The Queen’s Gambit (2020) reviewed

Over a few weeks, I’ve gone through three limited series. I started off with The Queen’s Gambit before taking in Bodyguard. Chernobyl was the latest miniseries I devoured. The last two shows won acting Globes. Yet while all of them are well-received, this week, I will tackle the best of them: The Queen’s Gambit. Since being released in late October, the show has maintained a perfect score on the Tomatometer. Critics have gushed about Anya Taylor-Joy’s ‘magnetic’ performance. Apart from trending, Gambit was the top show on Netflix. The programme chronicles the life of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, from her humble beginnings to a jet setting life taking on the best chessmen on the planet.     

Orphan

The show examines the troubled home life of Harmon. She ends up at an all-girls orphanage where she becomes friends with Jolene, a tempestuous black teenager. The latter admits that she is too old to be coveted in adoption. At the orphanage, Mr Shaibel – the custodian – teaches her how to play chess. In no time, she outclasses him. At the home, they give them pills which quickly hooks Beth. At night, she indulges her chess move on the ceiling as a result of the pills. A couple finally adopts her – after she lies about her age. She then attends school, where she is not one of the popular chicks.  

Chess prodigy

She enters a chess tourney after securing a loan from Shaibel. The table people immediately count her out, given she’s a girl and has no ranking. Her first opponent tells her about the comp rules: using the clock and tallying each move. Beth makes light work of her foe and the rest of the field. She advances to the final where she meets Harry Beltik, a much more seasoned adversary. She refuses Beltik’s offer of a draw and soundly beats him. Harmon always employs the Queen’s gambit, one of the oldest opening moves.

Winning the local tournament became her foot in the door. She hires her foster mother as her manager, accompanying her to glitzy hotels and managing her finances. Early on, she nicked a Chess magazine and doctored a script for the tranquilisers. As she kept on winning, her reliance on the pills grew. She sets her sights on Benny Watts, who was the American champion. Though their chessboard tussles were brutal, Watts eventually becomes her mentor and friend. Every chess great needs an eidetic memory, and this is standard across the characters.

Facing the best

Mrs. Wheatley, her foster mum, also has her demons. She eventually succumbs to them, leaving an abyss in Beth’s heart. Soon, her life becomes erratic. Returning to town, she begins cancelling appearances. Harry drops in and lives with her for a while and soon discovers the pills. They talk about Morphy and Capablanca, two Chess titans. Harry tells her that the former ignited fast and fizzled out just as quick. At age 22, he retired. He was said to walk the streets alone at night. Upon leaving, he tells Beth to ‘be careful.’ When she beats Watts, Harmon prepares to battle the Russian, Borgov. He is the current Soviet champ.

They first meet in Paris, where Borgov overwhelms the challenger. Their next encounter was in Moscow. The date with Borgov wasn’t without drama. She was tardy for the match, having spent the night drinking with an old friend. With her crew urging her on, she went toe-to-toe with the tactician. Play was halted to be resumed the next day. Unlike in all her prior matches, she was pill-free for this one. For a change, she had the chance to nab a victory without help. This was much more than a chess match; the fifties were the height of the Cold War. To beat the Russians at their home soil was unheard-of.  

High praise

I can see why this production rated so highly. The period feel was well-constructed. The retro fridges and ballrooms, the vintage attires and cars, added charm to this drama. The chess moves weren’t excessive so that even casual enthusiasts could keep up. The series was adapted from the Walter Tevis novel. The late American writer also penned The Color of Money, itself also made into a major film. Aside from Anya, Marielle Heller also gives an inspired outing as Mrs. Wheatley. Harry Melling, formerly Dudley Dursley, is convincing as Beth’s confidant. Thomas Sangster is a long way from the lovestruck boy in Love, Actually. He is also known to younger audiences as Newt in the Maze Runner trilogy. The series is obviously chess-centred but it likewise vital social commentary. For instance, when Beth was studying, the popular girls bullied her. Once she turned into world beater, they invited her into their sorority. Beth would later find one of them pushing a pram. She noted the bottle in the stroller.

Wistful thinking

I feel nostalgic as I watch this drama. Chess was popular in school and a couple of my colleagues could even be labelled great. During intervals such as morning tea and lunch break, we would cram a match in between. Frank and the late Chico were the best on campus. They had some epic battles. Early on, I noticed that having an eidetic memory was key to a remarkable chess mind. You almost have to be like Amos Decker, the hero of David Baldacci’s recent series.

Knowing merely all your opponents’ moves is not enough; you have to recall the ones that inspired the classic matches. Both Frank and my classmate Chico had that in spades. A few times, they even played blitz matches and the younger Frank did not back down. Unlike Harmon, Frank was formidable – even during quickie matches. Frank lived and breathed chess and Bobby Fischer was his idol. I was in the audio-visual room together with my club-mates when I heard Frank’s voice next door. He was part of the speaking chapter. I almost tittered upon discerning his remarks on Kasparov. His chess hat is always on.

Record breaker

Audiences love a good underdog story. While as a child, Beth could do little right. As a teenager, she could do no wrong and had the world at her feet. The charismatic leads, period pieces, and winner storyline all merge to create a feast for the eyes. In addition, the imagery from spots around the globe likewise add flavour. Gamble is also a cautionary tale of the perils of excesses. Beth was lucky to have the backing of Jolene and other friends, who lifted her in her dark hours. The show may be all of seven episodes, but the sum was more than the parts. Netflix has revealed that Gambit has pulled off a record: the most-watched scripted mini-series to date. I must admit that the opening sequence didn’t really enthral me. As they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

Rating: 5/5

Watts v Harmon
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The Last Hair Bender

Having hair obliges us to have a haircut. From the moment we wailed in the delivery room, we are subject to hair maintenance. As usual, your mileage may vary (ymmv). Boys and girls, men and women will have different due dates for a hair trim. Whether as kids or adults, ours tastes and hair preferences will diverge. The same applies to our trips to the barber. Some men prefer their hair very short to save money. These misers think it’s twice a year or it’s extortion. Ex-US President Obama had a haircut every week, similar to a schoolmate. Hair is a very mundane investment, being our ‘crowning glory.’ By all means, most haired people who could afford it would spend money on a haircut.  

Zeitgeist

The zeitgeist plays a role in hairstyles. I remember when the Brazilian football player Ronaldo sported a unique ‘do, even Asian kids would copy his look. Moreover, FRIENDS star Jen Aniston was known for ‘The Rachel’ cut though she herself wasn’t a fan of the hairdo. Dreadlocks and afros are common, especially in pro sports. These days, a shorter cut with little hair at the back has become commonplace. I remember as a senior in school, we had this military-style drills in school. Our teacher, Mr Elepante, asked me to join him at the front. ‘This is the ideal haircut,’ he told the class. ‘You should all emulate Topher’s look.’ I spoke to a couple of my batchmates and they said they intend to duplicate my style.

Back in secondary school, I applied a lot of hair gel. I couldn’t leave the house without going through the routine. I did not feel like myself without the hair gel. I recall watching Edward Scissorhands with my class a couple of times. The Tim Burton movie featured real-life couple Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. In the movie, the oddball Edward, refuses to have a haircut. He instead does topiary for his neighbours and uses his Scissorhands to give them makeovers. He also romances Kim Boggs (Ryder). After watching the film, Victor – one of my classmates – said ‘Edward Scissor-dick.’

One time while going to the hairdresser here, I saw this kiddo and his finished noggin.

‘What do you think?’

‘Your hair’s still quite long’, I almost interjected.

Thorough and fulfilling

No offence, but barbers back home do a much thorough job than those here in Sydney. Once I settled in, I knew I would be fulfilled. These stylists have constant practice and are not afraid of making it short. They value every customer and do not hasten their work at the expense of their current customer. For the job they do, their pricing is very reasonable. While waiting, I usually browsed their newspaper or flicked through my magazine. Sometimes, I spotted people I know among the clientele. Like in the US, barbershops are the place to be. Hot topics like Manny Pacquaio and politics are talking points. There are even television sets where you can watch some blockbusters.

