Sunday, 30 November 2014

Murder Out Of The Blue by Steve Turnbull / A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Murder out of the Blue by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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As light relief after the intensity of The Ark Before Noah, I chose one of my new steampunk books for my next read. Bought as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2 (a Facebook event), Murder Out Of The Blue is a novella by a new-to-me indie author and I was primarily attracted to it by the atmospheric cover art and it's price - 77p on Kindle at time of writing.

Murder Out Of The Blue is set a little later than other steampunks I've read and this particular world isn't at all reliant on supernatural phenomena which is refreshing. The fabulous air-ship upon which the tale takes place is temptingly described and I would love for it to be actually invented. I'd certainly buy a ticket!

Maliha Anderson is a strong heroine with an interesting heritage, let down here only by the novella format in that I wanted to learn more about her and her life but extensive characterisation is missing. There are several teasing hints and presumably more will be explained in future books. I am often frustrated by this same trade-off in shorter works as there is essentially room for either story or character, and it takes astounding authors such as Colette to successfully combine both. However Turnbull has still done a good job of introducing his world and heroine here. The crime story is nicely woven together with a satisfying denouement and I enjoyed the reading of it. Perhaps I'll read novellas 2 and 3 back to back to enable greater immersion!

A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A Tramp Abroad is my first 'factual' Mark Twain book and I'm not completely sure how I feel about it. Initially difficult to get into, the first few chapters are an odd blend of observations, hearsay, retelling of local myths and flannel. Once the style settles down, I thought the book flowed more but it's still quite hit and miss - a bit like watching a Monty Python episode. There are very funny anecdotes that are probably greatly exaggerated or mostly made up but with satirical grains of truth that I enjoyed. These are entertaining to read and raised a chuckle. However they are interspersed with other passages that are either bizarrely odd or simply dull. A mountain climbing expedition is so overegged that it becomes boring, but an American trying to strike up conversation on a boat trip made me giggle.

For a foot tour of Europe, Twain only actually visits Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and most of the book is Germanic travel. He obviously is a walker as several of his reminiscences are understanding of the activity and its way of promoting thought and conversation, but if there is a chance to go by any other method, he seizes it every time.
I can't say that any of Twain's travelogue has inspired me to follow in his footsteps and I had hoped it would. Perhaps this is a poor example of his non-fiction writing or perhaps I should stick to reading his fiction.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Australia

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Every once in a while I read a novel that manages to completely transport me to its era and location and I am delighted that Burial Rites by Hannah Kent did just that. Set in 1820s Iceland, Burial Rites weaves a fictional narrative around the historical truths of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

We visited Iceland a few years ago so I could picture the types of landscape within which the story takes place, but even without this experience Kent's wonderful rich descriptions make the desperate rural lives easy to imagine. I could even feel the cold! While Kent has imagined details of houses and clothing, this imagination is obviously rooted in extensive research and historical fact. She has brought Agnes out from being a semi-mythological monster into a real living and breathing woman with a poignant tale to tell. The Icelanders' customs and religious practices are fascinating to learn about as they are familiarly Christian yet shaped by the extreme circumstances of living with the ever-present natural dangers of Iceland. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Burial Rites, even though it is not by any means a happy story. Simply brilliant writing.

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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Wonderful cinema in Xabia - Gone Girl

It's turned distinctly minty cool in Xabia the past couple of days with
Spanish poster for Gone Girl 
bursts of heavy rain and some gusty winds that have got our awning into a serious flap. The awning is still standing strong, but it does make a racket, especially at night time when there's no other sounds in competition. I begin to imagine disastrous collapses until peering through the window reveals absolutely nothing to worry about at all!

Hopefully our slow cooker will come into its own if the day temperatures stay similar and I've been thinking of comforting winter foods. Tonight I'm doing a cheat's Chicken Tikka Masala and yesterday I adapted my Rhubarb Crumble to use up some plums we got from the market a couple of weeks ago but that which had resolutely refused to ripen properly. They were delicious once baked.

We've discovered the local cinema in Xabia now, Cine Jayan, and were very impressed with it. The auditorium is easily the size of a smaller Cineworld screen and the high-backed chairs have good viewlines AND are comfortable. I was expecting an enthusiastic but amateur fleapit and arrived in a clean, modern cinema! Four nights a week - Tuesday through Friday - they show subtitled foreign films in their original language. We frequently attended similar evenings at Hailsham Pavilion back home but, of course, here the 'foreign films' are mostly American offerings subtitled in Spanish.

This week's film was Gone Girl, or Perdida in Spanish, based on the Gillian Flynn book which I enjoyed reading last winter (book review here). I tend to avoid films of books I've liked as they usually disappoint. Plus this one stars Ben Affleck who I'm not overkeen on either. However, once I learned that Rosamund Pike was playing Amy Dunne, I changed my mind and we stumped up our six euros each. Pike is a fabulous actress and we were lucky enough to catch her performance in Hedda Gabler at Brighton's Theatre Royal a few years ago. I get that Affleck is the bigger star, but it's irritating that a book named for its female protagonist who is one of the strongest female characters to emerge for years, relies on a male image to sell cinema seats. Grrr! Anyhow, the film is surprisingly good and we both came away from the cinema effusively praising it, especially Pike who is perfect in her role, and Kim Dickens as the police inspector. We've been watching her on DVD in the brilliant Deadwood Ultimate Collection Seasons 1-3 [DVD] over the past few months too.

