Post-Holiday Book Review Round-Up

Posted by Lou. The time is 3.08pm here in London UK.

I made a dreadful mistake on holiday and only took three books! Three! What was I thinking? That I'd be, like, doing stuff instead of just lying around by the pool/ at the beach/ on the balcony?

Anyhoo, those three were Audrey Niffenegger's latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry, a Hurricane Katrina-based crime novel called The Tin Roof Blowdown, and the fourth of Laurie R King's Mary Russell/ Sherlock Holmes series The Moor.

After finishing them with several days to spare I resorted to the hotel's small multi-lingual collection and the sparse selection of Athens airport and went crime-and-mystery-tastic with Michael Connolly's The Scarecrow, Ruth Rendell's Some Lie and Some Die, and Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express.

Yes, yes, hardly intellectual reading, but you try and pay attention to prose when you're in view of this:

Or this:

Or indeed, this:

Mmm 'kay?


Her Fearful Symmetry

The only Niffenegger book I have read is our beloved The Time Traveller's Wife (TTW), truly a great piece of contemporary writing and one I know I will return to again and again as the years pass (and oh how they pass!). So, yes, I had high hopes for Her Fearful Symmetry (HFS) and indeed saved it up for this holiday. I was... well, I was disappointed.

The story concerns identical twins - two sets, in fact. The book opens on the death of one identical twin, who leaves her London property and fortune to her estranged US-based twin's own identical twins. They are Very Strange Girls who move to live in their aunt's property and find themselves visited by the ghost of their aunt.

While the sci-fi reasoning of TTW's time travel was complex, innovative and served to further the emotional story, the ghostly elements of HFS actually did the opposite for me. I thought it was tired (ghost stories are the oldest of the old, after all - and I really didn't think this one brought anything new), a bit banal, and provided a barrier to believing in the emotions of the characters and story.

All-in-all it left me cold and I'm sort of going to have to detach it from TTW in my memory and pretend like Niffenegger only wrote one book.


The Tin Roof Blowdown

I was aware of the existence of several novels that had started to come out set within and after Hurricane Katrina, so having already been down the non-fiction route did some research and decided upon this crime novel by James Lee Burke.

The story centres on a family-man Detective based in the Parish of Iberia who is called upon to help out in a murder investigation in the confusion that prevails after Hurricane Katrina has fucked the people and the city of New Orleans. Two black looters have been shot, one - a teenager with no criminal record - killed instantly, and in a symbolic gesture to hide a thousand injustices the Feds want to bring a (white) perpetrator to justice.

A complex plot emerges with a varied set of characters, the mind-fuck situation of this one murder investigation perfectly merging with the mind-fuck that was the greater situation plunging Louisiana into hell.

I really enjoyed the book - whilst I do like the odd bit of fluff in the genre of crime mystery (hey, I have three coming up below!), it is much more my style to have the characters and a fatalistic outlook on how fucked up the world is dominate beyond mere attempts at clever plot.

And oh boy is the outlook expressed in this novel fatalistic - in fact, the writer reverts to the almost biblical when describing the New Orleans of August and September 2005, complete with the racial and economic inequalities that were brought to the fore by the burst levees.

Hmm, doesn't really sound like beach reading does it? Perhaps one to save for the dark depths of winter.


The Moors

You're not really interested, are you? I mean, you either read the Laurie R King books or you don't, yeah?

Here's a picture anyway.

Wait, I can hear Bel's voice saying "What books?".

King has written a series of books that feature a young female protagonist called Mary Russell who meets an ageing Sherlock Holmes and teams up with him on a few big cases. True to the style of Conan Doyle, the books are written as if they are manuscripts found by King that are written by Russell herself. Okay?


The Scarecrow

Not much to say about such a plot-driven, formulaic crime novel is there? To be fair, the author tries to make it innovative and contemporary by setting it around an internet criminal. But that is pretty much meaningless when the actual crime takes place off the web. So, um, just one to read when you've run out of books and there is little else in the hotel "library" really...


Some Lie and Some Die

I chose this book based on the very good criteria that it was short, and thus easier to read when lying on the beach. It was quite cute really - a 1973 Ruth Rendell crime novel set at a music festival. I knew I was in for a treat when I read the dedication at the beginning, which was to her son who "goes to festivals". Doesn't everyone go to festivals in the UK? Oh wait, this was 1973! Just three years after the debut of what was to become Glastonbury:

Check out the crazy pyramid stage! Can you imagine the twitches people who work in the field of occupational health and safety must develop when looking at that!

