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Yuck
Yuck
Price: £27.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Youth of today?, 10 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Yuck (Audio CD)
Coincidence or signs of a trend: this September marked 20 years since Nevermind was released; in October I spotted chequered shirts on sale in Uniqlo. Do these two facts mean that grunge is due for a revival? If so, could Yuck be leading the charge on the back of their eponymous debut album? Of course, the UK music scene has witnessed such hype in the past, around Nine Black Alps for example, whose `Everything Is' was a great album-oriented grunge record but whose follow-up sunk without a trace. Can Yuck do better as the moshpit messiahs of grunge-UK?

Well, not for the first time the music press hype-machine has got it a bit wrong. Indeed, `Get Away' is a slightly misleading intro to the rest of the album. A member of the `guns blazing alt-rock opener' school of first tracks (famous alumni include The Pixies' `Debaser' and Sonic Youth's `Teenage Riot'), `Get Away' is full of anguished recriminations and cascading guitar riffs. Yet the rest of the album is considerably less angular, wandering onto the same territory as the similarly Sonic Youth-influenced Seafood in their indie-folkish `Surviving the Quiet' album. There's an earnest intimacy on tracks such as `Suicide Policeman' that speaks more of bone-fide lo-fi yearnings than self-conscious Seattle-worship, whilst `Georgia' is almost straight up 80s boy-girl indie jangle-pop. Many tracks display a prickly and insecure sensitivity that is, thankfully, nonetheless a million miles away from emo melodrama. In place of gloomy seriousness, there's warmth and even humour, as on the tender and affecting `Suck', which manages to capture some of the tender sweetness of teenage romance with its knowing lyrics.

So, rather than one-trick imitators of their elders, the album reveals Yuck as a band who draw on British and American alt-rock traditions but are capable of innovating to produce lean cuts of appetising indie rock meat. Aural taste-buds whetted, I'll be listening out for more.


Dark Void (Xbox 360)
Dark Void (Xbox 360)
Offered by smeikalbooks
Price: £3.73

3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't quite take to the skies, 8 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Dark Void (Xbox 360) (Video Game)
Dark Void got a bit of a critical battering when it was first released. I picked it up once it had sunk to bargain basement prices, deciding to give it a try because the whole jet-pack, rocketeer theme appealed to me. What's more, I'm a big fan of Capcom, who seem to me to be one the last true gamers' game companies and whose games always have a unique sense of style. So I thought I would give this third-person shooter, with its boast of vertical cover mechanics and free-flying sections, a spin.

Unfortunately, the critics were not wrong. Dark Void feels unfinished and unpolished, in fact I would bet money that it was completed in a rush as the money ran out. Some aspects of the game are great, such as the takeoff animations when you fire up the jetpack. Indeed, it's obvious that a lot of work getting the core jetpack mechanics working as they should. The game really hits a nice stride once you start leaping from alien towers, swoop over landscapes at Mach velocities, strafe a group of enemies whilst hovering in the air and finally land by kicking a robot squarely in the metal chops. Unfortunately, as a complete package the game is wanting. The cover shooter sections are fairly derivative and the enemies often take so much punishment that melee works out as an easier option. The plot is a poorly paced mess despite the interesting premise of an uprising of humans enslaved by reptilian aliens within the Bermuda triangle (in a setting that made me think of Pixar's Up of all things!). The game just doesn't know how to tell its story or reveal its world. Progress in terms of gameplay is equally poorly thought out: the game was over before I'd even tried out all the weapons and at one point later on in the game you temporarily lose all your upgrades and equipment acquired so far. This is aggravating as the jetpack is what makes the game fun in the first place!

So despite the fact that some of the core mechanics are actually pretty solid, there's a reason Dark Void is at bargain basement prices. I'm not sorry I played it, but I can't help feeling disappointed that it just isn't the game that it should have been.


Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture
Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture
by Marvin Harris
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The world according to Harris, 3 Nov. 2011
Human beings throughout history are faced with the challenge of survival in a world in which resources are scarce. All societies created by human beings therefore face an unavoidable imperative to survive in an environment that can support only a limited number of persons. Human culture is subordinate to these practical concerns and cultural differences between groups can largely be understood as adaptations to the challenges posed by the material circumstances groups find themselves in. This is the essence of Harris's `cultural materialist perspective', which he defends as a compelling theoretical perspective on human anthropology in this tour de force of a book.

