The Museum of the Lost People – mad libs.

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Here we are, at the Museum of ____*. It is a stunning building, its structure cunningly reflecting the history and culture of the minority it represents. As we enter its bowels, we first read of how the _____ first appeared in our country – earlier, probably, than most of us have imagined – and how they mingled with the society they’d encountered. They came sometimes as warriors, sometimes as traders, but mostly simply as settlers, seeking a calm refuge from the storms of the land they had dwelt in before.

We witness as their culture and society grew among us. Here is their temple, reconstructed; here is the cloth their priest wore; there is a festive outfit, and a description of a holy feast. A restaurant serving their traditional cuisine. Copy of a newspaper. We read the writings of their scholars and social activists – for the first time, since back then nobody outside the _____ community cared for such things.

We see as many of them tried to integrate peacefully into our society, while others shunned or even attacked it, and we muse upon the different approaches they represented, and what may have caused them. We read pamphlets written against them, often by people we now consider wise; we are surprised at the intensity of the fear-mongering, of the lack of cooperation and communication from both sides; we hear the appeals for assimilation, for abandonment of the faith and tradition we did not, and did not want to, understand. We feel the frustration of the more enlightened ______ at their orthodox brethren, and at us, for not making an effort to differentiate between the two.

We nod, sadly, at a growing, futile hope, as we see our society become more tolerant in time of prosperity, followed closely by dread as we sense the threads of anti-_____ grow ever stronger, as the worsening economic climate brings out the worst in people. We shake our heads at the irony of those who felt that the bad times are already behind them.

The last part of the museum is sad and terrible, but it’s just as we expected. We leave the dark confines of the museum shaken, but not shocked; after all, we all know well the history of how the _______ were destroyed, their culture wiped out. In the end, nothing they did to prevent our hostility mattered. We hated them whether they tried to assimilate or stay apart, to live among us peacefully or to fight us. We hated them simply because they were not like us.

We stumble out into the bright streets that still remember their shadows, looking around in disbelief. Was there really such a people living here, not so long ago? Was there really a temple here, and the faithful coming to pray to their strange God in their strange language, eating their strange food, wearing their strange clothes – and all that treated as normal, if slightly annoying, slightly threatening, by the “native” citizens of this once-multicultural city? And was all this really wiped out so swiftly, without a trace, almost without a memory?

We shake our heads again, and we walk home, promising ourselves that this could never happen again. Not here, not now. After all, we are not barbarians.

*) insert a religious/ethnic minority of choice.

—————

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Anielewicza 6, Warsaw, Open 10-6 PM/10-8 PM except Tuesdays.

Snowpiercer – Review (spoiler-free)

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Snowpiercer (or “La Transperceneige”, which is the much stronger-sounding title of the original French graphic novel) is a difficult movie to review. Going by the gut feeling, I’d have to say I enjoyed it a lot. When I left the cinema, I realized I was actually holding my breath throughout most of the second half, and my hands were shaking with tension: that is a very rare thing to happen, and mostly after watching an Asian horror.

The visuals are nothing short of stunning, especially in the second half (of both the movie and the train). Of the many recent graphic novel adaptations, this one does probably the best job of having a strong “comic book” feel without over-stylizing to a fault.

On the other hand – somewhat consistent with previous of Bong’s work – there’s a lot of wtf-ery and facepalm-worthy moments; the plot is shot through with holes like Swiss cheese, and despite what must be the third of the film spent on lengthy exposition dialogue, a lot of the symbolism, including most of the secondary characters’ backstories, remain unexplained. If you try to engage your analytic part of the brain too much, you may leave the cinema disappointed. Too many things just “do not compute”.

But if you focus on those, you focus on all the wrong things. The best review of Snowpiercer I’ve read so far (The Philosophy of Snowpiercer) says this:Snowpiercer is as good a sci-fi movie as Animal Farm is a farming manual. Despite the sci-fi trappings, this movie is an allegory, a brutal fairy-tale. Trying to over-analyze Snowpiercer is like trying to scrutinize Terry Gilliam’s movies for plot-holes and lack of realism. Indeed the closest cinematic equivalent to Snowpiercer I can think of would have to be “Brazil”.

The plot is linear almost by definition, as straightforward as the train’s relentless run, but that doesn’t mean it’s not smart. The movie has a lot more to say about tyrannies and revolutions than the average simplistic Hollywood fare in the vein of “V for Vendetta” and “Elysium”, and what it says rings more true. It is also much grander in the scope of its satire; even the very ending reveals still another layer of social criticism (hint: who dies, who survives?).

