Book Review – “Ghostkin” (Ellen Mellor, 2018)

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“Ghostkin” works from a premise that will be instantly familiar to fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: an inextricable collision between the otherworld and the mundane world has forced history (since the 20th century) down an alternative route in which humans have been forced to coexist with fay, demons, spirits, and various undead horrors. However, while Ellen Mellor’s book derives its tropes from fantasy and mythology, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Bram Stoker and Norse legends, in tone it owes a good deal more to the likes of “Get Carter”. At heart, what we have here is a supernatural British gangster thriller that de-romanticises its fantasy tropes in a fashion Terry Pratchett would have approved of (One suspects the author may be a “Discworld’ fan). For the various fantasy creatures have all managed to find their niche within human society, while proving themselves just as corrupt and sordid as any humans. The faery – cruel and arrogant beings who delight in spinning glamours and illusions (again, very Pratchett-y, but also drawing on the darker roots of fantasy) – have become drug dealers. Zombies are cheap, exploitable labour (though still partial to blood frenzies and brain-eating, alas, so they need careful handling). Vampires, power-obsessed, domineering, and predatory, are the hardcore gangsters and extortionists, intent on parasitising every aspect of society. The author’s presentation of these particular villains is a strong point: denuded of all “Twilight”-esque glamour or even the “bad boy” Byronic appeal of a Christopher Lee, they are much more akin to the classic “Nosferatu”; verminous and ugly beings, occasionally pitiable but mostly repulsive, and extremely dangerous and amoral. Then there are the ghostkins, but to say too much on them would be a spoiler, suffice it to say that the book’s main character is a strikingly original fantasy creation, whose nature is explored both through plot development and flashbacks. She is also a trans character, but thankfully this is incidental – as a trans writer, I mean this passionately. It is good to see a story about a trans character that does not centre around the fact of them being trans. It communicates the sense that this has only been part of her complex life struggle, and not the be-all and end-all of who she is.

Having said that, Rachel falls firmly within the anti-hero category: not quite as ruthless and unsavoury as Jack Carter, but not so very far above that low level, and her actions and attitudes often make her a hero only by default (as the de facto villain of the book is a complete moral monster). Whether or not she learns from her experiences is debatable: the novel eschews a happy ending with firm closure, appropriately enough, true to its noirish roots. One source of evil is defeated, but in a world so corrupt, what difference can that really make? Potential readers should note that for all its deadpan, Pratchett-esque humour and quirky fantasy tropes, this is very much a dark and adult novel, with themes of drug abuse, mental abuse, human trafficking, torture, and graphic violence. Prepare to spend a lot of time in the heads of characters with unsavoury outlooks and attitudes … If you are up for a gritty, cynical take on the dark fantasy genre, however, “Ghostkin” is a compelling read that will pull you along to a thrilling and original (though well set-up) climax, albeit followed by a troubling ending. Perhaps a sequel is not out of the question?

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Album Review: “Party on, Papillon!”

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Having hugely enjoyed Anna Secret Poet’s earlier album “Tits of Steel” (as hilarious as it sounds, and a great antidote to a depressing workplace where listening to offbeat deadpan punk-poetry ought to be mandatory for mental health), I was eager to hear her latest offering, and was thoroughly entertained, amused, and really very impressed (especially as, by her own admission, recording sessions typically took place in her bedroom). This is not to to categorise it as a mere collection of comic songs – if anything, it is less overtly comical than its predecessor; darker and edgier – although fans will be pleased to know it retains the sharp, laconic wit of her earlier offerings.

Musically, the emphasis is towards a harder, more rock-oriented sound, with some particularly stunning guitar work which it is very hard to believe was mastered in a home studio (although that may account for my one criticism: as with the previous album, the lyrics can occasionally be overwhelmed by music or distortion on the heavier tracks). Anna’s singing is also very impressive, and in spite of her self-deprecation in “Limited Appeal” – a rock and roll pastiche in which she talks of having a “manly voice” – she demonstrates a remarkable vocal range on this album (especially in “The Cat That Got the Dream” – another of the album’s strong rock offerings).

Acoustic offerings are fewer on this album, although the intro and outro both take that form, and have the playful, whimsical humour that characterised much of “Tits of Steel.” Humour on the rest of this album tends to the dark side, especially with “Aunty Semitic and Uncle Adolf” (which one can’t help but feel is written very much for our current times of frightening but absurd resurgent far-right movements) and “Still Ragin’ After All These Years,” which deals with the poet’s existential crises in an ironically bouncy, happy-go-lucky arrangement that owes more than a bit to Paul McCartney (as she hilariously acknowledges, but to say more would be a spoiler). Also on the softer side of arrangements is “Anna vs The Festival” which delightfully recounts the pleasures and pains of being an itinerant performance poet and drag artist at a muddy festival.

