Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale / The Cortes Enigma by John Paul Davis / The Enigma Engine by Wendy L Callahan

A Place Called WinterA Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of A Place Called Winter from its publishers, Tinder Press, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This is my ninth review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

A Place Called Winter is set in the early 20th century and follows several years in the life of affluent yet idle society man Harry Cane. It begins with a harrowing description of a 'treatment' which Harry is forced to undergo at a Canadian mental health facility. At this point, we have no idea what is wrong with Harry and only learn the cause of his incarceration later. Instead, the novel jumps back in time, beginning his story chronologically from his life as a young man in England.

I had trouble deciding whether I actually like A Place Called Winter a lot or just a bit! I thoroughly enjoyed discovering Harry's life story and Gale's evocative prose gives a wonderful picture of both stifled English society and the wild expanse of the Canadian homesteads. Harry's lack of direction was often irritating and his homosexuality is the driving theme of the novel. I was saddened, although not surprised, by the attitudes of his in-laws over a hundred years ago. Winnie's family are especially well-drawn and I found it easy to understand Harry's sacrifices for his brother, Jack. I am sure people like Harry would have hoped such bigotry would become a thing of the past. Depressingly, having read a stream of Facebook comments about the 'dancing skeletons' film this Valentine's Day, I know that there are still many vicious bigots around.

Once engrossed in the main story arc, I didn't like the time jumps back to the institutions which I thought disrupted the story flow. I wasn't convinced by Troels' repeated appearances, but I did like the Jorgensen family who reminded me very much of the brothers in Kent Haruf's Plainsong. A Place Called Winter taught me lots I didn't know about early white settlement of Canada which is interesting, but I didn't think the book quite lived up to its potential.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

The Cortés EnigmaThe Cortés Enigma by John Paul Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having enjoyed The P45 Diaries last year, I've kept following @BenHatch on twitter. Recently I spotted a retweet announcing free copies of The Cortes Enigma on Amazon for one day only. I clicked through!

Set almost entirely on the Scilly Isles, The Cortes Enigma is an entertainingly improbable adventure in the Indiana Jones vein. Indeed a couple of joking references are made to the films which reminded me of our location visit in Almeria. John Paul Davis has obviously spent time thinking out his plot and I mostly kept up with all the rapid comings and goings. It is pure escapism that a single American, new to the quest, could out-think decades of treasure hunters and researchers and jump to so many correct conclusions so quickly, yet I found myself rooting for Ben pretty much from the start.

Davis's writing does tend to get bogged down in repetition which slows the otherwise frantic pace and I did sometimes have trouble immediately identifying who was who at the start of new scenes. The characters are lightly sketched and, other than our heroes, pretty stereotypical, but this is much more a novel of doing than of being. The only young female character, Valeria, is perpetually described in terms of her appearance and apparently only exists for the male characters to lech over. Oh, except for occasional personality insights such as when she admires a kitchen!!

Rampant sexism aside, I liked reading The Cortes Enigma. The Scilly Isles are definitely the star of the show. I was quite taken by descriptions of the landscapes and villages so won't rule out a visit there some day!

The Enigma Engine (Aetheric Artifacts Book 3)The Enigma Engine by Wendy L. Callahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2.

Oh, I'm just a little bereft at finishing the last of my quartet of Aetheric Artifacts stories. In this fourth installment (the third full-length), Demetra is charged with discovering the identity and possibly nefarious intentions of a mystery someone who is kidnapping Aetherals from all over London.

Nicely plotted as always and with Callahan's trademark sharp repartee very much in evidence, The Enigma Engine is a fun adventure. I love picturing Demetra's fabulous outfits! Recapping of events in previous stories did slow the pace a little, but I was pleased to see Aunt Verti stride out again and the icy Lady Winterton is always great. The additions of a suitably villainous villain and wily accomplice made for a satisfying tale.

I have heard rumours of further Demetra and Francis stories on their way in 2015. Fingers crossed!

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Saturday, 28 March 2015

From Limoges to Tours

We're fairly zooming through France at the moment in readiness for our
Metal man in Limoges walking across France 
Caen ferry on Tuesday. There's less than a week now until our UK return - it seems almost unreal.

Yesterday afternoon we made the best of a cloudy day with a walk around Limoges. We had considered cycling in, but in the end I was glad we drove as there was very little in the way of safe cycle paths and quite heavy traffic. The medieval old town parts are very cute with lots of preserved half timbered houses. I saw the metal walking man artwork on the side of a building but have no idea whether it was there for a reason or purely as decoration. We also spotted metal shell motifs in the pavement - does a Santiago pilgrim route go though Limoges?

The art deco railway station is worth a visit although we had already
Limoges railway station from the park 
been spoilt by Valencia Del Nord. It's clock looms high and can be seen across the pretty park in front of the station. The flower beds were already blooming with daffodils and pansies in bright cheerful colours. We were lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) to stumble across a small market of regional products in the Quartier De La Boucherie. We made a couple of purchases although honey, which we really need, was outrageously expensive. At the market's very centre was a strawed pen with a sheep and her lambs, and a pig with her piglets.

