New decade, new reads

Since my last list over a month ago, I have masticated a further three books. The previous catalogue was my ultimate of the old decade. After the turn of the New Year, this marks the first reading list of the 2020’s. Two of the three books were non-fiction; I also found my last couple to be rather challenging. Having more non-fiction titles in any catalogue is a welcoming exercise. Ditto with trying out new authors. In chronological order, here is my new reading list:

  1. Finding Chika (Mitch Albom). This is no doubt the easiest read of the three. Written in his familiar breezy prose, the book tells the story of Chika, Albom’s adopted daughter. Starting with his impetus of trying to help orphans in Haiti, the plot moves on as Albom discusses his wife, his parents, and his home. He is shocked in his first visit to Haiti, a third world country right at America’s doorstep. In spite of his family’s shortcomings, he had not yet witnessed the level of destitution rife in Haiti. Here he meets Chika, one of many Haitians who call his orphanage home. At first, she is shy and does not speak English. Albom would learn that she is suffering from a disease and the prognosis was not good. He decides to bring her to America – temporarily – to seek better treatment. 

As Chika’s illness continues, she changes her outfits, learns the language, and becomes part of the Alboms more and more. In particular, she turns very close with Janine, Mitch’s wife. The book is divided in a similar manner to The Next Person, Albom’s previous book. For every chapter, there is a lesson attached. In one of the most moving parts of the title, Albom meets Chika in hospital, Care Bear in hand. He gathers that the bear belongs to Chika, who puts the stuffed animal in front of her face. Albom calls it a lucky Bear since Chika is special. After a bit of toing and froing, Albom tells the Bear not to tell Chika how much he loves her. That should be their secret. However, the talking Bear surprises Albom, saying that Chika already knows. Prodded on how much he loves her, Chika extends her wingspan, saying ‘this much.’ Mitch fought back tears. Chika forms another keeper from Albom. Utterly undemanding yet very moving, Mitch remains the emblem of simple prose. 

Rating: 4.75/5

  • Choke (Palahniuk). Choke is my first book by Chuck. I saw Fight Club ages ago but thought that the film version was enough. Let’s be honest: Choke is not a good introduction to Palahniuk’s world. Albeit not longer than 300 pages, there’s a big deal of padding and unnecessary words. See also: headache. See also: verbosity. Only a fraction of the characters is likeable, and this excludes the anti-hero, Victor Mancini. Dude sidesteps responsibility in much the same way he indulges his sex addiction. In his spare time, he works at a colonial-era museum, complete with old English and ruffles. He spends more time cruising sex addiction groups and engaging in meaningless coitus. By the way, he also deliberately chokes in restaurants so that his ‘saviours’ could foot his mother’s hospital bills. Callous is not the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind. 

Interspersed with his escapades is his love/hate relationship with his mother. We would learn that Victor has an unenviable childhood. He lives with different foster parents, although his mum would always disrupt him with her visits. For most of the book he craves to find out his father’s identity. As his mother withers in a ‘hospital’, she keeps mistaking him for someone else. When he offers that he is her son, she retreats in her shell. He has a healthier bond with his best friend, Denny. The latter was nothing but supportive, having had similar problems as Victor. When he is forced out of home, he immediately stays with Victor. Altogether, the story was the hook but was something that retrogressed: the more you read, the less you liked it. In case you missed it, the novel was adapted to the cinema but underachieved all the same. In the end, Choke was okay but definitely not a must-read. 

Rating: 3.45/5

  • Catch and Kill (Ronan Farrow). As yet this is still unfinished, though I’ve perused more than enough to warrant an opinion. Farrow was one of the reporters who broke the story of sexual harassment in Hollywood. Together with his Times counterparts, Farrow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his expose. As per the book’s blurb, the story reads like a political thriller complete with spies, lies, and big media protecting predators. At the outset, Farrow worked for NBC. The network constantly thwarted his attempts to investigate Harvey Weinstein and interview his victims. At the same time, Weinstein hired a private firm to stay ahead of his enemies. This included using sexual assault allegations in Farrow’s family as conflict of interest in his reporting. NBC ultimately let off Farrow, his boss saying that there was no room for him in their budget. Before being sacked, NBC had urged Farrow to bring his story elsewhere. 

