Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Things to do in 2010

Posted by lea at 12:57 PM 4 comments Links to this post
Learn to use my SLR camera better to take great photos (which I will post to show my improvement).

Get a tattoo. I'm planning either a firefly or a real image of a star (a ball of gas rather than the pointy edged ones). What do you think of these:











PS - a new layout for a new year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leanne the Brave

Posted by lea at 11:13 AM 0 comments Links to this post
When I was younger, one of my favourite series was about Ramona Quimby - a girl with spunk. Now that we're just days away from a new year and a new set of resolutions, I'm reminded of Ramona as I prepare to make mine.

Suspecting that this year will be no different from the previous ones if I just continue to recycle the usual suspects of unaccomplished resolutions (waking up earlier and exercising regularly), I'm just going to hinge everything on one big resolution:

2010: THE YEAR OF LIVING FEARLESSLY
- the year of knocking down boundaries and taking on challenges and not procrastinating and being proactive and trying new things and not worrying about conventions or opinions or expectations.

For my birthday this year I was given the book Conversations with God and one of the things it said that made sense was that everything in this world is either motivated by fear or love. So this year I'm going to try my hardest not to do things from fear, but from love.

Practically, part of living fearlessly will mean:
  • I'll dance when I want to, even though I'm so crap at it (I've been practicing the robot and it's not a pretty sight);
  • I'm going to wear skirts and not feel self-conscious (yes legs, you will be seen and finally tanned);
  • I'll be brave and try new experiences when the opportunity comes up, and not shy away from things.
As we get older, I think the potential to become more stuffy and controlled and rigid about our patterns and preferences increases. We're not as adventurous as we used to be in our teens when we were pushing our boundaries and discovering our likes and dislikes. But I'm not a child anymore, so instead of trying to 'discover myself', I'm going to create the world I want. (Also from the book, the idea that life is not about discovery, but about creation. We speak things into reality and create our world with vision - that's faith.)

So that's going to be my 2010. Watch out world - you've been warned.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas celebrations round #3: girlfriends

Posted by lea at 4:45 PM 0 comments Links to this post
On Sunday night we had a 10 year reunion with a group of girlfriends we had Christmassed with in 1999. Changes between 1999 to 2009:
  • 4 out of 6 of us are now married
  • one of us currently lives in Geneva although the rest are still in Sydney
  • we all have our own bedrooms now (10 years ago, only one of us did)
  • we all have full-time jobs (actually it was probably only Jenny and myself who lived like hobos back then, but we can't say we didn't have fun!)
On the menu:

Beer can chicken (with roast vegetables)

Quick directions for the beer can chicken: buy a good sized fresh whole chicken (organic if you can). Take the entire lid off a can of beer and drink half (you'll need it to steady your nerves for what comes ahead), or alternatively, transfer half a can or bottle of beer into a mason jar (or clean ex-tomato paste or other glass jar).

Throw a bunch of herbs and spices into the remaining beer, like rosemary, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, Moroccan spice mix (love this stuff), chilli, cayenne pepper and cloves. Separately, create a spice rub using the same spices mixed with 2 tbs olive oil and 2 tbs softened butter. Lay your chicken down and rub the spice mix all over the skin and get your fingers right under the skin to also rub the spices into the flesh. Tip: don't apologise to the chicken. Personifying it will only make it harder. Just grit your teeth and remember that if you cook it right, it won't have died in vain.

Pick up the chicken and impale it onto the can or jar of beer, standing upright on a baking tray. Pop it into a pre-heated oven or BBQ at 180 deg C for 60min. It comes out delicious - 360 degrees of crispy spiced skin and juicy flesh flavoured from the internal workings of the beer.

Moroccan cous cous with roast veg and rocket leaves

Chop pumpkin and sweet potatoes into 1cm cubes and roast in the oven until slightly browned. While they're in the oven, add 1 cup of cous cous to 1 cup of hot vegetable stock, add some Moroccan spice, mix with a fork and cover. Wash some rocket leaves and chop a handful of mint and parsley leaves. Fork through the fattened couscous grains until they separate, then add the baked vegetables, rocket and herbs. It's ready to serve and a delicious accompaniment to any meal.

A side of garlic asparagus

A really simple but delicious side dish is garlic asparagus. Chop off the woody ends, wash and dry the asparagus. Heat a pan, add some olive oil and when it's nice and hot, throw in around 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic for each bunch of asparagus. When the garlic is slightly brown, throw in the asparagus. Toss until it starts becoming a nice bright green, then grind some salt over the top and serve. Easy.

The evening did have a purpose other than eating though... ten years ago we'd written down a list of 10 things we wanted to do before we died and placed it in a very fitting time capsule: a VHS case. After dinner, we sat around with some delicious French pastries and read aloud our lists one at a time. They were hilarious!

The points that had been accomplished included:
  • travelling (for most of us)
  • Mia owning her own studio
  • Glenda meeting the man of her dreams
  • I woke up before 6.30am at least once in my life (probably never again after the first time)
  • Glenda and Ron watching a live grand slam tennis match
  • Jenny conversing with her biological mother
The points we laughed over:
  • both Ron and Andie wanted their own rooms (at the time they were sharing)
  • Jenny wanted to do something fearless like acting in a movie or interviewing strangers
  • I wanted to 'write a best seller.. or at least a pretty decent book... or at least something that gets published'
I can't remember all the points, but afterwards we wrote a list of 5 things we'd like to do, be or have in five years time, along with a snapshot of our lives now. My 5 things:
  1. To potentially have another Bloom Training Centre set up, either somewhere else in Cambodia or in another country.
  2. To have happy, well-adjusted kid(s) - either our own or adopted - and a great family.
  3. To have my own business with freedom and flexibility.
  4. To have a good wardrobe I can wear anything from and look good (hey, I'm a girl!)
  5. ... can't remember the fifth one. Guess I'll find out in 2014!

Christmas celebrations round #2: friends

Posted by lea at 3:33 PM 0 comments Links to this post
So after the mostly successful Parkside Family Christmas Lunch on Saturday, we followed it up with our Kris Kringle Friends' Christmas Dinner. Most are married young couples now and there are two kids in the group - one a gorgeous one year old Korindian and the other a terrible-two year old Eurasian. We're a mixed bunch.

The menu was pot luck, and the dishes I brought to the table were:
Mussels in white wine, garlic and chilli for starters.

Quick directions: buy 2kg fresh mussels (local ones are best) and pull off beards just before cooking. In a large pot, heat up some oil and add around 6 cloves of chopped garlic and 3-4 small red chillis (less if you can't handle the heat). When it starts to get fragrant and a little brown, add the mussels into the pot. Pour a can of chopped tomatoes and a cup of white wine over the top. Stir and put the lid on. When the mussels start to open, add a good handful of chopped continental parsley, a little salt (not too much) and stir again. Replace the lid. When all the mussels have opened, served in a nice big bowl with plenty of broth. It's delicious and a surefire way to get the party started.

Turkish Lamb Pizza

Quick directions: fry up one chopped onion, 3 green chillis and a dash of cumin and paprika in a little oil. Remove from the pan and cook 500g lamb mince until brown, and drain the juice. Add the fried onions and chilli to the minced lamb and add 2tb of tomato paste.

