Saturday, 6 March 2021

Black Angel Volume One: Night Hawk by Yann - Book Review


'It is the early 1920s. The Volstead Act has recently prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol, which means that an active black market has sprung up—a market controlled by legendary gangsters such as Al Capone. Supplies must be secretly shipped from France to its outpost in Saint-Pierre, Newfoundland. This dangerous and illegal trade involves aviators flying primitive sea planes—aviators such as Bessie the “Black Angel,” whose mixed heritage also makes her the target of the flourishing Ku Klux Klan. Based on the historical figure of Bessie Coleman, she flies in the face of injustice, prejudice, and discrimination.'

I was curious to read Black Angel when I read the blurb and saw that it was based on Bessie Coleman, an amazing figure from history that I'd read about in the past and thought was a brilliant woman to base a book on; but I was surprised to see that it involved smuggling alcohol during prohibition, as this was something that Bessie never did. This seemed to be less a retelling of Bessie's life, and more a original story that drew some inspiration from her, and that was much more interesting.

The Bessie of this book isn't like the Bessie of history, and the story opens with her piloting seaplanes for Al Capone, carrying illegal alcohol, and his accountant, to and from the island of Saint-Pierre, sometimes flying through fierce snow storms and extreme conditions. It's a strong introduction to the character, one that shows she's not only an incredibly capable pilot, but a young woman who doesn't let fear or the possibility of danger hold her back.

After performing her delivery for the mob Bessie travels across country, returning home, where she keeps her own plane hidden away in her barn. This is where Bessie is able to feel the most free, where she is able to take to the sky and feel truly alive. Unfortunately, whilst out flying Bessie is still unable to escape the horrific racism of the time, coming across a KKK plane. After a brief altercation in the air the other plane is damaged and crashes, killing the Klansmen inside. This leads to the local KKK members beginning a hunt for Bessie.

It seems like this is going to be one of the main plots for the series going forward, Bessie and her troubles with the KKK, and I'm definitely up for that. Let's be honest, we all hate the KKK (and if not you should probably worry a bit) so seeing them getting shit is always enjoyable, and the panel with a Klansman impaled on a tree is one of the best comic panels I've seen in a while. It also adds a lot of danger for Bessie, as these are people who will without hesitation kill her.

Through flashbacks we discover that this isn't the first time that Bessie has had issues with the Klan either, and that they seem to be connected with her love for flying, with another Klan aeroplane being the one that seems to have played a part in inspiring her to fly herself. It makes for an interesting story dynamic, where these people who she hates may have played a part in giving her the inspiration to do the thing she loves.

These ideas don't get explored a whole lot here, as this volume is really all about setting the stage and establishing Bessie as a character, which it does well, but hopefully this will get more of a focus in future volumes. But, as a first book this was a really enjoyable read, one that got me interested, made me smile and cheer, and got me invested in the character.

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Creatures Volume One: The City That Never Sleeps by Betbeder - Book Review


'In a post-apocalyptic New York City obliterated by a Big Night that wiped out most of civilisation, bands of children struggle to stay alive in the wreckage, hunting for food under billowing clouds of toxic fog and running from hungry zombies. One child is endowed with the power to keep them at bay, but will it be enough to protect the survivors from the terrifying creature that has just risen out of the Hudson River? Meanwhile, a raving old man with a house full of books says the worst is yet to come…'

Post-apocalypse stories seem to be more popular than ever these days, guess the pandemic has got people wanting stories about the world being pretty much destroyed for lighter reading than what we're seeing in the news right now. Luckily for readers Creatures doesn't feature a killer virus or anything as grim as that, just dark otherworldly forces seeking our destruction. Much nicer really!

The story begins after the end of the world we know, where a bunch of children seem to be some of the only survivors in the ruins of New York City. We soon discover that this is because something terrible has happened to all of the adults, forcing the children to have to fend for themselves as their parents turn against them.

We open in a small apartment that's home to Vanilla, a young girl, and her brother Peanut, along with their mother, who's being kept in a hazy and unresponsive state with sleeping pills. Whilst Peanut stays at home looking after their mother Vanilla ventures out into the city armed with a shotgun, looking for supplies. On her way back to the apartment, loaded up with canned goods, she's spotted by a pair of kids, Chief and Emma, who's sometimes called Dirt Face.

The pair track Vanilla back to her apartment and watch from outside as she and her brother argue about what to do with their mother. As the duo plot a way to get in and steal the supplies a storm begins to roll in, which causes Vanilla and Peanut to run for the roof where they seek shelter inside a storage unit. Unfortunately, Peanut sneaks away and returns to the apartment where he finds the other kids stealing their stuff. Before they're able to explain away their presence there though the door is thrown open and a crowd of adults make their way inside, acting like zombies. Not only that, but they're joined by this black, tentacle covered creature, one that seems to be controlling them, and wants the children.

Creatures is a pretty spooky first volume, one that sets up this new world nicely, without really giving much away. We learn pretty quickly that something bad has happened, and that the adults have been taken over by some kind of strange mist; but we don't get told why. It leaves enough mystery that you want to learn more, but gives you just enough information to make sure that you don't get too confused or lost.

