Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Travels by Epiphany - China

There is an unspoken rule that no holiday is perfect.

The journey between researching, planning and departure is a seamless affair. Thanks to technology, we’re able to book tickets online, choose hotels and order winter clothing without having to leave the comfort of our homes.  Visas can be acquired through the internet and international driver’s licenses can applied for without stepping into the NRMA.  Organising a trip in the 21st century through the information superhighway lulls you into the belief it’s all going well.

Until it’s not.

As you can tell from this opening statement, my trip to Europe didn’t begin as smoothly as my praise of modern technology might imply.

When I arrived at Sydney Airport, I discovered the flight was overbooked and so I was faced with two alternatives; wait until another flight was available on the same airline – which could result in being delayed by days, or rebook with another airline. As I had tours and theatre tickets booked for specific dates, I chose the second option. Switching airlines I flew out instead on China Southern airlines.  All this was done on the fly, with electronic tickets existing only on my smartphone (this will be important later) and so I was finally able to depart Sydney fifteen minutes of my original departure.
Inconvenient I thought but not catastrophic.

I have never travelled on China Southern airlines before.  While certainly not on par with contemporaries like Emirates or Qantas, I found their service to be good and their staff pleasant and friendly.  However after take-off, I was puzzled by the absence of smartphones.  The mad rush for our devices as soon as the plane levels off, is as traditional as the crying child and bad airline food. Yet on China Southern, no one was producing their phones when the seat-belt light went off.  

I learned to my horror, the use of mobile phones, even on flight mode, is illegal on Chinese flights. As most of my music, e-books and videos were on my Galaxy S6, this was akin to someone shooting my cat. I was forced to resort to inflight entertainment for the next 11 hours. Despite stabbing repeatedly at the provided touch screen pad with my finger, it would only work when sworn at.

Suffice to say, it was a very long flight.

I arrived at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport in the People’s Republic of China at 5 am in the morning.
As we travelled from the plane to the terminal by bus, I suddenly understood why politicians at home have been demanding a second airport in Sydney. Compared to the size of Baiyun, Kingsford-Smith is tiny. While the facilities were not state of the art, one can’t help but be impressed by how large it is. Therefore you would imagine the size of the facility would be equal to the staff manning it.

It is not.

It took us three hours to clear customs and be taken to the hotel China Southern had so graciously provided for my 17 hour layover. During those three hours, I was never more aware of the country I was in. They process travellers with the mentality of prison guards frisking inmates for shivs. No one in the queue dared to utter a word of complaint, convinced any verbal detraction would land us in jail and becoming the subject of a Today Tonight expose. I am not sure which is worse.

But all was not lost. I actually made conversation with the official stamping my passport and this led to a short but nice conversation about the weather, how busy the airport was and to my shock, she gave me a smile! There was life after all!

Once through customs, I was once again reminded of how small Kingsford-Smith is because the transfer bus took twenty minutes just to leave the airport premises. What I saw of Guangzhou was very much what I expected of China, functional but expansive. There is a great deal of construction going on and I get the impression the city is attempting to leave behind years of stagnancy for a more dynamic future.  Still, most people were on bicycles and they travel through the wide streets like herds of wildebeests moving across the savanna.

To improve Sino-Aussie relations, I suggest we send them Clover Moore.

The Country Garden Airport Phoenix Hotel was luxurious with equally impressive rooms. I had a great view of the city and the complimentary breakfast was great after airline food. The range was surprisingly diverse and some of the dishes reminded me of the breakfasts I use to have when still living in Singapore.

The only problem I found with the place, was the instrumental music playing in the background. It sounded like the bastard child of Burt Bacharach and Kenny G, written for a James Bond film in the sixties. Imagine a bad copy of the ‘The Look of Love’ and you’ll get where I’m coming from.

It must have been the only English record they had since it was played on a continuous loop throughout the entire time I was staying there. I can’t tell if it was some form of subtle torture or the hotel staff had no idea that it was the same song. Either way, it was more effective at keeping guests in their rooms than armed guards. It would take the nine hours to Amsterdam for me to get that song out of my head.

