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Albums of the Year 2013. Number 6.
The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae

Remember how with the last few reviews I’ve noted there’s a trend for albums which might not quite be as good as previous works by the same artist, but have a handful of tracks that are better? Well, Janelle Monae breaks this trend by doing precisely the opposite.

Because while The ArchAndroid might have a handful of better tracks than Electric Lady (Cold War, Tightrope, Faster), overall I think that Electric Lady holds together better as an album.

Monae is great at producing proper albums though, and this is one of my favourite things about her. Rather than just piecing together a number of disconnected tracks interspersed with a handful of hastily-produced filler, her albums feel planned, and themed. In this case, everything is tied together with a faux radio call-in show. Alongside this, and best of all, the music on them is great, punchy R&B.

And although there are a handful of standout tracks on the last album, and they may be better than tracks here, there are still some great standout tracks on this album too. Her anthem to modern feminism, Q.U.E.E.N., featuring Erykah Badu and the other single, Dance Apocalyptic are worth the price of the album on their own. Add to this the soulful Primetime, Ghetto Woman and Victory and there’s enough to keep her in singles for months to come.

Electric Lady is an interesting pop album set above almost everything else released in the pop world and because of that, beneath the sheen, there’s a lot of substance, making for an album that’s worth coming back to repeatedly.

Albums of the Year 2013. Number 6.
The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae

Remember how with the last few reviews I’ve noted there’s a trend for albums which might not quite be as good as previous works by the same artist, but have a handful of tracks that are better? Well, Janelle Monae breaks this trend by doing precisely the opposite.

Because while The ArchAndroid might have a handful of better tracks than Electric Lady (Cold War, Tightrope, Faster), overall I think that Electric Lady holds together better as an album.

Monae is great at producing proper albums though, and this is one of my favourite things about her. Rather than just piecing together a number of disconnected tracks interspersed with a handful of hastily-produced filler, her albums feel planned, and themed. In this case, everything is tied together with a faux radio call-in show. Alongside this, and best of all, the music on them is great, punchy R&B.

And although there are a handful of standout tracks on the last album, and they may be better than tracks here, there are still some great standout tracks on this album too. Her anthem to modern feminism, Q.U.E.E.N., featuring Erykah Badu and the other single, Dance Apocalyptic are worth the price of the album on their own. Add to this the soulful Primetime, Ghetto Woman and Victory and there’s enough to keep her in singles for months to come.

Electric Lady is an interesting pop album set above almost everything else released in the pop world and because of that, beneath the sheen, there’s a lot of substance, making for an album that’s worth coming back to repeatedly.

Albums of the Year. Number 7.
Cupid’s Head by The Field

Some of you might just recall that once upon a time I was counting down my favourite albums from last year. Since if I don’t get a move on, it’ll be 2015, here’s the next one.

Cupid’s Head might not be the best Field album, but if you love his brand of hypnotic minimal techno, you won’t be disappointed by this excellent and intriguing album.

Albums of the Year. Number 7.
Cupid’s Head by The Field

Some of you might just recall that once upon a time I was counting down my favourite albums from last year. Since if I don’t get a move on, it’ll be 2015, here’s the next one.

Cupid’s Head might not be the best Field album, but if you love his brand of hypnotic minimal techno, you won’t be disappointed by this excellent and intriguing album.

Captain America: The First Avenger

There’s a few things one has to ignore in order to enjoy this film. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s utterly ludicrous, kitsch and silly. Secondly, there’s the rather jingoistic feeling which essentially writes out all countries other than the US and Germany from their roles in the Second World War. Still, if a comic book adaptation feels like it has the outlook and depth of a 1940s comic book, who am I to complain?

The 1940s setting of the film really works well. And the technology of Hydra, which is actually in advance of our own, but done in a way that feels fitting in the era is enjoyable. The script is silly, and the plot entirely predictable, but the acting is good enough (especially Hugo Weaving as Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips) to pull you through the worst of the idiocy, and the end result is surprisingly watchable.

Captain America: The First Avenger on IMDB

Captain America: The First Avenger on Amazon

Captain America: The First Avenger

There’s a few things one has to ignore in order to enjoy this film. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s utterly ludicrous, kitsch and silly. Secondly, there’s the rather jingoistic feeling which essentially writes out all countries other than the US and Germany from their roles in the Second World War. Still, if a comic book adaptation feels like it has the outlook and depth of a 1940s comic book, who am I to complain?

