Throwback book review: The Gymnasts – #1 The Beginners

I blame these books for making me think I know more about gymnastics than I do. Every four years I’m on the couch watching the Olympic gymnastics competition and saying things like “she really stuck the landing”. And it’s all The Gymnasts’ fault (by Elizabeth Levy).

This series is based around four girls who make up the Pinecones team at coach Patrick Harmon’s new gym (FYI the coach is dreamy. I imagine him as a young, floppy-haired Patrick Swayze type). Each book in the series is told from one of the girls’ points of view. The basic set up is straight from the Baby-Sitter’s Club mould but there’s nothing wrong with that.

The GymnastsThe main characters are: Lauren Baca, Cindi Jockett, Darlene Broderick and Jodi Sutton. They’re 11, except Darlene who’s 13. There’s a fairly well rounded out cast of supporting characters; especially notable is villain Becky, who I found snarkily hilarious. Sample Becky dialogue:

Becky and her friends laughed so hard they could barely talk. “You know what we call rookies?” sputtered Becky. “Not pinecones, that’s just Patrick’s word. “We call rookies like you worms and worms eat dirt. Worms, kids. You guys are worms. Welcome to the Evergreen Academy worms.”

I mean: “We call rookies like you worms and worms eat dirt”. Brilliant. She’s the 80s pre-pubescent Blair Waldorf.

Despite the title of “The Beginners” the Pinecones have all done gymnastics before – this first book is the story of how they move past just playing at it to competing and taking it seriously.

It’s told from Lauren’s point of view – the sarcastic joker of the crew who underneath all her wise cracks is worried she’s not going to be able to keep up. Lauren has a VIL (very important lesson) to learn about not quitting and picking herself up even when she doesn’t want to – and by the end of the book she’s learned it. No surprises there.

Despite plot predictability there’s a charm to all the characters, they’re sharp, funny and the story kicks along at a good pace.

The series explains gymnastics in an informative but not boring way, it’s about girls who are strong (both physically and “girl power” strong) and it realistically deals with friendships and parent problems.

There are some great lessons about learning how to try your best, lose with grace and shut out haters like Becky, but the writing is really matter-of-fact and this stops the VILs from feeling too heavy handed.

The Gymnasts series is a cracker. I totally enjoyed re-reading this first one, so much so I continued onto the second book. And for an ‘88 vintage it wasn’t too dated. I’m happily going to keep this series on ice for my nieces when they’re old enough to read.

Chocolate Crackles

Chocolate crackles

Tiny cups of crackly explody goodness! The other day I had an intense chocolate craving, but it wasn’t just chocolate I wanted. It was the chocolate + crunch combo I was looking for. The answer lay in a box of Rice Bubbles. The answer was: Chocolate Crackles.

Chocolate Crackles are an Australian birthday party staple. It had been literally years since I had them but they are super easy to whip up.

Ingredients:

250g Copha
4 cups Rice Bubbles
1 cup sifted icing sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup desiccated coconut

Copha

You need Copha. Which is basically fat. I’ve never seen Copha used for anything other than Chocolate Crackles. It even has the recipe helpfully printed on the pack.

copha chocolate crackles recipe

See? The main ingredient is coconut oil, so I guess if you wanted to be healthy you could substitute coconut oil, which sells for a million dollars a jar these days. I stuck with tradition.

Rice Bubbles

Cocoa

Method:

1. Melt the Copha in a saucepan over low heat. You don’t want it too hot.
2. Mix everything in a bowl.
3. Spoon mixture into patty cake papers.
4. Refrigerate until set, at least 1 hour.

Chocolate crackles mixed together

Chocolate crackles

Chocolate crackle

Chocolate crackles

Everybody like Chocolate Crackles.

Throwback book review: Trixie Belden and the Mystery of Bob White Cave

The second in my “reviewing books from my childhood” posts. See the first review for Thirteen here.

Girl detectives aren’t really my thing. People love that Stephanie Plum series but I just don’t get it.

Of course I made an exception for Veronica Mars but it did take me 20 episodes to warm up to her.

Back in the day though girl detectives were totally my thing. As a pre-teen I read Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden voraciously. So it was with delight that I plucked Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Bob White Cave from a dusty box in the garage and prepared to revisit a character that had been a favourite. (By “Kathryn Kenny” – a pseudonym for a variety of ghost writers.)

I remember liking Trixie because she seemed more modern, energetic and fun than Nancy. Less of a know-it-all. I remembered wrong. Because my high-brow literary insight into this book is: it was balls.