There is a fantastic garden by the cathedral, or at least it will be fantastic
Limoges cathedral 
for visitors in the summer. At the moment there are hundreds of different labels, each indicating a small plant and I'd love to go back once they all start flowering! If you're heading that way with a caravan or motorhome, we can highly recommend Camping d'Uzurat as a base.

And for visitors to Tours, we are happily settled in Camping Les Acacias which is open all year round. The site is out of town and is very near the Loire river. A few minutes walk this afternoon and we were strolling through peaceful woodland, listening to birdsong and gazing out on an incredibly wide river! There are dozens of tracks suitable for walking and mountain biking. There is also a tarmaced cycle path which passes the campsite and offers a leisurely way to get to Tours. Weather permitting, we are hoping to try it out tomorrow.

I liked this doorway in Limoges, but am yet
to translate it properly 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

We cross into France and make a sobering visit to Oradour Sur Glane

The past few days have seen us travelling out of Spain and back into
Abandoned car in the ruins of Oradour Sur Glane 
France. Mostly grey and drizzly weather has meant quite dull journeys and overnight stops although we have been delighted by apparently insignificant sights such as grass verges. Spain doesn't have much in the way of lush grass!

We spent one night in Banyoles at an almost deserted campsite, then crossed the border and had two nights at the pricey Camping Le Rupe outside Toulouse. Not only did they charge nearly €25 a night even though most of the facilities were closed, they also wanted €13 for three days wifi. Hence no wifi! The redeeming feature was a spacious heated sanitary block with indoor washing up sinks in a circle around a raised garden complete with trees - IN the block! One afternoon we cycled along tow paths into Toulouse and were amazed by the shanty housing along the canal banks. There are some boat berths, which is to be expected, but also dozens of tents and shacks made of salvaged wood. Another surprise was a small allotment style garden on the canal bank right in the city centre and three men failing to catch escaped chickens!

Now we are settled for a few night at Camping d'Uzurat, just outside
Stream at
Camping d'Uzurat 
Limoges and a couple of minutes walk from a pretty lake fed by the pictured babbling brook. Wifi is back to the prices we got used to in Spain - a euro a day - so I get to write a blog post.

Dave particularly wanted to stop in this area when he discovered the terrible story of the Martyred Village of Oradour Sur Glane. Destroyed in one day - the 10th June, 1944 - by Nazi soldiers, almost all the village's inhabitants were gathered together and killed, and their homes torched. As there was no one left to rebuild after the war, the village remained in ruins and is now preserved as a memorial. Signs have been put up stating the name and business of some buildings, such as the cafes, grocers and garage. Otherwise all that can be seen is ruined walls, rusted cars, tools and sewing machines, and the abandoned tram lines in the road. Walking around was an eerie experience, especially in the bleak weather. Slightly away from the streets is a cemetery which is still in use, and is the location of an obelisk commemorating the 642 people who were murdered. 192 were children. Many of the tombs display 1940s cameo photographs and it was heartbreaking to see three and four generations of families wiped out on a single day.

Ruins of village street in Oradour Sur Glane 

Oradour's visitor centre mirrors the stone and rust
colours of the Martyred Village 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blue Talk And Love by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan / Perfect by Rachel Joyce / Nemesis by Louise Marley

Blue Talk and LoveBlue Talk and Love by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from America

One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

Buy the ebook from

I received a copy of Blue Talk And Love from its publishers, Riverdale Avenue Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is my eighth review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

I chose Blue Talk And Love almost entirely because of Mirlande Jean-Gilles's stunning cover image. The black woman proudly facing out shows exactly what this story collection is about. Fourteen short stories portray lives of black women in America, primarily contemporary New York. I didn't know what to expect having not read any of Sullivan's work before, and so was pleasantly surprised by the book. Her grasp of character is brilliant and the women fairly leapt off the page into my imagination. Some of the speech took a bit of working out, but the atmosphere of each story came across convincingly and I loved picturing the locations and people in my mind.

Sullivan includes a wide sweep of women within her tales and I was particularly taken by the historical story of conjoined twins We-Chrissie and We-Millie. Their struggle from slavery through freak-shows and a kind of fame, to dwindling popularity and uncertainty about their future is sensitively written and emotionally moving. I also liked the quiet desperation of Dominique and her family in the story Adale. Driven out of their home by rising rents, pregnant Dominique, her mother and her son are facing a new life away from the support of their friends and church group. Told against the backdrop of news reports of the 2005 tsunami, I liked how Sullivan contrasted that swift devastation of towns and lives with the slower but equally relentless destruction and rebuilding of Dominique's district as new money moves in. Dominique's donation to the Somalian victims of the tsunami - an imaginable horror - was emotional. Other stories tackle issues of weight and body image, gender identity and artistic integrity - as I type this I've just remembered the story Ruidos which could make a thoughtful bridge from the Kazuo Ishiguro story collection Nocturnes.

I hope Blue Talk And Love won't be sidelined as being of minority interest. The first stories feature lesbian characters and I think Riverdale Avenue is an LGBT publisher, but this is not just a book of stories about gender identity or about race, but about women. It is an interesting collection that I think will resound with women of any colour worldwide.