Harris defends his perspective in an admirably clear and logically consistent manner. Drawing on Malthus he points out that because of the potential for human populations to increase exponentially, populations are faced with starvation unless they control their rate of reproduction. Unfortunately for most of human history the means of family planning have been ineffective, unpleasant or dangerous. To take one example, infanticide has sadly still not vanished from the world we live in. Human beings have not, therefore, had the luxury of refusing to adapt to their environment. The imperative to maximise the extraction of nutrients from the environment shapes the whole of the organisation of societies. Thus whatever the putative reasons through which actors justify cultural practices, rituals and norms, the explanation more often than not is related to the practical needs and interests of human agents. The belly has priority over the life of the mind. Anthropologists, therefore, should not take the mystifications of culture at face value, but seek to unveil the function of particular cultural tropes. Indeed, such mystifications frequently serve the interests of powerful actors, in whose interest it is to obscure and naturalise inequalities, rather than the majority of participants in a culture. A misguided form of tolerance can lead social scientists to lend support for oppressive practices.

Harris uses his theoretical framework to develop an account of the general dynamic of human history from hunter-gather societies, through patriarchal chieftanates, to the earliest states and empires. It is difficult to do full justice to this account, taking in as it does the emergence of bride-prices as a result of inequality between family lineages, dowries and female infanticide as a consequence of inequality and overpopulation, the caste system and meritocratic empires as two distinct but stable systems which are the product of different patterns of rainfall. Harris's perspective suggests that for many thousands of years human beings have been `kicking the can down the road', avoiding drastic Malthusian collapse through technological solutions which eventually increase the human burden on the environment. Attempts to resist and overthrow the hierarchies which emerged through innovations such as agriculture have frequently been tamed and co-opted by old or new elites, as in the case of the world religions and Soviet communism.

Much of the book is devoted to hammering home Harris's arguments against a variety of different perspectives in anthropology. This part of the book may not have dated so well, as anthropology and social theory has moved on in the last two decades. However due to the `cultural turn' in social science many of the problems Harris points out have only become more entrenched in the years since the book was published. Harris's arguments are always sharp and accompanied by an exquisitely dry humour as he lances positions which he categories as obscurest or anti-scientific. Thus there is much in this work of social theory that remains very valuable.

`Cultural Materialism' is a major and much overlooked scholarly work that systematically provides the foundations for the account of human cultures advanced by Harris in his popular anthropology work Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches: The Riddles of Culture (Vintage) as well as by other scholars such as Jared Diamond in the brilliant Guns Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. As the world's population surpasses 7 billion and commodity prices continue to rise, a perspective which regards the problems of scarcity and inequality as central in human affairs is long overdue for a reappraisal.


Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches: The Riddles of Culture (Vintage)
Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches: The Riddles of Culture (Vintage)
by Marvin Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Demystifying Human Culture, 3 Nov. 2011
If human beings are all members of a single species with a common origin, how is it that the cultures and customs of different societies are so very different? This is the central riddle of anthropology. Unfortunately, many attempts to answer this question are unsatisfying. Why do Jews and Muslims not eat pork? Because pork is considered haram or non-kosher - forbidden. Why? Because the Abrahamic religions of Semitic cultures hold that pork is ritually unclean. Yes, but WHY? Many attempts to make sense of culture seem circular - like attempting to explain opium's power to put people to sleep by appealing to its dormative properties.

This at least seems to be the view of Marvin Harris, who in this classic of popular anthropology seeks to demonstrate that it is possible to find real explanations for seemingly a-rational cultural quirks. According to Harris, the mystifications of culture should not be taken at face value. Rather, we should focus on the practical circumstances in which peoples live and seek to understand how the rules and rituals provided by culture help people survive in their physical environments. Customs and taboos which seem absurd to those living in modern industrial societies often make perfect sense as solutions to the challenge of putting food in hungry mouths. So for example, the `sacred-cow complex' in much of India protects an animal which lives on otherwise marginal scraps of land and provides vital dairy products (containing essential fats and proteins) to a frequently malnourished population. The book moves at a breezy pace, moving from topic to topic and demonstrating the relationship between food taboos, human conflict, messianic political movements, mysticism, political oppression and witch-panics.

The core message of the book it is that perfectly rational attempts by cultures to survive and attain sustenance from the natural environment have repeatedly been coopted by elites for their own gain throughout history. Only by dethroning myth and mystification through rational inquiry can the long-term survival of modern civilisation be ensured. The only problem is that some of the explanations Harris offers for certain cultural quirks are rather strained and tend to the kind of `just so stories' that evolutionary psychologists have been accused of. Nonetheless, the huge scope, pithy style and uncompromising rationalism make `Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches' a brilliant and thought provoking read.