Much of the issue seems to be setting pieces in place for further volumes. It introduces the reader to the world and the main characters, and gets these characters into an uneasy alliance establishing relationships that can evolve further in the future. It also gives us a few interesting glimpses at some of the creatures to come, and hints at much bigger and scarier things. There's the mind controlled adults, the strange tentacle man, a creature that seems to be some sort of horrific spider that catches children in a cage, and Peanut dreams of some huge, dark, skeletal figure hidden in the mists. It's creepy, and disturbing stuff, and draws upon some very nightmarish ideas and themes. 

The final page of the book perhaps gives the biggest insight into the horrors to come as the thing behind this apocalypse is named; Yog-Sothoth. Yep, this book is diving into the Lovecraftian horror. I was already interested in this book come the end, but as soon as this name got dropped, and you're just able to make out some giant, tentacled horror hidden in the storms that surround the ruins of the city it definitely grabbed my attention. Whether you're well versed in the Lovecraft gods or not, just the very notion that they exist here and are playing a part in these horrors is a hell of a tease to end things on.

Overall I had a lot of fun with this book, the characters weren't hugely developed, but still get pretty clear personalities laid out, and I expect they will get more time to evolve over time in future volumes. There's a big sense of mystery, and wanting to find out answers that will also have me returning for more later on. And the art, provided by Djief, is really pretty. It has an almost cartoon-like quality, yet remains grounded enough that it never feels completely too unreal, and it makes the moments of horror stand out all the more.

I'll certainly be picking up the second volume as soon as it's available.

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Friday, 5 March 2021

The Dark And The Wicked – Film Review

Originally published on Set The Tape 

The Dark And The Wicked is the latest horror offering from writer/director Bryan Bertino, writer and director of the critically acclaimed The Strangers, coming exclusively to Shudder following its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival last year.

The film sees an estranged brother and sister, Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) and Louise (Marin Ireland) returning to their parents farm in Texas when their father’s illness worsens. With their father confined to his bed in an uncommunicative state, the siblings try to help their mother, but discover that she seems to be acting a lot stranger than they first expected. Initially chalking her behaviour up to stress they’re shocked when they find their mother after she hangs herself in the barn.

Upon going through their mother’s things the siblings discover a diary she kept, where she chronicled the strange experiences she was having, about whispered voices in the night, horrifying visions, and the entity that she believed was after her husband’s soul. Soon Michael and Louise begin to experience unsettling things on the farm themselves.

From the very beginning The Dark And The Wicked has an oppressiveness to it that very quickly gets under your skin. Thanks to the limited colour pallet, making use of dark brown, greys, and muted greens, the film’s visual style is very dull, though never boring. The scenes look pretty enough, but the constant lack of brightness and bold colours soon builds up, adding to the lonely and suffocating feel of the film. This feeling is further enhanced by the musical score designed to slowly build tension in the frightening moments, rising up from very quiet moments into an almost disturbing and heavy cacophony of sound as the viewers are drawn into the scares.

This oppressive and heavy atmosphere is very much intentional, and not just to try and create a tone for the film, but because the subject matter is something that we would all find disturbing; even without the supernatural scares. The film deals heavily with loss, and guilt. The characters of Louise and Michael have been absent from their parents’ lives for a long time, having not visited in years, and only occasionally talking to them over the phone. By the time they finally come to help they’re unable to talk with their father, and their mother is a broken shell of her former self.

With the loss of their mother the siblings are having to not only process the loss of her life, and the upsetting and sudden circumstances around it, but are also having to try and find a way to assist their father. They’re having to process their grief whilst also figuring out a way to care for their father, and how this ongoing obligation will fit into their lives. It’s a situation that would push most of us to the extremes of our ability to cope, and I think anyone who has lost a close relative or loved one and has had to try and pick up the pieces of their life left behind will understand how overwhelming that can be at times. When you add in a supernatural force that’s bombarding the two of them with horrifying visions it’s easy to see how a film like this can get under your skin.

The entity itself is something that seems able to affect the physical world at times, yet relies on twisting the minds of people at others. The things it does over the course of the film, the things it makes the characters and the audience see are incredibly disturbing at points, and not only made me uncomfortable but caused me to yell out loud more than once. It’s a horror film that was really able to make me feel frightened, whilst always keeping me intrigued and wanting to know what would happen next. I also happened to have a very disturbing night terror the night I watched the film, so if that was in any way influenced by this movie it’s certainly one of the most affecting films I’ve ever watched.

The Dark And The Wicked is a tense and oppressive film, one that puts its audience into a place where you’re always on your toes, where you’re checking every shadow and dark corner for something frightening. When the scares are on screen they always managed to elicit a strong reaction from me, and when they weren’t I was so absorbed in the narrative that I never once felt bored. If you have Shudder and are looking for something to watch I would highly recommend this film; and if you don’t have Shudder but were considering getting it, I’d certainly point to this movie as a very good reason to.

