Sunday, 31 January 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel / The Shapes Of Dogs' Eyes by Harry Gallon / Princess Casamassima by Henry James

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is a different type of dystopian novel to those I have read previously. We jump around through time beginning on the night where a flu pandemic takes hold in America, moving forward up to twenty years after 99% of the world's human population has been wiped out, and moving back to well before the disaster primarily through the life of a Hollywood actor, Arthur, and his wives.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the chillingly realistic pandemic scenes describing the initial panics, blocked highways and overcrowded hospitals (and that aeroplane). The restarting timeline as civilisation begins to collapse was an effective device with elements such as the internet vanishing after so many days, electric lights going out forever, gasoline becoming unusable after Year Five - did you know that gasoline has a shelf life? The idea of survivors just walking and walking resonated particularly well as we see similar scenes right now of refugees escaping war in exactly the same way.

I was less impressed by pre-pandemic scenes, especially Arthur's pampered life and the time dedicated to describing the dystopian comics created by his first wife, Miranda. I understand their inclusion but didn't feel that they warranted so much attention. There is also excessive repetition in Station Eleven which got irritating in the latter half of the book and I felt that tighter editing could have been beneficial.

The Shapes of Dogs' Eyes by Harry Gallon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Shapes Of Dogs' Eyes by Harry Gallon from its publishers, Dead Ink, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

The Shapes Of Dogs' Eyes is an odd eyecatching title which encouraged me to check out this book's synopsis. Set in modern-day London, we are introduced to the pub scene of Hackney and thereabouts by our homeless sofa-surfing bartender narrator. In between pulling pints of craft beer and euthanising cockroaches, he thinks he has discovered an insidious plot whereby dogs are taking over the lives of their owners. Or maybe he's just imbibed one too many today.

I loved the language in The Shapes Of Dogs' Eyes. If Gallon hasn't ever been a Hackney bartender, I would be amazed. His understanding of his characters and insightful observations on their lives are put across in sharp evocative prose which made me want to be visiting this part of London as I read, walking those streets and inviting loathing by ordering coffee in one of the pubs! I admit that I didn't completely understand the whole dogs' plot idea, but the interaction imagery of these dogs and their owners is frequently superb. An unexpected delight!

The Princess Casamassima by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of Princess Casamassima by Henry James from ForgottenBooks when it was their free Book Of The Day.

Princess Casamassima is a six hundred page novel which felt to me more like a thousand page book. It's taken me well over a week to read it! I loved how James takes his readers into the London of weak-willed bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson. His descriptions of houses and streets, and his wonderfully nuanced characters kept me reading and interested to the end, but he is not a concise author by any stretch - I frequently found myself willing him to 'get on with it'! We must have been told of Hyacinth's dubious parentage two dozen times and word-for-word reported conversations are never to the point.

From a brief synopsis, Princess Casamassima could be classed as a thriller. Our young hero Hyacinth joins a shadowy group dedicated to class revolution in England. He undertakes to perform a shocking act on their behalf, possibly even a murder, however James is so vague about the group, their real aims, the act assigned to Hyacinth, and whether Hyacinth really cares at all, that any tension evaporates as fast as it is created. Instead, we spend our time drinking copious cups of tea with a disparate cast: a dressmaker and a shop girl, a music hall violinist and a bedridden girl, an Italian princess and an exiled French revolutionary, a philanthropic Lady and a chemist's assistant. The minutiae of their interactions is as fascinating as it is infuriating which makes for a very strange novel.

Based on my experience of Princess Casamassima I probably won't rush to read James again any time soon, but wouldn't rule his other novels out completely in the future - providing I can set aside enough time!

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Friday, 29 January 2016

We visit Alfred Nobel's dynamite factory at Paulilles

I had never really given much thought to how Alfred Nobel
Mural at Paulilles 
- of Nobel Peace Prize fame - had made himself influential enough to have such an award named after him. It turns out that he is the man who invented dynamite and the massive site of his former French dynamite factory is just along the coast from our current campsite, nestled in a bay at Paulilles between Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer. Nobel's French associate Paul Francois Barbe had the factory built in 1870 and production continued there, despite a number of serious and often fatal accidents, until 1984. In a twist of fate, this location which produced thousands and thousands of tons of destructive dynamite during its working years is now responsible for one of the few protected and undeveloped sections of coastline in the area. A few buildings have been restored to provide an idea of the former factory to visitors. However others have been deliberately destroyed or allowed to crumble and the bay designated a protected ecological area.

