Saturday, 31 January 2015

January goes out with a bluster and I buy a bicycle

It has been a mad twenty-four hours here at Camping Roquetas! The
Windy Roquetas beach 
wind started strengthening yesterday afternoon so my afternoon jog was reduced to a power walk in one direction along the beach. I positively flew back the other way though. Then, through the evening, the wind just got stronger and stronger until we could feel Bailey frequently shuddering from the strongest gusts. We hardly had any sleep due to the noise and the wind kept up until after lunchtime today. Now, at half past four, there's not a breath of breeze and the sun is spectacularly hot again. Weird! Dave's favourite weather report website said the wind speed had been about 70km per hour and the gusts were much more. We were lucky to only lose a small blue dishcloth, but the German couple next door have had to take down their canopy which ripped in several places. Another motorhomer opposite seems to have lost his whole sun shade awning - even though it was secured with storm straps. Scary stuff.

We struggled down to the beach this morning to try and get some photos but I'm not sure the gustiness comes across. Certainly the sea was not as wild as we expected.

A couple of days ago 

This morning 

In good news, I have done Yet More Shopping! I sold my Giant bike as part of our pre-house sale clearout way back in August and got a pretty good price for it. I had also already sold on my Brompton folder because I completely lost my cycling nerve again once I stopped regular cycle commuting. A very brief and scary attempt to ride a tricycle on Ile De Re reinforced my assumption that I'd probably never cycle again, but I have been feeling bad about it, particularly jealous of carefree cyclists. We could save so much on short journey diesel! Then yesterday, during a trip to Decathlon to get Dave a new fleece, we saw a selection of cheapish Bfold bikes in lovely garish colours - and I tried riding one up and down the aisles - and I didn't panic - and my stomach didn't do that flip thing it did the last however many times I've tried cycling - and the friendly shop assistant gave me a free set of lights - and my credit card worked - and I wheeled my new bike out of the shop! Yesterday I zoomed around the campsite a couple of times, before the wind got up too much. Today Dave and I have been for our first bicycle ride together in years! And it was not at all scary!

New bike! 

P.S. Dave looks fab in his new fleece.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Our day in Almeria including visiting an Indiana Jones location

Courtyard at the School Of Arts 
We were up and out pretty early (by our standards) yesterday because we had planned to visit the city of Almeria which is only a twenty minute drive from Camping Roquetas. Almeria is a compact city, easy to walk around and with lots of interesting building styles, sculptures and boutique shops. We had done a little research and were armed with a shortlist of four sights for our first visit. We managed to get to three of the four.

Firstly, having parked under the Consum supermarket by the port - a bit pricey, but convenient - we were perfectly placed to wonder at the English Cable which is a huge metal construction at the end of a lengthy high stone viaduct. It was originally used for trains so they could deliver iron ore directly to ships in the port. We are not sure whether it is still in operation or not, but it is in excellent condition so possibly so. A little along from here and so blended in that we didn't spot it until the end of our day, is a memorial to Almerian people who died at the Mauthausen concentration camp. A simple and sobering design, the memorial consists of a central statue surrounded by dozens of cylindrical stone columns, one for each person.

A stroll through a promenade park took us to the beginnings of the shopping centre and lots of streets packed each side with interesting independent shops. There are some recognisable High Street names along the wide central road, but I liked that most of Almeria still seems to be independents. I think a town has a far stronger individual identity that way. Hidden amongst these streets, around the back of the Cervantes Theatre, is the School Of Arts whose courtyard was featured during the Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade film. The photo above was taken inside. Recognise it? It turns out that this is actually our second 'famous' movie location of the trip so far. The beach we sat upon for our January picnic was taken over during filming of the 1972 Treasure Island film. There's some great then-and-now photos on this website.

Back to Almeria, and I liked this wall created of empty thread cones on
Cone wall at the School Of Arts 
sticks, also in the School Of Arts. It is real school so we couldn't wander round much, but we did spot earnest students carving furniture because their door was open. Close by the School Of Arts is another free-to-enter site, the 11th century Jayran Arab Reservoirs. It's only a small place, underground and beautifully cool on a hot day. The water for the Arab city was brought from several kilometres away and stored in the brick-built reservoir before being piped out to taps and fountains for the people. The acoustics are fantastic and the halls are now used for a regular Flamenco Club. The Club recently celebrated its 50th anniversary so a display of photographs lines the walls. We asked about seeing a performance there, but the Club is private so we couldn't just turn up.

We had arranged to meet Chris and Marta for lunch at famed tapas bar, Casa Puga, but were delayed by a gorgeous shop, Secretos De India. They have a fantastic selection of clothing, homewares and rugs. Also, the windows were emblazoned with 'Rebajas' which is a very important word when shopping in Spain - it means Reductions! I am now the proud owner of a delicately painted box for my teas and an incredibly comfortable pair of palazzo pants. And we weren't even too late for lunch!

Casa Puga is an institution that we read about in the local free paper, Euro Weekly News. It is under threat of closure due to its protected rents losing their protection so it may no longer be economically viable. It was packed with diners and drinkers and had a bustling atmosphere. The food was nicely cooked and tasty.

The afternoon saw us heading upwards - always upwards! - to the Alcazabar, a partially restored Moorish palace overlooking Almeria. There are tranquil gardens and great views from the walls. Whilst we were all looking out, a flock of painted pigeons were being released from their coops on a rooftop. They looked fantastic flying around - all reds, pinks, yellows and oranges. I tried to get photos but they were to fast and distant for my phone to see clearly. The Alcazabar stretches over a significant area and is in three main sections, the third being where later Christians plonked their castle. One room at the far corner has metal cannon on show and also amazing echo acoustics. I think it might be due to its double arched ceiling, but we all had great fun making sounds and hearing them reverberate. The locals living below must get really fed up with tourists making a racket there! A few enclosed rooms have exhibitions of found artifacts and of a scale model of the site, but there isn't a lot of information about what we could see. The site has been restored more than that of Sagunt, but it would have been nice to know what rooms were for and during what periods they had been occupied.

