Saturday, 16 March 2019

Hanna Alkaf's Excellent Debut 'The Weight of Our Sky' ★★★★☆

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf | Book Review | Superior Young Adult Fiction

One of the aspects I most love about superior young adult literature is the windows into worlds previously unknown. I had never heard about the May 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia but Hanna Alkaf's excellent debut novel The Weight of Our Sky takes readers right into the heart of events through the eyes of Melati, a sixteen-year-old music-loving schoolgirl and OCD sufferer.

Kuala Lumpur, 1969. Melati is a typical schoolgirl who loves The Beatles, seeing films and arguing with her best friend Safiyah about the relative virtues of Paul Newman and Paul McCartney. While at the cinema one May afternoon, Melati and Safiya become embroiled in the sectarian violence between Chinese and Malay people that erupted in Kuala Lumpur following the 1969 General Election and would result in the deaths of 196 people (officially, unofficial figures rose to 600).

Displaced and terrified, Melati is unable to return home immediately and is lucky to survive at all. But survive she must. There is just one problem, Melati carries an unwelcome passenger - a Djinn - who burdens her with the yoke of obsessive compulsive disorder and makes every waking moment one of panic, fear and anxiety.

As Melati attempts to navigate a world torn apart by hatred and prejudice, all the while contending with her disorder, she learns the power of kindness, courage and retribution.

The Weight of Our Sky is a powerful and emotionally wrought novel. The depiction of Melati's OCD is especially well-written, to the extent that it was often difficult to read (being that I am no stranger to anxiety). Daunting too was the journey through the events of May 1969 and the fear and tension as we hurtled toward the climax of the Melati's story.

The historical events made the story all that more frightening and urgent and lend weight to the themes of prejudice, racism and altruism, themes that are as relevant to the modern world as they were in 1969. This would be an excellent novel for discussion of such themes in classrooms.

The Weight of Our Sky is an excellent historical novel that makes me excited to see what Hanna Alkaf will write next. I give it a strong four out of five stars and recommend to fans of both historic and contemporary young adult fiction due to the enduring nature of the themes addressed.

★★★★☆

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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Horror Film Review: The Harrowing (2017) ★★★☆☆

The Harrowing | Matthew Tompkins | Horror Film Review

There are many types of demons in the world: the ones invented by man and the ones that live within us. Those are often the darkest forces, the ones that can be most lethal. In Jon Keeyes’ latest horror film The Harrowing, sanity and grief are put under the spotlight as one man tries to understand the true nature of the demons he encounters. Billed as an intelligent and tense thriller, The Harrowing is a genre-bending film that is part police-procedural and part supernatural horror.

Detective Ryan Calhoun (Matthew Tompkins) has seen the worst of what society has to offer but even he struggles to reconcile the horror of seeing his best friend killed in a ritualistic murder. When it becomes apparent that one man could be behind the murder, Calhoun goes undercover at Auburn Forensic Hospital to investigate the great Dr Franklin Whitney (Arnold Vosloo).

Whitney believes that man created demon-lore from a base misunderstanding of the nature of mental illnesses. If demons are just a figment of man’s imagination, why are so many of Whitney’s patients seeing them?

The Harrowing | Matthew Tompkins | Horror Film Review

Believing he has the upper hand and lulled by a false sense of freedom, Calhoun conducts his investigations but catastrophically underestimates the nature of the threat facing him.

And cut.

The Harrowing is one of those films that is set up so well, with excellent performances from all the cast and a fascinating backstory. And then, just when you’re ready for the grand, mind-bending reveal there’s a big hole of... nothing. Or at least, nothing more than you hadn’t guessed already. The bad guys are indeed revealed to be bad guys but there is no explanation whatsoever of their motives, nature or intentions.

For 90 minutes, I was really expecting more from this film but ultimately it was another case of horror films acknowledging the presence of evil but doing nothing to explain its nature. And, not for the first time, I have to mention that the mere presence of a plot twist doesn’t imply an actual plot.

The Harrowing | Matthew Tompkins | Horror Film Review

It’s heartbreaking because Matthew Tompkins, Arnold Vosloo, Arianne Martin and Hayden Tweedie all gave incredibly good performances but ultimately this film is all form and no substance.

