Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Looking back and looking forward

It's now practically the end of my 40th Birthday Year and I
can honestly say that spending the time nomadically travelling has been just wonderful. We have visited so many amazing places and without actually having to journey for thousands of miles across the globe! I kept a few notes of anniversaries that coincided with our being in specific places.

So, as well as my 40th Birthday and our 12th anniversary of togetherness, we also celebrated Dave's 69th Birthday. (I guess that means there'll be a big Birthday next year too!)

We also visited Lincoln and viewed the Magna Carta in the 800th year since its signing.

We visited the village of Eyam in the 350th year since the Great Plague.

We visited Whitby in the 125th year since Bram Stoker was there.

There are so many fabulous highlights that I am not even going to try to condense them into a 'Best of' for this post! I am learning that pretty much everywhere has something worth noticing if you happen to look the right way at the right moment. The joy of travelling is getting to have many right moments day after day after day.

Instead, let's look forward to 2016. I don't make resolutions anymore as they never seem to pan out - yes, still biting my nails! (Now eight years smoke-free mind, but I quit in a September.) I would like to visit a new-to-me country in 2016. Did you see the travel map gadget I added at the bottom of this blog? There's a lot of grey space awaiting us!

I also want to keep experimenting with vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Having thought one veggie dinner a week would be a good achievement for us, I have found that we now generally eat two or three a week and often have completely veggie days. I'm not sure that either of us wants to completely give up meat, but this half-way house is a good compromise for the time being. Veggie food is a lot cheaper too!

Reading-wise, I am confident that I will not hit my 200 book
target for the Goodreads Challenge 2015. Close, but not quite. 180 will be a more realistic target for 2016 I think. I did complete the 2014-2015 Decade Challenge though - my book list here - and notched up a nice round dozen for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015 - my book list here. I've signed up for both again and am also looking to join the 2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Evie over at Bookish Lifestyle. I know I have several books that I keep overlooking in favour of more immediately appealing reads, even though I know I would probably enjoy them all just as much. Most of the waiters are bricks though and I do find thick books off-putting! I have chosen 20 titles that have been sitting around a while. Let's see how many I can actually pick up:

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving,
Dracula by Bram Stoker,
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt,
The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan,
Moby Dick by Herman Melville,
Sky City by R D Hale,
Nine Kinds Of Naked by Tony Vigorito,
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk,
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell,
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell,
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver,
Killers Of The King by Charles Spencer,
While The World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry,
March by Geraldine Brooks,
Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone,
Black Patriots And Loyalists by Alan Gilbert,
Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran,
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton,
Dombey And Son by Charles Dickens,
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

That lot should keep me quiet for most of the year!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

I've noticed a glut of Best Books Of 2015 blog posts around as we come to the year's end so thought I would add mine to the mix. In hindsight, it was a daft idea! Choosing my favourite ten reads of the year was tough enough, but trying to rank them into some kind of order of best-ness proved totally impossible! Instead these are my favourite ten books that I read in 2015 in the order in which I read them.

Links go to their relevant blog page so you can see my review and maybe even click through to buy yourself a copy.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
listened to in January 2015

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback
read in January 2015

Rust Is A Form Of Fire by Joe Fiorito
read in February 2015

The Stove-Junker by S K Kalsi
read in March 2015

Blue Talk And Love by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
read in March 2015

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
listened to in May 2015

The True Picture by Alison Habens
read in August 2015

Ladder Of Years by Anne Tyler
read in August 2015

The Panda Theory by Pascal Garnier
read in September 2015

The Piper's Story by Wendy Isaac Bergin
read in November 2015

And another ten honourable mentions of five star books that I felt guilty about leaving out!

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
The People's Act Of Love by James Meek
One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Aquarium by David Vann
We That Are Left by Clare Clark
The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Heart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

You can see my whole year of reading on Goodreads and now I'm looking forward to a wonderfully booky 2016!

Monday, 28 December 2015

No Baggage by Clara Bensen / Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys / What Has Sweden Done For The United States? by Lars P Nelson

No Baggage: A Tale of Love and Wandering by Clara Bensen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of No Baggage by Clara Bensen from its publishers, Running Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. The memoir is due to be released on the 5th of January 2016.

