Sunday, March 31, 2013

Heart to Hart

book review

Miranda Hart's hilarious memoir offers candid insights about the many awkward moments we encounter in life

Author: Miranda Hart
Book: Is It Just Me?

After making her mark on television and gaining widespread popularity for her semi-autobiographical sitcom, British actress and comedian Miranda Hart has transformed her unique brand of comedy into a book with Is It Just Me?

The tome does not function as a chronological biography that follows her life from childhood to adulthood, but takes the shape of a “literary romp” through various issues, sprinkled with anecdotes from Miranda's life. Is It Just Me? takes a lighthearted look at navigating awkward social hiccups and handling scenarios one isn't taught how to deal with. Miranda wonders whether it's just her that repeatedly falls prey to embarrassment, ultimately coming to the conclusion that we all feel awkward to varying degrees and struggle in our own ways.

“The nub of life is surely negotiating and avoiding idiocy,” she states at the onset, and then goes on to discuss topics like music, office life, technology, beauty, health, holidays, pets, dating, and dreams. A number of embarrassing incidents are henceforth relayed, as she talks about her lack of the “muso gene”, the phenomenon of the abandonment of hobbies as a teenager and struggle with it thereafter, her favourite things about working in an office, and the indignities of the ageing process.

While much of the book is directed to her reader - or My Dear Reader Chum, as she puts it - there is also an occasional sidebar: Miranda's eighteen year old self intermittently pops up for a conversation with her current, grown up self, and is often appalled to find out how her life is going to turn out. Is It Just Me? eventually ends on an inspiring note, encouraging us to just “make the best of our lovely, wonky selves”. “We are all unique which makes us beautiful,” writes Miranda, before advising that it's always best to be who you are instead of trying to be something you're not.

As a “Miran-ual”, Is It Just Me? does what it sets out to do: offer candid insights about the many awkward moments we encounter in life. If you want a detailed account of Miranda's past, then that isn't what you'll find here; those looking for an in depth narrative about the life of the quirky comedian are likely to be disappointed with the book, although, to be fair, a detailed autobiography is not what this volume purports to be. Also, there may be some overlap in the material here and on her show, and at times you may wonder to what degree the material is being exaggerated for comedic effect. And although things conclude on an uplifting note, one can't help but notice that while the writer wants us to think that she is content with exactly how things have turned out for her, sometimes she does not sound entirely convincing.

Still, the style of writing is affable, and the frankness of the author makes it easy to cheer for her and relate to her. The content here may not always be side splittingly hilarious, but it is witty, lighthearted, and ultimately uplifting. Her self-deprecating sense of humour is endearing, and it also makes you think about your own life and realize that you really aren't alone - at one time or the other, all of us struggle with ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in. Overall, Is It Just Me? is a quick and amusing read, and while it isn't the most evenly written and well structured tome, it's still a warm and charming read, and fans of Miranda's style of humour are very likely to enjoy it.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 31st March, 2013

Bon Jovi rocks on

album review

Bon Jovi are aspiring to sound like a watered down version of U2 with occasional folksy leanings, while venturing into Bruce Springsteen's heartland 

Band: Bon Jovi
Album: What About Now

Few bands can even dream of experiencing the same level of success as Bon Jovi, the New Jersey rock quartet who first appeared on the music landscape with their self-titled debut album in 1984 and have been going strong ever since. Selling 130 million records worldwide while maintaining a successful working partnership for three decades is certainly no mean feat, and that in itself is something the group deserves props for. The band, however, has not always fared well with critics, and their search for a new identity over the last few albums has generated a mixed response from fans and critics alike. With their twelfth album, What About Now, Bon Jovi have descended further into the abyss of commercial pop rock, diluting the sound that built their legacy and made them who they are in the first place, but have still given their fans a few reasons to punch the air as they sing along.

On What About Now, it appears as if Bon Jovi are aspiring to sound like a watered down version of U2 with occasional folksy leanings, while venturing into Bruce Springsteen's heartland. The result is slick and polished, but also subdued and predictable.

