Monday, July 28, 2014

No surprises here

album reviews

Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear lacks diversity and Robin Thicke‘s Paula falls on deaf ears

Singer: Sia
Album: 1000 Forms of Fear

Over the last few years, Australian singer Sia Furler has made a name for herself as a songwriter for hire, building a resume that showcases writing credits for pop stars like Britney Spears, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue, and Shakira. Her style may be limited but it fits the glossy pop landscape, a critique that also applies to her new album, 1000 Forms of Fear.

On her first record since 2010's We Are Born, the quirky singer (whose current loathing for fame has led her to perform with her back towards the audience and pose with a paper bag on her head) works with a host of co-writers to share songs that are often inspired by her personal struggles, opening up about her depression and addiction on tracks like lead single 'Chandelier'. Her distinctive voice adds texture and emotion to the delivery, although her strained vocals are often made unintelligible by her inability to enunciate words clearly.

The singer knows how to come up with catchy melodies, and there are some strong tunes in this 12-song set that has been produced primarily by Greg Kurstin. But just as Sia's credentials would suggest, the results are quite formulaic. The songwriting is generally very straightforward and generic; the lyrics often get mired in clichés; and there is nothing creative about the song structures. Perhaps the album's biggest fault is that the material fails to set her apart from other artists. Most of these songs could have appeared on any contemporary pop singer's album and we would hardly have noticed the difference.

1000 Forms of Fear, Sia's sixth album, hovers too close to the sound that she has helped create for other artists, coasting on the same brew that she has been crafting for commercial success and losing her own distinctive edge. Much of the album isn't interesting enough to stand out in the sea of mainstream music, but if you like simple, glossy pop, then this album is very likely to impress you.

Highlights: 'Chandelier', 'Hostage', 'Straight for the Knife'
Rating: 3 out of 5


Singer: Robin Thicke
Album: Paula

Robin Thicke wants Paula Patton back and no one seems to care, quite possibly including Paula Patton herself.

The R&B crooner and his actress wife separated earlier this year amidst rumors of infidelity on his part, not long after his image took a significant hit following his sudden rise to global fame with the success of controversial single 'Blurred Lines'.

Now, the hastily assembled Paula seems to be on a twofold mission: to win back his childhood sweetheart while capitalizing on the momentum of last year's Blurred Lines. From the looks of it, the album has, at least so far, failed on both counts. According to the by now infamous statistic, the disc sold 530 copies in the UK, 550 in Canada, and around 50 in Australia during its first week. But its sales figures aren't the only embarrassing aspect of this project. Its content is awkward in more ways than one, and often takes the listener to an uncomfortably invasive territory.

All songs have been co-written and co-produced (with Pro Jay) by the singer himself, and a handful of them display obvious influences, like the John Legend  reminiscent 'Still Madly Crazy' and the James Brown evoking 'Living in New York'. There is no denying Thicke's vocal prowess and his delivery is as smooth as ever on these tunes. Sonically the set is quite affable, but combined with the lyrics, the overall effect is almost unsettling. And it doesn't help that the playful songs sometimes sound too self-satisfied, and the otherwise catchy tracks like 'Something Bad' are layered with an odd tone of smugness.

Whether Paula helps save Robin Thicke's marriage remains to be seen, but it is very unlikely that the record will help the singer with his image problem. The album's content borders on humiliating and creepy, and even though it offers some enjoyable slices of funk and soul tinged R&B, its lack of lyrical grace doesn't do much to help Thicke's cause.

Highlights: 'Get Her Back', 'Still Madly Crazy'
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 28th July, 2014 *

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Not what it seems

book review

Book: No Way Back 
Author: Matthew Klein

Matthew Klein may not be a massively popular name in literature but that is in no way indicative of his talent as a writer. No Way Back, Klein’s third book, is a gripping, first-person thriller that, for the most part, succeeds in keeping the reader hooked to the narrative.

Before we get to the actual story, we are met with a four-page prologue. A victim is being brutally tortured by an unidentified tormenter. The scene is gratuitously violent and uncomfortably gory, and it might leave many readers wondering if they’d be better off returning the book to the shelf from where it came.