Farrow ended up publishing his revelations with The New Yorker. Of course, the written word was not as powerful as the pull of live television. However, Ronan cut his losses given that the Times were the first to break the story. Reading about the amount of red tape at 30 Rockefeller (home of NBC) was disgusting. Ronan’s editors continually shelved the story for months, backburnered indefinitely for no real reason at all. Two people had to work the witnesses and follow leads, all during their downtime. In New York, there was almost no face that you could trust. Company heads, lawyers, district attorneys, and the police were all in Weinstein’s pocket. There was no worse place to battle Weinstein than in his old stomping ground. It got to the point where victims would back off, frightened by more delays orchestrated by Farrow’s bosses. 

The allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct was likewise horrific. The producer’s antics was of someone who had sheer power: to make unreasonable demands, to wear down women, and to abruptly finish careers. To victimise was one thing, but to silence them with non-disclosure agreements? To fabricate stories about them? Well, the world could breathe easier now. In case you’re wondering, ‘catch and kill’ is a popular term in the tabloids. The phrase means purchasing stories to ensure that they would be ‘killed.’ Farrow’s reporting has even been mentioned in a Netflix series. His name is synonymous with covert operator and rethinking the boundaries of journalism. Overall, I like Ronan’s writing style: short chapters, sections, and a desire to uncover the truth; the title represents a lovely complement to She Said. 

Rating: 4.4/5 

So, there you have it, the first reading list of the new decade. I scanned three authors of three different books and only one was a work of fiction. I hope I’ve convinced you to ‘read mas.’

Next Picture: 

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City of God (2002) reviewed

I watched a few films over the holidays, with City of God probably being the best of them. Nominated for four Oscars in 2004, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, the picture presents a raw and gritty portrayal of youth and the favelas during the 60s, 70s and 80s. The movie takes its name from the Cicade de Deus neighbourhood, a time capsule that showcases the breadth of vintage Rio. Among numerous themes, Cicade dissects the standoff between the crime boss Li’l  Ze and his nemesis, Knockout Ned. The hit flick is based on the Paulo Lins novel, and claims that it’s ‘based on a true story’. 

A pleasant surprise

I first sighted the DVD back when video stores were still the norm. I misjudged the title, and the production’s quality surprised me. At the time of casting, none of the actors were bona fide stars and some were even exports from the favela themselves. The ensemble would include a teenage Alice Braga, who would graduate to bigger roles in Hollywood. The movie’s visuals were Oscar-worthy. From images of the jungle to the orange hues and red clay of bygone Rio, the picture was a sure-fire winner. The plot, too, was grand and made you empathise with the character’s plight. Cicade reminded me of this Filo movie not just because of the likeable ensemble, but also due to the similar setting. I have to admit that Cicade, with fully-realised players, def thread, and loveable imagery, was a very cool watch. 

‘In media res’

The picture follows the lives of a few families in Cicade de Deus. Cicade uses a technique called ‘in media res’ where action generally starts in the middle of things before connecting the dots thereafter. The opening sequence features a chicken navigating its way through a crowd, before being amidst the police and the local gang. At the end of the 60s three men are looters who get protection in the slum by being Robin Hoods. Shaggy, Clipper, and Goose comprise the ‘Tender Trio’. However, a boy named Li’l Dice bamboozles them into robbing a motel, before killing off its occupants. The three legs are then pursued and live as fugitives, each meeting a tragic end. 

Li’l Dice becomes Li’l Ze, a terror who runs the cicade, eliminating all opposition bar one. He spends his days devising plans to get rid of Carrot, the last man standing, but couldn’t deliver since the dealer is friends with Benny, his main man. In spite of his imposing persona, Ze is rather unattractive. When he tries to woo a girl, he gets rejected. Soon his bitterness progresses to murder as he tries to topple the boo. Meanwhile, Rocket is Goose’s younger brother. Taking shots and the beauty of nature has always enamoured him. He manages to get the girl of his dreams, Angelica, but a litter of kids known as ‘the runts’ always gets in the way. Regardless, Knockout Ned becomes Ze’s mortal enemy after the latter wrecks his family. He joins forces with Carrot, because ‘Two heads are better than one.’ 