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What's The T? by Juno Dawson - Book Review


'Discover what it means to be a young transgender or non-binary person in the twenty-first century in this frank and funny guide for 14+ teens, from the author of This Book Is Gay. What's the T?, Stonewall ambassador, bestselling trans author and former PSHE teacher Juno Dawson defines a myriad of labels and identities and offers uncensored advice on coming out, sex and relationships with her trademark humour and lightness of touch. Juno has also invited her trans and non-binary friends to make contributions, ensuring this inclusive book reflects as many experiences as possible, and features the likes of Travis Alabanza and Jay Hulme.

'The companion title to the groundbreaking This Book Is Gay, What's the T? tackles the complex realities of growing up trans with honesty and humour, and is joyfully illustrated by gender non-conforming artist Soofiya.'

Unfortunately, trans 'issues' are a big thing at the moment. I say unfortunately because this isn't really that good a thing. Yes, some things are getting easier for trans people, but on a whole we're having to watch our rights, our legality, and our very existence debated, debased, and dissected on an almost daily basis. The Independent Press Standards Organisation has found that there has been an over 400% increase in articles talking about trans people in the last decade.

Sadly, most of this coverage comes from people who hold negative, and often incorrect and ill informed, views on the trans community. These articles, presented as thing pieces, often contain very open and obvious transphobia, and help to spread this by not challenging these lies, or featuring trans voices to oppose them. Just this month the BBC has stated that it doesn't feel it needs to include trans voices on programmes such as Newsnight to counter negative views on trans people.

Because of all of this negativity and the sheer amount of information out there it can be hard to know what to think, to know what information you should be listening to. And is especially daunting and scary for people just discovering their trans identity, and the families of those who come out as trans, especially young trans people. Luckily, Juno Dawson has presented a new book that aims to provide some clear info to help educate in these dark times.

What's The T? covers a wide variety of topics, all of which play a part in the trans experience. These range from things like realising that you're trans and what to do next, to the trials of dating and romance whilst trans, and even information and resources for parents and loved ones of trans people who want to be more supportive and accommodating.

With this being such a big, and often scary subject, it needs a very special kind of writing style to make it not seem overwhelming or overly complex; this is after all one of the more rare and varied things a person can go through, and no two trans people or their journeys are going to be exactly the same. Thankfully, Dawson manages to make the topic feel very easy to get a handle on, thanks in large part to her very conversational style of writing. Most of the time reading this book it felt like I was sitting down with Juno, simply talking to her. She made these big concepts and issues feel more manageable, and broke them down in ways that a complete layman would be able to grasp.

What's The T? isn't just filled with breakdowns of different medical treatments, or guides on how to navigate a world where it feels like most people hate you because of how you were born, it also has stories about trans people who have survived and thrived. This 'Transgender Hall of Fame' is scattered throughout the book, and features names that will be familiar, as well as people you've probably never heard of. It features writers, artists, filmmaker, politicians, and icons. These are the people who've put themselves in the spotlight, in the cross-hairs of transphobes and bigot, yet have succeeded and found happiness. These small stories show those people in the trans community who might be afraid of what the future could hold, or if they could even have a future, that they're just as capable of succeeding, and that anything is possible.

As someone who's been out as trans for almost a decade, who's gone through the long and arduous process of pursuing treatment and help on the NHS, who's been attacked in the street, fired from jobs, and abused online, yet managed to find a loving relationship, to have surrounded myself with friends and family who accept and love me for who I am I don't think this book is really for me. I knew most of what was in here before I read it, with only the exception of a few featured people or stats being new information to me, yet I still found it to be an amazing read. Because it's the kind of book I'd have loved to have read when I first realised I was trans.

For me, and so many thousands of other trans people, we've had to piece together information and advice from internet forums and chatroom's, from helpful people at LGBTQ+ centres, kind doctors, and trans elders as to what we could do, how we could navigate this world, and how we would survive. We didn't have something like this, but I am so grateful others will. I'm so happy that this book exists out in the world now, that it will be able to help trans people and their allies, and that it can help to combat the deluge of transphobia that's taking over the world; particularly my home country.

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Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Dog That Saved The World (Cup) by Phil Earle - Book Review


'Pickles the dog and his owner Elsie love football more than anything. So they can hardly believe it when Esie's team get the chance to play at the World Cup final at Wembley! But life off the pitch is tough, especially when Esie's dad loses his job and they have to move. So when disaster strikes and Elsie's dreams of playing at Wembley are shattered, Pickles decides that it's up to him to save the world (cup).'

Inspired by the real world events around the theft, and subsequent finding, of the World Cup in 1966, The Dog That Saved The World (Cup) is a lighthearted and engaging story about football, but it also has an engaging and emotional story underneath it, as a family struggle with unemployment and homelessness. 

The story begins following Elsie and her family, her dad and her dog Pickles. At first I thought that the book was going to be from Elsie's point of view, but very quickly things started to stand out as being a bit odd with the narration. What at first seemed like Elsie's excited talk about loving football quickly turned into the surprise reveal that the book is actually written from the point of view of Pickles himself. Now, I'm an animal lover, so any book written from the point of view of a furry member of the family is going to win me over straight away.

