the last of the wizards charged with protecting the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, who also happens to be looking for a champion. And 14 year old Billy becomes Shazam — a 14 year old boy in the body of a 30 year old superhero.

Billy immediately turns to Freddy, his superhero enthusiast of a foster-brother and the pair begin, hilariously, to determine what Billy’s new-found powers actually are, as well as explore how much they can get away with when one of them looks like an adult.

Every superhero film needs a villain and, in this case, we have Dr. Thaddeus Sivana who, at the start of the film, was found to be not pure enough of heart to become Shazam and has spent the subsequent 20 years trying to steal the powers for himself. There wouldn’t be much of a film if he didn’t manage to achieve this.

If you have young kids, be warned that there is one scene involving Sivana, the gargoyle-like demonic beings that represent the Seven Deadly Sins and a boardroom invasion that may prove a little bit too intense.

That aside, Shazam! manages to be a light-hearted film about finding a family and one that isn’t afraid to poke fun at both itself and every other superhero film that has preceded it. Billy and Freddy are both well developed characters that carry the film very effectively, along with Zachary Levi’s antics in the role of Shazam.

Obviously, this is a superhero film and inevitably ends with superpowered characters hitting CGI monsters, but the film works best as a cross between a buddy comedy and a coming of age movie that just happens to have a superhero in it.

Twenty-One

For all the flashy modern games that we have in the house, it’s surprising just how often we go back to older games that have stood the test of time. One of these is Twenty-One (also known as Pontoon or Blackjack).

This is a card game that goes back at least as far as the 17th century and is (as you’d expect) played with a standard deck of cards. Each card is worth the number of pips on the card except for the ace, which is worth either one or 11 (player’s choice) and the picture cards, which are all worth ten points each. The aim is to get as close to 21 as you can without exceeding this number (in which case you are bust and have lost).

There are many versions and descendants of the game and multiple variations on the rules. The way we play it is to first select a dealer who deals two cards to each player, including himself. Play then goes clockwise, starting with the player immediately to the left of the dealer. That player then draws cards until either he decides to stop of goes bust, then it’s the next player’s turn.

When someone goes bust, they have to immediately declare it. Of the players that didn’t go bust, whoever was closest to 21 wins the round, with a couple of exceptions. A royal 21 (a picture card and an ace) beats any other 21 and a five card trick (five cards, any score as long as you don’t go bust) beats everything.

The winner of the round takes the pot and someone else gets to be dealer for the next round.

This is, of course, a gambling game. Each player pays in to the pot to join a round and pays into the pot for each additional card they take.

Obviously, we use glass beads rather than actual money. Otherwise the boys would never have to ask for pocket money again.

The great advantage of Twenty-One is its flexibility. A round only takes a couple of minutes to play and, if we’re waiting for something, we can play as many rounds as we have time for.

And it’s an educational game. Not only do the boys have to add up the cards in their hands and calculate how far they are from 21, but they also have to try to assess the probability that the next card will take them over.