Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Sevens fever

And so the madness begins. This morning, tickets to the 2010 Wellington Sevens went on sale, albeit for all of three minutes before they sold out. Once again, only a handful of the 35,000 tickets were available for the public to purchase, with the majority of tickets going to season pass holders or rugby clubs. Poised and ready to play Faster Finger First on the Ticketmaster website, and constantly hitting redial on the phone beside me, the three minutes whizzed by even though the seconds dragged. (How is that possible?)

No luck for me today; even trying to book just two tickets (as opposed to the maximum allowance of ten) proved unsuccessful. We had a similar fate last year and almost resorted to throwing a 'non-sevens' party, where everyone could dress up and come over to watch the games with us. However, thankfully a friend managed to buy five tickets, with two on our behalf, so we're back in business!

Now to the very serious business of organising costumes for eleven of us. We have a theme emerging already: Jem and the Holograms. 80s kids will remember watching the animated TV series, which involved singing "Jem is truly outrageous, truly truly truly outrageous" while playing pink air guitars - and we're going to do the same thing at the sevens in February 2010. For those of you who have no idea what I'm on about, or those who do and want to reminisce, here's what I've found:

Thursday, 24 September 2009

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

After two cases of #BookFAIL this week, I have really enjoyed reading On Chesil Beach (2007) by English author Ian McEwan. McEwan's Atonement and Enduring Love have long been on my TBR (to be read) list. On Chesil Beach was a lucky find at the library.

On Chesil Beach is a very short novel, just 160 pages long. It is superbly written and a real page turner which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2007. I 'inhaled' this book in just two days. Set in 1962, this is the story of two people who, essentially fail to communicate. Though they believe they are in love, Edward and Florence are quieted by their backgrounds, expectations from their families, their limited understandings of what they perceive love to be, and society in general. Each incorrectly analyses and interprets the actions of the other, and the misunderstandings couldn't be further from reality. This leads to a disastrous turn of events on their wedding night. As a reader, you will be encouraging them along (or away from) their path, then alternately staring in disbelief; standing back is simply agonising at times!

Comically excruciating to read, On Chesil Beach illustrates how the entire course of one's life can change simply by doing nothing. It is, by far, my favourite read of this year.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


I have suffered two cases of #BookFAIL this week and this has surprised me somewhat. (By the way, do you like my Twitter-esque title? I've never used it before today.) As I've explained before, I have a hangup and finishing every book I start. On rare occasions, this hasn't been possible. A friend of mine says she won't persist with a book that she's not enjoying. She argues that there are so many millions of other books in the world that she doesn't have time to read (but wants to) and could be reading instead of something that doesn't work for her. I can see her point, but ...

My most spectacular case of #BookFAIL was with The Hobbit. While Peter Jackson was still concentrating on The Frighteners (1996), I was told that JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy were some of the best books every written. Gosh, that's pretty high praise! I sought out the prequel to the trilogy and attempted to read it while my class were themselves engaged in silent reading.

#BookFAIL. Not being particularly enraptured by the fantasy genre to begin with, I tried to stick it out, thinking that it would get better and I'd come to see what everyone else already loved. Besides, there would be not one but three opportunities to prolong this wonderful reading experience once I got through this initial book. And, apparently the trilogy is even better than the prequel.

I got to the chapter entitled "Flies and Spiders" three times before finally giving up; I simply couldn't see the point of continuing. #BookFAIL. (The same goes for the movie series: I saw The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), couldn't believe how it ended, and shamefully haven't seen the next two movies. Yes, I know I live in Wellington and that they are spectacular, blah blah blah.)

This week, I eagerly began reading The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer. I'd seen this novel in bookstores and was really pleased to find it in my local library. Set in 1861 Japan, it's appears to be the kind of epic drama that I usually enjoy. This is Downer's first foray into fiction after writing a number of non-fiction works. She is very knowledgeable about her subject; this is clear. However, I struggled through the lengthy descriptions in first twenty pages which, I feel, prevented any sense of narrative developing. I searched online for reviews and blog posts about the book; most echoed how I was feeling, but few waxed lyrical about the novel itself. I pursued for another twenty pages but don't think I can continue. I'm disappointed to say: #BookFAIL.

To tide me over to my next library visit, I picked up a "light read" from a pile of books I have borrowed and occasionally enjoy dipping into. Sheila O'Flanagan is an Irish author who has been recommended to me by two people who have enjoyed her novels. Two chapters into one of her books and here I am again at #BookFAIL. Twice in one week - that's a record for me!

