Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rewind - 2017 in music

music mix

A lowdown on what went on in the international music scene in the last 12 months

- ‘Despacito’ became the biggest hit in the known universe, leaving us to wonder what sins we had committed to deserve the cruel punishment of being subjected to this torture ten million times a day.
Excuse us while we shake our fist at Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

- “Featuring Justin Bieber” became the three most feared words in the English language.

- Sam Smith released a new record which was the auditory equivalent of sitting in a tub of cold, bland, whiny porridge.

- Two years into their 18-month hiatus – because they’re either big fat liars or disturbingly bad at math – the members of One Direction continued their solo escapades.

- Bruno Mars had a golden year.

- Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (divide) conquered the world.

- There was nothing holdin’ Shawn Mendes back except lack of talent. Or maybe that was Charlie Puth because we still can’t tell the difference between the two. Presuming they are two different people. Maybe they aren’t. For all we know, they could be the same person. Are they the same person? Also, who is Austin Mahone? And will someone tell those damn kids to get off our lawn?!

- DJ Khaled and Khalid definitely are two different people. See? We knew that one! We are clearly very hip.

- We’re sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh ‘cause she’s dead! And the new Taylor? Oh she’s just as irritating as the old one, so nothing’s really changed on that front. [insert snake emoji here]

- John Mayer > Orlando Bloom > Diplo, revealed Katy Perry while promoting the hell out of Witness. She also got a cool $25mil to join the judging panel of the upcoming American Idol revival.

- Rihanna compared Diplo’s music to airport reggae. It really wasn’t poor Diplo’s year, was it?

- Lady Gaga did her best P!nk impersonation at the Super Bowl half-time show.

- Selena Gomez’s friend, actress Francia Raisa, gave her a kidney, making all friends everywhere look really, really bad in comparison.

- Miley Cyrus gave up weed, shocked the world by putting on some clothes, and reclaimed her pop career.

- Demi Lovato released a new album that was as unexceptional as all her previous ones.

- The melodramatic Lorde impressed listeners with her breakup blues.

- Zara Larsson continued to have a music career because some things just defy logic. Ditto Dua Lipa.

- Ariana Grande brought the world together in love, defiance, and resilience by arranging a massive charity concert two weeks after a tragic suicide bombing following her gig in Manchester.

- Madonna thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.

- All mainstream pop songs sounded exactly the same, which makes sense because Sia wrote them all.

- Haim released a ho-hum album but we’re going to say it was totes amazing because that will make us sound cool, right?

- Avril Lavigne didn’t release music this year, so … silver lining.

- Fifth Harmony carried on without Camila Cabello who had a hit with ‘Havana’.

- “[Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton are] so in love it’s disgusting,” said Adam Levine, making this the only time we have ever agreed with Adam Levine about anything. Only, he was joking, and we are not.

- Tim McGraw and Faith Hill decided to shake things up by making a really, really boring record together.

- Shania Twain released her first new album in 15 years.

- Björk continued to charm us with all her glorious weirdness. And by “charm” we mean “confuse” because all her work left us with the same question: what on Earth was that?

- Kendrick Lamar made another critically acclaimed album so that he could be nominated for lots of Grammy Awards before Taylor Swift ludicrously wins them all. No, we aren’t still seething over last year’s ceremony; whatever gave you that impression?

- Speaking of Grammy injustices, this year Adele was handed the Album of the Year award for 25, a decision so ridiculous that even she had to acknowledge its daftness and basically ended up spending her entire acceptance speech explaining why Beyoncé’s Lemonade should have won instead.

- Chance the Rapper became the first unsigned artist to ever win a Grammy.

- SZA made listeners go “OMG!” with her debut album, Ctrl.

- Other breakthrough artists of the year included Halsey, Kehlani, and Cardi B.

- Nicki Minaj appeared on other people’s songs.

- Jason Derulo still kept singing his own name.

- Eminem made a comeback.

- Rumi and Sir joined Beyoncé and Jay Z’s family, while the latter released a powerful new album, 4:44.

- Vince StaplesBig Fish Theory and Childish Gambino’s "Awaken, My Love!" impressed everyone everywhere.

- Drake continued to exist.

- We lost Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Tom Petty, Malcolm Young, Chuck Berry, Robert Miles, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell, David Cassidy. There must be one hell of a supergroup in heaven now.

- Black Sabbath broke up, which was very unexpected news because who knew they were still together?!

- Imagine Dragons did not break up. Pity.

- Coldplay made a song with The Chainsmokers because clearly they hate us.

- The Gallagher brothers, their giant egos, continuous bickering, and individual projects all made 2017 a lot more fun.

- Gorillaz new album was called Humanz because they clearly can’t decide which species they are.

- U2 made a record that sounded exactly like you’d imagine a U2 record would sound like.

- The new Foo Fighters’ album brought nothing new to the proverbial table.

- God’s favourite band Green Day released a compilation of – we’re presuming – God’s favourite tunes.

- Incubus displayed their creativity by naming their eighth album 8.

- The Killers made a wonderful, wonderful new album.

- Arcade Fire polarized critics.

- Perfume Genius made a stunning chamber pop record.

- Father John Misty made pure comedy. Fleet Foxes cracked up.

- Olivia Chaney basically turned The Decemberists into her backing band because she is just THAT awesome.

- And LCD Soundsystem, The National, and The War on Drugs all released very well received albums.

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 30th December, 2017 *

Friday, December 29, 2017

MMXVII - sigh

cover story

Say what you will about 2017 but you have to admit one thing: it could have been way worse. To be fair, the poor year never really had a shot at being normal, what with the omnishambles it inherited from its predecessor, 2016. Irrespective of the strife though, humanity continued stumbling on, one peculiar day at a time, not sure where it was collectively going, but adamant as all heck to get there post-haste. Our resilience was tested, but, to our credit, our spirit was never broken.

Here’s a quick look at the salient events that shaped our world during the last twelve months:

•    Donald Trump’s inauguration: 2017 decided to officially appoint a reality television personality as the President of the United States early on in the year so that everything else that happened from then on would seem less bizarre in comparison. With Hilary still sulking about Wikileaks, Russian intervention, and the curse of the Deplorables, Donald Trump was inaugurated in January and immediately started ruffling feathers, starting with a travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump also withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (January), the Paris Agreement on climate change (June), and UNESCO (October). And for an encore, 45 decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (December) because no hornet’s nest should be left unpoked. Protests and marches – some in record numbers – ensued.
•    Parachinar bombing: Senseless acts of violence broke our hearts a number of times during the year as the menace of terrorism sadly continued to plague the world, including our country. An explosion at a vegetable market claimed 25 innocent lives in Parachinar (January). A suicide bombing at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander resulted in the deaths of over 90 people in Sehwan (February). 18 lives were lost in an attack on the Mall Road (February) and 26 people were killed in another bombing in a vegetable market (July) in Lahore. A series of bombings led to over 90 deaths in Quetta and Parachinar (June). And an attack by suicide bombers on a church left nine people dead in Quetta (December).

