Monday, 31 March 2014

A month in books - March

Remembering sunnier reads in Portugal! 
Fourteen books read or heard in March including classic Vonnegut on audio, a Japanese collection of short stories, my first ever Jodi Picoult novel and a brand new steampunk adventure. Two five star reads and no book got the dreaded one star! The choices get further from my usual reading as bookswap shelves closer to home had much more limited selections. I had my fears confirmed by some titles, but was pleasantly surprised too.

I need to find out where my nearest BookCrossing venue is to Polegate now we're back. There's a cafe in Eastbourne mentioned on the website but I'm pretty sure it's closed down. If anyone knows of an OBCZ around here, please let me know.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ****

My copy of Cat's Cradle was audio from, narrated by Tony Roberts. I'm sure that there's still more layers to this novel that passed me by, but I enjoyed its wicked humour and sharp observations of human behaviour. The storyline is wonderfully outlandish and I would be interested to know if the science of Ice Nine is even feasible? However, it is the calypsos of the Bokononist faith that I think will be the most memorable for me. The astute comments on religion, power, learning and life are so true.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa *****
There is nothing excessive or extraneous in Ogawa's writing. Every word is precise, restrained and elegant yet she manages to conjure up haunting and gruesome images out of initially everyday situations. I love the interlinking of the eleven stories which, in several cases, hinged on a seemingly insignificant detail - a deceased hamster for example. There is much sadness and poignancy to this book but Ogawa's imagination and gift for communication is wonderful and I would definitely read her full-length novels on the strength of these stories.

Two Pound Tram by William Newton **
Judging by other reviews on Amazon, this is a Marmite book that people either adore or don't get at all. Personally, I'm in the 'underwhelmed' camp! The story is an fanciful tale of two boys running away from home and buying an ancient horse-drawn tram with which they make their living. So far, so good, but I found the book so lacking in emotional detail and depth that the events described were unbelievable. The boys seem to easily float from one town to another and when crises do occur, there's always a helpful adult on hand to make everything OK again. I lost count of how many chickens the boys stole with no comeback at all! I did enjoy the local interest aspect as much of the story takes place in Worthing which I know quite well, but this wasn't enough to redeem the book.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ****
This is the 2nd in the Leo Demidov trilogy. I read them in the order 1, 3, 2 which didn't really spoil any of the over-arc for me as purely by the existence of the 3rd book, I knew Leo would live through this one! Secret Speech refers to a speech made by Krushchev denouncing Stalin's regime which led to the beginnings of change in Soviet Russia. Much of the novel focuses on how this affected those who had been involved at 'ground level', at one point a character states that more Russians were guilty than innocent. An interesting look at this period of Soviet history because, although much of the thriller storyline is outlandish, the historical detail of suspicion, gulags and the Hungarian uprising is believable and real.

Missing Joe by Stephen Thompson ****
An interesting insight into the lives of various members of a Jamaican family, some of whom had emigrated to the UK, and their friends and lovers. I wasn't sure about the mystery aspect of what had happened to Joe because this was very underplayed. However it was a good device to enable his twin, Neville, to encounter a variety of people. Excellent character portrayals meant that each person was immediately real to me and the more 'damaged' people made for fascinating reading. Missing Joe was a fairly quick read and a good novel.

Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie ****
A very different history book to my recently read Elizabeth by David Starkey, Hope And Glory reads more like an informative chat than a serious lesson although I'm yet to see if this approach is more successful in making information stick in my brain. Maconie has chosen 10 significant days in 20th century Britain as jumping off points to discuss a wide range of topics that influenced our popular culture. Politicians and Royals get a look in but he concentrates more on the input of ordinary citizens from Suffragettes to Live Aid viewers. I like the humour in this book, particularly Maconie's scathing remarks on contemporary chav and celebrity Britain, and I discovered common ground in our shared loves of walking and toasted teacakes. However, for once as I usually ignore them, an index would have been helpful. Several mentioned places inspired me to visit them, but I now have to read through again with notepad in hand to find out the wheres and whys.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler *****
Fascinating novel about the delinquent son of a rich American family who has reformed and found his place in the world, but still believes himself to be a failure because he doesn't meet up to his family's ideals. Anne Tyler writes wonderfully believable dialogue and every one of her large cast of characters are real people, even those who might only appear for half a page. She's becoming one of my favourite authors and I'm pleased that I still have so much of her back catalogue to discover!