Oz style

Here in Oz, a crew cut is cheaper than a style cut. The latter involves using a clipper, scissors, and razor. A wash and a beard trim are added extras. I used to go for number four on top and three at the sides. Meanwhile, early on in the pandemic, with wholesale restrictions, the salons were empty. Social distancing has been practiced but spare a thought for the smaller shops. Language barriers has seen things lost in translation. For instance, I asked for them to make the back short. I ended up with a crew cut. The same applies with food, where I was asked if I want chilli. When I answered, ‘a bit’, our sandwiches were flaming hot. My chiropractor, Jeff, goes with the usual, a sixty-dollar service from one of his customers. He complimented my hairdo. I told him that I was paying fifteen dollars, up from ten bucks.  

Importance of hair

Hair is such an important accessory that some people would buy toupees just to score some style points. This is not just true for those with no hair, but even with those who are balding or have bald patches. World leaders are not exempt. On the high side, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has some nice locks, and so does French President Emanuel Macron. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un of North Korea headlines the bad side. There’s no doubt that he’s had atrocious hairdos through the years. The problem lies in his do’s incongruity with his image. With his trims, he ends up looking even bigger. His baggy outfits also don’t help his cause. He needs to change his stylist.

A kid’s ‘do

When I was little, I did not look forward to my barber trips. I wasn’t a fan of close-cropped hair but that’s what happened. Even in high school, I did not like my hairdos but understood that my shock of hair grew too quickly. My hair also tends to grow quickly on the sides. Observing people, most of them just don’t remove the excess. Shaving off the surplus has become a habit, as going with the flow would look untidy. I remember as a fifth grader I had a classmate who showed up with a full blond coiffure. Turns out he was only after some highlights but ended up mirroring Brad Pitt’s locks. This was a blatant violation of school rules and he had to go back and find an antidote. At least his initial ‘do got some compliments, even from a few teachers.  

My kind of barber

I admire barbers who are artful, who are not afraid to gamble if it is in their client’s best interest. I like it when they give a round illusion. Having a flat cut can leave you feeling discontent. I likewise salute those hairdressers who are unencumbered by time and who live to satisfy their patrons. These kinds are rare. More demand means more cash, often at the detriment of a good job. The routine might be the same. Sitting on a chair facing a mirror, putting on a poncho, receiving a clipper. Then, they use a pair of scissors, use some water, and a razor. Finally, the finishing touches are applied, with powder and a brush, maybe some gel. A good barber makes you feel at ease and impels you to come back. A great hairdresser does all that, and makes you feel at home.

 

Barbershops need not be just the parts but could be ‘the sum of the parts.’ It sure doesn’t just end with some shearing or razoring. They could be agorae or your window to the world. When I was in school, people used to say, ‘You look like a human’, after someone got a haircut. I had a friend in uni who had a short cut that made his face look a few times bigger. I sniggered a little though I could not admit that his hair was the reason. Looking back, I was sure my hairstyle wasn’t much different. For your info, short cuts generally won’t work on bigger people. Conversely, long cuts make thinner people even scrawnier. Know your number.  

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US Election 2020: You don’t know Joe

Someone told me that this is the most boring US election ever. We know who’ll win, they reasoned. If Hillary couldn’t beat Trump, then how can Joe? For the current President, losing was never an option. He repeatedly claimed that he did not know how he could handle defeat, especially to someone as lowly as Joe Biden. Anyhow, the same brain told me that Trump has never known losing. Throughout his sheltered life, failure was never an option. He was brought up on a silver spoon and acted like an insufferable brat all his life. He was the proverbial Tracy Flick, a fictional character from the movie Election which a young Reese Witherspoon portrayed. His win-at-all-cost mentality was very reminiscent of Flick. That Tracy was only a challenger (and not in power) was the main difference. Another contrast was that the fictitious know-it-all was conned while there was probably no cheating involved in this election. By the way, the title of this week’s post was culled from a documentary on the legend of two-sport All-Star Bo Jackson.

Democrats win

On Saturday evening (US time), news broke that Biden had won the 2020 Presidential election. The latter had even given a victory speech, together with his vice-president (VP), Kamala Harris. The latter becomes the first person of colour and the first woman to be VP. The streets of America were divided. Some rejoiced in the Democrat win, while others renounced the election result, saying that it was rigged. This is real vindication for Biden, marking his third attempt at the US Presidency. His first bid was in 1988, then in 2016. He served as VP under President Barrack Obama from 2008-2016. He also lost his first wife and his son to a car accident. He then lost his other son – to cancer. Thus, he is no stranger to failure.

Comedy King

For those pondering Trump’s reaction, he went on live TV following polling day. Sensing potential catastrophe, he went on record at the White House. He prematurely claimed victory and maintained that the votes were tainted. He argued, without evidence, of mass electoral fraud. He proclaimed that his team would wreck heaven and earth to prove this cheating. He and his team have maintained this stance for all of this past week. Trump spent the next couple of days far from modernity, playing golf in Virginia. Yet despite the distance, he could not avoid the backlash from protesters as he was driven around. Trump’s behaviour during his term has inspired countless parodies. Saying that he’s the most lampooned American President ever is not a stretch. After Biden’s moment, there was still 74 sleeps before inauguration day. The world is wondering what could happen in those days.

For all purposes, Trump has well worn out his welcome. He had four years of borrowed time. Most Yankees worth their salt would know that Hilary probably won the prior edition. In four years, he has spent his time undoing the progress of his predecessor, Obama. He has run the White House like a reality show, replete with firings and unnecessary drama. He has manned the ship with a fury, removing those who dare challenge him. Meanwhile, he expects the rest to quietly bow to him. This is true not only among his people, but also with other world leaders. Throughout his tenure, Trump has been a lightning rod for controversy. His comments over the late Senator John McCain swayed Arizona voters against him. Who could forget the Trump blimp which flew over London? Donald personifies someone who cares little about others’ feelings.

Election Day

The showdown was closer than predicted, with polling numbers at a record high. This election was decided among the so-called battleground states. Regardless, Biden was ahead after the first day of ballots. To win the White House, both combatants needed to amass 270 electorates. It seemed like Trump was stuck at 213. Four days later, he garnered just 214 electorates. Meanwhile, Biden was slowly pulling away. It got to the point where he needed merely Pennsylvania (with 20 seats) to reach the magic number. When that finally occurred, Trump’s re-election hopes were foiled. Even before the decision, Trump launched recount requests across the nation. While a couple were successful, others were rebuffed. A few were still pending.

Many commentators have argued that Trump won’t go out quietly. Some have gone so far as purporting that Donald wouldn’t surrender the White House and would have to be forcibly evicted. Apparently, Trump doesn’t listen to anyone and hates almost all media outlets. He even unleashes his attack dog, the fiery personal lawyer who launches his missiles. While he retains his cronies and sycophants, he has lost the confidence of more than half of the Americans who voted. He continues to shine in the eyes of hardliners, as seen in the anger and bitterness among his rank and file. Like their skipper, these followers will fight to the end. Anyhow, the minorities will never embrace Trump as a result of his tough policies. This plebiscite reveals that America has had enough. The record voter turnout is a testament of a country willing for change.

Legacy

After four years in the Oval Office, Trump becomes the first one-term American President in almost thirty years. He remains a polarising figure: some gush about his aura while many despise him. He fancies himself a bridge of peace, striking deals between countries in the Middle East. At the same time, he also advanced Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, angering the Palestinians. During his time in office, there were only a couple of state visits. In this regard, he could not stop criticising the Obama administration but there is no doubt that the latter had more allies. One could avow that Trump was making the wrong friends. He sought out Kim Jong-Un, making headlines around the world. However, his inner control freak ignited a trade war with China and tensions between the two superpowers have never been higher.

He has made sweeping changes to America’s foreign policy that has seen them retrogress instead of moving forward. The gap in the States’ social strata has become even more pronounced. People are losing their business, their livelihoods, their necessities. Due to the coronavirus, the country is in a bad recession. The road back to black seems like an improbability that will not happen in the next Presidential term. Black lives are more precarious than ever, a big talking point that Trump has avoided. When issues are of little benefit to him, Trump has consistently shown his apathy. Thus, the spate of injustice endures.