Vintage factory sign 
A large free car park is positioned near to the small visitor
Rails and tunnels at Paulliles 
centre. This contains a different style of exhibition to that which we had expected. Former factory workers have been interviewed and their brief stories are reproduced (in three languages) in board books under vintage photographs of the people and the factory operations. We discovered that the working site resembled a small village and included facilities such as a school. The workers felt privileged to be given free coal and water, and to have necessary repairs to their accommodations seen to promptly. Hoever, they also acknowledged the mortal danger of their employment - accidental explosions were a constant risk and some of the chemicals were also hazardous to health, especially without the benefits of the protective clothing that would be considered vital equipment today.

There is a small botanical garden next to the visitor centre
La Fleur du Mois 
where we admired 'La Fleur du Mois' - in January it is the stunning Cognassier du Japon which provides a vivid blast (pun intended) of colour that made the rest of the plants seem almost greyscale by comparison. A half-dozen or so artists were sat or stood around the garden sketching different plants and scenes.

Further away, the partially restored Dynamiterie Originelle has four chambers, each now open to the sky and each containing a different map of the site and the bay. We also strolled over to the boatmakers' shed where Catalan craftsmen continue to create boats in the traditional styles. The Sentier Littoral coastal walk passes through the Paulilles site too and we took the opportunity to set out across the beach towards the Phare du Bear lighthouse. We
Wartime barricades on Paulilles beach 
wondered at the heavy-duty concrete barriers across much of the beachfront and tried to understand how they would have been of use to the factory. A helpful placard informed us that they were actually Second World War remnants and had been constructed in 1944 by the Toldt company to prevent Allied tanks from landing. The barricades have been broken through now to allow swimmers access to the water, but they are still visible at Paulilles, on the Faubourg beach at Collioure, and on the Elmes beach at Banyuls.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A week with no blogging?

You must be wondering what's happened to us?
Goats in a tree at St Jean Pla de Corts 

In reality, not a lot!

Our friends Chris and Marta departed for pastures new this morning so we are feeling a little bereft right now. We had been hosting the four of us in Bailey of an evening, with each couple taking turns to cook the meal. It's been entertaining although not so good for the waistlines as Marta and I both took to pudding baking. She does an excellent Pineapple Upside-Down Cake and I discovered this amazing Slow Cooker Chocolate Pudding which is set to become a firm favourite, albeit not too often!

Other than our previously blogged walks and another cycle ride to Amelie-Les-Bains, this has been a quiet week. I got back into crafting when Marta asked me to crochet her a hat. She had some beautiful red and silver yarn which looks fabulous. If I had remembered to take a photograph before they left I would post it here. Oops!

In other crafting news though, I am starting a page of my Hand-Crafted Items For Sale right here on my blog. (If you're looking at this post on a 'proper computer' there's a tab on the right at the top of the page. If you're Apple or Android, there's a dropbox somewhere!) I realised this blog gets way more traffic than my Etsy shop, even with extensive link tweeting so why not use both?  Today I've listed three each of hand-woven Book Sleeves and hand-crocheted Water Bottle Shoulder Bags so far and will add the Buttons and Beads soon too. Handmade items make for great gifts - and there's still time to ship within Europe for Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Revisiting Le Boulou and Collioure - there's always more to see

Marta, one of our friends currently 'next door', wanted to
Sainte Marie at Le Boulou 
visit the tourist office in Le Boulou yesterday so Dave and I decided to accompany her for the cycle along the brilliant Voie Verte. It was a sunny wind-free afternoon and we even saw another hoopoe by the Plan d'Eau lakes! (Turns out they're a bit like buses ... !) Once at the tourist office, Marta got chatting with the staff which led to their offering to open up the historic Sainte Marie church. Sainte Marie dates from the tenth century with its impressive carved portal being apparently a twelfth century addition. Once inside, there are fifteenth century painted panels on the walls, but these are very dark so it was difficult to make out the scenes. However what really stands out is the incredibly flamboyant high altar which almost seems too big for the church. It is made of marble and, once we found the light switch to illuminate it properly, was astounding to see.

