Monday, 29 February 2016

Ghosts Of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani / The King Of Taksim Square by Emrah Serbes / I.A. Boss by John Darryl Winston

Ghosts of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from South Africa.

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I received a copy of Ghosts Of Tsavo from its author, Vered Ehsani, as a reward for signing up to her email newsletter. It's currently free on Amazon too so give it a try!

The steampunk novel is set in late-Victorian era Nairobi in the days when this city was still just a rough settlement in a swamp. We travel there with English expatriate family the Sewards as they try to make themselves a new life away from the social disaster of their bankruptcy back home. Ehsani has created great characters for this family: the mother who is desperate to maintain her English lifestyle despite its total impracticality, the daughter who seems to see no point in living anywhere without fashionable shops, and the father who may nominally be the head of the family, but who doesn't really stand a chance!

Leading our novel is the formidable Mrs Beatrice Knight, tea drinker, widow and paranormal investigator. I loved her forthright way of thinking and dry sense of humour, especially where Ehsani includes nods to the rigid social rules of the day even as our heroine resolutely ignores them. I frequently found myself smiling and giggling as I read. Historical Nairobi is nicely evoked to give an atmospheric backdrop to the ghostly mystery that occupies Beatrice, however perhaps a little more focus could have been given to the lions themselves as they did seem almost incidental at times. There is so much else going on! I particularly thought the wrapping up of the lion storyline was hasty and would have liked to have learned more about how exactly this would pan out in the future.

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Books by Vered Ehsani / Steampunk fiction / Books from South Africa

The King of Taksim Square by Emrah Serbes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Turkey

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I received a copy of The King Of Taksim Square by Emrah Serbes from its publishers, AmazonCrossing, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

While reading The King Of Taksim Square, Serbes' protagonist, seventeen-year-old Caglar, reminded me a lot of Holden Caulfield because of the style of his direct narration and its stream of consciousness energy. Interestingly I struggled to finish Catcher In The Rye but enjoyed this book far more. Caglar is a bigshot in his small town, mainly because his Uncle is the corrupt Mayor. Caglar expects his name alone to open doors and gain favours, but this world view begins to be challenged when his beloved younger sister, Cigdem, enters a talent competition dancing as Michael Jackson. Cigdem is everything to Caglar and he cannot believe that the TV company fails to see how amazing she is. Attempting to promote Cigdem by social media channels instead, Caglar posts her dance on YouTube where it has modest success until an Istanbul protest steals her thunder.

It did take me a while to get into this book and I have since read of other reviewers abandoning it early on. The initial meandering style does tighten up and, as we learn who everyone is, there are fewer diversions into back stories. However Caglar's short attention span remains and I enjoyed his focus changes, especially once he gets to Istanbul and the epicentre of its protest and riots. The King Of Taksim Square has a strong nostalgic thread running throughout which is nicely contrasted with modern technological and social elements. Caglar is constantly hankering for the past sometimes specifically to his experience - such as the now-vanished site of his first kiss - or as a more general longing for the way Turkey used to be. He wants the latest iPhone, but insists on referring to shops and cafes with the names of businesses that preceded them.

The scenes of the protest themselves are exciting but baffling, much as they must have really been to many people there at the time, and Caglar sees most of the action in relation to himself, not as part of the wider picture. This is in keeping with his character although I did have to read up about the politics of it all after finishing the novel. I thought The King Of Taksim Square was an engaging read that gave an unusual insight into Turkish life.

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Books by Emrah Serbes / Humour and satire / Books from Turkey

IA: B.O.S.S. by John Darryl Winston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Having enjoyed the first book in John Darryl Winston's dystopian trilogy, IA: Initiate, in December last year (my review here), I have been looking forward to the second installment, IA: Boss. Fortunately I was lucky enough to win copies of both in a Goodreads giveaway! Thanks John!

IA: Boss starts pretty much exactly where IA: Initiate left off which ensures strong continuity. Winston does indulge in recaps of important information, but these are concise and placed at relevant moments so they don't slow the story's pace unnecessarily. Naz is coming to terms with his new-found chess playing skill and wonders at what else he may unknowingly excel. This, and a glance from an attractive girl, leads him to try out for the basketball team. Much of IA: Boss' plot is driven by action on the basketball court or centred around interactions between the team members and Coach Fears. Knowledge of the game would definitely help understand these scenes in depth, but, as a complete ignoramus(!), I don't think I actually missed any vital story elements and I did enjoy watching Naz's personal growth as he learns to trust his team mates. Winston does a great job of promoting qualities such as loyalty and reliability without ever seeming to preach to his readers.