Overconfidence

Trump clearly underestimated his opponent. At various times, he ridiculed Biden for being ‘too old’ and for his stuttering. He called him ‘Sleepy Joe.’ He seemed blind to his own gross negligence, his appalling treatment of the American public. He ignores the fact that 240,000 of his constituents have fallen asleep as a result of him mishandling the coronavirus response. While he is busy Tweeting and planning his next assault on democracy, various insiders have reportedly asked him to concede and hand over the reins. Donald acted as if this election was his to lose. Trump has lambasted the media for declaring the Biden win. The outgoing leader believes that the news media has cooked up this victory and insisting that we should not trust them. The media in turn has responded, reminding Trump that there is no evidence of vote tampering whatsoever. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat has been labelled a sad day in American history.

‘Pass the flame’

When Trump finally leaves the White House, what happens then? His debt is a staggering USD 300 million. While he claims that he will re-contest the 2024 election, that will be a long shot. The Republican party will not pin their hopes on someone who already lost them the last plebiscite. By then, he would be 78 years old, the same age as Biden. Furthermore, some women have accused him of making unwanted advances towards them. The worst-case scenario is he ends up like disgraced Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. That’s not even mentioning all the other perks. The Secret Service, Air Force One, limousines, chauffeurs, a full ministerial cabinet, and the whole of the armed forces were at his command. Presidents are the biggest stewards of America. Now it’s time to turn over the page and pass the torch.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) interjects as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a reception for the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics at the White House in Washington, October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTS4NUZ
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My updated reads

Another three books knocked back; it’s time for an update. This list includes books 35-37 of the year. With my 36th read (Picoult), I’ve bettered last year’s total. This batch is another pair of fiction must-reads and, of course, a nonfiction title. Jodi Picoult’s output is a long-awaited page turner. The author reinforces her knack of exploring tricky family issues even as she incorporates the uncertainty of death in her narrative. Meanwhile, Gary Jubelin shares the life behind the uniform and the sacrifices that a homicide detective has to make. Finally, Matthew Reilly’s latest represents my last addition to this list. Reilly fans will love his fast-paced action, use of mythology, and endearing characters. As usual, the catalogue is in chronological order. Thus, I Catch Killers is the first read and so on.

  1. I Catch Killers (Gary Jubelin). This book is more like a catalogue than a memoir per se. Maverick detective Jubelin shares his experiences behind the suit as he chases and catches the evildoers. He relates on his childhood, where his disciplinarian father taught him how to be strong. He used to be a happy-go-lucky surfie until he found his calling. He joined the police academy and paid his dues before climbing the ladder. Right after his graduation in 1984, he enlisted on the force. From a lowly trainee in Hornsby, he would also work in Chatswood and set base in Port Macquarie. For most of his time, he was with the elite Homicide Department.

Justice

He would make it his mission to attain justice for his victims. In his time in law enforcement, there would be open-and-shut cases and there would be others dragging on for years. Moreover, the Bowraville murders would never be solved in his watch – although he tried his best. Technology would made giant strides since his genesis, specifically forensic analysis and computer use. Throughout his tenure, he always travelled a long way to work. His commitment to his job was to a fault, consistently burning the midnight oil. As a result, his marriages and relationships collapsed. However, he found his peace in qigong, meditation, and boxing.

He worked on the biggest investigation in state history: the aforementioned Bowraville debacle, the Lindt Café siege, and the disappearance of William Tyrell. Often, he was juggling multiple cases at a time. He talks about the sustained bureaucracy, lack of resources and empathy in solving these crimes. He became even more renowned after a TV series in 2009 that featured his work. The programme was a telling insight into his work ethic and his ruthless determination to serve justice. The show likewise revealed his strained connections with family and workmates. Killers is divided into three parts: Round One, Round Two, and Round Three. Each bit is further partitioned into smaller sections with titles.

The missing

Jubelin retired amid an inquiry on his handling of the Tyrell case. Thirty-four years after coming onboard, the detective has left a potent impression. His tireless campaigning ensures that two vital laws on murder cases have been ratified, benefiting scores of victims. Furthermore, his efforts secured the institution of the million-dollar reward in the state. I believe this is my first true crime read this year, a well-written and informative account from a justice crusader. The lack of an index is one problem though of this book. Given its length and the scope of names involved, an index would have been helpful.

Rating: 4.35/5

  • The Book of Two Ways (Picoult). I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. When I heard that Jodi had a new book, I was intrigued. This latest effort wasn’t as captivating as her prior reads but is still incredibly well-researched. You couldn’t fault Picoult for the factuality and preciseness of her work. The story alternates between two dream locations: Land/Egypt and Water/Boston. The novel opens with Dawn Edelstein having a near death experience as her plane crashes. A death doula by trade, Dawn edges to the precipice herself and makes a stunning decision: she would head to Egypt and her former life. Fifteen years ago, Dawn was a grad student who was part of contingent to dig mummies. There, she fell in love with Wyatt, a Pom charmer who calls her ‘Olive.’

A tale of two halves

However, having survived the first hundred fifty pages, the book rallies. Whereas before quantum physics permeated, the rest of the text was tofu. They were the best at deciphering hieroglyphs and the lost symbols made the first third of the book quite cumbersome. The Boston bits were well-coordinated. We see a couple trying to work through a marriage. Furthermore, we witness her daughter, Meret, grapple with teenager issues, from fat-shaming to the fear of losing a loved one. Dawn’s calling as a doula presents a third layer. She sees death and is there to make it as easy as possible: for them and their carers. During her time with her clients, she addresses their dying needs and lends an ear. Her mother’s battle with cancer convinced her to change her life path. Fifteen years later, she tries to reconcile missed opportunities and find some answers from her former life. There is a reason though for Dawn’s sudden trip, even as this appears entirely spontaneous. 

The rest

Picoult’s writing is witty and sentimental. The rest of the story is really page-turning. However, some readers have commented that she tries to juggle too many subjects: Egyptology, death, family, fat-shaming, and quantum physics. However, the sections are well-spaced. I like the twist though near the end. The surreal nostalgia reminded me a bit of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. The plot device involves the protagonist returning to their old life and finding that nothing has changed. True, the technology may have levelled-up and the characters may differ, but their loved ones will always welcome them back. In spite of the juggling act, this solid effort earned Picoult another Times bestseller.

Rating: 3.9/5

  • The Two Lost Mountains (Reilly). This work comprises the sixth and penultimate instalment in the author’s Jack West series. I’ve read all of them save for The Seven Ancient Wonders. His collection is among the breeziest you’ll find. This book continues from the events of its predecessor, with the fate of the good guys up in the air. For all of this volume, Jack and his ragtag team have their backs against the wall. The baddies are always a few steps ahead of them. Their mission this outing is to find one of the five Iron Mountains, two of which have never been found. Once there, Jack has to do the Fall, which will be his ticket to the Supreme Labyrinth. The latter must be overcome to ensure the world’s survival.

Plot

The plot hopscotches around the world. For instance, the Vatican and Moscow were some of the earlier sites. Furthermore, the island of Mont Saint-Michel was a key location. The text uses bona fide landmarks such as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Siwa Oasis in Egypt. This enables Reilly to stretch the limits of the bookworm’s imagination. While some settings may be real, the legends and abracadabra are not. I thought that Zapadny Cosmodrome in Libya was real, as the author had supplied a brief history. However, upon checking, the facility does not actually exist. Prior instalments featured historical figures such as Genghis Khan and Moses to drive Reilly’s point home. This one has references to Napoleon, Imhotep, and Saint Francis Xavier.

Reilly has taken a page out of Michael Crichton. See also: Great Zoo of China. In today’s fiction, Reilly is the cliff-hanger maestro. He loves to mobilise precarious situations before leaving the reader with a dash – only to marshal his heroes out of doom. Some people have even purported that he’s overdoing these thrill rides. While he is a suspense wizard, Reilly is also a techie. He makes sure that his characters board the latest and biggest planes, use cutting-edge earphones, and could access a limited-edition serum unavailable to the public. Moreover, the author lives in putting finality. To take out the massive dome of St Peter’s Basilica and the side of the Temple Mount is pure Indiana Jones. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is the writer who pulverised the New York public library in his debut. While the ending of Two Lost Mountains may not be conclusive, it does set the stage for the final book.  

Rating: 5/5

This is my thirteenth list of the year. While I perused eight nonfiction titles last year, I’ve gone through fourteen in 2020. On this list, Reilly and Picoult had a common Egyptian theme. John Grisham’s latest will be next. This is the third in the Jake Brigance series. The first book, A Time to Kill, had a film adaptation starring Matthew McConaughey. I saw that movie and hope this one will live up to the hype.

