Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Collectors by Philip Pullman / The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell / Plainsong by Kent Haruf

The CollectorsThe Collectors by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Collectors in an audio version read by Bill Nighy was Audible's Christmas gift to its members this year and I enjoyed Nighy's narration of the tale. It is a short story at only just over thirty minutes so there isn't much time for character development, but the language Pullman uses means that we do get amazingly detailed portrayals of people and places. His expert use of few words, perfectly chosen, is practically a masterclass! The suspense builds nicely and I liked the knowing nod to Lyra's alternate universe. The ending is expectedly bizarre for a seasonal horror tale, but I didn't really buy into it, hence the drop in stars. However a fun listen all the same. Thank you and Merry Christmas Audible!

The Ragged Trousered PhilanthropistsThe Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I registered a book at!

I am always intrigued by real novels that earn a mention in other novels I've enjoyed so, when The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists cropped up in the entertaining audiobook A Very British Coup, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for a copy. It's taken a while to spot one, but the library at Camping El Naranjal triumphed. I was nearly put off by the sheer volume of this volume - it is well over 700 pages - but as it was a Penguin Modern Classic I assumed they would know a good book when they published one and so took a chance on it.
TRTP is set in a faintly disguised Hastings. We have visited there a few times so I was interested to learn about the town as it was a century ago. Tressell sets his tale among a crew of poor painter-decorators who work amid conditions of almost overwhelming poverty and deprivation. The characters of the workmen and their bosses are well-drawn and easily believable although with a tendency to over-exaggeration at times. Descriptions of the workmen's homes and clothing are heart-rending and I didn't really previously understand just how harsh life could be prior to the introduction of the Welfare State. I remember the subject being exposed in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, but somehow fiction can often make situations more 'real' than factual books. The best parts of this story are the conversations over the dinnertime tea pail. These are sometimes humorous or angry or desperate, and it is where the ensemble cast really comes to life for the reader. Unfortunately, the book also contains a vast amount of lengthy solo speechmaking and narrative political preaching which makes sense in the tale once around, but these passages and arguments are repeated again and again and again. Tressell wrote TRTP to promote his own political belief in socialism - at this period almost pure communism - and frequently allows either his enthusiasm for the new or his anger at the old to run away with him. This is a shame as it makes what could be a fascinating and powerful novel into a longwinded diatribe that ultimately loses its impact. I have given it three stars as much of the actual storyline, physical descriptions and scenes are brilliantly written, but the whole book is easily 300 pages longer than it needs to be.

Plainsong (Plainsong, #1)Plainsong by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plainsong was recommended and a copy given to us by our friends Chris and Marta who were both impressed by the novel. Set in 1980s Colorado, it centres around two pairs of brothers: ageing cattle farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron, and children Ike and Bobby Guthrie; as well as Victoria Roubideaux, a teenage girl thrown out by her mother for getting pregnant. Haruf intertwines their stories to give a wonderful imagining of their small town life in Holt, Colorado. The prose is simple and compulsively easy to read which gives the whole book a real sense of poignancy. Realistic dialogue and descriptions of body language are used to great effect illustrating the often repressed emotion that the characters are unable to express for themselves. With more flowery writing, Plainsong could have become cloying and saccharine, however the stark simplicity of its language makes it very real and memorable.

My favourite characters are the McPherons. This pair of sibling brothers have lived fifty-odd years with only each other since their parents died, yet they don't hesitate to take in Victoria when she has nowhere else to go and are determined to do things properly for her. Much of the gentle humour in Plainsong comes from their sheer awkwardness, but I never felt as though Haruf was mocking them. Their kindness contrasts sharply with Victoria's mother's anger and with the actions of other mothers in the story - Ike and Bobby's mother deserts her family as the result, I think, of her drug addiction. Another character, Beckham, a failing high-school student is shown as an angry bully with his mother exhibiting exactly the same behaviours so it is depressingly obvious to see her life repeated in his. All of Haruf's characters are flawed in themselves while also trying to make the best of their lives in whatever way they know how, and he doesn't make moral distinctions between them. The writing simply states 'what is' and leaves the reader to understand which I appreciated. The novel is ultimately uplifting but without a false-feeling happy ending.

We both enjoyed Plainsong so much that Dave has found two more novels revisiting the town. The next book, Eventide , is already awaiting me on our Kindle.

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Saturday, 27 December 2014

In search of A Good Walk - we set off to Mojacar

After a ridiculously early start - by our current standards, probably
Fun tepee tiles on El Quinto shower block 
luxuriously tardy to anyone else - at quarter past nine yesterday morning, we arrived 135ish miles away at Camping El Quinto, just outside Mojacar in plenty of time for lunch. The reason for our hasty departure from Camping Florantilles was not skipping the bill - everyone has to pay up front there (!) - but that we needed to arrive at El Quinto before Recepcion closed for siesta at 1pm. They don't reopen again until after 5pm and we didn't fancy waiting around outside for hours unable to get in and set up. Dave had emailed ahead and Marina had said we would be welcome to pull in but please not to select a pitch without assistance. It turned out that, due to our wanting to stay here at least three weeks, there were only three available pitches from which we could choose. The campsite is less than half full right now but I guess it is going to get a lot busier come the beginning of January.

