Dining Ballarat: Blue Bell Hotel

blue bell bistro steakLured by a shopping docket discount of 50 per cent off meals, last night we had our first dinner out since moving to Ballarat: at the bistro of the Blue Bell Hotel, probably the closest eatery to the Tor that doesn’t serve tucker in a cardboard box. (My god, you should’ve seen the length of the line-up at McDonald’s drive through down the corner …)

The Blue Bell’s bistro is on two levels further divided by a low wall: the lower section has television screens with captions and gambling, the other just a wall. The wall was preferable, though it was further from the bar, and mercifully further from the top 40 muzak. Ambience-wise, better than a roadhouse, but not exactly homely.

Still, we weren’t expecting fireplaces and shagpile, and the menu is a solid order-at-the-counter pub outing: Thursday nights are parma night and many of the tables were taken. There were three steaks on offer, plus a reef ‘n’ beef special, a variety of pastas, lamb shanks, salads, seniors and kids meals … they have the bases covered with pork belly and Greek lamb pizza adding interest.

I went for a 400g rump steak with pepper sauce, Kirstyn tried the special with garlic sauce — both under $30 — and we were both well satisfied. Both cuts came cooked an accurate medium, with a handful of innocuous salad and a handful of tasty chips.

We washed it down with a glass of Oomoo shiraz ($8 a glass), but a bottle change mid-pour meant a surprising difference in taste and I didn’t go back for a second. Don’t know what happened to the normally dependable drop, there.

ballarat blue bell hotel dessertWe forced ourselves to sample dessert from the display case: an, um, interesting take on black forest cake for me and a vanilla slice for her; not disappointing, just lacklustre, and quite surplus to requirements, really. I mentioned the 400g steak, right? The coffee, however, was pretty damn fine.

Add in friendly, efficient staff and the verdict was: the Blue Bell hits its target, and we’ll be back — I reckon the place would register high on the Dad scale with the cut of those steaks — but might give the dessert a miss and go straight for the coffee.

Extra points for off-street parking and an excellent website, complete with PDFs of the menu.

Advertisements

Havenstar: a bright beginning, revisited

havenstar by glenda larke
In this standalone fantasy, Glenda Larke shows the world building, characterisation and thematic grist that make her one of my favourite fantasy writers.

Larke has made Havenstar, originally published by Virgin Books in the UK in 1999 under the name of Glenda Noramly, available as an e-book, and the book will get the full treatment from Ticonderoga Publications in May.

Havenstar is notable for its imaginative setting: islands of stability set in an ever changing wilderness ruled by chaos, the result of a massive battle a thousand years ago that, meteorite-like, changed the face of the planet. Now the god of chaos, a cruel spirit indeed, rules the wastes, threatening to destroy those few outposts of order.

The islands are held together by strict social order overseen by a priesthood and their devotions to structure, but of course there is corruption and jealousy.

Larke isn’t much of one for patriarchy and blind adherence, and so her heroes are questioners and adventurers who look past the strictures for the truth between the lines. There is an almost Biblical undertone as the spirit of chaos offers temptations to those in the wilderness, for the price of a soul and a type of damnation: for some, the price is worth it; others are more ruthlessly afflicted and victimised.

More about Glenda Larke in last year’s snapshot

The magic system is, typically for Larke, imaginative and logical, using a type of ley line as a key element, and showing the power of knowledge and even art (the trompleri maps here are perhaps an early template for the magical paintings used in the Watergivers series).

awwbadge_2013Mapmaker Keris finds herself on the road with a wonderfully eclectic mix of fellow travellers making the pilgrimage among the stabilities, and braving the dangers of chaos along the way.

It’s a superbly drawn world, complex but simply explained without recourse to massive info dumps — so enjoyable to learn about a world through the interactions of the characters rather than slabs of data.

Each chapter is headed by an excerpt from the holy writings, lending some sense of history — the teachings are relevant to the story, although elements of prophecy I probably could’ve done without given their absence of much mystery, though I have to admit, what’s a holy book without some kind of prophecy about the end of days or the better times ahead? Carrot and stick, carrot and stick … and a little tension, too.

havenstar by glenda larke, ticonderoga issue
The characters carry this story, whether Keris’s guilt over abandoning her family to pursue her own happiness, or her love interest’s tragic past with all the weight and darkness it brings, or the driven, blind visionary who has his own agenda.

One of the themes of the story is the debate between law and chaos, restraint and free rein, and both are presented in shades of grey.

The e-book has been given a light revisit by the author, and could’ve used another proofread, but it is a striking debut, well worth the downloading for lovers of intelligent and beautifully realised fantasy.