I was intrigued by the unusual premise of No Baggage - a young American woman takes off on a three-week trip across Europe with pretty much nothing other than a credit card, a toothbrush and the clothes she stands up in. And in the company of a man she met about a month beforehand via a dating website. What could possibly go wrong?!

Using the course of the three week journey as her book's skeleton, Bensen describes her burgeoning relationship with Jeff, the dating website find; the mental health issues that had put her life on hold for most of the previous couple of years; her close-knit family and Austin, Texas lifestyle; and a little about the cities she visits during the whistle-stop tour. While I think I would have liked more detail about the journey itself, I was unexpectedly fascinated by Bensen's candid discussion of her mental health - the problems she had had, their causes, and her post-recovery outlook. It is an odd facet of our society that allows physical ailments to discussed easily and openly, but still insists that mental ailments be hidden away. It must have taken a lot of courage to write this and she has done an excellent job of explaining her illness.

I was less taken with the repeated attempts to define and categorise her new relationship although the 'what are we' tension did lead to some of the more entertaining (for the reader at least!) moments. I was interested in Bensen's thoughts on places that I too have visited - Austin, Dubrovnik, Edinburgh - and now have more must-sees on my future travel list - Istanbul, Sarajevo. The Couchsurfing website - a way to get accommodation in local people's homes - was a new notion to me and sounds like a wonderful idea for independent travellers. In return I offer a find of my own for women travellers - get a mooncup. Bensen's period tribulations are funny in hindsight in a been-there-too kind of a way.

I enjoyed Bensen's easy-going writing style and would be interested to read more of her later travels. The couchsurfing particularly allows for a different view from the standard tourist angle and I loved the idea of leaving practically every arrangement to chance although I am not sure I could ever be brave enough to travel like that myself.

Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I saw the film, Oranges and Sunshine, which is based upon Empty Cradles, several years ago so was already aware of the human tragedy at the centre of this book. Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys discovered evidence of a massive resettlement scheme undertaken by the British government together with several then Commonwealth governments that sent thousands and thousands of unaccompanied British children to foster families, children's homes and institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. The scheme ran for several decades with the last children leaving the UK in 1967. Nearly always described as orphans in press reports, the children themselves were mostly told that their parents had died or just didn't want them anymore. Most weren't given any choice in their exile or destination and many were systematically abused, sometimes for years, in their new lives.

It is difficult to write a review of a book which deals with such an inhumane and emotive subject. Many of the former child migrants who spoke to Humphreys related terrible stories of their treatment. Isolation, desperation and long-term mental health problems have blighted many of these lives and the accumulation of these tales is harrowing. Not all the children were treated badly, but there aren't many of the happy tales in Empty Cradles. The book was written to help raise awareness and, ultimately, funds for the Child Migrants Trust - a charity set up by Humphreys to help reunite lost children with their families - so it does tug at heartstrings pretty much relentlessly. Also, this is Humphreys' story of her own efforts so we get to read a lot about her familial sacrifices, long hours, sleepless nights and manic globetrotting. I have no doubt that Humphreys and her family did give up a lot and the irony of her own frequently left-behind children wasn't lost on me, however the mixing of history and personal biography didn't sit well for me and I frequently found myself wondering who I was really supposed to be felling sorry for.

What Has Sweden Done for the United States? by Lars P Nelson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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An odd little pamphlet, What Has Sweden Done For The United States? by Lars P Nelson was published in 1917 as the author's attempt to instill some ancestral pride in second- and third-generation Swedes whom he believed were dismissing their heritage in favour of their new American identity. I downloaded a copy when it was offered from ForgottenBooks. Nelson briefly discusses the first Swedes to arrive in the New World and their refreshingly honourable attitudes to the native populations; Sweden's role and an interesting subterfuge during the War Of Independence; and the ongoing support from the Swedish government and crown to her former people. Even Swedish women get a mention as there are two potted biographies of the singers Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson. The importance of religion is repeatedly mentioned and special emphasis is placed on the Swedish tradition of religious tolerance - although, of course, this is only seen in terms of the various types of Christianity.