Sainte Marie at Le Boulou 
Today we revisited our Le Racou to Collioure walk, this time with Chris and Marta and sunshine all day! We all treated ourselves to a delicious Menu de Jour lunch at Restaurant Le Dali which Dave recalled him and I visiting on our first visit ten years ago. Then we all made our way to the Musee d'Art Moderne which is a lovely little gallery with two floors of local paintings and photography ranging from wow to hmm! I particularly liked a pair of acrylic on wood works by Patrick Jude. Entitled Yin and Yang, they were created in 2005 and show the view out over Collioure harbour in a fun way. Other highlights included a series of sixteen wickedly detailed paintings by Emmanuelle Jude - all depicting tourists eating ice cream - and several weirdly staged photographs by Aurore Valade. Both the latter two artists are featured in this Vent Sud post about the Musee exhibition. This exhibition finishes on the 21st of February so we might just have to come back in March to see what's new!

Opposite Collioure tourist office we were lucky to also spot
Photo Expo ville de Collioure 
a free photography exhibition being held in the old Mairie. Works included historic black and white photographs of the pre-war town and these were shown alongside early colour images probably from the 1970s or 1980s and present day shots capturing the vivid colours of Collioure as it is now. Several of the present day photographs were in black and white too - very sharp images compared to the early pictures. The Expo was subtitled Streets and Scenes of Streets in Collioure and showcased various ideas from large family and friend groups to empty streets, scenes of the town carnival, random ballerinas, people outside cafes and bars, and one memorable shot of two young women waist-high in snow! This exhibition finishes on the 31st January so we were pleased to have caught it.

Monday, 18 January 2016

And now we are five

Our friends Chris and Marta (and Banksy their cat) have
Eulogia Lucy in Bolivia 
now joined us here at Camping Casteillets in St Jean Pla de Corts. Our neighbouring pitches mean it's no longer quite as tranquil here of an evening, but we're having a lot of fun. So far Dave and I have taken our 'guests' on three of our favourite walks - around the Plan d'Eau lakes, on the Chemin de Vives, and to Fort de Bellegarde. Today's walk was the Fort de Bellegarde one and we were all glad of our waterproof coats from part-way as rain arrived. We took advantage of the burned-out barracks for picnic lunch shelter and still enjoyed our walk although the views weren't as extensive as on our the previous circuit because mist descended. The rain up there was practically sleet too so getting back to snug caravans was lovely. We are hoping to also explore more of the Le Racou to Collioure coast path and perhaps even to cycle all the way to Argeles Sur Mer before our paths divert again in a week or so.

In other news, I was surprised and pleased to be told this
Rusudan in Georgia 
week that I am one of the 3000 most influential SumOfUs members in the UK. Me! It's great to know that readers are responding to my petition sharing here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I am sure there will be lots more to sign in 2016 and if you want to draw my attention to a petition that's important to you, feel welcome to put its link in any post's Comments.

I am delighted to have won a book bundle from Penguin in their Think Smarter prize draw. I don't know what the books will be yet, but Think Smarter is a regular email newsletter that "includes the latest features, essays and extracts from a roster of smart thinkers, unrivalled for their expertise in science, sociology, philosophy, business and general curiosity" so I am sure I will find them interesting and educational reading.

More free books have come my way as preparatory
Turana in Azerbaijan 
reading for the virtual Historical Fiction Festival over at Endeavour Press. I chose five titles from their emailed list and all five arrived as downloads within hours. Did you sign up for your ticket yet? There's really free books!

Finally, yesterday was another exciting Kiva Repayments Day and, due to a couple of existing loans being unexpectedly paid back early I was able to make four new loans, three of which are in new-to-me countries so I have now made 121 loans to women in 52 different countries. January's loans went to Eulogia Lucy in Bolivia for her mobile food stall, Rusudan in Georgia for her restaurant, Irma in Paraguay for her shoe shop, and Turana in Azerbaijan for the planting of fruit trees. (I didn't notice until writing this post that all four women are wearing blue!) I love loaning on Kiva! Why not join me?