And the Rain My Drink
And the Rain My Drink
by Suyin Han
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Wind for the Garment I Wear... And the Rain My Drink, 29 Dec. 2010
This review is from: And the Rain My Drink (Paperback)
'And the Rain My Drink' is the story of a tragic period in both British colonial and Malaysian history: the Emergency of the 1950s. Han Suyin's tale weaves the tapestry of the conflict, taking in the paradoxes, moral compromises and ambiguities of a period that has been nearly forgotten. We see the many worlds of Malaya in the 1950s, that of the rich Chinese towkay businessmen-patriarchs, the Eurasian professionals on the cusp between Old Empire and New Asia, the administrators of the colonial administration, from the conflicted idealists to the blimpish opportunists. The relationship between the imperial authorities and the Chinese Malayan population is played out in miniature in the ambivalent attraction felt by a British police officer for a Chinese businesswoman. The climate of fear, suspicion and betrayal plays out through the doomed romances of the guerillas themselves and is emblemised by a ward taken in by the narrator herself, a seemingly innocent girl steeped in deception.

Suyin's portrait of the tragic events of the emergency both effective and realistic, at least according to Bayly and Harper's recent account of this turbulent period of South East Asian history. Make no mistake, Suyin is as unsparing of the methods used by the British in the Emergency as she is about the ruthlessness of the 'communist terrorists' of the jungle. I read this novel whilst staying in Malaysia and it has to be said that Suyin's writing truly captures the Malayan climate and landscape. Here is one particularly evocative passage: 'Unpremeditated, night falls. Here there is no long-drawn parting of the worlds, light and dark. Night's black doors close suddenly on a universe of strident colour, an orange and purple conflagration tangled in swamps of opal water, stretches of pink sky rimmed by deep blue hills.' Especially effective is the repeated invocation of the jungle itself, a constant monstrous presence through the jungle, a great green mouth that threatens to swallow up the characters and their hopes. As well as the landscape Suyin has an acute sense of how colonial rule shaped individuals and their relations with one another. We feel the trembling rage of those wronged, the icy certainty of the fanatic and the flush of English shame at the deference and servility of others. Speculating somewhat, perhaps Suyin's own dual heritage as a Eurasian gave her insight into this collision of worlds. Nonetheless, for a novel about Malaya, the Malay characters are too often reduced to lazy stereotypes - which is disappointing.

Furthermore, although the book is tremendously evocative, is reads at some points as a collection of Malayan vignettes rather than a tightly woven narrative. But although this is no political thriller in the standard mould, it is still a powerful exploration of a dark and all too often forgotten period in history.


Eternal Light
Eternal Light
by Paul J. McAuley
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How many angels can dance on the head of a photon?, 29 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Eternal Light (Paperback)
Eternal Light is a big imaginative space opera novel of the classic formula. The plot revolves around a hypervelocity star discovered to be travelling against the rotation of the galaxy seemingly on a collision course with the solar system. Those who make the journey to the star each have their own ambitions and agendas, although none are prepared for what they find when in orbit around the they encounter the strange, fractured moon pock-marked with wormholes leading to the centre of the galaxy...

Ageless plutocrats, alien superweapons, vanished post-human intelligences, galactic mega-engineering, hard-bitten fighter pilots, telepathic astronomers, fun with Einstein-Minkowski space - all the ingredients of an enjoyable hard sf adventure story combine in a plot that keeps moving at a good clip. As with most good sf, the book asks the reader to reflect on our place in the universe and the extreme possibilities of human existence. Thus the Fermi Paradox and ideas of deep time form central plot elements and are subject to some interesting and pretty original reflections. The characterisation is also surprisingly good for hard sf, McAuley has a sharp appreciation of human idiosyncracies ensures that even minor characters have more than two dimensions. In particular of primary female protagonist, Australian-Japanese telepath Dorthy Yoshida, is as rounded a heroine as can be found in any genre, not just sf.

The inclusion of some cyberpunk elements ensures that the book has little aged despite being penned a good two decades ago. However like most hard sf, the novel does require a background knowledge of contemporary scientific developments and sf conventions to get the most out of it (or at least to raise a smile at quips about hyperbolic curves), but luckily it never buries the reader in jargon. Nonetheless, the book does include a few equations, which is in my view inexcusable in fiction. Eternal Light is nonetheless a good entry in a well established genre, using the tropes of hard sf in a sophisticated and thoughtful way.