The pamphlet is an interesting read for the impressions it gives of early twentieth century priorities in how a section of the American people saw themselves. My only real complaint is that the work is far too short! At less than thirty pages for such a presumably huge subject, there really isn't enough said.

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Sunday, 27 December 2015

Our Christmas Day canal walk above Ceret

A small irrigation canal, cut into the rocks above Ceret, has
It's still autumn in Ceret 
provided public water to the town for centuries. It is more of a Spanish-style levada than an English-style canal. In places the canal is probably only about six inches deep and maybe a foot across, however it was important for public fountains and crop irrigation across Reynes, Ceret, Maurillas and St Jean Pla De Corts. Understandably, in times of drought, making sure each town received its fair share of water was a fraught business and conflicts often ensued. Population increase and agricultural development wager needs overtook the limited levada supply in the 1800s so a much larger canal was built from Le Tech at Amelie Les Bains in the 1860s and our walk began near part of this. However, the little old canal still flows and following part of its journey certainly made for a very pretty walk.

An early signposted diversion took us through mostly
The waterfall,
partly hidden behind a rock ledge 
autumnal woods to visit the waterfall. We didn't expect much of a spectacle at this time of year - there hasn't been any  significant rainfall for ages - however the tumbling water was still a pretty impressive sight. Getting close involves rock scrambling which I didn't fancy so early on in the day so this photo makes the waterfall appear smaller than it really is. It's just far away (as Father Ted said to Dougal)!

Despite the ground being carpeted with fallen leaves and nuts, we were amazed to see Spring indicators too. More mimosa was in full bloom and two trees were absolutely dripping with yellow catkins!

We both appreciated walking the narrow woodland paths, even though most of the first hour was uphill with varying degrees of steepness. We had passed maybe a half dozen people also walking to the waterfall and back, but once we returned to our canal route, we seemed to have the world to ourselves for the rest of the day.

Lunch was a slice of Boterkoek each whilst perched on the
Mas Blasi emblem 
roadside by the very grand entrance to the Mas Blasi estate. Their gate emblem was a leaping boar and we had seen lots of evidence that wild boar had been rooting around in search of food.

Shortly after Mas Blasi our path plunged downhill to spend several minutes passing alongside cherry orchards. It must be absolutely beautiful here in the real Springtime when all these trees are in blossom. Apparently Ceret was the first place in France to begin growing cherry trees and the town got its name from their French name, 'cerise'.

For a short distance, the levada hugs closely to the rock and
our path wasn't much wider alongside it. There were a couple of precarious looking concrete slab bridges to cross too, but they seemed sturdy enough as I dashed over them. The photo here shows Dave about to cross one and you can see how the hillside has fallen away underneath the bridge.

Further down the hill, the levada is a sunken trough across the woodland floor. It's raised moss-covered sides stood out against the fallen leaves and made for a very pretty view, but I imagine that continuously having to clear he water's path in olden days must have been a nightmare!

The canal 
Our whole walk took us about four hours and, if you would like to try the route too, it is number six in the free Little Guide Of Hiking book from Le Boulou tourist office. Our final descent back into Ceret took us past the Capuchin Convent, built in 1581 and abandoned after the French Revolution. I loved its gateway, which was about all that we could really see, and also the improvised wooden gateway (pictured below) which we had seen a few minutes earlier and which I don't think is connected to the convent.

Capuchin convent 
Improvised gateway 

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Kerry McCarthy's response to the unpublished BBC consultation results

As it is Christmas, I am sure that much of the UK is
currently enjoying its annual TV fest! Perhaps you still spent ages methodically flipping through the TV listing magazines highlighting, in separate colours, which programmes to watch live, which to record for later, and where three channel clashes mean something must be missed, but will be repeated at ridiculous o'clock in the morning next week. Perhaps your super new technology means all those pens are now obsolete?

Whatever your viewing system, at some point most of us will find ourselves enjoying a BBC programme of one sort or another, but how many of us are really aware of the threat posed to our BBC by Murdoch's friends, the Tory Party? Just yesterday news was published of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale's attendance, together with David Cameron, at Murdoch's private Christmas party. These men aren't even bothering to hide their hypocrisy any more!