We chose to return to Mojacar again so soon because we know there is lots of good walking here. We keep talking about having been here 'last year' overlooking that our previous stay at nearby Sopalmo was only in February so still 'this year' at the moment! El Quinto was recommended to Dave by someone he got chatting to at the washing up sinks at Florantilles. It's amazing how much one can learn about other campers and their travels over a bowl of washing up! It is situated on the 'other side' of Mojacar from Sopalmo and we are now within 15 minutes walk of the town on the hillside. The difference of only 5 or 6 miles has opened up a whole new vista of walks right from our doorstep. Dave was told how pretty El Quinto is and the information was right. The large pitches are delineated by shrubs and small trees, all of which are green and leafy not overpruned skeletons. There are cute little garden areas for sitting and relaxing and everywhere is neat and clean. There's only one small sanitary block so it might be a case of picking our shower times when the site gets busy. However it has everything we need and lots of good pressure hot water at the turn of a tap - bliss! I think we're going to like it here.

We have had a couple of problems with Bailey recently and are wondering if bits are starting to wear out already. Both are water related - the Truma water heater and water pump. The water heater appeared to blow when we arrived at Florantilles. We switched it on and all the electrics promptly went off. Dave untripped us at the external electric box. Switching the water heater on again now just tripped its own circuit in the caravan. We've checked the fuses but can't see into them! We've stopped trying the water heater on the electric, but Dave's considering trying it on the gas here. Forums suggest a variety of potential problems including the demise of the element. Hopefully it will be something as 'simple' to fix as this because, although we don't use it that often, instant hot water in Bailey is very useful at times.

The Truma water pump was very loud when we first bought Bailey, to the extent that people on neighbouring pitches sometimes commented! Not having had one before, we didn't know what they were supposed to sound like, but realised they probably weren't intended to be heard three pitches away. Over the months of last winter's travels the pump quietened down and we hardly noticed it. Now, however, it has started whining on for ages after we turn a tap off. I think the pump itself is wearing out. It's fine when then Aqua Roll is full, but once it gets below about a third remaining, the water pressure falls significantly which I guess is why the pump keeps whining - it's taking so much longer to refill the pipes. Fortunately a spare water pump was one of the precautionary purchases we made at John's Cross before we set out again this year. At the price, I think the current one should last longer so we're going to hang on with it as long as we can bear the noise - or as long as it keeps going anyway!


Thursday, 25 December 2014

Walking around Torrevieja and along the Salt Lake

I already bemoaned the lack of walking opportunities directly from
Giant shoe sculpture in Torrevieja 
Camping Florentilles, but that doesn't mean that we have been completely idle for a week. Almost, but not quite!

We spent one morning wandering Torrevieja town centre and seafront promenade where we saw a couple of interesting sculptures: the woman wsiting on the beach as pictured below and also a series of half a dozen giant shoes, all decorated in different styles. My favourite of them all was the yellow design pictured above. Otherwise we weren't too impressed with the town. Admittedly, we didn't get as far as visiting the salt museum - must remember Spanish museums shut on Mondays - and we had already seen the nativity model in the Plaza de la Constitucion. There didn't seem to be any small arty independent shops, more of the Chinese bazaar type and an overwhelming number of bars and eateries. I did enjoy a rich hot chocolate and churros in the Valor Chocolateria - just like we had in Barcelona all those years ago - otherwise all a bit meh!

Wistfully gazing out to sea
Sculpture on Torrevieja seafront 
In contrast, we had low hopes for our walk along one of the salt lakes and it turned out surprisingly well. Isn't that always the way? Although there are two huge salt lakes (Las Salinas) here, it turns out that walling is only possible along one side of one lake. On the campsite side of our nearest lake, all access has to go though orange plantations and their gates are generally securely locked against optimistic hikers. We were unable to park at the end of the lake as we had hoped because the road was closed to cars, but another road that completely encircles an neighbouring urbanizacion has access so we parked up there. Ten to fifteen minutes walking through abandoned terraced agricultural land got us to the edge of the lake. We saw the huge cactus plant below which looked dead from a distance, but was still eagerly sending forth new leaves.

Cactus by Torrevieja salt lake 
The lake shore is mostly scrubby sand with small rocks. There is a proper cycling/running/walking trail all the way along but we walked along the water's edge until it became too full of prickly heather plants. We saw two flicks of birds out on the lake. One looked like gulls and we hoped the other might be flamingos but it wasn't. Probably the wrong time of year! And probably the same wrong time for hoopoes too. At the sea end of the lake, a short stroll through a residential area took us to the Queen Mississippi restaurant where, from below it, a terraced stream led us out into a huge park and on to the sandy seashore. The park was crisscrossed with lots of brick paved paths and all looked quite new. It hadn't yet started disintegrating! We allowed ourselves to be distracted by a squirrel eating a nut. I wanted a photo but it got coy when I reached for my phone! The whole walk was a pleasant more-than-three hours and we were amazed by how quiet the whole area was. An extended family were enjoying a meal together in a dedicated picnic area and there were a few other people on the seashore and in the park, otherwise we pretty much had the lakeside to ourselves. Perfect!