•    North Korea crisis: Under the leadership of His Supremeness Marshal Kim Jong-un The Amazing, North Korea conducted several missile and then nuclear tests throughout the year, and ended up trading barbs with His Orangeness Donald Trump as the situation escalated.  Meanwhile, the Jong-un-est-of-them-all continued his mission to systematically exterminate all humanity – including his own family members (allegedly having his elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam assassinated in Malaysia in February), tourists (American student Otto Warmbier, released in a comatose state after 17 months in captivity in North Korea, died in June six days after his return to the U.S.), and anyone who dared question or doubt His Awesomeness – a quest that so far hasn’t been entirely fulfilled, much to his chagrin.
•    89th Academy Awards: First La La Land won the Best Picture award. Then, two minutes later, Moonlight won the Best Picture award. And then everyone spent the rest of the year arguing about whether La La Land or Moonlight should have won the Best Picture award.
The other main winners at the ceremony included Damien Chazelle (Best Director, La La Land), Casey Affleck (Best Actor, Manchester by the Sea), Emma Stone (Best Actress, La La Land), Mahershala Ali (Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight), and Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, Fences).

•    Pippa Middleton’s wedding: The sister of a woman who married a man who is the son of the son of a woman whose ancestors somehow managed to convince their country that they were superior to everyone else … married some rich guy. This classified as news in 2017.
Also, the aforementioned woman who married a man who is the son of the son of the woman who just happened to be born into a posh family … conceived another child. This qualified as a noteworthy piece of information in 2017 (September).
Also, the brother of the aforementioned man who is the son of the son of the woman who heads an archaic and utterly irrelevant institution … got engaged to a subpar actress. This made headlines in 2017 (November).
All of which leaves us to wonder … maybe nuclear annihilation by North Korea wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
•    Famine in Western Asia and Africa: Up to 20 million people faced the risk of starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria, the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But enough about that. Let’s talk about the British royals some more. What shade of lipstick should Meghan wear at her wedding? Discuss.

•    Mashal Khan lynching: Student Mashal Khan was killed on the premises of the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan by a mob over fake allegations of posting blasphemous content online in an incident so shocking that it baffles just to think about the fact that members of our own species are capable of such barbaric brutality.
•    Nangarhar airstrike: With the goal of destroying tunnels being used by Islamic State militants, the United States dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) – a.ka. the Mother of All Bombs – in the Achin District in eastern Afghanistan, because it is obviously a good idea to drop a 21,000 pound bomb somewhere – anywhere – on this planet. A very sensible and responsible move, America. Thumbs up!
•    Fidget spinner popularity: Glorified ball bearings took over the world with the mystifying popularity of fidget spinners. Sales of the toy that supposedly relieves stress spiked as the phenomenon conquered the globe. Everyone and their dog succumbed to the craze, leaving the rest of us scoffing at the popularity of this utterly ridiculous fad ... while gleefully twirling the spinner in our own hands.
•    ‘Despacito’ remix release: Puerto Rican singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released the song ‘Despacito’ in January and it became a minor hit that would have come and gone like countless songs before it … until April, when stupid Justin Bieber appeared on a stupid remix of that stupid song and sent it through the stratosphere, making sure we had to listen to it fifty million times a day over the next few months. And now, if we ever hear even a damn snippet of that damn song again, we are going to punch someone in the face.

•    Manchester Arena bombing: A bomb detonated as concertgoers were leaving the Manchester Arena following a gig by American singer Ariana Grande; 22 people were killed and 512 injured. Two weeks later, Grande returned with many of her famous friends to host One Love Manchester, a benefit concert that saw the city come together in a beautiful show of solidarity and resilience.
Music fans were also targeted in America in October, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring 546 in the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
Other horrors caused by terrorists during 2017 included two simultaneous attacks in Tehran, Iran (17 dead, 43 wounded) in June; a massive blast caused by a truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia (512 killed, 316 injured) in October; and a mosque attack in Sinai, Egypt (305 worshippers killed, over 100 wounded) in November.

•    2017 ICC Champions Trophy: Relishing our unending ability to confuse the cricketing world with our consistently inconsistent form, Pakistan won the 2017 Champions Trophy. The cherry on the unexpected victory sundae? Beating India in the final. By 180 runs! The largest margin ever in the final of an ICC ODI tournament!
Yes. Really.
The Pakistani cricket team – mastering the art of unpredictability since 1952.

•    Chester Bennington’s death: Depression extinguished another bright, beautiful light when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington committed suicide at the age of 41, two months after the suicide of his friend Chris Cornell who died at the age of 53.
Now would be a good time to go hug your loved ones. I’ll wait …
Done? Good.
•    Nawaz Sharif disqualification: With the Sharif clan under investigation for various corruption charges (to the absolute shock of absolutely no one), the leader of PML-N Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and barred from public office, leading to his resignation from the position of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, helping the country maintain its hundred per cent record of uncompleted tenures – not a single prime minister of the country has ever managed to finish their five year term in the country’s 70 year history.

•    Neutron star collision: I was searching, you were on a mission, then our hearts combined like a neutron star colli … wait, we aren’t talking about the Muse song? This one was an astronomy breakthrough with the first observation of an actual collision of two neutron stars? Oh. Oh well. *goes back to humming the Muse tune*
•    Rohingya persecution in Myanmar: The Myanmar military’s crackdown on Rohingya people, mostly Muslims, forced an estimated 600,000 refugees to flee the country. Nearly 6,700 Rohingya were killed in August. The situation drew criticism and condemnation around the world, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was widely criticized for her passivity on the issue.
•    Ruth Pfau’s death: The extraordinary Ruth Pfau, the German-born Pakistani humanitarian who established 157 leprosy clinics across Pakistan, passed away in August at the age of 87.
•    Hurricanes: Nature’s fury unleashed in August, as the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck the United States causing catastrophic damage. The following month, the Category 5 Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, followed two weeks later by the Category 5 Hurricane Maria that struck Dominica and Puerto Rico, all causing deaths, damages, and destruction.

•    ʻOumuamua’s visit: The unpronounceable ʻOumuamua asteroid became the first known interstellar object to pass through our Solar System. Scientists discovered it in September when it was already heading away from the Sun. The asteroid is assumed to have looked at the condition of planet Earth from a distance and just said “nope” before quickly deciding to make a swift 20,000 year exit from our Solar System.
Meanwhile, Cassini–Huygens completed its very successful 13-year mission to study Saturn and its satellites, ending its voyage in September – nearly 20 years after it was launched – by plunging into the ringed planet.
•    iPhone X announced: Apple unveiled its most expensive smartphone, iPhone X (ten), marking the tenth anniversary of the iconic device. The smartphone was announced in September and released in November, giving us two months to come up with its US$1000 price money which was easy enough to do because who needed that second kidney anyway.
•    Punjab Nahi Jaungi release: Romantic comedy Punjab Nahi Jaungi was met with positive reviews upon its release and ultimately ended up becoming not only the most successful Pakistani film of the year but also the most successful Pakistani film of all time. Directed by Nadeem Beyg, the Lollywood hit has raked in an estimated PKR50 crore (~US$4.5 million). Other prominent local releases of 2017 included the comedy sequel Na Maloom Afraad 2 (September), the long-delayed Yalghaar (June), the middling Mehrunisa V Lub U (June), and the controversial Verna (November).

