Book Review: Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here

Nothing to See HereNothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d seen it on a few top-10 lists, and was intrigued by the praise and the premise. It is immediately engaging with a funny, likeable hero, Lillian, who, as in all good novels, has a journey to make over the course of the book, entrusted out of the blue by her oldest, best friend and frenemy, Madeleine, to take care of some young stepchildren who happen to spontaneously combust when they are upset or angry. The book is not complex nor literary; it’s inventive, funny and original.

View all my reviews

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Sydney Food Diary: Johnny Goes Italian, Darlinghurst

I never made it to Fishbone, the previous incarnation of Johnny Goes Italian but I have made it to Buffalo Dining Club, a sister restaurant, and here, I got the same vibe.

It’s a really cool vibe. It’s hipster and modern, and yet also feels like you’re being served up some classic, traditional dishes. And the vibe really is cool.

We had some great cocktails, tasty, savoury starters, and then split two perfect plates of pasta.

Nothing bad at all to say. I’d be back here in a flash. Though I suppose I’d try to plan a bit better; there aren’t a lot of seats.

It also looks like a fab place to just hang out and drink (modeled after a New York bar in the 1920s).

Johnny Goes Italian Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Madame Nhu, Surry Hills

I was surprised to find out I haven’t blogged Madame Nhu’s before. Like it’s sister restaurant Xage on Crown Street, which has now become an Asian fusion pasta bar, it’s been around for a long time, making dependably delicious Vietnamese food.

If I’m alone, I’d go for the pho, but it was good to be out with a friend this particular evening, and split a serve of their delicious summer rolls, partake in their steamed chicken, and we also had an interesting dish, not pictured, with beef and crispy sweet potatoes.

The service is friendly, the atmosphere lovely and the food tasty. This place is a gem.

Madame Nhu Surry Hills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Review: Taotronics Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

TaoTronics Active Noise Cancelling Headphones, Wired Earbuds in Ear Stereo Awareness Monitor Earphones with Microphone and Remote (15 Hours Playtime, 3.5mm Jack, Premium Aluminum Matte Black)

Back in the day that I did a lot of travel for work, discovering the Panasonic RP-HC55 noise-cancelling headphones was a godsend. They were small and easily portable. Having your own headphones means that if the entertainment system is up and running, you can plug in and start watching immediately. The quality, particularly with the noise-cancelling function on, is much, much better than the airplane headphones they hand out.

And I was never into the big large ones that fit over your ears. So, I was very sad when my pair gave up. They were so old, probably over ten years old, that the plastic degraded around the controller, making it impossible to turn on and off.

I was surprised to find that Panasonic discontinued this type of headphones. There was no newer model. The closest thing I could find was the Bose QuietComfort® 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling™ headphones. But I wasn’t willing to shell out $370 Australian.

I’m not that fanatical about sound quality, and I’d also worry about losing something so expensive that is also so small. I had to do considerable searching around the internet to find what I was after, and found them in some headphones from TaoTronics.

The nice thing is that they’re now chargeable through a USB cable, so even lighter than the Panasonic model that I had. They’re about the same size, and from using them a few times, the sound quality is good, or at least what I need and am happy with. And for AUD 59, including shipping (through Amazon), I think this is mighty fine value.

Out with the old (Panasonic, top) and in with the new (Taotronics, bottom).

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Sydney Food Diary: Martini Cafe, Newtown

Wow. 40 degrees on a Saturday morning. It was hot in Sydney. So we were looking for somewhere with a table and not out in the sun! The Martini Cafe had a cute table available right in front of the coffee station so we decided to give it a go.

I have a weakness for potato rosti but these tasted more to me like the Indian Aloo Tikka or Aloo Bonda, the consistency was more mashed than grated potatoes and served as little fritters rather than a hash brown-like plateful.

But it was very tasty and nicely presented, with avocado, a poached egg, fresh basil pesto and haloumi.

My vegetarian pal said that his French toast with a berry compote was delicious, and my coffee was beautifully strong.

It was an off-day for service though. Our coffee order got lost. The food took a long time to arrive. My dish arrived first, but without cutlery. The first French toast had bacon on it. We were too late to manage to say: just take off the bacon, and put on the berry compote. It was thrown out. The waiter was sweet and apologetic (and the restaurant was busy) but yup, the service was all over the place.

I’d try it again though, on a quieter (and perhaps less hot) occasion.