There was no magic here, just a trudge through a very testing story where I was just expected to accept that Trixie is this all-knowing girl genius whose impetuous, selfish ways should be accepted just because she’s Trixie. She’s Earnest with a capital E and almost completely unrelatable, as are the rest of the cast of characters who pretty much have nothing to do in this story except support Trixie.

Imma walk you through the plot as quick as possible, ok? Trixie and her family/friends that form the ‘Bob Whites’ club go and visit her uncle in the Ozark mountains. While there they search for three species of a rare “ghost fish” so they can win a $500 prize from a magazine that they want to put towards a van for “the crippled children”. The story uses the phrase “crippled children” more than I was strictly comfortable with.

Anyway their uncle sets them up with a guide named Slim to take them through local caves to look for the fish. Trixie hates Slim on sight, immediately judges him to be a bad person and SPOILER ALERT is right about him, simply because she’s Trixie.

And, while they don’t find the fish the magazine were looking for they SPOILER ALERT find an even rarer species of fish that’ll earn them even more money for the crippled children. And they only had to look in one cave…

There’s other things that happen too but I’ve already forgotten.

This was not a happy trip back in time, but is Trixie ruined forever for me? Well, no. The ghost fish story was not very engaging and the 60s dialogue was a touch too dated for me (Exhibit A: “If we’d stayed home, we’d have been earning some money for the new Bob-White project. That’s what Dan’s doing. We’ll feel plenty silly if we have nothing to contribute towards the station wagon to take crippled children to the Sleepyside School. I hate this whole place!” – Trixie, five seconds before she decided finding “ghost fish” was a good money spinner).

Despite all this I did rediscover something about Trixie that is kinda cool – her tomboy tendencies. While all the other ladies in her world are content to bake, sew curtains and look after children she’s a go-getter, happy to roll up her sleeves alongside the boys and get her hands dirty, and I think that’s a lesson that’s worth keeping from my childhood.

Were you a Trixie fan? Tell me your favourite – I think the Mystery of Bob White Cave is possibly the worst of the entire series?

Eating all the things at Kwan Brothers

Something’s happened I wasn’t sure was possible. I think I’ve reached peak pork belly.

After my recent feast at Kwan Brothers – Damian Griffith’s latest excellent addition to his steadily expanding block of Fortitude Valley venues – I wish this wasn’t so. Because their pork belly was a thousand kinds of delicious!

Kwan BrothersThis joint is pretty spunky, all disco balls, neon lights and quirky touches like a mural of various Asian pop culture references. It’s open until late but because I’m super old now I was there to meet my dinner mate just after five and amused myself people watching out of the tinted peephole and checking out the menu.

I absolutely couldn’t go past the Pork Bao Yippie Yo Yippie Yay – a slider featuring a nice little slab of pork belly, in a small bun with something called ‘red dragon sauce’. Whatever was in it, it was great, soft, juicy, spicy, and fresh.

Kwan Brothers

Their crazy tinted peephole to the street. I liked this.

We continued the pork belly party with Tiki Pork Belly Skewers, chunks of pork interspersed with meaty bits of pineapple and covered in a sticky sauce; this was such a simple combo but so sweetly delicious.

Kwan BrothersAnd we thought we’d finish the meal with Crispy Peking Duck Spring Rolls, which I’d hoped were pancakes, but were deep fried spring rolls and yum nonetheless.

But it had been a big day for me, light on food and even after eating all that I still felt a little…peckish.

Kwan Brothers

I really should have used the flash…

After persuading my friend we needed just one more dish, and almost following the waitresses’ suggestion down the dessert path, I tried the Fried Chicken Bao Bao – the chicken version of the pork belly slider. I saved the best for last because this dish was definitely my favourite. Simpler than the pork but packed with heaty, spicy flavour balanced by a super yum cooling mayo.

It’s safe to say I loved the food at Kwan Bros. And if I could I’d eat their pork belly all of the days I would, but for the sake of my top button I think it’s better if I stay away for a while.

AlfredosOf all the of the Griffith run establishments in this hood – Alfred and Constance, Alfredo’s, Limes, I found the service the friendliest at Kwan Bros. I recently ate at Alfredo’s and while their pizza is first class I didn’t really care for the “too cool for school” attitude of the servers, and A&C is an awesome joint for a drink and a late night dance but I always feel like I’m too old and uncool to be there. Like, they’re just letting me hang out for a while but at any minute I could be tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave for the crime of being over 30. I mean, that’s my issue, but still. I think I’ve found my spiritual home in this corner of the Valley, and it shall be Kwan Brothers.

