Restaurant review: The Spice Kitchen, Bukit Indah

Restaurants are popping up everywhere in JB nowadays, and finding one that sounded interesting and wasn’t too far away was something we couldn’t ignore. Especially if it had a Groupon offer attached. Here’s what Groupon had to say about The Spice Kitchen deal:

Today’s Groupon takes things up a notch with an Asian meal at The Spice Kitchen in Johor Bahru. Choose from:

Meal for 2 people for RM45 instead of RM102.90 (only RM22.50 per person)

Meal for 4 people for RM75 instead of RM205.80 (only RM18.75 per person)

Each group of 2 people gets

Choose 1 from:


Set A (RM88.70 value)
Hot and sour soup
Cauliflower Manchurian
Chicken and egg fried rice
Kung Pao chicken
Mango kulfi


Set B (RM77.90 value)
Chicken chingari, hariyali, or cheese tikka
Lucknowi Dum lamb biryani
Aloo Ghobi Matar (gravy dish made from potato, cauliflower, and green peas)
Gulab jamun (without ice cream)


Set C (RM74.90 value)
Chicken cheese tikka
Butter naan
Chicken butter Masala
Steamed rice
Carrot halwa (dessert made with fresh carrots and milk)

With two adults and two kids, I bought a 4-person meal and, the following week, away we went.


I would describe the restaurant’s decor as “bunker”, due to the concrete interiors. It really works in hot climates and gave the restaurant a modern, edgy air that I liked.

Our first problem, however, came with our order. Note how the Groupon said, “Each group of 2 people gets…”? Well, not so fast. Two of us wanted Set B and two of us wanted Set C. “Oh no,” the manager told us, “we can’t do that.” “But we paid for 4 people,” I said. “Yes, but you didn’t buy two separate Groupons at RM45 each. You only bought one Groupon for RM75, therefore you can only choose one set and you’ll get two of them.”

Now look. Do you want me to come back to your restaurant or not? Because, fella, the full price of the second set we chose was actually cheaper than the first, and we didn’t even choose the most expensive set! If I had been the manager, I would have let it slide because I’m running a hospitality service, it’s a relatively new restaurant and, really, it wouldn’t have cost anything to please the customer. But no, Pompous Ass Manager insisted that we could only choose one set. Okay, two lots of Set B, then.

Two lots of this for four people? I don't think so... (Objects appear bigger than in reality)

Two lots of this for four people? I don’t think so… (Objects appear bigger than in reality)

Then, “do you eat spicy food?” “Yes, we eat spicy food.” “Well, it’s not enough to say that, madam,” Pompous Ass tells me. “How spicy do you want it?” Good grief. “Medium,” I finally said. It’s difficult to know what a particular restaurant considers “hot”, so I went with the easiest option. “Medium? Are you sure, madam? We are talking about spicy food here.” “Yes, medium, thank you.” Was it because J is white? Maybe.

By now, I wasn’t in a very good mood. Pompous Ass assured us that the food would be more than enough for four people (“We’ve never had a problem yet, madam!”). It was mostly lovely.

The chicken chingari tikka came straight from the tandoor oven and was well-seasoned but a little too lightly for my taste. It seems that each “Set B” only contained four nuggets, because we got eight nuggets for four people. In fact, the chicken in the picture above was actually a four- or five-person portion, not two. Chew slowly.

The Aloo Ghobi Matar, with chunks of cauliflower and potato, was lovely. The kids liked it and I promised them I’d make more such curries at home.

The Lucknowi Dum lamb biryani felt like it was a cheat. We know, because we benchmark against J’s homemade biryani every chance we get. The real way to make biryani is to combine a cooked saucy lamb mixture with soaked-then-drained uncooked rice and bake them together in the oven until the rice is cooked. It’s nerve-wracking because you’re always wondering if you’ve put in the correct amount of sauce for the amount of rice, but J is a master of this.

I can understand that commercial kitchens like to be a bit more predictable, as it seemed to me that the lamb was cooked separately to the rice and then combined at the end. The rice did taste like it was cooked in meat stock, but there was no real marriage of flavours between the chunks of meat (admittedly tender and quite big) and the rice. J was jealous because the rice grains were more separate than his, but his tastes nicer. The kids agreed.

The extra dish of dhall was delicious and welcome.

But it was also not enough. In fact, we had to order another round of food because three out of four of us were still hungry. In the end, if we hadn’t bought the Groupon, we would have paid RM300 for lunch for two adults, a tween and a young teenager. This is for comparable food that we could buy at our local Indian Muslim streetside joint (Hamid’s Indian Muslim Kitchen) for about RM50.

I think I would have been prepared to be a bit more lenient if Pompous Ass had, at any point, enquired after our meals. But he didn’t. In fact, he made sure he turned away from us when it came time to pay the bill, not looking at us or even making eye contact when presenting the bill or handing J his change. The second he put the bills and coins on the counter, he spun around and walked away. Now that’s just cowardly.

To make up for this, the rest of the staff were terrific. Prompt, courteous, friendly. But, thanks to Pompous Ass, we’re not ever going back. YMMV.

The Spice Kitchen,
Wisma SP Setia, No. S3-0120, Jalan Indah 15/1, Bukit Indah
Great staff, interesting interior, nice food, small portions, condescending attitude
Link to original Groupon deal (not sure how long the link will last)



Review: Tales from the #SFR Brigade

One of my reading spots at home

One of my reading spots at home

It’s a sad fact of life that writers often lose a little of their wonder when reading. “Hmm, I wonder why the writer said it that way,” we think. Or, “No, I would have split that paragraph up and inserted the information between dialogues.” But read we must, because we’re writers and, basically, besides writing, that’s what we do.

Late last year, a submission call went out for stories from the SFR Brigade, and the submissions culminated in TALES FROM THE SFR BRIGADE, recently released through Smashwords. (I hear it’s also coming out on Amazon but it’s the Smash edition that I downloaded, Amazon obviously considering me too Third World illiterate to be allowed to buy ebooks from their precious website. Ahem. Anyway. Moving right along….) This free ebook contains eight stories and each of them is a delight.