IA: Boss did feel much like part of a larger tale rather than a story in its own right so I wouldn't recommend reading it as a stand-alone book. It concentrates more on Naz's school life so we see less of the wider city this time around. I felt this created a more claustrophobic feel to the prose, as though the outside world is closing in. We get more mysterious glimpses of Cory, Naz's father, and I am intrigued by foster mother, Miss Tracey. (Not just wondering who on earth thought she was a suitable carer for troubled children either!) Emotionally charged events (no, I won't say what happens) are well-handled considering the YA target readership and it was interesting to see Naz's responses and increasing maturity. I will admit to being shocked by the ending and according to Goodreads, the third novel, IA: Union, isn't out until 2017. I am hoping Winston writes faster than that!

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

Friday, 26 February 2016

Walking the Montroig campo - El Mas dels Tregells

What I love most about spontaneous make-it-up-as-we-go-
Marigold flower 
along walks around unknown places are the surprises we encounter en route. Dave plotted yesterday's circular route through the countryside (campo) around Montroig to be mostly along agricultural tracks (camis) with a couple of sections using dry river beds (barrancs). We were expecting to see the vegetable crops, olive trees, other harvestable trees, lots of squashed processional caterpillars, abandoned scrubland and the occasional barking dog. We did not expect to see brightly coloured orange and yellow verges of cultivated marigolds so were delighted to find ourselves walking past several of these areas. And we certainly did not expect to suddenly find ourselves passing a pseudo-Medieval castle! Fortunately said 'castle', El Mas dels Tregells, had an informative plaque outside explaining just what it was and how its appearance had come about.

El Mas dels Tregells 

This farmhouse is also known as Sant Rafael and during
Sant Rafael at El Mas dels Tregells 
the Middle Ages it was the centre of its own township. Pretty much all evidence of this town is now buried beneath its surrounding agricultural fields so the Mas stands alone looking either proudly impressive or a bit self conscious, depending on your point of view. At the end of the nineteenth century it was restored and given its current neo-Gothic look complete with side turrets, battlements and machicolations. Now, I admit we didn't know what machicolations were and I thought it might be a bizarre mistranslation from the Catalan (matacans) or Spanish (maracanes), but No! It's a real word in English for holes in the floor of the overhanging battlements through which rocks or boiling oil etc. could be dropped onto the heads of any optimistic attackers below. Good luck slipping that into conversation any time soon!

Our planned two hours walking turned into three as we got ourselves somewhat lost by relying on signposts instead of Dave's intuition. This did allow us to see a fabulous murmuration of hundreds of starlings coming into roost. The flock made the most incredible shapes in the sky and I loved watching them for several minutes. I don't remember seeing birds in these numbers in the UK for at least a couple of decades now. Is that because they are just not in our skies anymore or have I just been in the wrong place? Sadly I couldn't get an image for this post as my phone isn't remotely up to that!

So I will leave you instead without another plant picture. We don't know what this is and, judging by where it was growing, it is probably nothing special at all, but its leaves were the most gorgeous red colour in the sunshine.


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Barracas of Montroig del Camp

Do you remember that a few weeks ago Dave and I visited
Barraca del Tutu
the Joan Miro museum in Montroig del Camp? Part of the museum had been turned over to an interesting photographic exhibition documenting the building of a number of barraques / barracas in the nearby countryside. Yesterday we finally got around to doing a walk which would allow us to see some of these structures in situ. We drove to the barraca named Barraca del Tutu which is numbered 1 on our map - Senderisme Mont Roig i Miami Platja - and parked up before setting out on foot, complete with picnic lunch, to explore. Several of the barracas are signposted from the T-310, but we didn't initially realise this as we drove along that road. If you're looking for them too, watch out for handmade signs with a capital letter B and a number pointing off down dirt tracks!