Carrot, Ned, and Ze

Soon the fighting begins. Carrot and Ned begin stocking up the armoury, shoring up their team’s arsenal. As they go on an arms race with Ze, more and more gangsters begin to fool each outfit, masquerading as allies while in truth being spies. More toys mean more cash, and Carrot and the Knockout are finding other ways to fund their slingshots. Initially timid, Knockout Ned realises that you can’t be a pushover if you were to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. While this monstrosity is unfolding, Rocket’s photo of Ze becomes front-page material. His images are special since they bring the Cariocas into the favelas, a rare feat indeed. As he prepares for another shoot, the five-ohs arrive and the men scramble. Carrot is killed, Ze falls at the hands of the runts, and knockout Ned dies a legend. Rocket makes sure to take a few snaps of the aftermath. He decides to publish the photos of Ze, securing him an internship with the local paper. 

Hidden gem

City of God is a hidden gem of world cinema. The picture was a massive critical success, not only ranking in best of the year lists, but also in best-ever film catalogues. Though the dialogue is in Portuguese, the tropes of trials, dreams, and uncertainty are universal concepts. The storytelling keeps you guessing, and the choreography is sweet, mastering place and time in a homage to Rio. I heard that the novel version loses some bite after the translation. This is not the case with the film, which was at times humorous and cruel, but always entertaining. In fact, a few people in the know have concluded that this was one of those rare occasions where the movie trumps the book. Cicade de Deus could be an archetype of our own metropoles. The production has this tagline: ‘If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.’ 

Rating: 4.6/5

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Post 1.2020

This marks my first post in the new decade. Previously, I managed to create one hundred and eighty-four posts, most of them in the last three years and change. It’s a brand-new year and with that comes new goals, new series, new books, and new movies. Today, I’ll just focus on one in particular, the Netflix series called ‘You’. 

New punto-de-vista

‘You’ is a psychological thriller that focuses on Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley. The first season deals with his turbulent relationship with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) in New York City. He obsesses over the girl, following her both in person and online. He desperately inserts himself in her life. He murders others just to prove himself worthy, so no one could come between them. At the same time, he feels for his neighbours, especially the kid, Paco. The latter is caught in a toxic household with Ron, his mother’s abusive partner. He often finds Paco reading a book in the hallway. He takes the kid under his wing in much the same way as the old bookstore owner took to him. He gains the boy’s trust, even telling him a good hiding place for his books. The show offers a new perspective than the crowded dark dramas, superheroes, or the overdone zombie apocalypses. The first season is based on Caroline Kepner’s book, which shares the same title. 

The initial run is more than just about Beck and Joe. It’s about control, sadism, and feral instincts. Loyalty and trust are recurrent themes in the season, as is friendship. Joe and Beck become closer as the series moves forward, and the former makes sure that the coast is clear. Beck’s meddlesome friends, her beau, even her therapist (John Stamos), are all second acts to the Joe show. It is narcissism at its finest, where everything must go. Joe’s paranoia and subterfuge make this compulsive viewing. While Joe’s bookstore job defines him in the beginning, he quickly sheds this aura with his tech-savviness, his pursuit of Beck’s world, and his double life. On the outside, he is a charming booklover who always seems to be at the right place at the right time. However, the John Mayer-lookalike is hiding some dark secrets. He has a cage in the basement of his shop where he imprisons the apparent collateral damage in his quests. He likewise keeps mementoes of his kills. He is a most unlikely serial killer, much in the same vein as Dexter Morgan. 

Eye candy and Searching

Lail provides much eye candy as the struggling writer in season one. She is the veritable damsel in distress who needs saving from a pack of lions. She has three best friends, her dad’s backing, and can afford the finer things. Her pals though are manipulative, and Peach, in particular, is nasty. In some cases, saying that she is as twisted as Joe isn’t surprising. Beck is also hit with a tremendous wave of writer’s block and a tendency to procrastinate. She is written as rather naïve, and Joe constantly gets away with lying. Beck is incredibly disappointing for someone who sees Joe as the most understanding and therefore deserving person in her sheltered life. For both the initial and subsequent seasons, there is a heavy dose of digital devices: from texts to Tweets, emojis to status updates, Internet searches to pics. This reminded me of Searching. I felt for Beck when all she wanted was to be productive, but she ended up writing one page. Yet when she started writing about things that were familiar to her, the floodgates had opened. I guess what the show is trying to tell us is to stick to the things we know. You have a better chance of creating something worthwhile if it’s up your alley. 