Spread the resulting lamb mince mix thinly onto any base you like: pre-bought or home-made pizza base, Lebanese bread or Greek pita bread. Chuck it into a pre-heated oven at around 160 deg C for around 10-15min until the edges are browned. Serve with wedges of lemon. Yum!!

Also on the table were really delicious and naturally sweet prawns with a lemon dipping sauce, marinated chicken, a complicated but beautiful Chinese chicken salad, fresh sashimi salad with a yummy sesame-base dressing, and for dessert, tiramisu and black forest cherry cake.

It was a good night on the whole and fun for everyone - especially when the kris kringle gifts came out - but some lessons learnt:
  1. Ambience is important. Consider lighting, music and mood beforehand to set the scene and make it feel 'Christmassy'. Break out the candles and when desperate, pull out Mariah Carey's Christmas CD.
  2. Punctuality makes a difference. There were some stragglers and it just kind of deflated the mood that night. One or two coming unavoidably late is ok, but when most of the party is late... it's just a bit lame. Answer: don't serve dinner too soon - start with drinks and a few snacks and go as long as it takes until everyone's arrived.
  3. Large groups need something to hold it together. If it's a massive party then it's totally cool when people break off into smaller groups to chat, but when it's a cosy one, try to keep the group together. Board games or charades or something that keeps everyone laughing together work great, even if it takes a little persuading to get everyone involved.

Christmas celebrations, round #1: family

Posted by lea at 2:54 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Christmas celebrations started off on Saturday 19th December with our Parkside Family Christmas lunch (my sister Glenda is now a Chang and I'm a Gomez, but we can't forget our Park roots). Attendees: my parents (who squeezed it in between a funeral and a wedding - they're so popular), Simon and Liz (brother and sis-in-law), Glenda and Juan (sister and bro-in-law), nephews Christian (15) and Reuben (13) and niece Hannah (3), Nathaniel, myself and Elena (sis-in-law).

On the menu:
Seafood platter

The traffic going to and from the Sydney Fish Markets was CRAZY but the resulting seafood platter was worth it. By the way, the platter pictured is a representation of my intended presentation rather than the actual presentation, which was much better but I hate to boast. Not. On the platter: fresh salmon sashimi, Sydney rock oysters, and delicious grilled prawns.

Quick directions for delicious grilled prawns: 30min before cooking, take prawns out of the fridge and marinate with chopped garlic, chopped continental parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let it sit before grilling on a BBQ or hot plate. Yum.

Sirloin roast with gravy spread

Quick directions: Buy a good cut of beef (mine was a 2kg sirloin which cost freakin' $80!! More than any of the presents I'd bought for my family! Tip: ask your butcher how much per kilo before asking for 'the best cut for roast' and blithely agreeing like you know something.

Take the meat out of the fridge around 1.5-2hrs before you plan to roast to bring it down to room temperature. Rub spices all over it (I used a Moroccan spice mix, paprika, cumin and whatever was in the cupboard), sear in a hot pan (or better still, in the baking tray) and place in a pre-heated oven at 220 deg C for 30min. Lower to 160 deg C and if you can manage, ladle the pan juices over the roast, then back to the oven for another 15min per 500g.

Brief directions for gravy spread: Make the gravy as per usual while the roast rests, using 2 tbs of the meat juices, 1 tbs flour, 1 cup of beef stock and salt and pepper. Then let your husband take over the cooking while you go upstairs to do your make up. By the time you come down, he'll have added another tablespoon of flour thinking you read the recipe wrong, and voila: gravy spread. Seriously, you couldn't even shake it out of the gravy boat (which is really a milk jug but who really knows the difference, right?).

I also served my famous ('famous') Thai-influenced marinated chicken skewers, with recipe to come.

A platter of summer fruit
There's nothing better than summer fruit like watermelon, mangoes, strawberries and cherries. Yum!

Everything was eaten in fast forward because everyone came late and my parents had to rush off to a wedding in an hour and we all wanted to get to the gifts.

So when we were done, my parents took their new GPS and personalised calendar chocka block full of pictures of their kids and grandkids and toddled off to their wedding. Christian wouldn't take off his new sneakers and Country Road bag. Reuben insisted on 'testing out' his new iPod speakers so we had Blasting Benjamin or My Chemical Romance or whatever blaring over the top of the Christmas music. Hannah immediately put on her inflatable floatie and hugged the in-built palm tree (to provide shade) and wouldn't take it off despite the fact that it squished her sideways on the beanbag. Then she and Glenda had a deep and meaningful conversation:

Hannah: Hannah doesn't have a penis. Isaac has a penis.
(Isaac is Hannah's friend, also aged 3)
Glenda: Where is Hannah's penis?
Hannah: (thinks for a while) It's at home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Laugh out loud Monday: Empire State of Mind ft Stephen Colbert

Posted by lea at 11:56 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Enjoy this piece of hilarity - he dances almost as well as I do! Alicia Keys performs beautifully as usual.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Give us this day our daily blog

Posted by lea at 3:56 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I love how people now share so much of their lives with anonymous others - it's like peeking into their windows and seeing the cool stuff that they get up to. These are some of my favourite blogs that I like to peek into:

A Beautiful Mess
I'm always inspired by this blog even though I know I'll never actually do or make anything on it - like learning to crochet. It's the personal blog of Elsie Flannigan, who runs online store Red Velvet Art and is always coming up with cool lists of things she loves (I plan to steal this idea). Her excitement is infectious.

FAIL Blog
There's always a laugh to be had on this blog... usually at someone else's expense, which is how I like my laughs to come.



Engrish
Another funny blog - as an ex-English tutor, bad engrish always make me laugh.






Mamamia
Mamamia is the personal blog of Mia Freedman, former Cosmo editor. Everyday she posts on current topics, particularly relevant for women, and her army of faithful readers have even created their own community via her comments section.

Bits and Pieces
This is the cool blog of designer Cathy Zielske that breaks down the elements of design for dummies like me and offers free tutorials on how to make layouts look good. Not (as you can see) that I ever use her advice.

Are there any other cool blogs that I should be checking out? My exposure is limited and I'm wide open here folks...

Monday, December 14, 2009

NO MORE REVIEWS

Posted by lea at 11:12 AM 2 comments Links to this post
Well I've been sitting on around 5 new reviews for books read recently and umming and ahing about whether to write/post them or not, but I've made a blog-changing decision. One that will affect all 4 people who read my blog. I'm not writing reviews anymore.

The purpose of leathinksaloud was to keep a personal record of the books I read because I often found myself halfway through books only to think, 'this sounds so familiar, haven't I read this before?' Also I was curious to know how many books I actually read (turns out it's approximately 80-100 a year, give or take a few).

But in 2010, I think I'll take a different tack. My posts will still occasionally but no longer exclusively be related to books and movies, and even then, only those I feel strongly about. Let's see where this takes us.

Anyone who actually tuned in for the book reviews can get more of them here:
withextrapulp - lots of off-the-beaten-path-books reviewed by the talented Elena G
geekreads - less frequent book and movie reviews with a touch of cynicism and a healthy dose of cerebralism by Caesar, geeklord

Happy Christmas and see you next post!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

Posted by lea at 4:41 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The Brothers Bloom is about 2 con-men brothers (Stephen played by Mark Ruffalo, who cooks up the cons, and Bloom played by Adrien Brody, who lives his life vicariously through them) and their last mark, the isolated and eccentric heiress (a.k.a 'the epileptic photographer') Penelope, played by the truly delightful Rachel Weisz.