Barraca doble de Cal Rabosa 

A barraca is essentially a small rural shelter and I have
Inside Barraca del Tutu 
seen the word translated into English as meaning anything from a workmen's hut to an Eskimo igloo. The Montroig barracas use ancient building techniques to create domed stone structures with a simple arched doorway. There aren't any windows although we saw several that had small alcoves inside, presumably for candles or lanterns. Stones high up inside the roof were often blackened by smoke and there is no chimney hole. I guess fire smoke dissipates through gaps between the stones. Generally no fixing substance - such as mortar - is used so it's a bit like dry stone walling in the UK. Looking inside, I was also reminded of the one of the dolmen we saw at Antequera almost exactly two years ago (although not the one pictured in this post). These barracas feel timeless!

Seeing the fields and orchards in this part of Catalonia
explains immediately where all the building stone comes from and I wondered which came first - the need to have small shelters or the need to do something with all this rock! Hill slopes are terraced, again with immense volumes of rock, and there must have been incredible work needed to actually create viable agricultural land here. What is sad to see is where formerly worked land has been abandoned and allowed to revert to scrubland again. The effort required to get it usable again may never make economic sense.

The barracas are all slightly different shapes and designs,
and vary in size. The smallest were tiny huts where we had to crouch to get through the door and probably no more than a couple of people could be seated together. The largest we saw, I think, was this one for which I got Dave to stand in the photo to really give you an idea of its scale. As most of the barracas didn't have name plaques beside them and weren't always where they appeared to be on the map, we did have trouble not only finding them, but also identifying the ones we did see! I think the large barraca pictured here is Barraca dels Communs del Pellicer, but it could be Barraca de l'Aiguader.

Perhaps the most spectacular, and certainly the easiest to
Barraca 'en espiral' 
identify(!), is Barraca 'en espiral' meaning, obviously, in a spiral. This one looks fabulous from the outside, but has no sign of its spiral construction on the inside.

It was very close to another barraca that we probably wouldn't have been able to name had we not seen them almost as a pair. Pictured below, Barraca dels Lliris was the only one we saw which had plants growing on it. I didn't know what the plant was, but it looked to have been deliberately planted all across the roof. Maybe this helps with waterproofing? Maybe it is just for decoration?

Barraca dels Lliris 
There are dozens of barracas across the Montroig area and we only saw a fraction of them. Most aren't directly alongside the camis (agricultural tracks) or footpaths so require shortish detours to find them. Plus, being made of the same stone as much of their surroundings, they blend in remarkably well!

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao / Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson / Lonely Is The Valley by Gwen Kirkwood

The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao from its publishers, Amazon Crossing, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. The novel is set in Singapore which appealed to me as I know very little about the city and Tsao gives lots of interesting insights into everyday life there. I loved the cover art too!

Tsao has created a great character in her protagonist, the unfortunately named Murgatroyd Floyd. A blonde haired, blue eyed caucasian child of British parents, Murgatroyd hasn't found his place in Singapore, even though he has never lived anywhere else, and Tsao uses this extreme example of not belonging to highlight the sense of alienation that most of us feel at one time or another. Physically different and socially inept, and with a name that is unpronounceable to Singaporean tongues, Murgatroyd only finds 'home' in an ice-cream shop owned by a strange elderly man who had previously vanished for over sixty years. Billed as science fiction, The Oddfits does take its readers to other worlds, sort of, but it is essentially a novel about how we view ourselves and how other people see us. Murgatroyd seems to call out to be pitied, yet he doesn't see himself as especially hard done by. He is content in a job that suits him perfectly, with a best friend he has known since his school days, and with parents who always do their best for him. However, once he meets a one-eyed woman in a green dress, he begins to wonder whether his future is quite so clear as he had once believed.

I frequently found myself smiling at the rich and often bizarre imagery in The Oddfits and I now really, really want to visit Singapore. There's lots of delicious-sounding food there for a start - this is another novel to read with snacks on standby! The idea of L'Abbatoir restaurant is gorily appealing although I am far to squeamish to ever eat there, and the Duck Assassin is one scary creation. I did like Olivia and James too - not as they are, obviously, but the idea that people could really behave like that is great for the book. This is a fun read with a seriously thoughtful side. It won't appeal to sci-fi fans who like action-packed books, but those who like to take a sideways glance at our own world will probably enjoy the ideas a lot.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up my vintage copy of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson at a campsite book exchange in France knowing nothing about the author and being primarily attracted to the book by virtue of its being a King Penguin publication - the writing would at least be of a good standard even if the story wasn't completely to my taste. As it turned out, both writing and story were superb. Housekeeping is very likely to feature in my Top Ten list for 2016!