Imprint (Pippa Jay). I’m no stranger to Pippa’s work, having been the narrator of at least one of her stories, and she’s an author I always enjoy reading. The action starts from the first paragraph, grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go till the end, as Jiona Sax–fearless thief and manipulator of crime gangs–evades delicious Marshal, Tevik, strongman Gutu and the evil crimelord, Vaz Del. When her machinations catch up with her, as you know they must, the action still takes an unexpected tack that had me blinking in surprise. My only criticism of this story is that the surprise at the end isn’t explained as completely as I’d like but, then again, I’m a particularly pernickety reader. Criminal.

Allure (Amy Laurens) reminds me that emotion is as much a part of SFR as the technology. I enjoyed that it was set in Australia, where the Christmases are dry and searing. It made a welcome change to the usual snow-and-conifers I usually read about. The “trump card” that the humans hold against the Alphs on a planet far away is logical and I liked the reasoning a lot. I just wish the story could have been a little longer to encompass a bit more of the human-Alph backstory. Military.

Nobody’s Present (Marcella Burnard). Oh boy, I think I’ve just found my next gotta-read author. Burnard puts the tech and the romance together so well, I was grinning all over the place. What can sassy high-school physics teacher, Finlay Selkirk (a little too strident at the start for me, but she soon settles down), show a bunch of spacefaring aliens? Read this story and find out. Having two protagonists who’ve faced loss adds an additional, mature dimension to the dynamic that I really appreciated. My only comment is that I liked Orlan Grisham and thought he got a bum deal in the sentence that first described him. Military.

The Stranger (Kyndra Hatch). So damned short!! Beautiful and emotional, Hatch’s story describes two humans caught at the devastating tail-end of the Human-Skellyd war…a war that didn’t go well for the humans. Amid the tangible destruction, there is such heart-rending loss, and The Stranger focuses on one such tale. Loss, tragedy, a desperate search for happiness and a risk of trust, but still too damned short! Military.

Mission: Nam Selan (Linnea Sinclair). As Sinclair says at the start, this story is set in her Alliance Command universe, and features perennially favourite protagonists, Branden Kel-Paten and Tasha Sebastian. Very much like Jay’s and Burnard’s stories, the action begins with a bang and doesn’t let up till the end. Along the way, we’re introduced to raffish pirate, Dag Zanorian, Sebastian’s furzel, Tank, and a very interesting political situation. It is testament to Sinclair’s writing that, even though I’m not familiar with her Alliance Command universe, at no time did the plot become muddled in any way. A lovely space opera vignette. Military.


Prime Sensations (Liana Brooks). Lana was left for dead three years ago on a planet under heavy enemy fire. When the story begins, she is working off her ransom on an enemy (Ilona) waste hauler. When a strike team infiltrates the hauler, expecting someone else, she is brought face to face with Kaleb, the man who–she thinks–never came to rescue her. With a sense of betrayal now seared into her bones, is she willing to give Kaleb a second chance? I liked this story which is set in a very detail-rich universe, but would have appreciated a few more details on the Nova Crystals, Kaleb’s father and the Adrian Situation (that’s all I’m going to say about it). Military.


Envy’s Revenge (Berinn Rae). Kudos to Ms. Rae for the innovative setting of a swamp for her story. Living in Malaysia at the moment means I’m well acquainted with rampant greenery, high humidity and a scary variety of biting insects, so huzzah! Nolyra lives in a bleak future where humanity has been decimated by an exceedingly probable set of circumstances. Men are brutal, women are prized only for their ability to bear children and Envy, hiding out in the swamp, has her hands full keeping her territory clear of scuffers (and worse). When a stranger arrives in her swamp, not taking no for an answer, Envy is forced to see the enemy in a new way. Can she adjust to this new way of thinking? I loved immersing myself in Envy’s world, could almost breathe in the moisture-laden air myself but felt the ending was too hurried with not enough foreshadowing. But an evocative and rich setting. I’d love to read more of this world. Post-apocalyptic.

Whiskey and Starshine (Erica Hayes) is the last story in the anthology. A space western featuring, not just the whore with the heart of gold (Allie Rose) but also a chip in her head, and a scarred bad-boy-turned good, Raine Jericho. I’m not a fan of space westerns but this one was full of heart and it won me over. The ending was more than satisfying and made me smile. Western.


An anthology is nothing without its editors and Laurie Green, Paula Dooley and JC Cassels did a terrific job, as did the copy editors, Laurel Kriegler, Cary Caffrey, Danielle Cassels and Patty Hammond. The book was flawless.

As you can see from my small tail-end summaries, the anthology is skewed to the military side, which is okay, but I’m really no fan of the military (despite coming from one such family) and I look forward to seeing more SFR in non-military settings. Many of these stories could easily have been expanded into very fine novels and I found myself caught by wanting to reach the story’s resolution and yet also wanting more details of the universe I was reading in. Aaaargh! In conclusion, if TALES FROM THE SFR BRIGADE was meant to whet my appetite by showcasing a variety of fine SFR writers, it succeeded admirably.

RATING: Highly recommended. 4 out of 5 stars

I got my copy from Smashwords.


Review: Golden Palm Tree Resort, Sepang

[I talked about analysing reader habits at the Sandal Press blog this week. If you have a hankering to put in your two cents, please feel free to comment.]

A couple of weeks ago, we decided to splurge and have a short break somewhere nice. The heatwave was in full swing, there was no rain and it hardly dropped below 31 degrees Celsius at night. After a bit of research, I stumbled across the Golden Palm Tree Resort, owned by Swiss-Belhotel International. On its website, Swiss-Belhotel describes Golden Palm Tree as:

A five-star sea resort, the our [sic] villas stretch out nearly a kilometer [sic] into the sea facing the sheltered waters of the straits [sic] of Malacca. Blending Polynesian-Maldivian style and décor with local kelong-style stilts, we offer you a choice of nearly 400 villas in five distinctive types.

Perfectly balanced between accessibility and seclusion, our tucked-away stretch of beach is still pristine, a paradise on earth for holidaymakers. Diving, water sports, excursions, snorkeling are just some of the activities you can look forward to. And within the villas themselves, there is a recreation centre with fitness room and library, TV room, choice of restaurants and bars, boutiques, and a spa. Everything you could ever want from a perfect beach vacation is here.