The movie opens when the boys are young, moving from foster home to foster home, where they learn to depend only on each other against the big bad world. Stephen quickly learns how to play people (starting with 'the playground bourgeoisie') so everyone gets what they want – especially him and Bloom. He gives Bloom the life he's too shy to grab for himself, writing each con like a masterpiece of theatrical drama. But Bloom wants something real, not the written life that Stephen provides. Stephen wheedles a final con from Bloom, and this is where Bloom meets Penelope – the lonely heiress in her ivory tower, a terrible driver, interested in everything, socially awkward and definitely up for an adventure – in short, she's ripe for the picking.

Director Rian Johnson has done a wonderful job with this quirky, interesting and most of all, very funny movie. On the plus side, the scenery (the story moves across several continents), music and cast are simply superb. On the minus side, there are some holes in the plot and a too-neat ending. But on the whole, all the minuses are forgivable because it's just so charming, and there are some truly hilarious scenes that you can't help but laugh aloud at.

My usual favourite Mark Ruffalo plays the straightest of the four main characters (I forgot to mention the awesomely cool Bang Bang, the mute Japanese ingenue who likes to blow things up), but Rachel Weisz absolutely steals the show as Penelope Stamp. She is simply adorable, and makes The Brothers Bloom well worth the effort of parking on Oxford St to watch (why aren't more cinemas in Sydney other than Paddington Verona showing it??).

My top 5 con movies:
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
  • The Brothers Bloom
  • Shooting Fish
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • Matchstick Men

Con movies on my Christmas viewing list:
  • The Sting
  • The Grifters

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford

Posted by lea at 11:55 AM 1 comments Links to this post
I'd never heard of Nancy Mitford until reading reviews of Sophie Dahl's Playing With the Grown Ups, which was widely compared to the works of Mitford, apparently a major figure on the English social scene in the 40s. Her writings satirise the life of the upper classes in England and reflect the very bohemian lifestyle of herself and fellow 'bright young thing' sisters, who apparently soclialised with the likes of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels (one was married to the leader of the fascist movement in England).

The Pursuit of Love is largely autobiographical in the sense that most of the characters are drawn from her own family and acquaintances, and simply renamed. The heroine, Linda, is partly an image of herself with dashes of her sisters thrown in (although she's made to be very beautiful and from what I've seen of the Mitford sisters, this is a bit of a stretch). She's also largely (from a modern point of view) a flighty, frivolous and irritating thing. She's far more in love with the idea of love than with the people she's meant to love, and content to live a most empty-headed and feckless existence bouncing around from one man to another.

The narrator, Linda's cousin Fanny, fades against the backdrop, and the details of her life are presented in dot point compared to the vivid multicolour strokes of Linda's story. But Fanny is a great narrative vehicle because she's able to bring the reader in close as a member of the family circle. Fanny's voice is also very humorous (unlike the character herself) and Mitford clearly shines as a very witty and articulate author. Particularly funny are the references to Fanny's mother, 'the Bolter' (named for her propensity to run from one affair to another), and the colourful descriptions of her roaring Uncle Matthew, hypochondriac Davey and the eccentric Lord Merlin.

The Pursuit of Love is a great peek into the pre-WWII aristocracy, funny and irreverent of the upper classes it satirises. However, perhaps due to its very British nature, it never becomes emotionally engaging, and the sudden ending is rather abrupt. Overall though, it is a great read and just as easy to devour today as when it was first published in 1945.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club, Virginia Ironside

Posted by lea at 12:40 PM 1 comments Links to this post

No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club is the diary of Marie Sharp, a kind of geriatric Bridget Jones. In the year she turns 60, she decides life's too short to do anything she doesn't want, so she renounces men, wears comfortable shoes and lets life happen.

Virginia Ironside draws a humorous and gentle picture of the life of a pensioner, from falling in love with a first grandchild to the heartbreak of watching a close friend die from a terminal disease. It's an easy and at times quite funny read, but doesn't quite manage to bridge the gulf for readers who are younger than the protagonist.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Maus, Art Spiegelman

Posted by lea at 4:51 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Maus is unlike any other book I've read before. It's a (get this) graphic novel based on the holocaust experience of the author/artist's father using animals instead of humans. Perhaps it's the fact that the holocaust was so unbelievably inhuman(e), or because this is the author/artist's preferred means of drawing, but either way, the animals work. This book is incredibly affecting.

Maus not only delves into the life of the artist's father, Vladek Spiegelman, but it also addresses the relationship between the father and son, and breaks down all the walls between the reader and the storyteller - even the artist's own visits to his therapist are fodder for the book.

To quote from another review of Maus (why double up the workload when it's already been done, eh):
This heartbreaking tale of the author’s father’s survival of the Holocaust is a must read for a number of reasons.
  1. The animals (Mice, cats, dogs, pigs) are so adorably, yet so horrifically metaphoric. Talk about your oxymorons.
  2. It’s not just some Jewish Pole who survived the war. It’s a complex tale about the rocky relationship between a man and his father, and the old world versus the new.
From the theme of guilt (something I find quite recurrent in a lot of Jewish literature…and The Nanny), to the suicide of Art’s mother, there isn’t a moment where you aren’t either holding your breath, expecting the worst, or smiling knowingly and tearing up at Vladek Spiegelman’s backwards English and seemingly backwards logic. It’s a unique tale that stands out from the vast majority of Holocaust stories.

Maus is a Pulitzer Prize-winning must read.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Julie and Julia, movie review

Posted by lea at 1:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Julie and Julia is a lovely drama that crosses back and forth between the lives of cooking whiz Julia Child (who started her cooking career in Paris in the 40s and 50s) and modern day blogger Julie Powell, who challenges herself to cook all 500+ recipes from Julia Child's book in one year.

The real joy in the movie comes from Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child - her life is large in every way, from her love of food to her love of her husband. She's slightly ditzy without being dumb, and has a falsetto and zest for life that simply draws you in. By contrast, Julie Powell is a modern girl in New York stuck in a menial job who wants desperately to be a writer. When she takes on the challenge to cook from Julia Child's book, she learns more about herself through her non-personal interaction with Julia Child, and begins to learn life lessons from this matriarch of French cooking. Amy Adams does a respectable job in this role, but Meryl Streep really does take the cake. She's simply divine.

Julie and Julia is a light-hearted movie that benefits from the ambience of 40s Paris and 00s New York, and the two very charming leads - not to forget their uber-supportive husbands. It's a great chick-flick and if this doesn't trigger a hankering to cook something exotic and French, nothing will.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

2012, movie review

Posted by lea at 2:22 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Roland Emmerich has been responsible for a number of end-of-the-world movies, but apparently 2012 is his biggest yet. The only other one of his movies I've seen is Independence Day, and a number of parallels can be drawn. There's the fact that things always happen in America - in this case it's an Indian researcher who discovers the first signs but it's the Americans who lead the way in acting on them. There's also the huge scale of effects - the catastrophe spans the entire globe as huge chunks of earth are ripped away, entire islands and landmasses become nothing but molten lava, millions of people are wiped out in minutes. And there's also the close-calls for the heroes, who are snatched from danger just in the nick of time. Literally. Unbelievably. And multiple times, which makes it all the more unbelievable.