Sadly, the foreign film for this week coming is something violent and bland starring Liam Neeson so we'll give that a miss, but maybe the week after will be more promising and we can make a second visit?


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The windmills walk above Xabia

A surprising early departure from Camping El Naranjal this morning as
Palm regrowth after the forest
fire, Xabia 
we finally determined that today was The Day to undertake an interesting walking route Dave spotted on the Xabia website (It's shown on the Port Xabia-Montgo pdf link) which goes from Xabia port, up into the hills above, and then back down to the port to finish. The Spanish for windmills is Molins and there are eleven, so we learned, along the La Plana ridge above the town. Originally built between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, their heavy mill stones were used to grind wheat into flour. I think these days all the wheat fields have either been built upon or are growing orange trees. Certainly we've not seen any yet in Spain. There was a huge processing place outside Almenara, Harinera Del Mar, and we bought their flour in the Mercadona for our bread.

We have already walked to the port and back a couple of times - it's about an hour from the campsite - so drove there today instead. There's plenty of free parking there at this time of year. Clear wooden signposts pointed us uphill on a lightly screed rough path which soon turned into a bit of a scramble. Once underway, the route is clearly marked with yellow, red and white stripes on rocks, trees and walls. Bizarrely, the whole area was blackened trees where there had been a wildfire in September. Little palm trees and cacti are already beginning to regrow so there are splashes of green amongst the cinders, but it's eerily quiet without the multitudes of birds we hear elsewhere around town. We continued clambering upwards until the path levelled out at the end of a valley, then turned back on itself with a more gradual slope across the opposing face. Part of the way up was the odd sight of a rusted car come to a halt against a tree part way down the steep slope. We wondered if its plunge from the road above had been the cause of the fire, but it didn't look particularly burned. We carried on ascending and were rewarded at the top from which there is a fantastic view across the port and out to sea.

We had to stick on the road for a kilometre or so as there were clean-up crews working to clear burned trees along the ridge. A couple of Spaniards were also 'helping' by filling their cars with chopped down but unburned wood for their winter stoves. We paused to enjoy another sea view, this time from the Cap de Sant Antoni. Having actually remembered to carry our water bottles this time, we didn't need the water taps at the recreation area nearby, but it is useful to know it's there.

The windmills themselves are each about seven metres high by six metres across and have incredibly thick stone walls. Their shells have been neatly renovated and are lit at night, but there's no machinery inside anymore. The path led back downwards from by the second windmill and, unfortunately, was a similar loose surface to the earlier uphill stretch. I went slowly as I'm rubbish at descents. I'm always convinced I will fall. Once we got to the town outskirts there were some elegant houses and the buildings became less grand as we descended back to sea level. A roundabout we recognised is topped by a full-size white painted boat surrounded by pretty blue flowers.

We got back to the car after just over three and a half hours and were nicely tired despite Dave's tracker app saying we had only walked just under ten kilometres of horizontal distance. I'm proud that our total overall ascent was four hundred and twenty-nine metres. We're getting our walking legs back in shape again!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan / Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi / The Ark Before Noah by Dr Irving Finkel

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I'm glad I didn't allow the effusive praise on the cover of The Spinning Heart to put me off reading the novel as I thoroughly enjoyed it and, for a debut author, this is an impressive achievement. The eponymous heart does not refer to that of a lovelorn Irish lass, as might be expected from the presentation, but to a creaking metal heart on the worn gate of a bitter old man, one of the many characters we meet during the course of this story.

Ryan allocates each chapter to a different inhabitant of a small bankrupt town in Ireland. Bobby, Kate, Bridie, Lily and others speak to us directly, with distinctive voices, and as each describes their situation and passes along the latest gossip, we come to understand their sad circumstances. I remember a few years ago seeing a TV documentary which visited an Irish estate where only a couple of the new houses were sold and inhabited, the rest simply decaying around them. The plight of the families trapped in these unsellable homes was disturbing and Ryan explores what led to the phenomenon in The Spinning Heart. I liked the way Ryan intertwines each chapter. He allows enough repetition of facts to quickly establish the relationship of the speaker to other people I had already met. However, he never overdoes this or allows it to slow the pace of the work. The voices sound authentic so I could easily empathise and understand their choices even if I didn't agree with their actions. Perhaps I could have done without the voice of a ghost though.

The Spinning Heart is a quick read at just 156 pages, but packs quite a punch. The colloquial language used enhances the atmosphere and several of the chapters were emotional to read.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I was attracted to Reading Lolita In Tehran by its promise of revealing life within Iran and also by the Margaret Atwood quote on the front of 'A book lover's tale'. Published as memoir, Nafisi does state right at the start that she had to change names and events in order to protect those remaining in Iran therefore it is hard to tell how much is actually true and how much flavoured by truth but essentially fiction. What is overwhelmingly apparent throughout is Nafisi's obsessive love for the greats of Western fiction and the energy she devotes to spreading this love as far as she can.

Always a teacher, I did feel hectored by her tone at certain points in the book and there are frequent swings off into pure literary criticism. I wasn't expecting so much of a book about books so it took me a while to adjust to 'joining her class'. However, I now have several of the titles added to my To Be Read list as Nafisi's enthusiasm is inspiring. I'm not sure that I agree with all her critical conclusions and some of the connections drawn between the literary worlds and Iran seemed tenuous, but not having been in such a situation myself, I cannot tell how my reading of the books would be coloured by the daily lives these women lead.