I can’t find much fault with the acting, given the material, though characters here are secondary to the plot. Chris Evans plays pretty much a gruff Chris Evans, or a less-crazy Christian Bale – imagine Captain America who had to live through a death camp. Tilda Swinton’s “Thatcher” is a delicious caricature. Hurt and Harris give decent, but unremarkable performances. By far the best are the two Korean actors – Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko – who shine throughout; you can tell they struck the best rapport with the director. I also enjoyed the largely silent performance of Luke Pasqualino (Skins, Musketeers), and I hope being in this movie will kick-start his career in Hollywood.

Snowpiercer had the potential for a 5-star masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the more engaging, thought-provoking and original sci-fi movies of recent years: it could be easily marketed as “The Matrix” of the new generation. If it falls short it’s because of too many unexplained quirks in the plot, and the fact that there’s simply way too much of the story left to tell, even for the full uncut 125 minutes. Perhaps if Snowpiercer was made into a trilogy like Matrix, or a high-budget TV series instead, it could have reached true brilliance.

2013 blog summary

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 46,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Random Access Memories – song-by-song review

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Random_Access_Memories I first listened to RAM when it leaked on iTunes and Grooveshark last week; back then I could not focus enough to appreciate it. I had found it mostly jarring, except “Giorgio” which was already leaping forth from the headphones like a hurricane of drums.

I waited for Spotify version to give it a full, focused listen to, and the next thing I knew I bought the entire album (in MP3 – I don’t do digital anymore; that’s because I actually buy new records maybe once every two years)

One thing I have to say before going deeper into this. Like Brent diCrescenzo from Time Out Chicago (an obscure place to find a review you agree with, I know) I like to believe that I get the album, because I share similar musical experiences with these guys, albeit I got into the late 70s music a few years later than is socially acceptable. I get what Daft Punk wanted to do here, and I like it, and I agree with it.

I’m not a great Punkhead or Daftkid, or whatever fans of the group like to call themselves. Of previous albums I only really liked Discovery, and not even all of it. But I could always hear their music pedigree was impeccable, and their robotic hearts were in the right place. That a record like Random Access Memories was going to happen was pretty much inevitable, if you listened closely.

Reading reviews so far, one thing is striking: almost every reviewer has a few songs they like, and a few songs they hate, and they are never the same songs. Some might say this proves RAM is an inconsistent record, but to me it’s consistent in its grand idea. The memories may be random, but they are from a very specific place in time and space. The album plays like a radio station set to a 1976 Top Hit station; and the only way to enjoy it whole is to take all of the late 70s in stride, with no qualms or exceptions.

Of course, none of that would matter if the music was mediocre; but it’s anything but. The Steely Dan approach works, if you get the right people in; the Tarantino-esque collage of motifs and themes works, if you get the right sounds in. And Daft Punk does both these things perfectly. The melodies are catchy and instantly-hummable, and the rhythms are addictive. If they are robotic in their precision (as if that was a bad thing), then so where James Brown or Donald Fagen.

1. Give Life Back to Music 4/6

In “Rubber Ring”, Morrissey sings “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life”. There is a similar sentiment here, I feel: don’t forget the music of the Golden Era of LP, which gave life to everything we know of as popular music now. This is a manifesto of the album: to honour that age and reinstate it in its proper place.

It plays just like an overture should, mixing and matching everything you’ll hear next: disco rhythms, funky bass, and stadion rock anthem-like guitar crescendo. By the time it ends, you should be prepared for the ride ahead of you.

2. The Game of Love 3/6

This one is a nice ballad, but a bit maudlin in its lounge-like smooth-jazz whine. What saves it are the exquisite keyboard solos by Chris Caswell – and the quality of the main melody, which like all good melodies is deceptively simple at first, until you start humming it.

3. Giorgio by Moroder 6/6

“There was no preconception of what to do.”

Where do I start? Not only the best song of the album, but possibly the best song of the decade. At first listen I was struck by most obvious qualities: the drum fillers, the Trans-Europe Express rhythm, the insane final battle between synths, guitar and drums. But there’s so much else going on, I keep discovering new sounds and mysteries. It’s so complex that describing it feels like posting spoilers. There will be disertations written on how they got that scratch-drum sound to work with the gated reverb so flawlessly. A true test of the quality of your speakers or headphones: can you hear everything that’s going on?

4. Within 6/6

Chilly Gonzales will no doubt experience a great rush in popularity, as people all over the world will keep asking “who’s playing that piano?”

This song has perhaps the best melody on the record, and the vocoder sounds as if somebody melted Chet Baker with his own trumpet. In arrangement, it is almost understated: there’s only enough extraneous sound there to bind everything together.