•    Harvey Weinstein scandal: A barrage of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein led to his ouster from his film company. The dozens of woman who took a stand against Weinstein also inspired other victims to come forward and expose their abusers, sparking the global #MeToo movement and setting off a wave of similar misconduct allegations against other powerful men in every field. In America, actors (including Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K.), filmmakers (Brett Ratner, James Toback), television figures (Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Matt Lauer), politicians (John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore), and chefs (Mario Batali, John Besh) were among the many, many men who were accused of inappropriate behaviour and most of whom were removed from their positions; meanwhile, a man accused of sexual misconduct and unwanted advances by more than a dozen women continued to be the president of the country.
In Pakistan, former PTI member MNA Ayesha Gulalai accused the party’s leader Imran Khan (August) of harassment and was instantly subjected to victim blaming and shaming in a textbook display of #WhyWomenDontComeForward. The scenario pretty much repeated itself when Ayesha Ahad spoke about PML-N MPA Hamza Shahbaz’s alleged abuse (August). And Pakistan women’s national hockey team’s former goalkeeper Syeda Sadia accused the team’s head coach, Saeed Khan, of harassment (October); her teammate, Iqra Javed, came forward in her support and was promptly dropped from the squad.

•    Iran-Iraq earthquake: A devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake in the border region between Iraq and Iran left at least 530 dead and over 70,000 homeless. Earlier in the year (September), a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in central Mexico killed more than 350, left up to 6,000 injured, and thousands more homeless.
•    Robert Mugabe resignation: The 37 year rule of the tyrannical Robert Mugabe ended after he was forced to resign from the presidency following military intervention in Zimbabwe because all bad things must come to an end.
•    Paradise Papers leak: 13.4 million confidential documents leaked from the Appleby law firm revealed the offshore financial activities on behalf of politicians, corporate giants, business leaders, and celebrities. The revelation that rich people and companies avoid millions and billions of dollars in taxes using offshore companies did not surprise anyone anywhere.
•    New orangutan species discovery: A small population of orangutans in South Tapanuli was identified as a distinct species in 2017. With only 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan became the rarest great ape in the world.
•    Faizabad sit-in: A dharna over the changes in the Elections Bill 2017 brought the country to a brief standstill.
•    Salvator Mundi sale: Salvator Mundi, a painting that either was or wasn’t – but, like, really wasn’t – painted by Leonardo da Vinci was sold for US$450 million at an auction in New York, setting a new record for the most money ever wasted most expensive painting ever sold. The artwork was purchased by a Saudi prince on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism and will be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
•    Reputation release: Fuelled by her beefs with Kimye, Katy Perry, her many, many exs, and seemingly about half of the world’s population, Taylor Swift made Reputation (one of the songs on which featured her friend Ed Sheeran, who also had a big year with his uber-popular album ÷). It became the highest selling album of the year within weeks of its release, leaving us to ask … where’s that North Korean missile when you need it? #JustKidding #ChoosePacifismEven WhenTheyMakeYourEarsBleed #WhyAmIUsingHashtagsInAnArticleLikeACompleteMoron?
Speaking of morons, the members of The Recording Academy thought Adele’s 25 was better than Beyoncé’s Lemonade, giving the Album of the Year award to the Brit (one of her five wins) at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards earlier in the year (February). Even Adele was baffled by their ridiculousness and pretty much Kanyed herself in her acceptance speech by acknowledging at length just how “monumental” Beyoncé’s record was.

•    Star Wars: The Last Jedi release: The money minting machine that is the Star Wars franchise gave us its VIIIth instalment in the year’s most anticipated cinematic release: Star Wars: The Last Jedi. By the time you read these words, the film will have grossed approximately one umptysquiddlyzillion US dollars.
The other big successes of the year included Beauty and the Beast ($1.26 billion worldwide gross), The Fate of the Furious ($1.239 billion), and Despicable Me 3 ($1.033 billion).
•    ISIS defeat: It was the beginning of the end of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate in the Middle East, as Iraq’s territory was "fully liberated" from "ISIS terrorist gangs", so at least something good came out of the year.

Women continued persisting; Britain continued Brexiting; fake news continued spreading; and the world continued spinning in 2017.

Here’s hoping 2018 brings with it less divisiveness, more happiness, and better tiding all around.

Happy New Year, everyone!

(Now go hug your loved ones once again.)

- Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News -  29th December, 2017 *

A musical odyssey - a look at the new albums by Björk and Paloma Faith

album reviews

Bjork crafts a lush landscape on Utopia; Paloma Faith’s The Architect finds her sharing socio-political thoughts

Artist: Björk
Album: Utopia

Like a magical being who has come from another dimension to charm us with her alluring sounds, the inimitable Björk has had us spellbound for three very eccentric decades. With her instantly distinctive voice and unique style, the Icelandic queen of art pop has established herself as one of the world’s most innovative contemporary artists. Her latest album, Utopia, takes listeners on yet another mesmerizing musical odyssey.

The singer’s ninth studio release sees her continue her collaboration with Venezuelan producer Arca, creating 14 tracks that play with unorthodox structures, building enchanting atmospheres with electronic backgrounds and layered vocals. Amidst the flutes, cellos, harps, and bird sounds, Björk crafts a lush, textured landscape that brings the fascinating world she envisions to sonic life.

In contrast to 2015’s heartbreak-ridden Vulnicura, Utopia is imbued with brighter tones, exploring a mix of vulnerability and hopefulness at the beginning of a budding romance. It’s an offbeat look at new love in what she calls her “Tinder album”, which explains the lyrical references to technology, as music nerds text and swap MP3s in ‘Blissing Me’ and swipe left on a dating app in ‘Courtship’.

There’s a lot going on in each of these songs, and it takes a number of listens to unravel their many layers. This won’t be your favourite Björk release if you prefer her output when she marries her avant-garde tendencies with pop sensibilities. The focus here isn’t on the melodies – which might leave you wishing the tunes had been stronger and a bit more immediate – but on making fascinating soundscapes. Listeners who find Björk more intriguing when she indulges her experimental whims will appreciate all the work that has gone into this record and will find delving into Utopia a rewarding experience, discovering something new with each listen.

Highlights: ‘Arisen My Senses’, ‘The Gate’, ‘Courtship’, ‘Future Forever’
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Artist: Paloma Faith
Album: The Architect

Even pop stars aren’t immune from political pondering in this post-Trump, post-Brexit era. That supposedly is what Paloma Faith has tried to do on her latest record, The Architect. The singer’s fourth album finds her sharing her socio-political thoughts in 15 tracks with lyrics so vague that they barely convey her observational intentions.

Helmed by what seems like a whole army of producers, the record comes off as passionate and sincere but unnecessarily overproduced. The English singer – who gets co-writing credits on all but one of the songs – puts her soulful voice and distinctive style to good use on standout tunes like title track ‘The Architect’, the strings-fuelled ‘Guilty’ (which would be at home over the opening credits of a James Bond film), and the upbeat ‘Til I’m Done’.

But elsewhere, things don’t really make the kind of impact that the singer would have hoped. Many of the songs sound too generic, like ‘I’ll Be Gentle’, a by-the-number duet with John Legend, and ‘Warrior’ a typical, grating Sia co-penned ballad, the kind that has been rehashed by the songwriter so many times that it should simply be outlawed at this point.

There are interesting flourishes in places and some unexpected moments on the record – the album opens with a spoken-word intro by Samuel L. Jackson – but overall The Architect doesn’t make the most of its artist’s unique personality or allow her to fully immerse herself into the thematic elements she sought to explore.