Have you had any major reading disappointments? Does it bother you if you don't finish a book you've started? Have you experienced #BookFAIL recently?

Monday, 21 September 2009

World Press Photo 09

The World Press Photo 09 exhibition is on at Wellington's Shed 11 until 4 October. It is a collection of pictures taken by international photojournalists is a range of categories, and the winners, runners up, and honourable mentions are on display.

Some of the photos are quite hard-hitting, and many will leave viewers emotionally charged. There is a competition in which you can enter to win a digital camera; simply choose the photo that means most to you and write a very short explanation why. This was an interesting process.

For me, the most poignant photo was one of a girl running barefoot along a street after a cyclone in Burma. All around her are books laid open on the ground to dry. As an educator, what struck me was the value that was placed on books and learning, even in the aftermath of what was the country's worst natural disaster in recorded history. (I am not sure whether this link will take you directly to the photo; if not, it is the picture on the bottom right corner of the grid.)

Two friends went to the exhibition with me. One is a soldier and nurse in the New Zealand Army. She is also a mum. This photo of a soldier carrying an injured child following an earthquake in China (bottom left corner if the link doesn't work directly) was her choice. Her partner, a father, was struck by the sheer terror in this boy's face as a policeman approaches his home in Nairobi amid ethnic violence following the elections in December 2007.

Even though there were many people at the exhibition, there was a strange sense of quiet as people walked around viewing the photos. Not all depicted doom and gloom. However, the mood was generally sombre; I'm imagining that, like myself and my friends, everyone approaches each image with their own lens and takes from it something which relates to their own lives or experiences. This certainly became evident as we discussed our individual choices for the photos that meant the most of us and we realised that, even though we could not relate to any of the situations directly, we chose images which depicted the things we valued. Well worth a visit.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones

This week, I read Mister Pip (2006) by Wellington author Lloyd Jones. The book has been lined up for (and received) various literary accolades, including being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Mister Pip is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s. It is narrated by Matilda, a 15 year old girl living on the island with her mother while her father is seeking work in Australia. Civil war breaks out and Matilda's village is now totally isolated from the rest of the world. Mr Watts, an eccentric old man and the only white person on the island, volunteers to reopen the village school.

With no resources except one book, Mr Watts introduces the village's children to the great author Charles Dickens (or Mr Dickens, as he is referred to) by reading aloud one chapter of Great Expectations (1861) each day. For Matilda, this is the start of a lifelong love of Dickens and literature in general, even though 1860s London couldn't be further from her life. The class get to know the character of Pip. However, their relationship is complicated and the consequences for the village are devastating.

Mister Pip is delightfully told and a fantastic read. It is a novel which pays tribute to the power of storytelling and literature and shows how books can change lives.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Reading habits meme

Stolen from The Well Written Kitty. This book meme originally came from Book Bloggers Appreciation week. I couldn't resist.

1. Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack? Not usually. I prefer to read mostly while lying down in bed. It doesn't mix with eating too well.

2. Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? I'm horrified just thinking about leaving a book in anything less than pristine condition!

3. How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open? I use a bookmark. Sometimes it's a real bookmark; other times it's a random piece of paper, concert ticket, or even an airline boarding pass.

4. Fiction, Non-fiction, or both? Mostly fiction, but I also love biographies and memoirs.

5. Hard copy or audiobooks? Hard copy

6. Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point? I need to read either to the end of a chapter or to a point where there is a natural break. Some books are easier to do this with than others.

7. If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away? I try to remember it for later, but usually forget, lol.

8. What are you currently reading? Have just started The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer. Last night, I finished Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.

9. What is the last book you bought? I'm a cheap bookie; I borrow or frequent libraries. The last book I bought was probably a gift for someone else!

10. Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time? I usually have 2-3 books on the go at once, but I have one 'main' book that occupies most of my attention.

11. Do you have a favourite time of day and/or place to read? I'm most comfortable reading in bed. However, I'm rarely in bed early enough to read much at night.

12. Do you prefer series books or stand alone books? Usually stand alone. It frustrates me to read a book from a series then not be able to find the very next one, but see heaps of copies of later books that I can't read out of sequence!

13. Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over? I'm really cautious about recommending books, as they're so personal to an individual's taste. I'm more likely to suggest books that I think a particular person might like, or that I have read recently, rather than make a general recommendation.