The title of Reading Lolita In Tehran is obviously meant to be titillatingly eyecatching to a potential Western reader and I think it actually detracts from the content of the memoir. Yes, Lolita is one of the many books discussed, but the choice of this for the title seems cynical to me.
I wanted to learn how Iranian people adjusted to the restrictions on their lives after the Revolution. The difference between the neutral view presented of people who are religious Muslims and anger at those in power who used their interpretation of Islam to enforce the rigid lifestyle is interesting. Nafisi did seem to glide a line that allowed her to get away with transgressions for which her students were punished, even jailed. Perhaps her family name is more powerful than admitted or perhaps her previous Westernisation marked her as a lost cause compared to the younger girls. I was frustrated by her lack of external attention, several times admitting she hadn't noticed or asked something at the time that I would have loved to have learned. However, I feel I now have a basic understanding of Iran at this time as well as, of course, many insights into classic novels that I must get around to reading.

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The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I downloaded The Ark Before Noah from Audible in a version which is read by the author, Dr Irving Finkel. For the first few minutes, I found his unpolished narrating style awkward to listen to and wondered if I had made a mistake. However, once his wonderful enthusiasm began to shine through, I was hooked. Finkel discusses his academic life, British Museum career and fabulous fairly-recent discovery of an ancient clay tablet containing details concerning the story of the ark and the flood. He also introduces us to the earliest origins of the story - waaay before the Hebrew Bible - and collects together other tablets with parts of the famous tale and shows how it evolved over some 4000 years into what we know today.

I was particularly fascinated by the comprehensive comparisons of the different tablets and their meshing story versions. As I have only heard the heroes' names, I am not going to attempt to spell them, but it had not previously occurred to me that Noah wasn't always called Noah! The earliest flood version wasn't occasioned by sin either - humans had simply become too noisy for the Gods to endure! Finkel goes into immense detail in his tablet comparions. He examines ark building techniques, mountain landing sites, and intricacies of language in a way that could be too in depth for less nerdy souls. I appreciated his dry humour throughout but am unsure whether this would come across via the printed page. This purely aural version obviously didn't contain images though so I think now a trip to the British Museum is called for so I can see the Ark tablet and Babylonian Map tablet 'in the flesh'. I am so intrigued by their existence that I might visit even if it's not raining!

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Xabia and Moraira and apricot cheesecake

After over a week in Camping El Naranjal, we're getting a good feel for
Gazing out to sea from Moraira 
Xabia and have pretty much learnt our way around - even me! We have taken a stroll around the little Marina as well as returning to the Old part of town for a spot of shopping and a lunch. I was delighted to find an Atmosfera shop as I've just about gone through the soles of my New Orleans-bought running shoes so will definitely need a new pair soon in order to continue my current enthusiasm. I tried on a couple of pairs and decided on a snazzy blue pair of Asics. Super-Boyfriend-Davey has got them for me as my Christmas pressie :-)

We set out on a rural walk a couple of days ago which took us out on rough tracks firstly high up overlooking the sea and then steeply down into a shady wooded valley. Most of the high was sandy coloured rock with scrub and shrubs but, according to an informative placard, the area is home to over 400 plant species. A prolific one was wild rosemary and I took the opportunity to purloin a snippet or two which I substituted for the sage in this delicious pork tenderloin recipe courtesy of fellow blogger Linda at With A Blast. The walk route was meant to finish in a cove on the coast but we took much longer than suggested, probably due to my being too slow on the downhill bits which often were just scree, so had to cut short our expedition before its actual end. We didn't want to be out on the hills as dusk fell. We came back along roads which I was initially disappointed about, but cheered up when we had an hour or so wandering around an affluent residential area and gawping at the posh houses and gardens. We also discovered an interesting detail on the official Xabia street map that we had picked up from the campsite reception on arriving last week. Just because a road is on the map doesn't mean that it actually exists. We've seen several Spanish towns with road infrastructure built but no houses yet. Xabia goes one better by not even having the roads yet!

We meant to go for our first long walk-with-picnic today but postponed it due to ominous clouds this morning. Instead we drove to Moraira this afternoon. It's a pretty town fairly nearby and has a nice sandy beach although the sea is probably too cold for swimming by now. We took a quick look at Camping Moraira while we were there - for future reference. I liked the site, especially the showers which are big and all done out in marble. The pitches are dusty earth and completely shaded by pine trees which would be great in summer but would block any chance of sun at this time of the year. A shame as otherwise it has a nice vibe. It even has its own Dotto Train! We stopped for coffee and cake at a lovely Austrian cafe just off the main seafront road. It's called Bonissimo and we can highly recommend the Apricot Cheesecake!

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell / Hell's Angels by Hunter S Thompson / The Corsican Brothers and Otho The Archer by Alexandre Dumas

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has been sitting on our kindle since Dave downloaded and read it during last winter's travels. I have been put off by its brick-thick-ness as I'm not a great fan of books that take ages to read. However, our last few days in Almenara allowed me lots of lazing time so I finally got stuck in.

I've read David Mitchell before and liked Black Swan Green, but Thousand Autumns is a more serious novel. It does provide a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre crossover world of Dutch traders in - or at least very nearly in - 1800s Japan. The society with which these few Europeans wish to trade is closed, proud and rigidly governed, yet at the same time corrupt, misogynistic and seemingly stuck in a Medieval timewarp with regards to its technology. The reverse xenophobia of the Japanese officials being unable to tell European nationalities apart was a neat touch and I enjoyed reading about Dejima life and the day-to-day interactions between its residents. Descriptions of the buildings and courtly rituals are well presented and interesting. However, I couldn't buy in to the Ogiwa storyline and found it too bizarre. No doubt Mitchell's research would have uncovered a similar situation within the Japan of the time, but for me, the love triangle followed by the quests to rescue and avenge just didn't ring true.

