Friday, December 24, 2010

2010 in review

Posted by lea at 12:48 PM 0 comments Links to this post
2010 seems to be one of those years that was completely packed with stuff, even though I don't even remember most of it. I was about it say 'it flew by' because most years feel like that, but I feel like 2010 went at the pace it should have - no faster or slower.

In a snapshot:
  • second year of marriage
  • big year for Bloom (my volunteer job)
  • location move for moneytime (my day job) 
  • launch of www.thegracioushost.com.au
  • lots and lots of books.


For Bloom it was the year we launched proper. Bloom cakes made it into the public consciousness of the Khmer population in Phnom Penh, with a front cover feature story in the Cambodian Daily, huge orders from Cambodia's richest families and Cambodia's largest wedding cake at Phnom Penh's first International Food Fair. There's so much the girls can rightly be proud of, and I'm about to burst because I'm so proud of everything they've achieved and how far they've come.

Second year of marriage is extremely comfortable, though we're still growing and learning from each other. For me, maybe I'm a little too comfortable because I snap a lot faster. Thankfully I have a human mirror to show me how ugly my behaviour can be sometimes, and how I need to improve. No matter what they say about how you get stuck in your ways as you get older, I think it's impossible to do that in a relationship. I'm constantly challenged to grow, even in little things like the fact that N needs to plan things whereas I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, so I'm learning to be a little more circumspect. Just a little.

It's great to have someone whose opinion you trust to bounce things off, and it's also really lovely to have someone who thinks really well of you all (or at least most of) the time. It may only be a matter of time before that image cracks, but N really seems to think I'm something good, which is very nice of him :)

In terms of travel, we had a most excellent holiday to Bali in January with a bunch of friends, which was a lot more fun and lot less hassle than expected for such a large number of people and kids to boot! It'll now be a bi-annual (every second year) occurrence, which I'm looking forward to for 2012.

In September I also went to Cambodia for Bloom business. It was a whirlwind busy week including graduation, which was moving and beautiful. We played games with the girls every morning and one of the things that sticks in my mind is the Vaseline incident. We organised that Minute to Win It game where you dip your nose in vaseline, attach a cotton ball, then run across the room and deposit the cotton ball into a bowl all without using your hands. The vaseline tub was big so we just opened the lid and put it on the table, and suddenly Ruth whisked in and picked it up, dumped the vaseline out on a plate and hid the tub. She explained later that one of the girls has a panic attack when she sees a Vaseline tub because of the trauma associated with it. It was a horrific reminder of the innocence that was so brutally stolen from them, so even the smallest thing can have terrible associations. Sigh. We also had another game with balloons, and we had to be really careful with them because another student had been shot at once, so was afraid of popping balloons. I was trying to be so careful when letting the air out of them afterwards, but I popped 3 of them in a row!! Fortunately she wasn't in the room at the time. Whew.

2010 was probably the best for my eyes though. I am now the proud owner of 20/20 vision eyes, which were formerly around -5.5. Laser eye surgery rocks. And doing it in Korea meant I saved thousands of dollars, so I'm pretty pleased about that too.

Last month I launched The Gracious Host, a website dedicated to entertaining at home. It seemed like a good idea one day, and by the next it was launched. Actually, probably the next hour. Like I said, I fly by the seat of my pants. I love having people over and I guess I wanted to show how easy and enjoyable it could be, and hopefully I'll find ways to monetise it in 2011 and reduce my work hours. Woo hoo - the dream of everyone in cyberspace!

At the beginning of the year I marked 2010 as a year for being FEARLESS: facing things head on and doing things that might formerly have scared me. I have to say though, there weren't any massive challenges that I had to consciously psyche myself up to face. It was a pretty cruisy year - very blessed and very full in ways I couldn't have foreseen. I'm so grateful for my generous friends, extended family, being able-bodied and able to help others, living in Australia (and Sydney specifically), having a functioning brain, enjoying food, being able to travel and appreciate new experiences, a home I love... I could go on but I'll sign off here.

Merry Christmas!! I hope your 2010 was full and cheers to an even better 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Tiny Bit Marvellous, Dawn French

Posted by lea at 3:35 PM 2 comments Links to this post
I have to admit I'm a BBC-nerd. I love those old-timey English shows like Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By and The Vicar of Dibley. Would you like a spot of tea? Oh yes please!