But then we get to the first part of the novel; the tone shifts and a very interesting story begins. Our protagonist (and narrator) is Jim Thane, a man in his late 40s who is trying to put his troubled past behind and get his life back on track. Years of drinking, gambling and womanising have taken a toll on both his career and marriage, and the spectre of his son’s death still haunts him. But a new job has presented an opportunity to make things right.

Jim has been hired to helm the ailing Tao Software LLC, a firm with a product that doesn’t work and a former CEO who has gone missing. The restart assignment sees Jim take charge of the company as he tries to rescue the business and salvage some value for the investors. But Tao is burdened with incompetent personnel and riddled with financial problems, and the lack of resources leaves him with only seven weeks of cash to turn the company around.

That, however, isn’t the only snag. As Jim begins to dig into the disappearance of his predecessor and make sense of the discrepancies around him, he soon realises that things aren’t exactly how they seem. It appears that Tao might be a front for nefarious activities, and the motive of his employers might be more dubious than he first suspected. His personal life isn’t faring any better and his wife’s behaviour appears to be getting progressively stranger with each passing day.

So far, the book is well-plotted, competently written, and impossible to put down — but at this stage part one ends and it all goes downhill.

In an effort to lead the tale to an unexpected conclusion, Klein throws plausibility out of the window and goes for an ending that borders on nonsensical. It’s a twist that readers will either enjoy or find ridiculous, although in all probability their opinions are likely to be inclined more towards the latter. Yes, the wrap up isn’t predictable and you probably won’t be able to foresee what happens in the last few pages, but there’s a reason for that: it doesn’t entirely make sense. Aside from the many things that don’t quite add up and the questions that are left unanswered, you are also left wondering whether Matthew Klein genuinely thought this would be a clever twist or if he just wrote himself into a corner, didn’t know where to go from there, and opted for an outlandish conclusion. If this really was the ending he wanted to go with then it could have at least used some more explanation.

However, even though No Way Back falters towards the end, it doesn’t change the fact that, at least up until that point, it really is a well-written thriller. The first two-thirds of the book are very captivating. Klein succeeds in building tension and mostly gets the pacing right (although perhaps it’s a tad too easy for the reader to be a beat ahead of the protagonist who is often unnecessarily slow at putting two and two together). His voice is crisp and clear, and his ability to turn a slick phrase impressive. And you don’t have to look up the American author’s biography to figure out his background; Klein’s amusing observations on the corporate world and the details that colour his prose easily reveal that he is well-acquainted with the business arena.

The characters he creates are also intriguing. Be it the smart-alecky Jim with a chequered past or his wife Libby who is clearly hiding something, the people the writer has come up with are enigmatic, if not necessarily likeable (although that ambiguity usually works in the story’s favour).

In short, No Way Back is a fine blend of suspense and dark comedy which suffers because of its less than satisfying resolution. It is built on an interesting idea and written with an engaging, fluid tone that never lets the proceedings feel dry, but it can at times be too graphic; the eventual return of the violence that was foreshadowed in the prologue might prove to be too intense and distasteful for some readers. Still, the twists and turns of this thrilling yarn will keep you guessing; its witty take on the corporate world will offer many moments of amusement; and its unexpected ending will, if nothing else, leave you surprised.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 27th July, 2014 *

Orange Is the New Black - no rules apply

tv series review

Some lessons in life can only be learnt under lockdown

Almost 10 years ago, Piper Kerman served 13 months in a minimum security prison for her involvement in money laundering for a drug operation during the ’90s. She later documented that experience in her 2010 book, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was then turned into a straight-to-web series by Netflix. The first season of the dramedy premiered last summer, and the show quickly became one of the most talked about programmes of 2013, thereby, helping to establish the streaming service as a legitimate player in the industry and taking the binge-watching trend to a whole new level.

Now, the Peabody Award-winning series has unveiled its second season, reuniting us with the oddball occupants of Litchfield Penitentiary for another set of 13 episodes.