Having left the Alcazaba and paused for a coffee and chocolate doughnut, we considered taking in the modern art museum, but all four of us were pretty shattered by this point. It's hard work having fun! So we still have the art for our return visit and also the Cinema museum which was the one on our list that we hadn't made it too. Hopefully we will go again sometime in this coming week.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Farmageddon by Philip Lymbery / The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen / Not The End by Kate Vane

Another three reviews for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge! These three are all for reads that I have finished in the last week. I've not had time to go plundering the archives again. As well as their blog pages, Sophie and Suze are running some great giveaways via the Challenge Facebook Page and you can get to everyone else's reviews there too.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

'Farm animals have been disappearing from our fields as the production of food has become a global industry. We no longer know for certain what is entering the food chain and what we are eating as the UK horsemeat scandal demonstrated. We are reaching a tipping point as the farming revolution threatens our countryside, health and the quality of our food wherever we live in the world. Farmageddon is a fascinating and terrifying investigative journey behind the closed doors of a runaway industry across the world from the UK, Europe and the USA, to China, Argentina, Peru and Mexico. It is both a wake-up call to change our current food production and eating practices and an attempt to find a way to a better farming future.'

I have been strongly affected by reading Farmageddon. It is a powerful illustration of the short sighted approach taken to food production since the 1950s. I expected most of the book to cover familiar ground as I thought I had a good grasp of the current situation regarding factory farming in the UK. It turns out that I don't!

I was shocked by the degree of illness and disease reported in densely farmed animals. Even farmed salmon, which I buy thinking it is the responsible way to preserve wild stocks, have volumes of lice that are nauseating to consider. I was also amazed to learn about the lack of nutritional value of the resulting meat. Dave and I have noticed our food seeming bland compared to remembered meals in the past, but had assumed it was our tastebuds fading. Apparently this is not the case and the unnaturally speedy growth rates of these animals are the cause. Also, the sheer volume of food and drugs consumed by these animals in their short, unpleasant lives cannot possibly be sustainable, and I don't want my taxes continuing to be spent on subsidising the system.

Fortunately, after all the doom and gloom of animal suffering, ludicrous volumes of waste, destroyed land and rivers, there is a strong message of hope and extensive suggestions for how individual consumers can help to make a real difference. And it's not just Go Veggie either! Realistic advice that we plan to follow includes buying smaller quantities of higher welfare meat. I think the price should then be similar overall and the nutritional content will be higher. Meatfree Mondays is another fun idea for which there are numerous recipe suggestions online (from independent sources, not CIWF).

With regards to the actual writing, I did wonder if the material had originally been conceived as independent essays or lectures because there is a fair amount of overlap to the themed sections. I normally read books cover to cover within a couple of days, but found the repetition too much in this case. Reading a single section then putting Farmageddon aside for a while before returning to it I think is a better approach. The repetition then feels more like reinforcement! Arguments are well made and examples of practices are given from around the world. Most facts are backed up with notes of their sources, although flipping to the back on a Kindle is tedious so I soon gave that up! Nonetheless, I would recommend Farmageddon to pretty much everyone as an eye-opening read.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Phillip Lymbery / Diet and food books / Books from England

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

'Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik. Both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and together with Treslove they share a sweetly painful evening revisiting a time before they had loved and lost. It is that very evening, when Treslove hesitates a moment as he walks home, that he is attacked - and his whole sense of who and what he is slowly and ineluctably changes.'

The Finkler Question is a great example of not believing everything you are told! Having been seduced by the many quotes on the covers and inside the first few pages, I was expecting a hysterically funny novel.
Oh dear.

Our hero, the improbably named Julian Treslove, is particularly unsympathetic. Humour is attempted from his attempts to create a Jewish identity for himself because he is apparently so jealous of 'their' sense of family and solidarity. Many discussions are had about what Jewish people do or don't do, think or don't think. These themes are overworked by about a third of the way through the novel, but carry on regardless. He has had a number of relationships, all with women whose names begin with J, and views all his partners in terms of tragic opera heroines. His sons, whom he 'hilariously' cannot tell apart, have operatic names and one of their mother's not knowing her Puccini from her Verdi is running joke.

The best I managed was a smattering of wry smiles. I guess I am not typical of Jacobsen's target market, but even so, I have no idea how The Finkler Question managed to be a Booker Prize winner. I've given it a two star 'meh' rating because I did plough through to the end rather than giving up. However I don't recommend anyone else to bother!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Howard Jacobson / Humour / Books from England

Not the End by Kate Vane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books for IndiePrideDay 2016.

Buy the ebook from Amazon

I was kindly given a copy of Not The End by the author in return for an honest review.

Not The End is set in a generic coastal Devon town which is an amalgam of such seaside resorts. I've not been to that part of the world since childhood holidays, but could easily picture the scenes thanks to Kate Vane's atmospheric descriptions. We follow the experiences of a trio of strangers whose lives intersect following the discovery on the beach by one, Brenda, of an elderly woman who drowned.

I loved Vane's creation of her characters. Each of the leads are very real, as are their friends, co-workers and families. It is not easy to maintain strong characters with such a large cast of faces to keep track of, but Vane does a great job. Even in chapters where it could be a page or more before significant names are mentioned, I found I always knew whose story I was reading. Brenda's story is particularly poignant and I was willing her to stand up to the ghastly Paula. I also liked Teri as I could picture someone with whom I have worked who was just like that!

There is a lot of gentle humour in Not The End and some wonderfully witty digs too. Vane's sharp observations of people's behaviour raised several giggles from me. The confidence of the weatherman was one such instance and I would love to know which real cafe the wonderfully child-UNfriendly one is based on. Wicked of me to say so, but it sounds like just our sort of place! I enjoyed the time I spent in Dormouth and would be happy to return there should a second novel be written.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Kate Vane / Humour / Books from England

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

We pitch up at Roquetas De Mar and Caravan Of Thieves have five days to go

After only a short drive of less than two hours yesterday, we are now at
Bailey on pitches 631 and 649 at Roquetas 
what we expect to be the most southerly of our camping destinations this winter. Roquetas De Mar is on the coast near to Almeria and Camping Roquetas is sandwiched between the towns of Roquetas and Aguadulce.

The site is a five minute walk from miles of sandy beach and there is a small gate with a footpath directly there from the back of the site. We can see the gate from our pitch and are amazed at the almost constant bicycle and pedestrian traffic heading in and out. Our last two campsites have been almost bicycle free zones due to their locations so we need to get used to that almost silent zip again - before we get run down by a flock of Dutch bicis! Yesterday afternoon we walked along the beach for a couple of hours and today Dave has cycled it and I went for a jog. There are separate cycle and pedestrian paths - all very tranquil!