Set in small town America, in the wonderfully named Fingerbone, Housekeeping is told from the point of view of Ruthie, the younger of two sisters left orphaned after their mother's suicide. Abandoned to their grandmother's care then briefly picked up by a pair of nervous great-aunts, before finding themselves coping with (or in spite of) the best intentions of their traveller aunt Sylvie, the girls are left increasingly to their own devices with fascinating results. Robinson describes what could be seen as an idyllic childhood, roaming free instead of attending school, but all around are reminders of what the girls have lost and, perhaps more importantly, what they still do not have. When elder sister Lucille begins to rebel against Sylvie, we as readers suddenly understand how the family are viewed by the rest of the town and how rigidly narrow their expected life path should be.

I love how Robinson writes women. The great-aunts have so obviously always been together that they cannot even speak independently. Even Helen's brief thoughtfulness in providing her children food, although she will leave them moments later, is a very real detail beautifully portrayed. I was gripped by Ruthie's narration throughout the novel and her ultimate decision of whose expectations should direct her life is emotional to read.

Lonely is the Valley by Gwen Kirkwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Lonely Is The Valley by Gwen Kirkwood from its publishers, Endeavour Press, to read in preparation for their Virtual Historical Fiction Festival which is happening in April. As Kirkwood is a Scottish author, I am counting this as my second book for the 2016 Read Scotland Challenge.

Lonely Is The Valley is set in a rural Welsh farming community at the time of its writing, the mid-1980s. I admit to being surprised at its era having expected books with a greater time distance for a Historical Fiction Festival read. If my childhood years are considered history now, then I must be older than I think! The plotline follows a pretty standard 'light romance' trajectory from antagonism to love with most of the action being driven by missed communication and misunderstandings. I liked the descriptions of the valley itself and the close-knit community vibe, however I was disappointed with the shallow characterisation which made it difficult for me to believe in our protagonists' interactions. The novel is infuriatingly dated in its gender attitudes too.

Ceri Owen, the heroine, is frequently described as independent, yet rarely displays any behaviour other than that of a doormat. Mark, her would-be suitor, is creepily patronising, controlling and emotionally abusive yet, as readers, we are apparently not only supposed to find these attractive traits, but also to blithely accept that being sexually assaulted by him triggers thoughts of love in Ceri. I frequently felt very uncomfortable while reading Lonely Is The Valley. Mark's treating of Ceri as if she is a child and her own clinging need to be subservient to a male figure, almost at any cost, is decidedly awkward and an unhealthy example to promote as a desirable relationship.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Why I have changed my Blogger comments to CommentLuv

A visitor wrote a lovely comment on the post I blogged
yesterday about our recent cycle ride and walk. I know this comment exists because I received an email from Google+ to tell me so. However I cannot see the comment on the post. How ridiculous is that?

It's not the first time that Google have decided my blog comments should remain invisible to me. Apparently it is some arbitrary ruling to do with the commenter not being in my circles, or I am not in their circles. Something to do with circles anyway. But it's so annoying. If someone has taken the time to write on my blog post, they must want their words to be seen. Obvious, innit?

In exasperation, I have done my research about other commenting options that are compatible with Blogger. Disqus and CommentLuv seemed to be the favourites and I have used both on other blogs so am comfortable with them. CommentLuv won out for me though because its installation intructions at were straightforward enough for me to feel confident about twiddling with my blog's settings. CommentLuv also allows commenters with blogs to easily link up a recent post of their own. I love to see what other people are writing about :-)

I have only set the new system up for yet-to-be-written posts because I don't want to lose what has already been written and couldn't see an import option. So the big test will be when I press Publish for this post ... will CommentLuv be enabled and waiting for us? If you can see it, please do comment and let me know ;-)

Here goes ...

So, there went, and writing again now, a couple of days later, it's a mixed review. CommentLuv worked perfectly on the desktop version of my blog and people left comments to prove it.

However, CommentLuv didn't show up at all on the mobile blog version so that was showing a Google-hosted comment box. (Not Google+, just Google. Not sure where it came from but it seems to be the Blogger default setting!) I could have managed with this duality if Google and CommentLuv had kept their distances. But today another visitor commented via the Google facility on the mobile version which caused the pre-existing CommentLuv comments on the desktop version to vanish from my post, being replaced by the Google conversation. Apologies to Andy and Aj for losing your comments. I wasn't expecting that! (And I think I am developing a headache.)

