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.

That petition

At the time of writing this post, the petition to Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU has reached 5.84 million signatures and the Government has responded. Unsurprisingly, the Government response is the usual stream of nonsense and platitudes:

This Government will not revoke Article 50. We will honour the result of the 2016 referendum and work with Parliament to deliver a deal that ensures we leave the European Union.

In the opening sentence the Government reveals itself to be either delusional or dishonest by claiming that they will work with Parliament. This government has done everything it can to avoid working with Parliament, culminating with last week’s rant from Theresa May — the world’s worst populist — in which she tried to portray herself a tribune of the people in opposition to Parliament.

If she wasn’t so incompetent, she’d be dangerous.

It remains the Government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50. We will honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and work to deliver an exit which benefits everyone, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

An exit that benefits everyone? I would be interested to know what such an exit would look like because, so far, every form of Brexit that has been proposed leaves the UK worse off than before. And, with the approach the government has taken so far, Brexit is already making people worse off.

People who were already rich enough to have money to shift around offshore accounts (hello, Jacob Rees-Mogg) may well benefit from Brexit. For everyone who needs to earn an income, life is going to get a lot harder.

Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in Government.

What trust? Only 7% of voters think the government has handled Brexit well. Nearly two thirds of voters think the government’s deal is a bad one. Whatever trust that might have been placed in this government has been well and truly squandered by their incompetence, evasiveness and outright dishonesty.

As for undermining democracy, I’m tempted to suggest that the Honorable Members of Her Majesty’s Government may need to apply for remedial lessons in Understanding the Constitution.

Britain is a Parliamentary democracy and one in which referenda are not a normal part. Indeed, Clement Atlee described referendums as “alien to all our traditions” and Margaret Thatcher described them as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Britain has no tradition of using referendums and no process for dealing with the results.

Parliamentary sovereignty means that power, ultimately, rests with Parliament. When a government’s attempts at implementing a policy are so abysmal that companies are having to stockpile food and medicine, it is not only reasonable for Parliament to call a halt to the disaster, but Parliament’s job.

The Government acknowledges the considerable number of people who have signed this petition. However, close to three quarters of the electorate took part in the 2016 referendum, trusting that the result would be respected.

52% of nearly three quarters of the electorate. That’s 39%.

In countries where referenda are used, this would not be a sufficient majority to implement a change such as this. Hell, in the UK, a majority like this isn’t even sufficient for a union to call a strike. So why the insistence that it’s enough to crash the economy?

This Government wrote to every household prior to the referendum, promising that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented. 17.4 million people then voted to leave the European Union, providing the biggest democratic mandate for any course of action ever directed at UK Government.

To paraphrase something said to me in the run-up to the referendum: “I’m thinking of voting leave just to see the back of that smug bastard [David Cameron].”

People voted leave for a whole range of reasons, not all of which had much — or anything — to do with Britain’s membership of the EU. Tellingly, the Government has made no attempt to understand or address the reasons that people voted the way they did. Instead, they have decided that the sizable minority that voted remain don’t matter and that all leave voters fully agree with the most extreme parts of the Conservative party. And that really is bad for democracy.

British people cast their votes once again in the 2017 General Election where over 80% of those who voted, voted for parties, including the Opposition, who committed in their manifestos to upholding the result of the referendum.

If you have a choice between two parties, both of which are promising to implement the same policy, then it’s not much of a choice. Labour’s failure to offer an alternative cannot be taken as proof of support for the only option on offer.

It’s also worth noting that manifesto commitments are not set in stone. They can’t be. No-one can know what other events will happen over the course of a Parliament or what new information may or may not emerge.

I think that most people understand that a manifesto can only ever be aspirational at best and that it is insane to stick to a commitment when all of the available evidence points to it being a disaster that will only get worse.

This Government stands by this commitment.

See above.

Revoking Article 50 would break the promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote, and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy. As the Prime Minister has said, failing to deliver Brexit would cause “potentially irreparable damage to public trust”, and it is imperative that people can trust their Government to respect their votes and deliver the best outcome for them.

The person doing most to damage public trust is Theresa May with her inept populism and the best outcome for people is for Brexit to be cancelled.

