Tuesday 24 February 2015

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen / Aquarium by David Vann / Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah

Eminent HipstersEminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a Steely Dan fan - we even got to see them play in Hammersmith maybe five years ago - I was pleased when Dave got Eminent Hipsters for his Kindle a while ago. The new Amazon sharing system means we each get to read the other's purchases, a system which I admit benefits me far more than Dave!

Eminent Hipsters is a book of two uneven halves. The first section contains essays written by Fagen about his childhood and adolescent musical influences and I very much enjoyed reading these. I was too pleased with myself for recognising names such as Bill Evans, but was mostly ignorant and scribbling down suggestions for later YouTubing. I think that the book really needs to come with an accompanying music download! Still, it is interesting to understand where Fagen's music comes from and his self-deprecating humour is entertaining to read.

I presume that the selected essays were deemed insufficient in volume for publication though because the book's second half consists of a tour diary. Unfortunately this doesn't bear much relation to the first half so I found the mid-way swerve disconcerting. Here we meet cantankerous old git Fagen who basically complains a lot about a touring lifestyle which he must surely not actually be forced into. Personally, I would have preferred more of the thoughtful essays and none of the diary.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

AquariumAquarium by David Vann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of Aquarium from the publisher, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. And I'm very pleased to have done so - it's a strong, powerful novel! I am including this review in Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Aquarium is set in Seattle and tells of a short period of the life of a twelve-year-old girl, Caitlin, who lives with her mother, Sheri, a woman struggling to make ends meet by working long hours in a dead-end job. They have a poor standard of accommodation and Sheri's work means Caitlin is often left alone for several hours, time she chooses to spend at the local aquarium gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of rare fish. I liked the inclusion of the line-drawn fish illustrations. Caitlin's meeting there with an older man is the catalyst for the events that drive the novel, but Vann does not take us to obvious territory.

This is not an easy novel to read. By that, I mean that the themes it examines are heavy and dark. The writing is superb - spare and frequently brutal and impossible to look away from. Vann has created perfectly believable characters that really got through to me. The destruction of a family by fear then poverty is graphically portrayed and the carry-though to the next generation is frightening to comprehend. My favourite character, I think, is Sheri although I didn't actually like her or many of her actions. This woman has fought incredibly hard to escape her past and her sheer rage at finding herself flung backwards absolutely crackles off the pages.

I will definitely be looking out for more David Vann novels in the future and will be adding his existing titles to my Goodreads TBR list.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

Hurting Distance (Spilling CID, #2)Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up in paperback - an actual book! - on a campsite book exchange a month or so ago. Mainstream crime thrillers aren't my usual fare, but I was swayed by the three pages of positive review quotes in the front. I really must learn not to take any notice of these as I think, in fact, I read a different book!

Hurting Distance is OK. At four hundred pages, it is a bit too long for its story, but the convoluted plot is certainly unguessable too far before the end. The main protagonist, Naomi, gets to be both spoken about and to speak directly to the reader which is odd at first but does work as a device. Every so often, a chapter will be written in the first person, as Naomi talking to her talking to her beloved Robert. Otherwise the novel is written in third person and present time.

In common with most crime thrillers, there is a serial criminal on the loose, this time a rapist, although Hannah doesn't overdo the clock ticking scenario. Instead there is a huge tangle of personal relationships and characters involved in convenient coincidences - while discussing how they don't believe in coincidences. I did appreciate a comment about linking arrows on the police evidence wall having become just a blob - perhaps an observation of Hannah's plot plan?! The police behaviour is what actually ruined this book for me. The villain and victims are cleverly set up but then the police behave like their TV counterparts, not real police at all. Then so much of the novel's forward drive depends on their irrational actions and jumped-to conclusions that I got quite irritated by the end.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Monday 23 February 2015

The windy delights of Cullera

We didn't need to stop overnight at Bigastro after all. The first part of our
Mulberry trees at Camping Santa Marta 
journey went so well that we just pushed on after lunch and arrived here at Camping Santa Marta in Cullera about 5pm on Friday. To be honest, I felt a bit despondent about the site when we first got here. There's nothing particularly wrong, but it felt dark and is mostly empty which did feel odd after the bustle of Roquetas. We initially had our terrace of a dozen or so pitches to ourselves. Now, a couple of days later, there are only three pitches remaining empty - apparently we are trendsetters! Our arrival was much later in the day than usual so the sun had already sunk behind the neighbouring hotel block and we don't have a nature view, more of a currently-unoccupied-apartments view! We are on an open section of the site where the pitches are marked with the pictured mulberry trees which have beautifully pale coloured trunks and branches. Unlike pretty much every other tree here, they aren't yet showing any signs of Spring. Most of the rest of the site is under a pine tree canopy so very shaded all year round.

In sunny daylight, there are quirky features here that are fun. This huge
Dave thinks at the Roca De Los Pensamientos 
boulder, the Roca De Los Pensamientos, is signposted and is right in the middle of a number of chalets. I suspect the owners were simply unable to shift it when building the site, but it now has a 'myth' and visitors are meant to lay a hand on the stone and think a happy thought - as Dave is doing in this photo!

We also have a 15th century Ermita in the cliff above the site and this path leads up there from the edge of the tent pitches. It's a big campsite. The path is made easier with lots of concrete steps added amongst the natural stone and the climb took us about 15 minutes, but we did stop to admire the views out to sea part way up. Unfortunately, the main part of the Ermita is sealed off with a locked gate. I think there might be a chapel through an arched doorway but we couldn't see it. Instead, I took a photo of 'next door'. The Ermita track is supposed to continue on and around the top of the hill, but practically vanished into undergrowth soon after the locked gate so we came back down the same way we went up.

