Sabtu, 23 Februari 2013

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

Belgian national killed in Mexican resort of Acapulco

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 07:53 PM PST

ACAPULCO (Reuters) - A Belgian man was shot dead in Mexico's Pacific resort city of Acapulco on Saturday, the latest episode of violence to strike one of the country's most important tourist destinations.

Acapulco police spokeswoman Gloria Mendez said the man, 58, resisted two assailants who were attempting to steal his convertible Mercedes Benz, one of whom shot him in the chest.

The shooting took place just minutes away from the city's landmark Princess hotel, site of next week's Mexico Open professional tennis tournament. Many players have already arrived, including tournament star attraction Rafael Nadal.

Mexico's interior ministry had announced earlier on Saturday that police had captured a top Acapulco cartel leader, Ricardo Reza, late Friday.

Earlier this month, six Spanish women were raped when hooded gunmen forced their way into the beach house they had rented.

Drug-related violence has been on the rise in Acapulco and last year the city was Mexico's murder capital.

(Reporting by Luis Enrique Martinez and David Alire Garcia)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Half-inch crack blamed for U.S. F-35 fighter jet grounding - sources

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 07:34 PM PST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The engine blade crack that prompted the U.S. military to ground all 51 F-35 fighter jets was over half an inch long, according to three sources familiar with the matter, but it remained unclear if the crack was caused by a manufacturing anomaly or some larger design issue.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B lands at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona in this handout photo taken November 20, 2012. The Pentagon on Friday suspended the flights of all F-35 fighter planes after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California. REUTERS/U.S. Marine Corps/DVIDS/Cpl. Shelby Shields/Handout

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B lands at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona in this handout photo taken November 20, 2012. The Pentagon on Friday suspended the flights of all F-35 fighter planes after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California. REUTERS/U.S. Marine Corps/DVIDS/Cpl. Shelby Shields/Handout

Engineers at Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, will conduct a detailed examination of the turbine blade as soon as it arrives at the company's Middletown, Connecticut, site, said spokesman Matthew Bates.

"Pilot safety is our absolute top priority," Bates said, noting that the F135 engine that powers the new radar-evading fighter jet had a readiness rate of over 98 percent.

"We are in a testing phase of the program and discoveries such as this are part of the process," he added.

Initial results may come on Wednesday, although it could take up to 10 days to complete the analysis, said the three sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The Pentagon announced the grounding of all F-35 warplanes on Friday after an inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the Pratt-built jet engine of an F-35 jet being tested at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

It was the second engine-related grounding of the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in two months, and came on the eve of a big air show in Australia, which is considering reducing its planned purchase of 100 F-35 jets.

The Pentagon's top F-35 official and executives from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp are attending the air show in hopes of convincing Australia that the F-35 program is on track after three restructurings, and Australia does not need to buy 24 more Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets.

Australia is expected to make a decision within the next three to six weeks, said a fourth source familiar with the matter. The program is also bracing for reductions in U.S. orders if Congress fails to avert across-the-board cuts due to take effect on March 1.

Inspectors found an anomaly on February 19 during an inspection that is conducted on every F-35 engine after 50 flight hours, but the crack on the blade was not confirmed until early Thursday after electromagnetic testing that began Wednesday and continued through the night, said one of the sources.

The crack was described as 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) long, the sources said.

F-35 test and training flights continued until Thursday evening, when the Pentagon's F-35 program office, the U.S. Navy and Air Force decided to suspend all flights and ban use of the engines on the ground until the blade crack was better understood.

In fact, two jets were airborne at air bases in Maryland and Arizona and had to be recalled, said one of the sources.

Officials decided that they had to assume a "worst case scenario" until they could rule out a high-duty cycle fatigue crack, an extremely rare occurrence that could result in a complete blade failure in just 90 minutes, the source said.

Engineers did not believe that this case involved such a devastating crack, but officials opted to take a conservative approach to ensure safety, the source said.

Colonel Kevin Killea, who oversees aviation acquisition for the Marine Corps, said that while the grounding was frustrating for test pilots and trainers, it was prudent. He added that finding problems was an expected part of developing any aircraft.

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Insight - Spiral of Karachi killings widens Pakistan's sectarian divide

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 05:03 PM PST

KARACHI (Reuters) - When Aurangzeb Farooqi survived an attempt on his life that left six of his bodyguards dead and a six-inch bullet wound in his thigh, the Pakistani cleric lost little time in turning the narrow escape to his advantage.

Shi'ite Muslims light candles at the site of Saturday's bomb attack to mourn for the victims in Quetta February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Shi'ite Muslims light candles at the site of Saturday's bomb attack to mourn for the victims in Quetta February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Recovering in hospital after the ambush on his convoy in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital, the radical Sunni Muslim ideologue was composed enough to exhort his followers to close ranks against the city's Shi'ites.

"Enemies should listen to this: my task now is Sunni awakening," Farooqi said in remarks captured on video shortly after a dozen gunmen opened fire on his double-cabin pick-up truck on December 25.

"I will make Sunnis so powerful against Shi'ites that no Sunni will even want to shake hands with a Shi'ite," he said, propped up in bed on emergency-room pillows. "They will die their own deaths, we won't have to kill them."

Such is the kind of speech that chills members of Pakistan's Shi'ite minority, braced for a new chapter of persecution following a series of bombings that have killed almost 200 people in the city of Quetta since the beginning of the year.

While the Quetta carnage grabbed world attention, a Reuters inquiry into a lesser known spate of murders in Karachi, a much bigger conurbation, suggests the violence is taking on a volatile new dimension as a small number of Shi'ites fight back.

Pakistan's Western allies have traditionally been fixated on the challenge posed to the brittle, nuclear-armed state by Taliban militants battling the army in the bleakly spectacular highlands on the Afghan frontier.

But a cycle of tit-for-tat killings on the streets of Karachi points to a new type of threat: a campaign by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and allied Pakistani anti-Shi'ite groups to rip open sectarian fault-lines in the city of 18 million people.

Police suspect LeJ, which claimed responsibility for the Quetta blasts, and its sympathisers may also be the driving force behind the murder of more than 80 Shi'ites in Karachi in the past six months, including doctors, bankers and teachers.

In turn, a number of hardline Sunni clerics who share Farooqi's suspicion of the Shi'ite sect have been killed in drive-by shootings or barely survived apparent revenge attacks. Dozens of Farooqi's followers have also been shot dead.

Discerning the motives for any one killing is murky work in Karachi, where multiple armed factions are locked in a perpetual all-against-all turf war, but detectives suspect an emerging Shi'ite group known as the Mehdi Force is behind some of the attacks on Farooqi's men.