To be fair to Rendell, the whole driving force for her novel seems to be her enthusiasm for being "down with the kids" - for showing off how tolerant of youth culture she was at a time when everyone still hated the youth. (As opposed to now when seemingly we all want to be like them, look like them, like the same stuff as them - I guess I'll be learning more about this sentiment when I turn Officially Old later this year.)

Yeah, as above, not much to say really... except at least for this one I had the bonus of groovy clothes being described.


Murder On The Orient Express

I was at the airport looking through the one rack of books I could find that were in English when I suddenly realised that despite having seen the entire Poirot Collection of my company's owned TV episodes, I have never seen Murder On The Orient Express. Happily it turns out to be exactly the length required to get one through a mild flight delay and then 4 hours Athens - London.

I do quite like Agatha Christie - she dreamed up a plethora of unexpected and interesting scenarios in which to set her murder mysteries; and manages to write the same motivations and mechanisms for murder a thousand different ways.

So I won't complain that her writing is vacuous - I mean, it's not like you pick it up expecting depth of meaning - and will instead end this post on a picture of your hero and mine, David-Suchet's-Hercule-Poirot:

Jean-Luc Godard is not missing, he's IGNORING YOU, FOOLS

Posted by Bel. The time is 2.34pm here in Wellington NZ

The Hollywood Reporter, um, reports that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has spent a "frantic" 24 hours searching for iconic French director, Jean-Luc Godard.

They have not yet been able to notify him that he has been awarded an honorary Oscar and I'm sure you all noticed, on account of how the world stopped turning and all.


They have apparently tried to contact Godard via phone and fax and emails to one and all. He hasn't got back to them!!

I don't know about you, but generally after I send the second unanswered text message to a person about something, I take the hint and assume they ain't in the mood to party. Instead, people are pointing out that the only other person to miss out on picking up their honorary Oscar was Audrey Hepburn... because she WAS DEAD.

Godard's disdain for Hollywood is as integral to his work as jump cuts and pretty women. From 1960's Breathless (probably the best known and most 'accessible' of his films) to Socialisme, which screened at Cannes this year, he has never had much nice to say about the USA.

This belated tip of the hat, coming in his 80th year, may not mean as much to him as it does to the agitated administrators in downtown LA.

Extra for experts: Jean-Paul Belmondo bonaza. Ooh la la!

Recipe: Mojito punch

Posted by Bel. The time is 5.01pm here in Wellington NZ

  1. Get a punchbowl. We use our glass mixing bowl.
  2. Buy 2 litres of rum. Go hard and get something actually from Cuba, like Havana Club.
  3. Don't bother with sugar syrup, just use lemonade. Nothing too sweet though, the old classic Schweppes Dry is good, and I really like their Soda with a Twist of Lemon too. You need a couple of bottles of mixer for each bottle of spirits, depending on how bad you hate your own liver.
  4. Fresh ingredients are important! Lots of lovely slices of lemon and muddle a big pile of mint leaves, Sally Draper style. Lime is great too, but can be outrageously expensive. Non-concentrate lime juice can be an effective alternative if you go to a snazzy supermarket.
  5. Put it all in the bowl.
  6. Enjoy!
  7. Extra for experts: keep a teatowel nearby because there is no way to pour punch without the glasses getting all drippy and sticky, especially as the night goes on.

Recipe: Fast easy berry chocolate muffins

Posted by Bel. The time is 3.49pm here in Wellington NZ

I'll follow Lou and Lotte's lead and not spell out the whole recipe here. It comes from the Edmond's Illustrated Cookbook, a big pictorial version of the NZ institutional tome. The illustrations are mostly full page, full colour, food porn type photos, rather than being useful pictograms of exactly the meaning of those oh-so-confusing instructions.

The recipe is very easy and you only need two mixing bowls to pull it off. (The thing I hate most about cooking, other than how pointlessly time consuming it is, and the overwhelming feelings of anxiety it produces, is the vast amount of dirty dishes the process involves each and every time.) The book says 15 minutes to cook but it took a little longer in our decrepit gas oven.

Iit appears as a "Blueberry Muffin" recipe on page 16 or 19 but I have moved on from the 90s and am flinging other delicious things in with my flour and milk. (And eggs. And sugar. But that's pretty much it, right? Sweet!)