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Chatswood, NSW: Welcome to the (urban) Jungle

The north shore suburb of Chatswood, New South Wales, represents a major mercantile and residential area. To show just how major the district is, the suburb has three shopping centres. Ponder that for a moment: three malls while others nearby have none. The trio of centres include Westfield Chatswood, the Mandarin Centre, and Chatswood Chase. Furthermore, Chatswood station is a transit hub for both buses and the light rail service. Just outside the terminal, there is a Woolworths Metro store. There are likewise two Hoyts cinemas: one in Westfield and another at Chatswood Mandarin. For good measure, there are three branches of the same pharmacy chain. Restaurants and small retailers line the streets. My friend once told me that the area has become ‘too urban’ for his liking.

Westfield

Years and years ago, I recall the station being upgraded. We came here often. The Westfield wasn’t very developed yet. The mall was smaller and reminded me of the Burwood iteration. While the latter retained its stature, its Chatswood cousin underwent a few major revamps and makeovers. I remember watching Spiderwick Chronicles a lifetime ago at the Hoyts here. I also used to frequent the massive Borders spot before they evaporated. In addition, a family friend lives in this posh area. We sighted her a few times. During our early trips, Target, Coles, Myer, and Food for Less were the anchors. I don’t remember much of the latter; which Aldi has since taken over.

Westfield Chatswood is situated along Chatswood Mall, the pedestrian mall that links the transport interchange to the shopping precinct. Chatswood Mall itself runs along Victoria Avenue, the main thoroughfare. In this regard, the Westfield there bears a resemblance to its Hornsby cousin. The walkaway became pedestrian-only in 1989. Regardless, I recall buying a thin striped henley from Myer during their midseason sale. That item is still serviceable. I also picked up a plain grey Jag hoodie another time, also from Myer. My most recent purchases from the latter’s Chatswood store were a multipack sock and a rugby sweater. They likewise sport a JustJeans, where, some years back, I got a good pair of chinos on the cheap. The Spanish fashion giant Zara entered the scene in 2014.

Facelift

In 2015, the Westfield had a $110 million facelift. The gross floor area was raised from 77,000 square metres to 80,000 square metres. H & M opened shop in the area that Toys R’ Us vacated. This comprised the third H & M store in Sydney. A Uniqlo store was also added. With Topshop also arriving, the centre housed the four global fast fashion retailers at one point, until Topshop departed. Forty new stores came in as part of this redevelopment. Furthermore, the erstwhile two-level entrance fronting Victoria Avenue was repurposed into a five-storey mall. This included the aforementioned Topshop and Topman which has since closed. After this refurbishment, I purchased a limestone-coloured down jacket from Kathmandu. This was good timing as I used the jacket during our skiing adventure.

A Hawker Lane dining precinct was also instituted. However, the old food court shrunk to a few outlets. I recall having many meals in their old food court, which had a Macca’s, KFC, Subway, a sushi place, Asian cuisine, Pizza Hut, Boost – to name a few. Now, the KFC and Pizza Hut are all that’s left. The Maccas has since teleported near the station while Asian gastronomy can now be located in Hawker Lane. This reminds me a bit of their Bondi version. In both instances, the food court had to be diminished to make way for H & M. In the latter’s case, H & M replaced the entire second food court.

Chatswood Chase

One would be mistaken for thinking that the suburb revolves around Westfield, as is often the case. Indeed, Westfield was not the first major mall to spring up in Chatswood; that title goes to Chatswood Chase. The latter was born in 1983, three years prior to Westfield. Prior to the centre materialising, the local council developed the ‘Chatswood Plan’ which would highlight the suburb as the centre for infrastructure and advance the council’s retail focus. The council aimed that the town axis would remain as the heart of regional retail. David Jones (DJ) and Grace Bros. initially pitched to establish a shopping centre. However, cat fights between the two saw Grace Bros. drop out of contention and David Jones flying solo.

Pre-development began in 1981 prior to Grace Bros.’ final challenge. The centre came to fruition after fourteen months. Upon opening in ’84, the mall had a Coles, Kmart, DJ, and the only Myer in the state at the time, before this converted to a Grace Bros. This ensured that Chatswood was the only suburb in NSW at the time to have two Grace Bros. When the latter said sayonara, specialty shops and the food court took up the void. In 2003, the mall was bought by Centro. A considerable makeover took place in 2007, with an additional 10,300 square metres of retail space. The revamp includes relocating Coles, undergoing a large-scale extension to lower ground retail, a new food court, additional parking, and an entrance upgrade. Work was completed in 2010 and included a name change. After this facelift, I bought a mud-coloured leather wallet from Rodd and Gunn. I liked the big coins compartment and that I got it at half-price. We also bought a bag from Esprit, before they closed down. The centre has 63,619 square metres of floor space.

The third centre

The third and final major mall in Chatswood is Mandarin Centre. The food court is the mall’s main drawcard. There are a lot of options from various Asian cuisines. There is even a Korean smorgasbord. In general, the prices are lower than Hawker Lane. Given the flurry of options, there is more variety. The mall also has a number of variety stores. Downstairs, there is an Asian grocery. There used to be a Trade Secret on level one, which T.K. Maxx has since replaced. I was able to grab a blue baseball cap from them. I’ve never tried their cinema, but for some this may be their main allure.

I understand my friend when he says that the area is too urbanised and has such a city vibe. Buildings, shops, apartments, and concrete dominate, much like Bondi Junction. The elevation of the railway into a transit hub clinches this argument. More journeys mean more people. The trio of malls make the suburb unique. There are only a handful of areas that are lucky to have two major centres. Make no mistake though: there are enough stores in Chatswood. There are tea shops, ice cream parlours, private health offices, banks, fast fashion, department stores, sporting stores, food courts, electronics stands, and shoe stores. The various retailers cater for different budgets. However, while Chatswood is a shopper’s haven, nature lovers may be disappointed. 

Victoria Avenue
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‘2020 NRL Finals Series’

There are just a few more sleeps to go before the much-awaited NRL (National Rugby League) Grand Final. The championship match marks the culmination of the current league calendar and will see the rising Penrith Panthers square off against the mighty Melbourne Storm. This weekend’s face-off will be the fourth and last of the NRL’s postseason tournament. Through four October weekends, we’ve seen eight teams fight their hearts out but there could only be one ultimate champion. In the prior three weekends, the two-time defending titlists (Sydney Roosters) were bounced from the competition. Meanwhile, the South Sydney Rabbitohs fell at the preliminary final hurdle for the third straight year. The Parramatta Eels made a valiant effort, but a depleted line-up was no match to the Bunnies’ firepower.

Some background

Like all other sporting competitions, the Coronavirus pandemic impacted this year’s NRL play. The league managed to play two rounds before the season was suspended. During Round 2, no spectators were allowed in. The suspension of the NRL season was unprecedented in the competition’s history. During the extended pause, CEO Todd Greenberg stepped down after four years at the helm. After two months of uncertainty, the code resumed the action on 27 May. The competition was reduced to 20 rounds while the Grand Final was maintained. Teams will play each other at least once with an extra five fixtures. Points from the first two rounds would be upheld. The State of Origin series (all-star games) will be held in November, subsequent to the NRL season. Anyhow, the Grand Final was slated to be contested on 25 October at ANZ Stadium (Olympic Park). The New Zealand Warriors were the squad most caught up in the lockdown. However, the three Queensland sides were allowed to train and play in their home state. In addition, the remaining matches were vied with only one referee.

Season restart and some storylines

None of the Queensland teams qualified for the finals. The Warriors likewise failed to make the cut. During the early part of the restart, no fans were permitted in the venues. After a few weeks, only a small number of die-hards were allowed in. However, in time for the postseason, more devotees were authorised as long as they adhered to social distancing. The year also saw the retirement of Tigers legend Benji Marshall. Moreover, Mitch Aubusson of the Roosters called it quits. The centre exited having played the most first-grade contests for the club. The return of Sonny Bill was also a talking point in the league. Some insiders criticised his decision to join the champs at the expense of others who needed his services more. There was finally a Sonny Bill sighting in Round 17, when he suited up in a Grand Final rematch against the Canberra Raiders. Even in his limited playing time, his knack at offloading the ball was intriguing.  

