My songs

May 6th, 2015

So I recorded a bunch of songs with my MegalomaniA bandmate Faz, we had a great time, and the songs turned out well, especially Spinal Reconstruction Blues. Dig it!!

Spinal Reconstruction Blues


The Wurdalak

University of Waterloo stuff

April 28th, 2015

It’s so interesting that over the past two months my university did two profiles of me! Check it out:

Birthday 2015, April edition

April 21st, 2015

This year I had a great birthday weekend (well… my real birthday was on a Monday, so I celebrated on the Saturday and Sunday before). On Saturday I hung out with my guitarist Faz at Labrador Park recording demos of my original songs, and on Sunday the family and I went to brunch at the Fullerton Bay Hotel. Yay!!



It’s the Fullerton Bay Hotel!!








Zen ate too much, so he had to rest outside…





The Thinker meets his opposite!!





Peter and Naoko’s wedding anniversary!

April 6th, 2015

Naoko and I had our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday, and it was a great day! Zen studied Chinese and math without complaint, we played catchball and went swimming, and I listened to four of the LPs that I bought on Saturday – the Carpenters, the Ventures, the Steve Miller Band and Link Wray! Great!!

After that we went off to buy shoes for Zen, and finally to our favourite dining spot in Singapore – No Signboard! This time we ordered three crabs: the staple chili crab, Zen’s favourite butter crab, and also salted egg crab. Nice! Naturally it was washed down with plenty of beer!

After that we went home, got a call from Canada from mom and dad to wish us well for our wedding anniversary, then we finished watching the great Chinese epic film Red Cliff! All right!!




We had leftover crab and gravy, so we took it home and it re-appeared tonight in the form of chili crab fried rice! Yummy!!



March 29th, 2015

What a great weekend! On Friday I had a band rehearsal, on Saturday I went to see Zen’s game (see below) and ate some good buffet food at Naoko’s friend’s “20 years in Singapore” celebration, then I bought some new LPs; on Sunday we all hung out and ate pizza and drank beer! Amazing!!

The whole week there has been activity around the mourning and burial of Lee Kwan Yew, it’s been quite amazing! We wanted to go to see the funeral procession as it passed through some parts of Singapore, but it was raining quite heavily, so we didn’t go.

Here are some shots of Zen’s game, both from this week and from last week. Zen played first base in the first game, and in the second game he was the pitcher! He did well at each, and in the first game he also had great success as a batter! Zen Zen ZEN!!

March 21st and 22nd, 2015





March 28th, 2015


IMG_1839 - Version 2



IMG_1841 - Version 2


More hiking around Singapore!!

March 15th, 2015

Over the past two weeks, Naoko and I have done some long walking treks, often about 10 kilometres or so. Here are pictures from a few of them where we took pictures. Zen only came along on the March 15th trek.

March 15th – North Eastern Riverine Loop

Naoko and Zen at Punggol Promenade.


Punggol Promenade.


Punggol Promenade.


Wetlands near Punggol Promenade.


The North Eastern Riverine Loop. We started from the starting point at 7:30, and by about 10:00 we’d made it to Punggol Point at the top. Unfortunately, the walk beyond that is full of construction and won’t be a nice place to explore for a couple of years yet. More information here.


Rounding Punggol Point.


The view from Punggol Point. That’s Pulau Ubin in the middle.


There’s something oddly lobster-like about this tree… a lobster with green hair!!


This island is called “Coney Island” here, but on other maps it’s called Serangoon Island.


Naoko and Zen chilling out on Punggol Promenade.


Definitely Singapore’s funkiest public toilet!!


A family of otters in the Punggol Serangoon Reservoir.




This cool bridge crosses the Punggol Serangoon Reservoir to the Lorong Halus Wetland Reserve.


The Sunrise Bridge at the Punggol Waterway park.


View of the jungle that runs north of Seletar Air Base.







March 14th – MacRitchie Reservoir forest and Tree Top Walk.

Here’s a funky twisty branch/creeper/rattan that we found along the walk.


Kayaking competitors!


Kayak competition!!





The jungle has reclaimed a tree stump…


Gorgeous marshland.






The view from a tower.


On the boardwalk.


Jelutong tower!!


The jungle from Jelutong tower.




On the treetop walk.



Jungle boardwalk.




Treetop walk!!





Good morning, MacRitchie Reservoir!!





March 11th – Ulu Pandan National Park Connector trail

The sun broke through the clouds as we were walking along the beautiful Ulu Pandan Park Connector.



Naoko found a friend.







A green fence runs through it.


An old rail bridge near Clementi.