When we last saw Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), she was busy pummelling her nemesis Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), the meth addict who had resolved to kill our protagonist. This season kicks off with Piper in solitary confinement, and an episode worth of twists takes her on an unexpected detour. The dynamic of her relationships with ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) and former girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) are completely different this season, and we subsequently see how she evolves from the privileged white girl who entered prison at the start of the series to adapt to her new life there. But Piper hasn’t quite lost her wilful and foolish characteristics that often land her in trouble.

As vital as she may be to the series, this season’s focus isn’t entirely on Piper. While she still remains the story’s pivot, season two focuses more on the ensemble, touchingly and often humorously examining the interaction between the inmates, prison officials and the outside world.

We part ways with some prisoners and welcome new inmates as the series further explores the colourful characters at Litchfield. The show continues to delve deeper into the pasts of these women, unveiling their backstories one flashback at a time. Viewers get a chance to peek into the pre-prison lives of inmates, including Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Suzanne aka ‘Crazy Eyes’ (Uzo Aduba), Black Cindy (Adrienne C Moore), Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), cancer patient Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), food in-charge Gloria (Selenis Leyva) who took over the kitchen following Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) ouster, and love-struck Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), whose story yields a heartbreaking revelation.

The central plot that binds the whole thing together revolves around the return of a repeat offender who is about to throw the balance of the prison ecosystem into disarray. The arrival of Taystee’s mother figure, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), begins to cause friction among the various groups of inmates as she enters the contraband game and once again clashes with her old foe Red.

Orange Is the New Black continues to be a resounding success because of its ability to interweave interesting story arcs while continuously developing its characters. Their stories make it easy to get invested in the lives of these flawed women who often display remarkable levels of love and loyalty towards both their real and prison families while finding their own ways to deal with the underlying loneliness of their situation. Along the way, the show explores the issues of gender, class, race, age, sexuality and individual identity. The series has never been shy of portraying explicit and unsettling situations, and its premise gives it every opportunity to do so, making it unsuitable for sensitive viewers.

Its cast is fiercely committed to their roles. Just as its Emmy nomination tally (Taylor Schilling has a nod in the Lead Actress category; Kate Mulgrew is up for the Supporting Actress award; while Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, and Natasha Lyonne are all vying for the Guest Actress award) would suggest, the performances are uniformly impressive across the board. And the show’s crew has very expertly complemented these ladies, displaying how attention to minute details in appearance and environment can amplify the storytelling. How they use the shades of Red’s hair to reflect her disposition, for instance, adds volumes to her character.

On the whole, Orange Is the New Black has returned with a deeper, more incisive offering, laced with poignancy and humour, making great use of its diverse and talented cast. The characters don’t always come off as likeable and the proceedings don’t always have a sense of urgency, but the show’s ability to create strong female characters and then show their evolution makes for very compelling viewing and at times also inspires us to just pause and be grateful for the simple perks of freedom that we often take for granted.

Rating: 4/5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 27th July,  2014 *

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fargo - big shoes to fill

tv series review

The recreated television series Fargo does justice to its cinematic counterpart

When it was first announced that the American channel FX was planning to produce a television series based on the Coen brothers’ acclaimed film Fargo (1996), it was debated whether the small screen project would be able to meet the (very high) expectations that were generated by its association to the Hollywood classic.

The Academy Award winning movie — which tells the story of a car salesman (William H Macy), who plans to make money by hiring criminals to kidnap his wife and seeking ransom from her father, and the police officer (Frances McDormand) who investigates the resulting homicides — was unique and compellingly odd, and its combination of acrid humour and dark drama made it a memorable experience for viewers. But it remained to be seen whether the formula would successfully transition to television or end up feeling like elaborate fan fiction.

Now that the series has aired, it is safe to conclude that the project has definitely lived up to its potential. 

Each of the ten episodes of FX’s Fargo begins with the familiar title cards that claim it is rooted in reality: “This is a true story,” the screen states. “The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

It’s the same device that was used by the Coens, and just like the film, everything that follows it is entirely fictional.