At least I won't miss my smart phone.

Travels by Epiphany

So what do you do after a life-changing event?

Like most middle-aged career-orientated women, I expected my next life-changing event to be either menopause, retirement or worse yet, my favourite television series 'Supernatural' coming to an end. Being out of a job ranked somewhere between being hit by a car or discovering I had a shot dating Jason Statham. Never...going...to happen. 

Which of course it did, leaving me with this discombobulated expression.
Rick Baker couldn't create a face with such horror. 

Having no children, an ex-husband and two unruly cats, I'd forgotten how much of my life my job took up. The friends I considered my closest were my colleagues at work. The team I'd led had become my extended family. My resentment at being made obsolete by my company had little to do with the job itself and almost everything to do with the people I was losing from my life.

I'd miss Grace's giggle each time the name Hugh Jackman was mentioned or having to throw office products at Tim because his headphones meant he could never hear me when I asked him a question. I'd miss watching Dominique’s continuous war against the public transport system or listen to Peter and Richard dismantle the idiocy of Liberal Party politics.  No longer would I be able to rearrange the Lego men on George’s desk when he wasn’t looking or agree with Anthea we’d all work better if we had access to alcohol during work hours. I’d miss the water cooler chats with Nora and Janice, talking books with Vanessa and watching Michele’s confused expression each time she logged into our EMS system. 

The void was enormous, driving me into the arms of Netflix and its Australian cousin Stan. For days, I subsisted on a diet of Cherry Ripes and KFC, emerging long enough to replenish my Coca Cola supply. In the midst of binging on West Wing (Bradley Whitford is cool!), I  reached an epiphany moment. I decided to look at this voluntary redundancy (don't you just love how they call it voluntary) as an opportunity as opposed to end of life as I knew it.

Three things helped me reach this watershed moment. 

First, the online publisher I contacted about one of my books some time back, returned with a positive answer. Yes, they believed in the book which I will shamelessly plug here (Hunter’s Haven by Linda Thackeray) and would take up the challenge of marketing it. 

Secondly, I decided to rethink my career. I never really liked being a manager and it was my team keeping me in the job. I never thought I could make writing a career but if I was doing it as my passion pasttime, why not try to make it a career professionally? So I signed up for a nifty Writing and Editing course through OTEN that when completed, would allow me to pursue work as a copy writer or technical writer.

And thirdly, I decided I was going on a trip.

Not just a trip to the scenic town of Wagga Wagga or Young (where I swear Dracula runs an adult and comic book plus aquarium supplies store) but a real trip, to a different hemisphere.  

As a history buff, I always loved museums and historical monuments but let’s face it, Australia with its 200-year old past, is somewhat lacking in this department and Aboriginal history is too diverse and oral to be ever given justice in a museum.

No I wanted to see the places I’d read about growing up and this meant my trip was going to take me to Europe. I was going to see all the places I'd read about, the British Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, Bath and Glastonbury Tor (Mists of Avalon is my favourite book) and of course, no trip to Europe would be complete without stopping in Paris, right? 

So I shall be boring you dear reader, with a photographic journey through London, Edinburg and Paris from an Antipodean whose never seen snow.

Yeah, I know I have a shock coming. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Review: A Mersey Killing by Brian L Porter

A Mersey Killing by Brian L. Porter is a taut little thriller that grips you from the very first page until its satisfying conclusion.

Set in two different time periods, the book begins with the introduction of Brendan Kane and the Planets, a pop group hoping to reach stardom like so many others in Liverpool at the onset of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Performing at the legendary Cavern Club, the group skirts the fringes of success while trying to maintain their everyday responsibilities. The author conveys perfectly, the headiness of the times and the beginnings of the musical revolution about to take the world by storm.

It is quite a shift in tone from that initial introduction to be transported to 1999, where a body is found thanks to a reclamation project at the waterfront. From this point on, the two time periods run parallel to each other and when they finally converge, the reader has an idea of how things turned out for Brendan Kane and the Planets.  