March 5th – Green Corridor hike from Cashew to Woodlands















Nice to see that helpful advice on walking techniques has been provided for the many people who have poor walking technique…










The Knives of Summer

March 4th, 2015
Knives of Summer

Knives of Summer

Knives of Summer, 3) – Recently, my friend Jack in Japan sent me this gorgeous CD that he’d been working on for the past three years, a solo project that he’s written, and plays guitar, drums, and sings on. It’s a stunning piece of work, with a 20-page illustrated lyrics booklet, a picture-CD and illustrated inlay card that are full of images of threesomeness (three rulers forming a triangle, three mushrooms for the lyrics to a song about mushroom consumption, and other cool song-related concepts). He’s made 500 of them and is giving them away to friends and strangers, with an inlay card encouraging people to share it on! The project is about threesomes, trilogies, and possible also the trinity (need to think of triplets of threes). As arty as it is visually, the music is also arty in its concepts, following three stories of threesomes (counted down in descending order – “Three” is the first song, “Two” comes around the middle, and “One” is the closing song), as is hinted at in the opening page where three newspaper clippings tell of three sad adventures/misadventures, each involving three people and some sort of calamity. There’s a foreword that the musical author of the project, here called Carver Lee (as he is in the musical credits) is telling his own story at the expense of his musical collaborators, who are part of the trilogy of adventurers and not just friends and sessionists. It’s full of funky misspellings like “Kool-Aide” and “Nanuray”. Carver claims it’s a true story that took place in 1994 – the story goes deeper and deeper.

The music is intense and very rich, a collection of short-his songs largely dominated by Jack/Carver’s acoustic guitar accompaniment, but also with sound effects, field sounds, outside dialogue, occasional percussion and drumming by Jack, and other groovy effects. With very few instrumental bits, the main emphasis of the vocals is on narration and some singing, making it less a piece of theatrical music (which would be nearly all singing), than a musical play or a Roger Waters-style concept album (think Radio KAOS – and with 3′s many layers of voice/voice effects over an unfolding story, this is probably the most obvious comparison); indeed, the liner notes credit Waters as one of three musicians – along with Lyndsay Buckingham and Mark Linkous – who provided inspiration. There are also three main musicians credited to the project, with three voice actors, but also nine guest musicians (3 x 3, perhaps?) on certain songs – including three who played in Tripod Jimmy – who contribute bass, vocals, electric guitar, electric solos, acoustic solos, percussion and key pads.

The lyrics are the main item of the project, and they are often very poetic, talking about “Mushrooms in a basket, a harvest for three/ Sneaky little trespassers in a field behind the trees”; where does someone come up with an image like “sneaky little trespassers”… or, heck, you could ask the same for the cool band title Knives of Summer? The project is full of such lush imagery, but they’re not the only link to poetry – the opening song, “3″ is written in some sort of pentameter with a complex rhyme scheme on words that sound like “three”. All throughout the tale, there are references to partying and drug use, pastoral images of summer love, friends hanging out, idle days of youth, romance and emotional intensity, ageing and family tensions, fighting, violence, emotional immaturity, and so many other themes besides.

The opening song “Three”, starts the fun with a spare palate of spooky talking-singing and some deep guitar that characterises many of the songs on the project – it builds up to become more and more musical, eventually with four or five layers of guitar and droning sound effects. Wow! Lyrically, it sets the stage for our three protagonists to meet and become emotionally involved. “Let Me In” introduces Knives of Summer’s musical collaborators on bass and electric guitar, with the song flying trippy and droney, and builds up themes of drug hallucination, fumbling and crashing with weird noise. “Tourniquet Rules” is a gorgeous, standout piece with an opening mood similar to “Three” that builds in a memorable bit of female vocals on an intriguing lyric: “Tourniquet rules, twists in time/together we share the ties that bind”. With its subtle noise effects, this is one spooky song! “The Treehouse” tells the story that is related in a newspaper article on the first page of the booklet about a “death by misadventure” involving a treehouse and a noose. It proceeds, spooky as hell and is full of crazy musical ideas. Here we get a cameo from Shane Inwood, shouting voice and rock guitar, with more mood and sound. Crazy! “Ricky Eats The Rest” keeps the tension alive with spooky sounds that drone like a heartbeat, and then rocks out with a loud David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Gabe Whyel, who played with Jack in the early 1990s in Jack Slam, a band once described as “Japan’s first (and hopefully last!) Grunge band”. “Mother” is a short, vocal-and-acoustic guitar track that gives an interesting version of the history of the world and its holy wars. “The Walk” brings in a bit of drum and percussion, perhaps for the first time on the album, a song that starts mellow, but builds up quickly with some quiet intensity, and a nice cricket chirp beat rises 30 seconds into the song that sounds at once familiar and also alien in the recording; there’s a nice acoustic instrumental part to the second half of the song, perhaps the longest on the recording, that’s punctuated by a bit of scene-setting chatter that makes you feel like you’re taking in a cool movie (perhaps Terrence Mallick’s Badlands?). “Two” is some sort of woody love song, also voice and guitar strums with by a bit of keyboard. “The River i) the romance, ii) mother goes to hell, iii) carla freaks”, with its complicated title and three distinct parts is (nearly) the longest song on the album, at 4:33. It’s set next to a river, with the sound or burbling and people playing in the water as it hums along with gorgeous acoustic guitar and lazy singing, working its way up slowly faster, with electronics, beat, then full rock drumming, and some new sounds and moods as the pastoral scene gets dark (which is hinted at in the introduction – “I will save the dark stuff for part two”), and ends with some cool keyboard sounds!
“Soliloquy” is the first part of what (in the lyrics book) is called “Ricky’s Redemption”, and takes us back to the treehouse, full of dark images and tense drama, alternated with jangling sounds and fuzzy keyboard, scary rumbles and beautiful female vocals contrasting the narration of a dead person (or is he?). “The Play” continues the action and the drama and weirdness, twisting what we thought happened to our protagonists, and upping the pace of the music to some cool zooming action as we feel the tension of the accidental hanging and get some strange Jane’s Addiction harmony moods. David Notter provides a frantic acoustic guitar solo in the reprise to the song, which includes also Casey Virock’s peculiar multi-tracked pluckings and funk guitar – moody insanity here, augmented by organ and voices, all very nice. “All In Blood” is probably the biggest song on the recording, with dramatic situations, broad guitar, warbling choruses and harmonies, drum, guitar multilayers from Shane and Matthew Solberg, with a bit of jamming in the second half of the song. Fun! “Three, pt. 2″ starts off with spooky, psychedelic moods augmented by what sounds like a theremin, akin perhaps to moments of early Rush musical discoveries, and then a return to the Carver Lee on voice and acoustic guitar as the treehouse adventure continues: two injured boys and the woman they love, “we’re guided by a fickle mistress, and love is all we need. Our fate contains a tender heart. There’s room in there for three.” Great! Faith, love and pain, another trinity!! Musically, the song has a lovely groove and is awash with a sweet, pastoral flow. “Warrior Returns” feels tenser, with a droning electronic beat, tense drums, and… strings?! Another, bigger, not-so-pastoral world here of President Heston and Gulf War veterans. “Message to Aunt Jenny” is just that, a message recording machine playback of family mechanics and the infirmity of old age. Nice mellow guitar keeps it going, and there’s a gorgeous solo here from Fuyuki Hiroyoshi to end it off. “One” (which will never be mistaken for the song of the same name by Metallica or U2) starts off with beautiful female singing, and it almost feels like another band’s song in some ways before Carver’s voice comes in, and big drums and another Fuyuki Hiroyoshi takes the song to its end. “Track 17″ is a bit of an out-take that starts in silence, then wanders into some music and a short dialogue sketch.