Anyway, several weeks ago I gave my opinions to a Government consultation regarding the future of the BBC. The results should have been published by now, but I guess maybe too many of us didn't give the hoped-for answers because there's no sign of it. 38 Degrees sent an email asking for people to contact their MPs asking they put pressure on John Whittingdale to publish the consultation results. I heard back from my MP, Kerry McCarthy, just after noon on Christmas Eve(!) and this is her response:

"Thank you very much for contacting me recently regarding the outcomes of the BBC

Like you, I feel that the BBC is one of our greatest cultural institutions – it provides a crucial foundation for our creative industries in the UK, and must be protected.

As you will be aware, the Government held the BBC Charter Review public consultation between the 16th of July and the 8th of October 2015. This sought to examine the BBC’s mission, purpose, and values, what the BBC does in terms of its scale and scope, BBC funding, and BBC governance and regulation. As of yet, the Government has not published the results of this consultation. This, along with John Whittingdale’s statement that BBC funding is still dependant on the result of the consultation, has cast significant doubt on the Government’s plans, and so I share your concerns over the delay we are facing.

While I accept that the BBC is in need of reform, particularly with regard to how it’s governed, and how representative it is of 21st century Britain, I am also very concerned at how the Government appears to be going to war with the BBC. The Government’s actions of late are discouraging, and imply to me that the BBC is at genuine risk.

The BBC is an excellent, universal broadcaster that informs, educates, and entertains, and really provides something for everyone. As such, investment in the BBC must be maintained. You may know that the Government has already confirmed that the BBC will take on the cost of free TV licenses for over-75s, but as well as this, the Government has stated that the licence fee level is ‘not settled.’ All of this is particularly worrying as I feel it will compromise BBC services and their quality, while also putting jobs at risk. It is my opinion that the Government should not renege on the licence fee agreement – the licence fee should remain for the full period of the next Charter with a CPI inflation rise as promised.

Related proposals that the Government are considering include narrowing the remit of the BBC to prevent it from making some of its most popular shows – I feel this would be a mistake, and that it is inappropriate for the Government to attempt to prevent the BBC from making programmes that people genuinely enjoy watching. Similarly, I reject rumoured plans of reduced news output.

Quite frankly, the Government’s actions challenge the very principle of public service broadcasting. We must ensure that the BBC remains independent from the Government, particularly as I am completely unconvinced that the Government’s proposals are in line with public interest. In fact, I think that cuts to the BBC would jeopardise both the success of the UK’s creative industries, and the state of the wider economy, too.

Please rest assured that while we wait for the outcome of the consultation, I will contact John Whittingdale on your behalf to raise your concerns. The Labour Party is opposed to any attempts to diminish or dismantle the BBC, and my Shadow Frontbench colleagues have pledged to work with the creative industries and trade unions to defend the BBC.

Thank you once again for taking the time to contact me.

Yours sincerely
Kerry McCarthy
Labour MP for Bristol East

Twitter: @kerryMP

Video produced by 38 Degrees

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson / The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason / Escape From Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth

Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I saw Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson mentioned in the Read Scotland 2015 Goodreads group and found a free online version at East Of The Web. The story is short, at just sixteen pages, and I enjoyed its seasonal setting as this is a traditional supernatural tale for Christmas. This is my twelfth book for Read Scotland 2015 and I am pleased to have averaged one a month.

Markheim is set on Christmas Day although, other than the lack of custom to the antique dealer's shop, we only really know this because we are told so. A regular customer has been let in to the closed shop. He usually takes items to sell, and we are given to understand that these are stolen goods, yet for Christmas Day he wishes to buy a gift for a lady friend. The dealer doesn't completely believe him, but is trusting enough to turn his back ...

Stevenson's story is very much of its time with most of the sixteen pages taken up by overwrought dialogue that is far too deep for natural conversation in the situation described. However, accepting that this is the case stops the melodrama from detracting from the tale. Markheim has led a poverty-stricken life, believing his thieving and worse to be the result of his circumstances. Now that perhaps he has sunk as low, morally, as it is possible to go, should he heed the words of a devil and profit from his crime or should he stand tall for once and Do The Right Thing?

I liked this tense story and would have preferred it actually to have been a little longer. The claustrophobic shop setting is wonderfully described and I found it easy to imagine the situation. It would be a good story to read out loud or to act out on Christmas Eve.