Martini Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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2019 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies, TV

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors, the Enmore Theatre. See review here.
  • Jane Siberry in concert at the Camelot Lounge, Sydney.
  • Jane Siberry hosting Songwriters in the Round at the Estonian House, Sydney.
  • Bent Burlesque, Seymour Centre
  • Confessions of a Mormon Boy, Giant Dwarf.
  • West Side Story, Handa Opera: A classic musical, maybe my favourite, on a huge stage, colourful, with beautiful singing and acting and dancing. Loved it.
  • Heaven and earth: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Art Gallery of NSW.
  • Jonsi and Alex: Riceboy Sleeps, Sydney Opera House: It’s such a complex work, built up with so many sounds and layers, I never expected to see it performed live. I found it incredible.
  • John Grant, with Brendan McLean, special guest, the Metro.
  • Once, Darlinghurst Theatre.
  • Love is a Drag, Tim Draxl, Sydney Cabaret Festival.
  • Reuben Kaye, Sydney Cabaret Festival. Shockingly funny, filthy, witty AND he greeted each of us to the theatre with a hug. Uh-mazing.
  • Kim David Smith, Kim Sings Kylie, Sydney Cabaret Festival.
  • Caroline, or Change. Hayes Theatre: There were some great moments in the musical and wonderful performances, but I found it confusing. There were also some terrible moments (clichéd) and not a lot happens. I expected more from Kushner and Tesori.
  • Sydney Contemporary 2019: To be able to wander around the see some of the world’s best contemporary art while sipping a negroni. Unbeatable.
  • Jandamarra – Sing for the Country, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
  • HMS Pinafore, Hayes Theatre.
  • Seaton Smith, The Comedy Store, Sydney: I rarely see live comedy but when it’s good I love it. This guy seems to be at the top of his game: sharp, great audience interaction, a clearly developed stage persona, a point of view and perfect timing.

Books

  • Lily Brett’s New York (essays). My review here.
  • André Aciman’s Call me by your name (fiction). My review here.
  • Ali Smith’s How to be Both (fiction). My review here.
  • Chris Somerville’s We are not the same anymore (short fiction)
  • Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (fiction)
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (fiction). My review here.
  • Daniel Arsand’s The Lovers (fiction)
  • Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble (fiction)
  • David Foenkinos’ Delicacy (fiction). My review here.
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (fiction)
  • Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here (fiction): I’d seen it on a few top-10 lists, and was intrigued by the praise and the premise. It is immediately engaging with a funny, likeable hero, Lillian, who, as in all good novels, has a journey to make over the course of the book, entrusted out of the blue by her oldest, best friend and frenemy, Madeleine, to take care of some young stepchildren who happen to spontaneously combust when they are upset or angry. The book is not complex nor literary; it’s inventive, funny and original.
  • Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (non-fiction):