The 1940s setting of the film really works well. And the technology of Hydra, which is actually in advance of our own, but done in a way that feels fitting in the era is enjoyable. The script is silly, and the plot entirely predictable, but the acting is good enough (especially Hugo Weaving as Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips) to pull you through the worst of the idiocy, and the end result is surprisingly watchable.

Captain America: The First Avenger on IMDB

Captain America: The First Avenger on Amazon

The House of Silk

The House of Silk is Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes story, written in the style of Conan-Doyle, and thus perhaps it's a little unfair of me that throughout this book I found myself thinking 'would Holmes act like that?' or 'would Watson say such a thing?' - problems that clearly never trouble me in Sherlock Holmes books written by Conan-Doyle himself, since if they appear in one of those stories, then clearly that's what Holmes or Watson did do or say.

Since, in truth, Horowitz has done a good job here. The House of Silk is an engaging and satisfying story that pulls many different themes and tropes from the Holmes canon and ends up creating a story that, even if it doesn’t quite at times ring true as an original, is still an enjoyable read.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Horowitz is a little too generous to himself with the range of characters he chooses from. Indeed, this book has appearances from the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade (in a pleasingly different light from usual), Mycroft, and even one other character who ends up being shoe-horned in in a rather unsatisfying manner, Watson makes many more references to other stories, where in the actual books, there’s relatively little cross-referencing.

All that said, The House of Silk is a well-written story, contains some charming details from Watson explaining what has happened after the last of the previous stories were published and an afterword which is even rather moving. Although, as is inevitable with books of this type, it sometimes strays into pastiche as much as loving tribute, I find it difficult to imagine anyone doing a considerably better job other, of course, than Conan-Doyle himself.

Buy The House of Silk on Amazon

The House of Silk

The House of Silk is Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes story, written in the style of Conan-Doyle, and thus perhaps it's a little unfair of me that throughout this book I found myself thinking 'would Holmes act like that?' or 'would Watson say such a thing?' - problems that clearly never trouble me in Sherlock Holmes books written by Conan-Doyle himself, since if they appear in one of those stories, then clearly that's what Holmes or Watson did do or say.

Since, in truth, Horowitz has done a good job here. The House of Silk is an engaging and satisfying story that pulls many different themes and tropes from the Holmes canon and ends up creating a story that, even if it doesn’t quite at times ring true as an original, is still an enjoyable read.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Horowitz is a little too generous to himself with the range of characters he chooses from. Indeed, this book has appearances from the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade (in a pleasingly different light from usual), Mycroft, and even one other character who ends up being shoe-horned in in a rather unsatisfying manner, Watson makes many more references to other stories, where in the actual books, there’s relatively little cross-referencing.

All that said, The House of Silk is a well-written story, contains some charming details from Watson explaining what has happened after the last of the previous stories were published and an afterword which is even rather moving. Although, as is inevitable with books of this type, it sometimes strays into pastiche as much as loving tribute, I find it difficult to imagine anyone doing a considerably better job other, of course, than Conan-Doyle himself.

Buy The House of Silk on Amazon

Thor

Firstly, let me start with a complaint that is not unique to this film. I’m sick to death with films that have the dialogue absurdly low in the mix, and the action turned right up to 11. It means you have to watch the whole film with a finger on the volume control if you don’t wish either to miss out on the plot, or have your neighbours banging on the door asking if they should be evacuating the flat due to some terrible structural deficiency.

Thor itself is an entirely unremarkable film. It’s competently put together, and watchable enough, but I’m not sure I can give you any reason why it would be worth your time. It has the plot, dialogue and level of special effects of any of the more recent superhero movies. It has entirely two-dimensional characters with whom it’s hard to make any emotional connection and the action scenes (annoyingly noisy as they are) are all banging, crashing and CG with no style.

That’s not to say that there’s anything particularly bad about this film, Natalie Portman, Chris Hemsworth and Stellan Skarsgård put in perfectly good performances within the script they’ve been given and Kenneth Branagh shows that he can direct an average superhero movie as well as he can direct Shakespeare. It’s just that there are a million movies in the world, and the chances are you’ve seen this one already, probably many, many times.