Irma in Paraguay 

Friday, 15 January 2016

Does Apple care more for cash than the environment? @SumOfUs

I recently signed a SumOfUs petition to ask Apple to keep the standard headphone jack in the iPhone. Almost 250,000 people have signed, and it's really starting a conversation about the mountains of waste created whenever electronics companies force people to "upgrade".

Apple plays up its green credentials, but the truth is that Apple only invested in renewable energy, and began phasing out toxic chemicals when public pressure became too strong to ignore. People power did it before, and we can do it again.

Please sign:

Thank you!

Thursday, 14 January 2016

One Of Us: Anders Breivik by Asne Seierstad / In Loving Memory by Jenny Telfer Chaplin / The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by ├ůsne Seierstad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of One Of Us: Anders Breivik And The Massacre In Norway by Asne Seierstad from its publishers, Virago, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Having been as shocked as the rest of the world by the horrific attacks on Oslo and Utoya, I was keen to read this account by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad. Interestingly, she is known for her reports from troublespots around Europe and the Middle East and never thought she would be called upon to write similar material about her own country.

One Of Us is incredibly well researched. Seierstad sat through Breivik's trial and read all those documents. She also read his own manifesto and other writings, studied police reports, and conducted extensive interviews with his surviving victims, their families, and people who had known Breivik in his youth. The resulting book is a clever blend of biography and journalism written in a style that is more usually associated with fiction. However everything here is saddeningly and shockingly true. At over 500 pages, this is a longer work than I would usually choose, but it kept me engrossed from beginning to end. We learn not only about Breivik's past, but are also given fascinating portrayals of several of his victims - a Kurdish family who had escaped Iraq, a Norwegian teenager destined to fly high in the Labour Party and others. One Of Us isn't really a book to 'enjoy' as such but admirably rewards its readers' time. The attention to detail is amazing and the book always feels respectful even though sections such as the day of the massacre itself are emotionally difficult to read. Some aspects of the disaster have depressingly obvious causes - lack of police communication in the immediate aftermath of the bomb - others will probably never be completely understood - what ultimately triggered Breivik and why - but I feel that One Of Us goes a long way towards explaining such an in-depth subject to a general readership.

In Loving Memory by Jenny Telfer Chaplin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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In Loving Memory appealed to me because of its setting - Glasgow at the time of the Radicals - which I didn't know much about. Unfortunately, I still don't know much because, while historical events such as the Radicals and the Bread Riots are namedropped, they are not explained. Most of the novel's convoluted plot takes place in our protagonists' homes where two-dimensional characters argue frequently and, again, without much background given so I found it difficult to understand the whys of many decisions. They speak in a phonetically spelt Scots brogue that took a little getting used to, but does at least add some atmosphere. However my main gripe is the device of huge events happening to our characters off the page. At one point a chapter ends with a family boarding a ship, then the next chapter starts five years after the shipwreck. Hello? What shipwreck?!

In Loving Memory is my first book for the 2016 Read Scotland Challenge so, disappointingly, I'm not off to a great start. I discovered some brilliant Scottish books last year though so am sure I will do better as the year progresses.

The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Author Kendall Hanson contacted me on Twitter over the New Year asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing one of his Western novels in return for signing up to his e-mail newsletter. I usually ignore this genre completely so thought it might be fun to take a chance - new year, new genre, new author - and the serendipitous discovery paid off. I very much enjoyed reading The Bordello Kid.

Set primarily in the bars and brothels of small town Seven Rivers, The Bordello Kid has an expertly evoked atmosphere which reminded me of the great TV series Deadwood. I loved our first sighting of soon-to-be lead character Farr who is described walking into town haloed by the setting sun. Hanson takes time creating believably real characters which I appreciated as the novel itself isn't particularly long. Although, obviously, portraying a sexist society, Hanson is as convincing when writing female characters as male ones so our story is definitely more thought-out historical fiction than macho shoot-em-up tale. Having said that, there are violent scenes, not gratuitous, but shocking all the same.