Path to the Ermita 

At the Ermita 

The swimming pool is empty and both the supermercado and the cafe are closed up for the winter, but the shower blocks are lovely. Nice decor and copious quantities of hot water. We are also happy that not only is there hot water for washing up and laundry, but these sinks are all indoors. A luxury especially considering that there are still very strong winds here most of the time. I just learned that there was an earthquake today too - we failed to notice at the time.

Tiled street in Cullera 

Castle above Cullera 

Exploration of the local area has already begun in earnest with a lengthy cycle ride along the wide beachfront promenade to a river with small boats moored each side. We also found the railway station which we will need to get into Valencia soon. A car journey took us the other way along the front and around a lighthouse. And today we walked into and around Cullera admiring the architecture. It being a Monday afternoon, nothing was open, but we saw this stunning tiled street and the castle on the hill above town. A large park just off the seafront included a duck pond and a giant fibreglass squid. What more do you need?


Over the next week or so we want to visit the castle as the approach to it is supposed to be worth seeing. Sadly the Rice Museum is closed at the moment, but there are several other tempting walks and cycle rides, a lagoon to wander around and hopefully a Civil War air shelter to visit. Plus we have two days back in Valencia with our friends Andy and Barbara. No time to waste ... !

Friday 20 February 2015

The Woman In The Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana / The Daemon Device by Wendy Callahan / The Next Always by Nora Roberts

The Woman in the Movie Star DressThe Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of The Woman In The Movie Star Dress from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is also my fourth review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

I was intrigued by the synopsis of this novel and the 1940s glamour of its cover, but was concerned that it might be too whimsical or require too much suspension of disbelief. Native American woman, Genevieve Nightcloud, works in a vintage clothing shop in Hollywood. She's at a pretty low point with major family troubles, no man and two dead-end jobs to make ends meet. Then a vintage red dress and matching cloche hat turn up in the shop under strange circumstances and Genevieve starts to realise that the spirits of previous wearers leave their auras in their clothes. Dress in Marlene Dietrich's outfit and feel her persona!

I was a bit sceptical at first, but this novel really worked for me. It's a bit romance, a lot noir and is deeper than it sounds. Plus there's loads of old and not-so-old movie references which I love. Once I got past my Mr Benn thoughts - "and as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared" - I enjoyed the read. Asthana has created good characters in Genevieve, Todd and Renzo, and both her father and brother are completely believable. I liked the complications of Genevieve's mother having lived as more than simply a Mum and felt the issues raised by this storyline were sensitively handled.

The Woman In The Movie Star Dress could be considered a coming-of-age novel. It's theme of dressing for confidence and self-belief is interesting to think about. To what extent can clothes really make the woman?

The Daemon Device (Aetheric Artifacts, #2)
The Daemon Device by Wendy L. Callahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought the four volume compendium of the Aetheric Artifacts series as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2 on Facebook last November.

I've been putting off reading The Daemon Device as I thoroughly enjoyed its predecessor, The Chronos Clock, and there is only one more book afterwards so I don't want the series to end too soon. Having said that, I devoured The Daemon Device in a single afternoon - it was raining outside!

We return to Demetra and Francis just after his mother has dropped her refusing to let the couple marry bombshell and Demetra is most definitely not amused. In another fantastically mad plot, D&A set off in search of Demetra's past, hoping that they can establish whether the refusal has a good reason or is simple prejudice. I loved new character Aunt Verti and the various ways her name can be interpreted. She is great fun. I also found Demetra's mother interesting as many times she seemed a more juvenile version of her daughter which is a fun twist.

The verbal sparring between all the characters was up to the giggle-worthy standards set previously. I still haven't got a clue on the science of any inventions but love picturing them and Callahan's descriptions of the new transportation methods are great fun. Horseless carriages - imagine that!

The Daemon Device was just as satisfying as I hoped it would be and now I just have to try and wait a while before ending the trilogy.

The Next Always (Inn BoonsBoro, #1)The Next Always by Nora Roberts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a copy of The Next Always free from Amazon in return for having purchased a Kindle ebook during a promotional period.

I don't often pick up romance novels so I believe that The Next Always is the first Nora Roberts novel I've read. It's certainly the first in a very long time and likely to be the last too. I was disappointed at just how bland and formulaic the story was. Essentially just a long advertisement for the Boonsboro Inn - is Roberts an owner? - most of the book is taken up with lists of the luxurious furniture and fittings. We also meet a perfectly nice widow, Clare, who has nice children and falls in love with the nice man, Beckett, doing up the Inn. Surrounded by their nice friends and community, they overcome minor perils and, presumably, go on to live happily ever after as a Family.

Based on this one novel, I have no idea how Roberts sells so many thousands of books. I have read far more inventive fare from relatively unknown indie authors who could seriously benefit from 1% of her publicity, yet are ignored in favour of this drivel. Yawn.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Thursday 19 February 2015

Carrot coconut and almond cake recipe

This cake came about as a way to use up a couple of carrots that were
Carrot coconut and almond cake 
still sitting in our veg rack, a bit beyond their best. I looked at a few other recipes online but they all called for what seemed to me to be a ridiculous amount of oil. A couple of oil-free recipes used nuts instead and I had a half pack of ground almonds left over from making our Valentine's Day chocolate marzipans. Not enough to fulfil any recipe requirements though, so instead I made up the difference with wholemeal flour and then purloined the remainder of a tin of coconut milk that Dave had needed for a Goan curry. All the liquid was gone but there was a good three tablespoons of the soft cream coconut which turned out to be perfect for moistening this cake!