¡Feliz Navidad!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Chocolate chip teatime bread recipe

My 200th post on this blog!
Chocolate chip teatime bread 

I first decided to bake a Boterkoek for Christmas Day. We enjoyed slices of it with the Dutch campers at Serro da Bica last year, our first caravanning Christmas, so it will be a good tradition to maintain going forwards. However, it is incredibly sweet and buttery so I also wanted to bake something else that would be a treat but not (quite) so rich. After a while searching, I noticed a chocolate bread recipe in One Hundred Bread Machine Recipes which I thought could be adapted to suit the ingredients I already had to hand.

1 cup semi-skimmed milk, tepid
3 tbsp softened butter
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 1/4 cups flour
1 pack dried yeast

100g dark chocolate, chopped into small chips
1 egg, beaten

I put the first six ingredients into our bread maker and ran it on the Dough setting which took 90 minutes. The original recipe called for caster sugar, but I only have standard brown sugar so I ground this down for a few minutes. A pestle and mortar would be ideal - failing that, the end of a rolling pin and a cereal bowl make adequate substitutes. Also, we didn't have enough white flour so I used 2 cups of white and 1 1/4 cups of the Spanish 'Integral' flour which is a light wholemeal.

While the machine was running, I chopped a dark chocolate bar into chips and we ate the extra with coffee!

Once the machine had finished, I kneaded the dough for a few minutes until it was smooth and then continued kneading while incorporating the chocolate chips. This took several minutes to accomplish and I began to think there was too much chocolate for the quantity of dough. There wasn't.

Then I worked the dough into a long sausage shape and coiled it up, pressing the end under the coil to stop it unravelling. I put it on an oiled baking tray and covered it with loose cling film. It was warm in the caravan so I just left the bread out for 3/4 of an hour to rise. It did so but not drastically, maybe a little under doubling its size.

The oven had been preheated to 200c by baking the Boterkoek, so I then brushed beaten egg over the bread and baked it for 23 minutes. Again, it didn't rise as much as I expected, but was beginning to colour significantly so I considered it Done.

The proof is in the eating and this is a sweet bread that doesn't need buttering. It is a bit heavy - perhaps the wholemeal flour was unsuitable, perhaps the milk could have warmer to activate the dough sooner? We like the bitter chocolate flavour with the sweet bread and it is delicious still slightly warm. I bought some cherry jam to spread on slices thinking the flavours would complement each other - if the bread stays around long enough to cool down, I'll try that and let you know!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai / Slated by Teri Terry / The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

The Inheritance Of LossThe Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from India

According to my Goodreads list, I read Inheritance of Loss in 2009 and a few events in the story did seem familiar as I got to them, but I couldn't remember how it would all end so enjoyed immersing myself in the tale again. Desai has a beautifully rich style of writing which really brings her views of rural Himalayan India and immigrant New York to life. No one in this book has it easy whether they are truly poverty-stricken or stuck in between Indian, Nepali or colonial worlds. For me, some of the saddest characters were those desperately clinging to remnants of a superficial British past despite its total unsuitability, and those denied a homeland by the British who didn't care who gained when they left. Desai's descriptions of the decaying house in which the Judge, Sai and the Cook exist, the barely there shacks where Gorkha families live, and the grim accommodations of illegal New York workers are heart-rending. There is a thread of careless violence that joins many of the characters, each trampling others to get ahead even when the gain is slight and, often, easily lost again. Inheritance of Loss isn't a happy book to read, but is very worthwhile to experience even though it is another book which has left me with a bitter taste at British Empire dreams - we did mess up a lot of the globe and the repercussions still ripple.

Slated (Slated, #1)Slated by Teri Terry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first spotted Slated on twitter a year or so ago, but didn't get around to reading it. A fantastic review on Zuzana's blog ( jogged my memory (!) and on seeing a copy in a Xabia charity shop soon afterwards, I grabbed it.

Slated is mostly a fast-paced YA thriller with sci-fi threads around the edges, a little romance and a lot of teenage paranoia. Kyla is sixteen, has had her memory wiped and reinstated into society in a new family, a new town and a new school. The totalitarian government watches everyone and dissenting voices are quickly silenced. So when Kyla begins to suspect that maybe her memory wipe wasn't totally successful, she is naturally suspicious of pretty much everyone who might be in a position to help.

Much of Slated takes place in Kyla's head so we learn her thoughts as they occur. This could have ruined the impetus by dragging the pace, but I don't think it does. Much of Kyla's experience of not belonging is true to all teenagers, slated or otherwise, so this added to the realism while her dreaming glimpses of true horror added a creeping sense of dread that I found to be very effective. I would have liked more descriptions of the society at large. We are given broad views of this dystopian UK, but little in the way of real detail. Perhaps it is being held back for the inevitable sequels allowing the reader to learn as Kyla does? I loved the frequent use of running as a way to think clearly and raise happiness levels - I do the same myself so this rang very true. Despite being a reasonably thick volume, the language is easy and the font fairly large so I zoomed through Slated in the breathless rush of a single afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the read.