Current favourite is boysenberry and white chocolate. This batch was done with frozen boysenberries and white chocolate buttons (any brand of either - but if you were going for real chocolate, then choose carefully!).

The standard trick with making muffins is to not over mix your mixture. As few good stirs as you can get away with to get your flour and stuff combined in with your wet ingredients and then LET IT BE. You're not friggin Jamie Oliver with your whizz stick pureeing the fuck out of some poor soup.

The real trick is to not throw in your berries/choc chunks/walnuts/whatever until the very last minute. With those frozen berries, you can even place them individually in the muffin tray holes AFTER having filled them with the mixture, as they are very easy to handle if you've just pulled them outta the deep freeze.

Canned berries are a whooooole different story. This is a sample from my second batch (yes, I was struck by the domesticity virus two weekends in a row!!) which was made with a can's full I drained out and then had to add to the muffin mixture before dolloping into the tray.

As you can see, 1) my cellphone takes exceptionally shitty photos, and 2) the smooshing and swirling causes the whole muffin to go very purpley in comparison to the isolated taste explosions of the earlier muffins.

Going on comments from my guinea pigs - I MEAN TASTE TESTERS - both styles were much enjoyed and it was the caramelly goodness of embedded chocolate swirls that was the real highlight anyway!

I got my hair did

Posted by Bel. The time is 9.15am here in Wellington NZ

Et voila, here is the photographic evidence, as requested!


Unfortunate lighting makes it look as if my hair was two-tone, or a botched home dye job or something, WHICH IT WAS NOT sheesh.

I usually dye my hair myself with ammonia-free organic based dyes, which you can get from health food stores. The amazing thing about these is that a) they don't stink to high hell and b) they don't burn the crap out of your scalp. This actually makes it a bit hard to tell if they are even dying your hair! But the product is lovely and they fade out very naturally, rather than a harsh regrowth line.

Way before:




After: (Fo reals)

I call this "Messy Bun, After the Rain (August, 2010)".

This one evokes all the horror and versimilitude of a passport photo. Fun.

Close up shot. As if we were standing awkwardly on a bus together.

I got my hair did by Dom at Wildilocks on Cuba St. Highly recommended! Ignore the scary mannequins in the store window and check them out.

They have lots of organic products in stock and use ammonia-free dyes which are better for your head and for the environment. (A chemical is still used to activate the dye, but it is a fruit acid, rather than a chemical chemical.) I like the idea of going somewhere where their main focus is outside of the mainstream - my do was tame by their standards; the woman next to me was getting her hair bleached out in preparation for white dreads being put in - and she was a pagan witch/legal administrator.

Dom also did my hair all fancy for my birthday a few months back. I don't really have any good photos of that either - none that do it justice - but to give you an idea, here is the crappy PhotoBooth photo I took to show Lou after having texted her incessantly about it:

Aah PhotoBooth. Causing people to have dodgy eye levels since ages ago.

It was a bit bouffant and a bit curly-loopy and a bit Joan so all in all quite lovely. No matter that I took in this photo as my reference, I was still very pleased with the glamorous final result.

PS please also note my Frida Kahlo cushion covers that were a gift from Lou! Awwhh... Lou.

Sniffing out media bullshit made easy

Posted by Bel. The time is 2.55pm here in Wellington NZ

Journalists love to think of themselves as always pointing the finger and blowing the whistle. Stuff pass themselves off as a crack team of deadline chasing newshounds, with a promotional campaign touting "If our team don't break stories first, there are consequences."

But more often than not, the press dish up a disappointing array of shallow stories, leading with whatever is most salacious, rather than most informative.

The impetus is more and more on the media participant (and yes, I carefully use that word instead of audience!) to ensure that they are consuming from a variety of sources and not just accepting "news" at face value.

UK based geek comedian Tom Scott is kicking back with his series of "journalism warning stickers".

You can read more about his project here, including downloading the template (link is at the bottom of the page) and printing off your own!

Iceland: What is up with that place?

Posted by Bel. The time is 5.14pm here in Wellington NZ

Iceland. Land of - no, not ice! Well, okay, some ice. But of many other things too.

Only about 320,000 people though, which is smaller than the Wellington region. And yet, I would dare say, it is much better than Wellington. This tiny nation has managed to punch far above its weight in many categories.