Highlights: ‘The Architect’, ‘Guilty’, ‘Til I’m Done’
Rating: 3 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 29th December, 2017 *

Monday, December 25, 2017

Celebrating Christmas with music

album reviews

The holiday season brings with it a slew of festive records, with artists trying to cash in on celebrate the Yuletide joy. Here’s a look at some of the latest releases that tap into the spirit of the season with some merry tunes:

Everyday Is Christmas by Sia
Once you get over its grammatically questionable title – you can do it, I believe in you – you will find that Sia’s new album is, well, just as sloppy as its clunky title suggests. The singer has churned out a set of mostly mediocre songs with the help of American producer Greg Kurstin who has co-written this Christmas-themed record with the Australian songstress. With lyrics that seem like they were created after the songwriters listed all the Christmas tropes they could think of and then tried to stuff them into ten cheesy tracks, Everyday Is Christmas is a mixed bag of holiday cheer and seasonal clichés. A couple of ballads – like ‘Snowman’ and the pop gem ‘Underneath the Mistletoe’ – stand out and make good use of the singer’s emotive delivery. But elsewhere, the result is less impressive, ranging from well-meaning but too cutesy for its own good (‘Puppies Are Forever’) to boring (‘Sunshine’, ‘Underneath the Christmas Lights’) to downright grating (‘Ho Ho Ho’). Props to the prolific songwriter for coming up with original music instead of covering old Yuletide classics (like just about everyone else does), but ultimately, you probably won’t want to listen to this album “every day” through the holiday season because it is more “everyday” than you would’ve hoped.
Highlights: ‘Snowman’, ‘Underneath the Mistletoe’
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

You Make It Feel Like Christmas by Gwen Stefani
No Doubt’s 1997 cover of The Vandal’s ‘Oi to the World!’ was fun, energetic, and memorable … which are some of the many things that Gwen Stefani’s You Make It Feel Like Christmas is not. An album of “meh”-worthy holiday tunes, the record comprises of 12 songs – six originals, six covers – and fails to deliver anything exciting. The covers are unnecessary, the originals are unexceptional. Her faithful renditions of old favourites bring nothing new to classics like ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Let It Snow’, ‘Silent Night’, and ‘White Christmas’; nor do they in any way surpass many of the countless other covers of these same Christmas staples. Her new songs – most of which only have a cursory link to the holidays – are middling pop ditties that seem more generic than festive. The title track, ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’, which features her boyfriend Blake Shelton, is a charming duet that will especially please fans of the couple. But on the whole the record lacks the energy and edge that could have elevated this material and made it memorable.
Highlights: ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’, ‘Under the Christmas Lights’
Rating: 2 out of 5

Twelve Tales of Christmas by Tom Chaplin
While his band takes a hiatus, Keane vocalist Tom Chaplin has released his second solo album, Twelve Tales of Christmas, a beautiful collection of gentle, melodic ditties that explore the sombre side of this potentially emotional holiday. There are eight original compositions in this set of 12, all beautiful but a tad too similar in tone and tempo. The four songs he has covered – ‘Walking in the Air’ by Howard Blake; ‘2000 Miles’ by The Pretenders; ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell; and ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 – are very well-chosen as the selection fits his voice and style nicely while reminding us of how beautiful the originals were. It may be a little too schmaltzy and gloomy, but this collection of soft rock tunes is still charming and comforting. Probably not the best record to soundtrack jolly festivities, but a lovely nod to the mellow notes many experience over the holiday season.
Highlights: ‘Midnight Mass’, ‘2000 Miles’, ‘River’, ‘For the Lost’
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Christmas Christmas by Cheap Trick
So enthusiastic about releasing a Christmas record they decided to mention it twice in the title, Cheap Trick’s Christmas Christmas is the polar opposite of Tom Chaplin’s album – an energetic set of mostly up-tempo songs. All but three of the 12 tracks on this disc are covers, including the band’s take on Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph Run’, The Kinks’ ‘Father Christmas’, and The Ramones’ ‘Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)’. It’s a joyous collection of rock tunes that celebrates the cheer of Christmas with loud guitars and drums. Points docked for the heavy reliance on covers though, as the many familiar songs will leave you wishing the band had tried to come up with more material themselves.
Highlights: ‘Merry Christmas Darlings’, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, ‘Christmas Christmas’
Rating: 3 out of 5

Dear December by The Minus 5
Scott McCaughey and his many musical friends have come together for Dear December, a “fresh batch” of holiday songs. Powered by a host of guest appearances by artists including Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), M. Ward,  Kelly Hogan, Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and Mike Mills (R.E.M.), the album offers a well-crafted collection of Yuletide themed indie gems. There are tunes about Christmas, Hanukkah, and even New Year’s Eve in this 11-song set, each of which offers a different flavour. The wry ‘When Christmas Hurts You This Way’ and the Colin Meloy assisted ‘The Fourth Noel’ are among the album’s finest cuts. Using their pop smarts and characteristic wit, the rock collective have created a winsome record of enjoyable tunes, a merry companion for the festive season.
Highlights: ‘When Christmas Hurts You This Way’, ‘The Fourth Noel’, ‘I Still Believe in New Year's Eve’
Rating: 4 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 25th December, 2017 *

Friday, December 22, 2017

Warmth, wisdom, and wit from wonderful wordsmiths

the bookshelf

A look at the standout books published in 2017

Like every year, 2017 also gave us lots of touching, amusing, fascinating works published by amazing writers from all over the world. Here’s a look at some of the many (many) standout books that captured the attention of bibliophiles everywhere this year:


Origin by Dan Brown
Massively popular (and just as controversial) writer Dan Brown has become a household name around the globe on the back of the success of his Robert Langdon books. The Da Vinci Code (2003) – the second instalment in the series – remains one of the world’s best-selling novels. This year, the American author sent his most famous character on his fifth adventure in Origin, a mystery set in Spain that revolves around the death of one of Langdon’s former students turned famous futurist who was about to reveal a secret that would have changed science and religion forever.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Three years after making a splash with her bestselling debut novel Everything I Never Told You (2014), Chinese-American author Celeste Ng published her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, in 2017 to much critical praise. The story is centred on two families in the author’s hometown Shaker Heights, Ohio, where a custody battle over an adopted Chinese-American baby divides the neighbourhood.

Beartown: A Novel by Fredrik Backman
A Man Called Ove (2012) put Swedish writer Fredrik Backman on the literary map when it was published in English in 2013. His recent new offering was Beartown, an absorbing look at a small, ailing community that rests all its hopes on its junior ice hockey team winning a national tournament, but is left in shock as a scandal leaves the town in turmoil.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Zimbabwe-born British author Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller The Girl on the Train (2015) became the fastest-selling adult novel in history nearly two years ago. Her sixth novel, Into the Water, came out in 2017, and offered another dose of psychological suspense, as the death of a woman – whose body was found in the river – forces her sister to return to the place she had escaped and brings up old memories and secrets.

Artemis by Andy Weir
After dazzling us Earthlings with his novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars, sci-fi author Andy Weir took us to the Moon this year in Artemis, the story of a smuggler caught up in a conspiracy for control of a lunar colony, once again blending his science smarts with his wisecracking humour to produce another witty near-future thriller. The book is currently in the process of being turned into a movie, with the amazing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller developing and directing the project.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
The long-awaited seventh novel by The Fault in Our Stars (2012) writer John Green, titled Turtles All the Way Down, came out in 2017, and told the tale of a high school student who has multiple anxiety disorders and ends up searching for a fugitive billionaire. A film adaptation for this book is also in development.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
A pair of young immigrants, displaced from their war ravaged country, went through magical doors while trying to find a place for themselves in the world in Exit West, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s latest work, a treatise on the global refugee problem that generated much international interest for both the writer and his fourth novel. And – yes, you guessed it – this book will also head to the big screen soon, with Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum attached to the project as the director.