Thor

Firstly, let me start with a complaint that is not unique to this film. I’m sick to death with films that have the dialogue absurdly low in the mix, and the action turned right up to 11. It means you have to watch the whole film with a finger on the volume control if you don’t wish either to miss out on the plot, or have your neighbours banging on the door asking if they should be evacuating the flat due to some terrible structural deficiency.

Thor itself is an entirely unremarkable film. It’s competently put together, and watchable enough, but I’m not sure I can give you any reason why it would be worth your time. It has the plot, dialogue and level of special effects of any of the more recent superhero movies. It has entirely two-dimensional characters with whom it’s hard to make any emotional connection and the action scenes (annoyingly noisy as they are) are all banging, crashing and CG with no style.

That’s not to say that there’s anything particularly bad about this film, Natalie Portman, Chris Hemsworth and Stellan Skarsgård put in perfectly good performances within the script they’ve been given and Kenneth Branagh shows that he can direct an average superhero movie as well as he can direct Shakespeare. It’s just that there are a million movies in the world, and the chances are you’ve seen this one already, probably many, many times.

For a long time I used the web interface for Gmail on my Mac. From time to time I’d try another email app, but it wouldn’t provide the speed and ease of just using Gmail in a browser.

However, a few months ago, I downloaded Sparrow for the Mac. At first I wasn’t sure, and kept using Gmail a lot, but as time went by, I gradually moved across to using Sparrow as my primary mail client. It’s simple, it’s easy, it fits in well with Gmail accounts, and when I decided to abandon Gmail, I found it made the transition really simple. In summary, I love Sparrow for the Mac.

I’d heard rumours around for some time that Sparrow were making an iPhone version of their Mac app, and for the last month or so I’ve been trying to get a look at screenshots and see if any of the beta testers had reviewed the app. What I saw made me excited - Sparrow for iPhone looked like exactly what I wanted - a simple, elegant iPhone Mail client.

Today the app launched, and so I got my first hands-on experience. It’s not a disappointment. Sparrow is indeed simple both to use and set up, and is beautifully designed, borrowing many of its design cues from the now-defunct Tweetie (which got bought by Twitter, and subsequently ruined). Once you’ve added in your email accounts and, optionally, your Facebook details (if you like having Facebook avatars for your contacts), you’re faced with an inbox not entirely dissimilar from the one found in the iPhone Mail app. However, if you swipe across to the right, you’ll find all of your mail folders and accounts, and if you swipe across to the left on a message, you’re given the option to reply, star, move, archive or delete the message (you can find the same options from within a message by tapping on the tiny arrow in the bottom right of the screen). Dealing with your email is faster and much more simple than before.

Writing a new message is also easier. Tap the tiny ‘new message’ button in the bottom right corner and up pops a list of all of your contacts, which you can either scroll through or search, choosing people to send to, Cc or Bcc. From there, typing the message is done simply enough, and adding a photo takes a simple tap on the paperclip icon. None of the message-writing part is particularly different from any other mail app, but neither does it need to be. The developers have simplified what needs to smoothed in a mail app, and kept the rest as unaltered and familiar as possible.

Sparrow, therefore, gets much right. It’s a great app to use. The only downside right now is getting email notifications. Sparrow attempted a version that used the VOIP multi-tasking to keep the app running in the background (which is not entirely different from how the official iPhone Mail app works) but it was rejected by Apple (unsurprisingly). Sparrow can’t afford to run their own push servers, and don’t want the headache of dealing with the personal information that entails, so as it stands there’s somewhat of an impasse, and thus the app doesn’t push anything to notification centre. I’ve currently got the app in my iPhone dock as my primary mail app, and have left on Apple’s own mail notifications as a bit of a fudge, and it works well enough, but I hope this gets fixed soon.

I think that Sparrow have made an app that’s as close to a perfect mail app as one could hope to expect, and blows competitors out of the water1. The notification issue doesn’t ruin the app for me, but it’ll be great to see it fixed in the near future.

Download Sparrow for iPhone

Edit 19/3/12
If you’ve downloaded the app, there’s a nice Tumblr that outlines some of the less obvious features.