Finals format

The Finals series kicked off on October 2, with two qualifying matches and two elimination deciders during that weekend. The current postseason format has been in place since 2012, where the top-four teams enjoy a twice-to-beat advantage, while the top two teams advance to the preliminary finals after a week 1 triumph. The teams with better records host the contests. Furthermore, the bottom two seeds must win or go home at every stage. The Penrith Panthers were crowned minor premiers after blowing the competition away with 37 points (out of forty). As a reward for their excellence, the Panthers matched up against the Roosters. The fixture was close, with the Panthers leading by six late in the second half. Nathan Cleary scored three tries in a span of fifteen minutes before intermission. With the Panthers hanging on to their lead, Cleary hit a field goal with two minutes left, thus securing the win. Being the top seed, the Panthers marched on to the Preliminary Final.

Week 1

In other matches, the Cronulla Sharks did not hold a candle against the Raiders. They lost their best player, Shaun Johnson, prior to the elimination tilt. They were also playing in Canberra. While they led 14-10 at the half, the Raiders simply outworked and outmuscled them, flipping the script after the break. A similar story unfolded at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, where the Storm played their home games. Melbourne was too good against the Parramatta Eels, with their experience and star power overwhelming the latter. They outscored the Eels, four tries to two, in the payoff period. Meanwhile, The Rabbitohs thrashed the Newcastle Knights, 46-20 in the other elimination final. This was in spite of the Knights’s star, Kalyn Ponga, and his bravura output. The youngster seemed undaunted by the tall task. Interestingly, this matchup was contested at ANZ Stadium. Souths hooker Damien Cook was named Man of the Match after his impressive performance.

Week 2

The second week of action involved two semi-finals with the victors marching onto the prelims. The first matchup was held on 9 October and featured the Chooks against the Raiders, a rematch of last year’s championship. It was a low-scoring affair with the scoreboard hovering in the teens for most of the second half. Josh Papali rushed to the try line within the initial five minutes. After twenty minutes, the Green Machine was ahead 16-0. Roosters star James Tedesco (Teddy) scored a try before halftime, making the line 16-6. The Roosters attempted a spirited comeback after the break. However, they seemed to falter when the time mattered most. Teddy himself made a few miscues that could’ve saved the Chooks. However, the Roosters wouldn’t come close without his scoring. Unlike last year, they seemed to have lost their composure under duress. Forward passes, rushed throws, missed assignments all contributed to the Roosters’ demise. The Raiders escaped, 22-18.

In the other semi, Parra faced the Bunnies on the following day. On paper, it was a mismatch. The Eels had lost winger (and prolific try-scorer) Maika Sivo to injury. They were likewise without Blake Ferguson, who was also hurt. With the suspension of Michael Jennings, many pundits had already written off the Eels. However, captain Clint Gutherson scored two tries before setting up another in the first half. Parra capitulated after intermission following another Damien Cook show. Souths ran away, 38-24. This set up a date with the waiting Panthers at ANZ Stadium.

Prelims  

Melbourne met Canberra in a tussle featuring the last two grand finalists. The Storm trounced the Raiders in front of 37,112 fans at Suncorp. This one was never close, with three tries by Melbourne in the opening nine minutes. Their defence was stifling, as they only allowed two Raiders tries all match. The final score was 30-10, Storm. Raiders coach Ricky Stewart was crestfallen after the match. In the other prelim, the Panthers outlasted the Bunnies in a close encounter. While Souths struck first, Penrith will have the next three tries. Cleary had a perfect kicking night, going four of four. Adam Reynolds had a shot in the last five minutes. He seemed to have gotten off a 40/20 kick that would have allowed his squad to gain valuable metres at the close. However, replays showed that his foot touched the line, negating the chance. The attendance at ANZ Stadium was 30,116.

The last shogun

When one of the commentators was asked whether Penrith could topple the Storm, he said that he had ‘serious doubts about it.’ The Storm have been a permanent fixture in the finals. In the last few years, they have even won (and lost) some Grand Finals. They have the right mixture of savvy veterans and hungry young guns. They have big-game players who relish these opportunities. For them, it’s just another testament to their greatness. Meanwhile, history would look kind towards the young Panthers. Their past victory laps reveal that securing the minor premiership was huge. This fixture could be either of two things: a changing of the guard or the continuation of shogun rule. On Sunday, who will win the august Clive Churchill medal for best on ground? In spite of the pandemic, border closures, leadership shakeups, and empty stadiums, the NRL will not be deterred. ‘The show must go on.’

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Latest reads

Another few weeks have passed; it’s time to collate. I’ll be serving another dose of the usual: three books comprised of two novels and one nonfiction read. Once again, I’ve included two crime novels. The Silent Wife (Slaughter) marks my seventh read from her Will Trent series this year. This is also her latest release. Meanwhile, The Leopard is the sixth Harry Hole novel of the year. He keeps his instalments riveting by introducing new characters and themes. Finally, Mary Trump’s revelatory account rounds out the trio. Too Much and Never Enough is an enlightening portrait into the Trump family, a timely vivisection into the man currently occupying the White House.

  1. The Silent Wife (Slaughter). As mentioned in a prior post, this represents my seventh Will Trent read of the year. This instalment has the familiar Slaughter brushstrokes: a serial killer on the loose; women murdered; a dramatic opening; the GBI scrambling to contain the killings. There is also an unusual touch: the plot alternates between a turbulent past and bleak present. The narrative divides between Dr Linton’s two great loves: Jeffrey Tolliver (past) and Will Trent (current). Of course, other regulars such as Amanda Wagner and Faith Mitchell. Lena Adams and her lost notebooks remain the secondary antagonist.

A woman is murdered in the woods. Two more killings occur six months later. A man is incarcerated for the slayings. Eight years later, he offers the cops a deal. He points out that the murders have not abated since his imprisonment. Spread over eight years, there have been seventeen killings. The GBI is invited in to unmask the matador. The original case was a Grant County investigation, the area where Sara Linton grew up and where her ex, Jeffrey, was the chief. Having just divorced, they were not on good terms at the time. However, the former couple have to work together to bring the perp to justice. I recall Broken (Trent number four) as also being set in Grant County. This one varies from Grant County and Atlanta, with a Macon quick aside.

Slaughter uses a few interesting literary devices. Firstly, she has a curious way with words. She takes terms from popular culture and wedges them into the plot and dialogue. Secondly, she creates a weird habit in the early victim’s roommate: the use of question marks in every other sentence. Third, she does a Connelly in recycling olden technology to sell the feel of a bygone era. Of course, these are all in addition to the clever use of twists and side stories. She establishes the killer as someone versed in human anatomy, with access to a workman’s tools, unafraid of the spotlight, and who drives a van. The pacing was classic Slaughter and the matador’s identity remains a mystery until the end. The lack of progress in Will and Sara’s relationship is off-putting. For the last three or four books, it’s like they’ve been frozen. I guess the author needs this to buy more time for future instalments. The conclusion was disappointing.

Rating: 4.25/5

  • Too Much and Never Enough (Mary L. Trump). This is an eye-opening account from a Trump insider. Mary Trump, a licensed psychologist and the President’s only niece, sheds light on a turbulent family history. That Donald tried to block the publication of the book only added to its mystique. Although only 211 pages long, the title packs a lot. At times, it resembles a psychology reading – especially the prologue, last chapter, and epilogue. However, for the most part, the book is an easy, if sad, read. Mary argues that her family enabled ‘the world’s most dangerous man.’ To illustrate her point, she goes way back and provides a rare family history. She examines her grandparents and their children, debunking the myth that Donald was a self-made man.

She traces the Trump story from Germany and Scotland, the Spanish flu, and the Great War. She talks about the House, where the real Trump story unfolds. Mary even reminisces on her earliest memories in the House. The author scrutinises three main entities: Fred (her grandfather), Freddy (her since-deceased dad), and Donald (her uncle). Fred was the patriarch, the man who built an empire and put the Trump name on the map. In spite of his business sense, Fred was difficult – especially to his children. Though he was a very wealthy man with connections, Fred lived frugally. Unbeknownst to many, Freddy (being the oldest son) was being groomed to take over Trump Management, the lucrative family business. However, Fred’s narcissistic and overbearing tendencies precluded Freddy from ever spreading his wings. Though he became a commercial pilot, his father’s abuse led to Freddy’s alcoholism. Freddy died without ever having his family’s support.