This is the kind of recording that is a lot of fun to listen and re-listen to while fondling and flipping through the booklet, following along the lyrics, and just trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The music lilts and moves you along with a nice acoustic groove and strange, twisted Sonic Youth movements that rise, darkly, right out of nowhere. The production is excellent and it just sounds fantastic. An amazing feat for everyone involved in the Knives of Summer, but especially its conceptualist Carver Lee!

Great walk along the green corridor!

February 25th, 2015

Today, Naoko and I walked along the “green corridor” that has runs through Singapore where the former Malaysia Rail route ran. The section we walked today, from where the green corridor meets Ulu Pandan Road all the way north past Bukit Timah hill to the Ministry Of Defence buildings next to Upper Bukit Timah Road, was nine kilometres, and took us about two hours. The route corresponds roughly to the green close-up maps in the middle of the green corridor map here.

It was a beautiful day for walking, and as it hasn’t rained recently the route was pretty dry (we had good timing – it rained this afternoon, so a walk tomorrow might not have been as good). We walked through pristine rain forest, past the old Bukit Timah Rail Station, crossed the Bukit Timah Road rail bridge, then went off the route at one point close to Bukit Timah Plaza when we saw some gorgeous bougainvillea flowers, and discovered a quaint neighbourhood called Mayfair. We’ll go back there another day to wander around. We passed Bukit Timah hill, and went over the Upper Bukit Timah Road rail bridge at Rail Mall, then along more beautiful paths. We heard lots of interesting bird calls, saw birds and butterflies, and at some point a pair or larger animals were heard rustling through the undergrowth to the side of the path – I once briefly saw something that might have been a fox hopping through the bushes!

FYI, I wrote a similar blog about walking the green corridor in 2013, giving a bit more background – find it here.

When we got to the end of the trip, we slipped off to Karu’s Indian Banana Leaf Restaurant for some food, and boy did it ever taste good!! Went home in the afternoon and took a long nap. Aaaaaahhhh!!












My big bad youth fiction page!!

February 14th, 2015

In November I had a back operation. Recovering at home, I had a mind to read mainly light fiction, and I indulged in three series of youth fiction – The Tripods quartet, the Giver quartet, and the Earthsea cycle. Other than the first book of Earthsea, which I read as a kid, the remaining 15 books in these series were new to me; in fact, I’d never even heard of The Tripods and The Giver before 2014! But it was a great journey, and here’s a bit of information about these books.

The Tripods Quartet – John Christopher

Tripods 0

Tripods 1

A friend of mine who knows more about sci-fi than I do recommended the Tripod series for my 12-year-old. I got him the first book, The White Mountains, but he didn’t show an interest, so I read it instead. It was fantastic! I eventually read the full series, discovering that the fourth-written book is in fact a prequel, and could easily be read as the first instalment – the prequel is written in near-contemporary times, whereas the three “main” books cluster the timeline around the same characters and are set in the relatively-distant future (200-400 years from “now”, probably) when the Tripods return human civilisation to easier-to-manage feudal societies.