The AssistantThe Assistant by Bernard Malamud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd not heard of Bernard Malamud until I picked up a Dutch edition (in English) of The Assistant from the campsite library in Xabia. Dave thinks there has been a film made of this book though and the essay at the back pins him as an important influence on the American self-viewpoint.

Set in a poor New York neighbourhood, The Assistant charts a year in the life of struggling Jewish grocer Morris Bober, his wife Ida and daughter Helen. It is possibly not the best book to read over the festive period as there is little in the way of joy in the Bobers' tale. The family live over their run-down shop and work ridiculously long hours to bring in the little they need to live. Even when their situation begins to look up, as a reader you can tell that it probably won't last and something else is waiting just around the corner to knock them back. Ida often nags Morris to sell up and leave, but he seems to bound to his struggling existence and almost views their poverty as essential to their Jewishness. Morris's insistence on his life being so much poor luck is such a strong facet of his character, but how much is really down to luck and how much, as Ida says, could have been changed if opportunities had been grasped at the right time is a constant theme of the novel. Malamud writes Ida's speech particularly in a 'Jewish style' with Morris also using her patterns when the two are together. I found it interesting that Malamud's narration also slips into the same style at these times. He gives a very real picture of the surroundings and I found it easy to imagine the dingy shop, the apartment and even the 'bright lights' of the competing grocer's shop around the corner. The character I had most trouble pinning down was Frank, the eponymous assistant. Despite his obvious personal need to make amends to Morris, his philanthropy was often double-edged and as much based in selfishness as charity. His later treatment of Helen baffled me but his final acceptance of his position fitted the story perfectly - the continuation of the eternal struggle.

I liked how The Assistant is a quiet novel made up of small occurrences. I think the style perfectly suits the subject and, although 'enjoy' isn't the right word to describe the sadness encountered throughout the book, I am glad to have read it. I recently saw the phrase 'book hangover' used to describe a novel that stays in one's thoughts long after it has been finished. I think this is an accurate moniker for the effects of The Assistant.

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Sunday, 21 December 2014

There's no walking from Camping Florantilles

which came as a surprise to me as its website proudly describes the site
Scene from the Torrevieja nativity model 
as a suitable base location for the annual February walking festival. Apparently alternatives to foot transport would be needed to reach any start points! Camping Florantilles is sandwiched by fairly busy roads and, other than a small scrubby area a few minutes away, the only option for walkers seems to be marching alongside the roads - not exactly salubrious. A couple of hookers spend their days patiently sat on plastic chairs in lay-bys a few hundred metres away from the campsite entrance. Marta had already spotted one near Deveses, but these are the first we've noticed. Getting back to the transport issue, we realised today that there are practically no bicycles propped on the pitches here which is unusual. We now know that is an important clue for us when visiting future campsites. Keen local cyclists zip along the roads in their lycra bodysuits, but it seems el coche (the car) is essential for happy campers. There's even one person who likes roaring around on his quad bike!

The campsite itself is pleasant and very English in both its layout and the majority of its clientele. All pitches are hardstanding, gravelled and level, with their own electric, water and waste water/chemical toilet disposal point. However most of these disposal points are about a foot off the ground which could be a struggle to use with a full waste master. Purely by chance our pitch, B25, has one high and another at ground level which is easy to use. The pitch is generously sized and nearly has a view over the salt lake to Torrevieja. Where there is hot water in the sanitary blocks it is incredibly hot and the indoor showers are spacious. Not great water pressure, but no time limits plus closed doors and heaters mean the room isn't draughty or icy when towelling down! The site is pretty busy but remarkably yappy-dog free and actually eerily silent after dark. Promenading after dinner on our arrival evening, we didn't see or hear anyone else, just spotted several outfits decorated with flashing Christmas lights and gazed up into bright clear stars. We're planning to stay until next weekend so I'll have plenty of chances to raid the extensive library in reception. It's mostly chick lit and thrillers, but I have already found a nearly-new A Prayer For Owen Meany.

We drove into Torrevieja yesterday evening to see their nativity model. It was similar to the one in Xabia, but outdoors in the Plaza de la Constitucion and at least double the size and scale. It didn't have the humour of Xabia's though. A marching band went by while we were there - all dressed in Santa outfits! We parked by a funfair near the marina and wandered through the Hippy Market, but this turned out to be a victim of over-enthusiastic advertising too. Only half a dozen of the promised 100 stalls were open and not a one of them had tie-dye clothes or stank of patchouli oil.

On another note, I saw a very desirable caravan conversion on the Caravanity blog this morning. It's been turned from a really dismal dark van into a bright desert-themed space and looks fab. It's even got parquet flooring and I love the cacti pots over the window. Ideas for the future maybe?

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Gilded Gun and The Chronos Clock by Wendy L Callahan / Longitude by Dava Sobel / Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

The Gilded Gun by Wendy L. Callahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2.

Oh no! At just 13 pages, this prequel is Far Too Short! An excellent taster of what is to come in the first 'proper' novel in the series, The Gilded Gun is more a prologue than a book in its own right and, had I bought it separately, its brevity would have left me feeling hard done by. However, as the first in a four-title compendium of the series, it has neatly done its job of appetiser and I raced straight on into the delights of The Chronos Clock.