PerfectPerfect by Rachel Joyce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from
Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

I enjoyed Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry , especially I think due to hearing it read by Jim Broadbent who did a fantastic job of the narration. Consequently, when Dave downloaded Perfect for our Kindle, I looked forward to the read.

Perfect tells the story of one hot summer and its aftermath from the point of view of Byron Hemmings, a 'posh' boy living with his ornamental mother, his younger sister and, at weekends, his father who returns to his family from The City. I liked Joyce's portrayal of this family, their strained relationships and quiet desperation to maintain appearances at any cost. However, as we see them through Byron's eyes, much of the adult interaction is only revealed via misunderstood eavesdropping. I thought the most interesting character was the mother, Diana, and I would have preferred to follow her instead. I didn't think Byron's childhood friend, James, was realistic and found his pretentiousness irritating. And Beverley started out well, but then went way over the top.

Alternating with Byron's summer, we learn about Jim, a man who has mental health issues resulting in a need to observe repetitive rituals and an inability to easily communicate. Jim is portrayed very sympathetically and I think Joyce created a memorable character here. She manages to be humorous but without laughing at him which is tricky to do.

Unfortunately, I thought the ending did get too schmaltzy and relied on an overly convenient coincidence for a feel-good factor. Overall, I was a bit disappointed, probably due to having had too high expectations. Perfect is a nicely written book with good pace and an original storyline, but too many events were unbelievable and I found this frequently distracted me.

NemesisNemesis by Louise Marley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books for IndiePrideDay 2016.

Buy the ebook from

I recently discovered Louise Marley via her short story The Indecent Proposal. I liked her writing, but found the subject too fluffy for my tastes so Louise kindly offered Nemesis as a more suitable read. She was absolutely right!

Nemesis is a nicely plotted, slick crime thriller. It jumps in time between the present day and fifteen years previously, gradually revealing pertinent details of an unsolved murder. The periods are linked through the presence of Natalie, our heroine and the sister of Sarah, our murder victim. While the numerous characters aren't all completely fleshed out, Natalie came across as very real, she is gutsy and impetuous, but without seeming impervious. Natalie's childhood home life was marred by her violent father and his scenes have a distinct chill which was fun to read. I thought most of the male characters were unlikeable in that they had a realistic lack of respect for the women.

Marley's descriptions of Hurst Castle and its surroundings made it easy to imagine and, if it does have a genuine counterpart, I'd certainly like to visit some day. The layers of historic detail added interest to the story.

The plot twists of Nemesis kept me guessing right to the end, actually having talked myself out of the right answer on the way. I didn't want to put the book down and kept reading way past bedtime!

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Interesting modern art museum in Vilafames - @_MACVAC

Two serendipitous events helped to make our day out in the nearby town
Ripolles sculpture in Vilafames 
of Vilafames a memorable one. Firstly, neighbouring caravanners Vince and Moira told us that the town had a wonderful hidden gem of a modern art museum. They had already visited three times! And Dave spotted a coffee table type book of local sculptor Ripolles in the library here at Camping Ribamar. This was useful because we spotted two of his distinctive works during the day and knew enough to recognise them!

The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Vicente Aguilera Cerni is housed in the rabbit warren that is the 15th century Palace of Batle, formerly the Royal Administrator's residence. Essayist and art critic Vicente Aguilera Cerni visited Vilafames in the 1970s, proposed an art museum there and was made life manager-founder. Initially there were about 150 works on show. Now there are over 400 displayed in 32 galleries and an expansion programme is underway.

Small sculpture and doorway
on MACVAC terrace 

We loved the building as much as the art. It's like a much bigger and more baffling version of Hailsham's Gallery North and also has a roof terrace garden with several large outdoor sculptures and a lemon tree. We spent a good couple of hours touring the galleries. Works range from wow to meh and there is a wide range of styles, materials and nationalities amongst the artists. Most are Spanish but not all. There were even a couple of names, including Joan Miro, that I recognised! Dave recorded the names of the artists whose work we particularly liked, but I forgot my notebook so am now unsure exactly who created what: Oscar Borras Ausias, Eduardo Alcoy Lazaro, Willy Ramos Mestre, Ricardo Juan Fernandez, Juan Genoves Candel, Alejandro Mieres, Vicente Traver Calzada, and Juan de Ribera Berenguer. More Googling needed!

MACVAC terrace 

After the museum, we stopped for a snack lunch at a friendly cafe, Rafael Galindo, at the bottom of the hill. The empanada slices are delicious! There is a car park by MACVAC, but if you find yourself in the town hall plaza like we did, it's probably best to turn around and park downhill by this cafe. The hill is 'invigorating' to walk up! We also walked right to the top of town where there are the restored ruins of a tower and some kind of fort. There weren't any helpful placards, but then it was all free to wander around and the views are truly spectacular. Vilafames old town is such a pretty place that we even spent a little while perusing estate agents' websites back at Bailey. (Note to Chris and Marta: do Not visit this town. You'll won't resist buying here!)