Discovering Aberration by +S.C. Barrus ***
I saw Discovering Aberration marketed on Google+ as a 'steampunk adventure' which intrigued me so I downloaded a copy. The story is inventive with an interesting plot and a strong steampunk feel. It doesn't have a particularly fast pace but Barrus' wordy style is reminiscent of true Victorian authors so I found that this helped to add atmosphere. The varying viewpoints of the narration is a clever touch and nicely done. I did like the cheeky derivation of some characters' names although why 'The Misses' is named in the plural escaped me. On the down side, at the time I read it, DA did suffer from the indie curse of Needing a Good Proofreader as there were irritatingly frequent typos and errors, otherwise it was a fun read. However, I am told that a revised version will be available as of the end of March 2014 with no more distracting typos! "I'm always homesick for the journey" too!

Faraway by Lucy Irvine ****
I picked the right time to read this book as it is ridiculously hot in Spain at the moment, although perhaps still cooler than the Reef Islands. Lucy Irvine's 'biography' of one, Pigeon Island, is fascinating due to her detailed and honest descriptions of its complete clash of cultures. I have scant sympathy for the Hepworths' troubles, seemingly caused primarily by obsessively forcing their style of English life onto an island people who neither wanted or needed it. The Irvines' own successful integration was an interesting counterpoint and it would be nice to know whether Diana Hepworth actually liked this book, resulting as it did from her original commission.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman **
Another download and, this time, one that I struggled to get through even though the collection of eight 'strange' short stories is marketed as Aickman's best. The author wrote subtle, creeping horror rather than out and out gore but unfortunately several stories are so subtle that I remained unmoved. Reece Shearsmith's odd narration doesn't particularly help either which surprised me. He sounds unrehearsed, continually halting mid-sentence and putting emphases where they don't seem to fit. The fifth story, The Hospice, is the best of a so-so bunch as its spooky atmosphere does build up nicely, but I wouldn't read any more Aickman after this experience.

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris ***
A weird mish-mash of ideas in this novel which is irritatingly narrated by a bottle of wine. There are other 'magical' bottles too but fortunately they fade out as each is drunk. The two-part storyline describes Jay's teenage summers of rural 1970s idyll and I enjoyed these sections, particularly his relationship with Joe who is by far the best character in the whole book. However, young Jay's chapters alternate with those of adult Jay, a self-obsessed alcoholic who emigrates to rural France in a fug of wine fumes to discover the true meaning of life among comfortingly familiar stereotypes in the Chocolat village. I guess this novel was aspirational for Brits still dreaming of Peter Mayle-type escapism a decade ago but, for me reading now, Blackberry Wine mostly felt dated and twee.

The Path to the Lake by Susan Harris **
My first Susan Sallis novel and on the strength of this tale, probably my last too. I chose it as the main character, Viv, was described as a runner. As a runner myself, I thought I would identify and it's not often novelised women get such an independent and active interest. However, it soon became clear that running was purely a symptom of Viv's grief at her husband's death and as she began to recover, she swiftly gave it up in favour of babies and obsessional Victoria Sponge baking. 'Proper' things for a woman to do. The Path To The Lake does have a few good minor characters, particularly Jinx and the monosyllabic Mick Hardy, but the leads are flat and difficult to sympathise with. The supernatural element didn't work at all for me and I didn't understand the door knob at all. Oh, and the tying-up of loose ends at the end is so contrived as to be laughable. Except it's not funny.

Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult ***
The central storyline of Picture Perfect is an accurate and moving portrayal of domestic abuse which manages to understand both the abused and the abuser and gives frightening insights into both worlds. However, the tale is shrouded in a lot of superfluous description of movie star, Alex Rivers', wealth, houses and possessions which I didn't need to read about again, and again. The detail of Native American lives was interesting, especially as seen in contrast to the rich white enclave. Overall, I felt as though this book hadn't really decided whether it wanted to be styled as a serious literature or a frothy romance. Ultimately it falls between the two stools which detracts from its important message.