So in conclusion, as I want to keep CommentLuv and am now even more irritated with Google, I have hidden the default Blogger comment facility which I think will prevent anyone using it on my blog pages. It does also mean no one can comment at all via the mobile site version, but hopefully this won't be too inconvenient for phone wielding visitors? Plus no one can comment on posts - including this one - where there are (now) existing comments via Google. It's certainly not ideal and is getting very confusing.

I have trawled the help pages to no avail so would be interested to hear from others who have had the same problem, especially if they surmounted it. I will keep CommentLuv for a couple of weeks to see how it works out, but have a feeling that I might have to revert to the default Blogger/Google facility. At least it's not Google+ though.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Cycling to Salou and walking to Riudecols

Two gloriously sunny days have meant two lovely
excursions for us! Yesterday we jumped on our bicycles for the afternoon, taking advantage of the extensive cycle path network around Cambrils and along the coast.Beginning from Camping La Llosa we cycled a little inland to get to the village of Salou and passed even more huge campsites that we hadn't previously seen. All looked to be closed up for the winter. One had dozens of wooden chalets to rent, all painted in bright primary colours, and another had a pair of bizarre wooden sculptures outside the entrance, one of which is pictured here. They didn't look especially Spanish. We are beginning to understand just how madly busy this area of Catalunya must be during the high season! It certainly wouldn't be somewhere we would want to visit in Summer, but in its just-ticking-over capacity in February, it is pretty perfect for us!

Salou town centre was a little frantic, traffic-wise, than the rest of the ride and it's one way system baffled us briefly. However, it was simple enough to head for the sea and we knew that, once there, we could return on the promenade cycle path. We paused for a coffee at a seafront cafe, Fabiola, and a while later paused again to sit on Cambrils harbour wall and gaze at the boats. Idyllic!

Sporty cyclists were out and about in force today as it is
Marta and Dave discuss walking routes 
Saturday and we drove past a dozen or so on the way to our walk's starting point. We had borrowed Chris and Marta's local walking map and set off to do a walk they had recommended. If you get yourself the 'Baix Camp Mapa de la Xarxa de Camins' from Cambrils Tourist Office, this is walk number 16 - an easy and fairly straightforward 12km which begins and ends in Botarell, taking in the edge of Riudecols at the farthest point. (An aside: Marta is wearing the hat I crocheted for her! I also crocheted the flowers and leaves that she later appliqued.)

We parked outside the sports centre in Botarell, a new
Gaser mural at Botarell sports centre 
facility with murals depicting the games played inside. I spotted the mural artist was Gaser - who also painted the brilliant dice player and eavesdropper street art we saw in Tarragona. Following the road uphill for maybe a hundred yards got us to the green walk route signposts and, from there on, the way marking was clear practically all the way round. The first few minutes were noisy with barking dogs and several large sheds of factory-farmed birds. We couldn't tell whether they were chickens or other birds, but the terrible sound reminded me why I choose free range whenever possible.

Overall this wasn't a spectacular walk, but included a variety of pleasant terrains from pine woods to agricultural land, dry river beds and sunken earth-walled lanes. The woods were scattered with dozens of empty shotgun cartridges which were surprisingly pretty for litter! I later took photographs of some gorgeous red poppies that were unexpected for February! And we passed a large orchard of possibly-almond trees that were in bud and will look fabulous when they all blossom soon.


Thursday, 18 February 2016

Beach walking in the sunshine

There are so many wide sandy beaches along from
Dones Remendadores by Maria Dolores Ortuno 
Cambrils that it is easy to see how the many holiday apartments and campsites around the area will fill up during the hot summer months. It's fantastic having everything practically to ourselves at this time of year though! Admittedly a good proportion of the bars and restaurants are closed on weekdays - far more open up for the weekends - and we have only braved sea paddling - although we have seen other people swimming - but to be able to wander and gaze out at yellow sand, blue sea and huge blue skies feels wonderfully privileged.

Yesterday we cycled along the promenade and a bumpy dirt track for about half an hour before chaining our bikes up and walking for an hour along the sands. It was so peaceful and pretty. We could see built up areas in the distance, but once we were clear of Cambrils itself, there was surprisingly little construction along this coastline and most of what does exist is low level one- or two-storey buildings.

Returning back to our bicycles via an inland route wasn't
always quite so picturesque especially here where the footpath goes through a drainage tunnel! Fortunately it was dry - in comparison with the motorway underpasses a couple of days ago which were several inches deep in water.