Sounds good, right? We stayed for three days and two nights. But remember that phrase, “five star resort”, and let’s parse that in view of what our family of four actually experienced.


The Swiss-Belhotel says that the Golden Palm is “[o]nly 25-minutes away from the doorsteps of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport”. WRONG. Even with our kamikaze taxi driver, it took us over an hour to get there.


Gorgeous. The villas actually do stretch out along “fronds” of walkways, into the water (or at least the mudflats at low tide). The breezes are refreshing and our villa was a wonderful 25 degrees every night. We didn’t even use the air-conditioning.


Atrocious. Swiss-Belhotel really scraped the bottom of the barrel in this department.

Bila-Bila. The furniture looks knocked around and not very well-maintained. A curry I ordered (you know, in the land of curries!) was tasteless, dusty and made with old curry powder. The Wast’s fish and chips were made from supermarket oven fries and a piece of cod that had been in storage for too long and had freezer burn. J’s beef burger was made with a mass-produced beef patty. Only Little Dinosaur liked her chicken sandwich, but she said the chips “tasted funny” and didn’t eat them. We paid about RM26 for each dish.

We also had our breakfasts at Bila-Bila. While the cutlery was spotless, every piece of crockery was dirty. Another guest went through an entire row of glasses and eventually asked one of the wait staff to wash a so-called clean glass for her as it was covered in grease marks.

A popular breakfast item here is nasi lemak, which is rice cooked in coconut milk. There are various accompaniments (sliced cucumber, sambal, fried anchovies, fried peanuts, hard-boiled eggs) and, at Golden Palm, they were all in individual segmented dishes within a larger metal dish, covered with a lid. One of the guests dropped the lid on the pebble aggregate floor. “Fizzy”, one of the restaurant managers, picked up the lid…and put it straight back on the metal dish! No wiping, no nothing! Yep, this is truly “five star” service, isn’t it?

And, from feeding our animals a raw food diet, I also recognised the cuts of meat that were used in the breakfast chicken curry. Yep, it was the technicolour mix that you only get from Tesco! But with the added feature of being completely tasteless.

In desperation, J had to walk the chefs through how to cook an omelette because he was starving and the cooks didn’t know how to do it!

The kids wish to add that the electric buggy drivers (ferrying everything from food to people) around the resort did not put their lights on at night. (Our kids are very safety conscious.)

Sepoi-Sepoi. If you’re after greasy food served lukewarm, you can’t do worse than Sepoi-Sepoi, another of the resort’s restaurants. Here is where you’ll find “traditional” dishes, yet not one laksa in sight! As with Bila-Bila, the prices are outrageous while the serving sizes are small.

While we were having a late lunch (around 4pm), a retired couple stopped by and ordered the crab and mayonnaise sandwiches. They were packaged just as you’d find them on supermarket shelves and presented the same way…but for four times the price. Now, it could just be me, but in an open-air restaurant with no air-conditioning and temperatures in the mid-thirties (Celsius), I would baulk at ordering mayonnaise-based anything made earlier that morning. Then again, the couple (who clearly appeared to enjoy their sandwiches) were British, so QED.

Perahu. We dropped RM300 at Perahu. The service was unforgiveable for a restaurant set on the beach. There were only maybe sixteen or eighteen tables in total, most of them for couples, and the restaurant was not full. So of course you can expect a “five star” resort to forget to bring condiments you’ve ordered or even to fill up your wine glasses. We told the server (while she was delivering the iced lemon tea to our table) to only pour it for the two kids so, of course, she began pouring glasses for everyone.

Stimbot. This was the steamboat restaurant and, in hindsight, was probably the best of the lot we tried, even though they had to keep going back to the kitchen to fetch things they’d forgotten…like bowls. And cutlery. And drinks. And accompaniments. And they sat us directly beneath a wooden beam that was directly beneath a light, so there was a huge bar of shadow running right across the table. I couldn’t even see the food in my bowl. Of course, we stood up and moved the table ourselves.


The rules of what you can, and can’t, bring to the swimming area varies by the hour. (Actually, this is a Malaysia-wide trait…no rules are ever consistently applied.) We found shards of broken glass by the loungers, there were twigs underfoot in the pool and one of the lights had its cover hanging off beneath water level, exposing the bulb casing! Shades of Syriana.


The villas are very nicely decorated, there’s no doubt about that. Until you find that you’re missing some furniture. You know it should be there because you can look across the water and see another villa with a nice armchair on one of the balconies. But not in our villa. The hot water in the second bathroom didn’t work but, by the time we found out, we had already unpacked everything, so we just told the kids to use our bathroom for the duration.

The “safety equipment” is a joke. Yes, we had life preservers at both balconies and a ladder BUT, the ropes attached to the life preservers were tangled to buggery (we took ten minutes to sit down, untangle them, loop them nicely and put them back on the hooks, just in case anybody needed them for an emergency sometime in the future) and the ladder is too short to reach even the high-tide water mark.

A previous guest had obviously thought it a wonderful joke to lock the room’s safe before leaving. It took us three phone calls and more than an hour before someone turned up to unlock it for us.

We were supposed to have tea- and coffee-making facilities but all we got were two sachets of instant coffee and two of green tea. They were never replenished during our stay.

Also during our first night at Golden Palm, someone in one of the maintenance buggies had an accident and ripped a hole in the wooden railing along one of the “fronds” of villas. The hole was big enough for a toddler (and there were a few around) to slip through and fall into the sea. It was never repaired, or even taped over, during our stay.


There is no doubt whatsoever that most of the staff are merely marking time until their work day is over. The young men at the laughably-titled “Extreme Park” were probably the best example of this. You got the impression you were interrupting their social life by wanting to buy time at the Paintball practice range.

There’s also no doubt that the staff do everything possible to keep you in the dark about what you’re entitled to. We had opted for the Family Package that supposedly included some “adventures” at the “Extreme Park” and also a half-day mangrove tour. I had to drill the receptionist twice about how to go about redeeming the “Extreme Park” “adventures”, before she finally — reluctantly — handed over vouchers worth a princely RM80. And neither of the staff I spoke to said boo about the mangrove tour, even though it was quite clearly stated that we were entitled to it.