The political and social commentary on offer here is as bland as the tunes that are wrapped around it. There are ambiguously uplifting inspirational anthems which dish out vague statements that seem to have come straight out of a cliché generator. And there are softer ballads that yearn to be more effective than they really are. Listening to the whole album from start to finish in one go makes the material seem limp and indistinguishable, and it becomes hard to identify any standout ditties. The songs on the set will probably make a better impact if you listen to them individually instead of giving the album a continuous spin.

The material might also translate well in live performances. You can easily picture a stadium full of fans enjoying fist-pumping anthems like the catchy lead single 'Because We Can'. The Coldplay-adjacent title track 'What About Now' could effortlessly soundtrack any number of television montages and political rallies. And the mandolin on the blue collar anthem 'What's Left of Me' does add a slight refreshing tinge to the record. But what's missing is the rawness of their early material. All too often the overall results are lackluster and the optimism seems more saccharine than rousing.

What About Now suggests that Bon Jovi have lost their edge and are not pushing themselves to create something different or interesting. Their inability to commit to a solid, distinctive sound, and their decision to instead make more monochrome, predictable pop rock isn't helping their image. Fans of their early material might be weary of the path the group has chosen to travel down, and listeners who have previously had no interest in their music are very unlikely to find this album exciting. The band isn't trying to win over their detractors with this effort, but have simply made an inoffensive, middle of the road pop rock record that targets the mainstream market and does little else.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 31st March, 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

How to study more effectively

on campus: study tips

Trudging through heaps of course material every semester can be trying, but with a little organization and punctuality, you can make the studying process a lot easier and effective. Here are a few tips that might help you out and give your grade a boost.

Make a timetable
Figure out how much time you have, and then make the best use of it. With a timetable, you can organise your study sessions and allocate time for each course so that you can easily cover all the subjects and topics and not end up overwhelmed by material at the end of the term. It often helps to have variety in your schedule, and to study different subjects during each session. And when you make the timetable, make sure you leave enough space for revision and testing. Plus, remember to factor in some down time. Take breaks at regular intervals. And reward yourself for sticking to your schedule by allowing yourself some time to spend on an activity you enjoy.

Stay ahead
When your school term starts, your professors will often give you a course outline that presents a breakdown of the course and detail when each topic/chapter will be covered in class. Try your best to stay one step ahead of this schedule. Instead of studying the chapter after it is covered in class, study it before the lecture, underline and jot down the main and important points as you go through the course material, and then go through these points after the class. Not getting to the textbook till later could lead to a buildup of material that you eventually have to cover, and would leave you at risk of falling behind. And what could be a better way of not falling behind than staying ahead?

Don’t miss classes
The simplest and easiest way to learn is to attend classes regularly, although the very obvious usefulness of being present in class doesn’t deter some students from carelessly skipping lessons. Understanding what is taught in class doesn’t only help you learn things easily and give you a chance to ask for clarification when you’re having trouble with a concept, but paying attention to what your teacher places emphasis on could also help you gouge the importance of topics which could come in handy during examination preparation. If you do, however, have to miss a lesson for a valid reason, then make sure you find out what happened in class; note down which topics were discussed and study them thoroughly, ask your friends for the notes they took during the lesson and for their assistance in helping you to understand the concepts, and, if need be, go up to your instructor and request that they explain any topics you are having trouble with.