60g ground almonds
150g sugar (inc 1 tbsp vanilla sugar if you have it)
120g finely grated carrot
1 tsp grated lemon zest and a splash of lemon juice
2 eggs
120 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
Most of the solid cream in a 400g tin of coconut milk (discard the liquid)

Preheat the oven to 180c

Place the grated carrot in a large mixing bowl with the ground almonds and the sugars. Add the lemon zest and juice.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and mix well.

Mix in the flour, baking powder and spices. When well combined, beat in the coconut cream.

Spoon the mixture into a greased loaf tin and bake at 180c for about an hour. The cake is cooked when an inserted skewer or cocktail stick comes out clean. If the top starts darkening too quickly, cover it with loose aluminium foil.

I realised, after baking the cake, that I also have a part-bag grated coconut in the cupboard that needs using up. If I had remembered sooner, it might have been nice to sprinkle some over the top of the cake, in lieu of icing.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Portrait Of A Marriage by Nigel Nicolson / Bell Of The Desert by Alan Gold / Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold NicolsonPortrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to Orlando by Virginia Woolf last year on audio and, having loved that book, wanted to find out more about its real-life protagonists especially the muse for Orlando him/herself, Vita Sackville-West. Having asked for biography suggestions on Goodreads, several people directed me to Portrait Of A Marriage by Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson. I downloaded it ages ago and have finally gotten around to reading it!

Firstly, I think the authorship should be equally credited to Vita as well as Nigel because two of the book's five sections are an early autobiography penned by Vita! In these pages, I discovered a fascinating complex woman. Vita is intelligent, selfish, passionate, generous, witty and incredibly melodramatic. Born into an aristocratic family, she has no real understanding of her great privilege in comparison with the majority of British people then, and now. She zooms off around Europe, seemingly at a moment's notice, visiting fabulous places as if it is nothing - I was certainly quite jealous of such a lifestyle! However, once I got past this ignorance of the 'real world', I could begin to understand and even empathise with the all-consuming love of her young life. Vita has a passionate affair, beginning before her marriage and continuing afterwards, with another woman, Violet. The two have been friends since childhood but in adulthood, friendship turns to love. Reading both Vita and Violet's letters to each other unveiled amazing emotion between them and it was easy to understand why they were so determined to elope and escape society's refusal to openly accept such a relationship. Interestingly, neither of Vita's parents were faithful to their marriage either - an upper crust behaviour pattern that is fine in private but not in the newspapers.

Later, as Nigel begins to speak, we learn how Vita's marriage to Harold survived the affair leading to a wonderfully romantic love between the pair that lasted their whole lives. I didn't particularly like him either - he was happy to live off British taxes by taking a diplomatic job that placed him all around the world, yet still despised the middle-class taxpayers whose effectively paid his wages. However the quoted letters between the two made for fascinating reading and a great voyeuristic glimpse into a whole other way of living. Both Vita and Harold had affairs with other women and men respectively so, after the early years and the birth of their sons, the marriage was one of minds, not bodies. I was gripped by this intense relationship and, as writers both, their beautifully eloquent expressions of love and pain.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

Bell of the Desert: A NovelBell of the Desert: A Novel by Alan Gold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's taken quite a while, by my standards, to read Bell Of The Desert and unfortunately I did feel as though I was having to plough through the latter chapters. As I received the novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my review, I did feel obligated to finish it and there are some good points, but the writing style wasn't really to my taste. I am submitting this review to Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Bell Of The Desert is a fictionalised biography of Gertrude Bell, an amazing explorer, archaeologist and politician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was widely respected throughout the Middle East at the time, although her guarding of her privacy means that she is now far less famous than contemporaries such as T E Lawrence (of Arabia). I do hope the forthcoming Nicole Kidman film doesn't make her famous again for shallow reasons!

Alan Gold has obviously deeply researched parts of his novel and the complicated political webs of The Great War and its aftermath are nicely explained, whether Gertrude is their focus or not. I felt the novel came alive here as its three main protagonists, Gertrude, Lawrence and Arabian King Faisal, danced around each other trying to resolve the bloody mess of broken promises. However, a lot of the novel has already happened by this point and I was disappointed by the superficial treatment of Gertrude's early years in the deserts that so captured her heart. We only visit one archaeological dig - where she meets Lawrence - and I never really felt as though I was being shown this world as she saw it.

Other irritations: several chapters end in cliffhangers which are then ignored, the following chapter beginning much further on in time. For example, at one point Gertrude is captured and imprisoned by a particularly nasty Arab. How will she escape? I still don't know, even having finished the whole book, because the next chapter begins weeks later. The episode is alluded to, but never fully explained. Gold also has a habit of beginning new episodes with several lines only identifying the lead character as 'he' or 'she'. 'She' is generally Gertrude, but there are several male characters from whom to choose and I often got confused who I was reading about.

Having had high hopes for this novel which, with its historical and feminist themes, should have been exactly my sort of thing, I was ultimately disappointed. I did learn about Great War politics, but don't feel as though I really got to know Gertrude Bell.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and NightfallNocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to be a 'Marmite' author whom readers either love or hate! Nocturnes is now the third of his books I have read and, looking back on Goodreads, I was interested to see that I have rated them all the same at four stars - very good but not quite wow.

