Mstation Book Reviews
Valid RSS pre Dec 04 reviews are here

Sun, 08 Mar 2009

New RSS system and Feeds

For a long time we've been running separate instances of Blosxom to handle
our two categories of News, as well as our Reviews and Commentary to do with
books, classical music, pop/dance/etc music, games, and podcasts. Blosxom has
served us very well but always had some problems playing well on a PHP site ...
integration proved difficult.

So now we've installed a Wordpress system which offers quite a few advantages.
First of all, all the categories can be easily browsed within one page plus it's
very easy to add something new or disappear something.

Hopefully, you'll like it! Here is the page ...

The feeds can be subscribed to by mousing over the categories on the right
hand side of the page. The new feeds are as follows:

classical music
news: general
news: music, games

We will keep the present feeds running until perhaps the end of April,
so no great rush, although news items will be posted to the new feeds
from today... March 6 09.

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Sat, 28 Feb 2009

Iggy Pop

Joe Ambrose, Gimme Danger: The Story of Iggy Pop, Omnibus Press

The Ig has turned into a bit of an icon - wild man grandfather of Punk turned into clean-living semi-socialite with a few bucks in the bank for a change. Who would begrudge him that? Or say he wasn't worth a book.

Joe Ambrose does a good job too, taking it from his family background (eccentric but not deprived) and his early-won outsider status. And then right through The Stooges, the Bowie years, and on to the present. It's not a hagiography either - the author sounds much like a Stooges fan and so the Bowie influence isn't something he's ecstatic about and he has a few words to say about Bowie's money-grubbing.

In fact you get a pretty good coverage of a fair bit of Bowie's career just through his proximity to Pop... LA, Berlin, and beyond.

There are quite a few photos as well. (thunderfinger)

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Kevin McCleer, Surferboy, Wrecking Ball Press

Yowzuh!! Cowabunga!! If you know those words, you'll love this book. It's about growing up in LA and getting into surfing amongst its many wonderful, if overcrowded, beaches.

It's called an autobiographical novel but to any surfer it will just be the word. The description of the rites of passage, the waves, the beaches, the people, and the socilogical surrounds is right on the spot for the time he talks about.

The author was also a 'Val' (from the San Fernando Valley and viewed by beach locals a bit like AOLers were viewed on the Net) and so had some problems to overcome including actually getting to the beach and then combating violent localism when he did - but, actually, he seems to have had a comparitively easy ride mostly through the fact that he has some common sense.

If you're a surfer and from LA and now living somewhere else then this book will put a big wide smile on your face while also summoning up some feelings of homesickness. Where else has such a great array of beaches and such great weather? Nah, sorry, Australia doesn't compare in it's totality even if it does have some great spots.

If you're not a surfer, but kind of interested, then you'll know a whole lot more once you've read this.

There is one used copy at Amazon as this goes up. Publishers?

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Bad Monkeys

Matt Ruff, Bad Monkeys, Bloomsbury

Lots of good words have been said about this book including some from Neal Stephenson himself - not that this book is a huge doorstop.

What we have is a world where incorrigibly not nice people are called Bad Monkeys by an organisation who tracks them by super-sophisticated means and kills them on a regular basis.

The Bad Monkeys have an organisation as well and in this story, which races around the place at a great rate, we are kept guessing as to who is who and what's where until the final pages.

It's a fun read.

Bad Monkeys: A Novel (P.S.)

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Watching the English

Kate Fox, Watching the English, Hodder

Ah, Hodder, or rather Hodder and Stoughton as it used to be before it was sold off to the Americans some years ago. It's actually fairly amazing just how much of British publishing disappeared. Gone are the clubby offices and three hour lunches. Quite sad in a way but Hodder has endeavoured to keep its brand alive - and that brand is about Englishness.

People love to read about their own national characteristics - Japanese, English, American, Australian, French amongst many others. It's an enjoyable sort of navel-gazing - "Oh yes, we are like that" *giggle*

And sometimes, in more class bound societies, some might use such books to get a few posh pointers. I wouldn't advise using this one though as it's quite often off the mark or oversimplified.

There's still lots of fun to be had for English people, and perhaps others as well. Kate Fox starts off with the vexatious question of different words for the same item ... which is made even more tricky by the habit of using the "wrong" one to be jokey. It's really best not to play this game at all (and most people don't) unless you were born to it.