Despite the many clichès and terrible segues and huge sound effects and overbearing music, Emmerich manages to redeem this movie halfway through when the emphasis turns from disaster element to the human element. The cast is really good, and you actually care what happens to John Cusack and Amanda Peet and all. There are some really big eye rolling moments and more than a few overly sentimental ones, but there are a number of laughs to lighten the load and on the whole it's not a bad way to spend 2.5hrs. Yes - it's very long, but you could do worse.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Posted by lea at 1:04 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves is another comic caper involving the very lackadaisical constant-bachelor Bertram Wooster and his ever problem-solving butler with the bulging brain, Jeeves. This one involves two engaged couples, the idyllic English countryside and Bertie's attempts to help one couple patch up their rocky relationship (self-motivated by fear that his head will be on the marital chopping block if they don't reconcile over the vegetarian diet the droopy Madeline Bassett has imposed on her fiancè Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is hilariously and continuously referred to as Spink-Bottle by Bertie's Aunt) and a jaunty Alpine hat with a pink feather.

What can I say? P.G. Wodehouse is a comic genius – often and rightly lauded as the greatest English comic writer ever – and his books are always a welcome diversion from reality.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw

Posted by lea at 4:42 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This is one of my all-time favourite plays to read, and it's got nothing to do with the musical adaptation My Fair Lady, which is also glorious. The transformation of Eliza Doolittle and her curious and dear relationship with Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering is a truly delightful story. Bernard Shaw captures all the intricacies in manner and speech to bring the characters to life, and create scenes of true hilarity and deep feeling which lose none of its potency over time.

LIZA Well: I must go. [They all rise. Freddy goes to the door] So pleased to have met you. Goodbye.
...
FREDDY [Opening the door for her] Are you walking across the Park, Miss Doolittle? If so -
LIZA [perfectly elegant diction] Walk! Not bloody likely. [Sensation]. I am going in a taxi. [She goes out].
Pickering gasps and sits down. Freddy goes out on the balcony to catch another glimpse of Eliza.
MRS EYNSFORD HILL [Suffering from shock] Well, I really can't get used to the new ways.

Love it! Recommend it! It's now a cheapie Penguin Classic so it's probably time to replace my tattered copy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Playing With the Grown Ups, Sophie Dahl

Posted by lea at 4:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I must admit that my interest in this book was more to the do with the author than the story itself. Who that loved children's author Roald Dahl would not be interested to see if his granddaughter inherited his writing talent? The verdict: apart from a few dodgy bits*, she certainly can.

Playing With the Grown Ups is told through the eyes of fourteen year old Kitty, who has a very unconventional childhood with her artist mother Marina. Marina lives like the heroine of a tragic romance story - she wears silky negligees, has multiple besotted admirers and throws herself into art, love, religion and whatever else catches her fancy. Kitty, the illegitimate daughter of one of her former married lovers, grows up quickly, helping to take care of her two younger siblings (the product of another relationship) as Marina chases the next high between London and New York - an endless stream of parties, famous people and lovers.

While Kitty grows up adoring and admiring her mother, she begins to see that things are not right - Marina does drugs with Kitty's friends and has an inappropriate relationship with one of her friends. She even bribes Kitty to take her siblings to school with a bag of cocaine. You'd think that this would cause a rift in the relationship or at least cause Kitty to see her mother for the tragedy she was, however this is glossed over and the novel is brought to a quick close.

Sophie Dahl was the daughter of '70s wild child' Tessa Dahl, who apparently battled drugs and depression in her time, and it's clear that Kitty's story is, at least in part, her own. It's been speculated that this is why she focuses on the magical aspect of growing up in this very bohemian lifestyle but stops short of placing judgment of Marina/Tessa. Instead the story is told in flashback, after Kitty is all grown up, when she is beyond judging Marina and has moved past this chapter in her life. Unfortunately for the readers, we miss a major part of her growth.

Kitty is a sympathetic character though, and the book is quite enchanting. It's a lovely read and very enjoyable - almost other-worldly like it belongs in a different time. The writing is quite lyrical, although at times it tries a little too hard to be so. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised and raise my glass to Sophie Dahl, who can obviously stand on her own two literary (and literal!) feet.

* two terrible similes within the first six pages and waxes lyrical too often on Marina's overwhelming beauty

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Time Traveller's Wife, movie review

Posted by lea at 5:14 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The movie The Time Traveler's Wife did a really good job of adapting Audrey Niffenegger's book of the same title. It would've been impossible to capture all the nuances and details from the book, so director Robert Schwentke focuses rather on the core story and allows it to breathe and tell itself. The absence of embellishments of excess emotion, imposing music and other dramatic devices is refreshing, and the movie is more affecting for being real (obviously not the time travel element).

The story relies so heavily on the characters of Henry and Claire that a bad casting choice would have been disastrous, but Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams somehow adapt themselves to the characters brilliantly. I must admit I was a little skeptical at first because, as with any book, you imagine the characters a certain way and I certainly didn't imagine those two (not thin or nerdy enough! I thought of Eric Bana and too young and pretty, of Rachel McAdams). but they did a great job as Henry and Claire. They share a very different kind of love story with a number of chronological issues, but it's the human element that makes this movie so watchable.

You do have to go with an open mind because you'll have massive issues with the time travel aspect if not, and that would really do a disservice to the story. It's not about time travelling itself (explained as a genetic disorder), but about the effect it has on the afflicted Henry and his longsuffering wife Claire. The mind could really boggle with the implications, but now is not the time to let the sci-fi nerd within loose. Let go of logic and go for the ride. Oh, and take a box of tissues.

Curse of the Spellmans

Posted by lea at 4:36 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This is the second book in the Spellman series by Lisa Lutz, and it's just as funny as the first one, The Spellman Files.

Isabelle Spellman now has her eye on John Brown, the new next-door neighbour who, with his 'conveniently common name' evidently has a secret to hide. When a temporary restraining order bars her from the Spellman offices, she turns to her octogenarian friend Morty Shilling to help save her PI licence whilst getting to the bottom of the John Brown mystery, keeping younger sister Rae from driving policeman friend Henry crazy after having run him over, and finding the copy-cat culprits of a series of pranks that bear her own juvenile trademark.

I'm now a big fan of Lisa Lutz's writing and can't wait to receive the third part of the series, Revenge of the Spellmans, which I've ordered from the Book Depository. The Spellmans are pure comic relief that relies on wit rather than farce. Highly recommended reading.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A hilarious masked caper

Posted by lea at 11:21 AM 0 comments Links to this post

They had to be drunk, didn't they? God I hope so. These two clever fiends drew their own masks to burgle an apartment in Iowa.

Ananova reports:

Two burglary suspects who drew 'masks' on their faces with a permanent marker pen have been arrested in the US.

A witness told police that two men with painted disguises were trying to break into an apartment in Carroll, Iowa.

Police soon spotted a 1994 Buick Roadmaster that matched the vehicle description and stopped it. They found two occupants with mask-like scribbling on faces, Iowa's Daily Times Herald reported.