14. How do you organise your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc?) Pretty much randomly in piles; some even make it to the shelf in my wardrobe. However, being more of a book borrower, I don't have too many around at any one time.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Tomato pinwheel scones

I love to bake but have never really done much with scones (apart from eating them, of course!). I can never get the process of rubbing butter into a dry mixture and end up either covered in flour or just really frustrated. Sticking to muffins or cupcakes is much easier. This week's Food in a Minute recipe is for tomato pinwheel scones. It's unusual in that it uses creamy tomato soup in place of milk. I was feeling adventurous and gave it a go ...

The recipe itself seemed quite straightforward; however, it wasn't plain sailing for me. I followed each instruction religiously to make the ham and cheese variety. All was fine and I arranged the pinwheels in a cake tin, cut side up. I cooked them for 15 minutes, then gave them another 5, then another 10 ... they looked fantastic on top but were still really doughy and undercooked in the middle and bottom. I can't remember how many more times I set the oven timer (I resorted to covering them with tin foil to prevent the tops from burning). I eventually took them out and ate them as they were, not quite cooked but passable. For the record, they smelled and tasted great.

So, I'm appealing to the scone experts out there ... where did I go wrong? Does anyone have any tips for cooking scones or similar mixtures evenly?

Tomato pinwheel scones

  • 4 1/2 cups self-raising flour
  • 30 g butter
  • 4-6 sundried tomatoes, chopped (optional)
  • 535 g can Wattie's Very Special Creamy Tomato Soup

    Feta and spinach
  • 100 g feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup baby spinach leaves

    Ham and cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Edam cheese
  • 1-2 slices ham, chopped

    Pesto and cheese
  • 2 tablespoons basil pesto or basil chunky dip
  • 100 g cottage cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 210°C. Lightly grease a 22 cm square cake pan.
  2. Sift flour into a bowl and rub in the butter. Add the sun dried tomatoes and season with pepper. Pour in the tomato soup and mix to form a dough. Add more flour if the mixture is too wet.
  3. Roll out on a well-floured board to make a 1 cm thick rectangle. Spread with a topping of your choice. Gently roll from the long side to make a pinwheel and cut into 9 pieces. Place in a cake pan cut side up.
  4. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cooked.
Tomato pinwheel scones

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Wellington Market

Some friends and I checked out the Wellington Market for the first time today. (Yes, I know it's been around for a long time, and that there are other markets in the area - better late than never, I say!) Newly revamped and with a new indoor gourmet food section, we were really impressed with what was on offer and the prices to match. It is oh so satisfying and a very noble feeling to buy directly from growers and cut out the middle man. Yet, somehow the thought of rising early on a weekend to buy fruit and vegetables has never really done it for me. Luckily the Wellington Market is open from 7:30 am to 1 pm and we were both pleased and surprised to see lots of good quality food still available later in the morning. I'll definitely be back again!

After such a noble morning, we had brunch at Pazzaz, a newish restaurant on the waterfront. The view from our outside table on the waterfront was perfect, the company of two wonderful girlfriends was divine, and the people-watching opportunities made up for the very average service and lengthy wait for parts of our meals. Still, the sun was shining and somehow everything feels just that much better when spring is in full bloom. :-)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

One sentence accepted!

Just a quick update to say how excited I felt when I opened my emails this morning to discover that my submission to One Sentence has been accepted! Considering the volume of submissions made to One Sentence each week, and that only 5-10% are successful, I'm thrilled to have made the grade. I was even more chuffed to see that some people have already started 'liking' my one sentence story!

Café Chick's One Sentence story

Peanut slice

I found this recipe for peanut slice while perusing the Sunday Star-Times at a café this weekend. Luckily I had my trusty iPod Touch on hand to make a quick copy of it. It's easy to make and apparently freezes well ... if it doesn't disappear into hungry mouths before it gets to the freezer, that is!

Peanut slice

  • 150 g butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 dessertspoon golden syrup
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup whole raw peanuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup rice bubbles
  • 60 g butter
  • 1 tablespoon golden syrup
  • 120 g icing sugar
  1. Melt the first three ingredients gently in a large pot. Add the flour, peanuts, baking powder and rice bubbles.
  2. Place in a well greased 30 x 20 x 5 cm slice pan and press down.
  3. Bake at 180°C for 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't over colour on top.
  4. Ice while hot and cut into squares before it is cool.
  5. To make the icing, heat the butter in another pot, add the syrup and then the icing sugar and blend well.
Peanut slice

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

State of the Union - Douglas Kennedy

State of the Union (2005) is a novel by Douglas Kennedy. Starting off in the 1970s, it is written in the first person and focuses around Hannah Buchan, a school teacher and doctor's wife living in small-town Maine and leading a very ordinary and safe life. Enter a mysterious radical, a political colleague of her father's, and a brief affair happens. Jump forward to the present day and the events she thought were long-buried come back to haunt her in a very public way, fuelled by the current dramas facing her family.