So when this novel by the Vicar herself, Dawn French, appeared on my horizon, I grasped and read it eagerly. Like the title, the book itself is a tiny bit marvellous.

The novel is about a fairly typical, middle-class, suburban British family. Chapter by chapter, the perspective changes across the members of the family. The main voice is child psychologist mum Mo, who is pre-menopausal and about to turn 50. She's an intelligent, insightful woman... except when it comes to her kids.

First there's Dippy Dora, a teen who embodies the worst of all the insecure yet supremely narcissistic and rude Brit teens you see on X-Factor cringe moments, and eccentric, Oscar Wilde-channeling gay son Peter (but call him Oscar). Their father, referred to as Husband, is somewhere in the background.

It's written in first person, diary-like monologues, which allow us to get to know each character more intimately than they know each other (and sometimes themselves). French takes a little too long to let us get used to them before anything of significance in the storyline actually happens. About half the book, in fact.

But it does pick up pace as each character makes mistakes (Oscar's is the funniest, Dora's rather sad and Mo's... well, slightly predictable) and learns and grows. Like normal families, there's a lot of bickering, and like TV families, there's a nice tidy end that brings them all together.

The writing is good. Mo has several French-esque moments when she goes off at something with funny observational humour, and Oscar's over-the-top dandyism is very amusing, but Dora's angsty entries can get, like, really tired like really fast. I hope that was intentional (do British teenagers still really talk like that?). French also manages to make this motley crew of characters very endearing despite - or rather because of - their many flaws.

I enjoyed reading A Tiny Bit Marvellous. I doubt it'll win any prizes, but it's a nice family drama-type book with wisdom and humour.

PS - thanks to the Ongs for gifting me with this book!

Air Kisses, Zoe Foster

Posted by lea at 3:34 PM 1 comments Links to this post
This is a hard review to write, because I really like Zoe Foster. She's the type of person I'd like to have as a friend.

I know she can write, because I follow her beauty blog at primped and I'm not even keen on beauty products. I read it because her posts are funny and informative. From what I can tell, she's funny, self-deprecating and rather charming, so I had high expectations for this book.

Air Kisses is about unlikely beauty editor Hannah Atkins, who works at Gloss magazine and is a thoroughly modern young woman. Like the best chicklit heroines, she's not too highly polished. She's a little klutzy, well grounded and pretty-despite-herself (we know this because of the number of times she spills food on her clothes, and is informed by other characters how adorable she is).

The book starts with Hannah getting dumped by her hunky newsreader boyfriend, but we don't feel anything particularly about this because we (the readers) haven't met him. She then blunders through a number of unnecessary and unfulfilling relationships before ending up in the arms of the guy we knew she should be with all along, causing agonising tedium and predictability along the way.

Parts of the novel have Foster's own brand of charm (the little humorous asides and observations), but much of it is cluttered with unnecessary details that don't progress the plot, increase our understanding of the heroine or even act as a humorous anecdote. Case in point: something about toenail polish in a taxi and wearing strange slippers. Wha...?? It's like one of those times your friend tells you something HILARIOUS that happened to them and falls over laughing, but it's a you-had-to-be-there moment that loses its humour in the telling.

As a result, the book is way too long and meandering. The most satisfying bit, the part you wait for the entire book, is then shuffled into the last few paragraphs on the last page. The guy she ends up with is the only one she has practically no meaningful contact with throughout the book, which again leads to us not caring very much instead of oohing and aahing like we're supposed to.

Hannah as a heroine is mostly likeable but too weak to admire or aspire to, and every single stereotype you could possibly imagine in chicklit is represented here: the one-dimensional glossy working girls, the supportive best friend, the gay pal who gives bitchy advice, the good-looking guy who falls in love with the heroine, the second good-looking guy who falls in love with the heroine... you've seen them all and you've seen them better.

The best part of the book are the little beauty editorial bits that begin each chapter. For example, did you know that you can kill a cold sore with nail polish remover? 

As I've said, I know Zoe Foster can write. What I think she needs is a good editor to bounce the plot, pacing and characters off. It's like this book came straight from her computer without the necessary shuffling and editing and re-editing that a good book needs. There are lots of examples but the one I can think of off the top of my head is where Hannah wryly mentions that her best friend's word of the month is 'fierce', but she only uses it once, then Hannah uses it several times throughout the book herself in the narrative. I know it's a little thing, but it's these sorts of inconsistencies repeated that the editor is meant to pick up on. Someone needs to be ruthless with the manuscript to turn it into good reading material.