Donald quickly learned from his brother’s failings and became his father’s favourite son. He benefitted from his dad’s largesse but had none of Fred’s business acumen. Mary’s revelations shocked me. Her family treated them like pariahs. They were cut out from Fred’s will, repeatedly told that they deserved nothing because their dad died with nothing. They had to settle for peanuts due to a gross undervaluing of their late grandfather’s estate. Even as Fred adored Donald, dementia marred his final years. Since he was now a liability, Fred was treated with contempt. In the final chapter, Mary makes her case as to why Donald is unfit to serve as the leader of the free world. He has been getting away with it for too long, she says. His responses to natural calamity, racism, and COVID-19 have cemented this claim in her eyes. It took Mary a while to finally act and call out her uncle. However, the end result is a polished work that provides much insight into the Trumps.

Rating: 4.35/5

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
  • The Leopard. (Jo Nesbo). Detective Harry Hole returns in the eight book of this bestselling crime series. After the events of The Snowman investigation, Harry decides to quit the force and intends on seeing volcanoes in the Philippines. However, during a stopover in Hong Kong, he decides that the place isn’t bad and spends his time betting big on the horses and eating glass noodles at a hole in the wall. His boss, Gunnar, sends a newbie cop, Kaja Solness, to fetch Harry as another serial killer stalks the streets of Oslo. This is an epic novel and at 740 pages (mass market paperback), is the thickest read of the year so far. Interestingly enough, the next-longest one for me was 695 pages, also a Nesbo work.

While most of the text is set around Oslo, a significant portion transpires in the Congo. The author unpacks noteworthy concepts such as trust, colonialism, and the third world. Like Nesbo’s other work, there is more than enough twists and turns to keep readers rapt. The mobilisation of new characters adds some spice to the thrills. In particular, the addition of overzealous Mikael Bellman is the perfect foil to Hole’s methodical ways. A mole is handing over information from Harry’s small team to Bellman’s outfit. Though this is revealed soon enough, the matador’s face remains a mystery. Like The Snowman, this one is set in midwinter, full of skis, snowstorms, and snowmobiles. There is even an actual avalanche in the middle.   

The title refers to the Leopold’s apple, a torture device that the slayer employs. Said device was bought off a Belgian in the Congo. The apparatus was responsible for the deaths of two women. The book sees Harry’s personal life in tatters. Rakel, his former flame, has fled the country in the aftermath of The Snowman crisis. His father, Olav, is on his death bed. His position in the force is again being scrutinised and the future looks bleak for Crime Squad, his employer. Early on, the killer’s clean crime scenes left them befuddled. Once again, Harry manages to keep his demons at bay and does not succumb to the bottle for most of the case. He also gets ample help from Katrine Bratt, who is battling her own demons. Like all good crime novelists, Nesbo makes sure to leave sufficient clues and suspects while keeping the reader guessing till the end. Unlike Michael Connelly, all of the chapters are titled.  

Rating: 4.5/5

Voila! Three books in three weeks. I currently have a true crime book from a retired Aussie detective. I also hold an older Grisham read from the Master of Legal thrillers. Anyhow, Jodi Picoult’s latest is my current read. The book is a challenging read with hieroglyphics and quantum physics, but any text by Picoult is worth perusing. Skal!

The House (Trumps)
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The northwest nexus: Castle Towers

The recent addition of the Northwest (NW) Metro has democratised travel to the region. Castle Hill is one of the main beneficiaries. The eponymous Metro stop sits adjacent to Castle Towers, a large shopping centre that is the Northwest’s drawcard. I’ve been to the mall twice, both of them this past May. The first one was brief. After lunch, I left soon to travel over an hour to Macarthur Square. I was after my Tigers pair, of which only they stocked. I saw much more of the centre during my subsequent visit. Castle Towers has a wide range of shops, is well laid-out, and is an upmarket shopping destination.

Two ways

If you’re taking the train, there are two ways you could get to Castle Towers. Option A: change at Chatswood for the light rail to Castle Hill. Option B: take the Metro from nearby Epping. If you’re travelling from the city, Option A makes more sense. Our initial visit to Castle Hill was also my first commute on the light rail. The NW had been running for about a year by then. Epping marks the fourth stop from Chatswood. Cherrybrook is next, then Castle Hill. In short, the latter is the sixth stop from Chatswood. The Metro trains are driverless, with barriers along the platform to streamline the experience. My friend admitted that the concept and running of the service reminds him of its Singaporean counterpart. In particular, the seating plan and announcer bore a striking resemblance.

Food Court

Since the Castle Hill stop is underground, you’ll ascend one level, tap off, then pass through a short tunnel before getting to the mall. The station and tunnel were surprisingly windy even though there was nary a window around. Upon entering, The Reject Shop is the first store you’ll see. We bought a wall clock and some nuts on our initial visit. Aside from Reject, the ground-level food court is also near the entrance. The usual fast food is there: Oporto, McDonald’s and KFC. There is also sushi, Japanese, and Chinese outlets. Further along, there are a couple of joints. The seating area was closed during our first visit, owing to the pandemic. Apparently, this part of the centre (the entrance and food court) is new and was only opened last December. The area used to be a car park before being repurposed as part of a new development. The tunnel that connects to the station is part of this rezoning.

We found out that they had a second food court. Unlike its ground-floor cousin, this one only had two outlets open: a fish and chips shop and the venerable Indian option. Castle Towers is spread over three bright levels with generous corridors. The centre has both a Kmart and a Target. We browsed both department stores on our second trip, where I purchased a blue sweater from Kmart. Furthermore, the complex touts a Best and Less. I noticed in May that the retailer was a popular choice given the lack of sizes. I also bought this camel pant from Surf Dive n’ Ski (SDS), a steal at twenty-seven bucks. Apart from the pant, I looked at their belts, shirts, and bags.

Browsing

We checked at Just Jeans, where I tried on a couple of jumpers. One of their olive henleys was on sale, but the plain colour wasn’t very enticing. Further along from SDS, I was surprised that they had a large Uniqlo store. We had a quick browse. We passed by Lowes, where they had fleece pants for 14.95. I gave it a quick think, before we decided to look at others first. Two weeks later, while browsing in the city, Lowes had jacked up the cost to 19.95. For that price, I was able to buy two fleece pants at a discount shop in Bondi.

Gold Class

Castle Towers also has a bookstore, and houses both Myer and David Jones (DJ). During both our trips in May, Myer was temporarily closed. Shoppers likewise have the option of Coles and Aldi. Event Cinemas is on the upper level and includes Gold Class – the premium cinematic experience with reclining chairs and gourmet food delivered to your seat. I remember having an older classmate who was from the Hills district. She told her friend that she tried out the Gold Class cinema at Castle Towers, which was her first bite of the apple. The auditorium seated about thirty people. I’ve visited Gold Class in Bondi, Macquarie, and Parramatta. However, before the advent of the Metro, going to Castle Hill wasn’t practical.

Unrivalled

The scale and accessibility of Castle Towers is unrivalled in Sydney’s NW corridor. The Queensland Investment Corporation owns the complex, which opened in October of 1982. As of this month, there are 292 stores in Castle Hill, meaning there’s something for everyone.  As mentioned, the centre boasts both DJ and Myer. Moreover, it also carries three discount department stores: Kmart, Target, and Best and Less. In addition, the mall offers a multi-screen cineplex, which includes Gold Class. The current cineplex is a relative novelty, having been constructed in 2009. Coles and Aldi are also part of the story. The precinct houses pharmacies, two food courts, and a flurry of fashion destinations including Uniqlo, Cotton On, Country Road, Rodd and Gunn, and Yd. Techies can hang out at JB HiFi, Sony, Vodafone, EB Games, or Mobile Experts. There are news agents for bookworms, Shaver Shop for the vain, and the requisite bank branches.