There is much more than this though and quite a few giggles to be had and, perhaps, something useful to be learnt. And we can hope that the best of the traditions will somehow muddle through - like good manners. (Baron K)

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Fri, 30 Jan 2009


G.T. Heineman, G. Pollice, S. Selkow, Algorithms in a Nutshell, O'Reilly

Most of O'Reilly's Nutshell series is hardcore and meant as references for people doing actual work rather than being for a little geeky reading. This book is no exception and we think you'd be quickly lost if you didn't have the basics of algorithms already under your belt. They recommend Knuth's volumes for just this task.

Still and all, there are sections that could actually serve as a heavyweight introduction in that, right at the start, you're made aware of all sorts of potential issues, whether it be in sorting time, facility of the algorithm, or the eternal memory leak problem (why not use something other than C then? some discussion of other languages might have been helpful.).

The book is meant to be a desktop reference and could be quite good for that purpose but some sort of familiarty with the order of the book would be needed first, but we guess they didn't say "Quick Desktop Reference".

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Julie Kavanagh, Nureyev: a life, Vintage

When I was a child Nureyev was one of the emblems of being absolutely fabulous - always seen in photos with gorgeous and glamourous women, always looking fabulous himself, and then, of course, he was a fabulous ballet dancer.

Julie Kavanagh also does a fabulous job of tracing his career from Russia's deep wilderness to the heights of society in the West and the heights of artistic creation. She also manages to reveal some of his least lovable characteristics without seeming judgemental or prurient.

He was of course extremely Gay, which wasn't known to many in the general world at the time. It was AIDS that killed him prematurely and this world of extreme promiscuity is also covered with some grace as is his decline and death.

In the end, this book is an affectionate and admiring tribute that nevertheless manages to look its subject full in the face. It is a must for ballet fans I should say. (Baron K)

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Dog Murder and the Geek

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the
dog in the night-time, Vintage

Let us start by saying that we're using the word 'geek' in rather an affectionate sort of way. The outline of the story is this: a 15yo boy who has Asperger's Syndrome discovers a murdered dog (the pitchfork through his body was a clue) and decides to find out whodunnit.

But wait, there's more! The story is told by the boy from inside his world - likes rule-based systems such as maths and physics, hates to be touched, doesn't have a clue what people are about unless everything is carefully explained and he doesn't get physical clues such as people's expressions, at all. He is also very keen on Prime Numbers, and that's how the chapters are numbered. He also can't tell lies.

And so one gets a strikingly simple view of the world, endearing even if one didn't get the suspicion that this sort of reasoning - without fuzziness - is how we came to be in so many fixes at once. Admitting to almost unknowable complexity and making rational decisions on that basis is the way forward: certainly not binary-minded luddism - not if we care to live in heated houses anyway.

But in the context of the story and the storyteller this isn't likely to get under anyone's skin. Instead, perhaps they'll let their hidden geek out to play. And, to be fair, the boy shows he's alive to complexity but the religious references are, one suspects, the author's problem - in that assertions one way or another are unprovable.

The mystery of the dog is cleared up half way through but then we set off on an heartrending adventure which we won't talk about except to say that some people have more than their fair share of contact with adults who suck.

Is it really just a Whitbread award winning children's book? No, no, it's much more than that.

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Thu, 27 Nov 2008

Ableton Live Tr

Ableton Live 7 Tips and Tricks by Martin Delaney, from PC Publishing is one of those textbook-sized things with lots of black and white screenshots and extremely wide margins to contain their captions (and to make the book 150 pages rather than just 90). I've never read any of these before and have never really been sure at whom they're aimed: apparently the book "does not duplicate the Live user manual, it expands upon it and introduces creative concepts, workflow enhancements and workarounds for common objectives and problems".

Unfortunately, it's a pretty short book, so it's only going to be of much use to you if you're interested in the fairly narrow sample of 'creative concepts, workflow enhancements and workarounds' which Delaney has room to cover. This is most likely to apply if you are using Live to write some form of 'experimental' electronica (which to be fair does cover a lot of the user base), no matter how much he may preach the software's flexibility and range of applications. These expectations flavour the text a bit more than I would have liked ("this can get quite messed up - which is, yes, good") and there are rather too many 'Live is great for lots of different things!' paragraphs for a book ostensibly aimed at existing Live users, adding to the rather unfocused feel. What with the prose's tendency toward smirking jokes, it's all a bit like being stoned while someone shows you a random selection of techniques they've learned in Live.