With Air Kisses, the bare bones are there but they haven't been sculpted into anything worthwhile. Just, unfortunately, more blah in a genre overloaded with it already.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

Posted by lea at 3:35 PM 4 comments Links to this post
The third book in my Vampire Fiction series:

Interview with the Vampire begins with an intriguing and gripping premise: Louis, a 200 year old vampire from New Orleans, permits an interview with a young journalist, retelling the story of his life. The nerves and fascination of the reporter fuel our own, as we hear Louis's story of his 'making' by Lestat, the vampire who created him in order to share his wealth and plantation.

Despite his newfound vampire status and appetite, Louis never quite lets go of his human nature, which makes for a fascination and haunting tale of internal struggle and external strife. Louis and Lestat, locked in an unsatisfying relationship of co-dependency, mutually create Claudia (against Louis's desire to inflict vampirism on anyone), a young girl who grows into a deadly and intelligent young woman trapped in a little girl's body, and eventually incites Louis's betrayal of Lestat.

Claudia and Louis travel the world to find others of their kind, discovering them finally in Paris at the Theatre des Vampire. Louis finds his soul mate in Armand, and from this point, the novel becomes extremely homo-erotic despite the absence of actual physical sex (except when he feels the 'hard sex' of Armand's slave boy press against his body as he offers himself to Louis. For bloodsucking, not for sex - get your mind out of the gutter).

Partway through the book, the story starts to lose steam and Louis's philosophical who-am-I becomes quite tedious, as I'm sure it must have been for him after 200 years. Rice poses a lot of big questions (Is there a God? Who created vampires? Are they inherently evil?) that are never really answered (except the last question, where Rice tends toward no - they've just grown bored and detached through the years and lose the human ability to empathise or love), and in the end we become even more confused about the whys and wheres and hows of vampirism.

The website annerice.com explains that Interview with the Vampire started as a short story which Rice turned later into a full novel. That explains a bit for me, because the pace of the novel is certainly not as good as it could have or should have been, considering the calibre of the writing. Well, most of it anyway. At times it becomes all too flowery and dramatic, but for the most part, it's quite beautifully penned.

Back to the pacing issues: Rice spends way too long dwelling on the early years in New Orleans with Lestat, which in the scheme of things was not as important a chapter in Louis's life as the latter years, when he meets Armand and goes through what appears to be the vampire equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Also, she never answers the obvious question of whether his family has noticed his vampirism (pale skin, aversion to sunlight, sleeping in a coffin... any of it ring a bell?) and the sudden addition of another pale-skinned, sunlight-averse, coffin-sleeping male in the household.

The revelation of what sets Louis apart from other vampires comes late in the book, and Lestat's degeneration leads only to more questions. Why did he set himself apart from the other vampires, when he obviously knew of their existence? Why does he follow them to Paris and desperately ask to talk to Louis and then say nothing of significance to him? And why do I keep imagining him as a badly made-up Tom Cruise?

Overall, I found the book a very intriguing read, but certainly flawed. I'm told the second and third books (The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned are better, but I'm not sure whether I'll read them yet. I only planned my Vampire Fiction series to be a three-part thing, but I'm of two minds whether to read Dracula as well... anyone out there read it yet? Is it better than Interview?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Shopaholic Series - 3-in-1 review, Sophie Kinsella (The Great Library Challenge author K)

Posted by lea at 11:57 AM 2 comments Links to this post
When I got to K in my great library challenge, I decided to go with Sophie Kinsella because her novels are so hugely popular and I wanted to know what the big deal was.

I have to admit that my expectations were low. So very sadly low, reflecting the state of chicklit, in my opinion. Good ones are very few and far between. But Kinsella delivers on every count: slightly dizzy but very endearing character? Check. Romance? Check. Funny-slash-disastrous situations that make you laugh? Double and triple check. And this is where the books really win out: Kinsella has masterful comic timing and uses it to great effect.