Warp Riders
Warp Riders

5.0 out of 5 stars Deep space - hard rock, 29 Nov. 2010
This review is from: Warp Riders (Audio CD)
The first two albums by The Sword were bold and unapologetic offerings before the gods of metal. No pretension, not a whiff of irony: straight-up Sabbath and Zepplin infused swaggering doom-metal telling of epic heroes, Norse gods, cursed blades and mighty battles. In the best tradition of the fantasy authors who inspired much of the lyrical content, one might have expected the band to contribute another record in the same vein to round out a swords and sorcery trilogy.

Instead, JD Cronise seems to have picked up a few ideas whilst perusing the Science Fiction and Fantasy section at his local library. A concept album, Warp Riders tells of the destiny of an individual known as the Archer, the machinations of the Chronomancer and the desperadoes who captain the hyperspace-ship The Sword... Yes the concept behind the album is as absurd as they come, and the whiff of bongsmoke hangs heavy over proceedings. But the album is saved from silliness by the fact that the music rocks so hard that only an over the top concept played totally straight would ever truly do it justice. The cover riffs on classic pulp science fiction paperbacks, but its really a hint as to the musical aspirations this time around. Put simply, the soundscape produced by the band is huge - a planetary scale retro-70s guitar assault. The oppressive doom-rock leanings witnessed on the band's first two albums is largely gone, replaced by an expansive sound and much more of the funky stoner-rock swagger seen previously on 'Freya' and 'Maiden, Mother, Crone'. Particular stand-outs are 'Tres Brujas' (what is it with Cronise and witches?) and 'Warp Riders' itself, which has one of the catchiest metal choruses I've heard in a long time and once again showcases the band's ability to put a parsec-wide grin on your face.

'Night City' is absurdly, childishly fun - an ode to Mos Eisley and every other wretched hive of scum and villainy in the galaxy. It's the epic scale of track's like 'Lawless Lands', 'Astraea's Dream' and, oh yeah, '(the Night the Sky) Cried Tears of Fire' that really impresses though - vindicating the album format in an age when it's days might be numbered in 1s and 0s. Through and through, this is an analogue album. Put some decent headphones on, crank up the volume, and you can really hear the antique valves and classic pedals. This is an album that does justice to both the feeling of awe you felt the first time you watched Star Wars and the joy you felt when you first heard a truly awesome metal riff. Yesterday's future has never sounded so good.


Insider's Kuala Lumpur (Insider's Guides)
Insider's Kuala Lumpur (Insider's Guides)
by Lam Seng Fatt
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars The Low-down on the 'Muddy Confluence', 12 Nov. 2010
Kuala Lumpur can be a difficult city to love. On a few separate occasions travelling around Malaysia I've overheard tourists complaining that they hated the city. On my second weekend in KL I was left stranded by the monorail, was ripped off by taxi drivers, got caught in a tropical thunderstorm and caught food poisoning. The city lacks the squeaky-clean super-modernity of Singapore or the quaint colonial charm of Melaka and Georgetown. But seek and you shall find more than just endless shopping malls and traffic jams. Lam Seng Fatt, former assistant editor at Malaysian tabloid The Star, brings his muckraking skills and wealth of local KLite knowledge to bear in revealing the quirks and the hidden stories of the Klang valley.

For a capital city of a rapidly developing Asian tiger, KL had rather inauspicious origins. KL sits on the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers where, according to Lam Seng Fatt, in the 1850s Raja Abudullah Raja Ja'afar started prospecting for tin using Chinese labour. The Chinese soon began organising themselves and a series of headmen or Kapitan arose, including the famous Yap Ah Loy, the 'Bruce Lee' of his day according to Fatt. Opium, gambling, prostitution, gang warfare and imperial meddling by the British - Fatt paints Kl's birth as a colourful affair and turns the same irreverent gaze to the rest of the city's history. We are spared a sanitised gloss on KL's present and past, instead learning of the shady backstreet of Chow Kit where transvestite prostitutes ply their trade, the racism and snobbishness in the late colonial era clubs, how British paternalism led to the establishment of the Malay Kampung Baru, the birth of the Hash House Harriers had their beginnings in the boozy fun runs of post-war expats, the dangers that the curse of a cobra can pose to building sites, how to build your mall in accordance with Feng Shui, and the origins of the strange legend that the Sumatran Malay settlers of Kampung Kerinchi could transform into werewolves...