Nevertheless, just as the reader might feel comfortable with the direction of the plot, the book manages to surprise with an unexpected twist and a gut punch ending both satisfying as it is tragic.

As stated earlier, this is a tautly written book, with very little fat in between and this adds to the momentum. The characters are well formed and written so there is little need for elaborate back stories. Standouts are Brendan Kane, DI Andy Rose and Connie Doyle although the supporting characters are never interchangeable.  The murder squad with Drake’s gallows humour, McLennan’s novice discomfort and Ferris’ family issues make each character memorable.
Special mention should be made of the author’s depiction of Mersey and the religious divide in post-war England.

I finished this book in one sitting and aside from one or two typos, was gripped for most of it. If you enjoy well-paced thrillers and interesting characters, A Mersey Killing will not disappoint. A thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Review: An Unusual Chain of Events by GH Bright

If you throw a series of pebbles into a pond, what happens?  You create numerous ripples that ultimately intersect each other. The plot of GH Bright’s novel, An Unusual Chain of Events, illustrates with fractal intricacy how one brutal night of violence can have far reaching consequences that no one could have imagined.

After being initiated by a prologue that depicts a vicious attack, the book is broken up into four parts where we are introduced to a host of characters that might seem comfortable in the potboilers of the 1980s. We meet David, the repressed businessman, his bored and insecure wife Sally, whose crumbing marriage forms the bedrock on which the rest of the story in built. Neither are likeable characters and one can be forgiven for thinking David has a reason for his behaviour but when the truth is revealed, it invokes genuine surprise.

Each act introduces us to a new set of characters, including Sally’s brother Dean, the drug dealing mobster. Dean returns to England for Sally’s sake only to find himself faced with betrayal and a fight for his life in a gang war. Through Dean we meet Sian, Sally’s friend, estranged after her marriage to David. The third act leads into the introduction of Jo and her band the White Swans.  In the midst of all this, DI Harper makes his emergence and may be as much a pebble in the pond as the rape that begins this story.

I enjoyed reading this book and getting to know the latticework of characters the author is creating. Dean and DI Harper are standouts while Sally’s insecurity is tiresome when compared to Jo’s contentment and Sian’s sarcasm. The hunt for the killer which takes up much of the plot is also quite gripping and I did a binge read to get to the end to see what happens.

The book also makes an admirable attempt to explore the often taboo subject of male rape and its effect on its victims. One cannot help but empathise with the killer’s motivations when one realises the source of it, even if only serves to further damage an already dangerous psyche. It speaks to the ability of the author to paint his characters in shades of grey.

There are depictions of graphic sex but it does not ever gratuitous and serves to explain the motivations of some characters. If I had a complaint, I felt that the book might have been structured better. The gangland war with Dean and the Turks felt too long and added little to the overall plot. The introduction of Jo and the White Swans is not as seamless as it should be and some connections strained credibility. Sian’s revelation that she knew the truth about David without revealing it to Sally was difficult to swallow.

Other than that, this was a delicious read and I was very satisfied when I reached the end. The characters have messy, flawed lives but it makes them relatable since it’s an accurate picture of the human condition.     

Monday, 2 February 2015

Review: Fade to Black by Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus

There’s something not quite right about Jeff Grobnagger. In reading Fade to Black by Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus, it’s a feeling that does not diminish the more we enter his world.

The book begins with one of the most visceral, gut clenching openings I’ve read in some time. From the synopsis, what happens should be of no surprise as we descend into Jeff’s dream world. Still, the authors expertly set the scene, painting it with dismal tones of impending doom. When the inevitable climax does arrive, it still feels jarring.

Stalked in his dreams by a hooded assailant, the dreams strike at any time, manifesting as epileptic seizures. The manner in which Jeff is prepared to handle these dreams adds to the reader’s sense that something about him is off. The book is written in the first person point of view so we get some workings into Jeff’s mind, discovering a hermit-like existence and a pathological fear of human connection. This is never explained to satisfaction and adds to the mystery of the character.