While beleaguered secularists and their Western friends hope Pakistan will mature into a more confident democracy at general elections due in May, the spiral of killings in Karachi, a microcosm of the country's diversity, suggests the polarising forces of intolerance are gaining ground.

"The divide is getting much bigger between Shia and Sunni. You have to pick sides now," said Sundus Rasheed, who works at a radio station in Karachi. "I've never experienced this much hatred in Pakistan."

Once the proud wearer of a silver Shi'ite amulet her mother gave her to hang around her neck, Rasheed now tucks away the charm, fearing it might serve not as protection, but mark her as a target.


Fully recovered from the assassination attempt, Farooqi can be found in the cramped upstairs office of an Islamic seminary tucked in a side-street in Karachi's gritty Landhi neighbourhood, an industrial zone in the east of the city.

On a rooftop shielded by a corrugated iron canopy, dozens of boys wearing skull caps sit cross-legged on prayer mats, imbibing a strict version of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam that inspires both Farooqi and the foot-soldiers of LeJ.

"We say Shias are infidels. We say this on the basis of reason and arguments," Farooqi, a wiry, intense man with a wispy beard and cascade of shoulder-length curls, told Reuters. "I want to be called to the Supreme Court so that I can prove using their own books that they are not Muslims."

Farooqi, who cradled bejewelled prayer beads as he spoke, is the Karachi head of a Deobandi organisation called Ahle Sunnat wal Jama'at. That is the new name for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a forerunner banned in 2002 in a wider crackdown on militancy by Pakistan's then army ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.

Farooqi says he opposes violence and denies any link to LeJ, but security officials believe his supporters are broadly aligned with the heavily armed group, whose leaders deem murdering Shi'ites an act of piety.

In the past year, LeJ has prosecuted its campaign with renewed gusto, emboldened by the release of Malik Ishaq, one of its founders, who was freed after spending 14 years in jail in July, 2011. Often pictured wearing a celebratory garland of pink flowers, Ishaq has since appeared at gatherings of supporters in Karachi and other cities.

In diverse corners of Pakistan, LeJ's cadres have bombed targets from mosques to snooker halls; yanked passengers off buses and shot them, and posted a video of themselves beheading a pair of trussed-up captives with a knife.

Nobody knows exactly how many Shi'ites there are in Pakistan -- estimates ranging from four to 20 percent of the population of 180 million underscore the uncertainty. What is clear is that they are dying faster than ever. At least 400 were killed last year, many from the ethnic Hazara minority in Quetta, according to Human Rights Watch, and some say the figure is far higher.

Pakistani officials suspect regional powers are stoking the fire, with donors in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Gulf countries funding LeJ, while Shi'ite organisations turn to Iran.

Whatever factors are driving the violence, the state's ambivalent response has raised questions over the degree of tolerance for LeJ by elements in the security establishment, which has a long history of nurturing Deobandi proxies.

Under pressure in the wake of the Quetta bombings, police arrested Ishaq at his home in the eastern Punjab province on Friday under a colonial-era public order law.

But in Karachi, Farooqi and his thousands of followers project a new aura of confidence. Crowds of angry men chant "Shia infidel! Shia infidel" at rallies and burn effigies while clerics pour scorn on the sect from mosque loudspeakers after Friday prayers. A rash of graffiti hails Farooqi as a saviour.

Over glasses of milky tea, he explained that his goal was to convince the government to declare Shi'ites non-Muslims, as it did to the Ahmadiyya sect in 1974, as a first step towards ostracizing the community and banning a number of their books.

"When someone is socially boycotted, he becomes disappointed and isolated. He realises that his beliefs are not right, that people hate him," Farooqi said. "What I'm saying is that killing them is not the solution. Let's talk, let's debate and convince people that they are wrong."


Not far from Farooqi's seminary, in the winding lanes of the rough-and-tumble Malir quarter, Shi'ite leaders are kindling an awakening of their own.

A gleaming metallic chandelier dangles from the mirrored archway of a half-completed mosque rising near the modest offices of Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslemeen - known as MWM - a vocal Shi'ite party that has emerged to challenge Farooqi's ascent.

In an upstairs room, Ejaz Hussain Bahashti, an MWM leader clad in a white turban and black cloak, exhorts a gaggle of women activists to persuade their neighbours to join the cause.

Seated beneath a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shi'ite cleric who led the 1979 Iranian revolution, Bahashti said his organisation would not succumb to what he sees as a plan by LeJ to provoke sectarian conflict.

"In our sect, if we are being killed we are not supposed to carry out reprisal attacks," he told Reuters. "If we decided to take up arms, then no part of the country would be spared from terrorism - but it's forbidden."

The MWM played a big role in sit-ins that paralysed parts of Karachi and dozens of other towns to protest against the Quetta bombings - the biggest Shi'ite demonstrations in years. But police suspect that some in the sect have chosen a less peaceful path.

Detectives believe the small Shi'ite Mehdi Force group, comprised of about 20 active members in Karachi, is behind several of the attacks on Deobandi clerics and their followers.

The underground network is led by a hardened militant codenamed "Shaheed", or martyr, who recruits eager but unseasoned middle-class volunteers who compensate for their lack of numbers by stalking high-profile targets.

"They don't have a background in terrorism, but after the Shia killings started they joined the group and they tried to settle the score," said Superintendent of Police Raja Umar Khattab. "They kill clerics."

In November, suspected Mehdi Force gunmen opened fire at a tea shop near the Ahsan-ul-Uloom seminary, where Farooqi has a following, killing six students. A scholar from the madrasa was shot dead the next month, another student killed in January.

"It was definitely a reaction, Shias have never gone on the offensive on their own," said Deputy Inspector-General Shahid Hayat.

According to the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, a Karachi residents' group, some 68 members of Farooqi's Ahle Sunnat wal Jama'at and 85 Shi'ites were killed in the city from early September to February 19.

Police caution that it can be difficult to discern who is killing who in a vast metropolis where an array of political factions and gangs are vying for influence. A suspect has yet to be named, for example, in the slaying of two Deobandi clerics and a student in January whose killer was caught on CCTV firing at point blank range then fleeing on a motorbike.

Some in Karachi question whether well-connected Shi'ites within the city's dominant political party, the Muttahida Quami Movement, which commands a formidable force of gunmen, may have had a hand in some of the more sophisticated attacks, or whether rival Sunni factions may also be involved.