The first Ripolles sculpture we saw was actually en route to Vilafames and is at the small local airport nearby. It is so big that it can easily be seen from the bypass and was created as a response to the 9/11 attacks in New York. It is similar in style to the work pictured at the top of this post which is in Vilafames, in a sort of park space by the Correos (Post Office). We spotted this second one unexpectedly too and felt smug to know it because none of the sculptures were identified which must be a tad annoying to the artists.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Stories Of Strange Women by J Y F Cooke / Trilby by George Du Maurier / Poemas by Emily Dickinson

Stories of Strange WomenStories of Strange Women by J. Y. F. Cooke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I downloaded a copy of Stories Of Strange Women when it was the ForgottenBooks book of the day last year. It hid itself in the Silk downloads folder and I lost track of it until recently. Originally published in 1906, the collection of eight short stories might now be better entitled Odd Stories Featuring Women as I thought it was more the tales that were odd than their women. Perhaps the difference in expected female behaviour of a century ago is to blame because, for me, they mostly seemed pretty normal.

The stories range from a sort of locked door mystery - The Garments Of A Girl - to an overly sentimental romance - The Mistress And Her Maid. There is also an overwrought shipwreck disaster - When The Vestilinden Was Lost - that, again, dives into great sentimentality. None of the characters really struck me as distinct individuals. Apart from the caricature dialects of the working-class maid, Kate, or the Irish peasant, Bridget, the men and women could easily have been transplanted from one story to another without any noticeable effect. Scene descriptions however are nicely done and the plotline oddness does mean that most story endings are unexpected.

Trilby Trilby by George du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm still using my Derren Brown 'Svengali' tour mug which Mum got for me after I saw his show. The historic name is as much a cultural cliche for dark hypnotic power as the word 'Trilby' denotes a certain style of hat. It had never occurred to me to learn where either originated yet it turns out that George Du Maurier's novel is the source for both. Wildly popular in its day, Trilby is now considered a classic, the Wordsworth Classics edition being the one I spotted in a Spanish campsite library. Personally, I am not sure that the novel has aged well! The underlying storyline is a great idea, but its telling is very much of the time. At least it's free on Kindle.

Told by a condescending first person narrator who doesn't actually feature in the story, we get lots of personal asides (frequently snobbish, sexist and racist) which slow the flowery writing style. I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of 1860s Paris, but was often infuriated by Du Maurier's pace - get on with it! The potentially most interesting part of the novel, Trilby's take-over by Svengali and her fantastic musical breakthrough, actually happen 'offstage' so the reader is presented with reports of the fait accompli, and while I'm showing off my French, a warning that Du Maurier does that a lot. Often whole conversations are in French with little or nothing by way of translation. Hopefully much of it was just small talk as, overall, I probably missed half a dozen pages this way.

The characters are strong although, again, very much of their time. Our insipid English hero, Little Billee, is suitably upstanding; his chums are both Good Sorts; etc. Trilby herself is initially a refreshing change. She makes her own money by modelling for artists and is blithely independent. Of course, as time goes by, she is taught to be ashamed of such a lifestyle and to take pleasure from domestic drudgery instead, and her great success comes only at the instigation of a man, but at least she started out promisingly! Vicious antisemitism is the other big problem with the novel. Svengali is a nasty piece of work. I don't mind that - the tale needs a good villain. But Svengali isn't just A Bad Man. It's repeatedly made plain that his badness is due to his being Jewish and Du Maurier's insults descend to real childish namecalling. As he spends the rest of the book trying to impart a sense of his own superiority, this really stands out as bizarre.

I'm not sure if I enjoyed reading Trilby or not. Some sections are beautifully written with energy, atmosphere and a real knowledge of the Paris of the day. Other sections are slow, ridiculously sentimental or simply pointless. A note to current authors: if you feel the need for your hero to start talking at length to a dog, please don't report it to your readers!

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

E.Dickinson PoemasE.Dickinson Poemas by Emily Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rarely read poetry and picked up this slim volume more in desperation to have something to swap in the campsite library. The English book selection is very limited - trashy thrillers or Mills and Boon - so, seeing Dickinson on the Spanish shelves, I thought I might translate a few poems. As luck would have it, this edition is bilingual leaving me only to translate the introduction and Manent is not too pretentious!

I've often seen references to Emily Dickinson, especially in American literature, but she wasn't on my school curriculum so I don't think I've read a complete poem of hers before. The collection is a mixed bag of deep and startlingly concise observations, or somewhat twee writings about flowers and bees. She does seem to have a thing for bees, but at least that's reinforced the Spanish word in my memory! I can't say how representative this collection is of Dickinson's whole output, but based solely on it, I can understand why she is so popular still.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Monday, 16 March 2015

Bread pudding recipe

I can't remember if I have already mentioned this, but our (now-not-so)
Bread pudding 
trusty bread machine gave up the ghost while we were in Cullera. Something went wrong with the spindle so the paddle wasn't strong enough to knead the dough anymore. A fairly major problem and not one that we could fix with a new paddle or pan. So, until we get back to the UK when we might buy another, I'm now baking our daily loaf entirely by hand. It's actually not that time-consuming and I get to feel pretty smug! In the words of the Helen Arney song, 'I knitted it myself'.