Hell's AngelsHell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I was surprised to find a Hunter S Thompson book in Eastbourne's Age Uk shop, even more so when it turned out to be his reportage on the mid-sixties rise of the Hell's Angels. For 89p, I gave it a try.

Thompson spent the best part of a year living, partying and drinking with Hell's Angels chapters in California. At the beginning of the period about which he writes, they were a small, almost defunct motorcycle gang, but rabid press attention over a few months secured their fame so much that the name is now known world-wide and, indeed, the gangs still exist.
The overall impression I have come away with is that Angels life was mostly dull. Few are able to hold down a job and most of their time is spent in the same closed circle of company, half-cut or stoned, and repeating conversations for the nth time. Occasional runs out en masse for weekends 'camping' or bar room brawls relieve the tedium. The surprise is in the outrageous paranoia and hysteria that was whipped up by outwardly respectable newspapers printing exaggerated accounts of Angel activities. It is common these days that news is taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but it would seem that 1965 middle America expected to be able to trust their Press. The moral of this book must be that irresponsible journalism can be more damaging that any topic they choose to highlight. Reading of dozens of small towns right across America being so frightened that they were actually arming themselves against the imminent arrival of thousands of motorcycle hoodlums felt unreal. Especially as only a few hundred Angels and the like even existed at the time!

Thompson writes clearly and levelly of both the motorcycle gangs with whom he spent time and also of the police officers who were set against them. The inevitable violence is described and also contextualised and I was interested to read about the right-wing politics of many Angels. Had I considered it, I would have assumed the disenfranchised men to have been more left-leaning so their attacking Vietnam and Civil Rights protesters was unexpected.

I'm not sure I will rush to read more Thompson any time soon. Perhaps this was not the best of his to start with but, having heard so much about his work, I expected to be dazzled by the writing and wasn't. Maybe I'm just fifty years too late!

The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer (1904)The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This pairing of Dumas novellas makes for an odd book as, other than the author obviously, there is nothing to connect the two stories. Maybe they are earlier works of his which were later discovered because there is little of the flourish I expected in his writing.

The Corsican Brothers is a lightly supernatural tale of separated Siamese twins who retained a psychic connection. Dumas stars himself as narrator apparently seriously recounting an adventure undertaken in Corsica and its Parisian aftermath. There is lots of nice description of the Corsican landscape and of everyone's clothing and appearance, but I didn't think the story ever decided whether it wanted to be a spooky ghost-like tale, or a straight adventure so ultimately fell between the two stools.

Otho The Archer is an even stranger amalgamation of genres. This story meanders all over Medieval France being by turns chivalric romance, Christian religious fantasy, road trip, zombie epic, ghost story and history lesson. Despite, this it's not a bad read, but I wonder if this was Dumas' finished effort or if its publication happened by a more circuitous route. I felt as if several narrative strands had been sandwiched together, not because they realistically belonged, but more to make up enough of a word count.

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dave's spinach pie recipe

It occurred to me that it's been absolutely ages since I posted a great
Dave's spinach pie 
recipe and this spinach pie that Dave makes is one of our favourites. The original idea is the Greek Spanakopita, but this version has been Anglicised and now Espanoled too! Back home, Dave might add a rasher of bacon, but here he sliced a tomato into the spinach mix. We had to decipher the packets to find the right pastry - puff pastry in Spanish is Masa de Hojaldre and we can get it frozen in packs of two sheets. Cheddar cheese was available at the Mercadona in Almenara so that's what Dave used, but I think the pie would be tasty with one of the Spanish hard cheeses instead. The ingredients list below makes a generous pie for two that could easily be stretched to four portions with the addition of a side dish such as a crisp green salad.

Big bag (300g) of spinach leaves
1/2 a medium onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
Large pinch of mixed herbs
Salt and pepper
Sliced tomato (optional)
Rasher of bacon (optional)
Puff pastry
Grated cheese
1 beaten egg

Put the spinach into boiling water for a minute or two until it has wilted. Repeatedly drain and squeeze the spinach to remove as much water as possible. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 220c.

Finely chop onion and garlic and cook together over a medium heat until soft but not browned.

Mix onion with spinach, herbs and seasoning. At this point you can also add a sliced tomato or a chopped, cooked bacon rasher.

Lay out a sheet (27 x 24cm) of puff pastry on a flat baking tray. A tray with a lip is best in case liquid from the pie filling leaks during baking. Fold the pastry in two and then unfold it again to leave a visible half-way line. Put all the mixture on one side of the line and spread it evenly, but leaving about 1/2 inch of pastry clear at the edges.

Sprinkle as much or as little grated cheese as you like over the spinach mixture. We like lots of cheese, but this does make the pie more greasy when it is cooked.

Fold the pastry over and crimp securely all around the edges to seal in the filling. Brush the top of the pastry with as much of the egg as is needed. Make two or three cuts in the top to allow steam to escape during baking.