Movies

  • Three Identical Strangers: A pretty interesting documentary about some terrible incidents (triplets, as well as twins, separated for scientific observation).
  • Roma: The kind of film that if it were an arthouse film, I’d be raving about to tell friends, but since it’s the possible best picture at the Oscars, I think, ‘Is this overhyped?’ It has beautiful scenes yet at times almost seemed too simple and rambling to me.
  • Brooklyn: Finally caught this, on Netflix. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful film, a meditation on living between cultures and countries, and Saoirse Ronan has this luminous beauty and charisma, a bit like Cate Blanchett.
  • A Star is Born: I’m not sure why this film didn’t grab me. I did like Lady Gaga’s performance, very natural, and found something interesting about Bradley Cooper’s character that he created in his voice and mannerisms, but its treatment of the themes of creativity, fame and jealous relationships was all a bit expected.
  • Isn’t it Romantic?: I have a soft spot for Rebel Wilson, and thought this movie fluff was a fine way to pass a weeknight in front of Netflix.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: From the director of Moonlight, this was an interesting mix of romance and social history with beautiful acting (and people) and a soundtrack to die for. I found the pace a little slow and would have cut half an hour but I really did like it.
  • Shazam!: Hmm, top film in the USA right now and most of the critics loved it, with a few outliers. I just couldn’t find my way into the story, there are some good bits, but it was too juvenile before it descended into the regular smash ’em ups of regular superhero films.
  • Avengers: Infinity Wars: I had to catch up before seeing the big finale and I have to say I thought it was pretty good. The fight scenes make sense (unlike those of Shazam!): they generally had a logic of what the powers were and how they could be used. It’s fun to see such big actors playing … superheroes.
  • Avengers: Endgame: Likewise, I appreciated the slow, quiet start, the attempt to create emotional bonds with the audience but without overdoing it, and with good moments of comedy (Chris Hemsworth really does a good job with this). It was LONG with a LOT HAPPENING but enjoyable.
  • Rocketman: I liked this, maybe even more than Bohemian Rhapsody. It was fantastical in the right sort of ways.
  • Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts: Possibly only for fans of Rupaul’s Drag Race. I think Trixie is very talented and very watchable and engaging: but it delved so little into what made him tick. The film was not as smart and deep as its subject.
  • Nae Pasaran: Astonishing Scottish accents and a surprisingly uplifting film about Chilean solidarity from the Scottish workers at the Rolls Royce factory in the 70s. Much more engaging than it sounds!
  • The Farewell: I found this film touching and engaging. Star performances by Awkwafina and the woman playing her grandmother. Even though my Chinese cultural background is different to the one in the movie, I found so much of it relatable.
  • Late Night: My standards drop while on a plane (i.e. I just want to be entertained) but I was really entertained by this. Gently tackling racism and sexism on late-night TV and comedy in movie form, the performances, by Emma Thompson and others, brought the material, already fine, up a notch. 
  • Deadpool: A surprisingly funny superhero film with rhythm and verve.
  • Fighting with my Family: An amiable story about the true-life rise of the British wrestler Paige to the ranks of the WWE.
  • Booksmart: I wanted to like this more than I did, but it was amiable. Whether a stereotype of an American high school, a send-up or a celebration, I just don’t relate to it.
  • Almodovar’s Pain and Glory: Remember when his films were about labyrinths of passion and how sex and death can be seen to combine (Matador). Or about the law of desire? Now, his main theme was about his bad back and his body’s ailments. God, I feel old.
  • Always Be My Maybe: It’s not deep, OK, but a romantic comedy starring two Asian-American actors that doesn’t really play up their Asianness was charming. I was rooting for them.
  • Knives Out: While I found Daniel Craig channeling Kevin Spacey in House of Cards a bit disturbing, this was simply a fun, enjoyable, story- and character-driven film.
  • Parasite: Finally got to see the much-lauded Korean film, Parasite, and found it engaging and disturbing. Yikes!
  • Cats: I saw it. I survived. Yes, the CGI is disturbing. It has little plot but neither did its source material. I don’t think it’s as bad as reviewers have made it out to be.
  • Hustlers: What a bizarre film. It hinted at women’s empowerment, at a commentary about money and the hustle, at Robin Hood stealing from the rich and feeding the poor. Instead, a somewhat voyeuristic and tawdry look at a strip club, a soppy portrayal of a friendship between women, and clunky narrative, with the story told through a journalist reporting on the story. Sloppy silly story-telling, like the shallow milking of sympathy by showing the main character, Destiny, giving her grandmother, who raised her, money, or grieving when she dies; a ridiculous Christmas scene where the characters give each other expensive gifts and they sit around talking to each other with snappy dialogue, a cop blotting off grease from his pizza. And the 2nd quarter of the film just sags in its repetition. Didn’t see the point of this one. 
  • Downton Abbey: I thought the storyline and narratives were all very silly, but if you were a fan of the TV series, as we were, then it’s an enjoyable return to the show.