Take notes
Preparing notes while i) studying your textbook, and ii) attending lessons, is essential. As you peruse your reading material, jot down the important points as well as the concepts that you are finding difficult. And also take notes while you’re in the classroom, noting down the salient points (and only the salient points – writing down every single word that is said in class is generally not the best idea) that are being discussed during the lecture; these notes will later help you to recall what was taught in class, and will also serve as an important revision resource. Plus, you can also transform your notes into other helpful aids, like:
* PowerPoint presentations: You can use PowerPoint to take notes, or to give your notes a more organised shape. Prepare a presentation with one topic on each slide, and add the relevant bullet points for each topic.
* Flash cards: Print formulas, definitions, or any other important points on cards, and go through them repeatedly to retain the information. You can also write questions on one side of the cards, and put the answers on the back; whenever you are free, you can go through them. Eventually, you get so used to the material that you can revise the whole course just by reading these cards.
* Audio notes: Record your study notes (you can use a computer or a phone or even a good old fashioned tape recorder) and listen to them for revision. The audio input adds another channel for the material to be retained and can help imprint information in your mind.

Ask questions
Students sometimes shy away from speaking up in class or asking their teachers for help, but if you’re having trouble grasping a concept, then don’t hesitate to ask your teachers for guidance. If you don’t get a chance to ask them in class, then utilise their office hours and talk to them in their office; maybe you will find it easier when they’re communicating with you one on one.

Minimise distractions
Finding a quiet, peaceful place for studying can do wonders for your concentration which can, in turn, increase retention. So turn off your phone, log off your messengers, and find a place to sit where you can concentrate on your books. That said, you need to find a place that works for YOU, so don’t assume that you HAVE to study in, say, a library; create an environment that you find conducive for your studying process. And it might also help to change your study area from time to time; some students find alternating study spaces more effective for studying, so give it a try.

Explaining what you have learned to someone else can be a useful tool for your own learning process. You don’t actually have to teach a pupil; ask your siblings or friends if they have time to help you out. Don’t have a person available? Then just teach your cat or dog or pet rock. It doesn’t matter who you are addressing as long as you verbalise the concepts. (If they are willing, you can also ask your friends to quiz you afterwards.)

Just repeat, repeat, repeat everything as much as possible. Revision and repetition is the best way to increase retention, so try to come up with different ways – text, notes, audio, visual, pictorial – to revise the same material. You might want to begin each study session by revising what you studied last time. Testing yourself and writing down (multiple times, if need be) what you have learned could also help.

And always remember that you need to figure out what works best for YOU. Never get distracted by the fact that other people are doing things differently. Try different techniques and strategies, see how well they work for you, and try to learn the material for yourself, not for the marks or the exam; you never know when it might come in handy in the future.

- S.A.

 Us Magazine, The News - 29th March, 2013

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Playing it safe: Josh Groban’s 6th album channels mainstream music

album review

All That Echoes offers more of the crossover classical music that Josh Groban is well-known for, and takes it a step further in the pop direction

Artist: Josh Groban
Album: All That Echoes

After working with longtime producer David Foster on his first four albums, singer Josh Groban opted to go for a change and work with Rick Rubin on his fifth record Illuminations (2010). Though the effort garnered mostly favourable reviews and sold over a million units, Illuminations became the singer's first album not to go multiplatinum. Undeterred by this decline, Groban decided to make an even bolder move for his sixth record: to work with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo.

To many, the choice may seem both confusing and interesting, and might also leave you wondering: why exactly was Rob Cavallo chosen to helm this project? Listen to the album and you still won't find any clear answer to that question. If the aforementioned names suggest a grand, daring project that sees the raucous marriage of punk rock and classical pop, then that is certainly not what you will find here. All That Echoes offers more of the crossover classical music that Josh Groban is well-known for, and takes it a step further in the pop direction.

Wrapped in lush strings and supported by smooth piano tunes, the dozen tracks on the set deliver a mix of original songs and covers, and, as always, showcase Groban's powerhouse vocals. Lead single and opening track 'Brave' takes the listener to the uplifting territory in the vicinity of 'You Raise Me Up' and 'You Are Loved (Don't Give Up)'. Other songs co-written by the singer include the aching 'False Alarm', the touching 'Below the Line', and the bittersweet 'Happy in My Heartache', as well as the exotic Italian song 'E ti prometterò', a duet with Italian pop singer Laura Pausini, and the Spanish 'Un alma más', which features Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

The choice of covers is diverse and interesting, but the songs don't always work as well as one would have hoped. Glen Hansard's 'Falling Slowly' and Jimmy Webb's 'The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress' get impassioned interpretations here, but the traditional Irish folk song 'She Moved Through the Fair' suffers because of a tacky arrangement (Sinéad O'Connor recorded a memorable rendition of this song for the Michael Collins (1996) soundtrack, and even Irish boy band Boyzone offered a far more sublime take on it in their 1996 album A Different Beat), and the cover of Stevie Wonder's 'I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)', while well sung, feels unnecessary and does not add much to the original.