Bake at about 220c for 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden and you can hear the filling bubbling when you open the oven door.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Another day, another beach - now we're in Xabia

Xabia or Javea, however you prefer to spell it and, confusingly,
Wall mural on the edge of the Old Town area of Xabia 
pronounced har-vee-a. This a place about which I have heard a great deal from several friends over the years so I am particularly happy to be here. Our new campsite, Camping El Naranjal, is not one of the pretty ones, but the lack of green trees does mean that we will get every last drop of sunshine - when it shines. There has been Cloud here and also Spots Of Rain. Can you believe it?! The pitches are gravel and big enough but not generous. On the plus side, the shower block is completely enclosed so no uncomfortable drafts! Huge excitement for me in that there is a whole library room here too with many books in English and they're not all Catherine Cookson or John Grisham either! I've already bookcrossed three that I'd finished so expect to discover my new reads over the coming weeks. We found the table tennis table - upon which a woman was washing her dog - and there is a popular little boules court too. I do feel a bit 'on show' here, especially after the secluded pitches at Camping Malvarrosa, but I'm sure we'll get used to it and the advantage of having more in the way of walking and cycling means that we shouldn't be just hanging around the site in the daytime so much. The wifi is good here too and works out at about a euro a day for a month's premium access.

We are just on the edge of the seafront part of the new town, about ten minutes walk from the beach where there are any number of restaurants and cafes to choose from. An Indonesian takeaway, Tapindo, has already tempted our tastebuds and I had a delicious meal of hake in a spicy sauce with coconut vegetables and nasi goreng a couple of nights ago. Having arrived on Tuesday, we have begun exploring but 'gently' as we want to stay for several weeks so not exhaust all our entertainment/walking/cycling opportunities within the first week. There is an OK loop nearby but no perfect jogging route yet. We have hardly seen any joggers either but there must be some somewhere - there always are - just a question of finding them.

Dave voluntarily suggested visiting the weekly market in the old town on Thursday morning. The stunning mural pictured was spotted at the start of this trip. I liked the market and there were various clothes stalls that actually had clothes I could like to buy - if we had any room in the wardrobe. Everything is rather autumny fashionwise which is weird for us still in our shorts and t-shirts. It's easy to identify the tourists in Xabia! The old town has its permanent indoor market too as well as a labyrinth of narrow old streets and lots of different independent shops. I can see me wanting to go back several times for a good wander.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Other One by Colette / The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Sjowall and Wahloo / Seriously Mum What's An Alpaca by Alan Parks

The Other One by Colette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from France

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Despite being set several decades and a few thousand miles apart, I saw similarities between Kate Chopin's The Awakening and this read, Colette's The Other One. Colette's heroine, Fanny Farou, is trapped within the same societal structure of well-to-do wives being expected to have no other function than that of an accessory to their husbands. In this novella, Fanny's husband, known solely as Farou, is a playwright whose fashionable fame keeps him away from his family for weeks at a time, periods Fanny bemoans as 'we are so dull without him'.

Most shocking, for me, is Fanny's complete acceptance that Farou will be unfaithful to her while he is away. She reassures herself that her position as favourite is secure and as long as Farou's liaisons remain casual and distant, she can live with them. Conflicting emotions arise however when Fanny realises that Farou is also sleeping with his secretary, Jane, a woman who considers herself Fanny's friend although, interestingly, Fanny does not think of Jane in the same light.

Colette cleverly illustrates the relationship between the two women through brief conversations and observations of their behaviour. Jane, assuaging guilt perhaps, is always busy, running errands for Fanny and Farou and attempting to establish an indispensable position in the household. Fanny on the other hand is lethargic and lazy, reminding me a little of Caroline in Andrea Levy's The Long Song. I was intrigued by her indecision, whether she would choose her husband and her companion and how the drama would unfold. The Other One is a small book, both in actual size and in its mostly domestic setting, but powerful emotions are examined and understood through the triangles that Colette establishes.

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The Fire Engine That Disappeared  (Martin Beck #5)The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Fire Engine That Disappeared is the fifth of the ten 'Martin Beck' mysteries by Swedish authors Sjowall and Wahloo. I expect that I shall read all ten in time as, at half way through, their style is still sharp with an excellent plot line and there's no sign yet of resorting to dull formula.

Martin Beck himself is a fairly minor character in The Fire Engine That Disappeared. Instead, the lead is taken by Gunvald Larsson, an unlikeable man who manages to be a fascinating character to read about.

The unfolding of the mystery of a fatal housefire in Stockholm takes months to be completed which is far more believable than the rushed timelines of many current thriller novels. Technology is practically non-existent - landline telephones being about as good as it gets - and practically everyone smokes and drinks a lot. Sjowall and Wahloo manage to discreetly weave in some pretty savage comments on the social situation in Sweden in the late 1960s. It would seem they weren't impressed and detail like this adds considerably to the realism of their novel.

I didn't manage to work out whodunnit before the denouement but the unravelling is cleverly presented and has a string of satisfying 'aha' moments. Roll on number six: Murder at the Savoy !

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Seriously Mum, What's an Alpaca?Seriously Mum, What's an Alpaca? by Alan Parks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a free copy of this book in return for reviewing it.

I first came across author Alan Parks on Twitter as he is from the Eastbourne area where I used to live. Spotting his tweet offering a copy of his first book Seriously Mum, What's An Alpaca? in return for a review, I volunteered. Dave and I are currently touring Spain for the winter so reading about an English couple who have taken the plunge to actually live out here seemed appropriate.
Seriously Mum recounts various incidents during the first months of Alan and Lorna Parks' new life as they set themselves up as alpaca breeders in a disused olive mill in Andalucia. Their proposed lifestyle is meant to be idyllic, but unfortunately a lack of preparation and animal husbandry experience leads to a series of disasters that threaten their dream almost before it has become established.