The Bordello Kid is the first in a series of at least four novels (so far) so I was glad to find myself reading a complete story arc, threads left open for sequels but with a satisfying sense of closure. I was so impressed that I have already downloaded the second volume, The Saloon War at Seven Rivers, to my Kindle. If you prefer a physical book, The Saloon War is also available in paperback from tomorrow (15th January 2016).

View all my reviews on Goodreads


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Endeavour Press virtual Historical Fiction Festival

I am excited to already be signed up for a Historical Fiction
Festival with a difference! Organised by Endeavour Press who are exclusively a digital book publishers, this virtual Festival will take place online thereby allowing me to get involved regardless of whereabouts in Europe I will actually be at the time. What a brilliant idea!

The dates for your diary are the 18th to the 22nd April 2016 and tickets are already 'on sale' (they're free!) via the Festival's own website. Over thirty authors have signed up so there will be lots of variety across the historical genre.

Best of all, as well author interviews, live Q and A sessions and writing tips, Endeavour Press will be running competitions and giving away free books.


Stay updated by following @Hist_Fest on Twitter
and go get your ticket today!


Monday, 11 January 2016

Extending Freedom of Information laws to include private companies

I received an interesting e-mail from 38 Degrees this
evening which got me thinking about the Freedom Of Information Act in the UK. I saw the Act in action during my time working at Wealden Council a couple of summers ago and witnessed the care taken to assemble accurate data in response to the wide variety of queries made. However, members of the public only currently have the right to query how public bodies spend public funds. When private companies are given contracts to spend public money, all transparency vanishes! How can that be right?

38 Degrees said, "Unlike the NHS, companies like Serco, Virgin and G4S aren’t covered by transparency laws. So, even though they’re providing our healthcare, we have no right to know what they’re up to.

In the next few weeks this could change. The government’s “considering” extending transparency laws - Freedom of Information (FOI) - to include private companies. This’ll mean we can expose the huge corporations carving up our precious NHS for profit.

Over one hundred thousand 38 Degrees members have ranked protecting the NHS as our top priority for 2016. Extending FOI laws to anyone providing public services would help us prove to NHS bosses that services provided for profit don’t put patients first.

Just a few months ago the government were planning on watering down FOI laws. Thanks to tens of thousands of 38 Degrees members getting involved, now it looks like they’re listening. So let’s set the bar higher, and make sure that no private company who spends public money can hide what they’re up to.

The idea’s been leaked in the newspapers. And politicians will be seeing what reaction it gets: a huge petition now, signed by hundreds of thousands of 38 Degrees members, could tip them the right way.

Please will you sign the petition to David Cameron now? "

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Our longest hike of the season - Amelie Les Bains to Montalba

Saint Jean Pla de Corts is a great base for walking and I
There's not much at Montalba 
have blogged several already. Today's was our longest hike since leaving the UK in October. We didn't walk as far as on some of our summer expeditions, however after 11km and with over 300m of ascent, Dave and I are feeling both weary and very pleased with ourselves right now! We were walking for four and three-quarter hours, including quite a few photo stops, and got to see some of the most fantastic views in the area. Several times I thought that I must start taking Dave's big camera on our hikes as my phone really isn't up to the job of capturing a wide panorama. One day I will remember to think about this before we set out!

We nearly had a disaster before we had even extended our
Amelie Les Bains from half-way up the hill 
walking poles. Our map, got from Amelie Les Bains tourist office several weeks ago, indicated that we should park in the multi-storey General de Gaulle car park. On arrival, this car park was completely closed up for the winter break. The what?! It turned out that from the 14th December until the 31st January all the paid parking in Amelie is suspended so the multi-storey was closed, but the roadside car park was open and its Pay And Display machines covered with black plastic. Result!

Starting by ascending the Chemin du Pastou by the General
Woodland path above Amelie 
du Gaulle Parking, we walked alongside the high stone wall of the Hopital Thermal des Armees and on into woodland with lots of cork trees, the occasional olive tree, and huge boulders by the path side. The ascent was pretty much relentless for the first hour to the extent that Dave was a little concerned about his pumping heart rate. (He checked online when we got home and it probably shouldn't beat quite that fast at his age. Oops!) The path was mostly quite narrow and definitely a footpath rather than a vehicle track. We had lots of steps created with rocks or roots and it was beautifully peaceful. Being overtaken by a fell runner - yes, running up! - was mildly galling, but otherwise we had the walk to ourselves.