However, this makes me even less happy about wasting any, even when the ickle sparrows peer hopefully at our lunch. So I brushed off this bread pudding recipe. I've taken to putting our left over bread pieces into a tub to dry out and, once a week or so, make bread pudding. I blogged a different version last year which uses fresher sliced bread and makes a much lighter pudding to eat warm with custard. This one is better served in cold slabs and, preferably, eaten the day after making to give the spices time to mature. Sometimes we manage to wait that long.

8oz dry, stale bread
Cold water
2oz butter
4oz sultanas
2oz brown sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
Splash of milk

Tear the bread into small pieces and put it into a large bowl. Discard any really tough crusts. Add water to the bowl until all the bread is soaking. Leave for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 170 and grease a baking tin with a little of the butter.

Strain the soaked bread through a sieve and squeeze it to remove as much water as possible. Mash bread with a fork.

Add sultanas, sugar and spices. Mix well.
Add beaten egg and enough milk to enable the mixture to drop easily from a spoon. Mix well.

Pour mixture into greased tin and bake at 170c for about an hour. Leave to cool and cut into squares. Store in an airtight tub.

You can substitute any dried fruit and peel for the sultanas depending on what you like or have available. This is a great use-up recipe so be imaginative! Also, the original paper scrap I typed this post from specifies 1 tsp of ground mixed spice which I can't get in Spain, so tweaking the spice blend is optional. The last batch of this I made had 1 tbsp of vanilla sugar in place of the same volume of brown sugar which imparted a nice vanilla richness.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin / A World Of InTemperance by Ichabod Temperance / In A Vertigo Of Silence by Miriam Polli

The Boys from BrazilThe Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw a great TalkingScarlet production of Ira Levin's play Deathtrap back in my Eastbourne days, but I'm pretty sure that The Boys From Brazil is the first of his novels I've read. The book is an easy read and is certainly a page-turner. I couldn't wait to discover how this intricate plot was going to unravel itself.

Using veiled and not-so-veiled representations of genuine people, Levin's tale invents a chilling scenario in which vile Auschwitz doctor, Mengele, believes he can bring about a Fourth Reich through the misuse of science. I read some reviews dating from the book's original 1970s publication which were critical of the science fiction at the heart of the tale. (I can't be more precise without giving away a key plot line.) Reading it now, when the science fiction has become actual science fact, adds an extra scary aspect.

The main characters are pretty much all either good or evil and don't have a tremendous amount of depth to their portrayals. However, Levin's scene setting is nicely done and I found it easy to imagine each location. I thought the plot was perfectly paced, enough obfuscation to keep me guessing, but not so much as to drag, and I loved the final chapter. I know there has been at least one major film of this book and it would translate well to the big screen. Perhaps it's time for a remake?

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

A World of InTemperanceA World of InTemperance by Ichabod Temperance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bought as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2.

A World Of InTemperance is the second novel in the steampunk series chronicling the adventures of Ichabod Temperance and his paramour Miss Persephone Plumtartt. In this exciting installment, the duo and their equally bizarrely named friends must race through Alaskan wilderness in order to save humanity from annihilation by global warfare.

Temperance's inventive character naming is one of the delights of his stories. My favourite this time must be the Insufferable Bleiuman Iddiaught - US Secretary of War. I did sometimes struggle to understand the phonetic dialogue spellings, particularly of the Australian speech although I suspect much of that wasn't intended to be understandable anyway. The nationally stereotyped characters are fun with each country's quirks being equally insulted and entertaining cameo appearances including an astute Belgian detective!

A World Of Intemperance is all about the action. Scenes are swiftly set up then raced through, blown up or fought over at great speed so, towards the end of the book, I had trouble keeping up with everyone's fantastic escapades. Temperance's energy and enthusiasm for his tale is always very much in evidence and I could picture our heroes leaping straight from his thoughts to his pen. Indeed, there are enough ideas in this one book to fill two or three! I would have liked some ideas to have been explored in more detail but accept that might have been at the expense of the thrilling ride.

Ichabod Temperance is due to start a blog tour on Monday (16th March), publicising his first novel, A Matter Of Temperance. (I read and reviewed A Matter back in October last year.) You can discover all the participating tour blogs by visiting Brook Cottage Books.

In a Vertigo of SilenceIn a Vertigo of Silence by Miriam Polli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was attracted to In A Vertigo Of Silence by both its atmospheric cover art and its title. I do love an enigmatic book title! I received a copy from its publishers, Serving House Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is my seventh review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

In A Vertigo Of Silence takes within the lives of the women in three generations of a Polish family who emigrated to America in the 1920s. Initially only able to find poor housing and the most dangerous of jobs, the Grandmother, affectionately known as Babcia, loses her husband when he dies in a coal mining accident. Left pregnant and with two young daughters, this amazing woman not only keeps her remaining family together, but gives the next generation chances to prosper. There is, however, a price.

