Book Review: Academic Curveball by James J Cudney

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I can’t recall reading a series and I don’t tend to read a lot of mysteries so I thought I’d better remedy it.  I’d seen this book across my social media networks and have read an earlier book by this author, Watching Glass Shatter (see my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2018/08/24/book-review-watching-glass-shatter-by-james-j-cudney/)

Academic Curveball is the first of the Braxton Campus Mysteries and is set at Braxton College in Pennsylvania. Single father, Kellan Ayrwick returns home to dutifully attend his father’s retirement function. Both of his parents work at his old college, and he discovers his father is embroiled in some political issues on the eve of his retirement. After the dinner on campus, Kellan discovers a dead body and reluctantly gets involved in trying to solve the murder. Throw in his feisty and cheeky, grandmother, an ex- girlfriend and another murder along the way and things get very interesting.

It’s a very enjoyable read with great pace. The murderer was not who I expected it to be and the twists and turns kept me guessing. The end was left on a high with a cliff hanger and of course, I just have to get the next book in the series to find out what happens. I’m glad I picked this one up and look forward to getting into the next one.

Restaurant Review: Rokkbank & Co, 334 Clarendon St, South Melbourne.

 

I know my reviews are usually confined to books but I thought I’d branch out this week and for those of you who live in Melbourne, this one’s for you. For everyone else, perhaps you might be enticed to visit our beautiful city.

Last week I had the pleasure of dining at Rokkbank & Co with a group of friends. Walking through the front door we were led down an aisle where the glass floor revealed a well-lit room containing an impressive wine cellar. We were shown to a large booth of luxurious green velvet.

Author Pic: Underground Cellar (yes, that’s my foot at the bottom of the pic)

The first thing I noticed in this full restaurant was the noise. There was none! Just a low murmuring from other diners and soft background music subtle enough without being intrusive. What a pleasure to eat, drink and talk in surroundings where you can actually hear each other. We knew we’d be in for a perfect evening when our attentive waiter, David explained patiently what was on offer and our stomachs rumbled with anticipation. No sharing tonight, we got to order exactly as we pleased and because we were a party of eight, there was no compulsion for a set menu as so many restaurants require. Not that you can’t have a degustation menu if you wanted it because it was certainly available for $130 per person. But that wasn’t what we were after.

Our first course choices were varied and ranged from oysters, Japanese seafood plate, quail, duck eggs to name a few. The prices were reasonable ranging from $16 (for the soup) to $26 (for the Japanese seafood plate). Being a cold night I chose Cream Jerusalem Artichoke Soup Panko crumbed marinated goats cheese, shiso, and toasted pine nuts. When it arrived there was the cheese and toasted pine nuts and just as I opened my mouth to say something, David swooped in and poured the soup into the bowl (see pic below).

Photo from Rokkbank Webpage Artichoke Soup

I’m still thinking about that soup and could have licked the bowl but of course, didn’t. Some of my friends ordered the Blue Swimmer Crab wonton ravioli. The servings were generous and delicious, particularly when paired with a rose.

Authors Pic: Blue Swimmer Crab Wonton Ravioli

The main course choices were equally interesting and ranged in price from $32 to $ 39.  I chose the Roasted Western Plains suckling pig saddle and barbecued leg while others selected White Miso baked Japanese black cod fillet or slow-cooked lamb shank. Again, generously portioned so much so we could barely fit in dessert. But in the interests of checking out the full menu, we forced ourselves to share two desserts and with eight spoons we weren’t disappointed.

Author Pic: Suckling Pig Saddle

Chef Brendan McQueen has certainly provided a menu of interesting dishes with Japanese and Asian influences with the freshest of ingredients. The cocktails are interesting and there is a bar for a pre-dinner drink and the wine list is good. We’ll be heading back there again, I hope very soon.

Check it out https://www.rokkbank.com/ and enjoy.

Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

What an interesting book this is.