Despite the growing body count, Karachi can still draw on a store of tolerance. Some Sunnis made a point of attending the Shi'ite protests - a reminder that Farooqi's adherents are themselves a minority. Yet as Karachi's murder rate sets new records, the dynamics that have kept the city's conflicts within limits are being tested.

In the headquarters of an ambulance service founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi, once nominated for a Nobel Prize for devoting his life to Karachi's poor, controllers are busier than ever despatching crews to ferry shooting victims to the morgue.

"The best religion of all is humanity," said Edhi, who is in his 80s, surveying the chaotic parade of street life from a chair on the pavement outside. "If religion doesn't have humanity, then it is useless."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters


The Star Online: Entertainment: TV & Radio

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The Star Online: Entertainment: TV & Radio

Michelle Obama's dance moves go viral on YouTube

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 06:12 PM PST

WASHINGTON - A video clip of First Lady Michelle Obama grooving with a dressed-in-drag Jimmy Fallon on his late-night comedy talk show has gone viral on YouTube Saturday.

In the video, the pair, each clad in conservative slacks and cardigans, and Fallon with a long brown-haired wig, perform a routine dubbed "Evolution of Mom Dancing," to promote Obama's "Let's Move!" youth fitness and nutrition campaign.

The dance moves - with names like "The 'Go Shopping, Get Groceries,'" and "The 'Out of Sync Electric Slide'" according to titles splashed on the bottom of the screen - progress from a simple side-to-side step and ends with Fallon stalking off set as Obama rocks a smooth "Dougie."

The clip, which has already been viewed nearly a half million times since being posted Saturday and "liked" more than 10,000 times, has prompted effusive comments about the first lady and her first family.

"For the first time... we have a first lady with soul," wrote zestydude87. And Rina Lubit wrote, "it may be just me but i really love the presidential family. they just really seem like sincerely good and chill people."

In an interview later on the show, Obama rates her husband's dance skills a "B," saying "he's got, like, three good moves."

Obama also touts her "Let's Move!" campaign, saying it has seen progress since she launched it three years ago, but there is still work to do.

"Over the past three years, we've seen a culture shift. Now people understand that this is an issue," she said.

"We've got better lunches in the schools, we've got companies putting grocery stores in under-served communities. We've got our athletes, our Olympians, working to get our kids more active. It's really heartening to see."

Obesity is a major health problem in the United States, where one in three adults and almost one in five children is overweight.

Among other initiatives for "Let's Move," the first lady, an attorney by training, has planted the White House's first garden since World War II and written a book with healthy recipes. - AFP

Stream for the Oscars

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 05:22 PM PST

Log in to the Red FM or Capital FM websites for some exclusive content on the Academy Awards tomorrow.

HOLLYWOOD'S biggest film event – the 85th Academy Awards – is happening tomorrow morning (Malaysia time) in Los Angeles.

Held at the Dolby Theatre in the heart of Hollywood, this year's Oscars sees 10 movies vying for the biggest prize: the Best Picture award. Among the films nominated are Les Miserables, Argo, Django Unchained and Life Of Pi.

Nominated actors, filmmakers and other film crew members will be gracing the red carpet in glamorous outfits and gorgeous tuxedos, while photographers, the papparazzi and even fans will be busy snapping their cameras away.

In celebration of the awards, Red FM and Capital FM will be streaming live backstage Oscar coverage and after-party events via their respective websites – and

This live streaming broadcast, from the Associated Press (AP), will have loads of interesting features that include red carpet arrivals, interviews, photo galleries, as well as Twitter and Facebook interaction.

You can also watch trailers of the nominated movies and clips of nominees' reactions from either of the websites.

The best thing about this co­verage is that viewers are also given the chance to sneak a peek at behind-the-scenes footage and after-party events – something that has never been shown live to the public before. This exclusive footage will only be shown on the Red FM and Capital FM websites.

To further enhance your viewing experience, Red FM and Capital FM DJs will be also be talking about the Oscars in their respective morning slots.

The Red Breakfast WTF team of Lil Kev and JJ will be sharing their opinions on the nominated movies.

Since quite a number of these films have yet to be screened in Malaysia, you can check out the trailers on the radio station's website tomorrow morning, while listening to the show at the same time. You can expect the lively duo to come up with the craziest (and funniest) of comments!

Meanwhile, on Capital FM's Talk Of The Town with Joanne and Xandria, the ladies will be focusing on the fashion aspect of the Oscars.

You can bet that Joanne and Xandria will have lots to say about the red carpet gowns that actresses like Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts, Helen Hunt and Jessica Chastain will turn up in.

To join in the "fashion police" fun, watch the live stream on Capital FM's website.

The live stream will begin at 6.30am, so remember to visit the Red FM or Capital FM website tomorrow!

> The Star owns and operates Red FM and Capital FM.


The Star Online: Sports

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The Star Online: Sports

Howley hails Wales as title defence remains intact

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 07:00 PM PST

ROME: Wales interim coach Rob Howley hailed the flexibility of his players as the Six Nations champions maintained their title defence hopes with a 26-9 victory over Italy.

Despite a 16-6 win over France last time out, Wales came into their third game of the series with question marks hovering - mainly because that win brought an end to seven straight defeats.

For the sizeable Welsh support in Rome it was a nervous day at a rain-soaked Olympic Stadium after the visitors went in for half-time leading only 9-6 after a flurry of penalties for both sides.

But after Tomasso Benvenuti missed a golden chance to give Italy the first try of the match early after the restart, Wales regrouped to score two tries through Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert.

Leigh Halfpenny, who had kicked all three of Wales's penalties in the first half - while Kris Burton put two penalties over for the Azzurri - converted both tries and went on to add a further penalty to finish on 16 points.

Wales next face Scotland at Murrayfield on March 9 and host unbeaten England a week later at the Millennium Stadium for what pundits have already labelled the championship title-decider.

Ahead of those challenges, Howley applauded his side's ability to adapt as periodic downpours in the first half ended all hopes for a game of open, flowing rugby.

"There weren't always going to be opportunities in a game like that and probably the conditions suited Italy," said Howley, acting as head coach after Warren Gatland took over Lions coaching duties.

"The deluge that came in the first half as well meant that the ball was very greasy and it was difficult under foot. We had to be flexible and change our gameplan a little bit.

"The second half was all about composure and patience. We were clinical... and took our opportunities."

Wales dominated at the scrum and Halfpenny's kicking, despite some testing conditions and angles, was spot-on.

Howley added: "I thought our kicking game was exceptional, putting Italy back in their own 22 gained a lot of benefits.

"But to come away winning 26-9 is something which I would have taken at the beginning of the game."