We don't really get to know Lorna through this book as it is written solely by Alan as a series of sketches rather than an in-depth view of their life. The decision to uproot and change career comes across as being a whim that gained a momentum of its own. Neither has experience of livestock care and at several points this ignorance has sad consequences, not enough to prevent more animals being added to their menagerie though. The couple admit to still being completely inept in Spanish over a year after arriving and I found it odd that, despite their insistence on living in a Spanish community rather than with ex-pats, they shun social opportunities such as the Feria week. Many of Alan's written asides criticise Spanish culture from a strongly English perspective and I wonder whether they will ever assimilate or always remain the English outsiders.

With regards to the book itself, Alan does successfully avoid the indie author curse of poor spelling/grammar etc, but Seriously Mum feels very superficial throughout. I would have preferred deeper writing allowing me to get to know Alan and Lorna and understand their choices and decisions. Instead, brief sentences describe serious events such as the day a particular animal dies and is buried which is solely covered as 'a sad day'. I learned next to nothing about alpaca care and even the rich Andalucian culture is mostly bypassed. There are several odd little vignettes apparently written by selected animals expressing gratitude at having been taken in. I didn't get those at all. Perhaps originally intended for young readers? Overall, I found this book disappointing and thought it a missed opportunity.

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Books by Alan Parks / Biography and memoir / Books from England

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang / The Alkahest by Honore de Balzac / Half The Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Although not completely unaware of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, I knew very little of the details or the scale of this war. Therefore, when I saw Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking on Audible, I thought the book would help to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. It most certainly does.

The Rape of Nanking is not a book to be taken lightly and is eight hours listening to despicably savage and brutal inhumanity on a truly incredible scale. Anna Fields does an excellent job of the narration and Chang's research was obviously lengthy and thorough to have uncovered such a wealth of detail. I'm sure so much exposure to this level of horror would have turned her mind, even without the harassment she apparently suffered after her book was published.

For me, her most frightening findings are that the events at Nanking, while being perhaps on the largest scale the world has ever seen, are by no means an exclusive result of Japanese culture - a frequent argument I've heard about other WW2 Japanese atrocities. Similar crimes are an all too human failing, as is our ability to remain at a distance and watch rather than instinctively leaping in to protect the victims. I was disappointed but unsurprised by the fact of post-war political shenanigans allowing Japan's government to essentially get away with their actions. Such is the power of money and political paranoia.

I did find it a little odd than the few 'unsung heroes' of Nanking presented by Chang were all white Europeans and Americans. Surely some Chinese must have shown similar bravery? Or perhaps such heroes died before their stories were discovered. I understand that Chang wrote for an American audience, but that gives the book an odd Colonial slant that I found hard to reconcile with her earlier points. Also, I thought the repeated attempts to calculate total numbers were unnecessary and removed me as a listener from the immediacy of the rest of the work. My mind was blown by the initial discussions of between quarter and half a million dead in less than two months. Returning to this numbed me rather than increasing my outrage as presumably was the point.

The Rape of Nanking is a tricky book to evaluate as its subject matter is so horrific and emotive. That it is also still controversial is a bizarre twist. I appreciate Chang's efforts to spread knowledge and open discussions about Nanking. In this, she certainly achieved her aims. However, this is not the strongest written history and, at times, her inexperience shows through. I am sure by now, nearly 20 years later, other historians have taken up her challenge and further titles are out there. I'm not sure that I will be able to cope with returning to the horror in the near future though.

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The Alkahest by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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How I got this book:
Downloaded from ForgottenBooks

I downloaded Balzac's Comedie Humaine novella, The Alkahest, together in a volume with Seraphita, another of his stories. Set in Flemish Belgium, The Alkahest concerns a well-heeled family who are driven to the brink of poverty when the father develops an all-consuming passion for chemistry, specifically alchemy. Perpetually convinced that he is at the threshold of a discovery to bring glory and untold riches to his family, he squanders generations of accumulated wealth and possessions to fund his quest.

Balzac's portrayal of the father, Balthazar, is wonderfully written and convincing throughout. His obsession with science did seem an odd choice to me, but as his behaviour deteriorates, obvious parallels can be seen to drug addictions such as to heroin and I would be interested to know if Balzac had any experience of friends or relatives drawn into addiction because he seems to understand the predicament so well. The actions of Balthazar's wife, Josephine, and eldest daughter, Marguerite, are painful to read but also totally realistic. Initially swept up in his enthusiasm for his project, Josephine schools herself in chemistry in order to understand, but is then repeatedly shattered at being cast aside in favour of the obsession. Marguerite finally gains the strength and financial power to stand between Balthazar and his laboratory, but fails to fully comprehend the insidious hold under which Balthazar exists.

The Alkahest is slow to start and it took me a couple of goes reading the first thirty or so pages before I got into the story proper. Balzac feels he needs to explain the family history and their roots within their community in detail. I got the gist pretty quickly! However, I think it was worth ploughing through all the early description as, once done, the plot continues at at swifter pace and was a good read. Perhaps the repetition of rise and fall of circumstance could have been more tightly edited, but Balzac is not a writer who felt the need to economise on word counts! I was surprised by how relevant The Alkahest is to twenty-first century living and would actually recommend it to a wider readership than Seraphita as it does not mire itself in doctrine and dogma.