Uphills do eventually end and this one was almost
Our picnic view of Montalba 
immediately replaced with an equivalent downhill. We got closer to the river which flows along the valley floor and is more of a stream at this time of year. It is tumbled with rocks and boulders which created dozens of diddy waterfalls and, at one point, a deep-looking swimming hole. We ended up right alongside the river for a short almost magical section listening to the babbling water. Then we had to cross to the opposite bank - a tad precarious! And as the river turned away from the path, we saw the remnants of old agricultural terracing on the hillside above us and realised that Montalba was up at the top. Of course! Yay!

Arriving in Montalba two and a half hours after setting out
Cross at Montalba 
from Amelie, we laid out our picnic rug and paused to enjoy the view from 543m above sea level. Not quite as high as our Campanilles picnic last March and considerably chillier. The hamlet seemed to consist of two farmyards, the one pictured above with its chapel and another a couple of hundred metres away. This was also a junction of footpaths including the PR-1 and had a running water fountain of (presumably) drinkable water. I saw this simple cross too. It has a name plaque in the centre which is worn, but I think said 'Laurent Coste 1859'. I haven't been able to find out anything about it online though.

The map had our return route as retracing our steps, but
Old footbridge viewed from the road 
did also suggest walking the road as an alternative possibility. The road is mostly only wide enough for one car and seemed very quiet so we thought we would be ok going this way and it actually turned out to be a perfect contrast to the outward route. Walking to Montalba we had to spend much of the time watching where we put our feet and were often between trees or at the bottom of the gorge. Walking back we could trust the road to be smooth and there were gorgeous long views up into the mountains and along the valley. The road was mostly flat or gently downhill but took a longer route so we didn't expend as much effort, but did still take two and a quarter hours to return to Amelie.

I joked that we could treat ourselves to a cake when we got to town, expecting everywhere to be very closed as it was now late on Sunday afternoon. We got lucky though - a patisserie was open and had a delicious selection of gateaux so we brought a couple home. Dave had a Foret-Noire slice and I had a Paris-Brest eclair. Perfect!

Le Petit Prince by Andres Munoz 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf / Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran / The Boston Ranter by Layden Robinson

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from its publishers, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. Excellent Daughters will be published on the 12th January 2016.

Women in Middle Eastern countries aren't often given much of a voice in the European press and media so, when I saw this book by journalist Katherine Zoepf, I was keen to read it. Zoepf spent over a decade meeting and talking to mostly young women across the Middle East, discussing their lives: education prospects, marriage plans, religion, social interactions, and hopes for their futures. Her writing was first published as articles in the New Yorker which results in some repetition across this relatively short book, although I believe the articles have been re-edited with new material added.

Excellent Daughters is written for a American audience so, understandably, has a strong Western filter. However, I liked that many of the conversations are reported word for word and, while Zoepf makes observations such as Saudi girls appearing younger in their behaviour than their American counterparts, she doesn't give this negative or positive connotations. Zoepf discusses how women are opening Islamic schools for girls, allowing them to read, interpret and argue Koranic laws from a female perspective. Others are taking advantage of new employment opportunities and the resultant financial freedom. Most interesting for me though was her conversations with women who, although they would like to change some aspects of their lives, don't want our Western ideas of commercialisation and individuality over community.

This survey attempts to portray many changes across a half dozen different countries, each of which has its own ideas of proper behaviour for its women. The country differences in themselves are fascinating, showing the popular Western media's idea of 'how Muslim women live' to be a wild misconception. However, I would have preferred a longer, deeper book, or a narrower subject focus because I often felt that Zoepf was just skimming the surface and there is much more to say.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Katherine Zoepf / Reportage / Books from America

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is my second book for the 2016 Pile Reading Challenge.

Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a journalistic recounting of the disastrous American attempts to rebuild Iraq as a mini-America in the aftermath of the second Gulf War. Being British I have read numerous historical accounts of our monumental Empire-building cock-ups, however it would have been nice to believe that such heavy-handed imperialism was a thing of the past. Chandrasekaran's book shows that it certainly isn't and I spent much of the first half in a state of almost continuous disbelief. By the second half, I was becoming quite punch-drunk from the continued revelations.

