Saturday, 8 December 2018

Graham Norton's novels. Forget Scandi-Noir...try Mammy-Noir


Both "Holding" (2016) and "A Keeper" (2018) are both delightful reads.
Graham Norton is known as BBC top TV host, actor (2 episodes of "Father Ted"), The Telegraph's agony aunt, author of two autobiographies and a non-fiction book on 20th century gay icons. I did not expect the complexities of the characters, the poignancy of the situations or the intricately structured plots spanning several decades.
Both books capture Irish village life - numerous visits to the local pub, nattering in the general store and countless cups of tea being offered. Norton's love of West Cork comes through in "A Keeper" as well as his love of dogs. There is a touching bit midway through about a loyal dog's reaction to the death of his owner: " Dora the collie had continued to sleep on one of his old jumpers till death claimed her too..."
Love, disappointment, loss, secrets, motherhood and new challenges are recurring themes. Things get pretty dark in both novels and Norton knows how to build a cracking climax.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Taking the train(s) from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

1. Closest MRT to Woodlands Train Checkpoint is Marsiling. A local bus takes you straight to the Checkpoint or it's a 1.5 km walk.

2. KTMB (Malaysian Trains) have shuttles running regularly (often every 30 minutes). Journey time to Johor Bahru Central is 5 minutes. You may choose to overnight in JB. Loads of attractions/theme parks for kids plus retail outlets and restaurants for adults.

3. If you want a leisurely day train journey to KL:
Take the 9:15 from JB Central. Arriving in Gemas around 13:25. Then catch the new electrified line (nicer train) from Gemas at 15:10, arriving KL Central around 17:30 (signals permitting).

JB Central

Leaving JB Central

JB Central to Gemas carriage (only one class) Limited power points.
They don't call it the 'jungle line' for nothing. You also have to like palm plantations
Last station before KL Central is the magnificent KL Station.
Modern interior of the Gemas - KL Central train. Warning - rug up - the air conditioning is icy and unrelenting. Seats have power points.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Batu Caves - a cheap and cheerful half day excursion by train

Forget the coach tours, take the air-conditioned commuter train (Line 1) for about $US 2 return from KL Central. You buy train tickets (tokens) at a ticket window, not ticket machines.
The station is at the entrance to Batu Caves. Admission to Main Cathedral Cave and main temple (the one with 272 steps) is free. This is about 5-10 minutes walk from the station.
Wear long pants/sarong so you don't have to rent a sarong. Allow 1-2 hours at the caves. Trains leave hourly from Batu Caves Station. Feed monkeys at your peril. The main temple is a 10 minute walk from the station.
The nearly painted steps

If you have the time, there are other caves and temples near the station.

Kuala Lumpur Sightseeing using Rapid KL trains and Monorail

Old KL Station

Driverless train

Great views from the front if you are an underground train fan
Plant yourself at the front carriage for some spectacular photos of KL. Rapid KL trains are driverless, so you can position yourself facing up the track.
Depart from KL Central on Line 5 (toward Gombak).
For another route, try the KL Monorail (Line 8). Fares are cheap, trains are clean and frequent.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balm Gardens) Free Stuff to Do in Singapore No 2

The 8.5 hectare park contains hundreds of giant statues and dioramas depicting Chinese mythology, legends, folklore and morality tales. The Ten Courts of Hell section is jaw-droppingly gory. Built in 1937, the vivid displays are meticulously maintained.
A unique historic theme park.
Free Admission
Haw Par Villa MRT is next door.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Singapore Botanic Gardens (Go here before Gardens by the Bay) Free stuff in Singapore No 1.

No wonder this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Gardens by the Bay is flashy, the Botanic Gardens (established in 1859) are more impressive. Allow at least 4 hours. Even if you are not into horticulture; the landscaping, sculptures, animal encounters (swans, monitor lizards, tortoises and otters) and the fact that it is free; makes this place a must for visitors to Singapore. Return at night for a totally new perspective (the only section not flood-lit is the rainforest trail).
Opening Hours 5 a.m. to midnight.
The National Orchid Garden has a $5 admission.
Closest MRT is Botanic Gardens (right next to Bukit Timah Gate).