Parliament is due to debate this petition on 1st April. Now would be a good time to let your MP know what you think.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

At less than 100 pages, Binti is a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.

On the face of it, this sounds like a fairly unexceptional space opera. However, by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Binti herself is a great character, believably navigating conflicting aspirations and expectations while never losing sight of who she is or where she comes from. This, combined with some wonderfully evocative world building, makes for a thoughtful take on the way in which family and culture can both ground us and limit us.

FERTS by Grace Hudson

Before I started writing this, I took a quick look at the reaction on Goodreads and was a bit surprised at just how positively FERTS had been received. For me, the novel just doesn’t work.

The war is over. Resources are scarce. The population is dwindling in the Forkstream Territories.

Pinnacle Officer Wilcox has created FERTS amidst the chaos, a facility designed to protect the female population from raiding hordes.

Beth 259201, a newly-demoted Epsilon Internee, suspects that there is something more that lurks beneath the carefully constructed order of the facility.

She has a gift, one that could brand her a defective. A novice fighter, she must use her intellect to survive. Her own life, and the lives of many more may be at risk. Will she succumb to the plans in store for her or will she conceal her secret long enough to discover her own path?

FERTS is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller.

I have the impression that Grace Hudson was trying to write a more overtly post-apocalyptic take on The Handmaids Tale, but FERTS doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving this. A large part of the problem, for me, is that Hudson is too explicit about her world building, to the point that narrative frequently grinds to a halt so that the author can inflict yet another gratuitous infodump on the poor reader.

Not only is this incessant infodumping jarring, but it also has the unfortunate effect of highlighting the extent to which the world, as depicted, doesn’t quite hang together. As a result, I was spending far too much time noticing the inconsistencies and not buying in to any of it.

This isn’t helped by the extent to which the plot jumps from character to character. For much of the story, there is no real sense of where things are going, or which characters are going to prove to be important. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with, or care about, with any of the characters which badly reduces the impact the book is trying to achieve.

And when the plot finally does start to kick in, we have a wholly unjustified superpower that very nearly led me to abandon the book there and then.

Ultimately, FERTS tries to be too many things and juggle too many threads and ends up falling flat in the process.

Chili had a lucky escape

Chili can be a funny cat sometimes. He will sit by the back door meowing until someone lets him out, at which point he will dash straight round to the front of the house and start meowing until someone lets him back in.

He’s lucky that it was French European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau who thought to name her cat Brexit because of its indecisiveness.

She told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche that she named the animal after the U.K.’s EU departure because “he wakes me up every morning miaowing to death because he wants to go out, and then when I open the door he stays in the middle, undecided, and then gives me evil looks when I put him out.”

Credit it where it’s due and it’s nice to see that someone is managing to maintain a sense of humour in the face of the UK’s shambolic government. Although I have to admit to being a bit miffed at the fact that I hadn’t thought of this when we were coming up with names for the kittens.

Chili, on the other hand, should be very thankful indeed.

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.

It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.

The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherry’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.

Any Which Way You Can

I first saw Any Which Way You can way back when I was a boy and, with nothing on at the cinema, this weekend seemed like a good idea to inflict on the boys the story of bare knuckle fighter his Orangutan.

I had forgotten just how funny this film can be.

Clint Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare knuckle fighter who has decided to retire, until the Mafia makes him an offer too generous to refuse. On discovering just how dangerous this fight is likely to be, beddoe tries to call off the fight, at which point the villains kidnap his recently returned girlfriend to try and force him to turn up.

The plot meanders around this, Beddoe’s repeated run-ins with The Black Widows, the most pathetic biker gang ever to reach celluloid, corrupt cops, and Clyde.

Clyde is an orangutan and the real star of this film and its his antics that lift the film from a forgettable 1980s comedy to something that is consistently laugh out loud funny. Wisely, Eastwood recognises who is the real star of the film and is content to play the straight man to the hairy comedian.

There is nothing particularly clever about Any Which Way You Can, and some of the attitudes do look a bit dated now, but Clyde is a joy to watch and makes for a hugely entertaining evening.

“Right turn, Clyde.”