When Iraq fell to the American army, politicians back in Washington had already determined that they wanted the country to rise up again as a shining beacon of capitalist democracy in the Middle East. They didn't know how to achieve this goal, but set about it by cocooning their staff in Saddam's luxurious palace complex, giving lots of press conferences in English and, most importantly, by only sending people who had been vetted for the 'right' political leanings. Not for ability or experience, just for an unshakeable belief in George W Bush. Extreme paranoia an advantage.

Imperial Life In The Emerald City is basically a guide for how not to occupy a country you have just invaded. Even if that country's people wanted you there initially, they will soon change their minds if treated as irrelevant and, with hindsight, it really is no surprise that organisations such as ISIS grew out of the chaos. I appreciated Chandrasekaran's clear writing style as there are so many different people mentioned that keeping track of who's who is difficult, especially for someone like me who doesn't really follow American politics. The book has extensive detail which makes vividly imagining the Green Zone enclave easy and I now feel as though I have a far greater understanding of what really happened in Iraq and why.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Rajiv Chandrasekaran / Reportage / Books from America

The Boston Ranter by Layden Robinson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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I was sent a copy of The Boston Ranter when its author, Layden Robinson, contacted me via Twitter. Unfortunately I gave up on reading the book about a third of the way through because I really didn't like the rambling writing style. There is little in the way of characterisation, description or atmosphere and the incredibly repetitive faux swearing (fuhkin, fuhkers, fuhk) just got tiresome.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Friday, 8 January 2016

Smoked salmon pie recipe

Despite the smoked salmon of the title sounding rather
Smoked salmon pie 
glamorous, this is actually an impressively cheap dinner to make and relies mostly on storecupboard essentials. Also, because the smoked salmon is hidden, you can get away with using an oddments pack instead of splashing out on pristine slices. I first saw a version of this recipe in a Prue Leith cookbook and have adapted it for the simplicity of caravan cookery. Pate a pate pastry is too much faff!

I am submitting this recipe to January's Credit Crunch Munch which, this month, is being hosted by Camilla at FabFood4All. Credit Crunch Munch was devised by Camilla together with Helen at Fuss Free Flavours.


6oz plain flour
3oz butter
2-3 tbsp cold water
Extra flour for dusting

1-2 tbsp breadcrumbs
1-2 tbsp dried parmesan cheese, finely grated
150ml creme fraiche
1 clove garlic, finely diced
75g smoked salmon
1 tsp dried dill
Black pepper
Lemon juice
1 small egg, beaten

Put the flour and cold butter into a mixing bowl and rub
together until the flour resembles breadcrumbs.

Slowly add the water, mixing with a palette knife to form a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate it for 15-20 minutes.

While the dough is refrigerating, dice the garlic and mix it into the creme fraiche. You can use sour cream in lieu of creme fraiche if you prefer a tangier taste. Then line up everything else along the countertop in the order you will need it.

Preheat the oven to about 200c.
Grease or flour a baking tray.

Retrieve your pastry from the fridge. Dust a worktop and a rolling pin with flour, then roll the dough out to a large oval about 2-3mm thick. Gently mark or crease the dough at the half-way mark, then lift it onto the baking tray. You will be layering your filling ingredients onto one half, then folding the other over the top so bear this in mind as you position your pastry.

Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and grated cheese into an even layer leaving about 1/2 cm around the edge other than the fold line.

Spoon the garlicky creme fraiche over the cheesy breadcrumbs, smoothing it into a even layer.

Arrange the smoked salmon into an even layer over the creme fraiche.

Sprinkle the dill and black pepper over the smoked salmon. Parsley can be substituted for dill if you prefer. Both the salmon and the cheese are quite salty so you shouldn't need to add any extra salt.

Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the dill and pepper.

Brush the 1/2 cm border with beaten egg, then fold the other pastry half over and press it down. Brush the pie top with more beaten egg to make a nice glaze, then pierce the pie a couple of times with a knife to create steam holes. If you don't have an egg, you can brush with milk instead.

Bake the pie at about 200c for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden and the filling is bubbling. Serve immediately.