The first book (in terms of publishing timeline), The White Mountains, is indeed a very nice book for kids. The futuristic Kamandi-like world is very interesting, and you can have a lot of fun figuring out what he’s really doing, where he’s travelling, which part of our world he’s actually in during his post-apocalyptic times, and the action and human relationships are strong and believable.

Christopher had been a writer of adult fiction until that stage, and although he pulls youth fiction off well, there are times when you really wonder if he’s not writing over the heads of his intended audience when he contemplates whether he’d be happier off as a slave-who-didn’t-know-or-care-that-he-was-a-slave in the Matrix-like universe of the Tripods, or whether he’d be better off as a partisan/guerrilla, living and fighting in the hills. Existential philosophy for 12-year-olds.

This edition has a very interesting foreword by Christopher where he recounts what he went through writing this book, and very different types of  correspondences he exchanged with his London publisher (“Great, let’s publish it the way it is!”) and his New York editor (“Rewrite!!”).

Tripods 2

With The City Of Gold And Lead, the second-published book in the series, Christopher ups the ante by building a complex and exciting tale: Will has been training in the mountains for some time, now he’s sent  undercover with a mission to infiltrate the lands of the brainwashed humans, and then eventually enter the city of the Tripods itself, where he learns their terrible secrets.

To say any more would be to spoil the many pleasures of this amazing book, so I shall refrain – suffice it to say that I wish that more adult books were written as economically as this one has been, and as intricately plotted!! Naturally, it has been immaculately edited, and I can hardly tell of any dross, except maybe for a superfluous misadventure at the beginning.

Tripods 3

The Pool Of Fire is the third book in the Tripods series, with each book being equally good, and exciting for entirely different reasons. Just to recap: the first book introduces the “human slaves and their alien overlords” situation and characters, but is a simple “flight to safety” story, while the second is a “going undercover into the land of our enemies” tale. Now it’s up to the third book to wrap the saga up convincingly with an ingeniously-crafted “puny humans use their brains to overcome a seemingly invincible enemy”. Great to see how tables can be turned to defend an over-run homeworld.

Christopher even includes a final chapter that meditates on the nature of democracy, the cultures of the Earth, and man’s ability to get on with fellow man in times of peace as well as times of war; he does the same throughout the books as well in more subtle ways, such as Will’s interactions with the character Ulf, and also Julius’ criticisms of our young hero, each time doing it with style and panache.

Each part of the Tripods series is fantastic, and the prequel When The Tripods Came is no exception – it completely rocks!! I started reading from the first-released book, The White Mountains, but any reader could start here too and follow the stories in their natural reading order, with The White Mountains as the second book, etc.

Tripods 4

When The Tripods Came is set in a near-contemporary setting, and tells the tale of – you guessed it – when the Tripod overlords came to Earth. The tale unfolds marvellously, with the first encounter, the reaction, and the unfolding of the Tripods’ insidious plan. The narrowing of the escape hatch is impressive to read in its unfolding, and we see our heroes move from indifference to desperation within only 100 pages or so. Great development!! By the ending, we know that hope should be lost, but somehow Christopher builds a bridge to the next 200-400 (??) years of human enslavement, without building an obvious and literal link to The White Mountains. A stunning tale!!

All of these books are fantastic for kids, and just as great for adults as well!!

This series is also highly consistent, with all four books of similar excellence; the same cannot be said for other youth fiction series, like the other two reviewed here – the Giver Quartet, and the Earthsea Cycle – which are fairly inconsistent.

The Giver Quartet – by Lois Lawry

The Giver 0

The Giver 1

My 13-year-old son actually turned me on to this book, which I’d never heard of before. His class will be studying it in their English Literature class, so he gets to study it for a few months. Lucky kid.

I don’t remember the last time a book shook me to the core, but somehow The Giver did just that. I didn’t have high expectations, as the description makes the book sound like a corny post-apocalyptic dystopian tale, and just another Brave New World or Starship Troopers dumbed down for kids; but in many ways author Lois Lowry uses the setting, with a young apprentice learning a lost art from a wizened elder, to introduce challenging ideas of social structures and their  pros and cons, all in an easy-to-understand way. The learning process that young Jonas undergoes, and how he comes out of his shell and into the harsh light beyond, is quite amazing. This is a light book, 200 pages of lightly-spaced text, so you can finish it quickly, and with its spareness the tightly-edited tale allows no excess. Highly recommended.

The Giver 2

I started reading the sequel, Gathering Blue, the day I finished The Giver, and  prepared to see the recently-released film version of The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges (which, unfortunately, isn’t very good at all).

Gathering Blue is a great novel, and a wonderful sequel to The Giver, although it doesn’t deal at all with Jonas and Gabriel and the fate they meet following the cliffhanger ending Lowry gives The Giver.

This book deals with Kira and her medieval society, its rules, its secrets, and the unusual fate of three very special children. I’ve become a bit cynical about fiction after many years of voracious reading, but I am thoroughly enjoying Lowry’s wonderful ideas and style. Gathering Blue is just as remarkable as The Giver, although in completely different ways.