In Nocturnes, we are introduced to a horseshoe of five stories, mostly slightly linked and all incorporating a theme of music and musicians somewhere within their tales. I chose to buy this book on Audible audio so was not only treated to suitable musical snippets leading into and out of each story, but also had five different narrators. I think this helped because I was aware at several points that the lead characters were fairly similar in their way of speaking. Having a new physical voice separated the tales in a way that reading might not have done.

My favourite of the stories was Malvern Hills, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. The natural landscape worked well and I felt this character was the most developed. It was also perhaps the tale with the least greed and vanity in it - perhaps. As well as the poignancy of losing love, brief encounters, and meetings of minds, Ishiguro also tackles interesting themes such as the physical appearance of musicians, the rise and fall of fashions, what makes a life 'successful'. A couple of stories do border on becoming overly saccharine, but there are genuinely funny moments of farce too.
I did feel that all five stories are middles. Nicely observed and beautifully placed, but with ambiguous endings that weren't always satisfying. However, a thoughtful and different collection that made for a cosy retreat over a couple of rainy days.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sunday 15 February 2015

Two veggie dinner recipes and a honey cake

This will probably be our last week at Camping Roquetas, providing the
A honey cake 
weather for the next few days behaves as it is forecast to. We're expecting rain on Tuesday and stronger winds through Wednesday and Thursday, but there should be calm on Friday when we plan move on to Bigastro. If that name sounds familiar, it might because we were there for a couple of nights last year. Fingers crossed for the successful navigation of That Corner this time around!

We have been making the most of our time here, even being able to sit outside reading in hot sunshine earlier today. Yesterday we went for a two hour cycle along some little camino roads in between covered tomato fields. It's bizarre to see literally miles of covered greenhouses, all crammed with tomato plants climbing their way up individual wires, yet with hardly a soul about. Admittedly, it being Saturday afternoon meant most Spaniards had downed tools for their siesta and the start of their weekends, but even so. Dave commented that the region would make a great location for a zombie apocalypse film and it does have a suitably eerie quality.

In between going for beach walks with my headphones - good audiobook at the moment: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro - and keeping up my jogging - 40 minutes non-stop today - I am also enjoying a bout of experimental cookery. This is (so not) Dave's favourite!! In keeping with my less-meat aims, I have been searching out veggie recipe resources online and have found two great websites:

Oh My Veggies was where I found Lentil and Mushroom Burgers. We both enjoyed this meal although the burgers themselves were far more filling than I had anticipated. Together with the cheese-topped rolls I'd seen in the supermarket and sides such as coleslaw and sliced tomatoes, I thought we'd easily eat two each. We only just managed one-and-a-half each. The burgers have a great flavour and were well worth the faff of their cooking. They were a bit crumbly to shape prior to baking, and I almost wished I had a food processor while finely chopping all those mushrooms!

Lentil and mushroom burgers 

Veg Box Recipes is a site I found several years ago and I have made this Veggie Canneloni before. I've been searching it out again over the past week of so but could only remember the grated carrot ingredient so it took a bit of finding! Dave wasn't so keen on this dinner. We both liked the cheese sauce and pasta, but the filling needed to have a stronger flavour. I might add more herbs and spices next time - if there us a next time! I couldn't find canneloni tubes here in Spain. I had to buy canneloni sheets which are flat like lasagna. You soak them all together in hot water for 15 minutes until they soften like fresh pasta, then roll them around the filling. Once I figured out the instructions, it was actually easier than stuffing the brittle tubes!

Veggie canneloni 
Finally, the Honey Cake is today's find and its website is Roger Patterson's Honey Recipes, a wonderful collection of sweet and savoury recipes all using honey to a greater or lesser extent. The photo at the top of this post shows my baking of Kath's Honey Cake. It smelt gorgeous while baking, enabled me to use my new loaf tin, and made a delicious light cake, sweet but with a pleasant nutty tang because I used my locally-made-and-bought Almendro honey. The only problem with this cake is that it didn't last very long. About four hours. It's very moreish!

Saturday 14 February 2015

Chocolate covered marzipan sweets recipe

We discovered the existence of a Lidl supermarket in Roquetas a few
Chocolate marzipans ready for the fridge 
days ago and took a walk to where it was supposed to be. It wasn't. But all was not lost as we did find a huge Chinese shop in which I bought some brightly coloured food storage tubs and a three-tiered vegetable rack On Wheels! I am so easily pleased!

Dave returned to the Lidl quest, cycling back the next day, and did locate the store on the other side of the Gran Plaza mall. However, the only thing he really wanted to buy was their chocolate marzipan bars and there weren't any. I suspected they are only a Christmas special and it would seem this is the case. Poor Davey was quite disappointed.

With Valentine's Day then approaching, I got all creative as I was sure I had made marzipan in the past and it hadn't been especially difficult. A homemade box of marzipan sweets would make a good present for us him. Googling resulted in a number of slightly varying recipes and I ended up with the following blend of a few offerings ...

Ingredients (made 20 marzipan sweets)
90g icing sugar
80g caster sugar
10g vanilla sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp brandy
175g ground almonds
Large bar of dark chocolate

Sift the sugars together into a bowl. I actually only had standard granulated sugar in place of the icing and caster mix, although I did find vanilla sugar at Mercadona. The granulated worked ok, but did make the final texture quite grainy. A finer sugar would, I think, give a more luxurious result.

Stir in the beaten egg, then stir in the brandy, then stir in the almonds. Knead gently to form a dough, but try not to handle said dough too much as the almonds get greasy.

Separate out small pieces of dough with a teaspoon and roll them into balls. I got 20 two-bite pieces from this batch. Alternatively, you could roll out the dough and cut fun shapes with pastry cutters.