Golden Palm likes to label itself as an “eco resort”:

With minimum impact to the environment and touted to be the first eco-friendly sea-hotel in the world, Golden Palm Tree Iconic Resort & Spa is a 5 star haven of peace, perfect for eco adventure, non-motorized water sports, family-friendly fun or to just relax and unwind.

Yeah. Nah, I don’t think so. It’s not very eco-friendly to have plastic toothbrushes in the bathrooms. And neither is it very eco-friendly, to my mind, to look to the near horizon and see three fully operational drilling platforms, in front of a waiting line of cargo container ships. There’s another heavy-industry processing plant just beside the beach of this “eco resort”, so you’re well catered for if you’re into commodities and fuel exploration.

(All the dots in the background? Except for the rectangles over to the left? Yep, they’re drilling platforms. Very eco-friendly!)


I was furious by the time we left Golden Palm, for one reason. I was totally ignored by most of the staff. Okay, I get that I’m not white-skinned. I get that I’m a small Asian woman. I get that my husband is both (a) tall, and (b) as pale as cream. But, dammit!, if I walk up to you, and say, “Good morning, I was wondering whether–” I do NOT expect you to look through me, cut me off, and say to the man behind me, “Good morning, sir, what can I do for you?”.

This didn’t happen once or twice or even five times. Without fail, it happened every single fucking day that we were there. Yes, there may have been Middle Eastern guests also milling around, with women done up in burqas thick enough to act as personal suffocation tents, but I. Was. Not. One. Of. Those. Women.

Maybe it’s different if you’re a white woman at Golden Palm but if you’re not, you’ll find yourself as invisible as the women who sat by the swimming pool in full sun, fully gowned in black with black veils, watching while their obnoxious, bare-chested menfolk cavorted in the water.


But we haven’t come to the good part. Two nights’ stay at the Golden Palm cost us RM2,600 (about US$800). So what were we billed for? RM3,000! In fact, we were billed for RM3,000 before we’d even cleared Reception upon our arrival. When I queried this, I was told that this was done to “check” the validity of the credit card. Yep sure, check my card by overcharging me!! You pricks.

As you can rightly imagine, such shenanigans are the sort of stuff you expect from shady establishments and Golden Palm Tree Resort is as close to a lie as you can get. It’s essentially a two-star budget and mindset, masquerading as a five-star resort.


Can I tell you how desperate we were to leave Golden Palm Tree? We could have still hung around and walked by the silty beaches littered with rubbish (as all the best beaches are in Malaysia), but we decided that it would be more fun to spend four hours at the airport!

And, actually, if I have to give a thumbs up to any part of this short holiday, it would have to be to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. We ordered decent coffee, had decent food, browsed a well-stocked bookstore. I ambled through the Body Shop, we caught highlights of the Euro Cup matches on a giant screen, watched planes take off and land, and had a relaxing time before it was time to head for Domestic (a barren dive compared to the airport’s foyer/International section) and our flight back down to Johor.


Golden Palm Tree Resort: Setting = superb; “Eco” Surroundings = yeah, right! ; Service = poor; Food = inedible (and we stayed at Sibu Island Cabanas one year, so that’s really saying something!); Expense and Bullshit Factor = exceedingly high.

Avoid like the plague!

POSTSCRIPT We’ve stayed at Australian motels that had better service (and food) than Golden Palm Tree. In fact, three-star Australian motels ( (RACQ/RACV guides) are the benchmark by which we judge other establishments. The fact that the Golden Palm Tree Resort didn’t even meet Australian three-star standards really tells you something about the resort.

Review: His Master’s Voice by Stanisław Lem

[The Sandal Press blog this week tackles the subject of cliffhanger endings in novels. Got an opinion? The post is waiting for you.]

Being a writer, I try to stay away from reviewing fiction, lest I give the impression of being biased or, even worse, spiteful. However, as Lem is unfortunately dead, I feel reasonably safe in penning this review and secure enough (as an atheist, I don’t expect his ghost to haunt me and, as a fellow atheist, I doubt he would stoop to such tactics either) to be honest.

HIS MASTER’S VOICE was written in 1968. That is the first very important point because, until you place the novel in the proper historic context, you may fail to recognise much of its brilliance. In 1968, socialism was the governing structure in Warsaw Pact Poland and Lem had to delicately negotiate a maze of prose so as to not antagonise the State censors. One way he did this was to set the novel in the United States. Another was to use science fiction as his vehicle.

The novel is written in the first person by Dr. Peter Hogarth, a well-respected mathematician who is roped into a Manhattan Project-like environment in the Nevada desert in order to help decipher an alien-transmitted neutrino message. Before we begin to read Dr. Hogarth’s experiences, however, we are told in an “Editor’s Note” that Dr. Hogarth is already dead and what we are holding in our hands are the memories of a highly intelligent, yet controversial, member of the HMV (His Master’s Voice) Project.

And, at this point, I find myself at a loss for words. First, the bad. The Preface. God-awful, indulgent, annoyingly truncated in some places, rambling to the point of tedium in others. Skip it. It adds nothing to the rest of the book, in my opinion.

Now, onto the good. The rest of the book, which really only begins to kick into gear around page 40 (halfway through Chapter 3). Lem has put more thought and cogent conjecture in every page of this work than you’d find in entirety in the average SF novel. I do not exaggerate. From the role of intelligence services in what is ostensibly Science, Cold War politics, how culture is transmitted through language (and, thus, alien language cannot be translated accurately without an understanding of the alien’s culture), the nature of Frog Eggs and Lord of the Flies itself, cross-disciplinary scientific concepts, philosophy, the list goes on and on. Each idea is like a finely-crafted bubble hurled aloft until the reader is inundated by so many dizzyingly intriguing ideas that the air becomes psychedelic.

I’m raving, aren’t I? But it isn’t hard to do with this novel, which also contains flashes of dry humour that helps add to the irresistibility of the work.

“…various and sundry gubernatorial candidates, their spouses, Congressional hopefuls or “in” Congressmen, and gray-haired, doddering Senators, as well as those hybrid types only half politico, or a quarter, who occupy positions veiled in mist (but mist of the best quality), were all to be found, all the time, at his house.”