The Chronos Clock by Wendy L. Callahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Chronos Clock is a witty, fast paced adventure racing through an interesting and believable steampunk world. I loved the verbal interplay between Demetra and Francis - Callahan obviously had great fun devising their sparring and this delight shines through. The magical powers of some of the peoples adds an unusual dimension to this world and was well drawn into to the tale without overwhelming it. Despite being the beginning of an ongoing series, I appreciated the satisfying resolution and look forward to joining Demetra again sometime soon.

Longitude by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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More biography than science book, Dava Sobel's Latitude chronicles the struggle of the now famous John Harrison to have his incredible chronometer be taken seriously by an establishment elite who were none to impressed by being out-thought by a self-taught commoner! Interestingly, one of the supporting cast here, Flamsteed, appeared in a fictional capacity in my previous read, The Chronos Clock.

Sobel doesn't dwell on the intricacies of telling longitude by the astronomical or timekeeping methods so this book doesn't enable the reader to go out and complete calculations for themselves. Instead she concentrates on the human story of John Harrison and his son, William. Their struggle seems all the more poignant given how successful later cheaper copies of his inventions went on to be. Sobel's romantic storytelling style - we have definite heroes and villains - makes this an easy book to read, more historical novel than history although it is factual. It is a good starting point and inspired both further reading and a visit to Greenwich for me. We were right there, outside the museum that houses Harrison's chronometers, a couple of summers ago, but didn't pay up to go inside. Having both enjoyed reading this book I think we'll be returning sometime soon!

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads - Nigeria book choices.

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I was first attracted to Lagoon on Audible by the dramatic cover art which incorporates a myriad of sea creatures into the title word. The book is expertly narrated by Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe who between them portray many Lagos residents, a smattering of aliens, and also several magical beings from Nigerian folklore. From her initial chapter, spoken as a swordfish who is vandalising an oil pipeline, Okorafor doesn't let up for a minute. The science fiction storyline of alien invasion is fairly standard, but her inventiveness and understanding of human nature makes Lagoon a cut above the norm. I could easily visualise each location from their detailed descriptions and would love for it to be possible to visit that beautiful underwater world!

There are some fabulously memorable characters populating this frightened yet vibrant Lagos. Father Oke is great and so true! I sympathised with poor overlooked Philo and even Adaora's husband Chris is stuck in an all too understandable predicament. Plus I don't think I've ever felt sorry for a tarantula before! I did initially have trouble keeping up with the pidgin english, but could generally work out enough to get the gist without having to replay the sentences. The environmentalism and the message of change are nicely done without being preachy and I liked the unusual ending. Nice touch.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Christmas is coming to Xabia

Xabia is being adorned with its Christmas decorations now. There isn't
Nativity model in Xabia market 
really any sense of the heavy commercial drive that we're used to in the UK so the whole feel is much more relaxed. The old town streets have municipal lights strung over them and are lined with rows of small trees in pots decorated with burlap sacks tied with red chiffon ribbons. Most shops have quite elegant additions to their window displays. Dave noticed an article about the opening of the nativity model in the indoor market so we went along to have a look. It is fantastic! The detail is incredible and includes the market stalls and sellers pictured in the photo above, people baking bread and cakes in a glowing oven, a moving woman figurine embroidering a cloth, and another woman washing her hair. The traditional nativity scene takes place in an inn, as expected, however another inn has a drunken customer falling down its steps! The wise men ride camels past the pyramids in the centre. We were amazed by the ingenuity of the work and its scale - the table top is easily as long as our caravan and probably nearly the same distance across too.

In other festive news, Lidl have completely sold out of chocolate covered marzipan bars. Dave went there a couple of weeks ago and couldn't find any so we were hoping more might arrive. They haven't so we're resorting to Lidl's rather delicious German gingerbreads and lebkuchen instead. Having previously bemoaned the shop, the Lidl gingerbreads Chris and Marta brought when they visited on Saturday changed our minds! We also served and ate our (hopefully) first mince pies. Two varieties were on sale in the friendly Spanish-run Costa Blanca supermarket near the campsite. Coincidentally, the same varieties were also in the British-run Quick Save supermarket opposite it, so I guess they are from the same wholesaler, but interestingly the price was considerably higher in the Quick Save!

I'll finish up with a YouTube of the song that seems to always be playing in Mercadona at the moment - from 1970, it's Jose Feliciano and Feliz Navidad!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A pair of picnic walks from Xabia

We've finally dusted off the pink stripy picnic rucksack
We got to the base of the Montgo and might climb it
next time out! 
- so called because it has a good sized cool bag compartment - here in Xabia and have undertaken two lengthy walks with lunch stops during the past couple of weeks. It is lovely to be somewhere which has great walking routes which are challenging enough for us to get a sense of having pushed ourselves, but not so difficult that we get overwhelmed. I am a lot more confident about scrambling and climbing now, especially due to my trusty boots and walking poles. It still takes me considerably longer to go downhill on rough scree tracks than uphill, but this is the next skill for me to work on! We try to stop for our typical lunch of fresh bread, cheese, apple and jam after 2-3 hours which is generally a little over half way. Our favourite Spanish sheep cheeses are perfect and we enjoy the extra challenge of trying to find the most pleasant place to pause a while.