Ultimately, despite the presence of Rob Cavallo, All That Echoes still gives the sense that Groban is playing it safe and following the same formula as his previous albums, although he is showing a slight more slant towards pop music; why Cavallo was specifically sought out to produce this record remains unclear. This isn't an adventurous romp into the pop rock territory, but a set of competent, inoffensive, songs that proceed in a similar vein to the music he has previously made. The singer still sounds warm and suitably charming. Diehard fans are likely to enjoy his trademark mix of classical and pop and find the record satisfying, but for the rest of us, All That Echoes would have been a lot more interesting if Josh Groban had taken a few risks, broadened his horizons, and ventured into territories that he hasn't visited before.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th March, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013


movie review: in the picture

Flight ***1/2

Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Bruce Greenwood, Nadine Velazquez, and Tamara Tunie
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

After focusing on motion capture films for nearly a decade, Robert Zemeckis returns to live action with Flight, the story of a downed airplane and the troubled pilot who had been at its helm.

Following a night of partying with flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) sets off to fly a plane from Orlando to Atlanta. But the flight soon runs into trouble, first due to bad weather and then mechanical malfunction. Whip ultimately performs a daring maneuver to arrest the plane's rapid descent, and crash lands it in a field, saving most of the people on board. He is initially celebrated as a hero, but the results of a toxicology report soon reveal that he was intoxicated while operating the aircraft, turning him into the subject of an investigation.

Flight benefits from some stunning filmmaking when it's in the air, and powerful acting when it's on the ground. The action only lasts for about the first quarter of the movie; after that the pace slows down considerably and the film turns into a study of the flawed character at its center. The contrast between the dynamic physical turbulence during the first part of the film and the inner, emotional/psychological turbulence during the rest of it is striking and interesting.

The bulk of the movie rests on Denzel Washington's performance, and it is his skill that keeps the film afloat for its two hour running time, as he portrays his complex character's charisma and flaws as we go along. The fact that the Oscar-winner gives a committed performance shouldn't come as a surprise. His portrayal of the pie-eyed pilot is expertly delivered, and the people that he interacts with - including a lawyer who is trying to help him (Don Cheadle), the pilots union rep (Bruce Greenwood), a recovering addict and his love interest (Kelly Reilly), and his friend and drug supplier (John Goodman) who provides the film's comic relief and steals every scene he is in - provide a canvas for the exploration of his character while the supporting cast effectively complements his efforts.

Some of the supporting characters and their relationships, however, do feel a tad stereotypical. At times Flight feels a bit heavy handed and lacks the subtlety that would've perhaps made a stronger impact on the audience. And the movie's long running time does leave you wondering if any of the relationships could have been skimmed down or reworked to make the movie more crisp.

For the most part, Flight isn't a fast paced action packed thriller; it's a slow, dark drama about drug/alcohol abuse that analyzes addiction and its effects. This probably won't be the best thing to watch if you're about to board a plane, and it is extremely unlikely that the film will ever be shown as in-flight entertainment. If you are, however, in the mood for an aviation and addiction drama, then Flight will deliver a tale that is intriguingly dark and laden with tension, and propelled by strong acting and powerful performances.

– Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th March, 2013

Excess baggage

album review

My Chemical Romance compiles songs that never made it on to their previous album, resulting in the energetic and edgy Conventional Weapons

Band: My Chemical Romance
Album: Conventional Weapons

The process of making an album often leaves artists with extra songs that don't make it onto the record for one reason or the other. At times some of these tracks later resurface on subsequent releases, while others are never unveiled and don't get a chance to make their way to the listeners' iPods.

My Chemical Romance also found themselves in possession of such excess material while recording their fourth album in 2009. After reinventing their sound with the rock opera The Black Parade (2006), MCR returned to the studio to work on their next album. A number of tracks were made by the New Jersey rock band during the initial sessions for this record, but were subsequently scrapped in favor of the material that eventually formed Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2010). It is these shelved songs that have now been put out as part of the band's latest project, the unconventional, multi-volume compilation, Conventional Weapons.

The missing link between The Black Parade and Danger Days, Conventional Weapons sees 10 previously unreleased tracks issued in a series of five parts, two songs apiece. One disc was released per month over the course of five months from October 2012 to February 2013.

Commencing with the punk kick of 'Boy Division', the set goes on to reveal the infectious 'Ambulance' and 'Gun', the emotional 'The Light Behind Your Eyes', and the raucous 'Make Room!!!!' (which makes prominent use of the lyric “everybody wants to change the world, but no one wants to die” which also appeared in Danger Days' 'Na Na Na'). The songs here are big and powerful, and seem like good raw material for live shows. There are various shades of anger and angst in these tracks, which are delivered with strong vocals and some great guitar work.

So was the decision to scrap these songs and record a new album instead the right one? Danger Days was a more mainstream effort, although that didn't necessarily make it a better album - it missed the power of The Black Parade and seemed perhaps less sharp and intense (and musically more upbeat) than MCR's previous opus, and that is why some listeners will probably feel that the band would have been better served had they stuck to Weapons instead of going for Danger Days. But it is also entirely possible that Weapons wouldn't have found the same mainstream traction that Danger Days did.

Ultimately, the songs in the Conventional Weapons artillery are energetic and have more edge than the tracks that eventually replaced them, but put together into one collection, they aren't as cohesive as the album that was recorded in their place (although their lack of unified theme isn't necessarily a bad thing). The curious amongst us will appreciate a chance to hear these songs; more than anything, the set offers an extremely interesting look at a band struggling to come up with the follow up to one of the most stunning concept albums of its decade, and then second guessing their decisions and choices. Fans will enjoy finding out how the band progressed during that phase and will relish the chance to discover the album that could have been.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th March, 2013

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Country strong

album review

Country megastar Tim McGraw delivers another signature album for his die-hard fans, while peppering the album with a few mainstream moments to draw in new listeners

Artist: Tim McGraw
Album: Two Lanes of Freedom

One of the biggest names in country music for the last two decades, Tim McGraw has had a string of number one albums, won numerous awards, and sold millions of records. The last few years have also seen him make his presence felt as an actor, appearing in films such as The Blind Side (2009) and Country Strong (2010). But his recent album, Emotional Traffic, was also the subject of a dispute; a feud with his record company derailed the release of the album, which eventually came out in 2012 after a legal battle and years of delays. Now, joining forces with a new label and reclaiming his independence, the singer returns with his twelfth record Two Lanes of Freedom.

The country superstar sounds both relaxed and confident on the new set, as the tracks meander through varying combinations of country, pop, and rock. An army of songwriters churns out lyrics and tunes, and, as always, McGraw proves that he knows how to pick the right songs that fit his personality and compliment his vocal strengths. His voice meets pianos, guitars, strings, and horns over the course of the 11 songs on the record, as he delivers another set of tracks that are likely to keep him atop the country charts. Longtime producer Byron Gallimore once again joins forces with McGraw to produce a satisfying collection of contemporary country music.