As for the camping itself, we love the showers here! Huge cubicles and unlimited hot water. Plus there are several shower blocks, each with multiple washing up and laundry stations, so not yet any need to queue which we were beginning to get a little fed up with at Camping El Quinto. Camping Roquetas is a large site and is practically full. We were given a choice of only five pitches yesterday out of a couple of hundred. There is a great deal during the winter months where everyone gets a double pitch for the same price as a summer single, plus long stay discounts which kick in after just two days and it gets cheaper in stages the longer we stay. As you can see in the photo above, we have tons of room and our car is parked behind Bailey so already using about a third of the space.

Another plus is that the electricity is metered. We are thinking about
Toys for grown-ups! 
everything we turn on and whether it could use our cheap Repsol gas instead of electricity. Even with the heating on low overnight, we only used two euros worth in our first twenty-four hours. We were unsure whether we would be able to stay here more than a couple of weeks without the walking opportunities we had gotten used to at Mojacar. Having now seen the cycling and jogging facilities, an onsite biosalud set-up (a playground for grown-ups!) which I love using, plus some city days visiting Almeria, we might manage near to a month!

A final note on something completely different! If you're looking for some brand new music, the inventive band Caravan Of Thieves have got just fivr days left on their PledgeMusic campaign. They are raising money for their new album Kiss Kiss. Previews and studio photos are available via the PledgeMusic page. I like what I've heard so far so am in for the download!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback / Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas / Indian Tales by Rudyard Kipling

I am going to submit these three reviews as my first for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge. It runs from the 23rd of January until the 2nd of February and the idea is to catch up with all those as yet unwritten reviews. I think I'm pretty up to date with my current reads so am going to use the opportunity to post some pre-blog reviews. For this post, Wolf Winter and Indian Tales are recent reads. Under Milk Wood is from a couple of years ago.

Wolf WinterWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Sweden
One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

I received a copy of Wolf Winter from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I absolutely loved Wolf Winter! Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the novel tells of a tiny settler community's struggle to survive during a particularly harsh and bitter winter. Adding to their fear is the knowledge that one amongst them is a murderer. Recent Finnish immigrant, Maija, is determined to discover who was responsible for a violent murder that occurred pretty much as her family arrived, however Wolf Winter is not a standard whodunnit thriller. Instead, the story is a thoughtful and measured exploration of living in an incredibly inhospitable environment and of how, when even basic survival is not guaranteed, fear can become a significant enemy.

I loved Ekback's wonderfully real descriptions of Blackasen mountain and the settler homesteads dotted around its base. Her writing allowed me to picture every aspect of the place and also to understand the eerie isolation of Maija and her children. Knowing that other people are not especially far away, but that your chances of reaching them mean they might as well be on the moon, is a terrifying prospect. Ekback never overdoes the threats to her characters so their predicaments are thoroughly believable throughout the novel, yet she continues to weave in extra strands until fear itself becomes one of their greatest challenges. Wolf Winter is not a fast moving novel. Instead its cleverly varying pace acts more like a pressure cooker and, once engrossed in the story, I found it difficult to tear myself away from the pages. A device I particularly liked was illustrating the passing of time with a series of spaced descriptive paragraphs with little or no action. The contrast then to fast-moving violent incidents was very effective.

Every character is a very real person, convincing in their actions. Maija's immigrant Finn family are used to snowy winters, but their outsiders' view of Blackasen life and responses to it is expertly portrayed. The particular difficulties of women to be heard in a strongly patriarchal society is an important theme, as is that of the Church and its failure to understand the settlers lives. I had no idea that the temporary trading and taxation towns existed so was fascinated by this detail.

I think Wolf Winter will appeal to readers who enjoy character driven novels and especially the creeping dread style of Nordic Noir. Perhaps parallels can be drawn with the recently successful Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I also thought was brilliant(!), although I think Wolf Winter is a more magically mysterious tale. A wonderful novel and I will eagerly await Ekback's next work.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

Under Milk Wood (BBC Radio Collection)Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Under Milk Wood is deservedly famous as a piece of writing and although I had not heard this audio recording before I downloaded it from Audible a couple of years ago, I had heard of it. Richard Burton's narration is wonderfully atmospheric throughout and I love the way the character voices are integrated into the whole work, especially where they speak over each other. Each person is recognisable, inflated and exaggerated no doubt, but not so much as to make them grotesque. The children's singing is a great touch. From the initial idea of a quaint Welsh village, Under Milk Wood gets darker and more poignant and I think this vintage BBC radio programme is probably the definitive recording. Even having seen an outstanding theatre production since my first listen to the radio version, I still believe the audio twinned with imagination is the best way to experience Under Milk Wood. Audio doesn't get much better than this.

Buy the audio CD from Waterstones.

Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling (Annotated)Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've given up! After repeatedly returning to this ForgottenBooks short story collection for over a month, I just don't want to try any more. I know that Indian Tales is probably very much 'of its time' but the attitudes then are so different to today and I don't even think that the writing is up to Kipling's standard elsewhere. Too much gung ho militarism, racism and male chauvinism, and very little actually about India which was what I wanted to read in the first place.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Walking around the abandoned Bedar mineral mines

If you're looking for spectacular views and an unusual walk in the
We only peered into this tunnel 
Mojacar / Bedar area of Spain, you would probably enjoy the Sendero Local 77 walking route which takes in the now abandoned Bedar mines. We spent three hours exploring there on Tuesday afternoon and were so taken with the industrial remains and the gorgeous rock colours that we are returning there with friends on Saturday - weather permitting. It's turned distinctly chilly here the last few days and I almost got blown over by the wind today!

We parked off road at the beginning of the official walk. This Wikiloc page has several maps and routes uploaded by others who have walked here. There's a narrow road off the Los Gallardos to Bedar main road with a large abandoned stone building visible from the main road. The building has a large bricked-up arch at each end and looks as though trains originally drove through it. Park by the map placard, start walking past the building and then head up the steep track to your left. All the best Spanish walks seem to start with a steep uphill!

The beginning is wide tracks passing agricultural land and this tree which we are yet to identify. It really stood out against the predominantly alond and olive trees. We saw our first almond blossom of the year too. We also saw this bizarre cut-away hill which appears to be quarried for soil. It looked even more spectacular on our return as the sun was setting and really brought out the colours.

Well, it's not almond or olive! 
This cutaway hill is a
distinctive landmark 

We mostly stuck to the SL-A 77 route with a few quick diversions to interesting viewpoints such as the Hoyo Jupiter (Jupiter Pit) which is probably the most unusual landscape I have seen since Iceland. We saw rockscapes in purples, in vivid yellows, and in a delicate cream colour. If only a pop-up geologist like on Coast could have been conveniently placed to explain to us what we were seeing. The hillsides are dotted with numerous caves and mineshafts, plus we saw the remains of a cable car tower and railway signal boxes. Part of the route is along the now dismantled railway and crosses a narrow barranco - not the greatest place for those with vertigo but there are ropes each side. We went through tunnels hewn through the hills and peered into others that had been closed off. It was a fun walk and a memorable afternoon!