“I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state.”

I dislike Hegel as well, but there is actually a deeper, subtler point in that sentence because the Socialist government of Poland at that time was very favourably oriented to Hegel (believe it or not), adopting his stance that societies evolve over time to greatness from baseness (i.e. capitalism to socialism to communism). This was a nice side-step from Lem, who sought comparison of the venerable Hegel to the older Prussian state rather than the modern socialist one, and one that thus evaded the razor of the censors.

He even lampooned himself:

“[Rappaport] had tried to use, as a ‘generator of ideas’…works of fantastic literature…called…’science fiction.’ He had not read such books before; he was annoyed–indignant, even–expecting variety, finding monotony. ‘They have everything except fantasy,’ he said…If there is progress in a culture, the progress is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.”


In all seriousness, I don’t know how SOLARIS became Lem’s best-known work when HIS MASTER’S VOICE is clearly, in science-fictional terms, the superior book. My only other criticism of the novel, besides the Preface, is that I wished that the nature of Frog Eggs was explained earlier.

I am incandescent with jealousy. 4 STARS.

(I’ll be putting this review up on Goodreads within the next week. Until then, stalwart reader, have a good weekend.)

Review: “How to Speak Dog” by Stanley Coren

[start: pre-review rant]

If there was one group that I always detested while studying for my psychology degree, it was the behaviorists. The followers of BF Skinner are those who reduce every interaction to types of conditioning. I intensely disliked this mechanical view of humanity, almost as much as I disliked the empirically sloppy and out-and-out lunacy of Sigmund Freud.

Take the situation of a teenager self-harming. A behavorist would be thinking of either extinguishing that behaviour or channeling it into a more “acceptable” alternative. So, just to go to extremes, a behavorist would consider the issue of self-harm “solved” if the teenager in question, say, began making daisy chains instead of cutting his/her inner forearms with a Stanley knife (i.e. box-cutter I think Americans call them). Does that solve the underlying issue? Of course it doesn’t but as behaviorists are only concerned with surface actions and reactions, it isn’t a problem for them.

The dross that passes for the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” series of books are another in this line of fatuous reasoning and if I can ever dig out my copy of that book (then again, I probably used it as toilet paper, thus granting it some degree of utility), I’ll do a review on that one too.

[end: pre-review rant]

Which is my extraordinarily long-winded introduction to “How to Speak Dog” by Dr. Stanley Coren. May I say what an utter UTTER delight it is to come across someone in psychology who actually seems to like and respect animals! I have always regarded our history (whether economic or social) to be incredibly speciesist and unbelievably arrogant about our place on the planet. We would like to be respected but don’t consider it necessary to respect those we inhabit this world with. What a “civilised” attitude to have!

And so, again, to this book. Dr. Coren is a skilful and entertaining writer who is able to explain canine behaviour in a straightforward manner that precludes a purely mechanistic view of animals. He is all for anthropomorphism of our mammal cousins, and I couldn’t be happier. After some interesting and informative anecdotes at the beginning, Coren launches into animal (including human, for we are animals too) evolution. He even makes the provocative and delightful supposition that human speech may owe its development to dogs!

He then goes into describing extraordinarily intelligent animals (with some explanations of how they achieved this…excellent observational skills, mostly) and how dog names affect their reception by strangers. The construction of clever experiments, in this case to test canine cognition and comprehension, always fascinates me and Coren’s examples of such scenarios and the conclusions that can be drawn from them are captivating.

Different chapters of the book cover Face Talk, Ear Talk, Eye Talk, Tail Talk, Body Talk, Sex Talk, Scent Talk and I was able to watch the interactions between our mini bull terriers and our cats with much greater interest (and amusement) after reading the chapter on “Dogs Talking to Cats”. There are even illustrations that show escalated levels of fear, dominance, submission, and so on.

I won’t say that I agree with everything Dr. Coren says. Bull terriers, for example, seem to have their own sub-set of behaviours that doesn’t always appear to correspond one-to-one with the “phrasebook” Coren provides (all the physical indicators, conveniently grouped together in the back). Sausage, for example, always accompanies my husband on his nightly lock-up of the house and approaches this duty with a confident trot and her tail bent sharply up (so sharply, in fact, that it looks broken). Coren says this is a dangerous behaviour: “It is a definite sign that immediate aggression is being contemplated by the dog” (p. 126), but we interpret it to mean a watchful alertness; i.e. “On Guard!”, especially when there is no immediate sign of danger in the vicinity. When her “duty” is done and she’s safely upstairs, Sausage relaxes that sharp bend and comes looking for cuddles, preferably in someone’s lap.

But, other than a couple of niggles along those lines, I have no truck with anything in the book and, in fact, have bought two other books by Dr. Coren on dogs and dog psychology. As with this one, I’m sure the next two books will also be keepers.

Summary: Highly recommended to any caring dog (with cat!) owner. I’ll be giving this 4 stars and copying the bulk of this review to Goodreads.

HOW TO SPEAK DOG: Available from The Book Depository for US$11.00 with free shipping worldwide

Movie review: The Last Dragon

Oh I was so prepared to love this movie. Chinese landscapes? Joint Australian-Chinese production? Sam Neill? Win win win. Er, not so fast.

The Last Dragon follows a singular adventure of Josh (Louis Corbett) and Ling (Li Lin Jing), in China during school vacation and spending time with their respective parents, Dr Chris Chase (Sam Neill) and Dr Li (Wang Ji). It is in China that Ling discovers she can hear flute music that nobody else can hear. She is, of course, The Chosen One, and must recover the mystical pearl, the essence of a dragon’s power, lost for three thousand years, and restore it to the dragon now residing beneath the site of the archaeological dig.

When I saw Australian involvement in this film, I was expecting great things. Mad Max; Children of the Revolution; Death in Brunswick; The Dish. While I yawn and forget the latest Hollywood blockbuster, these Aussie films remain with me as quirky, surreal glances into other lives and I love each and every one of them. The Last Dragon, however, starts with cliche and goes downhill from there.