1. Music

This is the obvious one. Only people who have been living under a rock and don't have ears or the rock they're under makes it hard to hear are yet to realise that Bjork comes from Iceland. Her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir, and yes I googled and then copied and pasted that, as everyone has done since she first pixified her way onto the scene many a year ago.

Moving from a punk rock background to become one of the most successful female solo artists in the world, even those who don't enjoy her music have to concede Bjork is a creative force to be reckoned with.

I love Bjork and I cried with excitement in front of ten of thousands of impatient Rage Against The Machine fans when she performed second-to-last at the Big Day Out in 2008.

Recently Iceland has also attracted attention from musos thanks to the band Sigur Ros. Some people pronounce this "sigga ross", others "sayer rose". I like to pronounce it "oh those guys" with a roll of my eyes.

They play a style of music known as "post-rock" with songs that go on for about as long as it takes a glacier to form - and the kicker is that all the lyrics are sung in a language THEY MADE UP THEMSELVES. As if Icelandic didn't sound kooky enough as it is! (Racist.)

People tend to really, really love Sigur Ros. Apparently they are "amazing" live. Don't get a Sigur Ros fan started on how "amazing" Sigur Ros are live. *rolls eyes*

Here is one of their videos (please set aside the majority of the rest of your life to watch this). I will give them credit for creating an incredibly powerful short film within the context of this music video!

Sigur Rós - Viðrar vel til loftárása

2. Jewellery

Check out this growing jewellery made by a Icelandic designer:

via [If it's hip, it's here]

3. Head of State

Firstly, let me clarify by saying that I loved Helen and I miss her and I think New Zealand as a country achieved much mature growth by electing a female leader.

But Iceland had a female president back in the 80s! And their current prime minister is not only a female, but also a (wait for it) lesbian (gasp!). In terms of being progressive and smashing through the glass ceiling, this is inspirational.

New Zealand has found itself with a government that is continuing to demonstrate its anti-women policies in more and more terrifying ways. Gordon Campbell has written about it here - well worth reading. And let's keep an eye on countries who are instilling the feminist principles of equality into their legislation.

4. Giant freaky pylon things

Would you or would you not totally pee your pants if you were driving along and you came across these? I think they would be perfect for the Desert Highway.

Concept design dreamed up by some architectural firm with too much time on their hands, for the haunting barren wilderness of Iceland. Awesome.

via [Laughing Squid]

4. Volcano/ Economic Crisis

I actually nearly forgot! They had that volcano that totally fucked things up for the whole world! And their economy is screwed. All three (three!) of their banks collapsed. Fuuuuck. Wikipedia says that "Iceland's external debt was 9.553 trillion Icelandic krónur". That sounds really bad.

Gosh well don't I just feel awful now with my "ooh pretty jewellery" and all.

Iceland! We salute you!

A blog a day to fill the void that is Lou's absence

Posted by Bel. The time is 5.02pm here in Wellington NZ

Lou has gone away. To distract myself from the gaping hole in my day that is usually filled with communicating with her (Gmail tells me I have written her "hundreds" of emails. That is as precise as it gets, apparently), I shall blog daily.
It will be like Julie & Julia except with less whining and probably the same amount of Francophile covetousness.

Eww get up off the floor, you big whiner! That's not sanitary.
Yes, I will be taking requests so feel free to let me know what you'd like for me to cover over the next nearly fortnight. Here is a summary of some intended topics in the meantime:

  • Various book reviews (from The List and also non-List)
  • Bel's Guide to Sleep
  • Iceland: What is up with that place?
  • Abortion
  • A photo of my new hair do
  • Me reviewing some of the movies that Lou saw about 6 months ago (damn you, northern hemisphere!)

Afternoon Tea debut for the ________* Pad

Posted by Lou. The time is 4.00pm here in London UK.

My new apartment is one that cries out for afternoon teas and cocktails, right?

I mean, can't you just imagine two gals like me and Bel lazing about sitting on that sofa getting drunk on boooooze sophisticated cocktails and talking about seeeeexxx intelligent subjects whilst eating junk delicate miniature food??

Wait, here is my artist's impression of me and Bel being fabulous in my apartment [using only crusty free paint software so please DON'T JUDGE ME]:

As the one in colour actually looks a little like Bel I'm going to
take one
for the team
and agree to live in black-and-white.