Powerfully performed and wittily composed, testimony to its creator’s dual talent as poet and musician, “Party on, Papillon!” is a very worthy follow-up to its predecessor, and worth many listenings.

Convalescent Critic #1: “Yatterman Night”

What to do when I am not even halfway through my ten-week healing process after gender confirmation surgery, and still barely able to get out of doors for any length of time? Getting back to fiction writing or game programming would be ideal, if I had any promising ideas … which I am currently lacking in, alas. Passive entertainment it is, then, but if I am to be expanding my media collection I may as well take the time to review some of it.


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Yatterman Night” / “Yoru no Yattāman” (Anime TV series, 2015)

The original “Yatterman” (1977) was a cheerfully silly sci-fi / secret agent romp in which two precocious adolescent engineers – Gan and Ai (AKA Yatterman-1 and Yatterman-2) – would don masks, build garish but effective animal-themed mechas, and bravely combat the machinations of the Doronbo Gang: an endearingly incompetent trio of would-be master thieves. It was one of many such lighthearted SF cartoons (although probably the best-remembered) created by Tatsunoko Productions as part of their long-running “Time Bokan” series.

The dystopian, post-apocalyptic “Yatterman Night,” created for “Time Bokan’s” 40th anniversary, sits in relation to those shows in much the way “The Prisoner” sits in relation to “The Man From UNCLE.” The silly, garish, larger-than-life tropes are all there, but placed in a context that makes them downright unnerving.

Starting as it means to go on – with tragic scenes of global devastation – the show cuts to an indeterminate future, with most of the world turned into a blighted wasteland. A single, walled-off nation – the Yatter Kingdom – exists, reputedly ruled over by the now-immortal, deified heroes of the original series who, legend would have it, saved the remnants of humanity from the disaster and now require the survivors’ unquestioning loyalty in return. Needless to say, this all turns out to be malicious propaganda, but it is ingrained into the sorry survivors with religious faith, including the protagonist: a nine year-old girl called Leopard, who is the direct descendant of the main villainess (Lady Doronjo) of the original series. At first she carries this legacy with shame, and dreams only of somehow pleasing her overlords, winning their acceptance, and redeeming her family name. That is until her mother falls dangerously ill, and her pleas to the shadowy state authorities for some scarce medical aid are met only with gunfire. She survives the encounter, but her mother dies soon afterwards, and Leopard comes to the distraught realisation that in a society of such inhumane laws, criminals such as her ancestor (whose name and style she now assumes with vengeful pride) are the only possible heroes left.

The rest of the series chronicles her quest for revenge and meaningful justice as she penetrates deeper into the despotic state with the aid of her loyal, protective, if rather less idealistic family retainers: both also descendants of the original villains, but in this series more like a pair of Sancho Panzas to her Don Quixote, deeply sympathetic to Leopard’s cause but not confident it can ever succeed. She also manages to accidentally “recruit” a young pair of traumatised citizens to her cause – Galina and Alouette – and their progress from dejected impotence to active resistance (with some interesting twists along the way) is almost as much the crux of the story as Leopard’s struggle to avenge both her mother and her distant ancestor.

I hugely enjoyed this show and warmed to the characters (especially Leopard and Galina), but I must add that “Yatterman Night” is as absurd as it is dark, taking all the campness and implausible tropes of its original, such as the cutesy animal mechas and the cartoon physics, but disconcertingly putting them in the service of a fascist state. This generally works to jarring and quite sinister effect. Seeing despairing peasants being forced to do silly dance moves and proclaim their happiness before being marched off to labour camps is particularly chilling. The outright comic relief moments do not work as reliably as the drama – there are a lot of references to earlier anime that are easy to miss, among lots of cultural references that do not translate particularly fluidly – and the climactic battle is infamously messy and badly-edited (leading to rumours that the animation budget ran out at the last minute, forcing a lot of footage-recycling) but the story is engaging enough for one to forgive the clumsier moments, the art style and animation elegant and haunting, and the finale both tragic and heartwarming. A grim and deconstructive, yet ultimately strangely affectionate take on fantasy melodrama, and thought-provoking in all sorts of ways (On the values and dangers of symbols and faiths, on how they can be both corrupted and reclaimed, and on how blurry the line between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ is in a grey-shaded world).


As for my actual healing … I have made a fair bit of progress since leaving the hospital almost a month ago. The bruising that once covered most of my lower half has now receded to a few patches, I can stand upright again and take short walks, and I am able to help out a bit around the flat, hopefully making life a little less arduous for hubby, who has been wonderful, but rushed off his feet looking after me. Exercise and long trips are still inadvisable, though, so I will have to resign myself to being an indoor person for some time to come. For want of any adventures to blog on, more random reviewing is highly likely (though I dare hope the adventures are not too far away now).