Not only does this point of view offer readers a somewhat unique perspective on the story, but it also means that we get to see and hear things that we wouldn't know if the book were written fro Elsie's point of view. Things like her father staying up late worrying and looking sad over letters from a man named Bill, or how he puts on fake smiles when Elsie comes home from school, smiles that she doesn't realise aren't 100% real, but that Pickles does.

You see, despite trying to give Elsie a happy life, giving her the only bedroom, taking her to play football every week, and making sure she's always entertained, her dad is struggling to get by. He's struggling to sell at his job, and the family is getting poorer by the day. He's even began to let himself go hungry so that his daughter gets more food.

Despite these growing troubles Elsie is still a happy girl, especially when her football team gets the chance to enter a competition to play at the World Cup final during half-time. With the help of Pickles, complete with his own uniform, the team impress the judges with their skills and win. Meaning they get to go to the World Cup and play at Wembley. This is a dream come true for Elsie. Unfortunately, this is also the point where things begin to change for her.

Her father, having not sold anything in weeks, loses his job; which means that they can no longer stay in their tiny flat. Now the three of them have to move across London to an old office block that's been turned into one room flats for people who are struggling. This is where Elsie begins to realise how bad things have been going, as she, her father, and pickles, sleep on mattresses on the floor of their single room, surrounded by dirty, decaying walls, and loud, sometimes scary neighbours. But it's not all bad, as they do make friends with another family there, and Elsie has the World Cup to look forward to. However, when the trophy is stolen as it's touring the country it puts everything at risk, as the people in charge of the World Cup say that without a trophy the competition will come to an end.

This is the last straw for Elsie, and she finally breaks down saying 'I'm scared, Dad. I'm scared of living here. I'm scared about money. I'm scared about what we're going to eat and how we're even going to look after Pickles. I'm scared of everything, Dad. I just want to go back home.' It's a scene that's genuinely heartbreaking to read, and one that almost brought me to tears. But luckily for Elsie Pickles hears this too, and makes the decision that he's going to look after his family and make Elsie happy, by going out and saving the World (Cup).

I'm not a big sports fan, and football really isn't my thing, so I wasn't sure what I was going to get with this book. I was kind of expecting a book that made football it's focus, and whilst it does play a large part of the narrative it's not what the book is really about. This book is about family. It's about the love that exists between a parent and their child, and dog, and the things that they will do to keep each other safe. Elise's dad tries to be the voice of comfort and positivity for his daughter, even when he's starving himself to keep her fed. He never once breaks down or gives up in front of her, he never lets her see how badly he's coping.

This love, this willingness to keep going and to try and protect the ones you care about is also what motivates Pickles, and set him out on his journey to try and find the Wold Cup trophy. He's not doing it for fame or fortune, he's doing it because his family is hurting and he wants them to feel better. 

Sadly, this kind of narrative, of a family struggling to live, having to lose their home, giving up their comforts, going hungry because they can't afford food, isn't just something that only happens in fiction. This is a very real reality for a lot of people in the UK right now. Unemployment has increased thanks in part to the pandemic, and more and more families are having to use food banks and other services to help them survive. 

If you've got a child of your own there's probably a pretty good chance that they know someone who's living through something like this, that they have a friend who's family are struggling. Or perhaps that's even their own family. Either way, seeing more stories that address this, that feature families that are struggling is important. It's important because not all families have a happily ever after, and kids need to see themselves reflected in their fiction. They need to see characters that are struggling like them, yet are still able to find happiness and joy in the world. And those that aren't in that kind of situation need to learn about others that are, so that when they encounter people who are struggling they can empathise with them, rather than ridiculing them.

The Dog That Saved The World (Cup) might have a nice story about football and a dog who does something amazing, but I think it's more important than that. It's not just a story to read, enjoy, and never think about again. It's a story that is relevant to so many people in the world right now, people who need understanding and help. If this book helps even one child understand how difficult things are for others, if it inspires them to be kind, or even do something to help others it's not just a kids story, it's something that could help change the world for the better.

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Demons 1 & 2 – Limited Edition Blu-ray Review

Dario Argento is one of the most iconic names in Italian horror cinema, hailed as one of the masters of the genre, who was treated as being on par with Hitchcock in Italy. But as well as his own directorial work, he also helped to produce a number of films considered classics, and helped to forge the careers of other directors. Demons and Demons 2 is one such project, where Argento produced the projects for director Lamberto Bava, the son of Mario Bava, and created a set of films that have become iconic over the years.

The first film sees a young student, Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) being given free tickets to a new film screening. Roping her friend into going along with her, the two girls end up joining an eclectic group of people who’ve come to watch the film. Once the film starts the audience learns that it’s a horror film about demonic possession.

Things begin to take a strange turn when one of the people watching, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta), sees a character in the film playing around with a mask that looks just like the one she messed around with in the lobby, and the man on screen ends up being cut on his face in the same way she does. The lines between fiction and reality begin to blur even more when Rosemary transforms into a demon, just like in the film, and begins to spread the infection amongst the film-goers. With the exits all sealed, the audience is trapped inside the building with the growing number of demonic entities.