As I am pretty sure that Markheim will be my last book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge, I will roundup all my titles here. Links go to my blogged reviews.

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson
Celtic Blood by James John Loftus
Secrets Of The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
Secrets Of Islay by Robert Kroeger
Full Cupboard Of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Luminous Life Of Lily Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin
The People's Act Of Love by James Meek
The Piper's Story by Wendy Isaac Bergin
The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
The Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean
Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Piano TunerThe Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason is set in 1880s England and Burma (Myanmar). Our protagonist, a shy London piano tuner named Edgar Drake unexpectedly receives a War Office request to travel many hundreds of miles in order to tune a rare piano. He will be paid generously with a year's income for what is planned to be a three month commission. Despite his initial reservations, he decides to make the journey - his first outside of England.

I enjoyed Mason's writing when he describes the fabulous journey. Drake boards steamships and trains, travels through India as well as Burma, and Mason evokes the atmospheres, sights and sounds, colours and scents in wonderful detail. The mission itself does seem ludicrous, but having already read Giles Foden's factual account of the British Army's ship transportation through the Congo not so many years later, sending a piano tuner through Asia is simple by comparison!

The Piano Tuner does rely heavily upon exposition however and I was disappointed at how much this slowed the pace. Drake is taught Anglo-Burmese war history through lengthy War Office briefing documents which we also get to read. The information is dry and, while kind of relevant, isn't needed in such depth. The same could be said of the piano information dumps - a little is interesting, a long diversion is too distracting. Characters are often deliberately vague which made it difficult for me to maintain interest in their plight and I thought the ending was unnecessarily rushed. I came away from this book feeling it owed much of its overall story arc to Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness - which I am now tempted to revisit - but without that classic's power.

Escape from Witchwood HollowEscape from Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Escape From Witchwood Hollow from its author, Jordan Elizabeth, after being contacted via Goodreads by Jessica, a member of her street team. The book is a Young Adult supernatural tale, so not one of my usual genres, but I could see it already had other good reviews so I took a chance.

Escape From Witchwood Hollow is set in three time periods. We begin in Autumn 2001 meeting Honoria on her first day at a new school. After the deaths of her parents Honoria has moved with her Aunt, Uncle and brother from New York City to a small rural community. She tries to cope with such massive life changes, but finds making new friends difficult, especially when she finds herself practically dared to enter the local haunted wood, Witchwood Hollow, in the middle of the night.

Jumping back in time, we meet up with Lady Clifford, a noble English immigrant to America in 1670 and a fugitive after she is accused of murder; and Albertine who is also English, although of much lower social class, and another immigrant some 180 years later when she follows her father across the Atlantic to make herself a new home.

I enjoyed reading the three stories and loved the way in which they begin to intertwine. The storyline is much deeper and more intricately plotted than I expected from a YA novel and I found myself gripped by the twists and turns. Elizabeth describes her settings well and the story is brilliantly paced. Its air of menace grows steadily, yet the writing never becomes overly melodramatic. Perhaps some of the dialogue isn't completely true to its period, however, our three heroines are distinct characters making difficult but believable decisions, and the supernatural angle made this a perfect ghostly read for Christmas Eve.

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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

We're nearly ready for Christmas

Huge non-Christmas news with which to start my post:
Image from the RSPB 

We saw a Hoopoe!

It was on the grass at the front of our pitch and strolled around searching the ground for insects for several minutes before being scared off by an approaching car. Of course neither of us had a camera handy with which to capture this fabulous moment so I have borrowed the above drawing from the RSPB website. We have been 'promised' hoopoes in various Iberian sites over the past couple of winters - much as we were promised red squirrels all across the north of England - but never saw a single one, hence our excitement now! We will add it to our other memorable sightings of wild boar, otter, Spanish ibex and flamingos.

Our Christmas preparations are almost complete. We had a wonderfully tranquil supermarket trip this afternoon where we were delighted at the down-to-earth shopping habits of the local French people. Such a contrast to British supermarkets at this time of year. There was seasonal music playing and I was tempted to buy a natural fir-cone-and-candle table centrepiece, but no manic consumerism, no trolleys laden higher than their pushers, no over-excited sugar-filled children and No Queue At The Checkout. Now some of you back home might think I am gloating. You would be right!
Last Christmas I gave you - a Mojito! 