Not least, Google’s own Gmail app, which is a terrible piece of work. It’s clunky, relies heavily on webviews, seems to need to be logged in repeatedly and is horrible to use. ↩

For a long time I used the web interface for Gmail on my Mac. From time to time I’d try another email app, but it wouldn’t provide the speed and ease of just using Gmail in a browser.

However, a few months ago, I downloaded Sparrow for the Mac. At first I wasn’t sure, and kept using Gmail a lot, but as time went by, I gradually moved across to using Sparrow as my primary mail client. It’s simple, it’s easy, it fits in well with Gmail accounts, and when I decided to abandon Gmail, I found it made the transition really simple. In summary, I love Sparrow for the Mac.

I’d heard rumours around for some time that Sparrow were making an iPhone version of their Mac app, and for the last month or so I’ve been trying to get a look at screenshots and see if any of the beta testers had reviewed the app. What I saw made me excited - Sparrow for iPhone looked like exactly what I wanted - a simple, elegant iPhone Mail client.

Today the app launched, and so I got my first hands-on experience. It’s not a disappointment. Sparrow is indeed simple both to use and set up, and is beautifully designed, borrowing many of its design cues from the now-defunct Tweetie (which got bought by Twitter, and subsequently ruined). Once you’ve added in your email accounts and, optionally, your Facebook details (if you like having Facebook avatars for your contacts), you’re faced with an inbox not entirely dissimilar from the one found in the iPhone Mail app. However, if you swipe across to the right, you’ll find all of your mail folders and accounts, and if you swipe across to the left on a message, you’re given the option to reply, star, move, archive or delete the message (you can find the same options from within a message by tapping on the tiny arrow in the bottom right of the screen). Dealing with your email is faster and much more simple than before.

Writing a new message is also easier. Tap the tiny ‘new message’ button in the bottom right corner and up pops a list of all of your contacts, which you can either scroll through or search, choosing people to send to, Cc or Bcc. From there, typing the message is done simply enough, and adding a photo takes a simple tap on the paperclip icon. None of the message-writing part is particularly different from any other mail app, but neither does it need to be. The developers have simplified what needs to smoothed in a mail app, and kept the rest as unaltered and familiar as possible.

Sparrow, therefore, gets much right. It’s a great app to use. The only downside right now is getting email notifications. Sparrow attempted a version that used the VOIP multi-tasking to keep the app running in the background (which is not entirely different from how the official iPhone Mail app works) but it was rejected by Apple (unsurprisingly). Sparrow can’t afford to run their own push servers, and don’t want the headache of dealing with the personal information that entails, so as it stands there’s somewhat of an impasse, and thus the app doesn’t push anything to notification centre. I’ve currently got the app in my iPhone dock as my primary mail app, and have left on Apple’s own mail notifications as a bit of a fudge, and it works well enough, but I hope this gets fixed soon.

I think that Sparrow have made an app that’s as close to a perfect mail app as one could hope to expect, and blows competitors out of the water1. The notification issue doesn’t ruin the app for me, but it’ll be great to see it fixed in the near future.

Download Sparrow for iPhone

Edit 19/3/12 If you’ve downloaded the app, there’s a nice Tumblr that outlines some of the less obvious features.


  1. Not least, Google’s own Gmail app, which is a terrible piece of work. It’s clunky, relies heavily on webviews, seems to need to be logged in repeatedly and is horrible to use. 

Senna

I’d heard a lot of good things about this documentary when it was released a couple of years ago. Since then it’s won a couple of Baftas, and even people who didn’t like F1 recommended it.

And it is good. It’s a well-made documentary, and Senna is an engaging personality. Clearly it ends rather emotionally (I know almost nothing about F1, and even I knew what the ending of this film was going to be) and all of this is done tastefully and very intelligently.

However, and this is no fault of the film makers, I just didn’t find it particularly interesting. However well made it was, however interesting a character Senna was, however expertly the story was told, none of it really managed to get me over the fact that I find F1 about as interesting as watching people pile up heaps of cash, and then measuring how their heaps of cash compare to each other, size-wise.

If you find F1 even marginally more interesting than me, I’d be inclined to recommend you watch it.

Senna on Amazon

Senna

I’d heard a lot of good things about this documentary when it was released a couple of years ago. Since then it’s won a couple of Baftas, and even people who didn’t like F1 recommended it.