Dario Argento is one of the most iconic names in Italian horror cinema, hailed as one of the masters of the genre, who was treated as being on par with Hitchcock in Italy. But as well as his own directorial work, he also helped to produce a number of films considered classics, and helped to forge the careers of other directors. Demons and Demons 2 is one such project, where Argento produced the projects for director Lamberto Bava, the son of Mario Bava, and created a set of films that have become iconic over the years.

The first film sees a young student, Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) being given free tickets to a new film screening. Roping her friend into going along with her, the two girls end up joining an eclectic group of people who’ve come to watch the film. Once the film starts the audience learns that it’s a horror film about demonic possession.

READ MORE: Host – Blu-ray Review



Things begin to take a strange turn when one of the people watching, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta), sees a character in the film playing around with a mask that looks just like the one she messed around with in the lobby, and the man on screen ends up being cut on his face in the same way she does. The lines between fiction and reality begin to blur even more when Rosemary transforms into a demon, just like in the film, and begins to spread the infection amongst the film-goers. With the exits all sealed, the audience is trapped inside the building with the growing number of demonic entities.

The second film is set within an apartment building. We get to meet various inhabitants of the building in the early minutes of the film: pregnant newlyweds, a happy family, a boy left home alone, a gym full of fitness enthusiasts, and an apartment filled with party-goers, to name but a few. Throughout the apartment building various inhabitants are watching a film on television, a film about the demon outbreak that destroyed an entire city, as seen at the end of the first film. When one of these demons literally bursts through the screen and infects one of the viewers a new demonic infection spreads through the building, and the inhabitants begin a desperate fight for survival.

Both of the Demons movies deal with the blurring between reality and fiction, and seem to enjoy breaking the fourth wall in ways that most horror film don’t. There are very few films in general that I can think of that see use the medium of a film within a film to influence events within the ‘real’ world. It’s this uniqueness, along with some fast paced action, great soundtracks, and some top notch special effects that helped to make Demons a popular series from the very beginning.

The films themselves are presented in a great 4K restoration from the original cinema negatives, making this the sharpest and clearest version of these films you’re likely to see. With so many horror fans having watched them originally on grainy VHS tapes and as bootlegs this could be the first time anyone has seen the films presented this way since their original, limited, theatrical runs. The Blu-ray also presents newly enhanced audio tracks for the films, which were made in Italian, and you have the option of the new audio tacks, as well as the original versions. Coupled with the ability to watch the films in the original Italian with newly translated subtitles, the new set provides a host of ways to experience the movies.

The set also comes with some special features, including video essays for both films from historians that give insight into the making of the films, and the careers of both Bava and Argento, as well as a video essay that takes a look at the themes that are present in the movies. There are also multiple audio commentaries for the films, including those with cast and crew that give insight into how the films were made and what it was like to work on them. The most interesting extras, however, are the two audio commentaries provided by people who didn’t work on the films. The first film gets a commentary from the hosts of Hell’s Bells podcast that looks at the film from a historical point of view and the influences it had on the genre, whilst the sequel gets a commentary by critic Travis Crawford, who brings a host of historical and factual information to the film.

I’d not seen the Demons films before this new set, though was aware of it thanks to the iconic imagery of the glowing eyed infected, so to get to finally experience these movies, with all of this loving restoration work put in and a host of special features and new information was an absolute joy. Whether you’re a fan of the franchise already, or simply looking for something standout to watch, this set is an absolute must.

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Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Power Rangers: Time Force – 20th Anniversary

Originally published on Set The Tape 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Power Rangers: Time Force, the final season of the Power Rangers franchise to be produced by Saban before it was bought by Disney; a series that has become a firm fan favourite over the decades since it first aired, due in large part to the darker, more adult themes of the show.

Power Rangers: Time Force begins in the year 3001, on an Earth where humanity has become part of a larger intergalactic community and aliens are part of everyday life. Earth is policed by the Time Force, a police organisation that also uses a special team of Power Rangers when needed. With all other major criminals captured the Time Force goes after the final villain, a mutant named Ransik (Vernon Wells). Whilst Ransik is captured and sentenced to cryo-prison, it seems like it was his plan all along and he engineers an escape that allows him to gain access to the prison complex.

Using a time travel device, Ransik and his gang are able to travel back in time to the year 2001, but not before he battles and kills Alex (Jason Faunt), the Red Time Force Ranger. With Alex dead his fiance Jen (Erin Cahill) and the rest of her team steal the Time Force’s time ship and follow Ransik back. Unfortunately, their ship is destroyed and they’re stuck in 2001. Not only that, but they discover that to use their Morphers and become Power Rangers they need someone to use the Red Ranger’s Morpher, someone whose DNA matches Alex. Fortunately, the team discover Wes (Jason Faunt) an apparent ancestor of Alex, who agrees to join the team and stop Ransik.