The heroine is the shopaholic herself: disaster-prone Becky Bloomwood, who starts off in the first book (The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (also published as Confessions of a Shopaholic)) as a bored journalist at a money magazine who is unable to curtail her love of shopping, despite threatening letters from the bank and maxed out store cards. She's irresponsible and a bit ostriche-head-in-sand when it comes to finances, leading her into impending disaster, which of course she'll bounce out of better than ever, and with a super-hot boyfriend to boot.

What did you expect? I told you it was chicklit, right?

In the second novel, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, her adventures take her to the Big Apple, where super-hot boyfriend Luke Brandon is starting a new branch of his super-successful business. But her super-spending (amongst other things) takes their relationship to the brink of disaster, which she deftly handles in the end, learning a little something along the way.

In the third novel, Shopaholic Ties the Knot, Becky digs herself further and further into a hole with her dithering as Luke comes to terms with his feelings for his birth mother, and two weddings are organised in different continents on the same day.

I have to admit, if Becky was my friend I'd give her a good shake and a talking to, because common sense seems to elude her until she's forced into a position to make good, but it does make for great comic fodder. And despite her dithering and disaster-proneness, she has a good heart. By the end of each novel she seems to grow and develop in character, but at the start of the next novel, she stumbles again, which is probably actually very realistic but could be frustrating if you cared too much.

There are classic chicklit elements that could get tiresome awfully fast (like the impossibly good looking and successful boyfriend, the ability to fall head over ass into good fortune), but Kinsella reinforces Becky's underdog status, ensuring that she remains endearing and flawed, and thus relatable.

In certain respects, Shopaholic reminded me of Bridget Jones's Diary, as Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding appear to have very similar comic sensibilities. Personally I think they're both really good writers (which shows in their books), and thankfully they redeem the overwhelming hovel of crap that chicklit tends to attract. Their heroines are larger than life versions of ourselves, and their adventures have a bigger arc with greater romantic rewards than you'd find in reality, which make them a great escape.

I'd highly recommend the Shopaholic series for light reading, suitable for holidays, on the beach, in-flight and when you're feeling down and need a pick up. I only meant to read one but ended up reading three!

There are three more books out now (Shopaholic and Sister, Shopaholic and  Baby and Mini-Shopaholic) but I think I'll space them out to avoid overdosing. Thank goodness for Christmas holidays!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Light Boxes, Shane Jones (The Great Library Challenge author J)

Posted by lea at 12:52 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Okay okay, I know you're thinking, 'I thought you were going to read James Joyce for your J author!' (because, of course, you care so incredibly much about my Great Library Challenge). But, I've been defeated. Round one: Ulysses.

At first I was determined to conquer it at some point, even if not now, but I've thrown in the towel and have to admit: I don't care about two drunkards who ramble around Dublin making no sense. I just don't care. So there, literary gods.

Moving on.

Perhaps from the trauma of trying to read such a hefty book, I found the smallest alternative possible in Light Boxes. It's literally a small book, around A5 in size, but the content... oh the content. Thank God I put down Ulysses or I might never have found Shane Jones.

Light Boxes is a heartbreakingly beautiful book, a melancholic fable about a town afflicted by eternal winter as 'February' refuses to loosen its grip. At the centre of the story is a simple family: Thaddeus, Selah and their daughter Bianca.

The townspeople look to Thaddeus, a balloonist, to lead their revolt against February as they attempt all manner of acts of war: using tall poles to forcibly move the dark clouds, wearing shorts and pretending that June has arrived, pouring boiling water to melt the snow and trick winter into leaving. But no dice.

February is not your average one-dimensional bad guy either. He's a complicated figure - one you can't quite work out because his issues are so deep ranging. And he's arbitrary, like using the priests to ban flight, and then one by one, kidnapping the children, including Bianca.

The prose is as close to poetry as you can get, and is richly imaginative and impossibly tender. Typography is put to good use and various other tools, like lists and changing perspectives, add layers to the story.

Light Boxes evokes so many feelings, a bit of whimsy but mostly sadness. I constantly felt like I had that expression that I hated on Gwyneth Paltrow when she won the Oscar - eyebrows contracted and lifted in the middle, mouth in a small O, like you're half in pain and half in pleasure.

It's a beautiful read and I highly highly recommend it.

PS - I just did a google search on it and found out that apparently it's now officially achieved cult status. Well, as officially as you can get with cult status. From the original independent print run of 500, it got picked up by Penguin Books and distributed globally. The original pints are now worth $200!
 

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