Climbing Table Top Mountain

It was summer in the Canadian Rockies and I’d spent the better part of a week cramped into a small van with 12 or so strangers, taking in mountains and lakes that began to blur into one as each day passed.

On one afternoon late in the week, our tour guide bounded out of the van, ready to lead us on a hike. Actually, this guy bounded everywhere; he seemed to have endless energy. He kind of reminded me of a puppy. In a good way.

Unfortunately I was about to disappoint the puppy.

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake in Canada, one of my favourite sights in the Rockies.

Even though it was June, it was actually snowing a little and I was freezing. My introvert’s need for space was reaching extreme levels after being around that many people I didn’t know and my tired old bones just didn’t have it in me to scale a mountain that day.

Also, I’d already done the Grouse Grind back in Vancouver, as a kind of a F U to this Canadian guy who had insisted I wouldn’t like it and I wouldn’t be able to do it. One way to get me to do something is to tell me I won’t be able to hack it. I’m fairly predictable that way. So, annoyed by this man and his certainty about my fitness, I took myself over to the North Shore and endured one of the most grueling workouts of my life.

That thing, man. It’s straight up a mountain for 2.9km, with no flat bits, plateaus or breaks. Just up, up, up. I pushed ahead, sometimes stopping for breath (in the places where you can do that without getting bowled over by a hundred aggressively fit Vancouverites screaming “on your left!” as they sprint past you), sometimes feeling like I was going to pass out and fall backwards all the way down the mountain.

Grouse Mountain

The view from Grouse Mountain.

They say there’s a lumber jack show and bears and all sorts of other attractions at the top of Grouse Mountain. I wouldn’t know, I didn’t see any of that. All I saw after reaching the top was a kiosk where I might be able to take my tomato red face and weary legs and sit for a minute, and think about the consequences of my actions.

The Canadian dude was right about one thing, I didn’t like it. But I did conquer the Grind; I can’t remember my time exactly but I think it was around the average of 1.5 hours. After my red face started to subside (I believe it was about three days later) I even started to think maybe I would make it a regular thing. I had visions of being a Lululemon clad goddess, doing the Grind twice a day and scoffing at tourists like myself about how they wouldn’t enjoy it. Then I remembered who I was and spent the rest of my time in Canada under a blanket eating ice cream.

Anyway, with memories of the Grind fresh in my mind, I, along with three other sensible souls, broke our tour guide’s heart and told him that no, we would not be hiking up a mountain that day. And then we climbed back inside the van and read our books mostly in silence, only speaking every now and then to comment on how pretty the snow was or offer each other chocolate. It was total bliss.

By now you’re like: cool story bro. But the point of all the words is I’m not usually a mountain climbing person. So it’s completely out of character for me to say “hey, how about we get up at 4.30am and go climb a mountain at sunrise?” And yet, that’s exactly what I did recently when my sister-in-law and I climbed Toowoomba’s answer the Grouse Grind, Table Top Mountain.

Table Top

Sunrise was absolutely the best time to climb Table Top. The views at the top were awesome and it was cool enough that the flies and other insects hadn’t started their assault yet.

As a 1.9km return hike Table Top Mountain is a mere patch on the Grouse Grind in distance but it was challenging in its own way. Mostly, I was surprised to find it was less hiking, more rock climbing.

The trail starts at the base of a camel’s hump, so it goes straight up with no delay. You basically have to climb a mini version of a mountain before you get to the real thing. It’s a good cardio workout, because even though it’s steep, the rocks are huge and easy to grab onto so you can go quite quickly.

Views

Views

Views

Views

As I reached the top however I slowed my pace – there are some truly steep parts, with really loose rocks and slippery dirt. The final ascent to the summit is a scramble up a cliff. I had actual genuine fear doing this. I know it wouldn’t be daunting for most people but I don’t do this every day you know? At one point I was clinging to the rock face, actually frozen. I was the girl in the movies who holds everyone up from getting out of the building before the blomb blows because she doesn’t want to climb up the elevator shaft.

Table Top

The cliff you have to climb to get to the top

However, I got a grip and made my way to the top and was greeted by spectacular views of the Lockyer Valley. (Going down the cliff was just as, if not more, scary.)

Table Top

Sunrise on Table Top

Table Top

At the top

Table Top

The top

Table Top

The top

Having lived in Toowoomba for almost 20 years now Table Top has been this thing that I’ve looked at and always wondered what was at the top. I’m happy to say, now I know. And I may even go again. Wearing Lululemon, of course.