The cold open leads the reader back to the waking where Jeff’s story begins. Following the latest seizure and dream-death, Jeff meets Glenn, a bystander who never quite feels like a bystander. Once again, Glenn gives the impression that there is more to him than his revelation of a lost daughter. Glenn believes that Jeff is the key to finding Amity whose fascination with the occult might have led to her disappearance.

It is through Glenn that Jeff is confronted with the possibility his dreams are psychic episodes. Following a real life attempt in his life, Jeff realises he needs to know the truth for his continued existence. As he and Glenn delve into the world of the occult, they encounter characters along the way who give credibility to this suspicion; the mysterious Ms Babinaux who conducts meetings in a limousine and Louise, the private detective whose perpetual smile veils a hidden agenda or a desire to kill Batman.

The story is fascinating, with two pervading themes, the cipher of Jeff’s personality and the sensation that the world around him is not quite what it seems. Every character feels like a projection and the reader travels the dreamscape and the waking world of the plot, waiting for the shoe to drop where all is revealed. Unfortunately that moment does not arrive and is by far, the most frustrating aspect about the book. I enjoyed the read but felt that some revelations could have been made without sacrificing the mystery. It may be too much for some readers to overcome but I intend to see what happens to Jeff in this next outing.

As long as the reader is prepared for the abrupt ending, this is an enjoyable book with clever and sometimes hilarious dialogue. I recommend it for those who love their contemporary thrillers with a surreal twist. Definitely one for the fans of David Lynch.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Sunday Scribblings - Ghostbusters

So this week, we received the official confirmation that we would be getting a new Ghostbusters film and it would be recast with female leads. As was in the case when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, the Internet went crazy.

As a fangirl, I am required for the sake of sisterhood to get up on a soapbox and cheer that this is a win for women everywhere. Four talented actresses and comediennes are going to be showcased with a brand that is not just famous, but to my generation, venerated. How could it go wrong?

Quite spectacularly I can tell you.

According to Paul Feig, this version will be ‘scarier than the original’, with no relation to the characters in the 1984 film and will be a reboot.

Come on, when were the Ghostbusters ever meant to be scary? The title alone tells you what you’re in for. It was always tongue in cheek. There were some tense moments but how afraid can you be when your main monster is a giant, walking marshmallow sailor? It’s okay though, because that absurdity is what made the movie so special. 

Making it scarier than the original is changing the tone and the spirit of what the Ghostbusters always intended to be.

If that isn’t enough to raise flags, then absence of Venkman, Egon, Winston and Spengler should be. Unless this film is being directed towards the millenials or even Generation Y who may have no idea who these guys are, everyone is going to be comparing the new cast to these originals. That’s a hell of a comparison to overcome.  

Those who saw Ghostbusters back in the day, know that the magic of the film had to do with the amazing ensemble of Murray, Ackroyd, Ramis and Hudson. Even then, Murray’s unlikely turn as the sleazy college professor turned bona fide hero was standout. For years, rumblings of any new film couldn’t even be taken seriously without Murray’s involvement.

If this wasn’t bad enough already, the new film will be a reboot too.

For every Batman, Star Trek, Dredd and Godzilla that’s done justice to the source material, there’s also a Robocop, Amazing Spiderman and Pink Panther waiting to do the exact opposite. The world of celluloid is littered with the carcasses of failed reboots. Now the term provokes a knee-jerk reaction in the Internet crowd  and don’t even get me started on prequels

Three strikes already for a film that hasn’t even been filmed.

From the tone of this post, you might be forgiven for thinking I hate that this film is happening. No, I don’t. I’d love to see a scary movie about four scientists who just so happen to be women, fighting ghosts and monsters with some humour in it. I think that would be a great ride. I just don’t want it to be called Ghostbusters

Even if the premise is the same as the Ghostbusters, there’s enough about this movie to be its own creature. Its going to be darker, its going have all new characters and  no attachment to the original. So why call it a Ghostbusters film at all?  There's nothing wrong with having a similiar premise and a different brand name. 

