Archive for the 'reviews' Category


I know I haven’t reviewed anything for yonks, not cause I haven’t been reading (I have) but I just couldn’t be arsed lately, what with work and all.

But lo! The Rambling Librarian has asked me to review his (and this guy’s) spanking new album, SeaStars 2007! I just realised I’m not sure whether that refers to the band or the album. The band is called Starfish Stories. Download the album for yourself here.
Anyway… here’s what I think:

The album in a nutshell – wispy synths, straightforward piano, quite emo lead guitar (sometimes bordering on hair-metal, which is a good thing), and kinda cheesy sea-related sound effects (like dolphins and waves), all very new-agey and inoffensive. Bordering, actually mostly crossing the line over to sleepytime music.

I like myself some ambient from time to time, but I think people tend more to slit their wrists to Enya more than Aphex Twin. Did that last line make any sense? I have to say though, I did kinda like the guitar overdubs in Stargazer, but that’s probably my inner 80s hair metal fan talking.

In any case, the problem I have with new age music is that it’s pretty much meant to be unobtrusive background music. So I listened to the album 3 times through and spaced out each time. I just can’t actively listen to and appreciate something that’s constantly slipping and sliding out of my conscious brain. So if that was the plan – good job, guys. I’m pretty sure there’s a market for this in the yoga or spa music business, if it exists, that is.

But I’m just a punkrockertechnofreakdiscogrooverpostrocker at heart, and much prefer something I can dance to.


Reads: JPod

The thing about Douglas Coupland is how he writes the most dysfunctional, neurotic, patently disturbed characters imaginable, but I always end up wishing I had friends exactly like that. In fact, quoting an Amazon review, “the type of people Coupland depicts are precisely the type of people who consume Coupland novels“, which is something I find strangely both worrisome and extremely flattering.

JPod, in the novel, refers to a group of coders working on an ill-managed video game project, the least peculiar feature of which is a skateboarding turtle imprinted with the constructed mien of Survivor host Jeff Probst. Seriously. Each JPodder struggles with the eternal conflict between marketing and engineering, whilst dealing with their own as well as each other’s peculiarly Couplandish idiosyncrasy, of which there are many and weird.

While the backhanded compliment of inserting himself in the novel for an occasional deus ex machina is a little forced, Coupland’s patented self-referential easter eggs throughout the book are pretty hilarious. The story is not so much plot-driven as a steady narration by protagonist Ethan as he helps bury lovelorn bikers, pioneer hobo couture and rescue his junkie boss from a Chinese sweatshop.

Loaded with non-sequiturs and ultra-serious meditations on pop culture – of which I can never get enough, trivia geek that I am JPod is funny as shit and typically satirical of the commercial tech industry, with Coupland tapping the rich vein he mined so well back in Microserfs. My all-time favourite Coupland novel is still between Girlfriend in a Coma and Microserfs, but JPod comes pretty close.

(ISBN No: 1596911042) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Goodnight, Steve McQueen

Goodnight, Steve McQueen is advertised as being in the vein of High Fidelity, which I’d say counts as pretty misleading. Sure its about a 29-year old loser, Steve Danny McQueen – the name’s really just for cute factor, doesn’t add to the story – who’s still trying to make it as a rock star after yonks, and it’s written by Louise Wener, previously of the Britpop band, Sleeper. But there’s really not alot about music at all, which is a huge minus in my book.

Apparently an example of lad-lit, as opposed to chick-lit, it’s really about Danny’s relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend Alison, who’s got a real job, and who’s going to be posted overseas for work, so Danny’s been given an ultimatum to shape up or ship out. Along the way, Danny’s helped by an acceptably quirky one-dimensional cast consisting of his bandmates; shoes-obsessed band leader Vince and gullible but modelesque Matty, his well-meaning Greek boss, Kostas, and Sheila, an 80-year old kungfu enthusiast.

I guess it’s a pleasant enough read, extremely easy on the gray matter. Everything’s all very pat and conveniently plotted, with Wener even throwing in a not particularly tragic attempt at poignancy with the death of a character at the end. No prizes guessing whose number is up. It’s all quite predictable and boring, really. Goodnight, Steve McQueen is my first taste of lad-lit, I think, and probably my last.

Goodnight, Steve McQueen
(ISBN No: 006072563X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Snow Crash

Snow Crash is bloody amazing. I’ve come on a little late to the Stephenson party – in my defense, I did read The Big U back in school – and I don’t think there’s anything I can really add to the existing public opinion of this book. This was written in 92, mind you and is shockingly prescient, case in point: Snow Crash‘s Metaverse is already here today in Second Life.

Lest you think its just a Neuromancer wannabe, it’s not all just cyberpunk and wearable-computing – Snow Crash is ridiculously dense with ideas about the confluence between politics and business, micronation franchising and samurai swordplay as well as the best explanation of religion as virus I’ve read so far. Stephenson has so many genius ideas that even his throwaway hooks are better than what most sci-fi novels revolve around.

But what really gets me about Snow Crash is the characters: Hiro Protagonist, our, erm, hero protagonist, who is the best swordsman in the world, Y.T, the requisite spunky teen, except fitted with an actual dentata (look it up), Uncle Enzo, the pizza-hawking Vietnam vet Mafia Don, and Raven, quite simply the most badass mofo with a harpoon you’ll ever read about. Snow Crash is the most fun read I’ve had in a long time.

Snow Crash
(ISBN No: 0553380958) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Reefer Madness and Other Tales from the American Underground

Despite the occasional bravado and leftist rhetoric, I play it just as safe as any other typical Singaporean. Though that’s probably got more to do with balls (the lack of) than anything else. I say all this as a precursor to the fact that I’ve not tried any form of drugs ever, apart from the societally-accepted poisons of alcohol and nicotine, though the idea remains both seductive and vaguely romantic.