Set in the same universe as the movie, the series takes us to Bemidji, Minnesota, which finds itself engulfed in desolate winter. We meet Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an awkward insurance salesman, who is belittled by his nagging wife, overshadowed by his brother and still bullied by his high school nemesis. His existence seems both pathetic and desperate, but when a shady drifter crosses his path, Lester’s dark side awakens and his life changes forever.

The drifter is Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a remorseless criminal and murderer who causes mayhem wherever he goes. When a chance meeting in a hospital waiting room brings Lester and Malvo together, it sets off a series of events that leaves a bloody trail leading back to these two men. As the body count rises, they manage to elude the authorities, fooling or intimidating anyone crossing their path — except the persistent Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the mild-mannered cop who struggles to overcome the incompetence around her. She works with a Duluth-based officer, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), as she tries to nail down the culprits. Thereon, the series explores two different kinds of evil, evidenced in Lester and Malvo, as well as the confrontation between good and bad.

The Coens didn’t play an active part in the creation of the series, but show-runner Noah Hawley (who imagined the project as a limited series, with the potential of becoming an anthology if it is renewed for another season) has done a remarkable job capturing the film’s spirit and bringing it to television. Fargo inherits the desolate cinematography, bleak tones, and Midwestern affectations of its big screen counterpart, and adds more quirk to the proceedings. Of course, since it is following a widely recognised cinematic work, it doesn't have that same feeling of originality, but it does not wilt in the shadow of the film that inspired it. It makes good use of its connection to its predecessor with amusingly clever references, the most obvious of which comes up during a detour into a subplot that leads us to the ransom money from the film.

Fargo has assembled a very talented cast: Billy Bob Thornton creates a chilling, creepy portrait of sociopathic wickedness. Martin Freeman is impeccable as Lester whose encounter with evil reveals that he is capable of doing anything for his own benefit and survival (and his Minnesotan accent isn’t half bad either). And relative newcomer Allison Tolman is a terrific find; she impresses throughout in the role of Molly, who is the only one not fooled by Lester, and whose search to uncover the truth basically underpins the series.

The supporting actors all perform well, although some of their characters don’t get the attention they deserve. The amazing Bob Odenkirk, who plays the ineffectual police chief, gives a good performance even though his role is perhaps a tad too dull. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key portray FBI Agents and are on hand to provide some comic relief, but their characters could have used a little more exploration. Oliver Platt performs well as the supermarket king who hires Malvo to uncover a blackmailing plot, but his storyline comes to an end a bit more abruptly than one would have hoped.

On the whole, this revisit to the snow-covered landscape of Fargo takes us on a dark, captivating ride. The show is still worth watching even if you are not familiar with the movie, but for the fans of the film, there are little Easter Eggs that pop up from time to time and make the series just that little bit more special. Fargo is propelled by a terrific cast, and expertly interweaves storylines. However, it does take a few less-than-convincing turns, and the execution of the end leaves a bit to be desired, and its overall plot and pacing might be slow for some viewers. Still, FX’s Fargo never stops being interesting, and even when its characters are irredeemable, it remains a thrill to find out how things will eventually fare for them.

Rating: 4/5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 20th July, 2014 *

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Internet’s most famous felines

online celebs

They’ve spent years asking if they can haz cheezeburger, looking down from ceilings, playing people off on their keyboards, and generally being the overlords of the Internet, and their popularity is showing no signs of waning. Cats very emphatically rule the Web. No matter what they look like or where they come from, post their photos online and the Internet is bound to collectively fall in love with them. Some in particular have won global fame. Here are a few of the most famous kitties in the online world:

The Internet loves Maru, and Maru loves cardboard boxes. If there is a box, Maru will try to squeeze into it, and viewers will be endlessly amused by his antics. The Scottish Fold feline, who is nearly 7-years-old, lives in Japan with his owner who goes by the pseudonym Mugumogu, and isn’t just a big celebrity in his own country – where he appears in commercials and releases books and DVDs – but is loved by Netizens (and YouTube viewers in particular) all over the world.