Entertaining for 90 minutes but let down by its climax, I give The Harrowing three out of five stars. I’d still recommend it as a filler, due to how much potential the film could have had, but don’t expect too much.

★★★☆☆

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Saturday, 9 March 2019

Decidedly Odd: Elana K. Arnold's 'Damsel' ★★★☆☆

Damsel by Elana K Arnold | Young Adult Fiction

Elana K. Arnold's Damsel is not the type of book I normally read, possibly because I normally read young adult fiction and I'm not exactly sure that Damsel actually counts as such. It's a reimagining of the classic dragon slayer and rescued damsel story, except in this case, Ama is not entirely convinced that this damsel malarkey is all for her and Prince Emory isn't exactly charming either.

In fact, he is quite the misogynist brute and despite having no memory of life before meeting Emory, Ama has a strong moral compass and a burgeoning sense of who she is and what she won't abide by.

With just a lynx kitten called Sorrow to keep her company, Ama must navigate life in the royal court and prepare herself for marriage with the prince. Which all sounds marvellously predictable except for the one factor Emory didn't count on, Ama's agency.

Damsel is a decidedly odd tale that I predict is going to prove very divisive. Some critics are loving it and it was named a 2019 Printz Honor Book. Despite being firmly marketed as a young adult novel, I'm not sure it's going to appeal to many readers in that demographic but I also suspect that many educators will favour it for its allegorical interpretation of feminism, misogyny, power and agency.

Mostly, Damsel has left me conflicted and it took me several weeks to agree on a star rating for the novel.

I tend to favour novels with a more poetic or lyrical writing style and Damsel has a very simplistic style. Regardless of this, I mostly enjoyed reading the book, looking forward to each reveal in the story, although I guessed the greatest reveal very early on in the book. I also appreciated the book for its cleverness and a rather more realistic representation of what life in a medieval fairy tale would be like for a teenager with more Millennial ideals and free will.

Under all of this lukewarm appreciation, I can't shake the impression of how strange the whole book is and so I give Damsel three out of five stars. There is such a wealth of superior young adult fiction in contention for Printz and other accolades and I couldn't in all fairness recommend this novel over any of them.

★★★☆☆

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Monday, 4 March 2019

AMC's Ride With Norman Reedus: Returns To UK Screens With Season 3

AMC’s travel documentary series Ride With Norman Reedus is returning to UK screens tonight, 4 March 2019 on BT. Season three sees Norman touring England and Scotland with celebrity guest stars including The Walking Dead co-stars Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes), Melissa McBride (Carol), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan), Steven Yeun (Glenn) and Austin Amelio (Dwight) as well as rock stars Marilyn Manson and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.

I’m not going to lie, I was purely here for The Walking Dead guest spots but Ride With Norman Reedus is a lot of fun and is a must-see for bike lovers. In the first episode alone, Norman meets up with Vikki and Dutch van Someren of The Bike Shed, fellow motorbike enthusiast and travel documentarian Charley Boorman and motorcyclist and award-winning architect Elspeth Beard in her converted water-tower home in Surrey. They also manage to squeeze in a visit to Stonehenge and dinner with Andrew Lincoln and Ian Anderson.

AMC is available free of charge to BT customers as number 332 on BT TV, and to BT Sport Pack
subscribers on Sky channel 192.  AMC is also available in HD on both BT TV and Satellite with an HD subscription.

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Saturday, 2 March 2019

Courtney Summers' Superb 'Sadie': book review ★★★★★

Sadie by Courtney Summers | Book Review | Superior Young Adult Fiction

There are some books that are incredibly difficult to review. I usually find that they are the most powerful of books, those that elicit the strongest emotional response in me. When I finished the contemporary young adult novel Sadie by Courtney Summers, I felt like I was rapid-cycling through the seven stages of grief. I was initially shocked and then distraught; I was in denial because I wasn't ready to finish the book and bargaining because I've discovered I can still listen to the podcast tie-in; I was angry because of the themes of the novel (and more than a little angry at that ending) and I was a little guilty about the people I ignored so that I could rush through this novel. I'm not sure I can ever find acceptance in a book about child murder and abuse.