As a newcomer to Kennedy's work, I enjoyed the writing style. Errors aside, his vocabulary and literary knowledge is wide, something which he repeatedly reminds his readers of. This is the only novel I have ever read which uses the word phantasmagorical and continues as though nothing has happened.

Although, at times, the drama is laid on with a trowel, and one wonders how many more issues can possibly be crammed into each character, this novel is definitely a page-turner. Tension builds to almost overwhelming levels. I was, therefore, surprised at how rapidly everything was resolved in the final chapter; the "happily ever after" ending arrived very quickly, almost begging for another chapter to be written and make things more believable .

I'm certainly keen to check out Kennedy's other novels. (The cover boasts that he is the author of a number of novels and non-fiction works, including The Pursuit of Happiness - not to be confused with The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), like I was.)

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Apple blossom

Spring is here and we are enjoying an incredibly beautiful day. The sky is clear and the sun is shining. Daffodils and freesias are popping up around the place; such simple pleasures to enjoy. Today, while out walking, I spotted this little tree in full bloom and happily pulled out my camera. Goal #84 for me is take a photo of apple/cherry blossom in spring and simply savour the moment.

For me, apple blossom characterises the start of spring; winter is officially over, and summer will be along shortly. Apparently we're in for a warm, windy spring this year which makes days like today even more special to cherish.

According to the song, "it's cherry pink and apple blossom white", but I think there are many variations of apple blossom with hints of pink in them, too. I suspect this is one of them.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

One sentence

Being somewhat loquacious by nature, I have come to enjoy writing. With the bulk of my writing at work mostly consisting of 'academic speak', I enjoy the contrasting informality and conversational style that a blog such as this allows. I guess that leads to my posts often being rather verbose; oh well!

When I first compiled my 101 in 1001 list, I had recently discovered the One Sentence micro-blogging site. I hastily added a goal to my list to submit a sentence to onesentence.org. From time to time, I review my 101 list and on several occasions this goal has come close to being cut; telling a true story in just one sentence is almost an impossible task. Tweeting is no measure for this challenge! I revisited the site once again this morning and, after reading through the latest contributions and listening to the interview with Radio New Zealand from earlier in the year, I decided to give it a go. Today.

Bearing in mind that the site receives 700-1000 sentences per day, and that 5-10% are accepted, I'm not expecting it to be published. However, if it does make the grade, you'll hear it here first, lol. It certainly has been a challenge, and I returned to my draft sentences all during the morning. As site creator, Michael Ryan, is adamant, he doesn't want One Sentence to "turn into a lazy man's PostSecret". This is harder than it sounds, and many of my sentences started out this way before promptly hitting the cutting room floor. However, I finally settled on a sentence and hit 'submit'. *Gulp*

And my sentence? I'm almost embarrassed to post it, but here goes:
When asked how he could be certain the speaker had blown, Dad dramatically explained (with grandiose arm gestures) that, "I plugged it in and all I heard was nothing".

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Random Acts of Kindness Day

Today is Random Acts of Kindness Day in New Zealand. Some friends and I were talking about it at brunch on Sunday and brainstormed some little things we could do to surprise those around us (or complete strangers) with kindness. I liked the idea of paying for the next person's coffee at a café, or toll booths (if we had any locally). I thought I might whip up a batch of cupcakes and distribute them randomly. Friends also thought they might bake or bring flowers from their gardens to place onto a colleague's desk. (I work from home, so while I would have enjoyed flowers to celebrate the start of spring, it wouldn't really have been a surprise.) We agreed that it would be more fun to do something kind when there was no chance of being found out.

I baked a batch of triple chocolate muffins (white and dark chocolate chips with a chocolate melt in the middle) and made up some little care packages.

I attached a "You've been RAK'd" card (why the apostrophe instead of just an 'e'??) to the top of each package. I often share baking but have never given it away to complete strangers or people I barely know. I chose three groups of people whom I knew would rarely get to enjoy home baking (and also had large letterboxes) and went about making my secret deliveries. Hopefully they will each enjoy a little surprise when they get home from work and check their mail. I'd be thrilled if it brought a smile to their faces and, even better, inspired them to do something random and kind for someone else. :-)

Check it out!