I loved the characters that Polli creates. To a degree, they are so real that I wondered if they are indeed fiction. I found it wonderfully easy to be drawn into this family. The main focus is on the fractured relationships between Babcia's daughters, how their actions disrupt each other's lives and the secrets and lies that become told as family truths. I think every family hides the worst of themselves from the outside world and Polli beautifully illustrates the phenomenon here. In A Vertigo Of Silence is very much a book celebrating women and sisterhood. The struggles of immigration are a part of the novel, but I felt this was more a story of family than of integration. Babcia's initial determination to speak English and become American goes a long way to shield her descendants although we do see racist schoolyard bullying of granddaughter Emily.

Chapters jump about in time across several decades allowing events to be viewed not only as they happen, but also from memories which is a perfect device for this story. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of historical details such as the Bicycle Thieves film screening which helped to cement the various time periods in my mind as I read. It is important to read each chapter heading carefully. I did get lost a couple of times early on.

I would love to read more of Polli's writing. Her poet's sensibilities influence her rich prose and she has a great eye for physical detail and for human behaviour.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Friday, 13 March 2015

We eat our highest picnic and Dave finds fossils

As yesterday was one of the hottest days we've had so far this year -
Jubilant at the top of Campanilles 
easily 25c - we thought it would be the perfect time to attempt a strenuous walk with lots of uphill slogging. One day we will learn this is a bad idea, but I suspect that day is still a long way off. We had got ourselves a plan of the Serra d'Irta walking routes from the ever-helpful staff at Camping Ribamar reception and had been told the Ridge Walk that bisects the park is a good six hours In Each Direction! We're not quite that enthusiastic! Instead, we decided on an out-and-back segment starting and finishing at the Ermita Santa Lucia and with our half way point at the top of a hill called Campanilles.

There is a pretty, but narrow winding road up from Alcossebre to the
And the matching pair 
Ermita and a small car park there, right by the start of the footpath. We did remember to take several bottles of water and I carried our lunch in the cool bag section of my stripy picnic rucksack. We've just about decided on our perfect walking picnic lunch now: apple, small loaf of homemade bread, block of cheese and jar of jam. It's easy to eat, looks good spread out on our picnic blanket, and we don't have to worry about sandwiches disintegrating en route.

There are several different environments on the PR CV 431 which was our marked route. Yellow and white dashes initially led us up a steep scree slope, then on a footpath alongside a pine-wooded hill with inland views. We had to follow a wide, dusty car track for a couple of kilometres which was dull physical walking, but compensated with fabulous views out to sea. There is an option to add a couple of hundred metres with a detour to Torre Ebri, a disused stone tower above the track. However, as another caravanner here said, you get such a good view already that we stuck on the road.

When we got back onto footpath, the surface varied from uneven rock reminiscent of El Torcal, to pine needle covered wooded earth, to scree slopes. There was some downhill, but most of the time was ascent and some of the slopes were very steep. Descending the hill just prior to Campanilles, we nearly turned back before our goal. The slope was loose stones and I was making slow going of it. (I get very nervous of falling on this kind of downhill section so am often outpaced by snails. Up the very same hills, I'm generally fine! Dave, on the other hand, doesn't worry about descents, but breathing issues can sometimes impede his uphill progress which he finds frustrating.) In this case, we could see Campanilles had a long steep narrow path that was likely to be loose scree. I would get up but would I ever get down again? We had two hours of pretty hard effort behind us so I carried on. We were too close to back out. And it turned out to be fine! Not only is there a great lunch spot at the top of Campanilles - we used the base of another Geodesic point like the one at Roquetas - but there is a fantastic panoramic view across the surrounding countryside and we got to eat at what we think is our highest munch point yet: 572 metres above sea level!

I loved seeing large areas of rosemary bushes which were flowering all
Swallowtail butterfly 
along the route. We often see beehives while out walking, but yesterday we saw lots of wild bees too which is great news for the local ecosystem. We saw half a dozen different types of butterflies including this distinctive yellow and black swallowtail. We had seen another like it when walking with Andy and Barbara at Cullera but I'd failed to get a photo then. Evidence of wild boar activity could be seen alongside wooded path sections and several bigger lizards flashed away as we approached them.

Most exciting of all though was Dave's eagle-eyed spotting of a large rock with a number of fossilised remains in it. We'll make a Mary Anning of him yet! Unfortunately, I had zoomed off a steep uphill and didn't stop until the stop so he had to lug the rock all the way up in order to show me. And he did. I have such a super boyfriend! This photo is of said rock and hopefully you can see the details by clicking into it. We saw a few others later with plant fronds too.

Dave's fabulous fossil find 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

It's important to look up as well as down

Walking around the Serra d'Irta natural park necessitates a lot of looking
Miniature daffodils in the Serra d'Irta natural park 
down because most of the tracks are pretty rugged - by that I mean they are continuous trip hazards with lots of loose scree and partially submerged pine tree roots! We have also seen our caterpillar trains and, over the past few days, miniature daffodils are coming out in force too. Each flower is less than a centimetre across and they tend to be solo plants rather than in great swathes as back at home. Mum always loved daffodils so seeing these flowers so close to Mothering Sunday has been a lovely reminder of her.