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
This year, Walter Isaacson – who has previously written several biographical bestsellers, including Einstein (2007) and Steve Jobs (2011) – turned his attention to one of the most fascinating polymaths of all time: Leonardo da Vinci. The book presents a very thorough look at the life and work of the Italian creative genius who came up with ideas that seemed way ahead of his time and produced some of the most famous paintings in history.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
As the world tries to come to terms with Donald Trump’s electoral win and subsequent presidency, his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton gave her account of the presidential race and how it panned out in her new book, What Happened. Divided into six main parts – ‘Perseverance’, ‘Competition’, ‘Sisterhood’, ‘Idealism and Realism’, ‘Frustration’, and ‘Resilience’ – What Happened shares the former first lady’s experience of the American presidential campaign and her analysis of why she lost the election.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
The incomparable Neil deGrasse Tyson gave us a crash course in astrophysics in his latest book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. The bestseller made complex scientific concepts accessible to the layman, and sheds light on the mysteries of the universe, covering topics like the nature of space and time in witty, insightful, and easy-to-grasp chapters.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly
From March 2015 to March 2016, American astronaut Scott Kelly spent 342 consecutive days in space. The mission was part of a scientific research project aboard the International Space Station meant to study the health effects of long-term spaceflight, with changes in his body studied against his identical twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who stayed on Earth. He detailed his space adventure in the riveting memoir Endurance, a fascinating account of a very unusual experience.

Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece by Stephen Fry
British national treasure Stephen Fry beautifully retold old Greek myths in his 2017 book Mythos, an entertaining and knowledgeable take on the ancient world and how it sheds light on our own times. The writer has used his smarts and wit to recap the adventures of Greek figures, gods, and goddesses, like Apollo, Aphrodite, Hades, Hercules, and Pandora, retelling their tales for modern times.

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith
What will the world be like in the future? No one really knows for sure, but that has never stopped many of us from trying to predict how things will go. That’s exactly what Kelly and Zach Weinersmith have done in Soonish. Putting together their intelligence and humour, the couple explored ten new technologies in their 2017 tome while predicting the impact these emerging fields could have on the world.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd December, 2017 *

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Coco - Pixar's triumphant return to form

movie review


Voice cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, and Edward James Olmos
Director: Lee Unkrich
Tagline: The celebration of a lifetime

A string of wonderfully creative and thoroughly entertaining films in the ‘00s helped establish Pixar as an animation powerhouse that was creating some of the finest family-friendly movies of the decade. But the studio was unable to maintain its momentum as it developed a disappointing case of sequelitis. Instead of coming up with interesting new releases, the Disney subsidiary instead chose to build its franchises by revisiting its most popular ideas, making films that admittedly weren’t bad by any measure but simply lacked the imagination and spark that had made the studio’s best work so special.

With its latest release, Coco, Pixar has reclaimed its place atop the animation throne with a touching film that effortlessly tugs at the viewers’ heartstrings.

Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich helms the project that takes us to the fascinating lands of Mexico for a fantasy take on the region’s Day of the Dead holiday.

The protagonist is Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who falls in love with music. The only complication? His family just happens to think that music is a curse!

Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Imelda, shunned music after her husband abandoned her and their young daughter, Coco, to pursue his aspirations of becoming a star. Now, decades later, Coco is an elderly woman stricken with dementia, and Miguel’s grandmother, Elena (Renée Victor), is enforcing a strict ban on music in the family.

Feathers are ruffled when Miguel – inspired by his musical idol, the late singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) – decides to enter a talent competition that is being held on the Day of the Dead, a holiday when the dead visit their living relatives. Infuriated by his interest in music, Elena smashes her grandson’s guitar, which leads him to steal an instrument from Cruz’s tome in order to participate in the contest. But by stealing from the dead on a night dedicated to giving to the deceased, Miguel – along with his canine friend, a street dog named Dante – is transported into the Land of the Dead.

To return to the Land of the Living, Miguel has to undo the curse by getting his family’s blessing by sunrise. But when his ancestors attach a condition to their blessing that requires him to give up on his singing dreams, Miguel tries to find another way out of his predicament with the help of trickster Héctor (Gael García Bernal), and ends up on a journey that teaches him the importance of family, passion, and love.

Coco is a reminder of just how impressive Pixar can be when they create an imaginative, poignant project. The animation is terrific and full of interesting textures, designs, and details. The all-Latino voice cast delivers good performances throughout the film. The story is affecting and tactfully explores several difficult topics like aging and death. The ending is very touching; if you end up shedding an embarrassing amount of tears in the last half hour or so of the film then you definitely won’t be alone.

Despite its many strengths and merits though, Coco isn’t perfect. Nit-pickers will point out that the film is a little too long and slightly slow around the middle; its execution is a bit too chaotic at times; the film shares some similarities with The Book of Life (2014); and for a musical about the magic of music, the film could have definitely used some more songs.

But whatever minor criticisms you may come up with while watching it, you’ll probably forgive them by the end of the film as you reach for a box of tissue papers and wonder why Pixar enjoys turning you into an emotional wreck. This is a powerful, intense movie, and while it may be a little too dark for very young viewers, Coco manages to deliver lessons about identity and life in an entertaining way, and ultimately makes for very satisfying (and emotional) viewing.

Rating: 4 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 15th December, 2017 *

Sunday, December 10, 2017

New releases from music's old guard

album reviews

Artist: U2
Album: Songs of Experience ***1/2

One of the many (many) things that the Trump presidency has been blamed for is the delay in the release of U2’s fourteenth album, Songs of Experience. The Irish rock band had originally planned a 2016 release for the follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence (which famously became a frontrunner for the “most deleted album in music history” title when it was forced upon iTunes users without their consent almost three years ago). But the shifting global political landscape inspired the band to rethink and revamp the material they had recorded for the project. The result is an album that is often politically charged and socially aware, yet surprisingly optimistic in tone.

With Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder primarily in charge of production, this 13-song set serves as a companion to its predecessor, and paints the picture of a band that is attempting to be current while searching for relevancy, yet unwilling to musically challenge themselves.

There are earnest sentiments (delivered through Bono’s unsubtle lyrics) and well-crafted melodies aplenty (which doesn’t come as a surprise since we already have nearly 40 years’ worth of evidence that this band knows how to come up with a memorable rock tune). And there are contributions by some of pop music’s current hit-makers – primarily Haim (who appear on ‘Lights of Home’), Lady Gaga (who provides backing vocals on the tepid ‘Summer of Love’), and Kendrick Lamar (who sounds powerful yet a little out of place at the intersection of ‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ and ‘American Soul’).

But the instruments here are often restrained, the inclination to experiment rarely realized. It’s all very competently done, but you can’t always feel the passion. Even with all the work that has gone into its making, Songs of Experience sounds like U2 on autopilot, and that ultimately serves as both its main merit and primary disappointment.

Highlights: ‘Lights of Home’, ‘Red Flag Day’, ‘The Showman (Little More Better)’, ‘Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way’


Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Album: Who Built the Moon? ****

The dissolution of British rock band Oasis may have left many of their fans broken hearted and yearning for a reunion, but the break has also given the warring Gallagher brothers a chance to pursue their own projects. Liam has been off doing his own thing (while incessantly slagging “rkid” for all his faux pas, real and perceived) and Noel has been making music with his High Flying Birds. Who Built the Moon?, the new album by the latter, catches the elder Gallagher sibling in a chipper mood, and we’re not complaining.