5. Instant Crush 5/6

Could you tell it’s Casablancas singing if you weren’t told? I’d say it’s one of his best vocal performances in career, even if mangled out of all recognition. This song single-handedly redeems auto-tune of all its many crimes.

Instant Crush thrives on its chorus, and is perhaps the most Discovery-like of this set. Indeed, with slightly different vocals it wouldn’t feel out of place on that record at all.

6. Lose Yourself to Dance 4/6

I didn’t like this one at first; I thought it’s just a repeatable, forgettable piece, like the lesser tracks from Discovery. But that was ignoring the whole idea of the song: it is a sound collage, in the strictest artistic sense of the word; they took the catch-phrases of the disco era: “come on”, “get on the floor” and “get ready” and made good music just from these three bits.

It still doesn’t quite work for me as a track in its own right, but the concept is admirable.

7. Touch 5/6

Apart from the fact he wrote “Rainbow Connection” I knew nothing about Paul Williams before discovering this song; now I know all there is to know, including having watched bits of the Phantom of Paradise, which according to the Daft Punk mythology had set the duo on course to world domination.

The beginning may be the third or fourth best moment on the record; to me it sounds like a Doctor Who villain reading a poem. There is an obvious 70s sci-fi vibe about the song, that gets later picked up in a more dramatic form in Contact: if Daft Punk ever made another space opera score, these two songs would have to be on it.

The jazz band/dixieland instrumental in the middle is just pure bliss, even though it’s incongruously sandwiched between two segments of straight-faced space rock. It forces you to wonder, just what exactly is the story being told here?

8. Get Lucky 3/6

By the time the album went out, everybody heard Get Lucky, and made their opinion. No point in reviewing this one, then; I’ll just add that, as great a single as it may make, it’s far from my favourite tracks on the album. It’s still a good song, even after all the overexposure, but apart from Doin’ it Right it’s one that I’m most likely to skip.

Also, in my head it will forever be sung by a three-headed Peter Serafinowicz.

9. Beyond 4/6

You can’t get a 70s homage without a grand cinematic orchestral sweep, of course. What follows is a song that I can only describe as “very decent”. I like it enough when it comes up on the playlist, but it’s not a song I actively seek out to listen. The reason may be that it’s invoking a vibe I missed out on in my musical education – or it’s simply not matching any of my moods.

10. Motherboard 4/6

Contrary to what some have said about the track, this is no throwaway tune. Motherboard is a thoroughly enjoyable instrumental that always gets me tapping my fingers to the synth flute line; the drumwork leaves nothing to complain about, and the spacey synths complete the Blade Runner-esque imagery. This is Tangerine Dream and Vangelis for the modern era; this is what the Replicants listen to in the chill-out zone.

11. Fragments of Time 6/6

Well, this one is obvious, isn’t it? Daft Punk take their Steely Dan inspiration to its literal  conclusion. It wouldn’t feel at all out of place beside Babylon Sisters or Charlemagne Kid. They play it so straight, and are so pious in their devotion to the original, that Todd Edwards isn’t even subjected to the usual vocoder treatment.

And since there is never enough Steely Dan or Steely Dan-derivatives in the world, this one deserves full marks.

12. Doin’ it Right 2/6

I think my opinion of this song proves how far removed I am from the usual Daft Punk listener. I can only guess Doin’ it Right is what die hard fans expected the whole album to be like; it’s by far the popular favourite in the comments sections of music magazines. Personally, I find it the most meh of the lot, almost to the point of skipping it when I listen through the entire record. If I leave it on it’s out of respect for the general concept: if Daft Punk deemed it right for the song to be there, that means it should be there.

13. Contact 5/6

Almost as good as Giorgio, this space-prog song sounds almost like a “lost track” off of Discovery, only better than any of those due to Omar Hakim’s live drums. I’m a sucker for drums, if you couldn’t tell by now, and when they are so prominent on the mix as here, the song immediately gets my attention. If it doesn’t get the full marks of Giorgio it’s only because it’s too straightforward: there are no surprises here from start to finish, no depth, just plain good old rocking out. This is the 70s rock moments before punk: the end of a golden era, cut off at just the right moment, before we stopped caring about melody and craftsmanship.

So there you have it. Random Access Memories is the Aja of our generation: for good or for bad, this is as good as the music of 2010s gets.

March Blog Tour Summary

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tour_FIThe FMB blog tour is over. It lasted for 30 days straight, and it’s time to sum up the results.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect of the tour in terms of sales – at the same time I was running several promos which boosted the sales much more. But the tour was never about sales: it was about getting exposure, reviews, followers. And in that, I’m quite happy with how it worked out.