It's awfully dark and gloomy in there!
This final photo was actually taken on the beach near
Sopalmo but shows the beautiful rock colours 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Canvey Island by James Runcie / Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald / Swans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas

Canvey IslandCanvey Island by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our copy of Canvey Island, discovered on a campsite book exchange, was ex-library and had been mislabeled on the spine as biography. I didn't realise this until I was about to start reading it so my thoughts over the first few chapters were probably affected by expecting a true memoir rather than a fictional tale.

Canvey Island begins during the real-life flooding in 1953 which caused considerable damage and loss of life all along that part of the British coast. I remembered having previously watched a TV documentary about it. Our young 'hero' Martin describes finding himself alone, swimming through the flood waters to safety, but having been forced to leave his mother trapped en route. Each chapter is told from a different point of view with the various family members taking turns to advance his story through the following decades. While I have read other books where this device works well - The Spinning Heart springs to mind - I wasn't so convinced here because the characters aren't all strongly defined. I thought Aunt Vi, Claire and George had distinctive voices, but the others morphed together. I was particularly disappointed that Martin seemed bland. His life seemed more to happen around him than because of him.

I liked reading the well-researched periods of the flood and its aftermath, and also about the Greenham Common Encampments. Runcie has obviously taken time over the small details in order to make this historical side of the novel accurate. Perhaps it is a bit heavy on the nostalgia and the racist incidents, while undoubtedly realistic, make for uncomfortable reading. As a tale of family deceptions and intrigue, Canvey Island is pleasant enough and I would recommend it for a cosy winter read!

InnocenceInnocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've still not ultimately decided whether to award Innocence a three-star Good rating or a four-star Great rating. On the plus side, I did enjoy the writing style and there are many instances of dry witty humour that got me smiling. Fitzgerald's characters are unusually direct with each other, often to the point of downright rudeness, and they behave in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Barney, Cousin Cesare and Aunt Mad who both have strongly drawn mannerisms, but I was less appreciative of the two leads, Chiara and Dr Rossi, who were vague by comparison. I think I got a good sense of the Florentine residences and Valsassina from Fitzgerald's inspired descriptions.

However, I definitely did not like that the novel simply stops instead of having an ending. It is almost as though the publisher has missed off the final chapter! Several of the story directions are almost as frustrating. The writing does not dwell at all on its characters' emotions so I often found it difficult to understand why they followed certain paths. Their lack of social convention explains some instances but others remain baffling and I still have no idea what Chiara and Rossi actually saw in each other.

Innocence was recommended to me by a friend who lent me her copy of the book. I am looking forward to discussing the work with her now that we have both finished reading it. Hmmm!

Swans Are Fat TooSwans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books for IndiePrideDay 2016.

I was unexpectedly delighted with Swans Are Fat Too as it is a lovely story of a frumpy, overweight maiden aunt being effectively dumped upon from a great height by her family, yet ending up gaining the confidence to go for her dreams. I think I first found the novel via twitter and had it on my Amazon wishlist for ages before buying. To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a good book. I'm not sure why!

Hania is a world class pianist but has failed to make a career of this in America because her obesity alienates shallow audiences. When her grandmother dies, Hania is persuaded to return to her native Poland for the funeral. Upon arrival, she discovers that the relatives with whom she thought she would stay have actually absconded leaving her with the sole care of their emotionally damaged children, Kalina and Maks. The situation is bleak but Granas manages to inject a lot of gentle humour into her tale. She walks a careful line around Hania's obesity, laughing with her rather than at her so, as the reader, I was always rooting for Hania to succeed. She is a wonderfully resourceful woman and I enjoyed seeing her confidence grow through the story. The will-they-won't-they burgeoning romance with Konstanty upstairs is a great counterpoint to the escapades of the children and I was often cringing with embarrassment for Hania too. The lake!

A large part of Swans Are Fat Too is taken up with Hania's work translating and editing a history of Poland for Konstanty. We get to read a lot of this work too which could have been overly dry, but it is clipped into short sections and interspersed with Hania's comments querying Poland's historical reliance on their more bloodthirsty leaders when deciding upon heroes and erecting their statues. I thought that the same is so true of Britain! I wouldn't say I learned much history from Swans Are Fat Too because there's a lot of information and I wasn't in studying mode. However, the concise presentation gave an interesting overview and, of course, great insights into both Hania's and Konstanty's characters.

I don't often read women's fiction and romance stories so Swans Are Fat Too was a departure from the norm for me. However I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would happily buy more of Michelle Granas' writing.

View all my reviews

Monday, 19 January 2015

Fruit scones recipe and I win some delicious cupcakes

I got a wonderful Facebook message yesterday evening. I've won half a dozen cupcakes from Eastbourne Cooke's Cakes! The company is run by superb baker Vee Cooke with whom I used to work. Now she's running her own cake baking business which I am happy to highly recommend. It's been a few years now since I've been treated to Vee's creations so this is definitely something to look forward to when we swan back through Sussex in April. Woo hoo! Thank you Vee!

Earlier yesterday, by coincidence, I had actually been doing some baking
Eight freshly baked fruit scones 
of my own - a simple batch of fruit scones. I was defeated by a tub of aged baking powder when trying for a banana bread loaf last week, but we have since got fresh supplies from Consum (such a great name for a supermarket!). The rain in Spain was falling on the hills so we didn't fancy walking and I was temporarily between books, biscuitless and, dare I say it, a tad bored. So while Dave did man stuff by washing the car, I went all girly and dusted the inside of the caravan with a fine layer of flour! The following ingredients made eight good sized scones.

210g plain flour with 15g baking powder (or 225g self raising flour)
Pinch of salt
25g brown sugar
55g butter
120ml milk
Good handful of sultanas

Preheat the oven to 200c and dust a baking sheet with a little extra flour.

Put the 210g flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together into a large bowl. Chop the butter into pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Add the sultanas and stir in. Add the milk a little at a time, mixing it in with a flat bladed knife until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. My scrawled recipe actually calls for 150ml milk, but I don't think I've ever needed to use the whole amount so I've put a reduced volume here. 