The tracks on Two Lanes of Freedom benefit from the instrumental flourishes that adorn them. A mix of up-tempo and mid-tempo songs is on offer here, although the latter generally outweigh the former. From the lively romp of the instantly catchy (albeit a tad inane) first single 'Truck Yeah' and the Ben Folds' reminiscent 'Mexicoma' to 'Book of John', a touching ballad about a lost loved one, and the open road tune about “drivin' and dreamin'” on an “old country road” in the form of the title track and album opener 'Two Lanes of Freedom', there is the usual amount of variation in pace and subject matter here. There is also the requisite duet, 'Highway Don't Care', that sees the singer harmonize with Taylor Swift; Keith Urban assists by adding a soaring guitar solo to the track. But the song that really stands out is 'Nashville Without You', a sweet ode to the classic country songs that have defined Nashville; it's a breezy and effortless tribute to the tracks that built Music City, and its simple sincerity makes it the highlight of the album.

The singer doesn't take many chances on the record, and perhaps that is why the songs in the mid-tempo category sometimes come off as middling and could have made use of better hooks or been structurally more interesting. But McGraw's vocal prowess and sincerity generally rescues the tracks that might have otherwise come off as somewhat bland.

Overall, Two Lanes of Freedom is exactly what you would expect a Tim McGraw album to be like - it's well sung, slickly produced, and possess commercial appeal. The record also shows that McGraw can pull off both offbeat ('Truck Yeah') and simple but gorgeous ('Nashville Without You') songs, and knows how to deliver with sincerity the tunes that have been written by different songwriters. But it never quite strays too far from his established sound. Country music fans will enjoy the set, especially those who appreciate lush balladry and poignant storytelling.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 3rd March, 2013

Friday, March 01, 2013

Of perseverance and hope ...

book review

Book: The Silver Linings Playbook
Author: Matthew Quick

Film adaptations of novels sometimes bring the books to a wider audience and generate renewed interest in the tomes. That phenomenon has recently been experienced by The Silver Linings Playbook, author Matthew Quick’s 2008 debut novel that was recently transformed into an Oscar nominated Hollywood movie.

We meet the protagonist, Pat Peoples, as he goes back to his parents’ home after spending many years in a mental health facility. Obsessed with physical fitness and working out, and (like his father and brother) fanatically devoted to the Eagles, the former history teacher is on a quest to find his happy ending, looking for the end of “apart time” when he can finally be reunited with his estranged wife Nikki and find his happily ever after. But things aren’t going quite as he would have hoped. He doesn’t have any recollection of the last few years, his beloved Nikki has a restraining order against him, his relationship with his father is strained, his parents are going through a rough patch, and a weird girl named Tiffany appears to be pursuing him. Oh, and he is being haunted by a Kenny G song that instantly sends him into a wild rage!

Ok, so Pat might have a few issues, but he isn’t willing to let any of them defeat him, and that is what sets him apart from the other characters in this, and many other, books. And his quest for self improvement may be compulsive, but at the heart of it all, there is a strangely engaging quality to him, and his blind refusal to give up hope is inspiring. As he practices “being kind instead of right”, it’s hard to ignore that this is something that many – or perhaps even all – of us should aspire for.

The Silver Linings Playbook is adequately written, and while the prose might not necessarily bowl you over, the book succeeds by being disarmingly honest; it’s heart-warming and seems heartfelt, and its offbeat characters and message of perseverance keep you engrossed in the proceedings and rooting for the characters. Plus, it’s a short read; Matthew Quick keeps the narrative moving along swiftly and you don’t have to wait too long to find out how things turn out for Pat and the people in his life.

But be warned: as Pat expresses his dismay over the despair in literature (he has decided to read all the novels that are on Nikki’s American literature class syllabus, “just to make her proud”), the book contains some major spoilers of classics including The Scarlet Letter, The Bell Jar, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a few others. So if you have yet to read these books and are likely to be put off by the spoilers, then you might want to move Playbook to the end of your reading list and get to it when you’re done catching up on your classics.

Overall, The Silver Linings Playbook is a heart-warming story of perseverance that encourages us to be kind and have hope. And it would be hard to argue that there can ever be an excess of hope and kindness in the world.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 1st March, 2013