Of course one of the kids is The Chosen One. Of course the other one is a hidden genius in another way. They meet the caretaker of the temple (Wu Dong, played competently by Jordan Chan) who is both guide, comedy relief and, of course, martial arts kick-ass guy. After all, he’s Chinese. They also meet the dragon, who seems to like posturing in mid-air more than actually saving the kids during the climax of the film. However, the dragon is good and that is evident the first time you see it. How? Well, all the good dragons have stubby snouts. Haven’t you noticed? The ones with the long, more interesting, less puppy-like profiles, are heinous fire-breathers and although it is stressed to us in this movie that Chinese dragons are not like Western dragons At All…they are when it comes to cliche-ville.

Other discordant notes include the fact that Sam Neill’s character is divorced. A lot is made of this at the beginning of the movie—it’s the reason for father and son evidently not seeing each other for a while—but it’s not carried through. Why are the parents divorced? We never know. Is it even necessary for the parents to be divorced? Not at all, especially when there’s not a hint of romance between Dr Chase (Josh’s dad) and Dr Li (Ling’s mum). It’s like someone sat down with a blank piece of paper and thought of as many stereotypes they could write down before starting on the script. Divorced parents? Check. Smart-arse son? Check. “Aaaawww” moment connected to ex-wife’s birthday? Check. Mysterious book? Check. Intricate locking mechanism to a stone door involving a carving? Check. Machinery that requires split-second timing and some biological oddities in order to be activated? Check.

We find out that the pearl’s disappearance is somehow associated with a dying emperor, but the grieving daughter’s actions are also completely implausible. I swear the dragon is sporting four claws in some drawings and five in others. (It’s important.) And the editor had a strange sense of timing, chopping up important scenes yet keeping irrelevant footage running for way too long. (The first time the kids are in the cave, for example.) I think I’ll stop there before I run through the entire movie.

It wasn’t a complete bust though. The leader of the archaeological dig? A woman, and a capable yet empathetic character she is too. I liked Dr Li a lot. The kids could be swapped for any other Asian/white pair of characters. Sam Neill…well, he didn’t stretch himself but I considered him my eye-candy for this movie, so I’ll give him a pass. Jordan Chan had his moments but got a bit repetitive from time to time.

The other thing I noted was that the villain, a lying geophysicist who was in conflict with both of the other academics, was American. I wonder, with the USA’s declining power, whether we’ll start to see more foreign movies with American villains? It made a nice change.

I have read that the movie was shot entirely at the Hengdian World Studios, south of Shanghai. The studio is reputedly the largest studio complex in the world with over 3 million square metres of built sets. Guys, it doesn’t matter. You can have a studio on the Moon but, unless you have a good script to go with your CGI and (questionable) wire work, you’re not going to have a memorable film. I thought the Australian influence would work its magic in this regard, but I was obviously wrong.

When all’s said and done, however, this was a kids’ film with kid film sensibilities. With that in mind, I should tell you that Little Dinosaur rated this 9/10. More world-weary eleven year old that he is, The Wast grimaced and rated it at 7½/10.

MY VERDICT: Standard B-grade kid flick. Unfortunately. 6/10.

Knocking knees and a review of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

According to Wikipedia, Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester. I did not know this two months ago.

Professor Geras is also ostensibly, like myself, a Marxist. I did not know this two months ago.

And, just to pull one little wiki fact from a hat, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only did I not know this two months ago but, just fyi, I am vehemently of the opposite opinion.

In any case, colour me flapping like a fish on the deck of a fishing trawler when Professor Geras contacts me via Twitter to ask if I’ll be part of his Writer’s choice series. It’s been going for six years and contains reviews of other writers’ favourite books. If you visit the page I’ve linked to and scroll down the list, you’ll see some pretty (gulp) impressive writers.

As much as I loved the invite, it was also disconcerting to receive. Did the professor realise I wrote … shudder … science-fiction erotic romance, any one of those terms enough to banish me to the depths of hackdom? He didn’t care. If I had something to say, he’d gladly have a look at it.

So HERE it is. A review of that old classic, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Don’t know if it’s as horrorshow as the book, but I hope you enjoy it anyway. And thanks Professor Geras for the opportunity.

Review: The Charlemagne Code

Kommissar Rex chases Indiana Jones

German-language The Charlemagne Code (TCC) follows in the footsteps of such movies as the Indiana Jones franchise, National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code.

The Nibelungen treasure is a wondrous hoard consisting of carriages of gold, a chain mail hood that gives invisibility to its wearer, the sword of Siegfried, and so on. The problem was, the very existence of the hoard was enough to start bitter wrangling between nobles during the reign of Charlemagne. Realising that peace would not exist while people coveted the treasure, Charlemagne instructed some of his most trusted subjects to hide the treasure but also provide four clues to its whereabouts, so that “a wiser man in a wiser time may find it.”

Fast forward to eight years ago. Maria and Eik Meiers are a husband-and-wife treasure hunting team but, after Maria (and colleague, André) die in a cliffside collapse on Rügen Island, Eik gives it all up to concentrate (ha!) on raising their daughter, Krimi.

Eight years after the Rügen Island accident, Eik gets drawn back into hunting for the Nibelungen treasure after his house is ransacked and Krimi discovers her mother didn’t really die in a car accident like she’d been told. Meanwhile, elderly and ailing magnate Heinrich Brenner (the authority behind the unsuccessful burglary) tells university museum curator Katharina Berthold that he’s after the treasure and the race is on between Eik (and Katharina) and Brenner and his crew.

This movie starts off well. You can actually believe the stuff about the hoard, the symbols, the history of it, particularly as it’s backed by that very atmospheric Germanic scenery. But then it starts to descend into the enjoyable silliness of a Kommissar Rex episode and we spend the rest of the movie yelling unheeded advice to the characters on the screen.

Benjamin Sadler plays the hero, Eik Meiers. He is reluctant to get involved in the treasure hunt but fully commits once he’s in it. He’s inoffensive enough to watch, although I do wonder at the emotional range of German actors. You see, Sadler was nominated for Best Actor for this role at the 2008 German TV Awards. All I can say is, Germany must have no budding DiCaprios around.

Bettina Zimmermann plays Katharina Berthold, an independent, take-charge, no-nonsense scientist (with a killer body, natch!) who quickly descends into a helpless little fräulein who screams at every cobweb that brushes her face. By the end of the film, I wanted Brenner’s robotic henchman, Richter (Detlef Bothe), to execute her.