When The X-Files first emerged on our screens, there were comparisons to the cult favourite Nightstalker with Carl Kolchak. The same could be said about Supernatural on the CW, two brothers on the road, hunting monsters bore a striking resemblance to two FBI agents, travelling America doing the exact same thing.  I believe news of this film would have been received better if it had no affiliation to the Ghostbusters at all.

My worry is that a great film may end up being bogged down by the resentment of fans who want a Ghostbusters film like they remembered in 1984. From the internet reaction, this is a very real possibility.  Armchair critics have the power to make or break genre films. Just ask Joel Schumacher.  The power of social media has never been stronger and the ability to taint a product before anyone sees a centimetre of film is not to be underestimated. So far, I’ve heard accusations of gimmickry, pandering and some truly misogynistic bile I won’t repeat here.

If this movie fails, the blame will not be on the fact that an unfair expectation was placed on it by being a Ghostbuster reboot. It will become just another example of women being unable to carry an event film.

Is it telling that Black Widow had to be introduced to a theatre going audience in Iron Man instead of leading her own movie like every other Avenger? (Don't say Hawkeye, I have no idea what's going on there!).  Wonder Woman has to make an appearance in Batman vs. Superman before she can get her own movie. We live in a world where obscure comic books such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad get their own films before comicdom’s greatest heroine.

So yeah, this movie being called the Ghostbusters does worry me a lot because it will only add ammunition to the stereotype that women can’t headline blockbuster films if it fails. It will mean that actresses will continued be relegated to window dressing and damsels in distress or worst yet; girl in refrigerator roles.  The exception being romcoms and Lifetime movies.  If the studio thinks that making a Ghostbusters film with female leads is enough to overcome the prejudice of the audience, the reaction from the Internet this week should give them pause. 

Let's keep our fingers crossed that this film can rise above its detractors because the ramifications if it fails will be more than just us not seeing another Ghostbusters film again.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Girl Found by Lisa Hall

From the cover, one could be forgiven for thinking that Girl Found by Lisa Hall is YA novel about a
young woman on a voyage of self-discovery.  Our heroine is looking at us sassily and challenging us to follow her on her adventure. In fact, the first few chapters does read that way as we enter the world of Ellen Morris, final year student at the University of Pittsburgh. I was quickly immersed in Ellie’s world and much like the citizens of the Republic, led to discover that all is not what it seems here and neither is Ellie.

Not quite dystopian but more science fiction, we learn that Ellie possess an interesting psychic skill I won’t spoil here but allows her to read people. The ability helps her to navigate the Republic in which she and her guardian Davis live.  After a series of catastrophic earthquakes, society remains fractured with the Republic seemingly in charge of everything. With Orwellian tones of implants, censorship, restricted travel and NSA agents that resemble the Gestapo, Ellie is desperate to escape for a future in space. It is a future that hinges on a university placement.

However, when Ellie is told that her placement is at the University of Chicago instead of Pittsburgh, it sets off a chain of events that turns Ellie’s world upside down. What follows is a thrill ride, beginning with the revelation that our heroine has a past that puts her on a collision course with the Republic. Forced to run, Ellie is betrayed by the people she cared about and manipulated into following their agenda. In the process, she discovers that the Republic’s iron clad hold of everything is an illusion. Somewhere beyond Pittsburgh is the Syndicate and its hierarchy has a greater personal connection to Ellie than she could possibly imagine.

Once the reveal about Ellie’s past is made, the book became a page turner and I had to get to the end to see how it all turned out. The Syndicate is one of the most interesting creations I’ve seen in a long time and I will enjoy reading the rest of the series to see how it is further developed. The action is well paced with pauses in between to give the reader time to absorb the fine character work Miss Hall does for Ellie, John Boden, Betty Malone and even the slithery Agent Cooper. I would have like to have seen more of Davis, Ellie’s protector and hope that his past is further explored in future books. I also hope that we see John Boden again because his chemistry with Ellie leaps off the page.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well-paced science fiction tale with an engaging heroine who makes us cheer when she comes into her own towards the latter half of the book. I can’t wait to see where Ellie takes us next.