If your pastry cutters are not currently in storage in a different country(!), roll out the dough to about 2cm thick, then cut 5cm wide circles and place them on the baking sheet. If you don't have pastry cutters, you can either roll out the dough as above and improvise; or pull away pieces of dough and gently roll them into flattened balls as I did. They don't have the classic scone shape but the taste is just as good.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Our oven in the house only used to take 8 minutes. The caravan one today took nearer to 15 minutes and the tray needed turning part-way through. Serve warm or cold with butter and jam. We didn't have any cream, but the local fig jam tasted good.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Walking part of the Bedar to Garrucha mining railway and discovering a good tapas cafe in Mojacar

We chose ourselves a fairly easy walk for yesterday afternoon! The
View through abandoned building window 
imaginatively named PR-A 367 takes in a section of a now abandoned mining railway that used to run from the mines in Bedar to the port at Garrucha. It officially begins in the village of Los Gallardos, but we chose to park out by the Camping Los Gallardos entrance instead so we could have a quick nose at the site!

As with the Via Verde that we walked back in March at Navajas, all the track rails, sleepers, etc, have been taken up, but we saw the remains of three derelict station buildings and the walking route goes through steep sided cuttings and across high embankments. There are some dramatic views along the way. Dave took the fabulous photo above looking through one of the buildings to the hills beyond. All three buildings were the same with no doors, windows or roofs, but we could still make out where the fireplaces and chimneys would have been inside. Most of the terrain is unpaved caminos and tracks with a few narrower footpath sections. There was only one short but steep downhill-uphill bit. That was where a stone bridge no longer went completely over the rambla so we had to walk down one bank and up the other. No scrambling needed though! We also passed through agricultural land with large fields of broad beans and what looked like coriander plants. Hard to tell through the white fleece covers.

Abandoned railway building on PR-A 367 
I have clicked out a Google map of the route we took. Follow this link to see it: Our original route was only planned to be about two hours but, once underway, we saw this signpost and couldn't resist adding the loop onto our walk. So the whole walk ended up at three hours and forty minutes. I still don't know what the Pago De Angela Antonia is though.

By contrast, we spent today in the car with flying visits to Nijar, Sorbas, Los Gallardos. Nijar is famous for its rugs and ceramics and has a number of large stores along its high street with an incredible range at very good prices. We saw lots of things we liked, only being restrained from a shopping spree by not having anywhere to put anything. 

Sorbas is a pretty town built on a hillside. It has a web of narrow streets and we got quite confused about where we were. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, we were hoping to find lunch in a nice cafe. The perfectly located one had closed down and we didn't fancy eating by the main road, so just had a quick coffee before heading off to Los Gallardos - which was effectively shut for siesta time!

Ending up back at Mojacar, we headed up to the pueblo (in the lift!) and were fortunate to stumble into the Cafe De Torino. We were warmly greeted and, as well as a large outdoor terrace, the cafe also has a glass-walled room with stunning views for miles and miles! We had perfectly cooked tapas - swordfish, squid and chorizo for Dave; tiny sausages, kidney and a huge salad for me - followed by coffee and a pastry each - strawberry slice and apple tart. All in with beer, wine, bread and crisps for €20 and we're still too full for dinner now!

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Map Of Love by Ahdaf Soueif / Lotusland by David Joiner / A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

The Map of LoveThe Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly, I think the cover and title of The Map Of Love does its content a disservice. From the moody image and brief synopsis, I was expecting a giddy, breathless period love story, a light women's fiction romance. Instead, I was treated to a wide-ranging story that takes in both historical (post-Victorian) and modern-day Egypt, the varying political stances and ideologies of her peoples, and the sheer beauty and majesty of the landscape, while still finding time to delicately portray the deep loves felt by two women separated from each other by one hundred years.

At over five hundred pages, The Map Of Love is a novel to take time over. Soueif's obvious passion for her country is contagious and inspiring and I loved her observed details of people, places, customs and emotions. The two central characters of Lady Anna Winterbourne in the early 1900s and her descendant, Amal, in the late 1990s both effectively manage to speak directly to the reader because we discover Anna's story through her journals as Amal reads them. I liked Amal as she is a bit of a worrier and I could easily identify with her immersion in Anna's diaries and journals. I was experiencing the same immersion into The Map Of Love!

Anna is a daring, headstrong woman by the standards of her time. She is determined to live the life she desires after having ceded the time so far to her previous husband. We learn about the culture and society of Egypt through Anna's experience and also through Amal's reactions to Anna. I enjoyed this dual viewpoint and had no trouble with the switching from one to the other. I did come unstuck with the multitude of men's names listed in passages describing the political meetings attended by Sharif Basha. I think several must have been real people and my Who's Who knowledge of 1900s Egypt is non-existent. It would be interesting to read a nonfiction history of the same period soon and put the two books together in my mind.

The Map Of Love did have a similar effect on my emotions as another recent read, Inheritance Of Loss. Both are concerned with the aftermath of British rule on their countries and I do feel ashamed of the way British people overran such a vast part of the world and how badly the existing peoples were treated. So much of real value was destroyed in the name of Empire and, basically, simply for money.

Another common theme is the potential loneliness of exile and the challenges of living within another culture. Anna is cushioned by love and by wealth in her Egyptian life, but there is still a continuous yearning for at least a small connection to home in her letters. Amal also becomes influenced by this, I think, in her return to her ancestral lands. Having made ourselves currently rootless, albeit in a tiny way by comparison, I have found myself choosing novels that reflect and examine the experience of travelling and being away from home. I would recommend The Map Of Love as both a rich novel of the lure of a different way of life, and of its downsides.

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LotuslandLotusland by David Joiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I received an advance copy of this book from its publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. Lotusland is due to be published in March 2015 and you can pre-order your copy through the link at the end of this post!)

Lotusland is my first NetGalley download and I was delighted to discover a literary novel of travel to exotic climes which perfectly suits my current reading bias.