Place a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (or use a bain-marie if you have one). This stage was improvised somewhat precariously in the caravan. Amazingly, it worked! Break the chocolate into the bowl and wait until it melts. Using cocktail sticks, spear each marzipan ball, roll it in the chocolate, then set it aside on a flat tray. DON'T get the ends of your fingers in the chocolate - it's hot and it hurts!

When all the marzipan balls are coated, put them in the fridge to set. Overnight is best. Some of mine lasted that long!

Friday 13 February 2015

Happy Valentine's Day from Almeria

We saw this beautiful mural just randomly on a wall in Almeria yesterday
Mural on a wall in Almeria 
and I knew it would make a great illustration for this Valentine's Day post. Unfortunately my phone, and therefore my camera, was out of action as the battery was flat again, so Dave kindly captured the sight for us. It's actually still an hour before The Day here in Spain, but I'll publish early so followers via Bloglovin will get the pretty flower in their morning 'daily digest' email :-)

Our return to Almeria on a half-day trip was primarily to visit the Cinema Museum. This museum is housed in a restored old house, Casa Santa Isabel, some way out of the city centre, and contains the very room in which John Lennon stayed whilst filming How I Won The War and writing Strawberry Fields Forever. Actually, despite the myriad of films that were made in the surrounding area, that connection is pretty much the entire pull of the Cinema Museum. Which is a shame! The house has been nicely restored, but all the woodwork and paint is obviously very recent so there's no real sense of history. I would have thought that a requisite for a museum. One room does have a gorgeous selection of photographs - landscapes where films were made and locals who were in said films. Otherwise it's all a bit smoke and mirrors with limited content and we got round easily in less than 45 minutes without feeling as though we were rushing. The newness of the museum, and the money spent on its exterior, does suggest the beginnings of a greater work so perhaps the collection will become more extensive with time. In its favour, it is a cheap diversion. €3 for adults and a bargain €2 for Poor Old Pensioners!

The emergency seeking of a Valentine's Day card provided our impetus for the next hour or so and we wandered the main streets from the museum back towards and along the Avenue De Mediterraneo. (Slight smugness on my part as, for once, it wasn't me unprepared. I got my card for Dave way back in Hastings last year!) I got a very different sense of Almeria from this side of town to the picturesque touristy centre we saw last week. It is interesting to step away from the expected in order to briefly experience the parts of a city where its occupants live and work. There are dozens of new apartment blocks, but also open spaces, playgrounds and parks. After being saved by Papeleria La Cometa, we chose to raid a bakery and eat a snack lunch in one of the parks before attempting to find the car. Parking in the vicinity of the Cinema Museum would have fine, had we known. Instead around Carrefour and Mercadona, where we thought it should have been a breeze, there was hardly a space to be had! Anyway, if you're ever around that way, I can heartily recommend the iPan Croissanteria and the friendly saleswoman was right - the chocolate covered croissants are much better when filled with fresh cream! The tuna empanadilla is pretty good too.

Super lovely news to finish up with! While editing this post, I noticed a couple of blog visits via the book publishers Guernica Editions in Canada. I've just read and reviewed one of their books Rust Is A Form Of Fire by Joe Fiorito - great book, review post here - and Guernica have only gone and put my review out on their blog too! How cool is that?!

¡Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday 10 February 2015

The snow gets a bit close and my new Pine Hill Project album arrives

What passes for wintery weather is upon us now although, in contrast to
If you really squint, you can see snow! 
northern Spain where people have been left stranded by the falling snow, we really don't have much to complain about. Being British though, that is unlikely to stop us! The first photo here shows the snow on the tops of the Sierra Gador hills which we can see from our pitch at Camping Roquetas. I took the photo about ten minutes walk away on the beach a few days ago. We had had wind and a little light rain the night before, and awoke to white-topped hills all around. Quite magical!

Birds, not kitesurfers 
The wind has strengthened considerably over the weekend. It's nowhere near as strong as during the storms, but has completely changed direction. I had previously really struggled to jog to Roquetas town and found being blown back much easier. Yesterday evening I was blown all the way there and had the struggling jog for the return. Interestingly, I found the second version the easier overall of the two and managed more running minutes that way around. Probably this is due to being better warmed up by the time of the more strenuous effort. I was lucky on the way out to spot a whole flock of about a dozen kitesurfers just off the beach. Their multicoloured canopies were really pretty all together. I tried to get a photo on the way back, but wasn't close enough for my phone camera to get the detail so I photographed this rainbow instead.

A rainbow at the end of the Carril Bici
(cycle path)
We are just drinking a cup of red tea after cycling to Aguadulce harbour and back. It's only a twenty minute ride, but involved a lot of effort to get there. I don't think I was above third gear all the way. The return journey was a breeze -literally! The wind took the strain, sixth gear most of the way a practically no pedalling required. Dave wishes that all cycle journeys could be wind-assisted!