Wales' sixth consecutive victory over the Azzurri was also their fourth consecutive away win for Wales in the tournament - a feat they last achieved in 1979.

For the hosts, it was a harsh return to reality after the euphoria of a deserved 23-18 win over France at the Olympic Stadium in near perfect conditions three weeks ago.

Italy next succumbed to a 34-10 defeat against a clinical Scotland at Murrayfield, and on Saturday gained little reward for a performance which left head coach Jacques Brunel mystified.

Italy were without captain and influential No 8 Sergio Parisse, who last week was handed a 30-day ban for insulting a referee while playing for French club side Stade Francais.

He was replaced by Fijian-born No 8 Manoa Vosawai, and while he proved efficient Parisse's absence appeared to tell as the hosts struggled against an astute Welsh defence.

Brunel made a series of replacements, but Italy were later penalised when Martin Castrogiovanni, standing in as captain for Parisse, was sin-binned for persistent infringements at the scrum.

"I don't think the attitude of the players was the problem," said Brunel.

"We didn't manage the game well, especially in the first half. We didn't put them under pressure, our kicking was irregular and Wales were more precise.

"Their kicking was better and Wales were generally more efficient. "Our game just wasn't there, it seemed. You could say we struggled more than the Welsh did in these conditions."

Italy face England at Twickenham on March 10 before capping their tournament by hosting Ireland six days later.

After their performance - and England's dismantling of France which kept their Grand Slam hopes alive - it seemed an understatement when a sheepish Castrogiovanni said: "Our next game won't be easy." - AFP

Erakovic wins Memphis title over ailing Lisicki

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 06:57 PM PST

MEMPHIS: Marina Erakovic became the first New Zealander since 1989 to win a WTA title on Saturday, lifting her first career trophy with a truncated triumph over third-seeded German Sabine Lisicki in Memphis.

Erakovic confidently raced to a 6-1 first-set victory, and the title was hers when the struggling Lisicki retired.

The big-hitting German had been battling an undisclosed illness for several days.

In men's action in this combined ATP and WTA event, fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan advanced to Sunday's final after a short day's work. He had won the first set against Marinko Matosevic 6-4 when the Australian retired with a bone bruise on the bottom of his right foot.

"He was playing well from the beginning," Nishikori said. "It's lucky for me to play just one set and feel fresh for tomorrow." Nishikori will take on Spain's Feliciano Lopez for the title. Lopez beat Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Erakovic, who was runner-up to Sofia Arvidsson in Memphis last year, fired four aces and converted both of her break point opportunities in racing through the first set in 27 minutes.

Her run to the championship match had included a second-round revenge victory over Arvidsson. While she was sorry the match didn't go the distance she still savored her first WTA crown, which she said she planned to celebrate by going sky-diving with her coach.

"This is my first title and unfortunately it did go like this," she said. "But Sabine congratulations .... I hope we really do play a lot more finals in the future."

Lisicki offered apologies to the fans.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't able to finish the match," she said. "I was sick the last few days... I just couldn't do better today. Marina played a great match."

The last New Zealander to win a WTA title was Belinda Cordwell in Singapore in 1989. - AFP

Late crash mars Daytona Nationwide finish

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 04:55 PM PST

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: A horrific multi-car crash saw Kyle Larson's car launched into the air and then broken into pieces in the catch-fencing Saturday in the waning moments of the NASCAR Nationwide Series season-opener.

The wreck, which occurred almost as Tony Stewart was taking the chequered flag for victory, appeared to begin when Regan Smith was turned sideways and took several competitors behind him in a pack. Larson, making his first start in the NASCAR's second-tier series, then sailed into the catch-fencing.

Larson's car tore a hole in the fence, and his engine sheared off with debris flying into the stands.

None of the drivers was injured, but emergency medical personnel were sent into the grandstand to treat any injured fans.

Another big crash, involving 11 cars, took place with five laps remaining, with driver Michael Annett taken to hospital after hitting a barrier.

"We've always known since racing started this is a dangerous sport," Stewart said. "As much as we want to celebrate, I'm more concerned about the fans and the drivers right now." - AFP


The Star Online: Business

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The Star Online: Business

Asiasons busy expanding portfolio

Posted: 22 Feb 2013 10:31 PM PST

OUR Power Lunch session was hosted at a fusion restaurant called Ploy, with the managing directors of Asiasons Capital Ltd as our guests. Asiasons is a Singapore-listed niche boutique private equity firm that has a diverse portfolio that includes Chaswood Resources, Liongold, Nirvana and EMS Holdings. It all seemed like an overwhelming load of topics to discuss.

Ploy is privately-owned by Datuk Jared Lim, one of the managing directors of Asiasons and he promptly informed me that their chefs were sent to Bangkok to learn Thai cuisine. They do not serve any Thai dishes but instead develop a monthly changing menu of Japanese and Italian dishes with a touch of Thai. Since it's still the Chinese New Year season, we ordered Ploy's Japanese inspired Yee Sang, accentuated with pine nuts, to begin our meal. Consumers

To explain the diversity of their portfolio, Ng Teck Wah, joint managing director of Asiasons, says: "It's all focus of finances on the consumer side. Consumers are so diverse. F&B, lifestyle, education and even Nirvana is a consumer play. Reaching out to the consumer is a very big thing in South-East Asia", both explaining to me that Singapore was selected as an ideal choice for them to list their company as it provides an ideal platform to enable them to have a successful regional reach.

The region is a key focus of their investment strategy, having established offices in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, and having built up partners in China as well.

"How we do it is we invest in a company and rollout their operations into the region. That is really the main strategy of how we grow our business. It's a lot easier than the traditional private equity way in the United States whereby it's so developed and you try to improve margins, cut costs and all that. In Asia, it's really a growing market. There's so much that's untapped," Lim explains as Ng and I sip on red wine while he enjoys a latte.

Looking at their portfolio, it's clear that Asiasons appears to prefer to hold a controlling stake in the companies they've invested in. When asked if this could be seen to be an aggressive approach, Lim told me that they prefer to look at it as being pro-active.

"There are investors who look at good companies, want to be a part of what they want to do and ride along with what management is doing. I think we're taking a far more pro-active approach to say that I think it's a great-model, but if you do these five other steps, we could grow it much better. This is value-added expertise that we've invested in. One of the main resources that we've invested in is building our own branding and creative design team. That's something we really believe in".


"This infrastructure that we've built is what makes us different from the other private equity firms. Because of our strong consumer focus, branding and creativity is an integral part in enhancing our private equity business model," Ng tells me, as they share with me the extent to which they've been involved creatively with the brands within their portfolio.