Much like Japanese movies, it appears that Germanic movies must also have a male comedy sidekick character. In TCC, this character is called Justus and is played by Fabian Busch. There are a few common traits to every such sidekick-to-the-hero character:

  • He must be shorter than the hero
  • He must be uglier than the hero
  • He must say things at inappropriate moments
  • He must have, at the very least, a sarcastic quip ready for every situation
  • He must have a few strange episodes in his past that become fortuitously helpful at the right moment

The dying Brenner is played with appropriate panache by veteran German actor, Hark Bohm. The younger, dashing but mentally unstable villain is played by Stephan Kampwirth. The older daughter of Eik, Krimi, who seems to be palmed off into the background whenever she’s inconvenient, is played by Liv Lisa Fries.

While the movie starts off with the right degree of intrigue, it fast descends into improbable coincidence after improbable coincidence. The reasoning is along the lines of: “Look, I just found a small marble. It’s made of pure white quartz. OMG! I just realised that the lunar eclipse will occur tomorrow! That must be what this marble means! OMG! Let’s put the marble in that handy little depression in the middle of a stream that has obviously not seen any kind of erosion for 1,200 years, push this lever over here, climb up and yell up that shaft over there and Something. May. Happen.”

In addition to all the actors, who are certainly easy on the eye, we go haring off from Cologne to Rügen Island to the Teutoburg Forest and even (improbable for a 1,200-year old mystery) to Neuschwanstein Castle, all without knowing where the hell all these places are. An Indiana-style map, animating each step of the journey, would have certainly have helped orient foreign audiences, especially as parent company, Telepool, slated the movie for worldwide release.

In a way, it’s unfair. Spielberg and Lucas built a lot of their sets from scratch using sweat and plywood, but TCC just needed the right permits from the German Tourist or Antiquities Board to go hopping from one ancient pile of stonework to another with nary a care in the world. You just don’t feel that a justified sense of industry has gone into the filming of Cologne Cathedral because, hey, it’s already centuries old and was just hanging around, waiting for a film crew to exploit it. Because of this, TCC (particularly in its second half) resembles more kids playing around Famous Tourist Sites of Germany than a serious mystery. And this is not helped by J’s comment that, “That Charlemagne must have been better than Nostradamus. Have you noticed how every place that contains a vital clue has a conveniently modern car-park right next to it?”

Once I stopped laughing, I realised he was right. A fair slice of action seems to take place in, or within sight, of a car-park which dulls the suspense somewhat. But, speaking of car-parks, Eik’s car was a wonder. It was a dinky little Mercedes SUV. An SUV-let, if you like. And, boy, this car was better than KITT. It didn’t matter that the baddies shot and rammed the poor thing. It was pristine in the next scene. It didn’t matter that the gang of heroes was swept kilometres away by freezing waters. That little white SUVlet was right there where they finally turned up, parked scenically by the edge of a serene lake, serving out towels and hypothermia-busting warmth with barely a burp from its engine. Ah, German technology. Vorsprung durch technik* indeed, if Mercedes will forgive the quote from a rival car-maker.

The of-course budding romance between Eik and Katharina was no more and no less than I was expecting. Same for the climax. I just wished that Telepool had tried to do something a bit original rather than aping North American conventions. Be original and you have the whole field to yourself; copy someone else and the comparisons are unavoidable…and not always favourable, as this review attests.

Having said all that, the family enjoyed TCC in a “Nooooooo, don’t go there!” kinda way and would watch another such German outing again. But a little less self-consciousness next time around would help.

RATING: Silly and mostly enjoyable. 7/10. (The Wast gives it 8/10; Little Dinosaur gives it 9/10.)

(*) Advancement through technology

Review: Serenity

*** This review contains spoilers ***

The family sat down to watch Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” again last night, with a view to getting the series on DVD. The movie tracks the crew of the ship (or “boat”, as they like to call it in the movie) Serenity and how their lives and the life of young River Tam interwine.

River (Summer Glau) is a talented teenage psychic experimented upon by the Alliance in order to build a series of super spies/assassins. Her ability to read the thoughts of everyone around her is stressed a number of times. Her older brother, Simon (Sean Maher), spends all his money to break her out of the grasp of her Alliance handlers. Both flee and find refuge on the ship, Serenity. But things are not so cosy with a nameless, super-efficient Alliance operative on River’s tail.

The captain of the Serenity is Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion. He has some baggage, which includes being on the losing side of a system-wide war and a doomed romance with Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a prostitute. Alan Tudyk plays the role of Wash, the humane pilot of the ship, married to Zoe (Gina Torres), a tough no-nonsense ex-soldier. Of course, as they’re married, one of them has to die. And there’s the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) who alternates between looking bewildered or about to burst into tears.

My favourite character was Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a gun-happy mercenary with a very black and white view of the universe.


The flashes of humour. The look of the ship sets, which takes the seminal Star Wars grunge look (but only if you don’t already know about Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” which, I believe, was the original space grunge) and projects it light years ahead. Glau’s boots.


Oh boy, where to begin? And remember, except for catching parts of maybe two Firefly episodes while on my way from one place to another, I’m new to this universe.

If you take away the humour, there was nothing about any of the characters that made me care for any of them. No hints of personal development, no real camaraderie. Instead, they all appeared to be people lumped together with nothing in common except grumpiness and misery. If this is how it started out, it would have been nice to see some growth during the movie. It doesn’t take much. A touch. A surprised look when someone does something unexpected. There was no such growth from the crew.

Summer Glau was great at playing the victim. Constantly. Getting that grid pattern embedded in her cheek because she seemed to spend so much time lying on metal grates eavesdropping on people. (Why? Why have her eavesdrop when she can read everyone’s minds?) But an assassin? She spends more than eight months lolling around, growing over her scars from the multiple puncture marks the Alliance inflicted on her, then we’re supposed to believe that this skinny little girl who hasn’t even breathed hard during the entire movie takes out a company of Reavers that Jayne and Zoe can’t handle? Puh-lease. The spirit may have been willing, little girl, but the flesh really wasn’t up to it. And it shows.