Fortunately I have lots (and lots and lots!) of books to keep me occupied during the extended indoor hours so you can expect a glut of book review posts. Plus yesterday I received my eagerly awaited new music album via Kickstarter, Tomorrow You're Going by the Pine Hill Project which is the name of the new venture by Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky. Long-term blog readers will already know how much I love Richard Shindell's songwriting! Tomorrow You're Going is brilliant! We had our first listen through yesterday evening and I was very impressed with the music. There's some great mandolin playing on there and I even liked their U2 cover! Highly, highly, highly recommend this album and I think it goes on general sale in March. There's an 'email when available' button at the end of this Amazon link:

Monday 9 February 2015

Dresden by Victor Gregg / Gilgamesh trans by Gerald J Davis / Secrets Of The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Dresden: A Survivor's Story by Victor Gregg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

Due to be republished on the 13th of February 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Dresden bombings. I received a review copy of Dresden from the publishers, Bloomsbury, via NetGalley, and am entering this review of the book as my first for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Dresden: A Survivor's Story is the brief memoir of Victor Gregg, a British soldier who, at the time the firestorm was ignited, was being held prisoner in Dresden. Managing to escape both the bombs and the prison by sheer good fortune, he then remained for the next few days helping as much as he was able with the immediate rescue efforts. This memoir is written very much as I think it would have been spoken. It is not great literature and there is a sprinkling of typos, but I think it has a far more immediate power through being so direct. I would be interested to learn if an audio version is also to be made available.

Gregg's memories encompass both the mundane and the horrific. He describes scenes that are almost impossible to comprehend and for him and the other witnesses to have lived with the memories of such sights without losing their sanity is incredible. We were taught about WW2 at school, but I don't remember Dresden getting a mention. It doesn't fit with our British view of ourselves as the conquering heroes. Gregg addresses this paradox at the end of his memoir calling for some law to prevent any reoccurrence of such civilian slaughter. In common with my thoughts after having listened to The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang, I am left bewildered and horrified at the capability, seemingly existing in all humans, to destroy each other.

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository

Having recently listened to The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel which explores in detail the Deluge part of the Gilgamesh story, I was interested to actually read the whole epic. It's being perhaps the oldest book in the world is incredible and I suppose I was expecting something Homeric, certainly in length! However, The Epic Of Gilgamesh is quite short! I haven't read any other translations for comparison but Davis' came highly recommended so I will assume its accuracy. Once I got into the flow of the language, I enjoyed the rhythm of the stories. There is quite a lot of repetition of phrases and I wondered if this was due to Gilgamesh primarily being intended to be spoken to an audience rather than read privately. I could imagine gathered people joining in with the repeated stanzas, thereby adding to the entertainment.

I already knew that the Deluge story is a forerunner of the Ark tale in the Christian Bible, Utanapishtim being an earlier version of the Noah figure. I was interested also to spot another story that is also similar to a famous Bible tale but with a very different moral lesson. Enkidu, a man living pure in the wilderness, is shown the error of his natural ways when he introduced to a woman, Shamhat. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu gets to spend six nights and seven days with Shamhat who then introduces him to civilisation, clothing, family and, eventually, city building. In the corresponding Bible story, I remember Adam just gets a bite of apple and then both Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise with Eve's actions causing women to be seen as a bad influence forever. I definitely prefer the Sumerian version!

Davis' translation also includes a couple of scholarly essays after the Epic. These are interesting although a little too niche in places for my understanding. I was pleased to find this easily readable translation and to now have knowledge of this most ancient tale at a very good price (on Kindle). I have already added Davis' Beowulf translation to my TBR list.

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy the audiobook download from Audible via Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

I found Secrets Of The Sea House in an Audible two-for-one promotion and bought it as the synopsis looked interesting and because, with its Hebridean setting, I could count it towards the Read Scotland 2015 challenge! Set partly in the present day and partly in the 1860s, I found that it swung from being fairly run-of-the-mill to being an intriguing page-turner depending on whose story I was hearing at the time.

Overall, the island of Harris comes out of the novel as the winner. It is gorgeously described throughout and I am currently determined to visit. Gifford makes even storms and blinding fogs sound romantic and beautiful. Also the three narrators do a wonderful job between them and their soft accents are wonderfully evocative.

I enjoyed the historical storyline immensely. The 1860s was a terrible time to be poor in the Highlands as callous English landlords were ruthlessly throwing people out of their homes, pretty much just because they wanted the land to get rich(er) from sheep farming. One of our protagonists, Moira, has lost her entire family to poverty-caused disease following one such eviction. Her proud, caring character was very moving. Gifford also cleverly weaves in folklore of mermaids and sea people to great effect. Our historical hero Alexander and his search for the truth about these myths is entertaining, especially given the context of Darwin's then recent discoveries. Supporting characters are also well-rounded real people, even those who only appear briefly such as the tragic Fanny and Matthew. The scene of the missing furniture is beautifully written.

With such rich pickings in the historical plot however, the present day story felt bland and almost whiningly 'woe is me' by comparison. Ruth has suffered tragedy in her early life but I did get fed up with her persistent excuses for not seeking psychological help. Also her time's characters never really seemed to emerge from the pages to me. Leaf is pure caricature but even Michael was more comforting presence than a real person. Once the problems of their own making were added - I have some illustration work, but I haven't done it on time so no pay. Oh dear, we haven't got any money, what are we going to do - it seemed as though us modern-dayers are a weedy lot by comparison to our ancestors. Perhaps that was Gifford's point, but I don't think so.

If you're looking for a diverting read/listen, and especially if you need more Scottish reads for the challenge(!), I would recommend Secrets Of The Sea House. However, having listened to most of Ruth's story on higher speed, I would have preferred the novel to have just been Moira and Alexander's times.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Friday 6 February 2015

Perhaps eighteen miles was a bit too ambitious?