From billboards to commercials and to social media, Asiasons has put in place a dedicated creative department headed up by Lim's brother who was a multiple award winning creative director during his 20 years in the United States.

As an example of showcasing their brand building capabilities, Ng shares with me their plan to make Chaswood the largest regional multi-brand casual dining restaurant operator in South-East Asia, targeting 100 outlet growth before they consider an exit.

As we were served a dish called five-elements, which Lim described as Japanese misua topped with ebiko, belacan and a poached egg, we went on to discuss how making the move to focus on branding, creativity and social media has significantly impacted the companies and brands that they've been involved in.

One example is growing their Facebook Hi-5 fan page from 2,500 to 67000 fans in less than six months.

"We're able to understand what our fans want and what they're looking for. This enabled us to develop an online app. It'll be launched next month. You can see the touring schedule, we'll develop games, launch songs, etc. It's just an example of the creative elements that we can easily add value to for a consumer brand. We're also very passionate about it, so it's fun," Lim tells me, while sharing that they are also working to launch a spin-off series called Chats World, and also a Hi-5 cartoon, by the end of 2013.

Before which, they tell me that they have plans to make announcements in March about a new infrastructure that they're putting in place regarding programme sales.

With the growing popularity of Hi-5, Lim explains that he's chosen to take a hands-on approach to the management of that brand, to the point of instigating their first ever movie in 14 years.

"I'm personally involved in it as executive producer. For this movie, it was me telling them, rather than just spending the money for the audition and have nothing to show for it. Spend a little bit more, get a crew in and do the script. Now we have something to show something Hi-5 in their 14 years never did. And, it only cost us something like A$80,000 to do it.

"We can recoup it if we sell it through Hoyts. We can sell it to broadcasters around the world as a special. It's a very simple idea that just takes thinking out of the box. You come from a different angle and have the right management to take it through. It's fun". The Hi-5 movie is set to launch in March, nationwide in Australia through Hoyt, as for Malaysia, Lim reveals that they're hoping this may be a possibility as they are currently in talks with GSC. Exhibitions

With regards to EMS, Lim says they have big plans too for the exhibitions that they have within the group. "Very much like the restaurant side, we're going to expand it throughout Asia. The first thing we did was hire the MD for Disney Live! He has been running the company for 26 years".

Their key focus is to bring interactivity to their exhibitions while also expanding on their merchandise range.

Ng explains: "Merchandise is one of the key revenue drivers. People normally spend more money on merchandise and opportunities rather than the price of tickets. That's why our creative team can enhance the merchandise that we bring to the respective brands".

The arrival of a dish called Sunrise Tuna that came accompanied with a blowtorch, which Lim excitedly armed himself with to prepare our meal, brought amusement and a more light-hearted focus to the topic of exhibitions. Such as the photo opportunities available at their ongoing Star Trek exhibition, and Lim's Klingon language abilities. After our food was delicately seared, I replaced my non-flame retardant voice recorder onto the table, and continued our interview. As Dinosaurs has wrapped, Star Trek is ongoing and Barbie's Dream House is set to arrive, I wondered about a permanent event space as they had mentioned having over a dozen exhibit brands within EMS.

Lim says: "We don't have our own space in Asia. We have two in the United States and two in Europe. We'll have a permanent venue. We'll be signing and announcing soon (in March). I just had a meeting with one of the venue owners. I can't tell you which on yet until we sign it. We're in the contract stage".

As everything that we've discussed seems to soon be announced, including a soon-to-be-announced venture into an ultra luxury space with products such as HK$2mil to HK$4mil watches, high-end writing instruments and wine chillers, it seems that Asiasons is expanding its portfolio and involvements with zest. To this, Ng laughs and admits that it's true that Asiasons does not waste time.

"We're in the business of doing deals. We eat and breathe deals. Deals are very time critical and if a deal fits our profile, criteria and where we intend for it to be in the next five years, then we quickly move with it". With that, Ng excuses himself to dash-off to another meeting, while Lim orders us durian panna-cottas as the final part of our fusion meal.


The Star Online: Entertainment: Movies

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The Star Online: Entertainment: Movies

Academy often misses Hollywood's greatest films, actors

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 04:15 AM PST

REUTERS - People may think that in the director category, Ben Affleck got robbed by the Academy this year, but consider this: Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. Actor Peter O'Toole was nominated eight times but never took home the award. If that doesn't prove the Academy doesn't vote with posterity in mind, I don't know what could.

Members play the cards they are dealt, year by year, which leads to some questionable decisions when hindsight enters the picture. "Citizen Kane" may be widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, but that's not what the Academy thought in 1941. That year the Best Picture award went to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." The film that supplanted "Kane" in this year's Sight & Sound survey of international critics, Hitchcock's "Vertigo," wasn't even nominated in 1958; "Gigi" earned the top prize that year.

It's less likely that this year's crop of nominees will include such glaring oversights; there were barely any award-worthy films released until the end of 2012. Yet there is already at least one anomaly: Several critics' groups honoured "Holy Motors," the bold, dreamlike French feature by Leos Carax, which didn't make Oscar's final cut. ("The Intouchables" was chosen to represent France in the Foreign Language Film category.)

One can debate the victories and losses year by year, and often they are simply a matter of opinion. I was not a particular fan of "A Beautiful Mind" or "Chicago," which earned trophies at the beginning of the last decade, and I've met many people who don't care for "Crash," the Best Picture winner of 2005. That was the year that most pundits predicted a win for "Brokeback Mountain," and in a rare instance of candour (and questionable sportsmanship), author Annie Proulx accused the Academy of not having the guts to honour a film about gay cowboys - even though the film did earn three major awards.

"We should have known conservative heffalump Academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture," she wrote in the Guardian. "Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good."

Neither we nor Ms. Proulx will ever know how close "Brokeback" came to winning the brass ring because the Academy never reveals details of its voting process. That year there were five Best Picture nominees, which means that any one of them could have won with just 21 percent of the tallies. Mere dozens of ballots among the then-6,000 counted could have changed the course of Oscar history. This year there are nine films in contention, so it's even more difficult to claim a consensus.

Looking back, one always has to weigh the possibilities and probabilities of any given year. It's easy to say, "How could they have ignored O'Toole's incredible performance in 'Lawrence of Arabia'?" until one checks the competition and sees that the Best Actor award went to Gregory Peck for his signature role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," a film as beloved today as "Lawrence" after more than half a century.