Second stanza

The second season sees Joe migrating to LA after his deranged ex drove him out of Gotham. As such, the series follows the path of the book sequel, which was also set in LA. The second stanza is almost a clean slate, with new characters, locations, and storylines galore. This is similar to ‘Narcos’, ‘American Vandal’, and ‘The End of the F…king World’ (all Netflix Originals). Candace, the ex, was a bit player in the first season but joins the main cast in the second salvo. If the first season had Peach, the second one had Candace as the resident bad girl. Love (Victoria Pedretti) is the answer to Beck in season two. Joe does some nifty identity theft and now presents himself as Will Bettelheim. As he struts the streets of LA, the real Will is imprisoned in his private storage unit. 

Thanks to his knowledge of ‘Crime and Punishment’, Joe immediately gets a job at Anavrin. Here he meets Love and her twin brother, Forty (James Scully). The Quinn siblings are scions to a local business empire. Joe instantly falls for Love and the feeling is mutual. However, Candace and Beck cast shadows on Joe’s feelings for Love. Forty’s behaviour is also distracting, as he seems to always get in trouble just as things are looking up for the star-crossed lovers. In this sense, it reminds me a bit of the Chenowith siblings in Six Feet Under, with Brenda always bailing Billy out of his mess. You can deduct that Forty is a trying hard wrecking ball, but I could see right through him. I had my suspicions that he’s gay in real life, though his on-show machismo tells otherwise. A bit of web-based research later, my suspicions were well-placed.  

Throughout the season, Love and Will have an off-again, on-again partnership even though their mutual attraction is no secret. Will has to navigate his landlord, Delilah and her super smart sister, Ellie. He also has a love-hate relationship with the City of Angels, where he meets his love interest but likewise stumbles onto predators. He is told that the writer Raymond Chandler would be his new best friend. The season is not one for the faint-hearted as there is a gruesome digit scene and a mince-making gem straight out of ‘Hostel’. Will gets to meet Love’s circle of friends, who are a lot more likeable than Beck’s. Towards the end, Will has to babysit Forty as they are both caught in a trance and they try to finish the script of his would-be blockbuster. No less than ‘The Hurt Locker’ director is waiting for it. Will survives the night only to find a cage of horrors, not knowing how it all came to this. I also learned from watching that celery juice is a deadly meal substitute, especially if you’ve had nothing else for a few days. 

Light-hearted

As Will gets to pay for his sins, he realises that Love harbours dark secrets herself. Here, more and more shades of ‘Dexter’ come to fore. Love is Hannah McKay, Dexter’s deadly partner in crime. There’s even an unfortunate passing in the end that is another Dexter plot device. Love also drops a bomb just as Joe finds out the ugly truth. In season 2, we get to know more about Joe’s past, his relationship with his mother and his abusive father. We learn about his difficult childhood and the challenges he faced as a kid. We witness his relegation to child services after he terminated his dad. 

Meanwhile, Joe urges Ellie to do a runner and head to somewhere like Florida, and that he’ll take care of her, no worries. She tells him to ‘burn in hell’. However, in a funny twist, he gets a postcard from Florida three months later, telling him to ‘send me the $$’. There’s also another priceless scene where Forty tracks down Dr Nicky and asks him questions. Suddenly, Dr Nicky goes on a religious rant about his saviour. The rant is not funny, just the timing. Forty clearly wants some answers but has to contend with this inspired rant instead. Then there’s the seven signs that you’re an Angelino for life. I remember the pack of coyotes, the ghetto bird, the superhero costume, the stroller…. how unlikely that Will would stumble on this in a matter of days when others would need a full lifetime. The series is full of characters finishing others’ sentences, almost telepathic. In being a very lucky guy in sidestepping tight spots, Joe is very much Dexter reborn. 

Deserving

All in all, ‘You‘ is a wonderful indulgence into the dynamic of others. Rarely do we get to see a series that’s this different and yet this relevant. Where the next instalment is set will be interesting. After all, as of today, Kepner has not penned a sequel to the sequel. ‘You’ is very well-reviewed, meaning I’m not in the minority when I give it full marks.