I enjoyed walking past fields of agricultural land. Yesterday's crops appeared to be mostly almond and olive trees and we are seeing the first of the Spring blossoms beginning to flower. This reminded me that I hadn't yet posted the beautiful bluebell-like flowers we saw earlier in the week. When we were at Foxley Wood in Norfolk, we learned that they call a pale mauve bluebell variety Spanish Bluebells. I wonder if these red-pink flowering plants are remotely related? The bloom shapes are similar but the overall plant shape is quite different.


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Cogling by Jordan Elizabeth / Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick / The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

Cogling by Jordan Elizabeth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I enjoyed reading my first Jordan Elizabeth book, Escape From Witchwood Hollow, last year so was delighted to recently be offered a review copy of her newest novel, Cogling. I especially love the fabulous cover art which was created by Mandie Manzano.

Cogling is billed as steampunk and is set in Victorian era sort-of-England. It does rely more of magical and fantasy elements rather science fiction, but Elizabeth's premise of witch-like hags replacing children with automata counterparts is a wonderfully steampunky idea. When her young brother, Harrison, becomes one of the taken children, Edna Mather sets out on a quest to discover his fate and rescue him. On the way she is mostly helped - and sometimes hindered! - by Ike, a young man of dubious honesty. Ike also provides a burgeoning love interest for our Edna although, as this is a YA novel, their romance is suitably muted.

I liked Elizabeth's descriptive prowess and, as with Escape From Witchwood Hollow, I found it easy to immerse myself into the world she created. I wasn't so convinced by all the characters this time around though, mainly because most of the magicals and animals weren't given complete personalities. Perhaps a couple of the journey twists and turns could have been sacrificed in order to allow readers to get to know certain of the hags and ogres in greater depth? On the whole, however, Cogling is an entertaining and fast-paced read and I would follow Edna and Ike on further adventures should a sequel be in the pipeline.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Jordan Elizabeth / Fantasy fiction / Books from America

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books of 2016.

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Elizabeth Hardwick was a new-to-me author when I spotted this novella, Sleepless Nights, in with other borrowable books at our Tarragona Airbnb apartment. Inappropriate titling aside(!), I chose it mainly because its brevity would allow me to easily finish reading during a busy long weekend and I was not prepared at all for just how superb the writing would be. I don't often quote from books I read, but to give you an idea, here is a sentence that grabbed my attention early on:
"I was then a 'we', that tea bag of a word steeped in the conditional".

Sleepless Nights is essentially a fictional memoir, written in a nonfiction style, which results in an unusual book for its time. I understand from reading up about Hardwick and her work since finishing, that it was considered experimental when published although this approach is now far more widely used. Our narrator, also named Elizabeth, is an older woman looking back over her life, recalling people and places that once meant a lot to her. Sometimes we read Elizabeth's thoughts as though she is speaking directly to us. Sometimes we read old letters she wrote. Combined, the effect is to give an immensely powerful read. I would recommend Sleepless Nights to anyone who enjoys literary fiction purely for Hardwick's gorgeous turns of phrase, but also because she creates such an fascinating persona in Elizabeth.

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Books by Elizabeth Hardwick / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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My friend Marta lent me her paperback copy of The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore and I read the whole book, practically in one sitting, this afternoon. I think it really should have been published as a novella rather than a 239 page novel because there are such wide margins that I found myself turning pages ridiculously fast!

The Greatcoat is set in a small East Riding community in 1954. Reminders of the War are everywhere yet the people have frequently chosen to look ahead rather than back. It is not so much a case of forgetting the horrors and loss of wartime, as simply choosing to spend as little time as possible remembering. Into this community come Philip and Isabel, the new doctor and his wife; he eager to throw himself into his new professional life, she encouraged to turn away from her qualifications and settle instead for lonely domesticity. Even without the supernatural aspect which pervades every page, Dunmore has written an insightful description of the weird normality of Isabel's life that would have made a good book on its own. Instead, we also begin to glimpse another woman's life, through Isabel's eyes, when she inadvertently opens the door to a ghost.

I love how Dunmore evokes all the senses in her writing. Isabel's ghost is not just seen, but smelt, heard and touched. Tension is heightened by the landlady's perpetual pacing overhead. The supernatural begins to seem more real than reality. Timeshifts are wonderfully handled and I would not be surprised to see The Greatcoat turned into an amazing film (is it already?).