Meet Willa Knox, a freelance writer with adult children who had planned for a secure and comfortable future.  Instead, she finds that she and her academic husband are homeless and jobless. She inherits an old house in a place called Vineland. Her husband manages to pick up a short term job as a lecturer at a nearby University. The house is almost uninhabitable and the cost of renovations prohibitive. Added to her woes is her cantankerous, bigoted father- in- law who requires almost round the clock care. Her highly educated son, Zeke struggles under the weight of school debt and a new baby. Her high spirited daughter, Tig whom she barely understands comes home from Cuba and the house is filled with people all of whom have problems. Desperate for help to fix the house, Willa begins looking for funding from the Historical Preservation Society and finds out about the history, an earlier occupant and the utopian community set up as Vineland.

Rewind to the 1880s when Thatcher Greenwood finds himself living in the newly established Vineland with his young wife, mother- in- law and sister- in- law. He’s been appointed science teacher at the local high school and the discoveries by Darwin are causing an explosion of divisive thinking. Thatcher comes to loggerheads with the Creationist and conservative Principal.

“Thatcher thought of the riot he’d seen in the Boston square, the scarecrow Darwin hanging from the lamppost, the crowd terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones.”

The parallel between the two timelines is fascinating. Conservative America in 2016 where climate change is denied by the powers that be, sits side by side in Darwinist America of the 1880s.  The founder of the utopian Vineland, Captain Landis had established and controlled a community of Christian ideals. Science comes along to disrupt and beleaguer the conservatives in both timelines.

The common bond between Willa and Thatcher is that they feel left out, unsheltered and stuck in a crumbling mess. In the mix is Mary Treat the next-door neighbour who was a real-life scientist of the 1880s in her own right, add in a mix of suffragettes and murder and things really get interesting.

The characters are fascinating and well developed but I think the star of the show is Tig, the younger daughter. I loved the way Tig became the teacher and almost a saviour for her mother who sees her daughter in a very new light.  The writing is very thought-provoking. Sometimes I found the scientific discourse on plants and animals a little on the slow side, and for some, this might be a little difficult. But my advice is to take it in, think about it and enjoy. This book will keep giving long after you’ve finished it.

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

 

As I was coming out of this film, I heard the woman in front of me say, “What the fuck was that about?” You would think that after sitting in a movie theatre for two hours and forty-five minutes, the woman would know. She didn’t and neither did I.

Sadly, the latest Tarantino film failed to deliver much of a storyline. Set in 1969, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a washed-up actor, who begins to realise his stardom is waning in a changing world. Yet he seems to be very much in demand and working – what more does an actor want? Stunt man turned personal assistant, protector and long-time friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is at Rick’s beck and call. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) happens to live next door to Rick. And that is about it. We watch a series of vignettes. Rick’s day to day struggles and his interactions with other stars. We spend an inordinate amount of time watching him making a B-grade Western. Cliff makes friends with a girl who lives on a ranch where Charles Manson lives who we glimpse now and then. When we think the story is finally going to head somewhere, we’re let down because it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The scenes with Sharon Tate had promise but mostly we got a long tedious look at her walking down a street in a mini-skirt; riding in a convertible; in a movie theatre watching a movie of herself. Margot Robbie really gets little dialogue and not a lot to do. Yet she still manages to light up the screen. It’s a pity that the Sharon Tate story wasn’t used to full effect because, in my opinion, this should have been the story.

Cliff as a character doesn’t seem to develop in any direction. There is a fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee. Why? If the scene had remained on the cutting room floor, it would have made no difference. And Bruce is not painted in a good light. Does Tarantino have something against him?

You could spend your time in the theatre spotting where Tarantino pays homage to Hollywood of old as well as the large numbers of cameo appearances from various actors. Every scene goes for too long and I wonder why the editing wasn’t more vigilant. That’s not to say that cutting scenes would have overly saved this movie. If you’re looking for the classic Tarantino violence, there are some brief moments but you will mostly have to wait until the end for this anticipated over-choreographed scene. The music is good as you’d expect and the acting strong. But there’s no tension, just a flat series of scenes with uninteresting people. The highlight for me was the little girl and the dog who stole the show. Hippies are given a bad rap and history is subverted.