Then there is the cumulative effect of having been nominated over and over again. No one's experience with Oscar offered more ironies than Paul Newman. Having been nominated seven times without a win (from 1958's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to 1982's "The Verdict"), the Academy decided to present him an honorary award in 1986. When he was nominated the following year for "The Color of Money," he finally took home his first competitive Oscar. Yet I doubt anyone would single out his work in that film as his finest hour. (He lost twice again, for "Nobody's Fool" and "Road to Perdition.")

Al Pacino followed a similar path, losing for his unforgettable performances in "The Godfather," "Serpico," "The Godfather: Part II," and "Dog Day Afternoon," among others, only to win for his over-the-top portrayal of a cantankerous blind man in the sentimental "Scent of a Woman" (1982). As the old saying goes, that's show business.

Times change, and so does popular taste. Most of the Academy's choices in the 1950s are considered conservative at best today, while the genre movies of that decade were mostly ignored. Arguably the most derided Best Picture winner of that period is Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), although I have a sentimental attachment to that circus movie - as does Steven Spielberg, who has paid tribute to it in his films, more than once. That is not the mainstream opinion, however, as DeMille's cornball extravaganza beat out "Ivanhoe," "Moulin Rouge," "The Quiet Man" and, most significantly, "High Noon." "Singin' in the Rain," which is often cited as the greatest movie musical of all time, didn't even get nominated that year in the top category, nor did "The Bad and the Beautiful," which did win five other Oscars.

Another box-office hit of the period, "Around the World in 80 Days," may have charmed moviegoers and Academy voters in 1956, but it hasn't held up particularly well, especially alongside John Ford's "The Searchers" and Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which came out that same year and got no Oscar recognition whatsoever.

Even so, scanning the Oscar votes year by year provides some indication of what Hollywood was thinking, and who was admired by his or her colleagues at any given moment in time. Where the Academy trips up is when it seeks to honour a film for its social significance rather than its entertainment value. It was exactly 30 years ago that the Oscar for Best Picture went to Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" - an excellent film in its own right - instead of a more popular (and critically acclaimed) choice from a younger director that I suspected would stand the test of time better than that noble biopic. Steven Spielberg may have lost the Best Picture Oscar for "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," but I hope he takes consolation in knowing that he's not the first, or last, director to have to lick his wounds after all the votes are counted. What matters most is staying in the game - and staying on top of your game, as he has. - Reuters

'Amour' triumphs at French Cesars

Posted: 22 Feb 2013 09:05 PM PST

PARIS: Michael Haneke's Oscar-nominated film "Amour" about a man and his dying wife on Friday scooped the top prizes at France's annual film awards, the Cesars, which also honoured Hollywood actor-director Kevin Costner with a lifetime achievement award.

In addition to best film, "Amour" took best director and best script for Austrian Haneke and its French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva picked up best actor and actress.

The drama won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year and a Golden Globe for best foreign language film in January. It has five nominations in Sunday's Oscars including best actress and best film.

A two-time Oscar winner for the 1990 hit "Dances with Wolves", Costner, 58, meanwhile, was visibly moved by the standing ovation he received as he accepted his honorary Cesar.

As well as "Dances with Wolves" for which he won best picture and best director Oscars, Costner has starred in a string of box office successes including "Field of Dreams", "The Untouchables" and "The Bodyguard" with the late Whitney Houston.

"I love the process that goes into making films... they remind us of what it means to be a hero, that heroes don't always win," he told a star-studded audience at the ceremony in Paris.

Best foreign film went to Ben Affleck's "Argo". Affleck, who directed and starred in the film, was not at the ceremony.

Since it beat 21 other movies to claim the top prize at Cannes, Haneke's French language "Amour" has gone from strength to strength.

Haneke, 70, has established himself in recent years as one of the most important film directors in Europe. His films include "The Piano Teacher", "Cache" and "Funny Games."

"Amour" had been in competition at the Cesars with Noemie Lvovsky's "Camille Rewinds" ("Camille Redouble") about a woman who travels back in time to relive her 1980s schooldays.

"Camille", the surprise hit of 2012 began with 13 nominations compared to 10 for "Amour" but finished the evening empty-handed.

Despite its difficult subject, "Amour" has been both a critical and box office success.

Over 680,000 people have been to see it in France, while the overseas audience figure stands at 1.7 million. It has been shown or is to be shown in some 50 countries worldwide.

On Sunday it will hope to pick up more accolades with nominations in the five categories of best actress, best director, best script, best film and best foreign language film.

Riva, who celebrates her 86th birthday on the same day, has already made history by becoming the oldest woman to be nominated in the best actress category.

Other contenders at Friday's Cesars had included Benoit Jacquot's "Farewell, My Queen" ("Les Adieux a la Reine"), a fictional account of the last days of Marie Antoinette, with 10 nominations.

Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" also had nine nominations including best actress for Marion Cotillard.

Other nominees in the best film category included the thriller "In the House" ("Dans la Maison") in which Francois Ozon explores the perils of a teacher getting too close to one of his students; the comedy "What's in a Name?" ("Prenom") by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere about a group of 40-something friends' dinner party disaster; and Leos Carax's fantasy drama "Holy Motors" about a man living parallel lives. -AFP

Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman to present Oscars

Posted: 22 Feb 2013 04:57 PM PST

HOLLYWOOD: Multiple Oscar-winning Hollywood legends Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman were added Friday to the presenting line-up at this weekend's 85th Academy Awards.

The pair will join a star-studded cast on stage Sunday including Michael Douglas, John Travolta, Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon.

Nicholson has been nominated 12 times and won three times, as best leading actor in "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "As Good as It Gets" (1997) and as best supporting actor in 1983 for "Terms of Endearment."

Hoffman, the star of "The Graduate", has just made his directoral debut with "Quartet" and has been nominated seven times, winning twice, both for leading actor in "Kramer vs. Kramer" in 1979 and "Rain Man" in 1988.

"Between the two of them, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman have created more iconic characters than any other pair of actors in the world," said Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers of Sunday's show.

Previously announced presenters also include Mark Wahlberg and his potty-mounted bear Ted, and "Avengers" stars Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo.

Last year's winners Jean Dujardin, Christopher Plummer, Octavia Spencer and Meryl Streep will also hand out golden statuettes as well as "Chicago" stars Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Steven Spielberg's presidential drama "Lincoln" has the most nominations, with 12 nods, although Iran hostage drama "Argo" is tipped for best picture after taking the award at a string of shows in Hollywood's awards season.