First off we did a 10k (ish) wander which took us along the base of the nearby Montgo mountain which towers over Xabia and can be seen for miles. It got it's name, meaning elephant, because from a certain direction the mountain's outline and the positioning of a small cave resemble an elephant's head. We found this La Plana Circuit walk on the Javeamigos website which has a good selection of suggested walks from which we could choose. Described as 'energetic', it is mostly paths and tracks but includes one fun section where the 'path' is more of a suggested scramble up a rocky hillside. A route up is marked with paint and muddy footprints, but I couldn't always see that its footholds were any more practical than anywhere else! It reminded me of a dry version of El Torcal, but much shorter.

Our second walk was longer at about 15k and took us just over five hours of actual walking and scrambling so we are proud of ourselves for achieving this. We followed an official route around the Granandella natural park and also found it thanks to the Javeamigos website. The route is frequently and clearly marked with yellow and white painted stripes on trees, rocks and posts. There was an amazing range of surface types within the park so we were strolling along wide concrete tracks one minute, or pine scented rough woodland tracks the next. We saw scrubby areas where wild rosemary, lavender and heathers were profusely growing and flowering. We've bought several jars or local Benitatxell honey and could easily see where its delicious flavour comes from. One part of the route took us scrambling along high rock ledges and we sat in the sunshine overlooking the sparkling sea and a small ruined Castell for our lunch break. A gleeful Dutchman warned us that our post-lunch climb would involve having to pull ourselves up by chains hammered to the rocks. We were a little concerned by this, but soon discovered that this section was no more difficult than we had already climbed to get there. It would have been awful to have been forced to retrace our steps as we were already over half way! The last part of our walk was the reverse of a shorter route we had already done.

We were also invited to join Chris and Marta on a challenging excursion to the Moorish steps which we disappointedly declined as Dave did a fantastic 2 1/2 hour bike ride the day before - and temporarily knackered his knees. Our friends set out anyway and we since learned that the route was a six hour spectacular consisting entirely of ups and downs - no flat bits for respite. Congrats to Chris & Marta for completing the walk as I think it would have taken both Dave and I well past our enjoyment thresholds!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

OMG, we went to Benidorm!

It feels like ages since I wrote a travelling blog post and checking the
Incredible carousel at Denia medieval market 
publish dates reveals that the last was almost a week ago. We had two fab days out over the weekend and I've not shared them yet!

Before we get to the headline feature, I must write about the wonderful medieval market that took place in nearby Denia over the past national holiday weekend. We drove in on the Saturday and met up there with Chris and Marta who had cycled from their campsite. Their route is flat but it's still a good 7-8 miles each way. The market took over pretty much all of the old town and consisted of dozens of stalls, decorated in a medieval style, together with dressed-up stallholders, and suitable fabric bunting strung across the narrow streets overhead. Many of the stalls were selling jewellery but there were also several with huge bowls of various dried fruits, one deliciously scented one with loose teas, some working craftspeople - a stone mason and a wood sculptor - and a blacksmith whose presentation included a metal dragon that would 'breathe' a gas jet of flame on demand. There was a quartet of wandering minstrels playing instruments including reeded recorder type things that we thought were crumhorns but later googling changed our minds to the possibility that they were Spanish hanchet shawms. The Early Music Shop website has an audio file of one - it's quite a distinctive sound! In the centre square children could get pony rides or take a turn on the incredible hand-cranked carousel pictured above. Click in to get a larger view and see all the detail. The boards around it are printed with words about or by Da Vinci and each of the seats was based on one of his inventions! The operator was able to propel the whole carousel, loaded with children, simply by pushing at one of the contraptions or by cranking a handle on the central stand. The only electrical connection was for halogen bulb lanterns which would be lit after dark so I guess, other than those lanterns, the technology could have been medieval. We saw another smaller carousel later on which had only four hanging seats and was powered by a wheel-less bicycle. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around although it did get chilly in the shaded streets. We were there until mid-afternoon by which time the more unfortunate stallholders were already looking very cold and the market wasn't due to close until half past eleven each night!

In total contrast, our Sunday excursion to Benidorm came about simply because I have never been and wanted to see if it really is as awful as the tv programme would have me believe. I forgot to check which hotel was used for filming so don't know if we actually passed it. The promenade along the beach is lovely and was packed with Spanish couples and families taking a pre-lunch stroll. The bay and built-up-ness create a great wind-free sun trap so it was several degrees warmer there than here. Some people were sunbathing while others held open-air religious services. One woman was being acosted by dozens of white pigeons but she had purchased bird seed from a nearby stall for the purpose and her son thought it very funny. We walked nearly an hour from a little marina to the end of the prom passing both the insane new Intempo building pictured below - my fear of heights would go into overdrive if we stayed in the cone - and the beautifully sparkly red trike. Dave used to have a guitar that colour. I liked the walk and we stopped for lunch in a nice bar/cafe, Taperia Botafumeiro, where Dave got adventurous and ordered cuttlefish and I had a Galician empanada. Then we continued our wander into the narrow streets of the older part of town and the atmosphere changed considerably. We had found the Brits! Most of the bars at this end of the beach were resolutely English, both in clientele and in food and drink offered, and they were packed out. It felt quite strange to suddenly be effectively in a different country when the original Spanish lifestyle continued just metres away. Bizarre place!