Mostly I'm just sad but I knew that no matter how jumbled this review might be, it is one that I need to get out and I very much want to recommend this book. Sadie is a book about a murdered girl and her missing sister, about two girls growing up in dire poverty and neglect, about opportunistic men and the women they exploit, and about a dark underbelly of humanity that feeds on the most vulnerable of children.

Sadie has been running since the day her sister was murdered. She is on a single-minded quest for revenge but the police simply don't care enough to investigate that she's gone. Against his better judgement, radio personality West McCray begins to investigate Sadie's disappearance and he forms a podcast "The Girls". Told in alternating chapters between Sadie and the podcast, Sadie is about the race to find the runaway girl as layer upon layer of her story is peeled away.

Sadie is absolutely superb. It is a book that has remained foremost in my mind since I finished it and I can't stop thinking about it. There are so many layers to this story, from Sadie's speech impediment to the family's grinding poverty to the abuse that the girls suffer. The topics are not light but the weight of them didn't stop me rushing through the book.

"She's ten years old and she's already fighting her own cries for help."

Books like Sadie represent the very best that young adult fiction has to offer, books that make the reader think, challenge and ask questions about the toughest questions. This is a contemporary novel focusing on the very real challenges that children face today and will definitely generate conversation in reading groups and classrooms.

"There are bills on the table, though. Past-due notices. Seeing them puts a knot in my stomach the size of a grapefruit. That sort of dread you don't ever forget once you've known it. The crushing panic of needing money you don't have. "

I give Sadie a superb five out of five stars and I would recommend it universally to those seeking superior young adult fiction.

★★★★★

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Wednesday, 27 February 2019

The Definitive Interview With Dream Pop Newcomer Dream Reporter

Dream Reporter Interview | New Music Friday| Dream Pop

I know it's not nice to have favourites but if I had to chose, I'd say this is the favourite interview I've ever done. Brand new to the Dream Pop scene, Dream Reporter talks about her name, musical influences, song-writing process and the importance of self-belief. She also teases the name of what could possibly be her next single! I think you'll enjoy this one as much as I did!

The name Dream Reporter invokes all sorts of wonderful connotations. What is the story behind it?

It’s funny you ask, I do believe that there’s a lovely kind of kismet about how names come about - what is or seems random ultimately takes on a story all of its own. Especially once it belongs to the wild too which is a most beautiful thing.

I had the moniker Reporter kicking around for a while during the early writing stages, I really liked the way it sounded to say it, I think anything with three syllables has a good chanting potential ha. It’s not a very easy name to differentiate online though, which obviously meant it wasn’t an ideal name for socials and stuff. And as you will appreciate, usually the first thing anyone asks when you tell them you make music is, what does it sound like? And of course I always said Dream pop.

I’m really obsessed by music that has a dream like quality to it, that gives you that feeling of tugging at something deep inside of you. When I listen to certain tracks it’s like I’m suddenly awake and everything else that seemed real is actually the dream. It’s such a crazy intense feeling and that connection that music gives me, to what is primal inside me, to that which is perhaps hidden even from my conscious self, is what drives me to make music and create art.

I’ve always loved all that is mystic and the way in which our subconscious and our desires can have such power over us, how our intuition can be really finely tuned if we trust and let it guide us. It’s so interesting too, exploring that place between what we want and what we dream of so once I thought of it, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to add Dream to Reporter. I wholly believe in visualising what you want, who you want to be, visualising it so clearly it’s like watching a film of your own life. It sounds kind of crazy, but I believe when we are clear what we need from ourselves and our path then the universe, it finds a way to provide. Not always in a way we expect either, which is what makes the task of being open and receptive to the signs such a lifelong journey. The most exquisite puzzle.

How long have you been making music? Have you performed in other bands or under any other names?

I have been making music since I could talk haha, I loved to sing songs about anything and everything as a child, just kind of making them up as I went along. We kind of lose that a little as we get older I think, but if i’m honest I still do it haha! I tried learning the piano but my father couldn’t stand the sound of my practising and I lost interest quickly anyway. I taught myself guitar to accompany my first songs, but I always felt self conscious about my abilities so didn’t really push myself. I found it easier to write melodies or hooks in my head or on keys and then just get my talented friends to play them! A bit lazy of me I guess. I didn’t use a name until I started calling myself Reporter, so no, no other names.

Did you study music formally or are you self-taught?

Self taught bb!