This year's show is one of the most unpredictable for years, apart from the best actor category, which is all but certain to go to Daniel Day-Lewis for his title role in "Lincoln." -AFP


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Litrak denies water channels it manages caused Puchong floods

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 03:33 AM PST

KUALA LUMPUR: Lingkaran Trans Kota Holding Berhad (Litrak), the concessionaire of the Damansara-Puchong Highway (LDP) denied claims that flash floods caused along the LDP near the IOI Mall on Monday, was due to underground drain malfunction.

Litrak's Chief of Operations Richard Lim Kim Ong said only 45m of the 2km underground channel was managed by Litrak.

"For almost 14 years we have provided facilities for motorists and this is the first time such an incident had occurred.

"Various studies were carried out in detail. The flash floods could have been caused by the construction of an uneven water channel by Sistem Transit Aliran Ringan (LRT)," he told reporters after giving out Chinese New Year goodies to about 20 children from a welfare home, here, on Saturday.

He added that the 68mm of rain recorded on that day, which was an abnormal occurrence, could also have contributed to the cause since the water channels were unable to accommodate the rising quantity of water following a heavy downpour.

Richard Lim said that a day before the incident, Litrak had carried out scheduled maintenance.

He added that on Wednesday, the Selangor Economic Action Council (MTES) had during a meeting with Majlis Perbandaran Subang Jaya (MPSJ) and Syarikat Prasarana Berhad (Prasarana), directed both to clear the clogged drains to prevent a similar incident.

During the incident at about 6pm on Monday, about 140 vehicles were reported trapped in a car park near IOI Mall and traffic was brought to a standstill at several main roads in the area following flash floods that saw the LDP resemble a river.

The flashfloods hit KM21.36 and 23.50 of the southbound-side of the LDP at 5.22pm on Monday while the basement floors of IOI Mall Puchong, opposite the affected section, were also flooded. Bernama

Related Stories:
IOI Mall flash floods due to underground drain malfunction
Flashfloods wreak havoc on Damansara-Puchong Highway

Lima goes on in March – even if GE13 is held

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 02:08 AM PST

Published: Saturday February 23, 2013 MYT 6:08:00 PM

PETALING JAYA: Next month's Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) exhibition will not be affected even if the event ends up colliding with the 13th general election, the Defence Ministry has assured.

Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Ismail Ahmad said Lima will not be disrupted if the Dewan Rakyat is dissolved on a date close to the bi-annual exhibition which will take place from March 26-30.

"It will not be the first time that Lima is organised soon after the dissolution of Parliament as it has happened before, and this will not have any effect on the exhibition if it happens," Ismail told reporters at the Ministry's Open Day held at a shopping mall here.

First held in 1991, the 1999 edition of LIMA opened on Dec. 1, one day after polling in the general election held that year.

Ismail was responding to Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof who said Saturday that he expected Parliament to be dissolved after the Lima exhibition in March.

The EC chairman was commenting on rumours that Lima exhibitors will withdraw if the Dewan Rakyat is dissolved before the event.

Parliament's term ends on April 27 but speculation is rife that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak may seek the Yang di-Pertuan Agong's consent for an earlier dissolution in the coming weeks to pave the way for a general election.

Cops raid karaoke, rescue 23 scantily-clad Vietnamese women

Posted: 23 Feb 2013 01:19 AM PST

KUALA LUMPUR: Police raided a karaoke near here and rescued 23 scantily-clad Vietnamese women believed to be victims of human trafficking.

Led by the Bukit Aman Anti Traffiking in Persons (ATIP) (D7) unit chief Deputy Superintendent Nor Omar Sappi, the team raided the two-storey karaoke center located in Menara PGRM at Cheras at 1am Saturday.

He said the women were aged between 19 and 35 had used social visit passes to enter the country but he said it was an offence under the Immigration Act as they had abused the pass to work in the country.

"However, we believe the women are victims of a human trafficking syndicate that had lured the women with hope of finding jobs in Malaysia and instead sent them to the Klang Valley to be involved in seedy activities including offering sex services," he said.

There were about 40 customers in the premises when the police team of 20 personnel including six officer raided the karaoke center.

The karaoke joint, which possessed valid operating licenses, had over a dozen rooms in their premises for customers to rent.


The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Eminently entertaining

Posted: 24 Feb 2013 01:46 AM PST

Back To Blood
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Little, Brown, 704 pages

MAKE no mistake about it, this is one large brick of a book. But if the thought of 700+ pages puts you off, then feel comforted by the fact that the print is large and the lines well spaced. That and the fact that this a rolling roller-coaster of a ride from the moment the book opens to its final page.

Tom Wolfe is best known as one of the leading lights of a movement that became known as the new journalism. Gone was the traditional persona of the journalist as a dispassionate and uninvolved recorder of events, and in its place was a real attempt to recreate the story and give the reader a feeling of the events and people involved. Stylistically, a number of devices more usually associated with literary texts were employed, such as dialogue and scene by scene reconstructions. Journalistic fact and literary fiction were edging closer together.

Wolfe has always been regarded as an acute commentator on society, nowhere more so than in that chronicle of 1980s New York greed and disgust, The Bonfire Of The Vanities. "There is a saying," he has offered in interview, "that New York is about money, Washington is about power and Miami is about sex", a comment that brings us nicely to his latest book, Back To Blood, which is set in Miami and is not entirely about sex but is very noticeably about race.

Miami is not unique in being a city with a huge racial mix but is certainly unusual in the extent of it. Policed in large part by émigré Cubans with a Hispanic mayor and a black police chief, Miami is not the usual American city. Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Columbians, Senegalese, Russians and still more races and nationalities walk the streets of the city and people the pages of the novel.

And to a fair extent, they all revert to their race when pushed, or, as the title has it, go back to blood. Most things in this book ultimately do.

Wolfe runs a number of plot lines simultaneously. One of the first concerns Nestor Comacho, a cop of Cuban origin whose differences from his Americano colleagues are played up from the start. Speeding across the harbour waters, Nestor's muscle-toned body is a stark contrast to the more formless bulk of his colleagues. Their mission is to rescue a man who has got himself stuck at the top of a boat's mast. Nestor volunteers to go up and get him down and chooses to do so by climbing the rope hand-over-hand, as he does in his gym workouts. In front of a noisy crowd he reaches the top of the mast and then caps his performance by wrapping his legs around the man's waist and lowering him to the ground, once again going hand-over-hand. It is a prodigious feat of strength and the crowd loves it.

Unfortunately for Nestor, his family, his girlfriend and his community don't. It turns out that the man he has rescued is a Cuban refugee seeking asylum. The rules are that he will be granted asylum only if his feet touch American soil. As he has been lowered down to ground level and put back on a boat, he will now be deported. Nestor goes from hero to villain in one move, despised by his own people. If it's Cubans against American law, there is no question who the Cuban community will side with: back to blood. It is a theme that emerges again and again in the book, regardless of the ethnic and national origins of the characters involved.