It’s not a secret that the Power Rangers franchise can be something of a mixed bag, with some series changing theme and tone quite wildly year to year, but there’s a pretty firm consensus within the fan community that for a while there was a time where Power Rangers was at its best, where the show seemed to have finally learnt how to make a decent, engaging, and entertaining show. Beginning with the previous year’s Power Rangers: Lightspeed Rescue, Power Rangers: Time Force carried across a lot of the themes into its new show.

The series continued to use characters that were out of their teens for a start. Gone were the ‘teenagers with attitude’ of the early days, replaced instead with level headed young-adults who aren’t Power Rangers because they were selected by a space wizard, or because they pulled a magic sword from a stone. Here the majority of the team are people who have been employed to be Power Rangers. It’s literally their job. The only real exception to this is the character of Wes, who’s introduced as something of a reckless young man, someone who hasn’t really had to deal with responsibility before, but learns this over the course of the season from working with his new friends.

Power Rangers: Time Force also uses a more adult tone in its relationships over previous seasons. The very first episode sees Alex and Jen getting engaged, a first for the show, and the untimely death of Alex is a shocking and brutal end to this relationship. This was only the second time that a Power Ranger had ever been killed on screen, so was still incredibly shocking at the time. It also allowed for the added drama of Jen having to befriend and work with a man who looks just like her lost lover, which would go on to create one of the most complex and engaging romantic relationships in the entire history of Power Rangers.

The series also asked some engaging questions about what does or doesn’t make someone a villain, as the series made all of its ‘monsters’ mutants, people whose DNA was different. This raised questions about whether this obsession with DNA mutation mean that the future of 3001 saw all mutants as evil just because of who they were or if there was something more to it; something the series addressed in the episode ‘Trip Takes A Stand’ where the monster of the week was a mutant prisoner, but was not a villain, and was imprisoned for a minor crime. The episode made a point of showing that just because someone looks like a monster doesn’t mean they’re evil. This theme was later explored with the lead villain Ransik, who was played wonderfully by Vernon Wells, who some might recognise as the villain from the film Commando.

Over the course of the season we learn more about Ransik’s past and see that he was very much a victim, that due to his mutation he was seen as evil by society and pretty much left to die, making his turn to crime not just understandable, but necessary for his survival. Ransik is one of the few villains in the franchise’s history to be given this kind of depth, and he even willingly turns himself in at the end of the season, before eventually becoming something of a hero in the Power Rangers: Time Force/Power Rangers: Wild Force crossover the following year.

Whilst Power Rangers has always been a silly show for kids, with spandex-clad heroes fighting people in monster suits, it can have more nuance than people who’ve only every seen the original series gives it credit for. It can be a show that has important themes, that has complex relationships, and that tells stories that are layered and engaging for people of all ages. Power Rangers: Time Force is a prime example of this, of the franchise at its best.

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Marvel Xavier's Institute: First Team by Robbie MacNiven - Book Review


'Marvel’s mutant heroes return when a remarkable student rushes to save his family but ends up in a whole heap of trouble, in this gripping Xavier’s Institute novel

'Victor Borkowski – aka Anole – has adjusted well to life at Xavier’s Institute, gaining control over his reptilian mutant powers and the respect of his fellow students. However, when he discovers that his parents have been kidnapped by anti-mutant extremists, the Purifiers, Victor’s discipline and trust in the X-Men is strained to breaking point. Setting out alone in defiance of his instructors, he’s quickly in serious trouble. It isn’t just the fanatical Purifiers threatening his family, there’s a villainous scientist waiting to get hold of Victor himself. Maybe he can’t do this by himself after all…'

I've been a fan of the X-Men for as long as I've been reading comics, longer even. I remember sitting down to eat breakfast on a Saturday morning as the 90's X-Men cartoon came on TV and loving every minute of it; whether it was the stories that were fairly complex for a kids show, the brightly costumed heroes, or the absolutely rocking intro music by Ron Wasserman, there was never a dull moment. And that show instilled in me a love for these characters, and that particular part of the Marvel universe. 

Over the years I would come to love them even more, especially when I realised I was both queer and trans, and was able to connect to their status as outsiders who are persecuted for who they are. But, as most people who read X-Men stuff will agree, there's a lot of it, and there are parts that I've still not experienced over the years, including the Young X-Men; as such, this book became my first opportunity to get to know some of these younger members of the X-Men.

First Team features several characters, but chiefly follows Victor Borkowski, the young mutant known as Anole, who's been struggling with school thanks to the confined environment of the Xavier Institute, as well as the stressful exam seasons. Luckily, he's given a leave of absence to go back home and visit his family to unwind for a bit. Victor had been lucky enough to grow up with parents who not only accepted his being a mutant, but were immensely proud of him, and made sure that others saw him as a regular person and treated him with kindness and compassion, even though his mutation made him stand out more than most. As such, Victor not only returns home to a welcoming family, but friends, neighbours, and people from across his small town who are proud to have an X-Man amongst them.

With so many characters in the X-Men books having more tragic back stories, of lives where they were never accepted by their loved ones, to see a family stand up for their child this way is incredibly heartwarming. The people of Fairbury treat him with respect and care, for the most part, and to get to see a mutant that's so obviously not human walk down the street and be met with smiles and waves is incredibly jarring, especially as the book had already established that the mutant hating cult The Purifiers were on the rise and causing disturbances across the country.