I shouldn't have joked on yesterday's post about us cycling to the
We chose a much flatter route than this road becomes! 
wetlands natural park today. Today we did! Dave put the route into Gmaps when we got back and our two-and-a-half hours encompassed a mahoosive eighteen miles so we're both very proud of ourselves. This is the route we took:


It is all pretty flat, both along the promenade and through the wetlands, although the rough surface for the first part of the wetlands was 'interesting' on my no-shock-absorbers bike. The wind managed to be in front of us both going out and coming back - we're not quite sure how that can happen. Any meteorologists out there? Anyhow, I am now sporting a little saddle soreness, a grumbling left thigh, and an achy mouth from grinning too much. Perhaps attempting eighteen miles only a week after buying my bike was a bit too ambitious, but it was fun!

Now to think of a proper name for Bike ...

Thursday 5 February 2015

We cycle to Roquetas market and see flamingos in a wetlands park

Every town in Spain seems to have its own weekly market and Roquetas
Nacional Vertice Geodesico inscription 
de Mar is no exception. The stalls stretch from the roundabout by the Gran Plaza shopping centre practically down to the beach, a distance of several hundred metres, and mostly sell clothing or fruit and vegetables. We cycled from Camping Roquetas along the dedicated beachside cycle route and a couple of almost deserted roads. The journey was a leisurely fifteen minutes each way. The cycle routes here are fantastic. There is an almost entirely traffic-free route alongside the beach from Aguadulce harbour at one end to the wetlands natural park on the far side of Roquetas at the other end. Several roads into the towns also have special red-painted cycle routes and Spanish drivers around here seem particularly aware of cyclists and walkers, giving both a wide berth. It is great for confidence building!

Aguadulce harbour from the promenade 
We didn't have a long list of things to buy although I especially wanted to get a jar of local honey. We had seen hives on the sunny hillsides while walking so I was sure there would be some. One stall had teas, spices and several flavours of honey. Made at Cortijo La Magana, and with the portraits of the beekeepers on the lid, they all looked tempting. I chose an almond one and tried a little stirred into Greek yoghurt this evening. Delicious!

After lunch, we reverted to the car and drove to the wetlands park. I think we may try cycling there tomorrow. There is an ornate gateway from a wide road at the edge of the urbanisation. We parked up and set off walking but a couple of cars were also touring, slowly, which seemed odd to us. We didn't expect driving cars around to be accepted but the dirt roads were obviously well used. The first part of the park doesn't have any visible water and could pass as generic waste scrubland anywhere along this coast. Miles and miles of plastic-roofed tomato greenhouses are visible nearby and we could even see snowy mountains in the distance. After about a quarter hour, we passed by a lake with a few ducks and, to our delight, a couple of dozen flamingos! We haven't seen flamingos since Tavira last year. I tried unsuccessfully to get a photo as the birds were too far away and mostly had their heads underwater feeding. They can hold their breath for a long time!

Still in the park, near the beach, we saw this bizarre collapsing structure.
Tower in Roquetas wetlands park 
It looked like an abandoned windmill from a distance, but there were no doorways or window apertures, or indeed any sign of stairs upwards. A stand for a helpful placard had been provided nearby. Perhaps its information sheet will be attached soon?

Another odd sight was this tall stone pillar with a short stone cylinder on its top. We initially thought it was some religious marker due to the white cross in front of it. In fact the two are separate. The cross commemorates the deaths of two pilots presumably nearby or who were from the locality. The tall pillar belongs to the Instituto Geografico and is a Nacional Vertice Geodesico. There is an oval inscription on the side that says so. It also states a dire threat for anyone damaging the pillar. We didn't touch! We guessed a Nacional Vertice Geodesico is something like a trig point back home and, upon Googling, think we weren't too far from the truth. With excuses for rusty translation, we think it was one of 39 sites across Spain and Portugal that were used for an extensive GPS survey in the 1990s.

Pillar and memorial 
In order to walk a loop - Dave hates out-and-back walks - we continued along the beach as far as the edge of town. Here, there are lots of fairly new streets and large apartment blocks. Some look to be general housing and others appear more like luxury holiday accommodation for tourists. A golf course has also been created here and is a lush green in contrast to the grey-greens of the surrounding wetlands. Most of the apartment blocks seemed closed up and deserted, perhaps because it is winter, so I was amazed to turn a corner and see dozens of freeloading motorhomes. A car park at the end of the promenade had been taken over, which is fairly normal, but then they continued, parked both sides of the wide roads, for several blocks! I've not seen so many together before.

I find it quite weird that these people spend thousands on their luxury motorhomes, but then pennypinch by parking up like this, literally just at the side of a road under an apartment block with no facilities, no view or even any sunshine to set out a chair in. There were so many that they couldn't all just be breaking their journeys there for a night before moving on. Freeloading in pretty places I understand, but not this!

In other news, huge thanks to Adrienne for being the first to 'buy me a coffee' (through the Paypal link on the right of this blog page). I shall be sure to savour every sip!
And for book persons, if you were intrigued by Sophie and Suze's recent Review Challenge, they are starting another later this week. This challenge is specifically aimed at Netgalley reviews and further details are on both Reviewed The Book and on Librarian Lavender. I have one Netgalley review, for a Korean novella, outstanding and I must get requesting some more titles!

Monday 2 February 2015

Celtic Blood by James John Loftus / Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord / Little Brutes by L N Nino

My final three reviews for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge which ends today. It's been fun!

Celtic BloodCeltic Blood by James John Loftus
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Celtic Blood is my second book for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge. Through the challenge's Goodreads page I learned of a limited time opportunity to download the book from Amazon for free.

Celtic Blood is billed as a historical novel. It is set vaguely across Scotland and some parts of England although definite identifications of place are rare. The story initially concerns a Scandinavian teenage boy, Seward, who is washed up on Scottish shores following a shipwreck. The focus then shifts to a Scottish boy, Morgund, for whom Seward acts as a kind of Squire.