Infectious first single ‘Holy Mountain’ captures the up-tempo energy of the old Oasis B-side ‘Round Are Way’ and – say what you will about its lyrics – is catchy as hell (until some evil cretin mentions that it kinda sounds like Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ and ruins the song forever). The guitar pop of ‘She Taught Me How to Fly’ brims with joy. And the throwback goodness of the terrific ‘Black & White Sunshine’ is so R.E.M. reminiscent that it will leave you nostalgic for the American band’s heyday.

There are trumpets and cello and even tin whistle in the mix here in what is the most satisfying release by Noel’s solo outfit. Perhaps it is the influence of producer David Holmes – who has previously scored several Steven Soderbergh films – that makes this record so vibrant. Ultimately, Who Built the Moon? is a well-crafted record infused with psychedelic and glam influences that is thoroughly enjoyable. And while it may not attempt to reinvent the wheel, it does see the band traverse some interesting ground.

Highlights: ‘Fort Knox’, ‘Holy Mountain’, ‘It’s a Beautiful World’, ‘Black & White Sunshine’

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th December, 2017 *

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Mercy - an intriguing real-life story comes to the big screen

trailer review

In October 1968, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst set out to compete in a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Eight months later, the fascinatingly shocking details of his journey would come to light and end up causing a public sensation. Now, nearly half a century later, his story – just as intriguing today as it was almost 50 years ago – is being brought to the big screen in the upcoming British film The Mercy which comes out in February next year.

The official trailer for the movie shares a few scenes from this drama while shedding light on its overall narrative.

Colin Firth portrays the film’s protagonist, a struggling businessman who enters the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, hoping to win the £5,000 prize by circumnavigating the world in a boat alone. But the Brit starts running into numerous problems soon after his voyage begins. An inexperienced seafarer in an inadequate vessel on a gruelling challenge, Crowhurst realizes that if he continues on his quest then he faces dire chances of survival, and if he turns back, he faces “certain ruin”.

The real-life story the movie is based on is fairly well known – Crowhurst has already been the subject of a number of books, documentaries, and films – so you may already know the choices he made in desperation and their consequences, but that doesn’t diminish how compelling the movie seems.

Director James Marsh – who has won numerous accolades for his Philippe Petit documentary Man on Wire (2008) and Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (2014) – has already shown us how good he is at working with biographical material, so he seems like a very suitable choice to helm this vehicle. And from the glimpses we get of the film in the trailer, the movie certainly seems like it is well shot.

The cast, too, is very impressive. Firth is a safe bet in the lead role, and supporting him is the beautiful Rachel Weisz who portrays the protagonist’s wife; both these acclaimed actors seem terrific in their parts.

There is certainly enough talent attached to the project to make The Mercy look very promising. Plus the filmmakers have a very compelling story to work with. Hopefully they will be able to paint a nuanced portrait of Crowhurst, his predicament and eventual unravelling.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 6th December, 2017 *

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Gaga: Five Foot Two - a glimpse at the person behind the Lady Gaga persona

documentary review
Trying to stay in the limelight on the back of controversies and shock tactics may work in the short term, but this strategy doesn’t guarantee longevity for the career of an artist. It becomes progressively harder for the entertainer to capture the attention of an increasingly jaded audience, and the weaknesses of the performer’s material start to become more apparent as the novelty of their offbeat persona wears off.

That’s the problem Stefani Germanotta found herself running into. After taking the music world by storm under the provocative guise of Lady Gaga, the American pop star started losing traction with each new record, receiving lukewarm reviews, weaker sales, and waning attention for her latter releases. The best way forward, logic dictated, was an image overhaul, so it didn’t come as a surprise when the singer chose to strip away the eccentric Gaga façade and present a more intimate visage for her new album, Joanne (2016).

It’s this latest phase in her career that is the subject of Gaga: Five Foot Two, a Netflix documentary that captures a glimpse of the singer’s personal and professional life as she makes and promotes Joanne.

The film shows Germanotta recording in the studio, primarily with producer Mark Ronson, creating the songs that would end up on her fifth album. The emotional story of the titular Joanna – her father’s sister who died of lupus at the age of 19 – is relayed in a touching segment of the documentary. We also see the singer making the ‘Perfect Illusion’ music video, promoting the new record, performing at the Democratic National Convention and at a birthday celebration for Tony Bennett, and preparing for her Super Bowl half-time show which took place earlier this year. The documentary also highlights her acting successes; her stint on American Horror Story and her upcoming movie A Star is Born are both mentioned in the film (although you don’t find out anything substantial about the latter project).

Alongside her musical and acting endeavours, Five Foot Two also offers a peek into Germanotta’s personal life, from her bond with her family to her loneliness following the disintegration of her relationship with ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney. But the most affecting part of the documentary is her struggle with severe pain, which is mentioned several times in the film. Throughout the documentary, Gaga is shown suffering from chronic pain which often leaves her in tears, as she struggles with spasms or gets treatment for the disease which seems to have been undiagnosed when Five Foot Two was being made but was later revealed to be fibromyalgia.

The documentary appears to have two primary aims: to showcase Germanotta’s vocal prowess as she embarks on this stripped-down segment of her musical journey and to humanize the artist. And while it succeeds to a certain degree on both counts, it doesn’t completely triumph on either level. As an artist, hearing the singer record in the studio leaves you with little doubt that she has one of the strongest voices among her peers, plus her piano playing skills are consistently impressive, but the songs she records are a tad underwhelming and not exactly her finest creations. As a person, we get to see a more vulnerable side of the performer which makes her seem more personable, but we don’t really get to know a lot about the singer. The film doesn’t explore her early life or career. Plus, it’s hard not to wonder how real and raw the documentary really is, especially when comments or scenes start to seem a little staged.

All in all, though director Chris Moukarbel has done a competent job capturing his subject’s busy schedule, her seemingly chaotic life, and the severe pain that she has been dealing with for years. The film is also an interesting showcase of the current stage of Germanotta’s career, which itself seems like a move in the right direction – albeit executed in a lacklustre way – for her as an artist who finally wants the focus to be on her talent instead of her antics. The documentary is primarily for little monsters or viewers who have some knowledge about the singer’s life and work; those who know nothing about her might feel a little lost as not everything is clearly spelled out or explained. Ultimately, you won’t walk away with a comprehensive understanding of the woman at its centre as Five Foot Two doesn’t shed light on much of her life and work, nor does it delve too deep into her thoughts and choices, but it does give you a fascinating look at Germanotta’s Joanne era and a glimpse at the person behind the Gaga persona.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 3rd December, 2017 *

Friday, December 01, 2017

Pet smart

vet wise

Animal lovers can sometimes stumble across a problem regarding their furry, feathered, or scaled friends that they can’t figure out the solution to. So we have asked veterinarian Dr. Faheem Ahmad to help our readers with their animal-related queries.