Album Review: “Tits of Steel”

A brilliantly eclectic combination of performance poetry and punk …

I was lured to this album by C. T. Herron’s glowing review that gave me very high expectations for it, and they were not disappointed … much to my relief, as Anna has been a supporter of this blog since its early days, so it is really nice to be able to write of her work with heartfelt praise.

I should point out, though, that the title claim of Track 4, “I Don’t Know Any Funny Songs,” is a blatant lie, or at any rate unwarranted modesty, as this album is a masterpiece in ironic wit. There seems to be something about Celtic accents that lend themselves nicely to that, so that we can hardly concur when Anna sings later on the album, “I wish I was French but I’m Scottish instead.” (Track 7, “Anna en Francais”) Somehow, her combination of pithy satire and utter surrealism just wouldn’t be the same without her dry, laconic, Glaswegian tones.

Which is not to say that the album is purely an exercise in comic poetry. The musicianship is stunning right from the first, heavy rock track, and continues to show versatility throughout, seamlessly tackling hilarious pastiches of reggae, techno, and funk. The only criticism I could make is one of mastering, in that sometimes the music overwhelms the lyrics, although that would well just be the fault of my inadequate setup (so do try to listen to this on decent sound equipment, as it deserves, rather than a phone speaker or a pair of cheap Flying Tiger headphones).

The whole album was an absolute pleasure for me, but if I had to select highlights, I would probably go for “I Don’t Know Any Funny Songs” (an acoustic number and, as mentioned, a total inaccuracy), “Anna en Francais” (witty, surreal, and all-too-easy for this struggling student of French to sympathise with), and “Catch The Tiger” (which starts off as a series of bizarre self-help style affirmations to a driving, upbeat tune, then turns a corner into something downbeat and ironic, which appeals so totally to my inner cynic).

This is a stunning independent production, the skill and variety of the music perfectly complementing Anna’s wickedly amusing lyrics. The very easily offended might not care for it, but I have no hesitation recommending it to everyone else.

Album Review: “Pesticide”

Having recently received some lovely reviews on my own work, I feel the time has come to share some of the love around, so the next few posts will be reviews of works I have recently discovered and felt were deserving of a wider audience. To commence, a punk-Goth album by an independent local (as in Welsh) band …


“Pesticide” (by Clusterfuck)

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I should state, for the sake of honesty, that the founder, drummer, and producer of this band is one of my best and oldest friends, and also one of the nicest people I know and one of the first people to support me in my transition, so pardon me if I am a little biased … That said, I can impartially state that I know few people so committed to their art, so perfectionist in their instincts (I have seen him lose faith in and abandon many a promising track, or take great persuasion to release them), and so wonderfully eclectic in their tastes, with musical influences ranging from The Sex Pistols and Daft Punk, to lesser-known 1950s Rockabilly idols, to contemporary classical composers such as Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Pärt. This commitment and eclecticism is reflected in his latest album project, the second with this particular band following the almost-as-good “Dear Mortal,” (or visit here to listen online) but I would call this a definite artistic progression, more unified in its structure).

It opens on a epic note with “Reach Out,” with soaring vocals reminiscent of the interludes on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” although by and large this album is far ‘punkier’ than it is ‘proggy’. At any rate, though, it makes for a striking overture, and an impressive lead into the first actual song of the album; “Paranoia.” This piece is as dark as its name suggests and one of the album’s highlights, with a sinister, driving techno beat accompanying the eerie lyrics and the whispering ‘inner voices’ chorus. The Gothic mood continues in tracks such as “Death Begins” and the instrumental “We Are the Void,” the latter in particular being another highlight, its dark electronic rhythms being varied by haunting harmonica fills that seem to echo out of the void (appropriately). Also in this mood – and another of the album’s finest offerings – is their cover version of T. Rex’s “Get It On.” It somehow fits seamlessly into the group’s musical and vocal style, carried along by some beautifully haunting guitar work.

Other tracks, especially to the midsection of the album set a lighter, more relaxed mood, especially the infectiously catchy “Besties,” “Electric Distortion,” (a track on synesthesia, the vivid lyrics delivered in a comically deadpan fashion by the guest vocalist), and the wickedly satirical yet outrage-inducing “Trumped,” consisting mostly of ‘lyrics’ culled from the 45th US President’s most reprehensible statements, along with well-chosen mocking, comically-timed samples. One would love to imagine him hearing it … The satirical mood becomes much darker in the final tracks, with “Money” and “Tazer” dealing with poverty, prostitution and police brutality, but it all concludes on a mercifully upbeat track with “Death Race.”

With tremendous energy, variety, a social conscience, a wicked sense of humour, and a remarkably strong production (especially considering its humble origins, with no big studio or equivalent backing), I have no hesitation in recommending this (with the sole caveat that their language can be quite strong … as the band name itself implies). On a final note, here is me in some rather old footage (taken around 2015) being in a music video for their first album …

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