The maddest building
in Benidorm? 
Pretty red tricycle in Benidorm 

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Fall Of Troy by Peter Ackroyd / Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi / The Awakening by Emma Jones

The Fall Of Troy by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Not very impressed by The Fall Of Troy. The central character of Heinrich Obermann is the only one who is fleshed out and he is a very unlikeable selfish fantasist, bent on completely destroying a valuable archaeological site in his desperation to make the site fit the demands of his imagination. All the supporting characters are two-dimensional and poorly created so it is difficult to understand their actions and why they behave as they do. I think that a good knowledge of ancient Greek myths and the work of Homer might add to the appeal of Ackroyd's novel because his characters at times appear to be recreating the legends, but unfortunately the synopsis doesn't state that this expertise is essential to the reader's understanding and my bare bones remembrances weren't up to the task. Fortunately this is only a short book so not too much reading time wasted!

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

One of my WorldReads from Italy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Reading around after finishing Pinocchio, I have learned that its author, Carlo Collodi, didn't actually like children very much and this fairytale was his attempt to scare them into behaving properly. Given the horrors that befall the poor puppet, I can quite believe it! The original Pinocchio is one dark story and I'm not even sure children should be allowed to read it.

I was surprised that I enjoyed reading Pinocchio so much because, in true fairytale style, there is little in the way of proper description or realism in the characters. Everyone is pretty two-dimensional and scenes pass swiftly with the emphasis on action rather than scene-setting. (It is strange how this works in a fairytale, yet is one of my main criticisms of both the other novels in this post. For them, the lack works against the novel.) However, what makes the writing wonderful and gripping is Collodi's fantastic imagination. Having not read this for decades, I could not remember what happens next and there is no way I could have guessed! Even tiny cameo roles like the Snail are fun. I could have done with less of the repetitive moralising, but otherwise Pinocchio is a great read.

The Awakening by Emma Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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My second novel of the year to be titled The Awakening although this one is a very different prospect from Kate Chopin's story. Emma Jones' The Awakening, her first novel, was published almost exactly a year ago. I first spotted it via twitter then was reminded by Sophie's post on her Reviewed The Book blog.

Staunchly in the Young Adult genre, The Awakening is told in the first person by Lauren, a young woman who unexpectedly discovers that her new boyfriend is a vampire. Swiftly taken under his family's wing, she learns about their history, her own family's supernatural past and the possibilities for her future both with boyfriend, Gavin, or maybe with his cousin, the black sheep, Daniel.

Unfortunately, The Awakening suffers from frequent poor punctuation, typos and spelling mistakes which at times make it tricky to follow. I noticed earlier reviews have also commented on this and most would be easy to spot and correct. I think this would improve the reading experience because, at the moment, these errors keep destroying any atmosphere as its builds up.

Throughout the book, Lauren talks at great length about her predicament and indecision but, infuriatingly, I didn't feel that I particularly got to know either her or Gavin as individuals. Much of the dialogue is generic and repetitive so doesn't illuminate their characters. I would have liked a lot more understanding of how Lauren felt at specific times. She sees dark visions that are presumably disturbing, but then pops off to the pub with her mates and everything is normal and forgotten? Also, I would have liked an actual ending as the mid-scene stop simply doesn't work for me. I felt cheated which doesn't inspire me to risk buying any more of the series.

The Awakening has an interesting premise and the overall story arc is entertaining, but it needs more time spent, both for editing and proofreading, to turn it into a strong, dynamic novel.

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Thursday, 4 December 2014

The rain clears and we go to Denia

I nearly had good reason to be glad I'd recently listened to The Ark Before
Dave plays chicken with the sea at Xabia 
Noah as we had a couple of days of such heavy rain here over the weekend that I was becoming a bit concerned about potential flooding. It started with a couple of minutes of gentle patters on the caravan roof, almost like the sparrows jumping about. Then within a few more minutes, the sound resembled ostriches! After the previous strong winds, we lost another night's sleep to thundering rain. It's amazing how much louder sounds are when heard from within a caravan or motorhome compared to from within a house. Bailey has double glazed windows and all the modern insulation, but we are still effectively in an aluminium can! You wouldn't know about the rain from the look of the Rio Gorgos which is still resolutely dry, but it was unusual enough to be chatted about in the local supermercado. We took a wander down to Arenal seafront on Monday and the sea looks very different to before the weekend. It is now an ominous dark green in colour with galloping white horses on the crests of all the waves. There is also lots of standing water on the beach and a coating of a white foamy looking substance. We weren't sure if this was drying salt or pollution. I've put some photos up on Facebook.