Primarily a coming of age adventure, the tale revolves around Morgund's attempts to become a true warrior and reclaim his family's noble heritage. There is a lot of posturing about the 'sacred brotherhood' of men who own swords and the need for such soldiers to discover their destinies through fighting each other. The main plotline of the story is entertaining enough though, other than a silly interlude with some Satanic witches. None of the novel's female characters are at all realistic, but the generic 'old crone' at the centre of those scenes is definitely the worst of the lot.

The overriding problem with Celtic Blood however is that it is a difficult book to read. The language switches from contemporary to Olde Englishe - thank goodness no actual Scots is attempted! - and the random use of commas throughout means that some sentences have no meaning. Odd word orders frequently give the impression of reading the wisdom of Yoda. Loftus' use of sentence fragments could be considered a style decision if they were more consistently and sparingly applied. However, the combined errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling on every single page simply gave me the impression of a first draft that has somehow been published by mistake. The poor writing quality is repeatedly mentioned in other reviews dating back years though so, sadly, it would seem Loftus has not undertaken corrections and is not interested in providing the best experience for his readers.

Redemption in IndigoRedemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've finished Redemption In Indigo at last and, despite the ages it has taken for me to listen to its fairly short length, I am feeling a little sad to be away from Pamaa and her world. Having started at an awkward time without access to long solo walks which is when I do most of my listening, it is a credit to Karen Lord's memorable writing that I always found it very easy to both pick up my place in the tale, and remember how we had all got there, even though I had been away for several days. Redemption In Indigo is a perfect book to be heard, rather than read, because its narrator often breaks away to address the listener directly. With Robin Miles' able narration, these moments feel perfectly natural, but I think they might be odd for if reading a paper book.

Apparently the beginning of this enchanting tale is based on a traditional Senegalese folk tale. I loved the early episodes as the gluttonous Ansige attempts to win back his wife, Pamaa. She is forced to invent ever increasingly bizarre excuses to explain his mad behaviour! The intervention of various supernatural creatures, such as the Djombi and the tricksters meant that I never knew where Lord would take us next. I was reminded of the Neil Gaiman story Anansi Boys which is set in a similar environment. I think anyone who liked that would enjoy this although the stories themselves are different in their approach.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

Little Brutes by L N Nino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free personalised copy of Little Brutes, a short story by L N Nino, as a thank you for signing up to his email newsletter. I first discovered his work through reading his novella The Brain Within Its Groove. I was pretty impressed then and so was delighted to be emailed a few days ago with this current offer.

Little Brutes is a very short story, but contains a haunting vision of callous lives within its few pages. A mother and her son are left in extreme poverty when her husband is killed. The arrival of a baby tips the mother over the edge with heartrending consequences. I can't say too much here without giving away the tale but I think this is a great, sad story. It both shocked and moved me with its sharp depictions of three desperate people. I would highly recommend anyone who likes dark writing to give Nino a try.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sunday 1 February 2015

Cabbage and lentil gratin recipe

We have been giving a lot of thought to what we eat recently. In fact
Cabbage and lentil gratin 
since I read (and have then been incessantly quoting) Farmageddon. I was shocked to learn about the poor nutritional content of factory farmed meat although it makes sense when we consider the reduction in flavour that we have noticed over the past few years. We seem to be commenting more often on the blandness of meat and poultry, yet without a similar lack of flavour to all foods so it's not just our taste buds wearing out.

One of the ways Farmageddon suggested individual consumers can help to end factory farming is by not buying its produce. We already buy free range eggs and had upgraded our chicken to RSPCA Freedom Food as a result of Hugh F-W's television documentary. However, free range and organically produced meat can be pricey compared to what we are used to paying. So even with smaller portions, in order not to totally blow the week's food budget by Thursday, we are going to need to eat more veggies. Yes, even Dave! He did like this veggie gratin although I'm not sure he considered it as complete a meal as I did!

70g brown or green lentils
Stock cube or enough stock to cook lentils in
1/4 of a white cabbage, shredded
25g breadcrumbs
25g grated parmesan cheese (or similar)
Dozen black olives, pipped and quartered

Olive oil
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 a red pepper, diced
1 tsp ground coriander
Good pinch mixed herbs
400g tin of tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper

Cook lentils in boiling stock until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Boil cabbage for 3-4 minutes until just tender. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again. Set aside.

Meanwhile, fry onion, garlic and red pepper in olive oil until softened.
Stir in ground coriander and mixed herbs. Add tinned tomatoes and break them up if necessary. Add tomato puree and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and leave to simmer until you have a thick sauce. It takes about 20 minutes and I stirred the sauce occasionally to prevent it sticking.

Mix the lentils and cabbage into the tomato sauce and pour all three into a gratin dish if you have one (or the closest you have!). Mix the cheese and breadcrumbs together. Sprinkle half over the veggies, dot with the olive quarters, then sprinkle the rest of the cheesy breadcrumbs.

Bake for 20-30 minutes in an oven preheated to 180c.

We enjoyed this meal although Dave thought there was too much cabbage in relation to the lentils and sauce. I made the topping with a pseudo-parmesan because that's what we had in the fridge. It had a good flavour, but another time I might try a grated cheddar instead in order to get a gooey-er effect and perhaps to hold the veggies together more on the plate.
I guess other veggies could easily be substituted for the cabbage depending what you have available at the time, and this gratin would also make an excellent veggie side dish as part of a larger meal.