History

As of last December, Castle Towers has a total retail space of 117,700 square metres. The complex likewise has parking for over 5,000 vehicles. Speaking of the car park, I recall my chap posting that he lost his bike. He thought that someone nicked his ride; he even alerted the authorities. Turns out the parking is massive and losing your bike is easy as. Anyhow, through almost forty years of trading, the precinct has undergone a number of expansions and redevelopments. When it opened in 1982, Kmart, Coles and the now-defunct Norman Ross were the anchor tenants. David Jones and Franklins were added in 1991.

In August of 1993, the cinema site was launched, and Target succeeded Norman Ross. September of 1999, a second cinema site was instituted, and 44 specialty stores were annexed in the new Piazza dining district. In April 2000, Target and DJ expanded with Bi-Lo and Food for Less unseating Franklins; 76 more shops were welcomed. In August of 2001, the final chapter was revealed with a two-storey Grace Bros (Myer) and 34 posh fashion retailers. January 2007 saw Dan Murphy succeed Food for Less. In June 2009, Myer appended a new lower-ground level, relaunching as a three-level store.

Onwards

Further expansion, which has since been approved, will see the centre ballooning to 150,000 square metres. This would make Castle Towers one of the largest malls in Australia. Meanwhile, both our trips to Castle Hill were during the height of the pandemic. The food court was barely operational, some outlets were closed, and shoppers were few. I doubt that this was the case even as late as summer of this year. Looking at the complex, you wouldn’t deduce that it is steeped in history. If you aren’t informed, you could be mistaken for thinking that the tunnel-shaped portal at the front has been there for years. As it turns out, it hasn’t even been there for a year. If you don’t dare, you’ll never know.

Sydney Metro Northwest
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Cobra Kai (2018-) reviewed: the karatistas

A few weeks ago, I finished viewing Cobra Kai. The series, which continues The Karate Kid saga, was the number one show on Netflix at the time. Cobra Kai premiered in 2018 on YouTube. The series sees the return of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). The two archrivals teach a new generation of ‘karatistas’ while balancing the demands of family. The show blends elements of the 80s with the present, interspersing old shots with modern technology. Netflix acquired the rights to Cobra in June this year and the third series is slated to arrive in early 2021. In breaking news, the programme has been renewed for a fourth season.

The main combatants in this one are from rival factions: Cobra Kai and Miyagi-do Karate. Here is the line-up of the key players:

Cobra Kai

Johnny Lawrence. A down and out alkie, Johnny works as a repairman but is fired from his perch after a situation with a client. Apathetic, he lives alone in his apartment and has long ignored his ex-wife and teenage son. His Ecuadorian neighbour, Miguel, is his saving grace. Soon, he trains the latter but warns him not to flaunt his skills. He wants to educate Miguel in the right way, unlike his former mentor. Throughout the series, he battles to contain his demons, both the bottle and Kreese, his instructor. He encourages Miguel to address him as ‘sensei’. After Miguel’s karate moves went viral, the Cobra Kai dojo becomes a hit. Johnny can usually be seen shouting ‘Quiet’, when he’s not picking on the weaklings. While he still has the goods in the dojo, Johnny isn’t tech savvy in the slightest. He returns a laptop, until the shop assistant tells him to try the power button. When Daniel shows him social media posts, he is dumbfounded: ‘What’s a Facebook?’ He even asks Miguel: ‘What’s Wi-Fi?’ Ultimately, he urges his followers to show their opponents mercy. I didn’t realise that the role of Johnny Karate in Parks and Rec was based on Lawrence.  

Miguel Diaz. Lawrence’s first student, he is a quick leaner who initially sought out Lawrence for karate kicks after the latter defended him against school bullies. Miggy is awkward and shy in the beginning but, under the tutelage of Lawrence, soon becomes confident and cool. His elevation into a lethal weapon marks the turning point in West Valley High. The inept nerds unseat the popular kids from their throne. He begins a relationship with Sam, Daniel’s daughter. However, this would be short-lived as he connects on a wayward punch in his attempt to defend his girl. Though he tries hard to salvage the liaison, his efforts prove futile. When Tory, the new girl, enters the dragon, she gains his attention. Anyhow, he treats Johnny like the father he’s never had, and their bond exceeds that of student/teacher. He is close to his mother and his abuela. His work ethic and quench for learning put him at the top of his karate class. Thirty-four years after his sensei lost to LaRusso, Diaz becomes the All-Valley Tournament champion.

Hawk

Hawk. Just like Diaz, Eli/Hawk is a leper at the beginning. His circle of friends is negligible and his social life, non-existent. He decides to sign up to Cobra Kai after seeing Miggy make light work of the bullies. Lawrence taunts the kid, calling him ‘lip’ and picking on him for being soft. One day, Eli shows up with a mohawk ‘do and quite a bit of swagger. He thus transforms into a formidable warrior. At the All-Valley tourney, Eli comes one point away from setting up a meeting with Miggy in the finale. However, he is disqualified a low blow against Robby Keane (Johnny’s son). This early exit is reminiscent of the semis in the ‘84 edition, when LaRusso’s opponent was dismissed in a similar fashion. Hawk is no doubt the second-best shogun at Cobra Kai. While uber confident, Hawk graduates into the people he despises. He becomes a bully himself.

Tory Nichols. She arrives in season 2 and is an energiser bunny from the beginning. Even on her first day, she knows her kicks. Unlike Sam, she does not have a privileged upbringing. She bonds with Aisha and is quickly infatuated with Miggy. She also has the habit of swiping stuff, which enrages Sam. Due to their shared connections with Diaz, Sam and Tory start a rivalry, which gets out of hand at the end of season 2. Tory is determined and motivated. She listens to her teachers, but she can be temperamental

Aisha Robinson. Though her family has galleons, Aisha was a nobody in school. She was shamed for being herself. Sam was one of the few people who genuinely cared about her. Then she discovered Cobra Kai and was one of the dojo’s early tutees. Interestingly, Aisha was the dojo’s first female trainee. While Lawrence was initially against women in the gym, Aisha proved him wrong. She was then organising events and meeting new people. From being avoided, she was now recruiting people to join Cobra Kai. More importantly, she was standing up to the sadists. She hangs out with Tory.

John Kreese. Karate Kid fans will remember Kreese for being the mad sensei who broke Johnny’s second-place trophy. He is sometimes referred here as ‘sensei emeritus.’ A merciless tactician, Kreese demanded his students thus: ‘Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.’ While Lawrence adapted this mantra, he did so in a much tamer manner than his sempai. Kreese returns unwelcomed, but secretly desires to take over the dojo and instil his brand of karate to these new converts. He lies about his travails and his past victories in armed conflicts around the globe. He talks about brumation, about snakes rising from the desert and reclaiming their stake. Johnny takes offence to what he sees as Kreese’s medieval ways. Yet Johnny’s ‘show mercy’ suggestion might cost him the caucus, leaving the gateway open for Kreese.

  

Miyagi-Do

Daniel LaRusso. The protagonist of the first three Karate Kid films, Daniel-san is the foil to Cobra Kai’s plans to take over the world. With their dirty tactics, Daniel views them as the enemy. Now a successful franchiser of auto dealerships, the re-emergence of Cobra Kai puts Daniel on notice. While Daniel is a dedicated family man in the outset, he fast trades his car ads for his kata. He then spends more time with his mentees than with his wife. Though a self-made millionaire, he still reels from the loss of Mr Miyagi, his mentor. However, the sempai’s influence in his teaching method is alive, from doing chores to cutting bonsais. He makes it his mission to eradicate Cobra Kai as he is against everything that they stand for. LaRusso imparts the consequence of balance to his students, and that karate is not for showing off but more for self-defence. He makes it clear that they should strike only if warranted. For much of the series, he has trouble outshining Cobra Kai and has few converts.

Samantha LaRusso. Daniel’s only daughter was trained to fight from a tender age. She is part of the popular group, with friends that are heartless, hyperreal, and narcissistic. She can usually be seen radiant and with a smile. She starts being involved with Diaz, but the inadvertent blow costs him his chances. Daniel winning her a big octopus was one of their high moments. Unlike her dad, Sam grew up well-off, living a sheltered life of country clubs and fancy cars. After Miggy, she becomes linked with Robby. For most of the two seasons, she and Robby are the only ones at Miyagi-Do. Though she balks at first, she becomes committed to her father’s training regime. She spends a lot of time on her devices but, unlike her brother Anthony, she gives the bonsais a go.