The Summer Of Secrets by Martina Reilly ****
I was pleasantly surprised by The Summer Of Secrets having expected a lightweight chick-lit novel and ended up with something much deeper and, in places, darker. Whoever chose the cover art really isn't doing the book justice! The three friends, Hope, Julie and Adam, are well-written and nicely flawed (from a reader's point of view!). Hope's bickering with new neighbour Logan did become a little tiresome after a while making him seem flat by comparison. I liked the story's pace which kept me interested throughout and, although the ending is predictable, it is also satisfying.

I'm currently listening to Celia Imrie's autobiography on audio so my review of that will be the start of April's A month in books post. I'm also planning to revisit favourite books that have languished at home while we've been travelling, some of which I haven't read for several years and none of which I've previously reviewed. It will be interesting to see how many are still as good as I remember.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Home is where the Bailey is

Bilbao port through the ferry window 
24 hours on a +Brittany Ferries Santander S.L crossing is a bit too long, especially when the boat is delayed. The first part of the journey wasn't rough but uppy-downy enough for me to not want to do anything more than lie on my bed occasionally groaning for effect! Fortunately I had a good audio book lined up - The Happy Hoofer by Celia Imrie, her autobiography - so I spent most of the crossing listening to this. Good news was that my queasiness meant we didn't need to buy any meals on board the boat and got by with what we had taken ourselves. A travel kettle is a must-have in this situation!

We're now at +Horam Manor Touring Park for the second of a couple of nights as we wanted to make sure our house was OK before giving up Bailey to the new storage place. It's a lovely campsite and busier than we were expecting. The showers are roomy with lots of hot water and the hardstanding pitches are a good size too. The grass area is very soft so we're glad of the hardstanding. I think we could be stuck here for several weeks otherwise! The staff are friendly and helpful and there's a small bookshelf in Reception. We took a stroll around the nearby fishing lakes this afternoon and I was delighted to see primroses and daffodils growing on the banks. We saw a brief flurry of peacock butterflies as well.
Primroses in Horam 

We visited home this morning and it is perfectly habitable although the central heating is behaving oddly and the television can't find a signal. There was a huge pile of post from just the last two weeks as well as the remaining important correspondence set aside for us from the previous months. A letter to me thanked me for my resignation (Huh? What resignation?) and enclosed my P45. So that was a nice Welcome Home from my apparently-now-erstwhile employer. Ironically, the company's name is BeValued! Neither Dave nor I felt particularly 'at home' while at home though. I looked around at everything I haven't missed over the last five months and was surprised at how much stuff I actually own. I thought I was far more minimalist than this. Perhaps being back in Polegate will grow on us as we get used to it again? As we drove back to Horam, Dave said 'Home is where the Bailey is' and I certainly concur. Bailey feels much more homely right now!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The rain in Spain falls mainly in Navarrete

Camping Navarrete as it is not at the moment! 
We're at our last Spanish campsite now and I'm feeling quite sad that our great expedition is nearly over. Camping Navarrete was recommended to us by a couple at Camping Navajas who were former +Citro├źn Berlingo owners. The sunny photo is pinched from Camping Navarrete's website as it's a nice site and I didn't want to show it grey and miserable. We had previously planned to stop over at Haro, but that town was forecast 30mm of rain tonight and Logrono (10km from Navarrete) was only supposed to get about half as much so we rerouted. It's been raining on and off since we arrived at lunchtime and, setting up, we were seriously cold for the first time since Serro da Bica! I'm taking some comfort that Spain is crying about our leaving!! 

And we do need to start getting acclimatised to British temperatures. On Saturday we went for what will probably turn out to have been our last walk of the trip and saw a swallowtail butterfly and baby almonds in furry green pods on the trees. We also glimpsed a black and white woodpecker and saw the cutest brown and white cow. She had four brown 'knee-high socks' which I thought made her look like some chic girl in the 1960s! It was breezy, but the sun was shining and we did most of the walk in t-shirts and shorts. I don't think our shorts will be needed again for several months. We are trying not to think about how cold Polegate seemed when we got back from Louisiana/Texas last March.

We spent last night at Camping Zaragoza which is the municipal campsite for the city. Do not go here if you can possibly avoid it. It's not got a nice vibe and is expensive. We paid €19 and that was without electricity for which they wanted an extra €4.50. There wasn't even a bookswap shelf in Recepcion!