Colonel Meow
The late great Colonel Meow bid farewell to his loving minions earlier this year, but his legacy prevails on the Interwebs. Before his life was cut short because of health problems when he was just 2-years-old, the Himalayan-Persian crossbreed started gathering followers around the globe after pictures of his scowling face were posted on the Internet by his American owners, slave beasts Anne Marie Avey and Eric Rosario. And he even found home in the record books for having the longest fur (9 inches) in the feline world.

Lil Bub
When she isn’t busy starring in her web series, making documentaries, appearing in other television and web shows, and doing meet and greets and photo shoots, Lil Bub lives in Indiana with her owner Mike Bridavsky, who adopted her despite her unusual looks which have since made her a star. Born with several genetic mutations and a bone disorder that have given her a “perma-kitten” appearance, the adorable cat who is almost 3-years-old has won hearts the world over since first appearing online in late 2011. And just like Tard, Bub has also “written” a book: Lil Bub’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet (2013).

No, that’s not the magic of Photoshop; it’s just a wonder of nature. Half her face is black, the other half orange; one eye green, and the other blue. And with her stunning chimera characteristics that have given her such distinctive looks, Venus the “two-faced cat” has attracted the Internet’s attention since photos of her first appeared online in 2012. And the kitty has even inspired a stuffed toy, a cuddly plush version of herself.

He is the star of the best cat videos ever made and his existential musings have captivated viewers. The subject of the excellent short films by Will Braden (who has also authored Henri, le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat) since 2007, this 10-year-old tuxedo cat from Seattle may not have opposable thumbs, but he opposes everything. Yes, it clearly isn’t easy being Henri, but where would we be without his take on the emptiness of life?

Tardar Sauce
And then of course there is the queen of grumpiness herself: Tardar Sauce. Ever since her picture was posted on Reddit by her owner Tabatha Bundesen’s brother Bryan nearly one and a half years ago, Tard has become an internationally recognised superstar. Feline dwarfism and an under-bite have given this 2-year-old mixed breed cat the grumpy look that has made the Internet fall in love with her. And even though she is very calm and nice in real life, her sardonic online persona and sarcastic take on life never cease to offer laughs to her fans. Add to that her growing empire (estimated to be worth a million dollars!) that includes merchandising deals and even a planned feature film adaptation, and you have a feline that doesn’t actually have too many reasons to be grumpy after all!

By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 18th July, 2014 *

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Diva-off: Mariah Carey vs JLo

album reviews

Their career trajectories may be entirely different, but American singers Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez have a lot in common. They’re both 44; they’ve both tried their hands at acting (to varying results); they’ve both been judges on American Idol. And it just so happens that they’ve both released new (and exceedingly mediocre) albums within weeks of each other.


Singer: Mariah Carey
Album: Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse

If first impressions were everything, then Mariah Carey’s new album would find itself at a severe disadvantage. Sure, the pop diva has never been best known for artistic album covers and catchy record titles, but things have reached a whole new level of ridiculous with her latest release, the absurdly titled Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse. But if you look past the photoshopped-beyond-recognition exterior and the fact that there is nothing “elusive” about this “chanteuse”, you are left with a set of songs that aren’t as shoddy as you would have expected at first, but neither are they adventurous or interesting in any way. The effort basically sounds both comfortable and stagnant at the same time.

Seemingly unconcerned with the latest trends that have taken over the musical landscape, Mariah stays within her comfort zone and doesn’t come up with anything particularly exciting. There is plenty of mid-tempo R&B on offer in this set which the singer co-produced with a host of collaborators (most prominently Bryan-Michael Cox and Jermaine Dupri). Nas, Miguel, Wale, and Fabolous are also on hand for guest appearances. The resulting material isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just unexceptional.

Mariah co-wrote all the songs on the album, with the exception of a gospel-tinged cover of George Michael’s ‘One More Try’, and there is an obvious desire to be self-reflective on the record. The attempts to be personal are most apparent on ‘Supernatural’, the ode to motherhood that excessively and gratingly samples her twins, Monroe and Moroccan. She seems relaxed in her delivery, and it is obviously no secret that the singer has an incredible vocal range, but the vocal gymnastics she often opts for aren’t always necessary; it’s the moments of balance that she finds between restraint and display that suit her best.