However, gazing at my footsteps did mean that I walked straight under
I want a tree house too! 
this tree house this afternoon without any awareness of its existence. Dave had to call me back to see it! The walls and roof branches are spaced so it wouldn't be at all water or windproof, but a wonderful den from which to spy on unobservant hikers. We only managed a short walk today, just a couple of hours, because we set off mid-afternoon and had to be back so Dave could finish creating his delicious Pork Chops with Pears dinner. (If you're planning to meet up with us at one of our UK campsite stops this summer, be sure to ask him to cook this.)

Another reminder that Spring has truly sprung though - we went paddling in the sea! And it wasn't shockingly icy! The beaches here are mostly rugged rocks, but a few places are little natural coves with almost-sand. Millions of tiny shells cover lots of the ground and are gradually being crushed and worn down. The water is gorgeously clear too. Unfortunately we did spot one area where a number of abandoned fishing nets have been washed ashore and snagged around rocks to litter the beach. I hope the cormorants and gulls recognise that they are hazardous.

Gorgeous clear water 
Abandoned fishing nets have washed
ashore to get caught on the rocks 
Dave goes paddling - in March! 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Stove-Junker by S K Kalsi / The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe / Murder At The Savoy by Sjowall and Wahloo

The Stove-JunkerThe Stove-Junker by S.K. Kalsi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

I received a copy of The Stove-Junker from its publishers, Little Feather Books, via NetGalley, in return for an honest review. I am including this review in Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

The Stove-Junker isn't so much a book to be read as to be savoured. Kalsi's prose is rich and detailed with a gorgeous rhythm and turn of phrase. However, it did take me a while to get into his writing as it is very different to the other books I have read recently. Of the four books that make up The Stove-Junker, I had nearly finished the first before I found myself truly immersed in the story, but definitely consider that this novel is worth the effort.

We follow Somerset, an elderly man, as he returns to the house he shared with his wife and son many years before, the house which was also his ancestral home dating back to his grandfather's time. Somerset now lives mostly within his own memories and I loved how Kalsi dotted his text with imagined replies to Somerset from his wife, Nora, and son, Cole. We learn early on that Cole disappeared without trace one day, but the whys and hows are only revealed in fragments together with glimpses of how his parents coped with their loss. Other fragments reveal Somerset's unhappy childhood and lead to wondering how many of our actions are inherited and how many are learnt. An iron stove might be repaired with the right tools and expertise, but what can be done with a person? As Somerset begins to restore his abandoned home - although this seemed more like additional demolition to me - further memories crowd his mind, prompted by his location, and we meet the vividly penned characters of his extended family. A small boy appears, ill and in need of care, and always just outside, there is the foreboding imagery of a murder of crows.

From my initial bafflement, I was ultimately swept away by this story. There is a tremendous sense of pain and loss throughout which, at times, I found overwhelming. I did actually put the book aside more than once which for read-it-in-one-sitting me is practically unheard of, but I needed time to think through what I had read and allow the emotional impacts to fade a little before continuing. This review has even been delayed by several days for the same reason. Kalsi's prose requires effort from the reader, effort that is well rewarded admittedly, but The Stove-Junker is not a book to drift through. I think this is an amazing novel.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

The Best of EverythingThe Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to the cover, The Best Of Everything was featured in Mad Men. I'm not sure whether it was considered a classic prior to this fortunate product placement, but I am at a loss to understand otherwise how it has suddenly started turning up everywhere!

As an insight into 1950s office life and sexual politics, the novel has some interesting moments and offers a view that is untainted by later political correctness. Its characters are definitely sexist - both the women and the men. They are also unapologetically homophobic and occasionally racist as well. I say occasionally because non-white people are practically invisible even though this book is set in New York!
The Best Of Everything follows three women from the typing pool at prestigious New York publishers, Fabian. Through their eyes, we see the realities for female office workers in the 1950s: the dreadful behaviour they are subjected to by male bosses, and also their own opinions of their jobs. The priority for each woman is marriage and even Caroline, who seemed fairly normal otherwise, suddenly decides the career for which she has worked so hard is worthless compared to the prospect of a wedding ring. I found this attitude, which is endlessly repeated and rehashed throughout the novel, both exasperating and, eventually, boring. None of the characters are particularly well created anyway, but their total lack of self-esteem is bewildering. These women seem to be unable to justify themselves in any role other than Wife, and the one woman, Miss Farrow, who has actually made something of herself by becoming an editor, is mocked for being single. An infuriating read!

Buy the paperback at Waterstones.

Murder at the Savoy (Martin Beck #6)Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Searching to add Murder At The Savoy to my Goodreads TBR list I noticed that it shares a title with a Sherlock Holmes story. I've not read the Holmes though so don't know if the similarities end there or not. This is the sixth in the Martin Beck series and I've actually read them all in order (so far!). I think it is the least police-ey and most political story so, although I agree with Sjowall and Wahloo's sentiments - indeed much of their 'evils of big business' warning is being experienced in exactly the same way in the UK nearly fifty years later - I wasn't particularly satisfied with the book itself.