The names. A preacher called Shepherd. Because I’m not familiar with the Firefly universe, I thought it was the dude’s name. And we have “Mr Universe”. In that case, I thought, why not called Inara “Hooker”? Just so we’re all straight on who does what.

The locations. So dreary. So monotonous. And if you’re going to film a supposed settlement, at least tidy it up a bit so it doesn’t look so obviously like you’re filming in an abandoned mining valley.

Mal Reynolds. Yes yes, he’s supposed to be a flawed hero, but he only comes off as a grumpy bastard. Why do these people even follow him? It’s never explained. We’re just supposed to take their loyalty for granted. The one time Jayne comments that he’d rather captain the ship, instead of this leading to a dramatic moment where Reynolds shows why he’s the leader, we get a lame one-line throwaway that isn’t even any good. Way to build character.

The crew. The number of people in the cast was too big for the plot. Inara is introduced just so we can see The Operative go head-to-head with Reynolds, then she disappears for the entire movie and suddenly pops up at the end. “Oh, so she’s still in the movie,” I commented when I saw her again. “Fancy that.”

EDITED TO ADD: The Reavers. How could I forget the Reavers? Aggressive to the point of insensibility. Like nothing better than to eat people alive. Depicted as slavering, mindless nightmares. Yet they can pilot and maintain complex pieces of spacefaring machinery and fire at enemies? How do they maintain their vessels? Scavenge? But that requires the kind of thinking that’s not depicted. Really, the Reavers should have been able to get some ships in space but then they should have destroyed themselves within months, if not weeks. Lame.

The accents. How come I didn’t have any trouble watching, and enjoying, all those old Westerns, but I had incredible difficulty trying to understand what everyone was saying in this movie? With Fillion as Reynolds, this was a particular problem. Put him in profile or with his back to the camera and he might as well have had a bag over his head while orating.

The moralising. Have a moral? Leave it up to the viewer to reach by her- or himself. Don’t have one of the characters stop in the middle of laying waste to half a planet, just to say, “And you know, you can’t force anyone into doing anything.” Really? The political scientist in me wants to say something, but I shall desist.


Harmless enough. I won’t be watching the movie again. And we won’t be getting the DVD series.

VERDICT: I give it 5/10 and recommend it only for North American sensibilities. The Wast gives it 2.5/10. Little Dinosaur gives it 9/10.

Frozen leg of mutton: The City & The City

Guest post by Mr KS Augustin, in which another reader in the house puts forth his take on the novel in question.

This mysterious ingredient (the frozen leg of mutton in the title*) appears in quite a few examples of the “How not to write a novel” by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, my recent big favorite for reading on public transport. I would not presume to advise China Miéville (CM from now on) on how to write, or re-write, his The City & the City. This would be pretty arrogant of me, specially considering that I’m not a writer and do not aspire to become one. I do, however, admit surprise by CM’s opening references and credits to Franz Kafka’s and Bruno Schultz’s writing.

Subsequent to her finishing it, Kaz left the book on her desk to share, mentioning the supposed book’s style and atmosphere. I picked it up and began reading.

So, if you ever took the walk with Bruno Schulz down the street of his Cinnamon Shops, it may bring back childhood memories of the first time you were sent to do grocery shopping by your grandma, the first time when you were on an important mission of buying a bag of sugar, loaf of bread and perhaps a slab of butter. The shop was always small, which could be classified in Western terms as a deli-store. Perhaps, in these modern times, an Indian spice market could do the same trick of immersing yourself in a strange place where time slows down and you’re being surrounded by aromas of food and spices, and worn down counters. This was where old people slowly entered the scene, checking on the quality of cheese, pâté, or just making sure that they are buying the right stuff when carefully counting small change. To me it’s a feeling, and a smell, of a holiday. There’s nothing much to do and lots of time to reflect upon life in its details.

Moving to the next reference, if we try to enter Kafka’s world, then it probably would need to be done during a sleepless night, and lived through a nightmare of uncertainty of what is going to happen to us the next day. There is the possibility of failing or being afraid of failing in trivial things. Will my application for something really important pass or fail? What if there is a change in management or, better yet, we have to face some capricious persona who has absolute power over our future. If you want to have Kafka in a pill, take a trip through the Singapore-Johor Causeway and smile at the grumpy Singaporean immigration officers. You will know that they will stop you only if they could find a reason, just to show you who is in charge of that particular minute of your life. Well, Kafka takes it further, thus creating chilly feelings of impending, irreparable loss. Who knows, maybe that’s why not that many people like reading his novels, especially knowing that a lot of his fears turned into reality during WW2.

But guess what? There are no spice-markets in The City & The City, no absurd fear injected into our own reality, just clean CSI-in-a-book. Borrowing lettering from Slavic languages might have some small potential of creating any type of strangeness, but it does not invoke any images and, to a Polish-born person, might be actually quite funny at the beginning, then annoying, then tiresome.

I have to confess that I have not finished reading the novel. I was not even interested in the canonical question of who did it. The “why” became to me even less important. I was left pondering upon one question though: how far have we fallen as ethical beings if we derive pleasure and entertainment from an act of a murder? Is it really necessary to have a character killed in the novel so we can enjoy or appreciate the story? I do not really recall anybody being murdered along the streets with cinnamon shops. Then again I may need to get back to the B. Schulz stories to be sure.

So, where was this frozen leg of mutton being cooked, I wonder.

ADDITIONAL: I told J that people like to read ratings. Why, he asked? Because they do, I replied; they like a little sound-bite to take away. In all honesty, the discussion made me realise just how Americanised my thinking has become, but that’s a dirge for another day. In the end, because he didn’t finish the book, he was happy to let me tag a “DNF” to this post. Sorry, China Miéville but, as far as my husband is concerned, you’re going to have to do a lot better, especially when making specific literary references (all emphases mine):

Among the countless writers to whom I’m indebted, those I’m particularly aware of an grateful to with regard to this book include Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz.

at the beginning of your book. ;)

* For those who haven’t read the wonderful and highly-recommended book by Newman & Mittelmark (I’d put a link to The Book Depository here, but they’re down for maintenance at the moment), the frozen leg of mutton is a metaphor for something that’s mentioned in a novel but turns out to be completely irrelevant.