Highlights: ‘Thirsty’, ‘#Beautiful’
Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Singer: Jennifer Lopez
Album: A.K.A.

Jennifer Lopez may be the ultimate triple threat, but her career has been quite uneven. Between her many projects as an actor, singer, dancer, producer, and designer, her attention seems to be too scattered for her to excel in any of these fields. And that problem becomes painfully apparent when you listen to her new album, A.K.A., a banal collection of urban flavoured dance pop that yearns for commercial success but isn’t even trying to give the listeners anything special and memorable.

The record has been put together with the help of numerous collaborators. Guests including T.I. (‘A.K.A.’), French Montana (‘I Luh Ya Papi’), Iggy Azalea (‘Acting Like That’), Rick Ross (‘Worry No More’), and Pitbull (‘Booty’) add hip hop flavours to the proceedings. The innuendo laden lyrics range from tacky to downright ridiculous, although to be fair, you wouldn’t exactly choose a JLo album if you were looking for depth and substance in the first place. The material is more palatable when it is served with some EDM beats. When the tempo slows down, the shortcomings of her vocals become more obvious; ballads, like ‘Let It Be Me’, would have probably worked much better for someone with more vocal range.

Ultimately, it’s a shame that her charisma doesn’t translate to her albums. Even if all Jennifer Lopez wants to do is make something as throwaway as A.K.A., she’d be wise to stick to the tempo and sound that plays to her strengths, and add more playfulness and fun to the mix.

Highlights: ‘A.K.A’, ‘I Luh Ya Papi’
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 9th July, 2014 *

Friday, July 04, 2014

For the love of books!

cover story

Is the summer heat getting too hard to handle? Then keep calm, and … read a book! There is never a shortage of good books by famous writers, and like always some of the most prominent authors and personalities in the world have been busy penning tomes in various genres over the last year. And what better time can there be for you to catch up on your reading than your vacations? The next few months give you an excellent chance to find out what’s been going on in the world of literature. Here are a few of the recent releases (mostly from 2014, and a couple from last year) that you might enjoy reading this summer:


Mr. Mercedes: A Novel by Stephen King
Stephen King is one of the best known names in fiction, particularly famous for his horror stories, but for his latest book, which just came out a few weeks ago in June, the American writer has delved into crime fiction, coming up with the mystery thriller Mr. Mercedes. The book tells the story of a retired cop who must return to action in order to stop a man (who previously drove his Mercedes into a job fair, killing and wounding a number of people) from carrying out a terrorist attack. Different in style from the author’s standard fare, Mr. Mercedes has earned praise for its twists and turns, and is set to be part of a trilogy; the second instalment of the series, Finders Keepers, will be released in 2015.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
When unknown writer Robert Galbraith published his debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, in April last year, the crime fiction tome went largely unnoticed, selling only a few hundred copies. But things changed quite dramatically just a few months later, when it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was actually Harry Potter writer J. K. Rowling operating under a pseudonym. Now the British novelist has issued The Silkworm, the second book in the series which sees war veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike unravel mysteries and solves cases. The sequel, which was just released in June this year, finds the detective investigating the disappearance of a notorious writer who is hated by many and has gone missing without a trace in this absorbing whodunit.

The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt
Even if you hadn’t heard of Donna Tartt until last year, it became impossible not to pay attention to this American writer after her novel The Goldfinch came out in October 2013. And now she is the year’s most important name in literature after winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the aforementioned tome. Her third novel and first new book in over a decade, The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo, who narrates the events of his life, from the attack that killed his mother when he was a boy to where he ends up as an adult. This (considerably long) book has earned praised for its ambition as well as bagging a number of accolades, but readers haven’t been as unanimously enamoured with it and their views have been quite mixed.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
The runaway success of the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook did wonders for the profile of American writer Matthew Quick, whose debut novel was adapted into the Oscar nominated movie. His new novel, The Good Luck of Right Now, which came out in February this year, is also hoping to follow in Silver Linings path, with plans to bring it to the big screen already underway. Until it comes to the cinema though, readers can enjoy the touching, uplifting story on paper, as they follow the tale of a man coping with loss whose life changes after he starts a one-sided correspondence with actor Richard Gere!