So I had my first ever self-hosted Afternoon Tea Party. It went well. So well, in fact, that an attendee - over the age of 40 and British, so someone who has been around the block a few times in terms of scone-eating - announced that I had made the best scone she had ever had in her entire life. I wonder whether I should get this printed onto a certificate and stick it up on my kitchen wall? (I used this recipe, fyi.)

I of course forgot to take a pic of the final product,
but you can see their uncooked round goodness in the background of this pxt.

The sandwiches were quite stressful for me as a sandwich connoisseur I most certainly am not - but I erred on the side of caution and just used a lot of butter. In the end it was: roasted red peppers and cream cheese; chicken, cream cheese, and cranberry; ham; cucumber. Surprisingly the ham were most popular - lots of butter works you guys!

Advantage of having very little furniture (both in terms of quantity and size)
is that a tea-towel works nicely as a table-cloth.

I am currently in possession of some Real Kiwi Australian jaffas, so made jaffa cupcakes with a jaffa perched on the top of each. They consisted of a basic chocolate cupcake with orange zest mixed in, and then a very citrus orange-cream icing (butter, icing sugar, orange juice, orange zest). I'm going to confess that I didn't like them that much (perhaps because the chocolate cupcake just used cocoa and not Actual Chocolate), but everyone else earnestly declared their satisfaction (though they're hardly going to throw them in my face, are they?).

There was almost a disasterous faux pas when I realised I only had 5 tea-bags in the flat (!), but with a bit of recycling they managed to last the afternoon tea and all was happy in the end.

So come round to the _________* Pad for Afternoon Tea sometime!

*Please come up with a name for my apartment! Bachelorette Pad isn't Facebook-friendly (my brother would be aaaaall over that) and The Cupcake Pad doesn't quite work... any suggestions? (It doesn't have to involve the work "Pad", fyi.)

Portmans is a sinking ship

Posted by Bel. The time is 8.34am here in Wellington NZ.

I do love having the latest fashion news sent directly to my inbox. I don't love when it is filled with body dismorphia, cliched clothing and tacky writing.

The immediate clanger here is the obvious "enhancement" that has gone on with the image of the model on the bottom right.
Perhaps it is some snazzy move that I missed the week I skipped America's Next Top Model, but as far as I am aware, Tyra has not yet let us all in on a pose that instantaneously whittles your waist down to the width of your head. Practically miraculous, especially when you have two other photos of normal-sized waist to compare it to!
Overall, it was just plain disappointing to get a whole e-newsletter devoted to touting the joys of NAUTICAL. Nautical, you guys! Did you hear? It's in! It's in this summer! And do you remember last summer? Um, yeah - just like then! What's that? The summer before... uhhh... maybe?
Pardon? Ever since Jean-Paul Gaultier's debut collection in 1976? Or maybe since Gabrielle Chanel busted out a top she borrowed from the sailors of Brittany back in the 30s? Hmmm... interesting points. Fashion is know for being cyclic, but really, trying to act as if as there is a trend popping up when we've had nothing but blue and white stripes flung at us for season after season seems to be taking it a little far!
And it must be said, I love me a good pun [see: above]. This is a trait passed down from my mother, who is also a Scrabble champion and cryptic crossword queen. But "I heart bouys" is weak on so many levels. For one, it just draws my attention again to the fact that they are trying to act as if this whole nautical baloney is new and fun and exciting. 
It also taps into a pet peeve of the way mainstream fashion retail stores, which used to cater for women in their 20s with a professional focus, are aiming more and more towards the teenage market.
"I heart bouys" is the kind of lame-arse thing you might see mass-produced in Supre, a shop where the sizing alone lets you know that their target audience is people who have not yet developed mature hips and breasts. It's not a good fit with the usual 'wear it from work to the club' stuff that comes out of Portmans, and goodness me, not much upsets me more in the world than inconsistent branding!*

*Things that upset me more in the world than inconsistent branding:

  • That funding for evening classes has been cut and Education Minister Anne Tolley has suggested as the option for refugees to New Zealand who were using this as their way to become proficient in English, that they will now be allowed to apply for student loans.
  • That the food from Satay Kingdom in Left Bank is cheaper than the food from the Thai place on Cuba, but their portions are smaller and I always feel too stuffed after a Satay Kingdom laksa.
  • Murray McCully. I really hate that guy so bad.
  • Finally deciding to use a voucher and finding out that it has expired. Gahh!