Table Top

Table Top from Picnic Point

Throwback book review: Thirteen by Candice F Ransom

Thirteen - Candice F RansomI’m going to do a new thing where I review books from my childhood/young adult years once a month. Why? I don’t feel I need to explain my art to you Warren.

Let’s start with Thirteen by Candice F Ransom.

Here is how I thought all American beaches looked when I was younger: faded timber boardwalks, featuring amusements parks, and crowded stretches of slightly dirty sand with striped umbrellas.

This picture was created through a combination of watching the first scene of Beaches, reading the Baby-Sitter’s Club books where Stacey and Mary-Anne go with the Pikes to Sea City and reading Thirteen.

Internet, where were you when I needed you? This book would have made more sense if I could have googled back in the day. So this is a bass weejun. I feel a little let down...

Internet, where were you when I needed you? This book would have made more sense if I could have Googled back in the day. So this is a Bass Weejun. I feel a little let down…

Thirteen was published in the 80s, but set in the 60s. However, with the exception of not knowing what a few of the key cultural references were (Bass Weejuns? I decided they were shoes) it still felt contemporary to me when I read it in the 90s and on a recent reread it held up exceptionally well. If I was in TV I’d buy the rights and start producing it as a less cheesy The Wonder Years immediately.

It starts with main character Kobie Roberts and her bestie Gretchen at Ocean City. They go every year for a week with the parents but this year is different. They’re 13, and Gretchen is already attracting attention from boys while Kobie is struggling to keep up. She spends an evening sitting alone on a splintered crate under the boardwalk while Gretchen ditches her to hang out with a guy named Dwayne. Personally I’d rather get a splinter up my butt then hang out with a guy named Dwayne (one exception made for The Rock).

The gap between Kobie and Gretchen keeps stretching throughout their school year. As Kobie says:

Lying back on my pillows, I reviewed the situation. It was, in a word, cruddy. Gretchen had a new madras jumper and fake Weejun loafers and three new friends. I had a dress even an orphan would scorn, a shrimp who slammed my locker shut, and no friends, except for Gretchen, and I suspected she was moving on to greener pastures.

Kobie is a fun character to read. While she’s smart and sarcastic, she’s also a social disaster and not in the She’s All That-she-was-beautiful-all-along way. There’s no shining moment of grace for Kobie; she just keeps getting everything wrong, and she’s keenly aware of the mess she’s making, but she can’t stop.

While the book puts her relationship with Gretchen under the spotlight I actually like her interactions with Stuart Buckley (the aforementioned shrimp who slams her locker shut) and her mother much more. Stuart’s mission on earth seems to be to make Kobie’s life even worse than it is and because she’s not attracted to Stuart there’s no pretense in their relationship. With him she’s at her dry, witty best.

And Kobie and her mother are locked in the cold war that happens to all mums and daughters during the teenage years. There’s nothing new about the tension in their relationship but it’s real, and in this book, it’s funny. There’s a pretty great scene where Kobie chucks a tantrum while they’re shopping because she wants cool clothes that rang true for me.

My mother stood a little apart from me, clutching her black plastic pocketbook and the prescription bag, and looking as if she wished she had switched babies in the hospital. I turned away, feeling a gritty sort of triumph that I had made her buy all those things she hadn’t intended. I had a certain power over her, I realised for the first time. I also felt that an invisible barrier had suddenly sprung up between us and that we would be on opposite sides for a long time. 

Poor boy sweater

A poor boy sweater. I really don’t get the name.

Kobie might have been shopping for “poor boys” and “madras” (? I mean what? What did people wear in the 60s?) but it could have easily been me in 1992 in a surf store begging for a Stussy t-shirt.

Madras. These seem like strange articles of clothing to lust after...

Madras. These seem like strange articles of clothing to lust after…

(Why did we love surfwear so much? We lived more than 200km away from the closest beach.)

Anyway. I really loved this book when I was younger and was so happy that I enjoyed it in my 30s. I also had Fifteen At Last, which I liked too. Kobie gets even more slapstick as she gets older and spends a great portion of her time terrifying a male teacher with her irrational crush on him. Those were the only two books I had – although I’ve found out since through the magic of the Internet there was a whole series that starts at 10 years old. I think I’ll track them down. I’m not done with Kobie yet.

Have you read Thirteen or any of the other Kobie Roberts books?

Thanks Internet for saving a 15-year-old mystery. Now I know what Bass Weejuns are. Images via: oxfordclothbuttondown, retrowaste, and Pinterest.