Set in present-day Vietnam, Lotusland tells the story of Nathan, a struggling American ex-pat writer, who has been living in Saigon for several years. He makes ends meet with various writing assignments and English teaching, but appears to have no real focus and is in a rut. By contrast, the Vietnamese woman he meets, Le, has it all worked out. She is an artist working in a gallery and has confidently applied for a visa to emigrate to America. I enjoyed the different views of emigration and immigration which are presented in Lotusland. Nathan tries to discourage Le's application by explaining the poor quality of life she could end up with as a Vietnamese woman in America. His own life in Vietnam is hardly better, yet he does not or cannot see the similarities. Despite his mastery of the language and however long he lives in the country, Nathan will never be Vietnamese as Le would not be American. Joiner adds a third approach by introducing us to Anthony, another American, but one with a Vietnamese wife and children. At first sight, Anthony is more deeply integrated even than Nathan, but his is a lonely exile as he refuses to learn any of the native language thereby keeping himself aloof from his family and with Western business contacts in lieu of real friends. His business struck me as pure Colonial arrogance, attempting to force Western capitalism and wealthy leisure pursuits onto a area of simple rural agriculture to satisfy his own vision of how Vietnam 'should' be.

I was impressed that I became drawn into these three peoples' lives as I did not find any of them particularly likeable, but I still wanted to find out what happens to them. Nathan's could almost be a coming-of-age story. He is initially pretty much a drifter, easily coerced and led. Le is the most pragmatic of the three, finding her true path when her dream fails. I was pleased that the details of traditional lacquer painting were included. The passage slowed the pace of the story, but it was fascinating to read. Likewise, Joiner's descriptions of Saigon and Hanoi, the train journeys and general life in Vietnam are well observed and created strong mental images for me. His intimate knowledge of the country shines through in his writing.

Each chapter begins with the image of a lotus flower which is a nice touch. I am not sure if it is a Kindle-ism though, but the initial capital letter is then on a line of its own with the remainder of its word on the next line. I had no trouble working out the text but the appearance is odd!
I can't say that Lotusland has inspired me to visit Vietnam in the same way as other novels have drawn me to their countries. However, I think I now have greater understanding and appreciation. The aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Agent Orange use are sensitively handled to induce sympathy, not pity, and I am left with an impression of a strong people in a beautiful country. I will certainly be recommending Lotusland to friends who have previously visited as I think they will appreciate the memories called up by this story.

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A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

I've had a different Patrick Ness book, More Than This, on my Goodreads To Be Read list for ages, but recently spotted A Monster Calls as part of an Audible two-for-one offer so ended up buying it first. A relatively short audio book at just under four hours, I listened to it in two chunks whilst walking around Mojacar in Spain. Had I known what an amazing listen it was going to be, I think I would have arranged to complete the whole tale in a single walk! I understand that the printed version has some excellent illustrations which are obviously not included in the audio, but, for me, Jason Isaacs' superb narration more than compensated. His voice and style are perfect.

Patrick Ness has an uncannily accurate understanding of the guilt and anguish of slow bereavement. His story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy yet Conor's emotions are universal and not restricted to someone of his age. I found myself identifying with his anger and dread despite having been more than twenty years older when going through a similar experience. Although intended for a younger audience, I think A Monster Calls would be a powerful listen for most adults as well. Conor's grandmother's tight-lipped reactions as she copes with both her grandson and her daughter are heartrending.

The portrayal of the tree is fantastic in all senses of the word and I loved the device of the four stories, both their non-traditional fairytale quality and Conor's contemporary retorts to them. Stories Are Important! I was surprised by how much I was affected by this story. It was a struggle to keep my tears at bay during the final chapters and I have been thinking back over it in the days since finishing. I now have a clearer view of my own experience and, thanks to that fourth story, an appreciation that it's not just me who has felt that way.

A Monster Calls is a brilliant audio book and I believe any others I listen to in 2015 will be have to be incredible to match its intensity.

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Books by Patrick Ness / Audiobooks / Books from America

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Picnicking on a beach in January

We had a lovely day yesterday! Starting with retracing one of last year's
Picnicking on a beach near Sopalmo 
strolls from Camping Sopalmo with our friends currently there, Chris and Marta, we then all enjoyed a picnic lunch in warm sunshine on the beach - in January! - before returning to that campsite for the late afternoon and evening before finally heading homeward to Camping El Quinto.

It is much busier at Camping El Quinto now and I think about three-quarters of the pitches are occupied. Most of the newcomers are British and look like they are going to be stopping here for several weeks as they have large awnings and extra cupboard-tents stacked with Stuff. We were shocked when the couple diagonally opposite us made space for their awning on their pitch by cutting down one of the shrubs marking the boundary! We had seen the man pacing out distances and when he then reappeared with a saw, I assumed he was going to remove an encroaching branch, but no. The whole plant has gone. He then continued his deforestation attempts a couple of days later by pruning overhanging tree branches with a borrowed set of long-handled shears. I was so surprised, not only by his nerve and cheek, but also that people consider a variety of gardening tools to be essential caravanning equipment. I guess we still have a lot to learn - and we must obviously plan ahead by buying a considerably bigger awning!

By contrast, Camping Sopalmo is eerily quiet. Walking around had a nice sense of familiarity but, as it was pretty full there for our visit last year, the mostly empty pitches were a little disconcerting. We didn't arrive until late February/early March though so maybe it's just too early in the year? Chris and Marta are doing their best to spread out over multiple pitches and make the place look busy!! We joined them for late morning coffee - we were late - and then all set out with best foots forward. I was interested to see the plants that are growing wild towards the shore as they are different to those thriving in the hills, but maintain the same colour scheme of purples and yellows. Does bloom colour affect plants in this climate? Are the insects around at this time of year particularly attracted to purple and yellow?!

We walked for an hour or so to reach the beach and indulged in a quick paddle before lunching. Wow, that water has gotten so much colder since my last swim at the start of November! I had no intention of going in over my ankles, but Dave was happily prancing around up to his knees. Walking back via Sopalmo village was picturesque and it was interesting to view the route through different eyes as well. Marta is an artist so she often picks up on details of colour and texture that I might have overlooked. She's also a good chef and had made a rich beef casserole for us all. A few games of Yahtzee later - I lost them all, grrr - and we nearly couldn't leave Camping Sopalmo as it was already gone 11pm and the gates to the road were closed with us in our car on the inside! Fortunately campsite owner Simon must have realised we were still there because the bolt was across, but not padlocked. Phew! Thank you Simon! We were locked out at our El Quinto end too, but it's only a single barrier here and easy to walk around.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after such a late night, today has been a quiet day with just an afternoon wander down to Mojacar playa and back for me. The sun was almost too hot for walking at 3pm, but I had a fantastic audio book I wanted to finish - A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, read by Jason Isaacs. Review to follow in my next bookish post ...

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Beef and coconut curry slow cooker recipe

I first spotted a version of this delicious recipe on Linda Nortje's blog
Beef and coconut curry 
With A Blast and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to give it a try. Unfortunately, not all the ingredients are readily available in southern Spain so if you'd rather try the original South African curry, please visit the With A Blast post. My recipe below is the Spanish caravan cooking version which I made in our slow cooker today using sweet potatoes from the local market!