Tuesday saw us taking a trip out to Denia for the day, partly to discover the town and partly because our Devonian friends, Chris and Marta, are currently staying at the Los Llanos campsite about 12k outside Denia. We saw half a dozen fabulous yachts moored up in Denia marina. Most were flying Caribbean flags and looked dead posh!! The town itself is very Spanish and doesn't have the Anglification of Xabia although there is a hint of a Germanic influence. One thing we are learning on our travels is to make sure that the Austrians have got there first as they open up wonderful cafes with good cakes. We stopped for a coffee and spot of people watching outside a nice cafe called Denou which is on a pretty square not far from the municipal market. This market is a bigger affair than Xabia and there were easily a dozen butcher stalls from which we failed to choose our barbecue offerings that afternoon. There is some kind of Medieval Fair in Denia this weekend coming. It will coincide with two national festival days on Saturday and Monday and is an annual affair so we are planning to return to see what all that is about and to spend more time exploring.

We got lightly lost when trying to find Los Llanos and I was glad we didn't have Bailey on the back when u-turning as the road ended. The campsite is down a roughish track and does look run-down from the approach. However, it has good sized pitches with a more rural feel than the car parky set up here at El Naranjal. The shower block is decorated with fun green and white harlequin tiles and does have toilet paper which we don't. We have doors that close snugly against draughts though and they don't! The site seemed to have fewer people in residence although there are several currently uninhabited permanent pitches, as there are here too, so was quieter in that respect - until our wine got flowing anyway! - but there is constant distant traffic noise from the N332. We thought it was mostly swings and roundabouts as to which campsite is 'better' and the only real downside to Los Llanos is its physical distance from Denia. There's no casually strolling into town as we can do here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn / May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes / He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently going to see Gone Girl at the cinema reminded me that I still had Sharp Objects languishing unread on our Kindle. It's the third Gillian Flynn novel I have read but apparently the first she wrote.
The storyline here is definitely not for the fainthearted and at points I felt quite queasy reading it. The central theme of two girls in a small town in Missouri being murdered is obviously horrific, but having read several crime thrillers over the years, I have pretty much become immune to the emotional pull of murdered young fictional women and girls. It feels bizarre writing that but so many novels start with such a death that it is almost a prerequisite. Where Sharp Objects differs is that our viewpoint into the story comes via Camille, a journalist sent back to cover the story unfolding in her hometown. Camille not only has self harmed and in plenty of detail, but leads us into the bosom of her cold, dysfunctional family as she tries to come to terms with her personal past and the death of her younger sister. The relationships within her home and trailing out across the town are cleverly included in the story, explaining why she is as she is.
I don't think Sharp Objects is as good a story as Gone Girl and it doesn't have the former's intensity, but I appreciate that they both have unusual central female characters who are damaged and bizarre, yet memorable and definitely never stereotypical.

May We Be ForgivenMay We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have awarded May We Be Forgiven three stars overall, but I would actually like to give the first half four stars and the second half just two. Initially the novel is a pretty fast paced descent into horror as our narrator, Harold Silver, finds himself in a family maelstrom caused by his own adultery with his brother's wife and the extreme violence that this unleashes. I enjoyed the drama and pace of these first 250 or so pages. There are darkly humorous passages and the bewilderment of our hero is both real and poignant as he attempts to repair his own life and that of his nephew and niece.
After around about the half way point though, the novel takes a bizarre shift into a surreal fantasy world which sees the introduction of international terrorism, swathes of Nixon-era political blathering, and the sort of saccharine-sweet schmaltz that the Americans can do so well but which I absolutely loathe! Logical plot progression is thrown out the window in favour of stereotyped flat characters and choreographed set pieces that don't bear much relation to each other. Our hero suddenly becomes apparently irresistible to women, patronises both needy American immigrants and South African villagers by throwing vast sums of cash at both, and finds time to adopt an extra child and an elderly couple. The pre-teen nephew and niece seem to mature by at least a decade in a couple of months and there's a lot of description of bodily functions, mostly diarrhoea and belching, but with a truly cringe-inducing phone call about a tampon. I can only think that it's all meant to be funny in a kind of Sex And The City 2 fashion. It isn't.
A very odd book that's about twice as long as is good for it.

He Kills CoppersHe Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another repeat author for the third book of this post. I loved both The House of Rumour and The Long Firm by Jake Arnott and so had high hopes for He Kills Coppers. Unfortunately I was disappointed. The novel has a similar London underworld setting to The Long Firm and a few characters make cameo appearances, otherwise it could have been written by a completely different author. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the previous book is absent as mostly are Arnott's descriptions and interesting characterizations. Two main characters, a journalist and a policeman, take turns speaking through first-person viewpoints but their voices are so similarly portrayed that I frequently had trouble trying to distinguish which was which. Much of their language is incredibly hackneyed and there are a lot of unexplained acronyms and jargon words that don't add authenticity, merely irritation. There is also a third-person viewpoint of a murderer on the run. His odd actions are often not really explained so it was difficult to try and build up any sense of him as a person.
He Kills Coppers is a particularly blokey book I think. Attempts at atmosphere and describing emotion are haphazard and often missing altogether leaving the emphasis on action alone. Therefore during later chapters where not much happens, it all got a bit dull. I also noticed spelling and typo errors increasing towards the end of the novel suggesting that perhaps the proof reader had gotten bored by then as well!
Apparently the overall story arc is based on true events - I haven't googled yet to confirm this - but, if so, the blend of imagination and realism that Arnott pulled off so well before just didn't work for me this time around.

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