Taking care of stray cats

Question: The interview of vet Dr. Faheem was really good.  I have a few questions for him. First, I want to say that we don’t have good and reliable pet shops and vet clinics in Karachi, and that is why we have to go to ordinary vet clinics for medicines and vaccines when my cats get sick. My cats are strays. I picked them from the street when they were born. Their mother disappeared after some time. They are playful. They are around 6 months old.
Here are my queries:
1. How do I find out if my cat is sick? What symptoms should I look out for? Sometimes I don’t understand.
2. My friends say that the person who keeps pets should also get some medical treatment to protect themselves from germs. What sort of treatment is that? Can you briefly talk about it and who to talk to about it – the vet or a general doctor?
3. Is it safe to keep stray cats? What should I keep in mind while cleaning them? They jump a lot when you throw water on them so I soak a piece of towel in Dettol water and wipe their body. I know it is not enough.
4. What sort of food should I feed my cats? I give them milk, chicken liver, chicken meat, and also chichare. I have seen cat food in the supermarket but I have no idea what to buy.
Thank you so much. I look forward to seeing the answers to my questions. – Farah Sikandar, Karachi

Answer: Thanks for your compliments regarding my interview. Here are the answers to your questions:
1. Signs of illness: It’s very simple. Just look at the behaviour of the cat (if he’s dull or hyper), changes in the eyes (any discharge), dietary issues (he will stop eating if he’s ill), and also see the consistency of the faeces.
2. Precautions: Yes, you have to be careful, especially when the animal is suffering from any disease. In normal condition, some owners – not all – may suffer from allergy due to the cat’s fur; for that, you have to regularly brush the cats. Moreover, to avoid any serious infection from cats, vaccinate your cat from a reputed vet who will issue a proper vaccination card.
3. Cleaning: If the cat does not like bathing, then there is no need to bathe the cat regularly. Only bathe when it is required. Otherwise you can clean the cat with a wet towel. Don’t use Dettol. You can get some proper medicated shampoo from any reputed shop.
4. Diet: There are some pet food brands which are good, like Purina, NutraGold, Whiskas, Reflex, Acticlog – these are good from my practical experience. Otherwise you can give the cat chicken meat, preferably not raw. Don’t give liver [in a large quantity] to cats, as this is poisonous for cats.

Trying to pick a reliable vet

Question: The Vet to the Rescue cover story was very interesting. The veterinarian suggested that people should trust their vet, but there are so many instances of vets mistreating and mishandling animals, even losing animals in their care and seeming unconcerned about the death of animals they were treating, that it becomes hard to trust the life of an animal we love into the care of a relative stranger. How can I tell if the vet I am taking my pet to is reliable? Are there any qualities or qualifications that I should look for or ask them about? How, basically, do I find out which vet to trust (from the very few choices I have)? – Anon.

Answer: Frankly speaking, dealing with a pet is not an easy job. It is actually very difficult, as the animals don’t exactly tell you the problem. It is all about experience, knowledge, and Allah ki shifa. So for me, all the vets who are continually practicing are good. Moreover, most of the doctors have displayed their degrees online and at their clinic; you can always check their qualification before letting them treat your pet.

Helping a cat suffering from dietary issues

Question: I have read your article Vet to the Rescue and I really liked it. Actually, I also own a cat and for the past few months, my 1-year-old cat has been throwing up a few times a week, sometimes a few times a day. My vet has tested her blood, and changed her to a low residue food diet, but nothing seems to help. My cat has also chewed all the fur off her right shoulder blade. What should I do? Should I change vets and get a second opinion? We got another cat in December and had a baby in April. She acts fine otherwise. Please help! – Mamoona Khalid

Answer: The first thing is whether the cat is dewormed or not. If not, you should get her dewormed. Secondly, I would suggest that you change your cat’s diet to a reputable brand. Switch to a reputable diet, feeding her the exact quantity mentioned on the pack, and divide it into small portions given over the course of the day. You can apply an Elizabethan collar to stop her from eating fur, as fur can also be the main reason for an upset stomach. As far as changing the vet goes, you can, of course, get a second opinion.

Thanks to our readers who wrote in with their animal-related queries, and good luck taking care of your animal friends! For any further questions regarding animal care or the veterinary field, feel free to drop Us a line at sameenamer [at] hotmail [dot] com.


Food you should not feed animals

Pet owners might be tempted to share a few bites of their meals with their animal companions, but that isn’t always a good idea. Similarly, leaving your snacks or medicine unattended could give your pet the chance to ingest something unsuitable for animals, which could have dire consequences for your pet. There are several food items and substances that may be safe for humans but could have adverse – even lethal – effects on animals.

Here are some such food items that you should not feed your cats and dogs:
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Caffeine
  • Citrus
  • Coconut
  • Garlic
  • Grapes
  • Nuts
  • Onion
  • Salty snacks
- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 1st December, 2017 *

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Will Disney ruin our childhood with its adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time?

trailer review

If you read Madeleine L'Engle’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time as a child (or even as an adult for that matter), then chances are that your mind’s eye probably didn’t conjure up an image of Oprah Winfrey in a blonde wig whenever the character of Mrs Which appeared in the story. And if you were to come up with a fantasy casting for a movie adaptation of the 1962 classic, then, once again, blonde Oprah probably wouldn’t have been the first person you pictured in that role. But that, somehow, is exactly what we’re getting in the upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, Disney’s second film based on the popular children’s book (which was previously turned into a television film of the same name in 2003).

The story revolves around a young girl, Meg Murray (Storm Reid), who goes on a fantastical journey to search for her missing physicist father (Chris Pine). Along with her prodigious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller), the misfit Meg finds herself on a magical ride across the universe – powered by three astral beings, Mrs. Which (the aforementioned Oprah in all her majesty), Mrs. Whatsit (an instantly winsome Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (a less convincing Mindy Kaling) – to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance.

First impressions based on the trailer? Decidedly mixed.

The most striking and instantly noticeable thing about this project, of course, is the diversity of both the talent in front of and behind the camera. The cast is wonderfully diverse; it’s especially nice to see a young black girl lead the ensemble. Plus the film reportedly makes director Ava DuVernay the first woman of colour to direct a blockbuster with a $100 million plus production budget, and with the praise she has received for her work so far – particularly for the film Selma (2014) and the documentary 13th (2016) – it does feel like she has the talent to bring this enchanting tale to cinematic life.

On the other hand though, it seems a little too much like The Chronicles of Narnia meets Tomorrowland by way of Alice in Wonderland. And the few glimpses the trailer has given us of the film don’t dissuade the concerns that the story may have been overly Disney-fied and turned into a bright, CGI-drenched fantasy escapade where the adults look like they’re dressed for cosplay.

One thing’s for sure though: this isn’t what most of us pictured when we thought of the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Whether that’s a good thing or not … we’ll just have to wait till March 2018 to find out.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 22nd November, 2017 *

Friday, November 17, 2017

The immaculate cat

cover story

Fluffy, king of the garden
Cats are awesome, and they know it. They are so amazing, in fact, that they were even worshipped as deities in ancient cultures (and if you’ve ever met a cat, then you know this historic divine status is something that the feline has never forgotten). But popularity breeds haters, and that is exactly what has happened in the case of these magnificent furry creatures. There are some misguided – and, let’s face it, clearly quite envious – humans who have been levelling completely baseless accusations against our feline overlords companions, calling them things like annoying, aloof, fickle, and – excuse me while I gasp – useless. But that smear campaign ends today, for not only are cats cute and cuddly and altogether adorable, but they also happen to be the most selfless, hardworking, and useful creatures that have ever set paw on planet Earth. That’s right; the cat diligently serves many functions in various capacities all around us, tirelessly toiling all day long just to help others. All you need to realize its many roles in our lives is a little bit of love (and a lot of imagination).