Unfortunately, Victor's peace is short lived when a group of Purifiers arrive in Fairbury and take his parents hostage in an attempt to lure Victor out. Despite fighting valiantly against them Victor is able to free his mother, but can't help his father, and the cult manage to take him prisoner. 

The first third or so of the book covers this part of the story, and we get to see Victor being forced into action in his old hometown with no back-up and no resources, having to rely purely on his training and his own abilities. Not only does this display how adaptable and level headed Victor is, having to resist the urge to just rush to his parents aid and having to actually come up with a plan, but it also feels so different to most X-Men stories. Whilst stories of civilians and innocent mutants being targeted isn't new to the franchise seeing an X-Man with nothing and no one to help them, having to go alone very rarely happens to characters other than Wolverine. And I struggle to think of it really happening to a character as relatively young and inexperienced as Anole.

Despite these struggles, Victor is able to keep his head and manages to save his mother, thanks in part to the people of Fairbury, and the two of them are able to return to the Xavier Institute. From here the story expands as Rockslide is sent out on a mission to track down Victor's father. Despite knowing that someone is out there looking for his dad, Victor is unable to just sit around, and with the aid of Cipher and Graymalkin manages to break out of the Institute so that he can begin to search for his father himself.

Despite a lot of the book featuring Victor alone it's ultimately, as the title might suggest, about a tam; or more accurately, a family. It's not the family that Victor was born into that's important in this story, but the one that he's made himself, that comes together here to help him when he's at his most desperate. And you know what, it's so much more heartwarming that it has any right to be. It should feel corny, and I should be jaded to things such as this, but the connections forged between the four young heroes here feel so earnest, and so well earned that it honestly filled my heart with joy to see them come together. There's a moment towards the very end of the book (well, the last scene really) that even brought some tears to my eyes with how wonderfully heartwarming it was.

And that's what I love about the X-Men in general, and this book especially. It tells the stories of people who normally don't have much, who've had terrible lives; people like Graymalkin who were almost killed by his father for being gay and a mutant, or like Cipher who grew up alone and with no one. But instead of letting that fear and pain overwhelm them they come together as a family, they find common connection with each other and that makes them stronger than any hate they'd have to face. The group that forms in this book are of characters I'd not read before, or who had only briefly appeared as minor characters in some stories, but by the end I loved them all so much. I not only wanted to see them win the day and beat up the bad guys, what I wanted most was to see them happy.

It's easy to write an X-Men story filled with popular, powerful characters and have them fight some villains and make a story that wins over the reader thanks to the sheer spectacle of it; but making a story with smaller characters, characters some people might never have encountered before, and making you emotionally invested in their lives is a hell of an achievement. An achievement this book manages. 

This is the second Xavier's Institute book that I've read from Aconyte, and the second that's hugely impressed me. Whether we get more of these stories with this group of characters, or something completely new next time I'm definitely looking forward to more.

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Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Girl With Her Head In The Clouds by Karen McCombie - Book Review


'1904 - Alexandra Palace, London. When sixteen-year-old Dolly Shepherd is offered the chance to take to the sky in a hot-air balloon, there's no way she's going to turn it down. Even though the pilot actually plans for her to jump out of the balloon and plummet back to earth using just a flimsy parachute.

For Dolly, it's the start of a sensational career. But the life of an aeronaut is as dangerous as it is daring, and there will be many narrow escapes along the way...'

The Girl With Her Head In The Clouds tells the story of the real life pioneer parachutist Dolly Shepherd. I was only vaguely familiar with the name Dolly Shepherd before reading this book thanks to having looked into pioneering women, but didn't know a huge amount about her; meaning that I was very excited to get to read this book and learn more.

The story begins with Dolly when she is a teenager, just getting ready to leave school and enter the adult world. Straight away we learn that Dolly wasn't a typical young woman of her time, as we see her on the roof of a barn, ready to jump off with nothing but an umbrella to help slow her fall. We also discover that she was expelled from school for throwing a pot of ink at her teacher when he hit her brother in the face and caused him to bleed, something that her parents were secretly proud of her for. Straight away I knew I was going to like Dolly. Her willingness to challenge authority, to stand up to bullies and protect others made me like her straight off the bat. 

Despite her love of life and wanting to do something different Dolly is sent off to work in her aunts business in the city once she reaches sixteen, and despite making some friends with the other girls who worked there, she often comes into conflict with her aunt, who wants a 'nice' and 'respectable' niece, not the fun loving daredevil that Dolly is.

Continuing to sneak off at the weekends to visit Alexandra Palace and see the shows. One day she manages to get herself hired as a waitress so that she can get in to watch a performance from composer Philip Sousa. Whilst there, she overhears another performer talking to one of the managers and hears that his show can't go ahead as his wife is sick. Dolly quickly volunteers, only to find herself on stage having an egg shot off her head by a blindfolded man. Well, this just makes Dolly fall in love with daredevil antics even more.