We are currently on our second bottle of home-mulled wine. (That's the second of the week, not the day, but I am feeling nicely mellow!) The Christmas mixed tape is playing. My freshly baked Boterkoek is cooling on the counter and I am planning to also make marzipans tomorrow. We have some of the delicious local smoked haddock for our Christmas lunch with a Christmas pud that's been stashed since October for afters. And we have our new boardgame, Barricades, to while away the long afternoon. We're not sure yet what we will do on the day itself yet - there won't be Mojitos on the beach this year or a traditional Dutch meal, but I am sure we will find something memorable.

I hope all your Christmas preparations are going well and aren't too stressful? Seasoons Greetings to y'all!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Three Sisters by Helen Smith / The Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean / Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

Three Sisters by Helen Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The short story Three Sisters was offered as a free download by its author, Helen Smith, to attendees of the BritCrime Ball earlier in December. I subscribe to the BritCrime newsletter as it is a great resource for keeping up to date with the latest in UK crime and mystery writing.

Three Sisters is a modern mystery story set in Brixton, an area of London that I have visited a few times so was able to easily picture, especially with the help of Smith's fabulous descriptions. She really does have a talent for amusing metaphor. Our heroine, Emily, is upset at the recent death of her beloved dog so chooses an apparently atypical action for her - attending an performance art party in an abandoned building at the end of her street. I loved the sound of this party with its circus acts and bizarre characters. Emily soon spots, however, that all is not as it should be and sets herself to exploring behind the curtains.

This is a short story so there isn't space for extensive character development, but, for once, that didn't really matter to me as I was swept up in Smith's beautifully described visuals. The is-it-or-isn't-it crime is neatly plotted and satisfying. I have already downloaded another of Smith's stories and look forward to reading it.

The GlasshouseThe Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of The Glasshouse when I saw it advertised in an Endeavour Press newsletter. I chose it primarily for its Scottish connections because I am not a great fan of military fiction, however The Glasshouse turned out to be a gripping and thought-provoking read. I would love to have read a round dozen of Scottish books by the end of the year, but so far this is only my eleventh book for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.

The Glasshouse is set towards the end of the Second World War. Peace has already been declared in Europe and the Americans have just dropped their first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. World-changing events are kept from the prisoners in the Glasshouse though. This British military prison for British soldiers is completely isolated from the outside world, both by high walls and by the insane mania of its guards. Author Allan Campbell Mclean was himself incarcerated in one of these bizarre institutions during the time period of which he writes so, although his novel is fictitious, it is strongly rooted in remembered fact and this makes reading the book a horrifying experience. Prisoners are treated as less than human by guards who are drunk on power, or just plain drunk, and viciously sadistic, egged on by a mentally disturbed commandant who, to my way of thinking anyway, should not even be allowed command of himself! One particular scene - prisoners building a pyramid from huge timber planks only to have to tear it down and start again when it was complete - reminded me of the forced labour in Martin Sherman's play Bent, where concentration camp prisoners undertook similarly pointless forced labour.

What was most shocking for me were the violently bigoted attitudes displayed by so many characters. Mclean's writing made every one of these men believably real and I do hope that our armed forces no longer display such outrageous racism, xenophobia and misogyny. The Glasshouse is a brilliant piece of writing that perfectly captures a certain place and time. I can't actually say that I enjoyed reading the book - its subject matter doesn't really lend itself to the word, but I am certainly glad to have read it.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind: A NovelSleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock from its publishers, Amazon imprint 47North, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind caught my attention for its wonderful title which I learned is from a Laura Cereta quote. In the book, Charnock tells three stories side-by-side, each tenuously linked by the art of fifteenth century painter Paolo Uccelli and his daughter, thirteen year old Antonia. Antonia's is one of our three protagonists. Living as she really did in fifteenth century Italy, her short life -she died aged thirty-five - was spent primarily within the walls of a convent. Charnock imagines this as the only way her father could ensure her freedom to paint professionally. A husband of the time would surely not have allowed a career for his wife. This rang very true for me having not so long ago read Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel, a biography of a comparable woman's life.

