Sunday, September 21, 2014

A mystery drowned in words

book review

Book: The Silkworm 
Author: Robert Galbraith

In the foreword to his novel The Princess Bride, William Goldman relays the (fictional) account of going through great lengths to find a copy of S. Morgenstern’s out of print The Princess Bride for his son. It’s a book he cherishes because his own father read it to him when he was a child. His son, however, finds it impossible to make it past the first chapter, much to his disappointment. When Goldman skims through the book, he realises the problem: there’s too much exposition. His father only read him the interesting bits of the story. And so the author promptly sets out to write the “good parts” version of the novel. 

While reading The Silkworm, I couldn’t help but wish I could get my hands on its “good parts” version instead.

The Silkworm is, as is common knowledge at this point, J.K. Rowling’s second book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a secret that was revealed last year, only months after the release of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the supposed debut novel by a “former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator.” The overlooked tome skyrocketed to success as soon as the world found out that it was actually penned by the Harry Potter writer. Now the British novelist has issued The Silkworm, the second book in the series, which sees war veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike and his Google-savvy secretary Robin Ellacott unravel another mystery.

It’s been eight months since the events of the previous book, wherein Strike solved the murder of model Lula Landry, a case that thrust upon him a burst of unexpected fame. Things have calmed down considerably since, although the elevated profile has meant that he’s been attracting more clients, even if most of the cases have involved tailing cheating spouses. But then the wife of a missing writer shows up to seek the detective’s help, and Strike finds himself drawn into a case that is more complicated than it originally seemed.

Eccentric writer Owen Quine has written Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”), a nasty roman à clef that maligns the people he knows, many of whom are part of the literary circle and none of whom would be particularly pleased if Owen exposes their secrets. When Owen disappears after a very public row with his agent, his dowdy wife Leonora Quine hires Strike to track down her husband. The missing person’s case eventually turns into a murder investigation, when the author is discovered brutally slaughtered in the same manner that was depicted in his book.

The pool of suspects is broad; the writer is hated by many. Everyone who is slandered in the pages of Bombyx Mori and got their hands on the manuscript might have wanted to get rid of Owen before he had a chance to publish the book. It is up to Strike to figure out which of these (largely unlikable) characters committed this depraved act.

J.K. Rowling takes her cues from traditional mystery fiction to come up with a curious second installment in her crime series, but sticking too close to the basic template of the genre (though it admittedly takes some skill) also makes the output feel generic and unexceptional. That said, Rowling’s zest for writing is on clear display throughout The Silkworm. She has created an intriguing protagonist in the form of Cormoran Strike, and the gentle camaraderie between him and his trusty sidekick Robin makes it easy for us to get invested in their adventures. The story itself is cleverly set in the world of publishing, an arena that Rowling certainly knows plenty about, and the premise gives her a chance to highlight the quirks of those who occupy the literary scene.

The novel could, however, have done with a more thorough edit, and some of the thoughts could have used a little restructuring. The proceedings often get bogged down under the weight of endless exposition, as the book opts to offer descriptive details at the expense of a brisk pace. The narrative is constantly interrupted by weather updates and certain points — like the pain in Strike’s knee, the fact that his father is a rock star, his impact on Robin’s relationship with her fiancé, and the gory condition of the victim’s corpse — are repeated over and over, making the progress laborious.

People, streets, buildings, furniture, journeys … everything is described to the extent that it starts to feel like a mystery novel has wandered into a London travelogue. It’s a level of detail that would work in a fantasy tale where the world being described exists only in the author’s mind. Employed here, it strips the plot of its sharpness, a problem that Rowling could have easily fixed by placing a little more trust in her audiences’ imagination.

Also, some readers might not enjoy the fact that the manuscript and the murder at the book’s core are too graphic, with everything expressed in vivid detail. Ultimately, The Silkworm is an interesting whodunit staged amidst London’s literary scene, but it is a tad too long and mundane. Its setting is clever, but its standard structure doesn’t offer anything different or special. Despite having considerably detailed back stories, some of the characters still seem to occupy clichés. And its level of suspense could have been elevated by telling the story in a fewer number of pages. Those who enjoy descriptions, though, are in for a treat, and fans of traditional mystery novels in particular will appreciate this effort.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 21st September, 2014 *

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - crawling back into their shells

movie review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Since their introduction as comic book characters in the 1980s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become a pop culture phenomenon. Known for their ninjitsu skills and love for pizza, the wisecracking quartet have graced the big and small screens numerous times with their zany adventures. Their latest cinematic outing, however, is one of their least entertaining.

The franchise reboot centers the origin story of the reptile vigilantes on the character of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a television reporter tired of the fluff pieces she has to work on and eager to take charge of more important assignments. In an attempt to break an actual news story, April pursues a gang called the Foot Clan that is led by the evil mastermind Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and has been terrorizing the city. Along the way, she stumbles upon four masked figures, who eventually turn out to be the titular heroes, fighting off the bad guys. Neither her cameraman (Will Arnett) nor her boss (Whoopi Goldberg) pay any heed to her seemingly ludicrous claims, but April keeps investigating, ultimately developing a friendship with the four brothers – dorky Donatello (Jeremy Howard), goofy Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), authoritative Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), and rebellious Raphael (Alan Ritchson) – and their mutant rat mentor, Splinter (Tony Shalhoub). But as she discovers the Turtles’ connection to her own past, she also learns the truth about her late father’s former lab partner, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), while becoming instrumental in defeating the Foot Clan and thwarting Shredder’s plan to unleash a toxin on the city.