Matthew Allan McNelly, 23, and Joey Lee Miller, 20, were arrested at gunpoint because of reports they might be armed, but neither man had a weapon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whip It

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Watch it because:
  • Juliet Lewis is awesome as the bitchy captain of the opposing team
  • it's all about girl-power – tough chicks who bruise but don't cry
  • lots of warm and fuzzy friendship themes
  • awesome skater pseudonyms: Babe Ruthless, Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly
  • some very good acting – except Drew Barrymore, who seemed to mistake this for a stoner movie and overplays her part (funny considering she actually directed it)
  • Maeby Funke appears as Bliss's best friend, Pash

Miss it because:
  • there's nothing particularly new: underdogs make good, girl comes of age
  • the emo love interest, which is kinda sweet but still... you know, emo
  • with the co$t of movie tickets, you could easily wait for the dvd

The Bride Stripped Bare, Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell)

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The Bride Stripped Bare delivers what the title promises: complete and explicit disclosure on the most intimate thoughts of a new bride. After overhearing a conversation implicating her husband in an affair with her best friend, the anonymous bride (whom everyone considers 'the good wife') embarks on a journey of sexual liberation in some pretty lit-erotic scenes.

The book purports to be a manuscript written by the bride, a modern day parallel to a sixteenth century text called Woman's Worth, also a manuscript of liberation written by an anonymous housewife. Using a very intimate second-person narration (‘Your husband doesn't know you're writing this. It's quite easy to write it under his nose. Just as easy, perhaps, as sleeping with other people.’) in a series of 'lessons' (instead of chapters), the writing is lyrical and even almost poetic at times. It conveys the sensitivity and insecurities of the anonymous bride, even as she revels in living out her sexual fantasies in a range of illicit activities.

The author (now outed as Nikki Gemmell) said she published the book as anonymous because it allowed her to write without reservation or embarrassment (although she's now had plenty of both, as well as royalties to boot). I can see why that might be – it’s easy to assume that she’s channeling her own sexual fantasies and living vicariously through her character. But to her credit, the book has more depth than just ‘the sex parts’. The bride struggles to contain her conflicting desires – her love for her husband (who doesn’t fulfill her sexually) and engaging in an adulterous affair (which meets her every sexual need) – and it is this internal struggle that lies at the core of The Bride Stripped Bare. It's the age old question of Madonna or whore – submissive wife or sexual aggressor – told using a different perspective.

One big thing that I don't think works in this book is the 'grab' that sandwiches the contents – we are informed that the bride has suddenly disappeared. It's intriguing at first, but ultimately it's a flimsy device that doesn't quite have the intended effect because her disappearance isn't anchored to any event in the book, leaving us with a big ‘huh?’ at the end.

The Bride Stripped Bare is like reading the journal of an extremely insecure and confused 30-something woman – something that many chicklit readers may relate to and enjoy. Personally I couldn't relate to the character's point in life at all, but still enjoyed the book. Recommended.

Friday, October 23, 2009

One Day, David Nicholls

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This is a big novel, in both length and content, but very easy to read. Spanning two decades in the lives of Emma and Dexter, One Day opens on their first night together after their university graduation, and revisits them each year on the same day for the next 20 years.

This is much more than the usual short period of courting followed by the inevitable get together that you see in most books or movies about relationships – instead you get the whole deal. Career highs and lows, yearnings that go unsatisfied for years, the idealism of youth, the cynicism of disappointment, and the onset of middle-age. Nicholls takes you right inside the characters where everything is exposed. They become your best friends and you get to know them more intimately than most fictional characters – they really get into your skin.

Dexter is cocky, good-looking and confident while Emma is less sure of herself – passionate, idealistic and utterly in love with Dexter while trying desperately to hide it. Their trajectories touch and skim and weave in and out through the years, and through it all, there's a strong magnetism that holds them together – friendship, yearning, goodwill and love. It's not soppy in any way – if anything it's too real. It's a funny book, well written and very enjoyable, and very very moving. It's not a 'tear jerker' but you will cry. And then it'll stay with you when you turn the last page and wish for more.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz

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I like my comedies funny, and bookwise, they don't get much funnier than this. The kooky Spellmans are a family of private investigators (Spellman Investigations) who are completely and utterly endearing. Mum and Dad Spellman fell in love over a stake-out many years ago and the kids grew up learning how to pick locks, tail suspects and solve mysteries.

Lisa Lutz's narrative voice is pitch-perfect as Izzy (Isabelle) Spellman, 30-year old wild-child with a perfect lawyer brother and adorably precocious younger sister. Izzy considers herself the family screw-up, but it's obvious to see the PI genes run thick in her blood, as she's not afraid to get into some tough corners to solve a case.

You'd be excused in thinking that Izzy may have ADHD, because the book has chapters and sections that seem to jump all over the place, but the underlying thread being unravelled is the story of the Spellmans through Izzy's eyes, and her place in the family. When baby sister Rae goes missing, she is launched into the most personal case of her life.

The Spellman Files is highly recommended if you like a laugh and are in the mood for a quick and funny read. There are two sequels: Curse of the Spellmans and Revenge of the Spellmans, both of which I've ordered from the Book Depository, so expect to hear more about the Spellmans from me.

You may also enjoy:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Heliopolis, James Scudamore

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Heliopolis is a gritty book told from the point of view of Ludo dos Santos, a baby born in the slums, who eventually becomes adopted by one of the wealthiest families in São Paulo. Straddling the chasm between the two classes, Ludo's is a mind that is not at ease with his good fortune. He, more than ever, recognises the fucked up state of the world, where people from the favela (city slums) struggle for scraps while the rich avoid traffic by flying overhead in personal helicopters, which has a particularly personal bearing on him as he struggles with a sense of unbelonging.

The story is well paced and interesting, and the rich, teeming pulse of São Paulo is as strong a character in this novel as any of the human-characters. However the real revelation is in the writing. James Scudamore is a brilliant writer. No other way to put it. From the first page you understand that you're in the hands of a master. He can take the reader where he wants us to go, so our journey takes us into the twists and turns of the struggling mind and partially-formed identity of Ludo, who is spared from being spoiled (despite all his money and opportunities) by his self-doubt, constant self-scrutiny and lack of identity. Alternating chapters take us from his present world (sleeping with his married adopted sister, working in a job he hates, accidentally inciting a shooting) to glimpses of his past, and wondering about the mysterious father he never knew.

Heliopolis is a book about identity and belonging, written by a truly talented young writer. It's messed up but beautiful in its own way, as we see Ludo try to make sense of his place in the world.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gave me a laugh today

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Education, film review

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An Education is a coming of age tale about a bright young schoolgirl who is seduced by an older man. Thanks to a great script by Nick Hornby and the direction of Lone Scherfig, this story, based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber, manages to be charming, light and even funny, without deprecating any of its characters.

The synopsis (from Sundance Film Festival):
Attractive, bright, 16-year-old Jenny is stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine; she can’t wait for adult life to begin. One rainy day her suburban existence is upended by the arrival of a much older suitor, David. Urbane and witty, David instantly charms Jenny and introduces her to a glittering new world of classical concerts, art auctions, smoky bars, and late-night suppers with his attractive friends. He replaces Jenny’s traditional education with his own more-dangerous version. Just as the family’s long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford has seemed within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life.

The film depicts post-war 1961 London with authenticity – alternating between the dreariness of Jenny's Twickenham home and her well-meaning parents with their limited understanding, and the glamour of city life with David and his sophisticated friends. The actors, including a roll call of British talents like Emma Thompson, Peter Saarsgard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike, do a wonderful job, but Carey Mulligan, a relative unknown, shines in the star role.