Charnock's second thread is Toni, a teenager in 2015 who has travelled to China with with her art copyist father. He too encourages his daughter's artistic talents, but in this time period there isn't a question of art or marriage. Indeed, for Toni such decisions for her future aren't even on the cards yet even though she is the same age as our historical Antonia.

In the year 2113, Toniah is a single woman in her twenties living with her sister and niece in a wholly female household. Due to technological advances, husbands and fathers are no longer necessary for human reproduction and Charnock presents a vision of a Britain where male-excluded households are becoming commonplace and Toniah's work as an art historian is reinstating women who were 'inadvertently overlooked' by traditional patriarchal history.

I enjoyed reading all three stories, especially the historical one, and liked how Charnock asks questions about gender and the importance of balance. Her protagonists' lives have factors in common as well as divergence and I was interested in her portrayal of the differences in female freedom as well as what I thought was a 'is this too far?' question in her futuristic scenario. Some of the dialogue doesn't quite sit right for its character, but overall I found the characters themselves to be well thought through and believable. What I didn't like about the book though, and what really ruined it for me, was the abruptness of the ending. It just stops with Antonia/Toni/Toniah each poised on the threshold of their futures and no sense of closure. I have since read elsewhere that this deliberate device on Charnock's part was inspired by other works she had read, leaving the story open to the reader's imagination, but I was left feeling rather that at least a quarter of the novel was simply missing.

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Monday, 21 December 2015

Staying local - Saint Ferreol and Saint Jean Pla de Corts

Despite our Spanish excursion earlier in the week, we don't
Iron cross en route to Saint Ferreol 
actually need to go far for amazing sights in this corner of France. We enjoyed an eight mile hike recently - yes, another from our Little Guide of Hiking - and traipsed from the Devil's Bridge in Ceret to the Saint Ferreol Hermitage above the town. The Hermitage was first built in the late thirteenth century as a sanctuary. It has undergone many changes since then and I don't think its hermit took up residence until the eighteenth century. There isn't one in situ now either. The site has a lovely peace to it and fabulous views out over the valley and surrounding countryside. We weren't able to see inside the church as it only opens at weekends, but from photographs we learned that its sober exterior decor is continued indoors with remarkably restrained gilting.

Saint Ferreol 
As you can see from the deep blue sky in my photographs,
Mimosa flowering 
we picked a gorgeous day for our walk! It certainly did not feel like December and we even passed by mimosa in full flower which apparently shouldn't happen around here until late January. Definitely another sign of screwy happenings in our climate and I have my fingers crossed that the recent historic Paris agreement actually does result in some real action, not just empty political posturing. It's a shame our Tory government doesn't understand what they signed up to though. I hear they are now investing massively in fracking but have stopped all investment in solar energy and other renewables. Isn't that the wrong way round?

We took a stroll into our nearest town of St Jean Pla de
Wall plaque in St Jean 
Corts on Saturday, ostensibly in search of tamarind paste for another curry. We couldn't find it in the Intermarche, but staff at Ceret's Bio shop suggested trying the pharmacy and there is a huge pharmacy in St Jean - where they did have tamarind, but only in capsules as a digestion medication. Hmmm!

The town centre is nice. We discovered its huge, out-of-place brick chimney is a kiln for brick-making and there's a range of social amenities that look very new - medical centre, mairie, visiting library, community centre. Street art includes the sculpture pictured below which is entitled Timidite and was created by Francis Aggery, a local sculptor who lived in Maurillas. The greengrocer and bakery-tearoom are open seven days a week which surprised me. It seems that more and more French shops are opening on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays. They still keep their long lunch breaks though!

Timidite by Francis Aggery, St Jean 
Apologies for any bizarre formatting or broken links in posts at the moment. Amazon decided to unexpectedly release an upgrade of the Silk browser to my Kindle Fire without ironing out all the bugs first! Photographs are repositioning themselves, plus I am having to type out all the links and their html by hand because the paste button doesn't work. 'Customer Services' operatives for the UK refused to accept that the new software had any problems and insisted on 'troubleshooting measures' based around me repeatedly turning my Kindle off and on again! Fortunately an email from American Amazon admitted the pasting issue at least and gave hope of a fix within a' few days'. In the meantime, if you spot broken links or other weirdness, please holler in the Comments below.