Maps are available at all gates.
Swan Lake, look out for otters

Otter taking a short cut

Otter No 2

Walk of the Giants

Ginger Garden

Rain Forest boardwalk

1.5 metre monitor lizard in Symphony Lake

Kepppel Discovery Wetlands

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Malaysia's Pulau Melaka - Ghost Town or White Elephant?

This is Riviera Hotel/Suites at the entrance to Pulau Melaka (Malacca Island). Row after row of empty shops and restaurants,  unleased or unopened. We were the only tourists in the area. The place resembles a ghost town.
In the streets around this man-made island it's the same story. The only activity seems to be the 'floating mosque'  (A little over 1 km from the island's bridge) and the construction on the second reclaimed land/island. A promised Ferris wheel was never built. A wildlife-encounter park looks abandoned. Security guards seem to be the only viable enterprise.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Tiring of Scandi noir? Try some Gallic noir...

French television is full of juicy crime thrillers. Many have surfaced on streaming services like Netflix in the last couple of years.
The French seem to enjoy serial killer-related dramas served with a large serve of revenge. Currently on Netflix you have :"Le Chalet" (murder most foul in a scenic village in the French alps), "La Foret"/"The Forest" (disappearing teenagers in the Ardennes forest), "La Mante" (a female Hannibal Lecter helping the police catch her a copycat killer), "The Frozen Dead"/"Glace" (murky deeds set around a psychiatric facility perched high in the Pyrenees).

Thankfully, these limited mini-series contain only 6 episodes, rather than some inflated English language productions that are dragged out to 10 - 13 instalments.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

"The Chalet" Netflix's hidden gem

What a relief to watch a 6 part miniseries (each episode is around 50 minutes) where all is resolved so there's no chance of a second season. This French murder mystery is wildly improbable but after the first half hour you are hooked. The glorious scenery around Chamonix in the French alps contrasts with the dastardly doings of the villagers.
The chilling nursery rhyme and the model village (with rivers of blood in later credits) telegraphs to the viewer that things are going to get nasty. Alternating between two timelines (the summers of 1997 and 2017), we see what has happened to the villagers and their children. No spoilers here. Just enjoy the ride.

Monday, 27 August 2018

James Bond films ranked from worst to best

This is a purely personal response to The Guardian's Bond films ranking by Peter Bradshaw (August 24, 2018).

26. "Octopussy" (1983) Worst title song of the franchise.

25. "Quantum of Solace" (2008) Who can remember the plot?

24. "Casino Royale" (1966) Burt Bacharach score and Woody Allen are the only saving graces.

23. "Die Another Day" (2002) Really... an invisible car??

22. "For Your Eyes Only (1981) There's a good bit with Maggie Thatcher.

21. "A View To A Kill" (1985) Walken is a wet Bond villain. Duran Duran score helps.

20. "The World Is Not Enough (1999) Forgettable movie, great Garbage score.

19. "The Living Daylights" (1987) Dalton tries hard, excellent supporting cast (Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Don Baker, John Rhys-Davies, Art Malik.

18. "Licence to Kill" (1989) Killer Gladys Knight title song, even though it is not by John Barry.

17.  "Moonraker" (1979) Blame "Star Wars" mania.

16. "Goldeneye" (1995) Great tank chase around St Petersburg.

15. "Thunderball" (1965) - great first 10 minutes, the underwater scenes are interminable.

14. "Casino Royale" (2006) Classy but morose.

13.  "The Man With The Golden Gun" (1974) Silly fun in Thailand. Sheriff Pepper returns. Casting Hammer's Dracula as Scaramanga was inspired.

12. "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) The Union Jack parachute ranks as one of the great pre-title sequences.

11.  "Never Say Never Again" (1983) Endless fun. Connery has a ball sending up his Bond character. Improves on "Thunderball".

10. "Tomorrow Never Dies"(1997) Nifty idea to have a Murdochian villain.

9.  "Spectre" (2015) Beautifully filmed.

8.  "Live And Let Die" (1973) Producers jump on the Blaxpoilation bandwagon. Moore's best Bond.

7.  "Skyfall" (2012) Just for the return of the original DB5.