When she's offered the chance to go up in the air on a balloon and jump off with a specially designed parachute she signs up straight away. With the blessing of her parents, Dolly begins to jump from balloons every weekend, building a name for herself as a female daredevil and aeronaut. But she has a few mishaps and dangerous accidents along the way, all of which are covered in the book.

I honestly had no idea how dangerous and how amazing Dolly's life was, how often she put her life at risk in methods that no one today would use. The stunts she performed were not only impressive by the standard of the turn of the twentieth century, but even today. Yet despite that danger, despite the things that go wrong, and the injuries that Dolly receives, she can't help but keep going, to keep jumping.

The Girl With Her Head In The Clouds has a pretty clear message, I think, that when you find something that you love, that brings you joy, you should pursue it. Find a passion, find something that gives you a zest for life, that brings you and others happiness, and live for it. There are so many times in this book that Dolly could have backed down, or was told to stop, yet she always stayed true to herself. She did what she wanted to, she stopped when she was ready, and she helped to inspire others to do similar.

Dolly was the first person to perform a mid-air rescue, she went on to take part in World War One as a part of the Women's Emergency Corps, she became a fire marshal during the Blitz,  and even inspired her daughter Molly to follow in her footsteps and become a parachutist. She helped to pave the way for others, and never lost her love for life, and is just the kind of person kids need to read about and emulate.

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Secrets of Camp Whatever Volume One by Chris Grine - Book Review


'Perfect for fans of Lumberjanes and Brain Camp, there’s more than mosquitos at Camp Whatever and Willow will need to face truths about herself and her family as summer camp dread goes head to head with the supernatural.

'Eleven year-old Willow doesn't want to go to her dad's weird old summer camp any more than she wants her family to move to the weird old town where that camp is located. But her family—and fate itself—seem to have plans of their own. Soon Willow finds herself neck-deep in a confounding mystery involving stolen snacks, suspected vampires, and missing campers, all shrouded in the sinister fog that hides a generation of secrets at Camp ... Whatever it's called. '

Secrets of Camp Whatever follows Willow and her family, who have just moved to the fog shrouded town of Nowhere after inheriting their grandmother's house following her death. Unfortunately for Willow, they've arrived in town just in time for her to be sent to the local summer camp, Camp Whatever, so she is shipped off the the strange island in the middle of the local lake whilst her family settle into their new home.

Not only is Willow down about having to move to a whole new town, but she's even more unhappy about going to the camp, despite encouragement from her father, who went to it when he was a kid. On the way to the camp Willow learns that there are a lot of local legends about the island it's on, claiming that it's home to a host of unusual creatures from myth and legend. Despite not believing this, once she arrives on the island Willow has to admit it's pretty strange, and that there are some weird things going on it the foggy forest.

Secrets of Camp Nowhere is one of those great books that's clearly aimed at a younger audience, but doesn't treat the readers as stupid, talking down to them or being overly silly, so adults will get a lot of enjoyment out of reading it too. I found it to be instantly memorable of books from my childhood, like Goosebumps, and I was quickly put at ease that this was going to be an enjoyable read. I was also hugely impressed that its lead character was deaf, and that the book didn't use this as something to try and make people feel sympathy or pity towards Willow. In fact, there's only really one person who treats her as any different, and it's obviously made to make him look like a fool for doing it.

Willow is never held back by her disability, and even refuses to see it as such. One of my favourite moments with her in regard to her deafness was when she gets into a confrontation with a bit of a bully, who then lets her go stating 'I don't hit disabled kids', causing her to respond with 'I'm not disabled. I'll disable your face'. This was the moment I fell in love with Willow as a character. She's strong, confident, and doesn't let her disability define her or hold her back. More representation like this!

The book has a ton of other great characters in it too, and Willow is quickly surrounded by a core group of friends each of which are distinct and different enough from the other to be bringing something great into the mix themselves, and could easily be leads in their own series. This really shows that Chris Grine is great at establishing characters, and can make each of them feel fun and unique in a relatively short period.

These aren't the only characters in the book, however, as there are a number of interesting and unique characters inhabiting the island that Willow gets to meet, though I won't say much about who or what they are so as not to spoil, only that I loved seeing them and hope to spend more time with them again.

The plot is pretty standard middle-grade horror mystery stuff, with the characters trying to find out what's going on and trying not to get caught by authority figures or monsters whilst doing it, but it never once felt like it was just retreading old ground. It was constantly engaging and entertaining, and genuinely one of the most enjoyable graphic novels I've read this year.

The art is bold and clear, with distinct and easy to identify characters, and it always looked great. The way the book drains some of the definition from panels to show off the foggy nature of the town and island was really good too, and it really felt like I was looking at things through a layer of fog and mist. Monsters and creatures were also presented in some cool new ways, with some great takes on things that I've seen in other books, but done so in a way that felt unique to this book.

I loved reading Secrets of Camp Nowhere, and the larger pager count went by so fast because of how much I enjoyed the experience. I'm sad that the book came to an end, because of how great it was, but I'm equally happy that it's a first volume, because that means that there's going to be more from these characters and this world; and I can't wait.

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