Rating: 5/5

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Where to Invade Next (reviewed)

For the last post of the year, I’ll be dissecting my second Michael Moore film. I’ve had this doco in my sights and finally consumed the feature just recently. Where to Invade is an ambitious production that has the viewer hopscotching around Europe and the Middle East. The title draws from the director’s practice of visiting countries, identifying their greatest strength, and planting the American flag. The doco, a pessimistic take on American culture, is classic Moore. Released in 2015, Where to Invade was a critical success. Moore’s modulated, and pleasing voice would captivate neophytes while the sweeping visuals would surprise even long-time fans. 

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Italia and Francophiles

In this presentation, Moore begins his quest in Italia. Aside from the sun and the dandy food, Italians pride themselves for having a luxurious amount of paid annual leave. As Moore would find out, they are being paid to go on vacations, and are being reimbursed for months of parental leave. They are also known for having two-hour lunch breaks, where employees would rush back home to prepare delicious suppers. Despite all of this, some Italians still yearn to go to the U.S., ‘the land of opportunity’, not knowing that they would not find the same perks. 

After Italy, Moore troops to next-door France. Here, in a Podunk town, he discovers that kids’ cafeteria food is worthy of Michelin stars. When he shows the Americans’ versions to the French kids, they are shocked. These are little ones who have not tasted Coke, and who have a cheese option with every meal. The French pay a little more tax than their American brethren, but they get heaps more services. Furthermore, unlike the Yankees, they know where their money is going as this is itemised. The French also believe that the US spends way too much on the military. 

Going Scandinavian

Done with the French, Moore goes Scandinavian with Finland. Here, he is dumbfounded as the Finnish barely get any homework. They have revolutionised learning, spending less time in the classroom and more time learning what they really want. They also advise the Americans to get rid of that godawful standardised tests if they want any chance of catching up. Instead of mind-numbing coursework, they focus on being better readers, linguists, and dancers. When Moore went around the room, everyone knew a second language, and some could even speak four. They have also eliminated multiple choice on tests. Unlike the whimsical American Dream, the Finnish truly believe that they could be anyone they want to be. 

Norway is another Scandinavian state that Moore visits. This was the site of the infamous 2011 attacks which neo-Nazi Andres Breivik perpetuated. The latter targeted a summer camp for youths, the locus of a bloodbath. When Moore confronted the father of one of the casualties, he did not wish capital punishment for the murderer. In so doing, the Norwegian dad epitomises his nation in offering a very fresh perspective than the Western status quo. They took a page out of the Finnish and applied this to their prison system. The number doesn’t lie: only twenty percent of their prisoners re-offend. 

Meanwhile, in Iceland, women have shown that they can be just as potent leaders as men. Women control fifty percent of company boards, and half of the seats in parliament. As Moore noted, ‘Where women have power and treated as equals, people were simply better off’. While chicks have been carving up boardrooms, men have to settle for a comedian being mayor. When asked if they were Iceland’s finest, ‘The best party’ could not say that they were the best. Unlike in America, their bankers were held accountable, many even sent to gaol. 

Deutschland 

In Germany, the education system does not skirt their dark past. Unlike Uncle Sam, who eschews discussions of slavery and segregation, the Germans openly teach their students about past horrors. They also take enviable care of their workers, who could get three paid weeks off just to recuperate on spas. Asked what advice they could give to their American brothers, they simply said ‘do good to others and accept prior atrocities’. 

Closing monologue

I’ve skipped a few ‘invasions’ but you get the point. Towards the close, Moore stands with a colleague at the Berlin Wall. They reminisce of the time they were both there with the fall of the Wall. As Mandela and the latter proved, ‘anything can happen; just get a hammer, chisel, and it’s done’. Moore ends with a feel-good monologue. I’m not sure if he does it with every doco, but he did it too with 9/11. He points out that Mayday did not originate with Moscow or Lisbon but with Chicago in 1886. ‘The fight for the 8-hour day, American unions, the no-capital punishment was ours’. Michigan was the first US state to abolish the death penalty. ‘This wasn’t Euro ideas, these weren’t new ideas; these were OUR ideas. There’s no need to invade and steal; they were already ours. Yes, you have and so have we, we always had it.’ 

Rating: 4.85/5

I take this opportunity to wish everyone a blissful New Year. In 2020, may we share more stories and insights, inspiration and fun.  