I'm being slightly harsh - there are definitely worse books of this type out there - but this is far less well-written than the Live manual (which saves its jokes up and makes them count - the deadpan one in the section on sidechain compression is laugh out loud stuff), contains far less information, and doesn't come free with the software... so I struggle to see the point of it. And as far as offering 'workarounds for common problems' goes, it doesn't even mention what I consider to be the most annoying 'feature' of Live: the fact that a lot of clip automation envelopes will only let you modulate parameters downward from their current setting. Many is the time I've decided to add some clip envelopes for a filter cutoff halfway through a project, then realised I'll have to turn the main cutoff knob up to full in order to be able to use the whole range of values (which of course means going back and tediously adding envelopes to restore the desired value to all the previous clips), and ended up thinking: "if only there was some kind of workaround for this common problem". But this issue isn't even mentioned in the book's sections on clip automation.

However, the author obviously knows his subject very well and has some good advice to give, so as long as you can live with the writing style and accept that the scattershot approach may not cover what you'd really like to know, you won't be disappointed. icks (Stephen Hedley)

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Nicholas Fouquet

Charles Drazin, The Man Who Outshone the Sun King, Da Capo Press

When I was small I remember seeing a picture of a grand house set behind what looked like a moat. The stone was golden in the dusk light. Its grace and beauty captured me and I wondered 'Who lived there? Who created such a place?'. Thus began my long love affair with France.

The name of the place was Vaux-le-Vicomte, and the man who built it and guided such as Andre le Notre was Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finance under the Sun King, Louis XIV ... and this book is his story.

The story starts off with Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII. Richelieu was to make the mold for the golden shoes that Mazarin, and later the non-Cardinal Colbert wouldn't fit into. The author's understanding of Richelieu, that of a power-mad scruple-free non-religious Cardinal, doesn't coincide with modern thought on this subject, which holds his religious beliefs to have been quite genuine. Putting them under the heading of Baroque, they were deemed to be extremely positive and not at all like the neo-Jansenism that came to be practised in many places. Anyone who has come across Irish priests will know about Jansenism.

The point of this observation is that Mazarin, under whom Fouquet worked primarily, was not a continuation of the same. He was a rather smaller and meaner version. Richelieu, with his subtlety, ruthlessness and plain brain power remained the template - one it seems, that Fouquet aimed at himself.

Fouquet's story starts in a well-connected family and proceeds through the civil service with the speed that money, connections, and his own skills and daring would have suggested. And then he flew too high and the jealous king brought him down.

His undoing was the building of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the finest house in France, and then having an extraordinarily extravagant party to officially open it. This book spends quite some time on the building of the house and the people involved with it. This is against the somewhat claustrophobic background of Louis's incessant wars and Mazarin's paranoid whinings.

What also is apparent is that statements by the duc de Saint Simon in his memoirs about Louis XIV being petulant and nasty certainly are borne out here, even though after the Fronde he could perhaps be forgiven a little jumpiness.

Although the author does talk about Fouquet's spy network, I think more could have been made of this and in particular more could have been made of his friendship with the famous Madame de Sevigne - she paid a heavy price, being questioned and put out of favour at court but remaining a steadfast though necessarily distant friend.

This period of French history was plundered by Dumas for all sorts of exciting tales. This book is another window into that time. (Baron K)

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Tue, 28 Oct 2008

Heroin Diaries

Nikki Sixx with Ian Gittins, the Heroin Diaries: a year in the life of a shattered Rock Star, Pocket Books

The stated credo of this book is that if one person is helped to avoid Mr. Sixx's experience with drugs then 'it will have been worth it'.

Sixx is the bassist in 80's (and still) hair metal band Motley Crue and he outlines his bad habits in some detail as well as numerous escapades which mostly fall under the heading of Yucky People Doings. At least, we suppose, there's a nice symmetry in the fact that they seemed to treat each other in much the same way as they treated other people ... and also, they were as advertised - cretinous barbarians.

So, who might want this book? People who like Mojo magazine might like it as they thought it was funny (!?!). Social anthropologists might love it ... especially budding social workers. HM completists should have it of course ... and then there's that one person who might benefit from it.

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Website Optimization

Andrew B. King, Website Optimization, O'Reilly

Yes, you guessed, this is a guide to optimizing websites both in terms of the physical performance in a browser and also in terms of search engines.

An aside here is how quickly we seem to accept a situation as normal. Take search engines - One would expect that search engines would semantically parse pages and be able to provide some sort of useful overview. Also, we might expect that algorithims scanning links would immediately be able discount the most obvious cheaters. This is far from the case and woe be it to anyone who thinks they can hide the crux of a page in paragraph three and still be usefully indexed.

... which tidily leads us back to the book while we wait for improvements in the search world. The present reality is that you do need to do something and this book will guide you through excactly what.