The script, in my opinion, is nothing short of brilliant, and exactly what you'd hope for from Nick Hornby, author of About A Boy, High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, among other very good books. His dialogue is pitch-perfect, making the story charming rather than sordid, wry and moving instead of sad. Rather than focusing solely on the inappropriateness of Jenny and David's relationship, it explores the person and journey of the very charming and intelligent Jenny, whose verve strains against the limitations placed on her as a young female in the 1960s. Perhaps it's a rather ideal view of what Barber calls, 'a dark, shameful memory', but Hornby's interpretation creates 'sunlight and glamour' in a life lesson learnt the hard way.

Monday, October 12, 2009

We Are All Made of Glue, Marina Lewycka

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Marina Lewycka has a way of bringing really interesting relationships to the page. In We Are All Made of Glue, copywriter Georgie, whose husband has just left home, forms an unlikely friendship with the glamorous bag lady down the street, Mrs Shapiro. When Mrs Shapiro is forcibly moved to a nursing home, Georgie attempts to come to her rescue, battling dodgy real estate agents, bossy hospital administrators and useless home renovators along the way.

There are some truly funny moments in We Are All Made of Glue, and Lewycka's strength as a writer is shown in the fact that these moments, as slapstick as they are, do not appear corny or contrived – they are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

As with her previous books, Lewycka's fascination with immigrants is evident (something I love about her work), with an underlying theme here being the attempt to understand the Israeli-Palestinian war. Depicting characters from both sides of the scene, this book is neither judgmental nor sit-on-the-fence, but really focuses on the effects of the fallout on the micro level of everyday human affairs.

Mature and genuine humour seems to be the hallmark of Lewycka's writing, and this is evident in We Are All Made of Glue. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The power of dance

Posted by lea at 5:30 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Not since Elaine has any other dancer elicited this sort of response from me...
Just loved it!

500 Days of Summer

Posted by lea at 5:15 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Shakespeare wrote, 'the course of true love never did run smooth' (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1959) – a statement Hollywood has been trying to debunk since the inception of romance films. And this is why 500 days of Summer is so refreshing – love doesn't go smoothly and the guy doesn't get the girl. We're told that from the outset (the film's tagline is 'Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't.'), yet this is a more truthful, energetic and enjoyable romance film than most.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, a greeting card writer who meets, falls in love with, is heartbroken by and finally gets over Summer in 500 days – hence the title. Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel) is a beautiful and complex character who is cynical about love, but does like Tom. The fact that love doesn't work out perfectly between these two already gives this movie an edge over its predecessors in the genre – it's more realistic, more grown up.

While I found the character of Summer annoying at times, both leads were quite believable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also a much better fit in this film than his role in G.I. Joe.

The most enjoyable parts of this film were the creative quirks, like the sudden breakout song and dance, the reality/expectation sequence, and the back-and-forth calendar countdown throughout the movie. I also loved the chalkboard wall.

500 Days of Summer is worth watching in my books – especially if you like your movies with a good dose of clever creativity.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Big Bounce, Elmore Leonard

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I'm a self-proclaimed fan of Elmore Leonard and agree with the critics who say he's one of the best (if not THE best) crime writers around, but this book is not one of his best works.

The protagonist Jack Ryan is a fairly likable rogue (even though he takes a baseball bat to some guy's head in the very first scene of the book) who gets himself into trouble, egged along by young, self-possessed, trouble maker and vixon Nancy Hayes, who's playing a game only she knows about. It all seems like a bit of a cliche, but then I found out that the novel was originally published in 1969, so it was probably ahead of its time. Still, it didn't really do it for me. Maybe something about Nancy's character didn't really ring true, but in terms of dialogue, Elmore Leonard cannot be beaten.

Although it wasn't a fantastic book, it still had me reading to the end. Tells you a lot about the author.

Previous Elmore Leonard reviews:
Pronto
Maximum Bob
Comfort to the Enemy

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

Posted by lea at 12:08 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This is a difficult review to approach, knowing what a classic this story is (both book and movie) and how it tackles some pretty big issues. I won't even try to pretend this is a literary or artsy fartsy type of review – it's just my gut thoughts and reaction to the book. To begin with, it just reeks of tragedy and there's a sense of foreboding all the way through. I've never seen the movie so I had no idea where the plot was going to go, but my stomach could tell that it wasn't going to go without a fight.

The story is an allegory of what can happen in an institution when too much power is given to one person and left unchecked. Much like Lord of the Flies, it's a social experimental 'what if' that takes the question to its furthest boundary. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the individual in question in Nurse Rached, a passive aggressive tyrant who rules her ward in a mental asylum with a single raised eyebrow and icy stare, which is enough to quell the inmates – at least until the introduction of rowdy loud McMurphy, whose very sanity challenges and upsets the status quo.

McMurphy quickly throws his energy into overturning the Nurse's regime of power and restoring normalcy to the men. At first it's all a joke, a way to while away his time, but it soon turns into a power struggle that involves all the inmates and could potentially (in fact you know it will) turn very nasty. There's a dark thread of violence and abuse of power that runs through the book, from the orderlies' casual abuse of the inmates to the use of electroshock therapy and even frontal lobotomies, aimed to vegetate.

The entire story is told through the eyes of 'Chief' Bromden, an extremely effective narrator who sees all and hears all, yet remains a little distant from the action. The inner awakening of the Chief is thematic in the book, as a result of McMurphy's influence.

My first thought upon finishing the last sentence was, 'Why did Ken Kesey write this book?'. Subconsciously there was a part in me that felt that the book was rather didactic, but couldn't quite place my finger on the lesson. I discovered with a little googling that he used to be an orderly at a mental institution and this formed the basis of his book. He also experimented with drugs, and the first three pages of the book came from a drug-fuelled haze and were never edited out. Ah, suddenly things fall into place. This WAS the 60s after all. Mental disease was something to be feared and never understood, and you can see where Kesey's sympathies lie.

One place it doesn't lie with is women (how's that for a segue?). All the main female characters are either whores or powermongers. And the fixation on Nurse Rached's breasts, culminating in their violent exposure at the end, is somewhat troubling. I'm thinking that Kesey probably didn't have a very good relationship with his mother.

Overall, it's a good read, pretty intense and confronting at times, and also quite dark. While the themes are still relevant today, it would have been far profounder and more impactful in the 60s when the book was first published.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Young Victoria, movie review

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The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, is a snapshot of the youthful years in the life of Queen Victoria. It's a lovely movie without too much melodrama, which manages to encapsulate very elegantly the difficulties faced by the young princess who then becomes queen, and makes her relatable to a new generation. The life of royals is always of public interest, and this movie allows a glimpse into this privileged yet restricted world.

The actors were all very good - particularly the two leads (who are too good looking to be royals – not a buck tooth between them). Emily Blunt did a great job portraying the strength, stubbornness and occasional self-doubt of the young Victoria, and Rupert Friend was the perfect blend of gentlemanly concern and masculinity as Prince Albert, seeking how best to serve and partner his powerful young wife. The courtship and love between them is really the central focus of this movie, and the peripheral aspects of political powerplay are only touched on in direct relation to its effect on Victoria.

The sceenplay, written by Julian Fellowes (who wrote Gosford Park and has just been signed up to write Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) is quiet yet effective, which seems to be his trademark. The positive halo-view of England and English politics is more subtle than the usual in-your-face patriotism of US movies, but despite the unspoken monarchic-apologetic undertone of this movie, one can't help but feel that within the stifling palace walls, the royals can never really know what it is to be a normal person, and could it ever really benefit a country to have a leader so far removed from the common man?