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Sydney metro unveiled

Last weekend marked a milestone in the New South Wales (NSW) government’s infrastructure projects. Before the last state election, the Liberal government had made a lot of promises but there was no ribbon cutting yet. Since then, they have opened the Northwest (NW) metro, and just a week ago, introduced the tram to city goers. I recall all the hype surrounding the NW metro, the crowds during opening weekend, the driverless trains, the free rides to celebrate the metro being open for business. The state got ahead of themselves and had their hands full. Meanwhile, buses have been out of George Street for four years now and construction has been in full swing. There have been a lot of negative press, not the least being that the project was way over budget. It’s about time. 

Let’s try it

The trams have been operating for a few days when we decided to try it out. Without the tram, it would have been at least a fifteen-minute walk. We waited four minutes for the next tram, and we alighted at the third stop. The trip was relatively smooth, without the traffic that has typified George Street. On another note, Melbourne is world-renowned for its efficacious trams. In the first half of the previous century, Sydney had the second-largest tram network in the world (after London). However, the rise of buses spelled doom for this system. The last tram from this era bid adieu in 1961 and the next phase of the light rail (the L1 line) did not roll on until 1987. Thus, while the Melbournian trams thrived, the light rail remained largely forgotten in the Harbour City.   

The increasing number of people in Sydney has caused excessive strain on Sydney’s transport network. The light rail (LR) project was one of the initiatives that could ameliorate this crowdedness. As mentioned, the venture ran into trouble…and more trouble. There was false hope, delays, bad press, and more delays. The whole shebang could make for a half-decent tragicomedy: dramas with construction companies, labour action, dramas with the public, and furore over budgets and delays. One pub was so confident, even offering free rounds if the enterprise got done by Christmas. 

More info

Alas, in spite of the torrent of negativity, the trams were up and running. I heard that each set was 47 metres long, with both vertical and side-based seats. They also turn up at a high frequency (every four minutes), so you don’t have to keep consulting the timetable as with the buses. It’s likewise fully integrated with Opal, the state’s ‘smartcard ticketing system’. For the uninitiated, the Opal is similar to Myki in Victoria and the Beep Card in the Philippines. With Opal, you load money in your account and use this credit whenever you travel. Right now, both debit and credit cards could be utilised to the same effect. Just remember to tap on and off to ensure the correct fare. 

Chokepoint

The old George Street had been the most congested road in Sydney. Buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all swarmed onto the thoroughfare, making it appear more like a chokepoint than an actual route. Traffic jams were always bad, and peak hour in particular was a nightmare. I remember taking the bus a few times along this street and I was sure that walking would’ve been faster to get to point B. Of course, there used to be the free shuttle bus which both tourists and locals seem to flock to like birds of prey. This was good for some time, if you could handle the nudging and jockeying. Times have since changed. I was in the era of the TravelTen, back when Labour was still in power. Then, after some time, Opal came around and you didn’t have to keep buying those after every ten trips. 

La Ruta (The Route)

Starting from Circular Quay, the tram goes all the way to Randwick. The L2 Randwick Line passes through the city, Surry Hills, and out east to the final stop. I’ve heard that the entire route takes forty-five minutes. This also represents the newest completion among the government’s initiatives. Over a month or two, Sydneysiders were becoming accustomed to these new transporters. If you didn’t see them during the testing phase, there was a lot of coverage in the media. Opening weekend was likewise hyped up, with free rides for everyone. The numerrous stops are one of the downsides of the trams. However, this is still an upgrade over its predecessor, with more frequent services and shorter breaks too. With the LR, there is no traffic as well, and more room than buses. There were also a lot of assistants buzzing around platforms. With their ‘Ask Me’ tees, you won’t miss them. We now know that the total cost of this move was over three billion dollars, twice what was drawn up. On the brighter side, it’s drinks on the house. 

Last word

So how are we to judge the merits of this project? What makes it a success (or not)? Well, we can look to the changes around us. Is George Street still gridlocked? Have the trams democratised transport along this route? Has it made a big difference? Well, I can tell you that we are not better off with the buses. Saying that buses in George Street was nice is not progressive thinking. Yes, George Street is still a stampede with walking pandas, nosy giraffes, angry koalas, and furry creatures. Yet I doubt that it would be much clearer without the trams. On that count, in somewhat easing the nightmarish congestion, it has made a difference. 