Now our thoughts are turning to +Brittany Ferries Santander S.L and our return voyage which starts on Thursday afternoon. I hope the sea in the Channel is calmer than it was on our way out. And that the Bay Of Biscay isn't any rougher!
See you all soon ... !

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sailing underground from La Vall d'Uixo

Rio Subterraneo in the Coves de Sant Josep 
We're still at Camping Altomira in Navajas and will probably be here until Sunday when we really need to start heading North or we won't catch our ferry. Although with the blazing sunshine here over the past few days, that's actually quite a tempting prospect!

Yesterday we had an amazing excursion to visit the Coves de Sant Josep in La Vall d'Uixo. The caves contain the longest navigable underground river in Europe and the 3/4 hour boat journey was worth every euro of the €10 entrance fee (€7 for oldies!). The Americanised audio guide was a bit ropey though. Hopefully the above photo that I've pinched from the Grutas de San Jose Facebook page will give you an idea of the fabulous environment. It is all quite subtly lit so very atmospheric and the lowness of the cave roofs in some places meant we were all nearly bent double in the boats so as not to bash our heads on rocks. The water is very clear so we could see up to several metres below the surface. Therefore, at one point, I experienced the previously unknown occurrence of feeling both claustrophobia and vertigo at the same time! There are ancient stalactites and stalagmites, breathtaking 12 metre high chambers and a smattering of amusingly named rock formations. 

Sunflower house in La Vall d'Uixo 

Outside we saw this little old building painted with sunflowers which I thought was cute after the dramatic landscape underground.

Navajas is a great base for walkers as we are discovering every day. There's a route similar to the Cuckoo Trail that passes right by the top of Camping Altomira. Known as the Via Verde de Ojos Negros, the pedestrian and cycle path is the longest in Spain at 160km and we've walked, erm, a little bit of it! Several routes seem to join around Navajas and we've enjoyed several afternoon and day walks passing abandoned quarries, going along shaded rivers, and seeing orchards of olive, almond and cherry trees. Many trees are in blossom at the moment and the white and pink flowers are beautiful to see. One walking route takes in about a dozen natural springs, mostly named after saints but including one named for the 1940s film Gilda. The walk ends by passing two waterfalls, one of which has stone steps that climb up and pass almost under the water itself. The spray was welcomingly refreshing on a scorchingly hot day. On today's walk we discovered the Cartuja de Vall de Cristo at Altura, a 6km walk from the campsite. This impressive sites dates from the 14th century and used to be a Carthusian monastery until it was abandoned in the 1820s. It's all closed up now which is a shame but we think renovations are being attempted so maybe visitors will be accepted in years to come.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Sopalmo and Mojacar and Bigastro

Mimosa on the Mojacar cliff walk 
We've had downs and ups since my last post and I'm not talking about the ridiculously steep hill that our current site, Camping Altomira, is built upon. We meant to leave Bigastro after one night but, due to an accident which temporarily put Bailey off the road, we ended up staying there for a second. Before anyone panics, the accident was minor, at low speed and no one got hurt. I may have taken a sharp corner slightly too sharply and bashed the end of the motor mover bar on a high kerb. In the car, we just heard a bang, followed by Bailey not wanting to move on one side. The motor mover was stuck pressed against the tyre on one side and we couldn't shift it so after unhitching and pushing Bailey off the road - thanks to kind Spanish guy who came over to help push - Dave drove back up to Camping La Pedrera to seek assistance. The very helpful receptionist tracked down a fellow camper, a German who 'likes fixing caravans' and, after nearly two hours non-stop work, he managed to fix Bailey. Big thanks to him too. Woo hoo and phew!! (We took a slightly different route out of Bigastro on Wednesday.)

Mojacar Nazarene 
Before catching the blog up to where we now are, I want to talk more about walking around Mojacar as I completely failed to mention the recently built cliff walk from Sopalmo direction to its beach front strip of cafes and tat shops. The path has been cut out high above the water line and gives good views out to sea as well as affording glimpses of some of the mine workings for which the area was previously known. It's a bit narrow on places so cyclists zooming round blind corners could be a hazard and we even spotted a couple on a big motorcycle attempting the footpath too. What we knew - and they were about to find out - was that there was a pair of rather matronly Spanish women walking a few minutes behind us. I suspect the motorbike duo weren't going to get far.