  • Glenda Larke, who has lived overseas for many years, is returning to her native Western Australia this year. She runs a workshop on world building on April 25 as part of Conflux in Canberra.

  • This is my first review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • And in other news … NIN hitting the road!

    I should go offline more often. Good things happen. I don’t get to hear about them for weeks, but there you go. Trent Reznor resurrecting Nine Inch Nails. Live. This is my happy face. Forgive me for being late to the party.

    I like the note of caution, that it’s reinvention. Not much point trying to be the angry young man when you’re not. Only five gigs on the tour calendar, so fingers crossed they make it Down Under.

    So that’s my latest update from last month. As you were.

    Tea Party not that lo fi at the Hi Fi

    tea party band jeff stuart chatwood jeff martin jeff burrows

    Hopes for an insight into the Tea Party‘s new album, currently being recorded, at last night’s gig at the Hi Fi bar in Melbourne were dashed. What the three-piece did reveal was a powerful set built on Jeff Martin’s acoustic guitars, with Jeff Burrows and Stuart Chatwood laying down their always dependable rhythm groove.

    Martin’s voice was showing the signs of previous gigs in Sydney and Brisbane and, presumably, the recording process, but the occasional threadbare note added to the emotion of staples such as ‘Requiem’ and ‘Messenger’, and the deeply personal ‘Oceans’. With his voice rasping, Martin rose to an audience member’s suggestion and sung the introductory note to ‘Soul Breaking’, to much applause.

    The Hi Fi’s no-frills basement stage offered a great view, illuminating Burrows’ intensity and industry behind the kit.

    The band, coming off their reunion tour last year after a hiatus of six years, were in full command, playing songs from pretty much all their albums for 90 minutes or so, with ‘Save Me’, ‘The Bazaar’ and ‘Walking Wounded’ among the crowd favourites. A (poorly remembered) medley included instrumental the ‘Badger’ and ‘Midsummer Day’. A rousing ‘Sister Awake’ ended the set, and the trio clearly enjoyed belting out an electric, sadly distorted ‘Overload’ for the encore.

    Based on the killer tour last year and last night’s comfortable and confident outing, the stage seems set for the Tea Party to fulfil Martin’s promise that the new album is going to be something special. Meanwhile, we take heart from his parting promise that they’ll be seeing us soon — a new album demands a tour!

    Greetings from Ballaratia

    gargoyles at the front door

    Five weeks or thereabouts since this blog troubled the interwebs. I guess moving home and waiting … and waiting … for the internet to be connected will do that.

    So what’s happened since the boxes went into the truck and came out the other side, here in steamy Ballarat, in the shade of a hill I’ve christened Wendouree Tor?

    Well, my pals The Isle have released a funky little ep, Moment, offering a nice mix of electro stylings. Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, ain’t half bad if the streaming’s anything to judge by. How to Destroy Angels have released their first album, Welcome Oblivion, and it’s a cruisy end to the world if ever there was one.

    We saw Einstuerzende Neubauten mix-cartons, and it was a crack, seeing them producing all those sounds from what looked like an abandoned dairy farm on the Palace’s stage. I really dig their gentler stuff, but it’s quite amazing how they manage to make music out of all the rattling and banging. And singer Blixa has an amazing voice.

    Tonight, we anticipate hearing new Tea Party material. Oh gosh!

    Elsewhere, Aurealis magazine is releasing its duo series with publisher Dirk Strasser and the inimitable Jack Dann leading off. The Aurealis Awards date has been announced — May 18 — with a record field under consideration. Should be a hoot. And the Ditmars and Chronos awards are now open for nominations.

    Very pleasing to see the Queensland Literary Awards hitting their stride, too, attracting serious financial support and — gasp! — the State Government funding charmingly parochial fellowships. This from the dudes who axed the awards as their first act in power. Interestingly, a Queensland writer was awarded a life achievement by the Australia Council late last year: Herb Wharton got his start by entering the David Unaipon Award, one of those cancelled by the government and saved by the new awards. Did the AC draw attention to this? You betcha. Because you can’t tell someone like Premier Campbell Newman they’ve acted like a twat enough.

    But what about The (other) Rat? There are more stars here and far less buses than in the city. We’ve found the Bunnings and the supermarket and a half-decent chipper and have been very pleased indeed to be in the delivery zone of Pizza Capers (bourbon chicken FTW!). The Courier lands on the front lawn each morning and we scavenge restaurants and events and community groups and places of interest and stick them on the fridge. One day, their time will come.

    But first, there’s the last of the boxes, the matter of central heating (winter, it is coming…), acclimatising to the commute and starting to think it might be time to resume the edit of the work in progress. And then there’s that overgrown back yard …