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Books by Honore De Balzac / Novellas / Books from France

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women WorldwideHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I guess I have come to the Half The Sky book backwards as I have been an active member of Kiva for a couple of years, more recently joining their Half The Sky team as their goals matched my lending history. I was aware of the gist of the book and have now, finally, gotten around to reading it. The lovely people at ESPH, with whom I worked over the summer, gave me an Amazon voucher on leaving and that funded this book's purchase.

I'm not completely sure how I feel about Half The Sky now having read it. Its aims are obviously admirable and by appealing to such a wide audience and being bought in great numbers, its message will reach many people who might previously been unaware of the plight of many of our world's women. However, I felt a bit awkward at the patronising tone in some places. Written primarily for an affluent American audience, there is very much a 'them and us' feel to the writing. Abuses happen 'elsewhere' and the apparent importance and influence of American political decisions to life and death in other sovereign nations is unnerving. It reminded me of the power of the former British empire and of how many of our decisions were catastrophic to those on the receiving end. Also, the emotional manipulation throughout the text is phenomenal! At least the authors are upfront about this. They discuss how experiments have proved that individuals are more likely to donate, and to donate larger sums, to single named individual than to a country or a general appeal. (On reflection, this is also how Kiva works - by putting forward a series of individuals and their stories.) Before and after having made this point, that is exactly what the Half The Sky authors do. Don't expect much in the way of hard facts and figures, but instead there are dozens of anecdotes: stories of first-named women across Asia and Africa who were all horrifically treated, denied medical care, denied education, simply due to their gender. Reading so many tales is a bit like watching the serious bits of Children in Need or Comic Relief. You know you're being manipulated by clever research and editing, but there is a real need too and, by the end, you're pretty punch drunk and overwhelmed.

I am glad I have read Half The Sky. Similarly to The Rape of Nanking, its success is to get the world talking. It has reinforced my commitment to Kiva and I will now also be searching out other deeper books on the topics raised. Suggestions of other titles will be gratefully received.

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Books by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn / Reportage / Books from America

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Oh no! A grey day!

We knew it had to happen eventually and have been lucky enough to
A fishy vending machine 
have pretty much constant sunshine since we left the UK - yes, I'm gloating - but today we have had rain. Disaster!! Dave even had to put his long trousers on because his knees were cold.

Overexaggerating aside, I hope tomorrow is brighter as, even with our little awning, a caravan isn't the best place to be cooped up for too long. Although, after last winter's experience, we are better prepared this year and brought a variety of indoor activities. Today we had an arts and crafts day! Dave has been painting and I have finished stitching a Basque Lauburu symbol onto our flyscreen. A Breton Triskelion is next and I'm hoping to stitch something different to represent everywhere we visit in Bailey. I'm still undecided about country flags though. At the moment, the motifs are monochrome and I am not sure whether adding colour will be a good idea.

In other news, we are continuing our ventures into eating new fish and Dave perfectly baked a delicious rainbow trout for dinner yesterday. Unfortunately he wasn't as impressed with it as I was, but I'm still hoping he might cook it again one day. (The recipe was based around a Jamie Oliver one but don't shout about that!)

The random photo on this post is of something we had never seen before and it's right here in sleepy Almenara. We daftly set off for a walk on Sunday afternoon and forgot our water bottle. Therefore we were pleasantly surprised to spot this vending machine on a side street. We initially overlooked the marine surround which contained the massive clue,  so were baffled that instead of the expected crisps and ice-cold coke cans, it contained lead weights and other small items of fishing paraphernalia. The small polystyrene tubs on the lowest level were presumably bait - not ice cream! The machine must get a significant amount of use. There are people fishing off the beach at all hours of the day, every day, although we're yet to spot the excitement of anyone catching anything. I have noticed a few fish while swimming though so it must happen occasionally.

A final note on a booky theme, especially for those of us who enjoy a good steampunk novel. I reviewed the first part of S C Barrus' The Gin Thief series recently and he is soon to host a one-day Facebook extravaganza with over a dozen authors. To drum up excitement and anticipation for the event, there is a competition to win sixteen steampunk ebooks by the participating authors. You Can Click Here to find out more and to enter the competition. (Last entries: 13th Nov 2014)

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Awakening by Kate Chopin / The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver / The Gin Thief: Becoming Scarlet by S C Barrus

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Awakening cropped up as the ForgottenBooks book of the day a few months ago now and, as its synopsis looked interesting, I downloaded it. Set in an upper class American society in the last years on the 19th century, The Awakening attempts to understand, although not to condone, the actions of a woman who finds herself trapped in a domestic life for which she is patently unsuited but, due to the morals of the day, which she has no choice but to endure.
Edna has two children whom she loves and a frequently absent husband who loves 'owning' her. However, Edna is not overtly maternal so when she knows her children to be cared for by nursemaid of their grandmother, she often does not give them a thought from one hour to the next. I got the impression that if she had been allowed the same choice I enjoy over a century later, she would have given motherhood a miss. Unfortunately, she has blindly followed societal expectations. When a summer meeting with a younger man awakens Edna's sense of self, she first tries to bury her emotions as she 'should', but unable to continue the charade, she sets out for a future which is impossible to achieve. Her potential new man will not take the risk to be with her and a bereft Edna cannot return to her previous life.
The illustration of desperation and Edna's inner turmoil is always believable when set against the strictness of the time and I was amazed by the vitriol and spite churned up against the character in other reviews. In her mind, Edna does the right thing. Leaving her husband would permanently stigmatise her children and she would experience serious mental breakdown by staying, so instead fakes accidental drowning while the boys are safely out of the way at their grandmother's.
I liked that Chopin obviously understands her characters completely and manages to set out their lives without actually proffering any as best. Mademoiselle Reisz is fascinating and an interesting choice of confidant for Edna. Leonce is ghastly! Self-important and only out for possessions and social climbing.
The writing style is a little dated now, perhaps too coy for modern tastes, but this softness did not detract from my growing sense of unease as Edna's behaviour becomes both stronger and more erratic.