Renovation instigator
You are lazy. That’s ok, I’m not judging you. But we both know that if it were up to you, you’d never bother to renovate your living space and would just end up with the same curtains and sofas and blankets and carpets for a decade. Left to your own devices, your life would be stagnant. Thankfully though, the cat is always there to help you, slowly nudging you on by shredding your drapes and using your rugs as his own personal scratch pad, all in the hopes of inspiring you to give your house an overhaul. The cat isn’t doing any of this for himself; the cat is doing this all for you. Because he loves you and cares about you. You’re welcome.

Alternative interior decorator
If you are a human being, then i) I’m sorry for your luck, and ii) chances are you keep all your possessions inside cupboards/drawers or on tables. O ye of little imagination! We humans are bound by mental constraints revolving around things like “order” and “arrangement”, but unlike us, the cat is not afraid to think outside the box. “What would everything look like if it was on the floor?” the cat wonders, before promptly throwing everything on the ground. Because changing the way the room looks has a positive impact on the mood, of course. Sure you may not be very pleased that your porcelain doll has parted ways with its head and your favourite coffee mug is now in pieces, but that’s just a small price to pay in order to enjoy the cat’s creative decorating skills.

Kitty in a tree
Nature documentary participant
The majestic cat moves with impeccable grace. Ain’t she a beauty! Suddenly, she sees a sparrow in the distance. She slowly, stealthily moves towards the unsuspecting bird. Crikey! She jumps at her prey, lunging towards the sparrow … and promptly smacks straight into the window between her and the bird that she had failed to take into account!
Cats are funny.

See: nature documentary participant.

Digging? Check!
Grass pruning? Check!
Applying fertilizer? Check!

Jolly performing a balancing act
The cat is an acrobat and the world is her circus. The consummate entertainer, the feline gymnast will swing from trees, climb to vertigo-inducing heights, make astounding jumps, and (cat)walk on impossibly thin beams, all in a noble attempt to keep us humans amused.

Financial advisor
The cat keeps meowing. I think she’s saying she wants something to play with. I should get her some toys. ($10)
Aww, doesn’t the cat look cold? Time to buy her a little cat house. ($15)
Yikes! The cat is coughing. I should take her to the vet ($50)
Oh no, we’re almost out of dry cat food. Must get some more. ($25)
Almost forgot, also need to get the wet cat food. ($25)
Might as well pick up some treats while I’m at it. ($10)
Doesn’t the cat seem like she could use some…
Wait, why am I suddenly broke?!

Motivational meower
Yes, you better not lose your job or the cat is going to have you for dinner. Work harder, human! The cat needs those fancy yumyums!

Alarm clock
The cat is nature’s alarm clock, guaranteed to wake you up in the morning. And by morning I obviously mean the middle of the night at a completely random time of her choosing. The cat knows that spontaneity makes life more exciting. Dependable digital alarm clocks that wake you up at a time of your choosing – where’s the fun in that?

Paradox generator
Just ask Schrödinger.

Lee proving that chairs are redundant
Humans invented chairs.
Cats discovered that humans are idiots who come up with redundant inventions, because if people had the slightest common sense, they would’ve figured out that just about everything can be used as a chair.
Cats are clearly smarter than humans.

The cat has been the muse for many artists, writers, and filmmakers, dutifully inspiring them to produce some iconic works that would have simply been inconceivable without the feline.
Just think about it.
Would people have flocked to the cinemas to watch That Darn Hyena? I think not.
What would have become of Puss in Boots? Dog in Clogs just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
The Cat in the Hat simply wouldn’t have worked without our furry friend, because The Dolphin in the Beret doesn’t even rhyme!
And Lewis Caroll would’ve been in a real pickle if it weren’t for the cat. The Cheshire Carp? Cheshire Caribou? Cheshire Cassowary? Cheshire Cormorant? Cheshire Chamois?! That’s just madness, I tell you, madness!

Uggy striking a very elegant pose
Aware of its natural beauty, the cat is always gracefully catwalking and striking a pose to give you a chance to capture its gorgeousness in photos, which is a good thing because otherwise you wouldn’t know what to do with your smartphone camera.

Internet content provider
As we all know, the Internet was invented so that we could share cat photos and videos with each other. If the cat were to suddenly disappear, the World Wide Web would turn into a barren, desolate wasteland, with tumbleweed blowing down its fake news streets filled with depression and despair. But that will never happen, not on Lil Bub, Maru, Colonel Meow, Venus, and Tardar Sauce’s watch!

Jolly, always there to help when I'm working
The cat makes a very effective bookmark. When you’re reading something, there’s a very high chance the cat will sit on it. WHILE you’re trying to read it.
Also quite effective as a paperweight.
Come to think of it, the cat is not just a bookmark and paperweight but, in fact, a full personal assistant, personally assisting you no matter what you’re working on by helpfully sitting on whatever it is you’re working on. Always so helpful.

Lucky the brave explorer
Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Neil Armstrong, and, of course, our good friend felis catus – some of the world’s greatest explorers who have boldly partaken in brave and daring expeditions all in the name of discovery.

Food critic
That thing you just spent an hour chopping, shredding, mixing, boiling, cooling for the cat? Yuck. Discarded. Because your cooking sucks.
That thing the cat found lying on the ground that had been sitting out there, getting coated in dust for a week? Yum!

Christmas tree ornament
Aussie, my friend Anny's beloved cat, displaying how to be a Xmas tree ornament

Fur donor
Real fur is cruel and fake fur looks, well, fake. But don’t worry – the cat knows how weary you are of both fox and faux fur. That is why it very helpfully leaves a layer of fur on all your clothing. Now you too can be posh and trendy and proudly walk around with a real fur covered top or sweater, cruelty free and prepared for you with love by your very considerate feline friend. See? The cat gives and it gives…

Hitler impersonator
Hitler, pensively wishing I had named him Chaplin instead
Hail Kitler! Because we must remember the past so as not to repeat it in the future. Or something.

Friend filter
What kind of a person doesn’t like cats? Block, delete, buh bye!

Fitness trainer
Like we talked about earlier, you’re lazy. Don’t worry, still not judging you. But laziness isn’t good for your health. That’s why the cat is worried about you. And since he only wants what’s best for you, he has made it his life’s mission to keep you on your toes. No need to join the gym when you are owned by a feline, because the cat takes his responsibility as your fitness trainer very seriously. Yes, he has you running around doing chores for him all day, but that’s just because he wants you to get some exercise. And when he goes missing and makes you frantically search for him all over the neighbourhood, it’s because he wants you to get that extra cardio.

Social interaction initiator
Speaking of frantic neighbourhood searches…
In a tech obsessed world that is leaving many of us increasingly isolated, where our messed up priorities have ended up trapping us in the 24 hour news cycle… we somehow seem very pleased with ourselves for knowing what’s happening in a random place on this planet a million miles away, yet have no idea what’s going on with our own neighbours. The cat realizes that this needs to chance. That’s why she keeps coming up with different ways to get you out of the house and socialize with the people around you. The cat wants you to know your neighbours, and for your neighbours to know you too, so that the next time they see you, they can think “ugh, there’s that insane woman who keeps showing up at our house looking for one of her five million cats. Quickly hide before she sees us and comes over again and starts jabbering away about how great cats are. Oh no, too late…”

So yes, cats are awesome, and they know it. And it’s about time everyone else knew it too.

- By a crazy cat lady Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 17th November, 2017 *