You will not get far into a Tom Wolfe novel without having to come to terms with his style. His writing has an exuberance and a loudness like no-one else's. Exclamation marks abound and capital letters blaze across the page. This is language that shouts. It is coupled with linguistic pyrotechnics of all kinds. If literary styles can be likened to an orchestra then Wolfe resides almost entirely in the brass section. There is little here that is subtle, nothing that is understated. It is megaphone prose that clamours for attention – and to a large degree gets it.

Back To Blood is a good read. Wolfe is a strong storyteller and if you can tolerate its over-the-top exuberance, the writing will sweep you away. The stories he tells here combine at some level to give us a portrait of a city in all its turmoil while largely ignoring the subtleties of the heart and mind that constitute most people's inner lives.

There is plenty of power, plenty of money and plenty of sex. To the charge that Wolfe's world has something of a cartoon quality about it I would concur, but there are other rewards in this instance that make Back To Blood an eminently entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile read.

Neverending fun

Posted: 24 Feb 2013 12:37 AM PST

I LOVE matryoshka dolls, those Russian dolls of decreasing size that fit one inside the other; Chinese boxes, and any nested containers, including those colourful plastic ones that are a staple of most modern playrooms.

The concept appeals to me because it's practical and neat. However, there is also that suggestion of complexity, of layers, of stories told from different points of view, of narratives within narratives.

Open This Little Book, by Jesse Klausmeier with illustrations by Suzy Lee, is a book within a book within a book within another book ... where does it end? With yet another book, of course. Open the picture book and the purple title page appears to be the cover of smaller book. Turn the page and you see another book cover, this time a red, black-spotted one. You are asked to open this Little Red Book, and read about a ladybug who's drinking tea while reading her Little Green Book.

The green book, with its rain-splashed lilipad-patterned cover, is about a frog whose orange, carrot-dotted book is about a rabbit who reads a book with a honeycomb patterns on its cover. This one's about a bear and his Little Blue Book about a big blue giant who struggles to open her Little Rainbow Book, which is about a ladybug, frog, rabbit, bear, and giant and the books they love.

The books are now all open and the different coloured covers are a gorgeous, layered, middle-page spread. Now you turn each "cover" to close each book, and once the purple book is shut, you are encouraged to open another book. The illustration on the right is certainly inspiring, showing various animals and a little girl and boy reading under a shady book-shelf tree.

If you're looking for a message, it's surely that, with reading, the fun never ends, and that every page-turn leads to further enjoyment, magic, drama, knowledge, and so on and on.

The animals in the books within the book are linked by pages, stories and a love for books and reading. Books, Klausmeier and Lee seem to say, are our friends. They keep us company. They entertain us. They offer comfort and insights and advice. They take us on travels and adventures.

Lee's illustrations are playful, full of relaxed humour, like sketches in a notebook. Smudgy primary colours, applied in a free, vigorous style, make the pictures pop and move and give the book the look of something handmade and unique. Indeed, the whole book is an ode to book arts and will delight those who don't just love to read but also revel in the smell and feel of a book. For those who enjoy making books, Open This Little Book will inspire ideas. And, as a present, this is one of those gifts that will just keep on giving.

Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Speak to her at and check out her blog at

Pleasure’s in the details

Posted: 24 Feb 2013 12:35 AM PST

This is very thoroughly researched historical fiction that is never weighed down by the details.

The Last Runaway
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Harper Collins, 343 pages

TRACY Chevalier, best known for The Girl With A Pearl Earring – which became an international bestseller and a Hollywood film – sets the seventh of her historical novels in her native America. The Last Runaway, set in the 1850s, takes a look at the country, pre-Civil War. It deals with the legacy of slavery, and in particular what came to be known as the Underground Railway, an escape route set up to help slaves make their way to Canada where they could be free.

The "railway" comprised safe houses or "depots" where runaways could find shelter and food. Although, as Chevalier notes on her website, the number of slaves escaping this way was not great, the very fact that the "railway" existed at all must have threatened slave owners and appeared to undermine the whole economy.

After a broken engagement, Quaker Honor Bright leaves England makes her way to America and a new life in Wellington in Ohio. There, she is taken in and befriended by the plain spoken milliner, Belle Mills. Honor wins her respect because of her skill with a needle, and Belle soon puts her to work helping to decorate hats and make bonnets.

But Honor soon realises that the only option open to her is to marry, and she accepts the proposal of Jack Haymaker, whose family own a thriving farm nearby.

Honor must learn to adapt to her new environment. Everything is different in her adopted country, from the landscape with its large open fields and forbidding woods, to the weather with its extremes of summer heat and winter cold. But the most difficult adjustment she must make is to fit in with the small-minded local community and the family into which she has married. Things only get worse as she becomes aware of the plight of runaway slaves passing through Ohio (which is a "free" state that does not practise slavery) on their way to Canada and their freedom.

Honor finds herself personally involved when a fugitive slave appears in the yard one day. Soon she is hiding food and directing slaves to the next town where they can find safety.

Even though Quakers are against slavery on principle, her husband and his family forbid her from helping any more runaway slaves. The passage of the Fugitive Law means that there are dire penalties for harbouring them, something the Haymakers know only too well.

Honor is left in no doubt that if she obeys her conscience, she is imperilling those she lives among. Furthermore, she risks being ostracized from the Quaker community and losing all rights to her own child if she persists. Compounding the moral dilemma is the fact that Quakers are not supposed to tell lies, but Honor realises that sometimes lies, or at least evasions, are needed to prevent greater injustice. These dilemmas are at the heart of the story, and Honor realises that there just are no easy answers.

Complicating matters more are Honor's feelings towards Donavan, Belle's brother who is a bounty hunter looking for slaves. The sexual tension is palpable, and their scenes together are some of the most compelling in the book. It's a pity that Jack Haymaker is so colourless in comparison.

In Honor Bright, Chevalier has created a heroine who grows and evolves to take charge of her own destiny. Ironically, she is as much a runaway in a metaphorical sense as the slaves that she helps.

The book is very thoroughly researched yet the historical background never weighs down the narrative. Indeed, The Last Runaway is a page-turning piece of fiction, and its great strength is in the very real sense of period and place that Chevalier creates, particularly in the domestic details. Particularly enjoyable are her descriptions of the traditional art of quilt-making, which serves as a motif throughout the book.


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