To my fellow travellers: wishing you all a very blissful Yuletide season.

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Born to write (updated)

Years ago, I penned the About Me section of my blog. Titled ‘Born to Write’, the 200-odd words captured who I was back then. It’s time for a re-write. 

Topher Ong is a young writer from Sydney, New South Wales. He lives in short stories, blog posts, novels, and non-fiction and has written in all of the above. His pen has taken him to diverse places, from associate editor in high school to getting published in magazines, from fighting with koalas to besting academic essays at uni. Topher has graduated from two-time scrabble doubles champion to attaining an excellent result in that conundrum exam, the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). The 8.5 Overall Band Score (including a perfect 9.0 in Speaking) represents probably his finest hour as a teenager. What’s more, he did all this in one try (‘one-and-done’ as they call it). 

Reading

He has been a bookworm for most of his life. This habit was instilled in him early on, when he would peruse the Childcraft volumes. From there, he looked at encyclopaedias, greatly aided by the school library. Then it was onto the dailies, where not a day would go by without him devouring the papers. Finally, he became enamoured into the world of fiction, with the occasional foray into memoirs. He mainly goes for genre fiction, such as Grisham’s thrillers and Connelly’s police procedurals. He can also be seen chipping away at Karin Slaughter, Matthew Reilly, Don Brown, and others. One must note that I studied Jose Rizal (a national hero) as a teenager, being required reading in school. I’ve likewise encountered my fair share of plays. However, he is not really a fan of literature even though his style is most closely associated with that genre. In the IELTS, Chris secured an 8.5 Band Score in Reading. 

Writing

While his reading skills were honed even before the classroom, his school experience fostered his writing faculties. Written exercises in primary school, essays and projects in high school served to bolster his interest. Soon he was joining the school organ, winning a schoolwide writing contest, and making his mark on the yearbook. Classmates and teachers alike were dazzled by his material. He was fortunate to have a number of invaluable allies along the way. As a teenager, they gave him the weapons to succeed and ensured that he would have auspicious chances to win. I’ll make sure to list them one by one when the time comes. In case you’re curious, he normed an 8.5 Band Score in Writing. Both the Writing and Speaking Tests were based on the marker’s discretion. In other words, the two Tests were subjectively evaluated.

Patridge

I mentioned before that ‘this website is the aftermath of research and specialised study, being awarded an Honours degree and encountering a partridge of issues and themes along the way’. I can admit that I deal with heaps of different issues and themes. Through three years of serious blogging, I’ve done retro posts, written in my own language, compiled many sets of book reviews. I’ve put together product reviews, penned a letter to myself, dissected films and series. I’ve detailed my travel experiences, recycled my old projects, and even shared poetry. As writers, we’re only as good as our last post so you should try to make it count. As bloggers, we should soar higher, always preparing to scale new heights and conquer new goals. Without new ambitions, radical changes and much progress, we would struggle. 

Others

I confessed that ‘as I continue to grow in mind and become more seasoned, it would be my pleasure to take you along for the run’. That is exactly what I did: I’ve shared my tales and imparted my learning. Whether you were there or not, I made sure to deliver my thoughts. Sometimes coming up with fresh ideas each week is not easy but spare a thought for those who publish every day. Knowing how others could compose even more frequently inspires me to do more. 

So, don’t be scared and let your voice be heard. At the moment, a mere six degrees of separation is in between us. Don’t wait for the next moment to interface; we should not be hosts to tomorrow’s uncertainty. As a recycled ad one intoned, ‘face your fears, live your dreams’.  

Let’s go!

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Christmas reads

Savannah, Georgia, USA bars and restaurants on River Street.

I’ve added parts of three books into this year’s tally. I was still grappling with King’s The Institute, before eclipsing two new bestsellers. The first was John Grisham’s latest, The Guardians. Connelly’s The Night Fire was next. Both of these works were highly rated and, in particular, was a return to form for Grisham. My current read is She Said by a pair of Times journos. Kantor and Twohey peel the onion on the controversy that sparked the #metoo movement. I can glimpse the finish line already. 