Who are your major musical influences? If you could open for one artist or band who would it be?

Oh my gosh just thinking about the second part of this question gives me goosebumps haha! It would be so incredibly hard to pin it down to one i think. But probably The Smashing Pumpkins. Or Fleetwood Mac. Or Interpol. Or Bjork. Or even Frank Ocean. Gosh, it’s too hard haha.

I feel like discovering different artists kind of punctuated my life, and still does. It’s how I think about different periods, what music I was into at that time. Growing up I was lucky that my parents loved music and had pretty eclectic taste. I loved Queen and Bowie and Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Earl Klugh, Joan Armatrading, Lauren HIll, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Carly Simon, loved her. Whatever was playing at home I danced and sang my heart out to! I was a huge Mariah Carey fan, truly I would sing to all her records! And films and their soundtracks was a way I discovered a lot of great music too, I listened to the Romeo and Juiett soundtrack almost to death haha! I took a coach to school everyday and the Capital radio was always playing the latest hits, there was a group of us and we’d sit together singing along to all over favorite pop songs on the journey home. Then I discovered Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith and Cocteau Twins and all that incredible 80’s music that dominated the radio. Then the Smashing Pumpkins became my first real musical obsession, and everything grunge I guess. I loved Nirvana, Catatonia, Hole, REM, Green Day, Ash, Coldplay.

Interpol was the next big love of my life, what a band. The Maccabees, Lana Del Rey, Bombay Bicycle Club, Florence and the Machine. Bon Iver. Daughter, Ulrika Spacek, Odesza, I mean there will be hundreds of bands I’m missing here too, just impossible to write down everything!

I’m really the biggest music fan and geek haha, and as an artist I have been inspired by other artists for sure. Probably more individual songs and sounds that have influenced me, and wanting to share my world in a way that reaches other people in the way music reached me.

Are you back in London? Are you planning any gigs in the near future?

I’m on the West Coast at the moment but London is always calling me. It’s where I grew up and discovered music and saw my first shows and so it’s where I feel most deeply connected to my creative energy I think. It’s been amazing getting to explore and discover a different creative family in other places too and I think my writing will definitely benefit from that.

You’ve been touring the States. Which was your favourite venue or gig?

It’s not been a full tour yet but I’ve played in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I loved playing at Brick and Mortar because the sound is incredible for a smaller venue, plus it’s got a really great vibe and attracts a good crowd. I just played Hotel Cafe and that was a very cool experience though very different. You hear a lot of different opinions about playing LA, but I loved that that venue is where music fans come because they really want to hear new music. They pay attention! It was wild.. It was my first LA show and it was a stripped down set that I’d only really had time to rehearse for a hour that day with a new guitarist, so I guess for that reason it feels very special as it was a new experience both playing the songs that way and in a totally new city.

Now that your single is out, what can we expect next? Any plans for a full-length album?

I know everyone talks about the death of the album, but to me the most incredible thing is when you discover a new band or artist and they make a record that is just like the most delicious thing from start to finish. I love when there isn’t one track you want to skip, and that’s a rare thing so I guess what I’m saying is that I set the bar pretty high for myself haha!

In truth it might be a couple of singles yet before the album drops, I’m aiming to make it worth the wait though :)

What is your biggest challenge as a musician? Have you been able to overcome that and if so, how?

As a musician there are quite a lot of hidden challenges, or rather things it’s easy to overlook if you’ve not experienced the process. I can think of three big ones right now.

The first, and it sounds so simple, but it’s just self belief. A true, honest and humble place of self-belief. It takes so much, like just a crazy amount of time and effort to get good at something as abstract in a way as writing songs and finishing them, so you have to really steel yourself for the times of self doubt and the times you just don’t want to do it anymore or you question why anyone would devote themselves to something so likely to fail! You have to know that there are those days and that that is normal and a part of the process. And you have to dust yourself off and try again.

The second is treading the delicate balance of knowing when something still needs work and when it’s kind of done. And I say kind of because you can nit pick forever, but at a certain point doing more will not make it any better. At the same time, you can know your music so well or be so familiar with things being a certain way that you get a bit closed off to possibilities. Or tweaks that help progress things. So it’s quite a journey getting to your own individual place of being open enough to let something be what it needs to be while not getting lost down endless rabbit holes, knowing just when to call it time. You also soon discover that as much as deadlines are a pain, they can also be a saviour in that regard!