And it is good. It’s a well-made documentary, and Senna is an engaging personality. Clearly it ends rather emotionally (I know almost nothing about F1, and even I knew what the ending of this film was going to be) and all of this is done tastefully and very intelligently.

However, and this is no fault of the film makers, I just didn’t find it particularly interesting. However well made it was, however interesting a character Senna was, however expertly the story was told, none of it really managed to get me over the fact that I find F1 about as interesting as watching people pile up heaps of cash, and then measuring how their heaps of cash compare to each other, size-wise.

If you find F1 even marginally more interesting than me, I’d be inclined to recommend you watch it.

Senna on Amazon

Love and Other Drugs

Watching this film, it seems like a piece by a first-time director. Perhaps one that’s been brought on board at the last minute when some not very well-known, and second-rate director left the project acrimoniously. In fact it’s directed by Edward Zwick, who’s actually directed some half-decent films, not least Blood Diamond, which felt like a much more substantial and intelligent piece.

To say that Love and Other Drugs is a truly bad film, though, would be taking it too far. It’s just unremarkable. It’s a film populated by clichés with a plot and script that feels like it’s been copied and pasted from a few other films. A bit of Up In The Air here, a bit of Pretty Woman there, a touch of No Strings Attached around the place, and the end result feels like watching a film that you’ve seen before, and didn’t particularly like the first time.

Love and Other Drugs on Amazon

Love and Other Drugs

Watching this film, it seems like a piece by a first-time director. Perhaps one that’s been brought on board at the last minute when some not very well-known, and second-rate director left the project acrimoniously. In fact it’s directed by Edward Zwick, who’s actually directed some half-decent films, not least Blood Diamond, which felt like a much more substantial and intelligent piece.

To say that Love and Other Drugs is a truly bad film, though, would be taking it too far. It’s just unremarkable. It’s a film populated by clichés with a plot and script that feels like it’s been copied and pasted from a few other films. A bit of Up In The Air here, a bit of Pretty Woman there, a touch of No Strings Attached around the place, and the end result feels like watching a film that you’ve seen before, and didn’t particularly like the first time.

Love and Other Drugs on Amazon

This book is certainly interesting, and if you’ve read nothing about Steve Jobs in the past, you might find some of the contents reasonably intriguing - Jobs was an fascinating, if extremely difficult person. However, if you have read a few books about Jobs in the past, firstly you’ll know where a good proportion of this material comes from, and secondly you’ll realised how much of a missed opportunity this book really is.

The fact is that Isaacson had pretty much unfettered access to Jobs over a long and illuminating period of his life, and yet through clearly knowing very little about the technology, he seems repeatedly to have failed to have asked him any questions that gives an insight into Jobs you couldn’t have got by just reading works by a couple of biographers that knew their stuff much better.

The more this book progresses, the more you realise quite how much of a huge, missed opportunity it was, and an opportunity that can never be granted to another person again. What a tragic waste.

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography on Amazon

This book is certainly interesting, and if you’ve read nothing about Steve Jobs in the past, you might find some of the contents reasonably intriguing - Jobs was an fascinating, if extremely difficult person. However, if you have read a few books about Jobs in the past, firstly you’ll know where a good proportion of this material comes from, and secondly you’ll realised how much of a missed opportunity this book really is.

The fact is that Isaacson had pretty much unfettered access to Jobs over a long and illuminating period of his life, and yet through clearly knowing very little about the technology, he seems repeatedly to have failed to have asked him any questions that gives an insight into Jobs you couldn’t have got by just reading works by a couple of biographers that knew their stuff much better.

The more this book progresses, the more you realise quite how much of a huge, missed opportunity it was, and an opportunity that can never be granted to another person again. What a tragic waste.

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography on Amazon

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

Still not an amazing book, but better and marginally less preposterous than some of the more recent Bonds. It’s not particularly discriminatory either, as Fleming books go, despite being lazily sexist more or less throughout.

The plot’s not bad and placing an unarmed Bond in danger in a comparatively plausible way is quite well done. The overall conspiracy is, of course, utterly ludicrous, but although it’s spoken of as being plausible, it’s never really suggested in the book that this is the case, so maybe we’ll let Fleming off that one.

Overall, reasonably enjoyable Bond fare.

Buy On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on Amazon