Politics aside, The Young Victoria is an enjoyable movie and recommended viewing for those who enjoy a good drama that doesn't require things to be blown up to be fun.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris

Posted by lea at 2:47 PM 2 comments Links to this post
You've gotta love this book, at least for the title alone. The idea is a goldmine – who doesn't want to work less hours and make more money? Tim Ferris manages to make it actually sound do-able. The Four Hour Work Week is packed with anecdotes, examples, exercises and step by step instructions on how to become the 'New Rich' - those who work minimal hours and extract maximum enjoyment from life.

There's a lot to be learned from this book, but the standout lessons for me were:

1. Apply the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule)
This applies to so many areas of lives – 80% of our results often come from 20% of our effort – keep doing the stuff that brings the big returns and eliminate the unproductive stuff.

2. Automate
One of the big thrusts of this book is to create a well-oiled machine that can operate even without your presence. If you're required to be on site constantly to keep it going, then it's exhausting and not a good use of your time. If you automate the process via outsourcing or advanced software or whatever, then you free your time and let the cash roll in with very little effort.

3. Set your goals and work backwards to achieve them
One of the exercises in the book asks you to write down in a table a list of all the things you want to be, do and have in 6 months, and the same for 12 months. Then you sit down and work backwards to figure out what you need to do in order to achieve those things, and you start doing them. Now.

This book is a manual of how to set up your own entrepreneurial project or free yourself within the confines of your current job. The practical advice, anecdotes and conversational language made it very easy and inspiring to read. The only thing that didn't work for me was the philosophising in the final section of the book, although I could see how some people might appreciate it.

The Four Hour Work Week is a good read for those wanting to break out of the 9-5, but even more, it's a pure winner for the author.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spring cleaning my brain with non-fiction

Posted by lea at 10:21 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Non Fiction season begins

There are several non-fiction books that have been collecting dust on my shelf or have been recommended to me numerous times and fallen on deaf ears. I'm a fiction girl. I read for escape, not information.

But here's a challenge for the month of September: apart from my book club book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I'm only going to read non fiction to feed my brain and the entrepreurial beast within. My list:

The Four Hour Work Week

Good to Great
Good to Great Social Sector
How to Negotiate Everything
Something from the E-Myth range
One of Zig Ziglar's books

Hmm, obviously this is going to take longer than September. Perhaps October too. Better get started.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Love and Punishment, Wendy Harmer

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The heroine of Love and Punishment, written by comedian-turned-author Wendy Harmer, is an everygirl called Francie – a normal, not overly-ambitious, somewhat mousy agony aunt columnist, who is dumped by her long-term boyfriend Nick, an aspiring actor. Having supported him for years and ready to bear his child, Francie is devastated when he takes up with cougar Poppy Sommerville-Smith, the doyenne of Australian film and theatre. Pushed to the wall, Francie finally breaks out and takes revenge – a breathtakingly nasty piece of revenge.

Love and Punishment is a humorous book that is easy to read and has a refreshing approach to chicklit – rather than the usual empty-headed love story with impossibly attractive characters, this realistically frazzled heroine is seriously pissed off and needs to learn how to deal with this huge impact point in her life. There are no obvious goodies and baddies, just people trying to live life, find love and make their way in the world.

Although at times Harmer's writing slips into 'telling not showing' (a flaw for many first-time writers), Love and Punishment is an enjoyable quick read, and Francie's journey is both humorously and poignantly developed. Recommended reading for people who enjoy a bit of quality chicklit.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Posted by lea at 12:07 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the work of first time author Susanna Clarke, and appears to have caused quite a stir in the world of fantasy fiction since its publication. A behemoth at 800 pages, this novel would have benefited from tighter editing of its lumbering footnotes and meandering episodic forays that don't contribute towards the main plot.

The story, however, is intelligently told and well written: a parallel magical history of England during the 1800s and the revival of English magic by two of its foremost practitioners of the day, the book's namesakes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There are touches of the usual fantasy elements of prophecy and fate, but it's not so much about magic and its technical aspects as it is about these two men and their all-consuming desire to learn and re-introduce magic into the English realm. But where fantasy heroes often have redeeming characteristics, these two are not particularly likable, and are kept from the reader at an arm's distance by Clarke's writing, which makes it difficult to really get into the book. Mr Norrell, in particular, is a character who is genuinely hate-worthy. His insecurity, pride, jealousy and narrow-mindedness are maddening.

Where the book really loses out is its lack of focus and forward movement. It moves laterally so often and for so long that it's one of those books that are easy to put down and not pick up again. But that would be a mistake, because the ending is extremely intense (unlike so much of the book) and enjoyable. The climax comes very suddenly right at the very end, with an emotional connection that most of the earlier part of the book fails to achieve. It still leaves a few questions unanswered, but it is a good reward for having gotten so far and read so much.

Overall, it was a good read, a great effort for a first-time author (although fairly damning for its editor) but would have been twice as good if it had been half as long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9, movie review

Posted by lea at 2:53 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Unlike every other big alien movie, the aliens in District 9 do not target New York or any other city in America - instead it has landed over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens are not a destructive force of superbeings. Something has gone wrong, the ship cannot return to its home, and the one million-strong malnourished, dirty aliens are rescued/herded into an area (District 9) which quickly becomes a slum. Fascination turns to impatience and anger and the humans, led by the MNU (Multi-National Unity), are now on a mission to drive the 'prawns', as they are derisively called, out of the city and into a designated area set up much like a concentration camp.

The central storyline follows Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he leads the MNU team into the slum to serve eviction notices to the aliens. Director Niell Blomkamp (a South African who based the film on elements of his childhood experience during the apartheid) begins the movie as a documentary with the shaky hand-held camera affect, but evolves it seamlessly into movie-mode as a tragedy envelopes Wikus and takes him beyond his limits.

District 9 is didactic in its racial commentary through its portrayal of the very worst of human nature in its dealings with the aliens, but it's done in a way that's fresh, real and very confronting. As Wikus' story unfolds (I won't give away the crux of the story), we see a man - an ordinary man - pushed to his extreme limits in every manner possible. With every new assault, with every push to break him down, we begin to see true humanity emerge.

This movie is absolutely gripping and, in my books, absolutely brilliant. And not just for its portrayal of racial division, but just as a movie. As my 14 year old nephew said afterwards, 'How good was that? I think there was some sort of politics going on in there, but I don't really care. Did you see those heads explode? Those alien guns were awesome.'

Interesting facts:
  • Neill Blomkamp was set to direct the movie version of Halo before it fell through.
  • Apparently Peter Jackson and his wife bankrolled much of District 9 themselves to get it started.
  • Never heard of Sharlto Copley before? That's because he's a high school friend of Neill Blomkamp's who had never acted before. I find that unbelievable because he did such an amazing job as Wikus.
  • The slum used to film District 9 were real slums in South Africa, and many of the inhabitants were still in the process of being evacuated into better housing by the government when they started filming.
  • All the aliens (except the carcasses in the MNU test lab) were CGI - an amazing job once you've seen the movie. And more kudos to the actors for a brilliant job.
Okay, enough proselytising - go out and see it if you haven't already.