And on a happier note, here's an excellent Christmas song to finish:

Sunday, 20 December 2015

IA Initiate by John Darryl Winston / Alla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal / Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

IA: Initiate by John Darryl Winston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I won a copy of IA Initiate and its sequel, IA Boss, from their author, John Darryl Winston, in a Goodreads giveaway run to celebrate the release of the latter.

IA Initiate is set in a slightly futuristic dystopian cityscape. The Exclave is recognisable as the rough end of any present-day Western city, yet is given a sense of difference through interesting use of language and descriptions of elements such as the hyperstores and the Helix train. The Market Merchants reminded me of the Chinese stores in practically every Spanish town - everything you could possibly want even though you don't know you need something until you see it there!

Naz Anderson is our thirteen year old protagonist, a head-down, stay-unnoticed kind of boy, orphaned and devoted to his younger sister, Meri. Winton's creations of both Naz and Meri are well done making it easy to envisage these children and to empathise with them. We learn of the trauma in their past and how Naz in particular is having problems due to these events. Other characters around them are more hazy, but may develop further in sequel(s) to this novella.

IA Initiate kept me interested throughout and I like Winston's understated style of writing. This is very much a YA novella, written by a teacher, and I thought it occasionally veered too close to overt moralising, but I enjoyed the read nonetheless. His created world has a hint of scifi without being bafflingly different and there are enough intriguing open threads to tempt me into its sequel, IA Boss. However, IA Initiate has a good story arc in its own right and A Proper Sense Of An Ending!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by John Darryl Winston / Young adult books / Books from America

Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet BalletAlla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Alla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal from its publishers, Oxford University Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. I hadn't previously heard of Alla Osipenko. Although I do like going to see ballet, I don't know many names other than the really famous dancers so I hoped to extend my knowledge through reading this biography.

Unfortunately Lobenthal's writing is very dry, with short journalistic paragraphs and absolutely no sense of flow or beauty to the prose - which is ironic for a ballet biography! The book does mention all the major and minor dance roles undertaken by Osipenko as well as giving details of her personal life, but it's like being faced with a great sheaf of notes that are yet to be properly integrated. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors on every page too, some making sentences completely unintelligible, so I considered several times whether to actually bother finishing the read. It's a shame as Osipenko must have led a fascinating life, but it is not done justice to in this book.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Joel Lobenthal / Biography and memoir / Books from America

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads - Nigeria book choices.

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Buy the woven book sleeve from my handmade shop.

I bought Purple Hibiscus from the great Children's Society charity shop in Garstang over the summer. If you're local to there, they have an excellent book selection!

Purple Hibiscus is a Nigerian-set coming of age novel following fifteen-year-old Kambili over the months after a military coup in Nigeria is the catalyst for massive change in the country and also in her oppressive home life. I was reminded a little of the obsessively religious patriarch in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible who, like Eugene here, puts ridiculous strains onto his family in the name of his God. Eugene however has been so brainwashed by a particularly sadistic strain of Catholicism that he is simply vicious to his wife and children. I found several of the abuse scenes in Purple Hibiscus difficult to read and what makes it more so is Kambili's apparent quiet acceptance of her treatment. It is not until she experiences life with her aunt instead of her parents that she finds a hint of self-respect and courage.

I love Adichie's descriptive prose which really brings urban and rural Nigeria to life for me. She has a wonderful eye for detail and creates realistic complex characters that I could easily believe in, even when I didn't like them! The menace of the political instability surrounds every scene meaning that there is always a sense of unease - within the family or within the country, perhaps one is a microcosm of the other? The contrasts between our rich central family's lifestyle and that of their poor village back home are shocking. Even the forced frugality of Aunt Ifeoma, awaiting her university salary which hasn't been paid, made me realise how much I take for granted. At least our caravan generally has reliable power!

I think I liked Purple Hibiscus the most of Adichie's books that I have read so far, but it's only my third title so I still have lots more to discover!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Contemporary fiction / Books from Nigeria