The Giver 3

In her third book in The Giver Quartet, Messenger, Lowry continues building her fascinating vision of a future society, this time in a utopian village that is slowly being poisoned by inside and outside forces. Lowry keeps it a bit conceptual and metaphorical, a step away from the harsh magic-infused science fiction of The Giver, with the action focussing on Matty, the scamp from the second book who aids and befriends Kira. As it turns out, Matty also has special powers… so by now we have five or six mutants in Lowry’s world; here also we see the characters from the three books come together in ways that were only hinted at in the second book, and we find out what became of the boy on the sleigh – even getting hints of what became of the world he escaped from. At only 180 pages, the book is short, tight, and fast-moving – a great read.

The Giver 4

The longest entry in The Giver Quartet, Son, wraps it up by bringing together characters from its three predecessors, but focussing very much on those from the first book (Joshua and Gabriel, plus one of their contemporaries – Claire, a new character to the series). It doesn’t quite do it successfully, though, but it has a lot of great parts full of exquisite prose.

Son is divided in to three books, the first one concerning Claire’s life in the city of The Giver, the second one looking at her life in a newly-discovered village (probably the best part of the book, a stand-alone tale full of magic and poetry), while the third one is a sort of Howl’s Moving Castle fairy tale that somehow tries to sew everything together… while also making it more un-real and strange.

It’s probably not Lowry’s best book in the series, although parts of it may actually exceed anything in the earlier three books. The first part of Son offers us a few new insights into the emotionless hyper-modern society that Joshua and Gabriel lived in for The Giver, but maybe not enough to provide any new perspectives on how it became the monstrosity that it is, while the last part can offer no satisfying consolidation of the previous four books. The middle part is the best, to the point where it may even seem like the parts before and after it were hardly necessary. In that sense, perhaps this book could have been edited much more tightly than it was – certainly, the previous three books were very lean, lovely tales – this one… less so.

The Earthsea Cycle (six books) – by Ursula K Le Guin

Earthsea 1

I read The Wizard Of Earthsea as a kid and remembered enjoying it very much; now that I have a 12-year-old, I thought that I could get it  for him to read and expand his horizons beyond a voracious reading of the Rick Riordan books. Well, he wasn’t interested, so I took the opportunity to re-read it and found myself enjoying it immensely as an adult. The tale of Ged/Sparrowhawk is fascinating, and Le Guin is masterful in how she tells about his youth, the discovery of his magical powers, his growth and coming of age, his near-fall and redemption, and generally the bizarre island world of Earthsea where sea commerce is nearly everything. Great tales of ocean voyages, discovery, magic, arrogance, redemption, and even more exploration. The conflict in the book is highly metaphorical, and by making it physical Le Guin also get metaphysical. Wow all around!

At the same time as I was re-reading this, I have also been reading the Game Of Thrones books, and find so much more to enjoy in this simple tale, where nothing is purple or over-written. Martin’s world of Westeros, with its kingdoms, languages and warring clans, bears some similarity to Earthsea, but it is so much more compelling. Bravo! It left me hungry to read the rest of the Earthsea series of books (and I’ll probably re-read this book before too long); unfortunately, only the second book is as good, with the fourth book nearly unreadable; this first book is also only one of two books that includes extensive sea travel and visits to various islands throughout the archipelago that gives Earthsea so much of its unique character (the other being The Farthest Shore); I guess Le Guin just got seasick. A pity, because this gives us fewer excuses to study the amazing map of Earthsea that Le Guin provides.

Earthsea 2

Book Two, Tombs Of Atuan is a great book for both kids and adults. It tells the continuing story of Ged Sparrowhawk and the magic of Earthsea, looking in particular at the culture of the Kargs (a cluster of four islands at the top right of the map of Earthsea, and not far from Ged’s native island of Gont), their worship of the sinister Nameless Ones, and the young Dali Lama-like priestess, Tenar, selected for her role because she was born the same day the former priestess died.

The tale is told in the third person, but from her perspective, and we don’t even meet Ged until nearly halfway through the book. This makes the journey of discovery in the tale quite rich, and we learn much more about her than we do of him. We see her grow from frightened girl to a playful child apprentice, and then a haughty priestess, before becoming a discerning free thinker who can make her own decisions and exert her power and influence. Great!!

Le Guin does a great job of describing the terror of darkness in the depths of the tombs, and later also the terrifying power of the Nameless Ones; through Ged, we understand more and more of the make-up of the magic of Earthsea, the emergence of the God Kings of Karg, and the history of one of its greatest treasures.At just 180 pages, it’s a quick, tight read, and packed with awesomeness!!

Earthsea 3

After the foundation tale A Wizard Of Earthsea, which established Sparrowhawk/Ged as a major character in the world of youth fiction and fantasy, and the supremely plot-driven mystic-psychological drama The Tombs of Atuan,  Le Guin offers us the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, as a blend of the two – a distant voyage to the ends of the earth chasing dragons and other shadowy figures like the first novel (and more explanation of the “mirror image/alter ego” concept), and introducing a significant new character like the second. Part of the tale is about humans abandoning their humanity and embracing murkiness, and Le Guin writes this way – aimless, murky, unfocussed. Much of the middle is about wandering and stumbling, and it doesn’t make for fun reading, although I understand why Le Guin might have wanted to write like this. The new character, Prince Arren, is supposed to be noble, but he doesn’t make a strong impression, and we have no sense of where he comes from or where he’s going – in spite of the fact that most of the book is written from Arren’s point of view (inexplicably flying off from time to time to look in on other characters). There’s also a bit of fussing with dragons, which is interesting, but also murky and unfocussed. Le Guin takes a stab at social commentary, attacking both commercialism and drug-taking before moving the characters on in their voyages. Overall the book is disjointed, with a murky conclusion and only occasional snatches of brilliant, lucid writing. There’s also a brief flirtation with gay themes, or at least brotherly infatuation/man-love. On the plus side, our travellers do visit about 10 different islands, and Le Guin mentions many others, giving plenty of excuses to pore over the brilliant map of Earthsea provided in the book.