For all of this, the book evidences a genuine affection towards KL, its multiracial residents and their contributions to the brief but complex history of this cosmopolitan city. Organised into chapters focusing on a particular area of KL, the book is great if you are spending longer than a couple of days in the city and want to learn some historical facts and amusing anecdotes about the places you plan on visiting. The book also gives a great sense of the pace of change and the attempts that KLites have made to cope with such flux. Walking maps are included, which are useful, although a combination of the weather, lack of pavements and traffic make KL a tricky city to explore on foot. Overall, a handy little book for visitors who are willing to give KL a chance and want to really get under its skin.


Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980.
Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980.
by Gabriel Kolko
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the Third World, Creating Chaos, 28 Aug. 2010
Gabriel Kolko was one of the central figures in the Revisionist school within the historical study of the Cold War, challenging the idea that the Cold War came about as a result of Soviet aggression alone. Revisionists argued argued that the US, irrelevant of Soviet actions, had already decided on a strategy of global military preponderance and enforcement of Open Door economic policies on the rest of the world. For Kolko, this grand strategy and the denial of the limits of American power and wisdom inevitably resulted in the tragedy of Vietnam.

In this classic study based on decades of historical research, Kolko argues that 35 years of American policy in the then Third World were driven by an enduring set of imperatives owing to the domination of US policy by a cohesive military, political and corporate elite. The imperatives were geostrategic, the attempt to secure bases and allies to contain Soviet power; geoeconomic, in the form of efforts to secure essential supplies of resources in case of war; ideological, in the form of anti-communism; and economic, in that the US policy was frequently driven by the economic interests of major corporate actors. Kolko makes clear in this detailed study that no one of these motives clearly dominated over the other, all had a role to play, each is important in explaining overall US foreign policy.

Central to Kolko's account is the extent to which the US policy was characterised by ignorance: of the origins of the political crises in Third World societies in the social changes brought on by modernisation; of the limits of its own ability to reshape and guide Third World societies through these changes; and of the notion that Third World states conception of their own national interest might differ from those of the US. This brought the US into conflict not only with radicals and leftists, but also nationalists, conservatives and most of the rest of any society where it intervened. Imperial hubris, overreaction and hubris generated the painful story of confrontation between the US and the Third World.

Is the book still of relevance today? In my view it stands as a strong piece of scholarship, backed by extensive archival references, although the referencing isn't as thorough as we are used to in these word-processor and google aided times. It's perfectly readable for the non-specialist too. He also perhaps overemphasises continuity between administrations when contemporary research has identified significant change. Similar themes to those explored by Kolko have been more recently examined by Westad in 'The Global Cold War', and the arguments of Revisionism have been taken up by contemporary historians such as Leffler. Although Kolko doesn't have the celebrity status of some of those whose work draws heavily on his research (such as Chomsky), this remains an important original study of the policies of the US towards the developing world.


The Martin Beck series (7) - The Abominable Man
The Martin Beck series (7) - The Abominable Man
by Maj Sjowall
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Flat Note in a Otherwise Great Series, 28 Aug. 2010
The Martin Beck novels are a series of gritty police procedural novels set in Sweden in the 1960s. Darkly humourous, they nevertheless expose the criminality and injustices lurking underneath the rocks of a seemingly benign Scandinavian society on the cusp of social change. The gruesome crimes that the world weary Martin Beck is called to investigate act as a sort of rupture, allowing us to glimpse the everyday cruelties, social injustices and personal depravities underneath the facade of Swedish social democracy.

This unfortunately, is the weakest entry in the otherwise excellent series up to this point. The book starts off well with a tense and paranoid victim's-eye view of a brutal murder. What then follows is an investigation into a classic Martin Beck theme: police brutality and the abuse of power. Like the creators of The Wire, another piece of hard hitting social commentry disguised as brilliant crime-fiction, Sojwall and Whaloo can make the search through the archives for information about a crime totally rivetting. However, about half-way through the book, the gritty police-procedural comes to a full stop, punctuated by a shocking act of violence. What follows jettisons the realism of the Beck novels for a pulpy and Hollywood-ish scenario that really jars with the tone of the series. Of course the Beck series has a heavy American influence, but elsewhere it is transposed well into the Swedish setting, creating something unique. Here it just feels cliche. Very disappointing, but thankfully one of the few off-notes in an excellent series.


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