Martin Beck doesn't have much of a role to play and most of the action seems to happen around him. He is also removed from his usual Stockholm haunts so that atmosphere is missing too. I didn't feel the same camaraderie that I enjoyed in previous books, perhaps because the team is fragmented, although there are still great moments. For me, Murder At The Savoy was the weakest of the series yet. It was still a good read compared to many modern formulaic crime thrillers, but I expected better so was a little disappointed. Hopefully number seven will be back on form.

Buy the paperback at Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Monday, 9 March 2015

Two pretty walks from Camping Ribamar, Alcossebre

We have had two great walks straight from our campsite already and
Dave looks back at me from a rocky beach 
we've not even been here a week yet! Camping Ribamar is on the edge of the Serra d'Irta natural park and footpaths from the back gate give the options of going to the right: along the coast into town and beyond, or to the left: uphill into pine woods.

On Saturday afternoon we struck out right on a short stroll that ended up being a four hour epic. Various paths head through the scrub towards Alcossebre and we tried to stay close to the coast but took a diverting path inland. There is a wide beach promenade all past the town with a short section of restaurants by the small marina. Most are closed at this time of year though. We continued out past the central tourist office kiosk and a few more cafes, enjoying the serene views out to sea, until we finally came to the beginning of a lengthy boardwalk. This is raised above the beach to protect the dunes and has a helpful placard explaining the flora that we might now see. Unfortunately its photographs were very faded so I'm still not sure what was rare and what was weed. We walked a little way along the boardwalk, but were already two hours from home so soon turned around. We are planning to cycle there tomorrow, perhaps even with a picnic, and to see what is further afield.

Talking of picnics, yesterday's walk included this delight! We started out
A tranquil footpath 
along the coast in the opposite direction which initially took us along more of the rough dirt road for nearly an hour. We passed a small sandy beach and were asked twice whether my rolled up picnic rug meant we were planning to sleep out on the hills. I think we must have been mistaken for backpackers! The path began to wind away from the coast, and to become narrower as fewer cars used it, eventually dwindling to a lovely tranquil footpath beneath scented pine trees. At one point we spotted another train of furry caterpillars - seventy-one together this time! Other sights were more of the flowers from my last post in varying purple shades from a deep violet colour to almost bleached pale. I am told they are irises - thanks Gemma! The pictured cactus was easily waist height and the only one of this variety that we saw.

Impressive cactus! 

We were pretty tired by the time we got home, despite the walk being 'only' just over four hours. We are blaming the heat and the two days' walking back-to-back, but I think the real reason is that we are out of practice. There are several other marked routes here for us to try before we move on so hopefully we will get the hang of it again!

Serra d'Irta routes are well signposted 

Friday, 6 March 2015

A short hop and we are in Alcossebre

Camping Ribamar, on the edge of the Serra d'Irta natural park, is
There's lots of walking in the Serra d'Irte 
probably going to be our last long-stay campsite in Spain. It is only about a two hour drive from Cullera so we had an easy day's travelling yesterday. Dave had printed out maps which, together with signposts in town, meant we got here without getting lost! The last couple of kilometres is a dirt track road which was a little tricky to drive along, but we managed ok. We tried cycling back along it this morning as the Consum supermarket is only 4km away and I had visions of us doing our shopping by bike instead of by car for such a short distance. We made it there and back, but the track was slow going and I had to get off and push a few times which was disappointing. There are a lot of loose stones and rocks that wouldn't be a problem for an experienced off-road cyclist. For a nervous ninny like me though, they took all the enjoyment away. Oh well!

The campsite itself is lovely. It is clean and tidy. The reception is actually open all day and the staff are both friendly and speak good English. The showers are great and within a warm block. And we're only a five minute walk from the beach footpath and a beautiful rocky coastline. Alcossebre town is just under an hour's walk away although there are a few bars even closer. The site has an open tennis court (no net though) and a nice table tennis table (with net) and a petanque court. We haven't played any of the three since Xabia so I think we'll be back to square one for everything except tennis - I hadn't even reached square one with that!

The pitches are big with a gravelled surface and individual water and waste water. The only trouble is with getting onto them - a kerb proved too much for the motormover. Fortunately, several guys jumped up to help push - thank you all! There's also a whole Library room! My little eyes lit up like stars! I swapped my read books for three others - not a great choice but I did find an almost new copy of another David Vann book. I enjoyed my NetGalley read of Aquarium and this one is Caribou Island. The only snag is that it is in Spanish, but we have a big dictionary and it's not a very thick volume ... !

We saw this line of caterpillars crossing the footpath to the beach all following each other exactly and so close to be practically touching. There were twenty-two in all and they are the furry poisonous ones that mustn't be touched. I also photographed some flowers which were pretty and the rocks on the beach which are weird. They almost look like rocky road cake with coloured chunks stuck together. I guess it's natural, not man-made but haven't seen anything quite like it before. Any geologists reading?

A caterpillar parade 
Pretty Spring flowers 
Can anyone explain this rock?