The third is finding a way to balance yourself in a job that for the most part doesn’t have a routine or structure in the sense that other people, unless they’re also creatives, will understand. I find it can be a very solitary existence, because you have to be so disciplined about sticking to your own path.

I think as fans we underestimate how much time, effort and money goes into the song-writing and recording process. The next couple of questions are about that.

Do you write your own songs? Can you describe your song-writing process?

Yeah I do write all my own songs, and arrangements. Songs come together in parts for me, no particular order but roughly the lyrics, the melody and hooks are first then the arrangements and the harmonies.

I have a good practise of making myself write my thoughts or feelings down as they come to me, so it’s not unusual that a song comes out almost fully formed. I think of lyrics as a form of poetry and when I think about expressing those emotions a kind of melody or rhythm will usually be in mind. So I start there and then build everything else out around it.

Which studio did you record in?

I recorded most of my tracks at Urchin Studio in London, and a few bits here and there at my home studio.

Did you record with a band or do you play all the instruments on your tracks?

I’m very fortunate that a lot of my friends are excellent musicians who were happy to play parts for me if I needed it.

Do you have any advice for artists just starting out?

You can waste a lot of time worrying about not being good enough in one way or another, particularly regarding body image. Looking at your idols and even your peers and how they seem to be perfect because they have it together in every area. The reality is, every path is different and you probably don’t have it together in every area at the beginning. But no one does, so don’t sweat it. It’s only as you move forward, when you take that first step by deciding to start, because as David Bowie said, “the truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time”. It’s the same for everyone, no matter how good or accomplished they are, it never feels like you’re “there”. So you have to know what your own personal goals are, and start with that.

And finally, if you could tell your fans to listen to just one track, what would it be?

It would be "Medicine", but that’s not out yet so I should say the latest single, "It Stays"!

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Saturday, 23 February 2019

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland ★★★★☆

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

At first glimpse, everything about Justina Ireland’s novel Dread Nation intrigued me. I loved the cover with its rich, blue tones and appreciated the subject's outfit, Civil War with a touch of steam punk. I’ve always been interested in films and books set during the Civil War era but the notion of a zombie-infested, alternative history fascinated me.

Our protagonist Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to rise again at Gettysburg. In this new alternative timeline, people of colour are no longer kept under the yoke of slavery for it it has been discovered that there are remarkably adept at putting down the dead. Forced into a life of service, Jane McKeene is training to become an Attendant, an expert in weapons and etiquette who will protect the most valuable members of society.

But all is not well in Baltimore County, for the dead are rising faster than they can be put down and Jane soon realises that several families have gone missing. As she gets caught up in the midst of a conspiracy, she and her friend Katherine are transported to a brave new town on the Kansas frontier, one with high walls to protect against the dead but dark secrets at its heart. As Jane challenges authority and fights the system, she begins to learn just what is at stake in this flawed oasis.

Dread Nation is a thoroughly exciting novel full of battles and never-ending action. I enjoyed everything about this book from the descriptions of Civil War-era dresses to the antics of Jane and Katherine. What I found most interesting was the prominent commentary on race relations and social class. It might seem utopian to replace the scourge of slavery with a facade of freedom but the Native and Negro Reeducation Act in Dread Nation is as much about inequality, racism, an imbalance of power and exploitation as slavery and Jane constantly addresses this in the novel.

If you love young adult fiction set in the Civil War era mixed with the old Wild West and a smattering of zombies thrown in, you'll enjoy this book. My only complaint doesn't relate to the themes of the book or the plot but the actual storytelling. Throughout the book, Jane spends a great deal of time speaking about a specific event in her life. I won't go into the actual details of it, for fear of spoilers, but it's pretty central to the story and the development of her character.

Towards the end of the book, she exposes her version of the event as a complete fabrication and so we learn that our trusted narrator has been lying to us the whole time which makes us doubt everything we have learned about her character. I understand that the author was exposing Jane as an unreliable narrator but it didn't quite work for me.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy Dread Nation and I will definitely be catching up the next novel in series. I give it four out of five stars and recommend it to lovers of diverse fiction and alternative histories.

★★★★☆

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