416 people took part in the giveaway (if you’re one of them – I’m still waiting for the ballot results). My FB page and this blog received a few dozen new followers – which may not sound like a lot, but is a considerable increase over my average numbers :) I got a lot of positive reviews, more importantly, ones that feel authentic rather than the store-bought “couldn’t put it down!”. A couple of bloggers did not put up a review, which I suppose means the books weren’t up their alley, which I don’t mind. All in all – money well-spent :)

One unexpected result of the blog tour was discovering the world of Host Blogs – that is, blog sites that thrive, and indeed exist, only to serve as hosts for blog tours. Some of them post several different blog tour stops a day. Looks like a lot of hard work, so I wonder what the incentive to operate something like that is. I can only assume it’s worth it :)

Here’s the list of all the tour stops, by category:

REVIEWS:

March 2nd- Deal Sharing Aunt
March 6th- Happy Tails and Tales 
March 8th- Sweet n’ Sassi
March 15th- I am, Indeed
March 17th- A Book Lover’s Library
March 27th- HDWPbooks

GUEST POSTS:
March 4th- KMN Books – “How to write historical fantasy”
March 12th- Buffy’s Ramblings – “Great women of Japanese History”
March 16th- Paranormal Romance Fans for Life – “Ghosts and Ghouls of Japan”
March 18th- C.S. Jameson – “Building the World”

March 28th- Mightier Than the Sword – “What does it take to publish a book”

March 29th- Book Addict – “The Dragon King’s Blessing”

INTERVIEWS:

March 1st- Love in a Book
March 11th- Simply Infatuated
March 13th- Tamara’s One Stop Indie Shop
March 22nd- The Avid Reader
March 24th- Waiting on Sunday to Drown 

SPOTLIGHT POSTS: 

March 3rd- Musings of a Writing Reader
March 10th- Free eBooks Daily
March 14th- A Bibliophiles Thoughts on Books
March 20th- Books and their Wordly Realm
March 26th- Froggarita’s Bookcase

New review


I have another review up on Trickster Eric‘s page. A bit of good, a bit of bad, but it’s very thorough and honest – and hey, it’s another four stars on Amazon, so works for me :)

Highlights: “The book’s strongest point is world building. I love world building; I love it when the author takes the time to paint the full picture. It shows attention to detail and a sense that the author put great thought and effort into creating their setting. In “Shadows of Black Wings” every scene and location is painted to perfection.

The fact that Bran does not know the local language is a plot point and receives a chapter worth of attention.

A second strong point is character development. Mr. Calbraith has a knack for quickly developing characters. Just one scene and a name becomes a 3-D flesh and blood person.

PS: According to wordpress, this is my 100th blog post! (including ones imported from the old blogger site, I presume) – yay me :)

Here, There Be Dragons


James Calbraith:

A glowing review of “The Shadow…” at YA Book Bridges.

Originally posted on YA Book Bridges:

TITLE: The Shadow of Black Wings, Book One of The Year of the Dragon

AUTHOR: James Calbraith

PUBLISHER: Flying Squid (July 2012-ebook & paperback)

LENGTH: 338 pages

SUMMARY: (adapted from amazon.com)

An ancient empire stands on the brink of a civil war. His arrival may push it over the edge.

It is the sixteenth year of Queen Victoria’s enlightened rule and the world trembles before the might of her ironclad navy and the dreaded Dragon Corps. The largest ship ever built sails from the Brigstow Harbour on a journey to the mysterious lands of the Orient. Its load: a regiment of the Royal Marines and Bran ap Dylan – freshly graduated in Dracology from the Llambed Academy of Mystic Arts.

On the other side of this world, the empire of Yamato has been sealed from the rest of the world for the last two centuries. A wizard’s daughter, Sato, witnesses…

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A tale of one director


ImageThere once was a young director with good eye for detail, instinct and great ideas. He made a science fiction movie, which was thrilling, original, captivating, playing with conventions. It was a commercial success.

He then made another science fiction movie. This one was even better. Arguably (not very) the best science fiction movie ever made. It had everything. It was breaking new ground, destroying genre cliches, it was thought-provoking, mind-boggling, poetic, beautiful and shattering.

It was also a great flop.

The director soon learned his lesson. There was no point trying. He started making big movies; Block-busting epics for a mass viewer. Instead of new grounds, he was breaking box office records. Instead of boggling the mind with awesomeness, he was boggling the mind with mediocrity crammed into awesome visuals. Some said he had lost his touch – but not his accountant.

And then he decided he wanted to go back to his roots. He made his third science-fiction movie. But he forgot. He forgot how to tell a simple story. How to focus on clever plot and well rounded characters instead of booming sound systems, lots of shouting and explosions. And while his new movie looked like his first one, it was just an empty shell of an Alien egg filled with mangled remains of a Gladiator.