Director Jonathan Liebesman has taken a page from producer Michael Bay’s playbook to create this special effects-heavy installment that is as hollow as it is predictable. The movie doesn’t choose to be dark (like Christopher Nolan films), nor does it commit to being full-on fun (à la Guardians of the Galaxy). Instead it twaddles aimlessly, unsure of its own tone. Fighting begins and time slows down, and logic is defied at every turn. The CGI-generated Turtles and Splinter look creepy, while Shredder looks like he has escaped from a Transformers movie and is ready to saunter back into one.

Most of the characters lack definition, development, and charm. With all the focus on Megan Fox’s character, the film turns into the April O’Neil show, almost making the Turtles feel like supporting characters in their own movie. April is potentially a strong character, but that trait is lost here among the mundanity of the action. Will Arnett seems out of place; Whoopi Goldberg is wasted in a role that barely matters; and Megan Fox is, well, Megan Fox.

Ultimately, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t unbearably awful, but it isn’t special either. The movie retreads familiar paths, somehow simultaneously managing to be both silly and drab. This is a by the numbers action film that tries to cash in on a popular franchise and ends up suffering from inconsistency, cringe worthy product placement, shallow script, and a near-terminal CGI overdose.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 21st September, 2014 *

Monday, September 08, 2014

A pretty little mess

album review

Singer: Ariana Grande
Album: My Everything

Considering how painfully grating her voice sounds when she portrays Cat Valentine on the sitcoms Victorious and Sam & Cat, who could have guessed that Ariana Grande would one day be presented to us as the next big thing in pop music? The young actress actually started out in musical theatre before earning her Nickelodeon-generated fame, and has since made the requisite jump to the world of pop singing like many of her peers. It wasn’t until the release of her Iggy Azalea-assisted single ‘Problem’ earlier this year, however, that Grande started gaining traction in the field. Now the singer has unveiled her sophomore album, My Everything, a set of 12 ditties that aim for easy chart success without daring to do anything particularly different.

The usual army of pop manufacturers (Max Martin, Shellback, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, Darkchild, and Zedd, to name a few) have been recruited to polish this collection of mid-tempo R&B and EDM-lite that variously evokes everything from Glee to Amerie. The material seems to have been put together to help the singer solidify her “mini-Mariah Carey” credentials, which it mostly succeeds in doing. It turns out the starlet’s vocals actually have an impressive range, but for the most part, her delivery lacks any signs of rawness or grit, thereby stripping the tracks of emotion and personality. It almost feels like you could substitute the sentiments, replacing them with their polar opposites, and the overall effect would remain the same.

The sax-driven sass of ‘Problem’ offers the most interesting effort on the record, and its attitude is only paralleled on the deluxe edition bonus track ‘Bang Bang’ in which she joins Jessie J and Nicki Minaj to have a ‘Lady Marmalade’ moment. The serviceable EDM of ‘One Last Time’ (which credit David Guetta among its many writers) and ‘Break Free’ (which features Zedd) are fun but faceless, while the gentle ballad ‘Just a Little Bit of Your Heart’ that was co-penned by One Direction’s Harry Styles is sweet but forgettable.

A lot of resources have clearly gone into creating an album with wide range and chart appeal, but being overly reliant on guest collaborators (Big Sean, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, ASAP Ferg, as well as the aforementioned Iggy Azalea and Zedd) and a plethora of producers has made the output incohesive. My Everything makes it very clear that Ariana Grande needs to take charge of her own music, discover who she really is, and start sounding like she is invested in the words she is singing.

Highlights: ‘Problem’, ‘Bang Bang’
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 8th September, 2014 *

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Blue Smoke shows us why Dolly Parton is such an iconic country songstress

album review

Singer: Dolly Parton
Album: Blue Smoke

No matter how many new faces appear on the country music scene, Dolly Parton still remains one of the genre’s most beloved names.

The 68-year-old country legend has impressed the world with a career that has spanned five long decades and still continues to remain relevant without bowing to mainstream trends. Her 42nd album, Blue Smoke, sees the singer conquer the charts with her highest placed release to date, winning audiences over with her powerful voice and strong songwriting skills.

Parton’s charm and sense of humour shine through on this set of 12 songs, which include original tracks written and composed by the singer herself as well as covers of pop and traditional tunes along with a handful of duets with some of her country cohorts. From performing a bluegrass version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don't Think Twice’ to recording a cover of Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’, the seasoned artist knows how to play with variety without losing herself in the process. The songstress also reunites with Kenny Rogers for the warm ‘You Can't Make Old Friends’ and joins Willie Nelson for the wistful ‘From Here to the Moon and Back’.

Whether Blue Smoke goes for tones that are vibrant (the witty bluegrass of ‘Blue Smoke’ and the radio-friendly ‘Home’) or mellow (her reworking of the traditional ‘Banks of the Ohio’), the album never fails to highlight the singer’s ability to connect with her listeners. This isn’t a thematic or statement record, but a collection of songs that are pleasantly melodious and play to the singer’s strengths. Driven by her effortless delivery and impeccable musicality, Blue Smoke is a satisfying slice of country music that shows just why Dolly Parton is one of the most iconic performers of all time.

Highlights: ‘Home’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘Blue Smoke’

Rating: 4 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 4th September, 2014 *