It starts by looking at search engine optimization and gives examples of how to deal with the appropriate Meta tags, "content" and "keywords". Keywords is a huge area by itself with all sorts of tools available for sussing out their potential - not much point is using a keyword that generates one search a week if you can honestly use one that generates a thousand. "Honestly" is quite a big word here but at least in this area there are some signs that body text is checked to see if it's true.

The keyword thing also leads into the Adwords side of things and there's a fair bit to be said that people who purchase ads on Google will find interesting. The whole keyword thing, of course, just underlines the failure (so far) of semantic parsing ... quite conveniently for Google, perhaps.

There's a lot more to the book including quite a large section on optimizing the site itself in terms of loading times and code. There's also a fair sized section on web analytics and if you never quite grasped what a bounce rate was, this book will help you. All in all, if you have a website, then this book will be of interest.

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Sonic Youth

David Browne, Goodbye 20th Century: a biography of Sonic Youth, Da Capo Press

Sonic Youth have inspired great devotion along with great confusion. Originally the babies of the NYC art crowd and a sort of outgrowth of the punk/hardcore scene, they asked considerable questions about just what a song was and how it might be delivered. Their answers included many song-like things along with a fair sampling of pieces that were closer to noise music. And all with a certain sort of Downtown attitude.

The confusion was heightened by Sonic Youth's balancing act on the art/commerce high wire ... this was a part of their interest as well.

This book traces all the members of the band (Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley) and pretty much all the band's doings ... and along the way, the music scene of the time. And so we get a fairly good view of one of the more interesting periods in the history of music in New York. That it's a scene that has all but disappeared makes it more poignant. And in that line one might wonder that its eradication at the hands of big easy corporate money bidding property prices through the roof ... no wait! ... might we see a return to the old days now - days when a struggling artist could live in Manhattan? Days when a struggling venue might survive on small takings? Who knows?

From the post punk scene we move on through the Grunge and the alt-rock era in which Sonic Youth also played a part - quite a big part in fact as Thurston was an early booster of Nirvana and was instrumental in getting them on one of Geffen's labels.

Another aspect, and quite an endearing one, was their struggle to survive financially. For years they played for peanuts and lived off used tea bags practically. When their breakthrough came it was hardly to superstardom in commercial terms (which, as you can imagine displeased their label) but it was enough to let them live properly and buy houses and apartments and bring up kids. 'Greed is a bit of a waste of time' might be a good heading here for those artists who want to work on their own terms and lead a satisfying life.

So, yes, if you're a Sonic Youth fan then you should have this. If you're generally interested in music and particularly interested in the art/commerce fight then you'll find it interesting as well.

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Wed, 01 Oct 2008


Lucy O'Brien, Madonna: like an icon, Corgi

Your reaction might be - Why would you read that?! Good question! In fact, there are a few reasons: For one, Madonna is a part of recent pop/dance history, and she coincides quite nicely with the putting together of Really Big Music and its current state of whining decline.

For another, she was also part of an interesting club scene in Detroit and New York and in mid-career she had some producers who did some pretty nice work (Orbit, Mirwais) on her songs.

And then there's the question of how such an ordinary singer and actor could reach such commercial heights.

The story's outline will be familiar to lots of people: not especially nice kid from a middle class family looses mother early on, goes a little haywire (by small town standards), gets into clubbing and dance, uses everyone she can get her hands on while searching for her thing, and then, through smart marketing, becomes rich, rich, rich, and famous, famous, etc.

So, why read it, you ask again? Oh OK, you win. (Thunderfinger)

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Le Dossier

trans Sarah Long, Le Dossier How to Survive the English, John Murray

If you're in the mood for a bit of English bashing this could be just the thing but it will give absolutely no joy at all to the likes of Aussie Pommy haters as it will mostly be incomprehensible.

The reason being that the viewpoint is from a Parisian female of supposedly huge brain and with an extremely privileged background - or so the story goes. There's actually a fair chance that this character is made up, but never mind. In any case, the viewpoint is lofty enough to resemble a caricature French person but this is part of the fun.

All the usual culprits get a serve - women's looks and dress (actually, everyone's dress), the manners, the food, the shops (interesting statistic in the book is that 80% of English food is bought in supermarkets whereas the figure for France is 5%), the health system (catch Eurostar home!), the ways of English sex (basic, brutish, and short) which is blamed on Protestants, and of course, there's more, more, more.

It is quite fun and I imagine will be read mostly by English people. (Baron K)

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