Earthsea 4

The Farthest Shore  was initially published as part of a cluster of three Earthsea books written within a few years (and therefore often described as the concluding tale of the Earthsea trilogy). Le Guin would go nearly 20 years before coming up with the next installment, Tehanu. Published after a gap of so many years, the fourth book is yet again a vastly different book. Largely concerned with domestic items, very little happens between the books opening chapter, which establishes the background and key events of the book, and page 150, when we get our first act of movement. By page 210 we get our first major incident, and by page 255 things finally start to get very interesting. The book has 270 pages. You get passages like “She smiled at his wit and kindness. What a nice boy he is, she thought.” While I realise that a criticism like this is incredibly unkind to the hard work that the author put into building her creation, I can’t help but think that if this tale had been trimmed down substantially it would have made a great 30-page short story.

Le Guin has been very defensive of her vision for the book, clearly resentful of the critical savaging it got. She wanted to write a book of themes – womanhood, powerlessness, old age, feelings of frustration, domesticity, disenfranchisement, the oppression of the patriarchy, bullying, and the unseen power/potential of the underdog. These are all noble themes, and are often visited by other great authors like Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and others; certainly, it is very brave of Le Guin to turn two incredibly strong characters (Ged and Tenar) into powerless underdogs for the sake of the development of these themes she feels are important to explore. But they feel a bit oppressive here, as they completely overcome any semblance of a story-telling novel, which is what the first three books in the Earthsea cycle have led us to expect. A such, I cannot help but feel disappointed with Tehanu; however, I’m going to continue on and read the remaining two books that Le Guin has so far added to the cycle, Tales From Earthsea (a collection of short stories – yay!), and The Other Wind, the latest Earthsea.

Earthsea 5

Given how the four Earthsea books that come before the fourth book, Tales From Earthsea, vary widely in quality – from the fascinating first two books, an okay third book, and a nearly unreadable fourth book – it only goes to follow that the various short stories in this collection would also vary in quality: some that are great and some that are not-so-great (although it’s only the introduction that is really terrible). Le Guin spends a fair amount of time repressing her female characters so that she can talk about double standards, hypocrisy, and women’s liberation (Earthsea style) in a way that I can’t help but feel is a bit contrived, but at least she’s dealing with Big Ideas as she weaves her tales of fantasy… (incidentally, this theme is almost totally absent from the final book, where women and men have equal footing, and gender roles are never contentious).

  • The first story, The Finder, tells the tale of Otter and the women in his life, how he tries to sabotage the ships of pirates, then becomes a magical slave, a wizard, and eventually one of the founding teachers of Roke; his return to his home is interesting, deadly, and the tale has all the charm (and nearly the length) of the original Wizard Of Earthsea, including an epic backwards double-cross. Great!
  • “Darkrose And Diamond” is an interesting love story about a young wizard and a witch’s daughter. It’s light, unexpected, and quite charming.
  • “The Bones Of The Earth” is a less satisfying tale, as it deals a lot with a wizard wandering around in the forest, looking after his chores, thinking about life… and averting an earthquake; concentrate on this one, or you’ll get lost.
  • “On The High Marsh” is an much better tale; it starts off very pastoral and pedestrian, but eventually becomes terrifyingly intense… somehow. Real magic in this tale.
  • “Dragonfly” is another long-ish tale, this time about a mysterious woman who wears a man’s clothing, Yentl-like, to enter the school on Roke. Amazing things occur when this happens that tie it in (somehow) with the ending of Tehanu! The tale introduces interesting new characters, it’s not bad; it also ties in with the events of The Other Wind, the sixth book in the cycle.

At the end of the book is some sort of “Description of Earthsea” appendix, which is a bit boring to read through, as it talks about the history, languages and cultures of Earthsea. It’s decent as reference material, although anyone who’s read the five books so far would have been able to piece together on their own most of what is contained here; one thing that is remarkable, though, is how Le Guin writes that the runes of Earthsea resemble Chinese ideograms, referencing for the first time in an Earthsea book anything from our own world.

A nice book, better even than The Farthest Shore, in parts nearly as interesting as A Wizard Of Earthsea or The Tombs of Atuan.

Earthsea 6

Finally the Earthsea Cycle draws to a close with The Other Wind. This book builds on the situations created in the third and fourth books in the cycle (The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu, respectively) and their characters, also referencing to the short story “Dragonfly” from the fifth book, Tales From Earthsea. Ged and Tenar, the main characters of the first two (and best) books of the series are only minor characters in this tale, and Ged hardly appears at all; he is also entirely inactive, other than listening to Alder’s tale and recommending him to visit King Lebannen in Havnor.