6.  "From Russia With Love" (1963) Most faithful adaptation, released only 5 years after novel.

5.  "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) Lazenby impresses, Great Swiss location work, getting ex-Avengers Diana Rigg also helps.

4.  "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) Naff but wildly enjoyable. Charles Gray is the best Blofeld.

3.  "Dr No" (1962) Holds up extremely well. Joseph Wiseman's villain evokes Fu Manchu. First time we see Ken Adam's amazing sets. Looks great on such a small budget.

2. "You Only Live Twice" (1967) Best score, Kobe docks scene is sublime, Ken Adam's volcano set is a stunner.

1.  "Goldfinger" (1964) Ticks all the boxes - Score, Sets, Villain, Locales, Gadgets, Bond girl (Honor Blackman - another former TV's "The Avengers" actress). Improves on the plot of the novel by planning to nuke Fort Knox so the gold can't be removed for decades.

Friday, 24 August 2018

How to get the best deal from your energy provider

1. Find a comparison website (e.g. run by the government like Victoria's Energy Compare)
Try another comparison site, for a 'second opinion' (e.g. Canstar).

2. Find the cheapest provider. Check other discounts for Direct Debit payment, Percentage off Usage and/or Supply Charges. No exit fees? No credit card surcharge? Electricity/Gas Combo Deal?

3. The new provider will do the rest.

4. You may get a better counter offer in the mail from your old provider (see below). Previously my old provider's best discount was 35% off electricity usage and 20% off gas usage. The "jumping ship" offer to stay was 46% off and 35% off respectively!
They even sent me a letter addressed to my new provider to facilitate the cancellation of the new contract.

5. Final decision
I am staying with the new deal (Globird Energy) as it has no exit fees. It must be a good deal if the old provider can offer such an attractive counter deal. Be prepared to swap again if you are not satisfied.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

"The Secret History of Las Vegas" by Chris Abani - review

Conjoined twins, serial killing, secret psychological testing, Las Vegas's outcasts ("the Downwinders" - those affected by decades of atomic testing in and under the Nevada desert), the life of an exotic prostitute (Asia), life in 1980's Soweto, the torturing and death carried out by secret police in Apartheid South Africa and an ongoing murder investigation - this novel covers a lot of ground in its 317 pages.

The characters are complicated and contradictory: Dr Sunil Singh, a South African psychologist with a dark past (no pun intended), now working in Las Vegas on a secret and highly unethical project for the military and world-weary but dogged detective Salazar who is investigating the murders of Las Vegas's homeless. All these elements are intricately linked in this strange, haunting book.
The chapters describing the sideshow in the middle of the desert (The Carnival of Lost Souls) could have been expanded. The chapters containing Sunil's back story in South Africa were harrowing but essential to understand why he is being hunted by the mysterious, Eskia.
If you are looking for the usual serial killer thriller, this is not it.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Best Coastal Walks in Sydney - from Manly or Watsons Bay

If you have done the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk, here are three lesser known walks.

1. Manly - North Head National Park
Start at South Manly, continue past Shelly Beach onto North Head trail. Proceed through old artillery stations, barracks to North Fort and Fairfax Lookouts (views to South Head and Sydney Harbour and skyline). Trail loops back via boardwalks to Manly. Total return distance from Manly is 5 - 7 km, depending on the trail you choose and side trips to tour fort and artillery stations.

2. Watson's Bay - The Gap - South Head
Take the ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay (via Rose Bay). Try to ignore delicious smells from Doyle's fish and chips on Watsons Bay ferry wharf.
The Gap is 700 metres west from wharf). If travelling June - September, bring binoculars for whale watching. Follow tourist boats below.
South Head National Park walk is as spectacular as North Head but shorter distance. Follow signs from Watson's Bay ferry wharf. Walk past sheltered Camp Cove and Lady Bay (nudist beach) to get to 470 metre South Head loop. Great place for a picnic on rocks near Hornby lighthouse (bins provided before loop starts).

3. Manly - Freshwater Beach
Walk north, the length of Manly Beach to Queenscliff Beach, cross bridge, climb up, through suburban streets to Freshwater Beach (better surf than Manly).