La's Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Posted by lea at 2:41 PM 1 comments Links to this post
My love of Alexander McCall Smith is tempted to rate this novel higher than I otherwise might, but I must be honest. It's lovely and gentle and slow but not a riveting read.

The central character is La (short for Lavender), a British woman who finds her life upturned when her husband leaves her for another woman. Not the type to hold a grudge, she moves to a cottage in the countryside and begins to contribute her small part towards the war effort - one of her endeavours being to start a village orchestra. Based on the title of the book, I'm led to believe that McCall Smith may have meant the theme to be about the power music, but I didn't really get that sense as a reader. The orchestra (and the war itself) seemed rather incidental to the central storyline... and I use the word 'storyline' very loosely because there really isn't much of one. She ponders, she meanders, she wonders and thinks, and while it's all very lovely, it isn't exactly the stuff of literary genius.

The saving grace of the novel is the slight romance between La and Feliks, a 'Pole' displaced by the war and now working for the British Army. It's not hot and steamy by any means, but very adult and genteel, much like the rest of the book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Ugly Truth, movie review

Posted by lea at 10:23 AM 1 comments Links to this post
With a better script, this could've been a smarter movie. As it is, it relies heavily on the good looks of the two leads, the funny but misogynistic and shallow comments of Gerard Butler's character and Katherine Heigl's ability to embarrass herself. In short, it gives you exactly what you could expect and nothing more.

There are some very funny moments, like Katherine Heigl hanging upside down from a tree, but the plot is like something out of a sweet dreams book (does Kiss Me Creep ring a bell for anyone else?) extracted for an older audience with the addition of some crude humour – although when that crude humour is delivered by Gerard Butler, you can't help but be charmed by the smarm. The Ugly Truth tries so hard to be a funny movie that the attempt to bring in some depth towards the end flounders entirely and becomes psych 101 cliché. Anyway, who's going to believe that someone who looks like Katherine Heigl is a loser at attracting guys?

But it is a funny movie – the audience laughed a LOT during the showing I was at – and a particularly good date movie for its feelgood factor and gender-balanced humour.

Friday, August 7, 2009

G.I. Joe, movie review

Posted by lea at 12:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
G.I. Joe had one redeeming factor: it increased my endorphin levels. I couldn't stop laughing at the terrible dialogue, hokey plot, lame accents and one-dimensional characters. At one point, the evil geniuses (genii?) are two bald, burnt men hobbling away by foot – yeah, scar-ee. You couldn't help but feel sorry for Dennis Quaid, who is lumped with a few clichès and a pretty thin hapless part in his role as the head of the Joes – supposedly an elite fighting squad, who somehow manage to stay one step behind the villains all the way through the movie, despite their fancy gadgets and high tech weaponry. Channing Tatum does a credible brooding job as Duke, the central character and one of the newest Joe recruits, but Sienna Miller... what's with the catwalk strut all the way through the movie? Is she normally that bad an actor or was she simply embarrassed to be part of this film? Marlon Wayans gets a few laughs in his black-sidekick role, but it doesn't come near the calibre of Chris Rock, who perfected this part a long time ago.

Questions (spoiler alert):
  • Why was the US buying the nanomite weapons in the first place, knowing that they're so destructive that the rest of the movie is made up of trying to stop the bad guys from using it?
  • Why do weapons need to be 'weaponised'?
  • How is it possible that so many ppl on the two opposing 'elite fighting teams' have random ties to one another?
  • If the Baroness is suddenly meant to overcome her mind-control device at the end when she suddenly recognises and remembers her previous life with Duke, then why, at the beginning when they cross paths, does she say, 'you of all people should know'?
  • Why the hell would her younger brother suddenly turn into an evil genius after one bomb blast?
  • Why are the martial arts flashbacks set in Japan, but the kid (Storm Shadow as child) speaks Korean?
  • Doesn't a white ninja suit defeat the purpose of being a ninja in the first place (to be unseen)?
  • As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who the hell cast him as the evil mastermind? He still looks like a 12 year old.
Rating: Go watch it if you need a laugh, but if you want a good tight action film, look elsewhere.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

Posted by lea at 3:49 PM 0 comments Links to this post
"Fat lady: you watch out! And you too, the one with the big glasses."

Wise, traditionally-built Mma Ramotse and her high achieving assistant Mma Makutsi begin receiving threatening letters at their agency. Who could be behind them? And why? This mystery is one of several sub-plots in this wonderfully warm ninth instalment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall-Smith.

I've already written several reviews about this series, including In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tears of the Giraffe, so I won't bore you with another panegyric of what a wonderful writer McCall Smith is and how lovely and touching his books are. Suffice to say it's a quick and easy read that leaves an impression on the reader about the beauty and expanse of Botswana and its people. Mma Ramotwe is a wonderful literary creation - may the series live long and prosper.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Posted by lea at 4:29 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Catch-22 is a brilliant and scathing anti-war book that's equal parts frustrating, funny and absurd. The hero (or central character, since he's hardly heroic) is Yossarian, a bombardier whose main objective is to stay alive throughout the war (WWII). Unfortunately for Yossarian, his attempts are thwarted at every turn. Trying to prove himself mad (and therefore unfit for duty) is undermined by the evidence that he wants to stay alive, and only a sane person would want to save their own life. That's the essence of Catch-22, and the reason for it being coined in the common lexicon.

The book is filled with a veritable Forrest Gump box of chocolate range of characters. Madness of some sort seems to be a general theme, although each to a different degree. Hungry Joe is war-mad from trauma, Chief Halfoat is race-mad from exploitation by white people, Milo is profit-mad and even bombs his own squadron to make money, Colonel Cathcart is approval-mad, continually raising the men's number of missions in order to get his picture in the newspaper, and the list goes on. There's whore-mad, son-in-law-mad, weakling-mad, danger-mad, mad-mad... Yossarian, who simply wants to stay alive, seems the sanest of them all, despite showing up to a medals ceremony completely naked and signing a fictitious name to official documents and causing havoc.

Although I think Catch-22 is a work of real genius, the experience of reading it was not enjoyable. With its circular logic and dark humour, it is incredibly frustrating to read, and its many idiosyncratic characters can be difficult to keep track of. Nothing seems to make any sense at all and power is held absolutely by absolute idiots. It's a maddening book that acts as a parable to question society, and in particular, war.

As a female reader, I have to also take a moment to mention the role of women in the book, as much as I don't want to. Apart from the doctor's greedy wife, no woman is mentioned without a reference to her sexuality, whether she's a whore, a colonel's wife or a nurse. It's disconcerting that in a book about power, women are hung on the very bottom rung of the ladder. The men are subject to the whims of their superiors, but women are subject to the whims of everybody. A particularly disturbing scene occurs later in the book where one of the men in the squadron (who you think you know, even as a reader) rapes a domestic servant and throws her out of a window to her death. I'm sure there's a thesis in here but this is only a book review so I'll end on this topic here.

Right at the very end, in the last few pages, the story eventually breaks out of its frustrating confines (not before things get a lot worse first) and finally a gust of hope is introduced. These last few pages, for me, made the whole book worthwhile. Finally you get a taste of what Yossarian (and you, because in the process of reading your empathy is entirely with him) has been wanting all along. But it doesn't come the way you think it will. I won't spoil it, but it's a truly rewarding ending.

Overall, Catch-22 is brilliant, funny and a little disturbing.
 

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