Why this movie has got the acclaim it has escapes me. Perhaps Tarantino’s star has also waned or perhaps I just expected so much more to keep me interested.

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

I had mixed feelings about this book. The setting seems contemporary except young fifteen-year-old girls suddenly acquire the ability to kill, maim and injure people via a skein in their collar bone which gives them the capacity to have electrical power. Girls around the world begin using it and showing older women how to harness it. Women begin saving those suffering from sex trafficking, exploitation, and abuse of all types and the power unleashes the ability for women everywhere to stand up for themselves. The world tilts as men try to grapple with the consequences.

It sounds like a tantalising read and it’s exciting to explore where the world could be if power was reversed. We see it through the eyes of a young man, two young women and a female Senator who has teenage girls. The first half of the book was fascinating as the power shifted.

If you’re expecting a utopian ending you aren’t going to get it. The world is flipped because of gender but guess what, nothing really changes. Men are scared to walk the streets, they’re violated and abused. There’s still wars and craziness. And it’s this idea that I failed to embrace and why the second half of the book seemed almost so far-fetched as to be laughable. The characters weren’t particularly likable and the plot seemed to be a series of events. For me, it seemed as if the top ten women’s issues in the world were brainstormed so the author could get each one down in the book and I began to find this tedious.

Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking to wonder what the world would be like if power changed. I’d like to think it would be better, that women would have empathy and understanding to make sure the world was a better place instead of spiralling into revenge. But Alderman thinks it would be just as bad and I think that’s a pity.

Book Review: Troll Hunting by Ginger Gorman

 

I feel as if I’ve lived under a rock. The revelations this book unfolded for me were not only eye-opening but positively scary. According to the book’s blurb, journalist Ginger Gorman was trolled in 2013. After doing a story she received hateful tweets, including a death threat, and a picture of her, her husband, and daughter appeared on a fascist website. Although terrifying, she began questioning who the trolls were and why they did what they did. So began her incredibly insightful investigation into another world, a world of cyberhate, cyber-crime and a community of faceless trolls.

Gorman talks to a realm of professionals including psychologists, academics, law enforcement agencies, victims as well as the trolls themselves. The motivation behind the troll’s activities is wide-reaching from causing mischief for fun to disturbance, disruption to individual lives or in the wider arena of political spheres. Sometimes their activities have catastrophic consequences. Gorman dips deep to get into the psyche of a troll’s mindset and one troll admitted that when he was eleven he was on the internet playing pranks for hours; “in other words: the internet was my parent.” The troll in question agrees with Gorman’s observation that for some young people, radicalisation into trolling begins at a young age.

The trolls’ backgrounds are varied. There are the women haters, terrorists, ultra-right wingers, and left-wingers, to categorise a few. But mostly they’re men often holding down ordinary jobs, and educated too. It’s naive to think that people like this haven’t been around for years and years. But the difference here is anonymity in a different dimension.

It makes you think about your own online behaviour. Like yelling in the car at the mistake someone’s made on the road, our road rage is often hidden safely behind the confines of the vehicle. Online, does anyone really know who we are? And words can hurt far more than anyone realises.

‘There’s good evidence to show dehumanising speech can lead to sticks and stones. … numerous academic studies … show dehumanisation is ‘associated with an increased willingness to perpetrate violence.’

It’s a hard read with each turn of the page revealing something more disturbing than before. Yet so compelling is it, you find yourself fascinated. I almost reached for my social media apps to delete them all. And that is a real reaction as we wonder how safe we are in the online world.

This book would have been incredibly difficult to write. The depths of Gorman’s own anguish shows through and as a reader, I was right there with her. Trolling can destroy lives and although some have gone to jail, the law enforcement agencies don’t appear to have fully caught up with this epidemic activity, and that’s scary.

I’m in awe of this author’s bravery to have not only conducted incredible research but possibly put herself and her family into danger, physically and mentally. Yes, it’s an eye-opener and if you’re on social media it would be wise to check this book out.