Television

  • RuPaul’s Drag Race, All Stars, Season 4: A pretty weird season and I’d agree with the internet chatter. A weird ending with the double-crowning, chosen from pre-filmed clips.
  • Marvelous Mrs. Maizel, Season 1: Binge-watched on a long, plane ride. Enjoyable. The critics LOVE this show, but strangely, I couldn’t then get past the first episodes of Season 2.
  • Bron/Broen, Season 4: How I loved this show. The character Saga is unforgettable and I was captivated every time she was on the screen. But her counterpart Henrik was also fantastic, and the crazy puzzle plot, with all its red herrings, was enjoyable.
  • Tidying up with Marie Kondo, Season 1: I was fascinated about the cultural reception to this show, too much hostility I thought from those who didn’t like it, which had racial overtones. I myself loved it.
  • The Good Place, Season 3: I love this show.
  • My Brilliant Friend: It was great to watch this TV adaptation after the first of Elena Ferrante’s books in her Neapolitan series, which I loved so much. A very different experience, seeing what is imagined come to life, but mostly successful to me.
  • The Umbrella Academy: Husband liked this quite a bit, it just didn’t come together for me. The motivations of … everyone were simplistic and cartoonish. 
  • Project Runway S17: Loving the return of this season to watch talented fashion designers at work. I thought at the start it was a bit awkward with the new team but was willing to see how it went. By the end, I was convinced: they really did a good job on this, focusing on the fashion and talent (and not interpersonal drama) and the cast all fell into a really nice groove.
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race S11: Too many queens, too loud: have I overdosed on RPDR? In the end, I thought it was a really weak season for watching.
  • Survivor S38: I am not digging the ‘Edge of Extinction’ concept, combined with the returning players schtick; it’s thrown off the rhythm of the show and I still don’t ‘know’ the tribe members.
  • Leaving Neverland: A deeply disturbing documentary and I find it so hard to comprehend people watching these men and their families speak, and imagining that they made it up.
  • Killing Eve, Season 2: Some strange plot turns here. Husband thought it was even better than Season 1; I’m not so sure. Still: love the two leads and the style.
  • Game of Thrones, Season 8: Is it really over? We couldn’t help but watch it and there really was some amazing TV. But it felt rushed over all, with various huh? moments (and not in a good way).
  • Blown Away: A reality TV competion about glass-blowing? Awesome.
  • Stranger Things, Season 4: Hmm. Didn’t love this season, but watched it anyways.
  • Tales of the City: As an old fan of the books, I found it touching to revisit the characters and meet some new ones. Like the books, this isn’t high art: more of an engaging soap opera with characters that I have affection for. Lovely moments though, and the flashback episode was stunning.
  • Australian Survivor, Season 4: There is something in the Australian narrative that loves the theme of this and last season: Champions vs Contenders. It allows Australians to indulge in their idolation of sports stars, and the theme of the underdog at the same time. I hate it. It’s a boring and false narrative (contestants don’t care whether a champion or contender wins, they just want to win individually). But I still watch!
  • Handmaid’s Tale, Season 3: Ups and downs. As always, beautiful and striking images, yet I wasn’t sure about the script at times, where the characters didn’t act as I thought they would.
  • Fleabag, Seasons 1 and 2: Dark, dark, dark, this comedy. Original and outlandish and engaging. Glad I caught it before I read all about it and had any expectations.
  • Survivor S39: I really did like this cast overall, and think we’ll be seeing more of them in the future, but what a strange, strange season to have it overshadowed by a #MeToo incident, handled so, so badly by the producers (until the reunion, where I thought it was finally handled well).
  • Drag Race Thailand: Wow. What a weird show. It really was an interesting cultural experience, a window into Thai culture and Thai drag, and very particular, using traditional materials for challenges, referencing national celebrities and ideas. The judges were trying to get more attention than the contestants. I need a break before I watch Season 2 of it.
  • Rupaul’s Drag Race UK: Interesting to see and feel the cultural differences in drag between the UK and the USA. Great cast, great judges, it was a lot of fun.
  • The Politician: I love watching Ben Platt, basically, but the script and pace was all over the place. They have him sing, because of course he’s Ben Platt, and everytime he does he drips with emotion; yet his character is supposed to be an emotionless politician. So, I felt that was weak.
  • Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife: I’m good with comedy that shocks me but not as good with aggressive and angry comedy, but Ali Wong is great at what she does, breaking boundaries, and there are some bits which I loved and will never forget. And as I always say (as an Asian-Canadian), go the Asian!

Posted in Australia, Book, Concert, Exhibition, Film, Review, Sydney, Theatre/Concert Review, Theatre/Show | Leave a comment

Sydney Food Diary: Son of Frank, Darlinghurst

We were looking for somewhere for an easy meal after drinks at the Green Park and one of our party mentioned this restaurant, which I’d heard of and had been meaning to try. Long ago, I remember Sel et Poivre being there, a French restaurant, that seemed to last for a good while. Now it’s a modern Australian cafe with a mostly Italian influence, and open for dinners Wednesday to Saturday.

And it’s bloody good. We chose three starters and two pastas to share between three of us and they were all delicious, in fact, really, really delicious. This will NOT come through in these photos as the light was somehow just not right to show them as appealing as they were.

We had:

grilled sardines, preserved lemon, nduja on focaccia toast 10

12 hr roasted carrots, almond, crisp parsley 15

fresh baked focaccia, caramelised garlic & onion puree 6

Frank’s carbonara, spaghetti, mushroom cream, egg yolk, puffed wild rice 26 (this was my favourite of the night, a perfect combination of textures and an innovative take on a classic dish).

And a pasta of the week: squid ink spaghetti with generous rich pieces of lightly cooked salmon. I think all the dishes were interesting in that they had a similar balance of a rich, possibly creamy texture, a crunchy element, and something savoury with depth of flavour, all in a lovely harmony.