Olive oil
300g beef, cut into bitesized chunks
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, diced
2 small sweet potatoes, diced
300ml beef stock
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground garam masala
2 tbsp grated dried coconut
Salt and pepper to taste

Firstly heat a little oil in a pan and brown the beef. I can use our slow cooker pan on the hob as well which does save on washing up and keeps all the meat juices in for extra flavour.

Remove the beef when browned and set it aside for a few minutes. In its place, fry the onion and garlic until softened.

Remove the pan from the hob and either set in the slow cooker or put all the onion, garlic and beef into your slow cooker. Add all the spices and stir to coat the beef evenly. Add the sweet potato, beef stock and coconut.

Cook for 4 - 5 hours depending on the beef quality/chunk size and the slow cooker setting. I had ours on high for 5 hours so the beef was falling apart - which is how we like it!

Serve with rice or warmed naan breads. I steamed our basmati rice with a sprinkle of turmeric to get the pretty yellow colouring.

Both Dave and I enjoyed this dinner and it's one I will definitely make again. The beef kept its flavour, the sauce was rich and slightly sweet, and the potatoes held their shape and still had texture.
Perhaps next time I would cook less meat as 300g made generous portions for just the two of us. Also, I might add a third tbsp of coconut. The curry sauce was sweetened by the 2 tbsp, but did not have a significant coconut flavour. When we are back in the UK, I might also try substituting a carton of coconut cream and a crumbled beef stock cube for the grayted coconot and beef stock. This would result in a thicker, richer sauce. We could find coconut milk and cream near Xabia, but not here in Mojacar.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer / Roadrage by M J Johnson / When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had heard good things about The Shock Of The Fall and its winning of the Costa book award is also a good recommendation. However, I found it difficult to get into for the first few chapters as the time periods seemed to hop about so much and very little was explained. This approach does make sense with the hindsight of having read later chapters. At about 15% (grrr, no kindle page numbers!) though, I wasn't sure I'd make it to later chapters. Filer seems to me, who doesn't really have any experience of such mental health issues rattling, to have a good understanding of Matthew's world view and of how he comprehends his own reality. The repetition is cleverly done and I did like the effect of the different fonts used and of the pencil drawn images. I would have liked a clearer view of his mother, but child Matthew didn't have sufficient understanding so I guess adult Matthew couldn't either. Without, hopefully, any spoilers I found the dramatic journey towards the end too contrived and its characters unrealistically convenient which was disappointing. The Shock Of The Fall is an interesting debut and I would read Filer's future novels. For me, good but not great.

RoadrageRoadrage by M.J. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I previously enjoyed M J Johnson's first novel, Niedermayer and Hart, so had good expectations for Roadrage. The two books are very different though and I found it more difficult to tease out the sense of impending doom this time around. There is no supernatural element and, although I did appreciate the lack of that overpersonal motive that seems almost a prerequisite for most crime thrillers, the first person commentary wasn't always convincing.
Roadrage begins on a Christmas day and takes place over the few months that follow so reading it in January was perfect! Our hero suffers some truly horrific experiences in this short space of time and it's amazing that his mind doesn't implode from the stress. Johnson really does know how to pile the pressure onto his characters! He has obviously written places he knows well into his novel which provides a strong vein of realism alongside the (hopefully!) imagined chaos. Perhaps some plot elements are too strongly telegraphed ahead of time and the isolated cottage was a step too far for true credibility, but overall Roadrage is a diverting glimpse into a chillingly possible scenario.

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think When Will There Be Good News is the first Kate Atkinson book I have read and I didn't realise that it is the third in the Jackson Brodie series until I came to add it on Goodreads. Perhaps having read the previous two novels would have been an advantage because Brodie was one of the characters that failed to gain my sympathies at all and I couldn't really tell, other than some very convenient coincidences, why his storyline was placed so prominently. I enjoyed another of the central plotlines, that of Reggie Chase and her relationships with Dr Hunter and Ms MacDonald, far more. I think that had WWTBGN concentrated on this trio in a single novel rather than trying to force their stories into a continuing series, it would have been a considerably stronger book.

I did like Atkinson's descriptions of places and found it easy to picture the interiors of the differing houses occupied by her protagonists. The train was also particularly vivid. Some of her characters were excellent too. I've already mentioned Reggie and Ms MacDonald; others include wide-boy Neil Hunter, DCI Louise Monroe, and the smaller roles of Gary and also Bridget. It was amazing how many people's lives were marred by the deaths of their close relations in bizarre or unnatural ways.

I know I already have another Kate Atkinson novel, Life After Life, on our joint kindle waiting to be read. Hopefully it is not one of the earlier two Brodie books! Regardless, as it has a Scottish setting, I think I shall put forward WWTBGN as my first book in Peggy Ann's Read Scotland Challenge for 2015.

More about the Read Scotland Challenge ...
Hosted by Peggy Ann on her blog and also via its Goodreads group, this challenge encourages the reading of books that are written by Scottish authors or are set in Scotland. There are different challenge levels from which participants can choose. I have decided to aim for the Highlander which necessitates reading 5-8 Scottish books during 2015. Should I get to 8 with time to spare, I can upgrade as required, but lets see how the Highlander goes first!

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Friday, 9 January 2015

Making a few changes to our Bailey Orion caravan

We're having a lazy day today due to our overambitious walk yesterday
that's seen us both feeling pretty tired today. We ended up way off where we thought a route should be so had to do some energetic uphill and scary downhill scrambles. Both of us now have scratches on our legs from dry scritchy plants and brambles - Dave's array is particularly impressive. I thought about trying to create another Google map but we're not totally sure where we went and I don't think I would want other people following those particular footsteps. So instead I'm going to blog a out the little improvements we have made to Bailey recently.

There's a brand new addition to the outside of our caravan this week - as you can see in the photo. Having lugged the empty Repsol bottle that we bought at Sopalmo campsite last year all the way down through France and Spain, this week we got ourselves to a Repsol petrol station and exchanged it for a full one! There is only one place local to Mojacar which sells the propane gas cylinders and that is out on the road from La Garrucha to Vera. We could only get butane easily at the other petrol stations in the vicinity, but should have got the propane further north. Apparently propane is better in low temperatures and the whole point of travelling this far south is because it is warmer! Dave had already researched how to connect the Spanish cylinder to the British pipes and had purchased the right adapter before we left home. The installation wasn't completely hassle free but far easier than replacing the water pump! Our new gas is now connected up and working and ridiculously cheap compared to British prices. 11kg of Repsol propano was €15.40. 3.9kg of Calor propane is £15.99 on their website and we think we remember paying more in Eastbourne!