One 'local landmark' which now has an official information board on the route is the Nazarene pictured here. Apparently, many years ago, some miners were on the cliffs below this rock formation when there was a landslip  further up. The men would have been forced into the sea and drowned, but for the presence of the Nazarene which blocked the path of the tumbling rocks and saved several lives. Personally, I don't quite see a person in the rock shape, but it is pretty amazing how it stays put at that angle - the slope really is that steep. Perhaps someone's been up there with lots of Blu-Tack? Anyway, it's a (tenuous) excuse to shoe-horn in the Sam Baker song at the end of this post! I think we'll definitely be going back to Mojacar at some point in the future because there's far more great walking that we didn't even attempt. The Mojacar Walking Group has detailed information on their website if you're interested.

Finally, I've recently seen fun news from one of our earliest campsites, Camping Beira-Marvao, on their Facebook feed. Annick and Rudy are offering a selection of Portuguese cakes and pastries on the campsite this season including my favourite, the pastel de nata custard tarts. Tempting photos have been posted!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Moving on to Orihuela

Farewell to Mojacar today with its iconic Indalo Man, an interpretation of an ancient cave painting which is reproduced on everything from car stickers to umbrellas.
I've got more to say about Sopalmo and Mojacar, but we're only near Orihuela for one night. Therefore we're bravely camping 'sin electricidad' for the first time, partly to see if we can and partly because they want 4 euros for electric! Our kettle from our tent days is making itself useful at last. Camping Pedrera has huge pitches and there's very few people here so it's a bit like being in a car park on our own. Their wifi signal is great though. Shame my laptop is almost out of power :-/ The nearest town, Bigastro, has an even more confusing one way system than Lewes but we found the supermercado and are now lazing in the sun. Again. Hard life!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Superbly sunny Sunday in Sopalmo

We were only going to stay at Camping Sopalmo for a few days but have been over over a week because we like it so much! The drive here was a bit of a nightmare for me because both the first and last thirds of the journey involved mountain roads with scary views down into gorges or crossing high bridges. I managed but it wasn't fun. The last part between Carboneras and Mojacar, passing through Sopalmo, is narrow and full of hairpin bends as well! Both last Sunday and this morning, hordes of motorcyclists have come roaring past the campsite entrance on their way to enjoy the road. We think there were over 100 in one group alone last week. You'd like it here, Dad! It's the ALP-118 and has one of those green borders in our atlas.

The site itself is quite small but busy and a large proportion of the people here are staying on the one spot for four or five months. There's good discounts for long stays but even the over-a-week discount makes a big difference. The shower blocks are pretty good and remarkably draught free! Simon and his staff are friendly and helpful and the other campers are some of the friendliest we've encountered. They keep having afternoon parties. We've even been out to another caravan, with new friends Bob and Carol, for dinner, practically unheard of for us! Downsides are that the wifi signal is poor unless I'm sitting right outside reception. It's warm enough in the daytime, but screen reflections are irritating. I've got through loads of books in February though because of not spending all evening bumming around the internet - did you read my Month In Books reviews?!

There's lots of good walking around Sopalmo. The 'rambla' which is the dried up river bed leads up to the village and down to a cafe and the beach. Plus there are many dirt tracks going up into the hills and along ridges with fantastic views out over the sea. We did one picnic walk of over four hours where the first hour and a half was relentlessly uphill and the view from the radio masts at the top was spectacular. I'll try and get a couple of maps added to this post if I can work out how. On our last walk we encountered a goat herder with his herd of goats which must have numbered well over 200. They were all different colours from white to grey to brown and seemed to 'flow' over the hillsides. An unusual sight for us. 

Mojacar Pueblo, up on the hill nearby, is an old village where all the buildings are painted white. Dave came here before about fifteen years ago and says that the transformation has been drastic. We walked around for a morning enjoying the hidden glimpses of Moorish architecture. It's still a pretty, quaint village but now has many cafes and tat shops whereas before there were just small houses. There's a long strip of restaurants and bars along the beach at the bottom of the hill too which wasn't there before.

We think we'll probably move on from here in the middle of this week. Hopefully we can take the weather with us - or find more en route - as, apart from an unexpected gale last night, it was been gorgeously hot and sunny. Perfect lounger weather! 
And to end, in case I don't get to posting again in time, Happy Birthday Andy!