Reefer Madness – which is the first of three essays in the book – deals with the marijuana trade in America along with its absurdist law enforcement policies, which impose harsher penalties on a clueless pot smoker than murderers or rapists. This despite exhaustive studies which have shown pot to be less toxic than nicotine, albeit a fair bit more hallucinogenic. Not to mention the various medicinal properties of pot, as opposed to cigarettes, of which there are none. Mostly, the essay hits home when detailing various cases of ruined lives more a result of legal persecution and witchhunts than actual drug abuse.

The next essay is In the Strawberry Fields, which is an indictment of the Californian strawberry industry and its unfair practices regarding migrant labour from Mexico. This bit is quite reminiscent of Schlosser’s earlier Fast Food Nation. The final piece is An Empire of the Obscene, which profiles Reuben Sturman, the greatest porn baron the world has never known. Seriously, Hugh Hefner is a joke next to this guy. Who would’ve thought that the first porn capital of the world would have been as nondescript as Cleveland, Ohio?

Reefer Madness and Other Tales from the American Underground
(ISBN No: 0713996587) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: The Aardvark is Ready for War

Set in the first Gulf War, our protagonist is Iraq-bound on an aircraft carrier, slowly losing touch with reality and finding numerous ways to get out of combat as the front approaches. That’s mostly the book as the plot goes, more or less a pale imitation of Catch 22.

The angle here however, is that author James W. Blinn however, is obviously enamoured with Baudrillard’s infamous statement, “Le gulf war n’existe pas.” As Daddy Bush’s watch went, the Gulf War was relatively bloodless for the Americans, who pretty much conducted most of the war by remote and beamed everything back home live via CNN. The hypermediation of political conflict rendered the Gulf War indistinguishable from media for entertainment or some sort or other intellectual hyperbole. This one idea is pretty much beaten and flogged throughout the book to ridiculous proportions.

The Aardvark is Ready for War is really just a thinly disguised postmodern treatise on Baudrillard’s idea. While I enjoy the occasional postmodern brainfart as much as anyone, Blinn really kind of pushes it, making it so it seems every other sailor onboard is able to hold forth on media discourse, even including a stereotypical, tweed jacketed, professor who just happens to be teaching a course on the artifice of religion aboard the carrier. It’s really all a bit show-offy.

I was planning to be all snarky – well, snarkier – in this review when I realised I’ve not read Simulacra and Simulacrum myself, so no real intellectual authority here. Anyway, didn’t like Aardvark all that much.

The Aardvark is Ready for War
(ISBN No: 1560255463) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Atomik Aztex

Atomik Aztex is a peyotl-fueled stream-of-consciousness about alternate realities, where Zenzontli, Keeper of the House of Darkness is simultaneously a fearsome Aztex warrior in a world where the Aztecs slaughtered their would-be Spanish conquerors and a butcher at Farmer John’s abattoir in a reality much like the one we’re in.

Incredibly confusing book with its genre-mashing and dimension-hopping, but chock full of pretty cool ideas and vignettes, not to mention fantastically graphic descriptions of Aztec savagery, which apparently has been elevated to a science in the world of Atomik Aztex. There’s a particular passage where Zenzontli attempts to stave off own his own human sacrifice that is both uncomfortably graphic and slapstick funny, which is a hell of a tough trick to pull off.

Atomik Aztex
(ISBN No: 0872864405) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Newton’s Wake

I seem to be obsessing with all things Singularity of late, but Ken MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake has a less optimistic take of it, calling it the Hard Rapture, where billions are uploaded without their will, eventually leading to a great war between the humans and the AIs. In the book however, this has happened in the future-past, and Newton’s Wake is really about the descendants of the post-apoclayptic survivors encountering their centuries-old forebears who fled the Rapture in another part of the galaxy.

Having crammed Cold War ideology, posthuman slavery, as well as penning not a few folk songs and operas, there’s really too much going on in this book for me to cover, but suffice to say, it was quite a trip. I’ve read a few of his novels before, but there’s so many ideas going on in this one that it’s really quite a headrush. MacLeod’s probably the first person to come up with the idea of using temporal causality as a dogfight tactic, which is pretty damn cool in my book.

Newton’s Wake
(ISBN No: 1841492248) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Dog Days

Dog Days is pretty funny in the beginning when it reads kinda like Douglas Coupland-lite with its loser coder hero, recently dumped by the hot girl from marketing and stuck in a huge software company grinding code for what is quickly becoming vapourware. Then the book pretty much veers off into some mob-cheating scam that seems a little incongruous with the beginning. It was the ending that really took the cake though, totally tacked on and dripping with so much schmaltz I was cringing as I read it.

The book apparently started life as an award-winning short story – it probably should’ve stayed that way.

Dog Days
(ISBN No: 978-0684840000) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Reads: Out

Four very different friends working in a boxed-lunch packing factory lead desperate, domestic lives. When Yayoi, the youngest and most beautiful of the women strangles her good-for-nothing husband in a burst of rage, it falls on her friends to help her deal with the body, and they are dragged into an underbelly they never knew existed.

I was going to work in a lame joke with ‘Desperate Housewives’ but Out by Natsuo Kirino is above that. The sheer domesticity of the womens’ lives drains with its existential inevitability, but their murderous descent gives an exquisite brutality that actually seems simultaneously uplifting and empowering. I really quite enjoyed this book.

(ISBN No: 978-1400078370) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

Thanks to the Viatch for giving me he book – I think it took me a whole year before getting round to reading it.