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Books by Kate Chopin / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

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I read another Barbara Kingsolver book, The Lacuna, a while ago, and was in two minds about it as I enjoyed the depictions of lives and relationships but was then left cold as the second half descended into dry politics. I was concerned that the brick that is The Poisonwood Bible might go the same way, so was delighted to find that it doesn't. The then current situation in The Congo/Zaire is woven around the immediate story of the Price family but its intricacies are not thoroughly explored so if you're hoping for a more factual novel of the country's upheaval, this might not be the one for you.
Instead Kingsolver has created a powerful portrait and caution against the insanity of blind faith and ill-prepared attempts to force one people to the will of another. Her creation of the out-of-their-depth Price family is inspired and I was interested to learn how a Southern 1950s white American family viewed both themselves and their Congolese hosts. Tyrant-father Nathan, believing himself master yet more useless and alienated than anyone due to his refusal to see the Congolese as more than savage children, is the only one whose words we do not directly hear, but his character is rounded out by the five women and girls, his family, existing despite his best efforts(!).
I did find it tricky early on in the novel to remember who was speaking but as each develops her own distinctive voice, the sisters and mother each show their Africa from very different viewpoints and it was interesting to see how their varying skills both allowed some entry to Congolese society but also kept them apart. The pages rushed past as I found this novel impossible to put down and have been thinking over it a lot in the couple of days since I finished. There are so many issues raised - family and friendship, race and colonialism, religion and choice, life and survival - that I think I could read The Poisonwood Bible several times, seeing new detail in it with each read. Perhaps this is one that won't get Bookcrossed too quickly!

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Books by Barbara Kingsolver / Historical fiction / Books from America

The Gin Thief: Episode 1: Becoming Scarlet by S C Barrus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've not tried reading a serialised book as it is published before so am interested to learn whether I will be able to remember all the storylines over a period of time. Generally I read intensively with scarcely a pause until my current novel is finished, immersing myself in it completely. My break with tradition was caused by spotting the Kickstarter campaign for S C Barrus' new creation, The Gin Thief series. Taking a minor set of characters, The Scarlets, from his steampunk novel Discovering Aberration which I previously enjoyed reading, he is now telling their story and particularly that of their now newest recruit, Miss Yevylin Over.
S C's writing style is dense with intricate descriptions of place, costume and character. I appreciate that he takes time to set up scenes without simply rushing to the action and, although this does mean his stories advance at a slower pace than those of other authors, I think the approach suits the imaginative steampunk genre and it also mirrors that of Victorian authors so adds to the 'genuine' atmosphere.
Becoming Scarlet, as the title suggests, recounts how Yevylin meets and tries to join The Scarlets. A plot device of her storytelling for the leader, The Missus, works well to allow us to get to know her while still keeping up pace and I am now eager to download the second installment!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Els Estanys - picnic area or rubbish dump?

A closer to home post today starting with a nearby walk we recently
Bailey and our Conservatory 
did in an area known as Els Estanys. Dave spotted picnic tables whilst out on a bicycle ride and thought the hill beside might be good for walking. We booted up one afternoon and set out but were disappointed on arrival as what we took for the car park was graffitied and desolate. We wandered past the picnic tables, lightly littered from a recent birthday, and the further we got uphill, the worse the littering got. What is it with the Spanish and fly-tipping? Our walk was briefly improved by the aroma of orange blossom whilst passing a grove of the trees, and also by sighting a pair of bright Red Admiral butterflies, but then we were foiled by a sheer cliff and decided to turn back and head towards some marshland we had spotted instead.

What a fortunate choice! One the other side of Els Estanys, where there are yet more picnic tables, a far smarter car park and a restaurant (closed), the Valencia area authority has created a large coarse fishing lake. There is a walkway all around and little deck piers on which the fishers can sit undisturbed. Shrubbery and reeds have grown up to provide shade for people and cover for birds and we particularly liked a vivid purply-blue flowering bindweed. There were lots of carp in the lake - all up the other end from three men fishing of course - and a single cormorant on watch. Two viewing hides allowed birdwatching across a neighbouring wild lake and their walls were decorated with pictures and information about birds we might see (but didn't). Instead, we spent a while watching for individual fish leaping out of the water. It's addictive in the same way as looking for shooting stars. You know another fish will jump soon but can almost guarantee that you'll be looking the wrong way at the time!

Back home, we have just about got our set up perfect now which is good as we think we'll be here for another week or so - if Dave can cope with the noise. It's mostly not excessive but the people on the next pitch have brought a pair of caged parakeets with them and the poor birds screech frequently throughout the day.

In the past we have erected our porch awning over the doorway but have not liked that the near poles were then always over at least one window causing them to stand at a weird angle and decreasing the structure's stability. This time, I thought I would try putting the awning completely behind the doorway and this works much better on several counts. Firstly, of course, we are not blocking any windows. Also, we gain space by not needing to leave a passageway to the outside. Plus Dave likes being able to open the caravan door straight to the great outdoors. We have set up our brilliant Outwell cupboard with our electric hob on the top, and have even got space for our nice garden table as a dining area. The addition of our new Kampa hanging lamp completes our Conservatory!