We also had a rather delicious bottle of wine: the wine list was short and well-curated and a bit on the expensive side, though I think the food is a little bit on the inexpensive side for the quality you get, so it balances out OK. I’ll be back.

Son of Frank Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: 1915 Lanzhou Beef Noodle, World Square

Such are the joys of the modern world that there are always new dishes to discover. And while, I have heard of beef noodle soup, and have tried some variations before, I haven’t ever specifically paid attention to Lanzhou Beef Noodles. There’s even a wikipedia entry! As far as I can tell, the elements (of the most famous variety they serve: I asked for the favourite dish, with the favourite width of noodles) are: clear soup, clean white radish, red chilli oil, green coriander and yellow noodles.

The city of Lanzhou is in north-central China. One website says there are about 20,000 Lanzhou Beef Noodle shops across the country (and now the world), and that it is ubiquitious as a ramen shop or McDonalds.

When this restaurant opened in World Square, I happened to be walking by and it was PACKED. I always meant to return, and a quiet, just before Christmas, Friday, early evening, was the perfect time to go.

My order came not more than five minutes later! So, some regional dishes, I’m either not used to, or the first versions I get are not so good, so my expectations are dashed. I had no idea how good Pho was until trying it here in Sydney. There’s the spicy noodle place around the corner from here which was so spicy that I simply couldn’t taste anything.

But this? This dish is magic. The broth is clear and savoury, with enough body to be tasty but still feeling like you can taste the different notes of green and salt. They didn’t go heavy on the chili oil, so only a nice bit of spice, and there didn’t seem to be too much radish. So, the main event are the noodles: hand-pulled, both soft and chewy, a delicate width and really lovely.

And the beef: thin slices of tender beef, a generous portion, not cooked beforehand like in some restaurants in a sauce. Nice bit of fat. Add to this thinly chopped green onions (was there lemongrass too? Or coriander root? They were little crisp bits) and it was a nice contrast of texture. Actually, they tasted more like thinly sliced leeks. And all for $12. I’m definitely sold!

1915 Lanzhou Beef Noodles 蘭州牛肉麵 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Koa Kitchen, Spice Alley

So, I love Spice Alley in Chippendale. It offers a pretty amazing selection of food at all price ranges and I think it’s a great example of urban design and planning, of how to attract and keep people to an area. We’d just seen ‘Knives Out’ (a lot of fun) and were aiming for a light meal. I was thinking of Monkey’s Corner but wow, it was looking expensive, so we ducked around the corner, and I liked the feel of Koa Kitchen, Korean food, where they’re in a little house instead of the food stalls in the main part of Spice Alley.

But oops. A poor choice. We ordered a spicy Korean chicken and a Korean fried rice to share. Initially, I was liking the flavours, a bit sweet, a bit pungent and spicy, and certainly at around $10 to $15 per plate, the food is inexpensive here. But by the end, I found the sauces and flavours a bit too much. I had gotten excited about the prospect of Korean Fried Chicken, but it really was more like the deep-fried pieces of chicken that you might get at a cheap Chinese take-out, say, a sweet and sour chicken but with a Korean sauce instead.

Rather than the not-your-regular Asian food court meal that I expect in Spice Alley, it was a bit mediocre, sadly.

Koa Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: The Bavarian, Moore Park Entertainment Quarter

We saw Seaton Smith at the Comedy Store (Really, really amazing) and were needing some food. I find the branch of Fratelli’s a bit expensive. There was a scary-looking place where people were wearing fake Mexican hats. There is a new Indian place with a strange name and tagline. So, we settled on the Bavarian, which seems to be a chain of … Bavarian restaurants.

It’s basically pub food, at Entertainment Quarter prices (meaning $5 to $10 more for mains than they should be, and expensive drinks). And the atmosphere is also rather Entertainment Quarter, like at a theme park or zoo: crowded, families, lots of open space, and quick service. Though the plates try to make you feel like you’re at home (you’re German grandmother’s home in fact), the little touches like serving the apple sauce in an ugly small plastic container reminds you: this is not a classy place (but the prices are high).

Still, it was amusing that they’d found a German with an appropriate German accent to take our orders; the table service was friendly and mostly efficient and the food was tasty enough. I like a BBQed pork hock; this could have been a teeny bit crisper but was not bad. My friends liked their schnitzels though I found the ‘Texan’ that had french fries on top of the meat and then the melted cheese on top of that kind of disturbing. It looks disturbing, doesn’t it? The $25 bottle of white wine looked terrible so I stumped up for the $50 bottle, which was perfectly fine.

The Bavarian - Entertainment Quarter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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