  1. The Guardians (Grisham). While all of Grisham’s past releases have been well-hyped, this offering debuted at numero uno on the Times bestseller list. Aside from being commercially massive, reviewers likewise warmed up to this novel. This is significant since most of his work has only garnered mixed reviews, although he is the undisputed king of the thriller genre. The Guardians refer to a group of Georgian lawyers who help death row inmates. The book focuses on Cullen Post, a lawyer/minister, as he races against the clock to save the innocent from being falsely extinguished. The book opens as Post’s client is on his last supper, before he is given a reprieve. Post also has a chaperone whose official title is his investigator. The man, himself exonerated from death row, provides much needed support for Guardians.

The overarching narrative though is Quincy Miller, languishing in death row for twenty-two years. He was convicted of Keith Russo’s murder, the small-town attorney who was hiding many secrets. The sheriff has done a number with witnesses, ‘experts’, and the authorities, making sure that Miller was the fall guy. When the case is re-opened, the baddies scramble as they try some damage control. Cullen’s bravery and determination changes the complexion of the case: witnesses recanting, experts unravelled, and authorities called to answer. Soon the FBI is called in and Miller is set free; the erstwhile sheriff is apprehended. The Centurion Ministries of the 80s inspired the book. Short chapters, breezy prose, well-developed characters…a worthwhile read. 

Rating: 4.6/5

  • The night Fire (Connelly). The second instalment in the Bosch & Ballard series, this represents my twentieth Connelly read. I’ve only started perusing him in 2017. In this edition, Bosch’s former mentor leaves Harry a murder book of an unsolved crime. All this time Harry and Renee wonder why the case remained unsolved. John Jack, the mentor, didn’t seem particularly fussed about solving the crime, as he had no notes on the murder book. Did he have ulterior motives for hiding the case? Furthermore, did he wanted to case to remain unsolved forever? It turns out that the gay murdered in the alley was his son. The question remains: did he knew this all along, or had he just found out about it? The deceased was a wasted talent, a gifted artist who bowed out far too soon. Bosch was left to piece together what little there was to find.

Harry likewise juggles another case, the murder of a judge. His basic instinct tells him that a disgraced lawyer was behind the attack. He goes so far as to hire the attorney to snoop on him. This episode would have a tragic outcome, with a company hitwoman and guns a-blazing. It would involve the Vegas police, the LAPD, and the feds. Ballard provides a steady second fiddle, herself trying to get to the bottom of a case in downtown LA. Her badge and access assists Bosch many times over the story. Her quick thinking and autonomy make her a model heroine, as she not only fights crime but her male boss as well. Grand Cayman was a nice backdrop for ‘Freeze!’ In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the passion that drives Bosch to clear cases. He talks about it a few times during the course of the novel. 

Rating: 4.65/5

  • She Said (Kantor and Twohey). This constitutes my first foray into non-fiction since the Thurston autobiography. In between, I’ve read three Connelly’s, Slaughter, Robotham, King, and Grisham. I’ve been looking forward to this book since first hearing about it. As the book cover suggests, ‘breaking the sexual harassment story that helped ignite a movement’. Jodi and Megan are the two Times reporters who finally bring down Harvey Weinstein. The former Miramax licensee has been paying off women to silence them as he continued this troubling pattern. What surprised me was how many lawyers, aides, assistants etc. have been enabling this behaviour over the years. Trying to uncover the allegations was one thing but cracking the brick wall of silence and sharing it to readers was another. Jodi and Megan had the odds stacked up against them from the start. Once the story finally broke, they were inundated with similar stories from women.  

For their work on the issue, the two reporters were recognised with the Pulitzer Prize. They did it the right way, from sourcing to fact-checking, writing to editing and finally, approaching Weinstein for his side of the story. Along the way, victims retreated, Harvey threatened them, and Hollywood actresses clammed up. While majority of the book concerns Weinstein, the ending chapters are dedicated to Christine Ford, the daring victim of Brett Kavanaugh. Once again, Jodi stepped up to help tell Ford’s story. I am about thirty pages from the end; it’s an insightful if challenging read. I will admit that it’s not as smooth as Grisham or Connelly, but it has its own charm. Make no mistake: there’s a lot to love here. 

Rating: 4.35/5 

These three books have been all good reads. My next book would be Albom’s Finding Chika. If his past efforts are any indication, this should be a pretty cruisy one.

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