Our other recent changes are purely cosmetic. I can't remember if I mentioned our jettisoning of the carpets before we left Camping Florantilles? They had always looked a bit grubby because they had been left in their plastic coating from new for far too long. This meant the glue on the coating had come off on the carpets leaving them covered with tiny sticky bobbles. I spent a couple of afternoons cleaning them with daubs white spirit which helped a lot. However, we finally got fed up and decided the bare wood floors looked so much better! And they do so to hell with the resale value! We bought this rug on Wednesday from Souvenirs Maria Rosa in Mojacar. This is my first photo taken with my Kindle Fire so please excuse the quality. It looks better tiny!

I also spotted this beautiful wrap at Kasbah on Mojacar playa. It is made of aloe fibres and is currently doing duty covering the back of my bench seat.

Our final 'upgrade', which doesn't really warrant a photo, is a new chopping board. The Bailey Orion came with a large white plastic circular one which also doubled up as a cover for the sink. Unfortunately its designed home, with the table top in a vertical space between the fridge and tbe oven, meant it was exposed to considerable heat when the oven was in use. So it warped and would no longer fit securely on top of the sink. It scored very easily when chopped upon too, and was far too large to conveniently fit in the washing up bowl. All told, a nuisance all round! It has gone binwards today to be replaced with a €2 Bright Orange rectangular one.

As regards further alterations, we are thinking around the idea of not needing the mains hookup everywhere we go. This might save money and will allow us greater freedom when choosing campsites, especially those CL sites in the UK which have no electricity. Our friends, Chris and Marta, might be getting a solar solution soon so we will interested to learn how that works out for them. Personally, I am intrigued by pedal power generators. We saw one at the Alternative Living festival in Socoa, France. I found this website which explains the principles, but my brain has given out by the time I get to the technicals. I like the idea of using Dave's bike effectively as my exercise bike and contributing to the caravan's energy store at the same time.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Paper Towns by John Green / Where I Was From by Joan Didion / Walking Home by Clare Balding

Paper Towns by John Green
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I felt ominously lurgified recently so chose the YA novel Paper Towns as the easiest read of the selection on our Kindle. Set in Orlando, Florida, the novel tells of a group of High School students during the few weeks prior to their graduation. One girl, Margo, mysteriously disappears leaving her besotted childhood friend Q going to ever more bizarre lengths to find her.

The main strength of Paper Towns is in its depiction of the relationship between Q and his two best friends Ben and Radar. I thought this trio were very realistic and fun to read about. Their dialogue actually got me laughing out loud several times. By contrast, the female characters seemed more stereotypical and the continual emphasis on their appearances was irritating. All the students are also remarkably affluent - $100s of dollars are spent without any of them appearing to have jobs! I did like the descriptions of the 'paper towns' that were planned but never came into existence. There are a lot of these houseless plots in Spain so reading about the American version was topical for me.

Paper Towns is an ok light read but I found it difficult to buy into the main premise that Q would go to so much trouble for a girl who has basically ignored him for the best part of a decade. We are told he idolises her but, for me, his potentially jeopardising a college future that is fantastically important to him purely for the sake of a one-night madcap adventure was stretching credibility too far. I also missed out on much of the poetical theorising having not read the Whitman poem that was analysed. I've not read any of his poems and am starting to think I must get a collection to browse through - he is namedropped so often in American literature! Anyway, having got through the whole novel in an afternoon, the writing is indeed easy on the brain and there are some great humorous moments that took my mind off feeling poorly. Love the beer sword! However, the time-sensitive ending is too contrived - perhaps written with one eye on a film script - and I didn't like the last scene at all.

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Where I Was From by Joan Didion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Dave chose Where I Was From for our Kindle so I didn't read any blurb prior starting the book. I was vaguely expecting an autobiography of a journalist's youth and certainly not the wide ranging evaluation of California that Joan Didion has so eloquently penned.

There are elements of her own family history mixed in with every Californian family's history, whether 'original' or recent settlers. We also learn in detail about the political life of the state and I was amazed to realise how much of the economy is, or at least was, based on Government money and Defence contract production lines. There are definite echoes of the collapse of the old British mill towns in the current Californian situation. I have only travelled through this part of the world once - by Amtrak from Los Angeles to Santa Clara to San Francisco, a fortnight in all with a few days in each city - but found Didion's book fascinating even though many of the places are unfamiliar to me. I love the way she has melded her storylines to make every word feel personal.

This is very much a book of her struggling to identify and come to terms with her roots and their contradictions. I suspect most of us have a mental image of our home that isn't necessarily truthful about what is really there. Didion has made a brave stand to speak of both the good and the bad of her home state.

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Walking Home: My Family and Other Rambles by Clare Balding
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I enjoyed the Audible version of Clare Balding's My Animals and Other Family back in the summer and so have been looking forward to downloading her newest book, Walking Home. I got this one on audio as well. Balding reads her own words and is a very professional narrator.

This memoir is based around Ramblings, the Radio 4 series that Balding has presented for many series. I don't think I've ever actually heard an episode. I go through stages of being a Radio 4 listener and my most recent phase must have been over a decade ago. However, I got the gist pretty quickly - Balding goes on walks all around the UK and chats with Interesting People. I particularly enjoyed hearing her talk about her experiences making the programme and the places she has walked. Perhaps someone should have had a quiet word about attempting mimicry and accents though - most really didn't work for me. I listened to practically every word through headphones whilst walking around Mojacar in Spain - there's some fab walks here, Clare! - so I felt particularly inspired. Not having a convenient notepad and pen was an error though. I can now only remember the names of St Oswald's Way in Northumberland and the Wayfarers Walk near her family home as ones we really must do too! Maybe there is an index in the printed book edition?

Balding's attempts to get her family to do various sections of the Wayfarer's are humorous to listen to and I recognised several situations in which Dave and I have also found ourselves - what do you mean it's flooded? How flooded?!

Balding does also ramble in the other meaning of frequently going off topic and I did find this irritating at times. Her other subjects, including a long section on the London Olympics, are probably interesting in their own right, but when I was being inspired by walking tales, the sudden veers away were distracting.

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Books by Clare Balding / Biography / Books from England