Sydney public ferries are cheaper than private operators. All leave from Circular Quay
View looking back to Manly and Freshwater Beaches (from North Head trail)

North Head - views of Sydney skyline

Free maps of North Head available in boxes along the trail

South Head and historic Hornby Lighthouse
Freshwater Beach

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Which is the best Sofitel in Sydney? Sofitel Wentworth vs Sofitel Darling Harbour

Sofitel Darling Harbour was opened late in 2017. The Wentworth was opened late 1966. It is basically style over substance with these two Sofitels.
Although the new Sofitel is architecturally impressive, Sofitel Wentworth is the classier establishment - better service, food/beverage and location.

Sofitel Darling Harbour 
  • 35 storeys (although floor 13 and 14 left out)
  • 50 metres from the Light Rail stop (Convention Centre)
  • 5 minute walk to public ferry terminal (Pyrmont)
  • Infinity pool with views over Darling Harbour
  • If your room faces north or east (meaning the view rooms, at an extra cost), it is very hot. We stayed in winter, also. The air conditioning temperature is set too high and is motion-activated, stay still for 60 minutes - it switches off. Hence you can wake up to a sauna in your room.
  • Low floors (10 or below) can have views of car parks and surrounding buildings (south or east facing rooms).
  • Lighting system in the room is 'all or nothing'. There is no indirect lighting. The overly bright nightlight in the bathroom would keep any person (sleeping on the bathroom side of the bed) awake, unless he/she wears a blindfold.
  • If you are staying in the club lounge (Club Millesime is $150 extra, unless you have Accor Platinum status), expect tiny pours of wine by the staff (almost wine tasting size). If a beer is poured for you, the stubby isn't even emptied, so you get 3/4 of a glass. Go figure.
Sofitel Wentworth
  • Exceptional service, better trained staff.
  • 5 minute walk from Circular Quay (ferry, train, light rail, Opera House, The Rocks)
  • 5 minute walk to Botanical Gardens
  • 10 minute walk to Pitt Street Mall
  • Club Sofitel staff pour a wine or a beer as you would yourself at home. Better range of evening cocktails/canapes.
  • Quality of food superior to Sofitel Darling Harbour, in restaurant as well as in the club.
  • First 3 levels of rooms facing courtyard have opening doors (Juliet balcony) - a boon for smokers.
  • No spectacular views
  • Because it is a 60's hotel, shower over bath in standard rooms (most of hotel rooms).
  • Standard rooms are small (under 30 sq metres).

N-E view from Club lounge on level 35 (Sofitel Darling Harbour). The vaulted ceiling is spectacular.

The view is dazzling (automatic blinds are activated to shield some of the sun).

Club Sofitel at the Wentworth (Level 5)

Afternoon tea at the Wentworth (Club Sofitel)

Friday, 20 July 2018

"He" by John Connolly

This is a far cry from Connolly's Charlie Parker novels. It's a fascinating insight into the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as a recount of the rise and fall of the world's most famous comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy.
In his three room Santa Monica apartment, Stan Laurel looks back at his life - his early music hall days in England, sharing rooms and comedy material with Charlie Chaplin, working for Hal Roach, making silent movies, the transition to talking pictures, Hollywood scandals (Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Thelma Todd), his disastrous love life (marriages, remarriages, four divorces, mistresses) and his enduring love and respect for Babe (Oliver Hardy).
It is a story of  loss - not just lost millions but lost opportunities and the loss of his faithful comedy partner.
At around 450 pages (containing over 200 short chapters), it's a quick read because it is such an engrossing subject.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

"The Disappeared" C. J. Box - Joe Pickett #18 - A great winter-read

"Things almost got Western", remarks game warden, Joe Pickett, early in the book.
And they certainly do. Furnaces, fish-slapping, massive wind turbine projects, snow mobiles, cougars (the human kind), five star ranch resorts are in the mix this time. Nate Romanowski is back with a new form of interrogation (trout-slapping). It beats ripping off ears - used in earlier 'chats' with the local miscreants.
Concluding with a call from former-Governor Rulon, there is bound to be Joe Pickett #19.

Set in the middle of a bleak Wyoming (U.S.'s least populated state) winter, the reader is advised to snuggle up by an open fire with your favourite tipple.