The tale is one of court life and philosophical discussions, abstract changes, unifying concepts, and general inactivity. Hardly anything happens in the book, but then again so much happens; in this way, the book is very similar to Tehanu, which has nearly no activity or development until the closing pages, but it is still a better book than Tehanu as we get plenty of new characters, fine character development, and also a sense of closure to the Earthsea cycle. But be sure to pay close attention to the book as you read, or you’ll miss important developments, or just generally get lost; it’s not an easy book to read, despite being lumped into the category of young adult fiction (which may have been true of the first two books, but hasn’t been the case for a long time).

Le Guin, in an afterword, hints that there are more stories from Earthsea, but in many ways they are not necessary.

Earthsea 7

Semi-unrelated footnote: In 2006, a Japanese animated film version of an Earthsea story was released. It was originally supposed to be directed by Miyazaki Hayao himself, but in the end was turned over to his son, Miyazaki Goro, to be his directorial debut. The Japanese title of this film translates as “The record of Ged’s adventures”, and is a misnomer – the book is less about Ged than it is about a relatively minor character in Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, Prince Arren. The English title, Tales From Earthsea, is also misleading, as it is the same title as the fifth book of the Earthsea series (which has six books so far), but draws its characters more from the third and fourth (and worst) books of the series (ironically, the book Tales From Earthsea only includes Ged as a minor character in a short part of one of its five short stories). I suspect the English title was given as a matter of convenience, while the selection of the Japanese title is a complete mystery (not to mention the fact that Ged goes by his nickname of Sparrowhawk throughout most of the movie).

I read reviews of this that said it was awful, but given my interest in the book series (and healthy respect for Ghibli Studios), I needed to watch this film to satisfy my curiosity. Sadly, it really is a terrible film. Nothing makes sense plot-wise, the characters are uninteresting, and the screenplay has almost completely reinvented the source material. Events from Ged’s life are transferred to Arren’s, whose father is introduced haphazardly for the film (he’s never featured in the book). The relative age of the characters is all over the place, and Therru is about 10 years older for the movie than she was in the books, and has been turned into a moody little creep with cliched anime mannerisms (poutiness, etc). The depiction of the wizard Cob is interesting, although also a bit hackneyed by regular Japanese anime standards.

The opening scenes in the court of Enlad, with talk about trade disruptions in the kingdom and a mysterious blight sweeping the crops and peoples, has all the charm of the opening scroll of The Phantom Menace. So many things in the plot are confusing, like why suddenly wolves are attacking Arren, why Sparrowhawk even takes the kid on as a travelling companion in the first place, or why Lord Cob is in such desperate need of slaves (I’m sure there’s no reason for any of this, other than to drive action scenes that build to some sort of a conclusion). Of course, the ending is pretty exciting, and the downfall of Cob is terrifying to watch; the theme about a door between life and death is also a grand one, which Le Guin somehow explores in a few of her books, most notable The Farthest Shore.

The quality of the animation is also pretty clunky, and at times I felt like I was watching an animated TV show from the 1980s or so. Not really what you’d expect from Studio Ghibli.

Nothing is stronger than Sade!!

February 12th, 2015


Sade, The Ultimate Collection

There’s nothing like getting a double-dose of Sade, two CDs of magic, songs plucked from her six studio releases so far (three from “Diamond Life”, four from “Promise”, three from “Stronger Than Pride”, six from  “Lovers Deluxe” – nearly the whole album, which only had nine songs anyway – four from “Lovers Rock”, and three from her latest, “Soldier Of Love), which it follows along in chronological order, along with a three new tunes – the standout among these, or course, is “Still In Love With You”, the Thin Lizzy masterpiece – and two remixes, one with a completely unnecessary Jay-Z rap, and another one remixed by the Neptunes.

It’s a smooth flow of jazzy soul from “Your Love Is King” to “Smooth Operator” to “Hang On To Your Love” to “The Sweetest Taboo”, to the bluesy darkness, sweet horns, and stirring piano of “Is It A Crime”, and the good feelings and deep thrum of “Never As Good As The First Time”. “Jezebel” is smoky and cool, but it lightens up with “Love Is Stronger Than Pride”, the airy opener to the Stronger Than Pride release (my first of Sade’s, incidentally). “Paradise” funks the air up a bit, and “Nothing Can Come Between Us” adds a male voice into the mix. Next up is Sade’s real masterpiece, “No Ordinary Love”, a song so awesome that the Deftones covered it. That bass line is hot… and so is everything else about this song!! “Kiss Of Life” and “Feel No Pain” are more chilled out and breeze along, while “Bullet Proof Soul” rounds out the first disc with more silky, somber moods and lots of sax!