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hossein
Few authors are fortunate enough to sell millions of copies of each of their books upon their release, and Khaled Hossein is one of them. The Afghan-American author published his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, last year, once again receiving international recognition. Centred on two siblings and their father’s decision to give one of them to a wealthy childless couple, the story revolves around the bond between families, and is told by different characters through multiple viewpoints.


Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
After the massive success of Freakonomics (2005) and its sequels Superfreakonomics (2009) that were also co-authored by these two writers, we now have Think Like A Freak, another instalment of thought-provoking ideas from the authors who have made economics interesting. This time their focus is on how to apply the ideas of their previous books in our everyday lives, as they try to help us think differently about the various things we encounter, giving us an alternative take on the problems in the world.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg’s first non-fiction book How Not to Be Wrong is a discussion on harnessing, as the subtitle suggests, “the power of mathematical thinking”. The author is earning props for this work which explains mathematical ideas, relaying how math relates to and facilitates us to understand things in our daily lives. Just like Freakonomics, this book inspires us to not be scared of the subject but instead to embrace it as it can help us make sense of what happens around us.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young – The Graduation Speeches by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut is best known for his science fiction and satire, but he wasn’t just a masterful storyteller; the writer was also “one of the most in-demand commencement speakers of his time”, and If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? compiles some of his graduation speeches. Sharp, witty, inspiring, cynical, erudite … this collection shares Vonnegut’s wisdom and advice with young graduates, while keeping his voice alive for generations who might not yet be familiar with his work; hopefully it will also inspire readers to discover more of his writings.


Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

As the 2016 American Presidential election draws near, all eyes are on former First Lady Hillary Clinton and whether she will chose to once again run for the most powerful office in the world. In the meantime, her new book, Hard Choices, is likely to give commentators (whether they are supporters or detractors) much to talk about. The book, that was released this June, details the time that Hillary Clinton spent as America’s 67th Secretary of State from 2009 till 2013, and the hard choices she faced, as she shares accounts of the challenges that came her way during those four years and how they shaped her outlook of the future. Grab a fine toothcomb, and cue lengthy dissections and nitpicky examinations of each sentence by political pundits!

Brunette Ambition by Lea Michele
For something considerably more lightweight, you might want to try Glee star Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition. The American actress and singer is not only busy with the television series that is now entering its final season, but has also released a new album and issued this book, which briefly talks about her career and her friendships as well as discussing her love for food and staying healthy. It’s short and easy to read, and while the book isn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, it might inspire readers to eat healthy and take care of their bodies.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
While Malala may be a polarizing figure here at home, both the girl and her book are a huge hit abroad. Whether you think of her as an inspiration or a propaganda vessel, you can’t escape the fact that I Am Malala is currently a book of note. To either praise her or criticise her, you first have to find out more about her and her views, and what better way is there of doing that than reading her (controversial) book? Co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, the teenager’s memoir, which came out last year, offers personal reflections and historical information about Swat Valley and how she became a champion for education.

Graphic novels

Seconds: A Graphic Novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley
The popularity of the Scott Pilgrim series has made Bryan Lee O’Malley famous among comic book enthusiasts, and his new stand-alone, full-colour graphic novel seems like one of the most exciting offerings of the summer. Set to be released in mid July, Seconds is the tale of a young girl who owns a restaurant and, after a visit from a magical apparition, gets a second chance to undo her wrongs. And if the preview is anything to go by, the novel is going to be quirky, engrossing, and very interesting.

Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi
Ernest Shackleton (1874 – 1922) was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the South Pole. The story of one of his most ambitious journeys is told in Nick Bertozzi’s graphic novel Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, as he and his crew endure tough conditions on their dangerous, ice-bound journey. History is brought to life in these black and white panels that depict a dramatic adventure that tests the group’s camaraderie, persistence, and perseverance.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 4th July, 2014 *