Robby Keene. At the start, Robby’s a delinquent, intent on punishing his absentee father. His mother, who raised him, is likewise often MIA (missing in action). He initially approaches LaRusso to spite Johnny. However, as opportunity keeps knocking, he grows to love his job. After training with Daniel, he leaves his old life behind and embraces his new identity. Furthermore, he goes to live with the LaRusso’s, who are unaware that he is Johnny’s boy. When Daniel finally finds out, he is gutted. However, he forgives the teener, seeing the kid’s natural fighting skills. Daniel admits that he could see the similarities between them: being raised by a single parent in a bad part of town. Keane competes at the All-Valley, where he loses to an inspired Miguel in the championship bout. After a while, he softens his stance against his dad, having realised that his father valued him after all.   

There are plenty of reasons to tune in to this awesome series: the fight scenes, the laughs, the youth movement, even the rekindling of old magic. Being around half an hour in length, it’s also just the right length to enthral you. To complete the look, as mentioned, a number of vital cogs have reprised their roles. If luck has it, there’s talk of even more cast members returning for one last dance. As mentioned, Netflix has dangled 2021 as the next chapter in the Cobra Kai legend. Should you have witnessed the first two series, the follow-up couldn’t come soon enough.

Rating: 5/5

The All-Valley final: Miguel v Robby
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September 2020 reads

This month’s reads are another mixed bunch. I started off with The Snowman, Harry Hole 7. The book was adapted into film and featured Michael Fassbender as the star detective. I followed this with a classic for a change. Lord of the Flies, published in 1952, is a literary piece that resonates to this day. While the work was short, Flies was the most challenging of the trio. Finally, I tackled Whistleblower (Susan Fowler). The latter marks my twelfth nonfiction foray for the year.

  1. The Snowman (Nesbo).

The book opens on an ominous note with a mother driving her son through the snow. The unnamed son tells his mum that ‘We are going to die.’ Following this, there’s the usual piling of bodies. The killings involve married women. Detective Harry Hole is entrusted to lead a task force into the murders, which a snowman always accompanies. In this instalment, Hole has a higher rank and graduates from his cramped office. For the most part, he leads a four-person team to unlock the slaying. This includes Bjorn Holm (forensics), Kattrine Bratt and Magnus Skarre (detectives). However, he is as isolated as ever. His trusty sidekick, Halverson, was killed in the prior book. His friend, the resident evidence expert Beate Lonn, is on maternity leave. Finally, his muse, Rakel, has moved on. However, he does have the support of his chief, Gunnar Hagen.

Throughout the book, Nesbo fights with his inner demons. He has to claw his way out of the dark side. Meanwhile, the stunning Bratt enters as a new detective. The book is notable as four suspects are apprehended at various stages. There’s a lot of second-guessing and curveballs to throw off the reader. It’s not until the final fifty pages that the true matador is revealed. They first arrest Filip Becker for his wife’s murder but let him go for lack of evidence. A doctor, a presenter, and even one of their own become caught up in what has become a PR disaster for Oslo police.

All this transpires as they fight a losing battle to fend off the media from the case. Hole even heads to Bergen (Norway’s second city) to find some answers. In his quest, he even ventures to a cabin on a fjord. Hole’s sleuth skills prove the decisive factory in unravelling the case, which the new forensic technology greatly aids. More than his prior villains, the matador is never more sadistic as he slices and dices his way while leaving no clues. Brace yourself for one helluva ending. Published in 2004, this one was released in the same year as Connelly’s Angel’s Flight. Like all his other works, this one is an easy police procedural. I also heard that it’s much better than the movie.

Rating: 4.4/5

  • Lord of the Flies (William Golding).

I’ve heard about this one for some time now but decided to check it out after bingeing on The Society. I first encountered Lord in an ep of The Simpsons. I recall the class being stranded on an island, crucifying Millhouse for gobbling all their food. The latter’s big gut was the tell-tale sign. They even staged a kangaroo court for good measure. Meanwhile, it’s been seven long decades since Golding unleashed his allegory. The novel takes place during a war; hence the kids are left alone. Despite all the years, the book’s themes of savagery, autonomy, and self-preservation remain pertinent to this day. As one educator noted, the times may have changed but human nature has not. Only 261 pages long, the text is riddled with unnecessary descriptions of the forsaken island. Every extended portrait makes me cringe and I fancy omitting the superfluous words.

There are many ways to dissect this text; it can mean many different things to disparate identities. Numerous characters populate the read: from Ralph (the chief) to Jack (the challenger), Piggy (the voice of reason) to Simon (the in-between). There’s also the littluns, passive and naïve; there are the twins, Sam and Eric. Jack is heading the hunters who promises a better world, dangling the carrot stick of fresh pork. Ralph reasons that he assembled the tribe when no one could and thus should be skipper. For the most part, he has their support until the blandness of eating fruit shifts the group away. Spearheaded by Jack, the island descends into chaos and the kiddos have to choose between a mad challenger and a moribund chief. Already dishevelled from lack of nourishment and grooming, the lot soon turns into murderous savages with painted faces and menacing spears. Ralph gave them order and an action plan; he instructed them to light a fire and be saved. Yet they mocked Piggy and his wise words and soon may turn on Ralph too.

Golding paints a miniature society, one where roles are assigned and must be followed. We could either be hunters, gatherers, or middlemen. In one haunting stroke, the author shows the worst of humanity. While evil can be shocking, what’s more repugnant is being irresolute while evil shows its face. Due to the number of characters in this one, most of us would relate to a few of them. We could all find parallels in these unique boys: confident and daring (Ralph), needy but determined (Piggy), fair like Simon or tough like Jack. Though it’s longer than necessary, you can glean many lessons from this text. I reckon all serious readers should try Lord of the Flies at least once.

Rating: 3.8/5

  • Whistleblower (Susan Fowler).

A pioneer of the #metoo movement penned this daring account. Before she toiled in Silicon Valley’s most valuable start-up, Fowler lived with her six siblings in rural Arizona. Her mum home-schooled them until one day, Fowler had to fend for herself. Her dad, a pastor, worked two jobs while being a polyglot. Fowler learned to play the violin at a tender age and brimmed with dreams as a child. Whether as a teenager, a college student, or as an adult, Fowler constantly had to prove herself. Despite her young age, she faced many battles. For instance, she dealt with rejection as an autodidact. When she was finally accepted, she studied many folds harder than her peers just to catch up with them. She even had to forget about her beloved violin due to a string issue. Meanwhile, just as she was commencing her studies at Arizona State, her dad passed away.

She ended up enrolling at Uni of Penn, ultimately choosing a double Philosophy and Physics major. Just like before, she had a lot of catching up to do. In the Ivy League school, being competent wasn’t enough; breaking even not an option. She had to fight and claw her way, and yet a tricky situation saw her losing her Physics degree. She then had to reinvent herself as a coder in the West. She joined Uber with high hopes in November of 2015. From her first day as a mid-level engineer, she was subject to sexism. When she wanted to transfer to another team, her requests were rejected. Many times, she tried to talk to Human Resources (HR), but they gave her various excuses: first-time offender; she was the problem.

Fowler confessed about witnessing a toxic, dog eat dog culture inside the start-up. As proof of this, the number of female engineers kept on shrinking. However, Fowler made some friends during her stint with Uber, lasses who suffered the same fate. Disappointed and wrathful, Fowler left Uber in December 2016. In February, she wrote a blog post detailing her time with Uber. Soon she would become a star, an embodiment of the movement. Being the exemplar is not all rainbows and butterflies: there is dissent, doubt, and chaos. While others try to discredit you, Fowler knew that she was fighting the good cause, that she was persecuted because she was right. The author, through her trials, encourages her readers to learn from their mistakes and grow as humans. Whistleblower was one of this year’s easiest reads, one that could realistically be summited in two days.

Rating: 4.7/5

So, there you have it. Again, three books. Once more, there’s one nonfiction read and two novels. However, for a change, this would be just the second week since my last catalogue. At the moment, I’m grappling with Karin Slaughter’s latest. The Silent Wife looks okay, but it’ll be my last Slaughter for a while. After going through seven straight Will Trent instalments this year, I’ve understood that I need more variety. While the next reading list might yet be pretty similar, I’m confident of change.

cable car in Bergen, Norway
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