“Cherish The Day”, opening disc two, is moody and sweet, while “Pearls” is a gloomy tune about a woman in Somalia living a hard life – voice, keyboard, violin. Sweet. “By Your Side” is somber and poppy. “Immigrant” hums and thrums with some programmed beat and that gorgeous voice, simple, with cool bass thrums. “Flow” is a little thing with a programmed beat, also very somber, mildly clubby but also kind of forgettable. “King Of Sorrow” has some nice guitar sounds, also very sad-sounding. But Sade’s howling voice is in top form here – wow! “The Sweetest Gift” is a very short song, you hardly notice it because it’s so mellow, and then it’s over, a guitar companion to “King Of Sorrow”, just voice and guitar. Wow! “Soldier Of Love” is the title track of Sade’s latest album, and it’s pretty nutty – by Sade standards, with a large pulsing beat, and near-talking throughout. Over-production? Sorta. But it’s still a cool, moody song. “The Moon And The Sky” is a spooky song on a repeating riff, with some odd electronics. “Babyfather” is a pretty conventional Sade song, and could easily have appeared on an earlier album, with its cheerful chorus and good mood. “Still In Love With You” is a great version of the Thin Lizzy song, and only the second cover that Sade has ever done (after Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”). A bit of electronic beat is kind of icky, but the guitar is great, and the production builds up. Sade’s voice is fantastic here! “Love Is Found” is full of quivering strings, then building up to a dramatic, metallic climax a la “Soldier Of Love”, but quite a bit more successful, I’d say. Weird hip hop elements and sharp guitars at play here. Wow!! “I Would Never Have Guessed” is much simpler fare, a beautiful (and short) piano ballad, full of wonderful breathing and sighs… wow… this is Sade!! “The Moon And The Sky [Remix]” does not build on the original, just makes it noisier and fairly obnoxious (not normally a word used to describe Sade’s music, surely, but there’s always room for something new…). The unnecessary rap bit by that guy is also quite awful! “By Your Side [Neptunes Remix]” is sweet and pretty and nice… and only a wee bit obnoxious. Not sure what the Neptunes add, although I’m sure they’re nice guys…

The third disc is a collection of Sade videos, lasting one hour and ten minutes. “Hang On To Your Love” is set in a casino with silly dancers, the band plays fake instruments, there are frozen gamblers, ballet dancing with baby, Sade is gorgeous; ”The Sweetest Taboo” has Sade jamming with her band in a loft while it rains outside, mixed with pictures of her Spanish husband of the time, cute hats on the boys, spaghetti western setting, Sade sashays stiffly around the hall, “Temor”; “Is It A Crime” seemingly continues where “the Sweetest Taboo” left off, the band jams around a bit, adds London street scenes,  there’s a regretful man and a lovers spat; “Never As Good As The First Time” has Sade riding horses on the beach, black and white images, toreador kids, cowboys; “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” shows our lady wandering the beach in a red dress, swelling and pulsating waves in the near distance – a trick of focus, dress over one shoulder, wandering with band, rolling in the sand, freckly and lithe; “Paradise” has Sade in a straw hat grooving with kids at a small carnival, mingling with boxers and Latin dancers, spaghetti western stuff; “Turn My Back On You” is experimental, with Las Vegas Strip lights a la James Bond, the band as Rat Packers, goofing around; “Nothing Can Come Between Us” is a live stage video thing, with Sade looking great in a white lace dress, sporting a big crucifix necklace, the band looking cool in their black suits; “No  Ordinary Love” is cool with Sade as a mermaid, flirting with a drowning man, necking underwater – OUCH!! Then as a bride showing off her belly, in a redneck bar, throwing rice (or salt?) in the streets, Hellraiser III in the theatres, scum everywhere…, great harbor scenes; “Feel No Pain” is full of more great sepia shots of dry earth, naked Sade and gauze, hands, desert platforms, topless bare back beauty, clouds, landscapes desert, water splashing dusty heads, gorgeous; “Kiss Of Life” is city modern, images, neon, lush apartments, naked statues, abstract images, rainy windows, lava lamps; “Cherish The Day” has a scantily-clad Sade playing a Gibson Les Paul on the beach, and on the top of a New York skyscraper with the World Trade Center in the background, grooving ‘till nightfall; “By Your Side” has a fun Garden of Eden setting, with the Tree of Life, sunset colors, and a gorgeous Sade – the band hasn’t shown up for quite a while at this point – and glowing lights, jewels, fireflies, moss, swamp,  winter dancing, the band finally reappears in the trees, in the orchard, fake city, yellow brick road, LA street corner and back to reality; “King Of Sorrow” with Sade as a single mother, goofy family life, chores, stress, buses, markets, and the night club band; “Soldier Of Love” big bright bombastic, nutty dancing,, horses and abstract images, lightning, deserts,  wonderwoman lassoing; “Babyfather” has Sade as a silky homemaker dancing over a sink of dishes, running a Jell-o van, sakura dancing – yay!

Here are some cool interview segments demonstrating the magic of Sade!

Sade’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” (Montreaux, 1984)

Timmy Thomas’ original “Why Can’t We Live Together” (1972)

I’d argue that Sade probably doesn’t have any bad songs, so a “greatest hits” collection is only a poor replacement for listening to all of her albums back-to-back in a single long afternoon, preferable with many drinks (wine? No… gin and tonic!). As such, many great songs were overlooked, but the one I really miss is “Why Can’t We Live Together”, the Timmy Thomas song that was the only cover on her first album (and one of the few she’s ever done, after “Still In Love With You”, of course).