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Books by Helen Dunmore / Horror fiction / Books from England

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Happy Valentine's Day from Cambrils!

I hope your beloved remembered?! Dave and I exchanged
Street art on Cambrils prom 
cutesy cards this morning and went on a lovely walk up a dry river bed rambla this afternoon, returning by way of cami tracks through agricultural land where we saw wide fields of curly kale and Brussels sprouts as well as several different huge cactus varieties. The weather nearly bested us though - glorious sunshine as we started, spitting rain for the last ten minutes, and we had just closed our car doors as the heavens opened. Our walk was just a couple of hours and I was shattered by the time we got back to the car.

Street art on Cambrils prom 
The reason? I have actually got A Cold! In Spain! That's not the idea of coming out here at all, but it is the first of our three winters that I have succumbed. I've felt rubbish for the past three days and improved today so hopefully it will all be over within a week and we can get back to our usual hilly walks. Yesterday was embarrassing - after just forty minutes gentle strolling along the seafront promenade, I was happy to turn for home! However, I enjoyed spotting examples of the 'Hola!' street art along the route. There are lots of differently styled men and women, all wearing monochrome striped tops and saying 'Hola!' to cyclists, joggers and walkers. It was such a lovely afternoon that Dave even went paddling in the sea. I didn't capture that moment, but here he is wistfully gazing further along the coastline to where we might explore another day.

Dave doesn't want to turn back yet! 


Thursday, 11 February 2016

Museu d'Art Modern Tarragona and a Carnaval firework finale

We had lightly researched Tarragona's indoor attractions
Self portrait by Salvador Martorell 
prior to our visit expecting, at some point, to be driven undercover by the forecast winds and rain. As it turned out this preparation was almost completely unnecessary so we are still pretty much none the wiser about the city's Roman heritage. Dave's daughters, visiting from England, were keen make enjoying the sunshine a priority and we had already explored fabulous sites in Nimes and Arles late last year. However, we did overlook the ruined amphitheatre with its ocean backdrop and lots of solid Roman walls can be viewed simply by walking around the streets. The photograph below shows two column segments with Roman inscriptions and a Hebrew-inscribed tombstone, all of which had been embedded into a relatively modern wall of the Antiga Casa del Dega. In other places, historical ruins were separated from streets only by wire fencing so we could peer past feral cat gangs to admire towers and arches.

Roman inscriptions and a Hebrew tombstone 
One museum I definitely didn't want to miss though was
Maria, La Gitana by Julio Antonio 
the Museu d'Art Modern Tarragona (MAMT). Established in its present location in 1976, MAMT's collections include a large number of bronzes by sculptor Julio Antonio, a huge Miro tapestry and works by Lluis Saumells (a director at MAMT whose public work Thales we had viewed the day before). Several rooms were taken up with a temporary Rafael Bartolozzi exhibition with which, to be honest, I was rather underwhelmed! I loved the detail and expression in the Julio Antonio sculptures though. My favourite of his works, pictured here, is entitled Maria, La Gitana and was created in 1906. The Salvador Martorell self portrait pictured at the top of this post was great fun and I would like to find more of his work in the future.

Joan Miro tapestry at MAMT 
Joan Miro's tapestry was much larger than the example we saw in Montroig and this one was actually created during his lifetime. Miro had given a painting in the same design, in lieu of payment, to a young doctor who had treated his daughter after she was hit by a train in Montroig. That painting inspired Miro to embark on his then-new artistic direction commissioning the young artist Josep Royo to create tapestries of striking Miro designs.

Of the modern works at MAMT, I especially liked the
Homenatge a Julio Antonio
by Francesc Angles 
relaxed style of Homenatge a Julio Antonio by Francesc Angles, created in 1995. Angles is another artist whose public work we had already seen outdoors in Tarragona - he sculpted Als Castellers.

If you visit MAMT too, be sure to pay attention to the building's interior as well as to the artworks. There are some beautifully decorated niches and ceilings, classically white painted, but with interesting details.

After this afternoon of serious culture, our evening was completely different. The last event of Carnaval was a firework display with a difference in the Plaza del Rey. This enclosed square was a fabulous venue for the well-choreographed madness! People dressed up as devils and demons skipped around with whirling fireworks held over their heads - scattering sparks everywhere which an eerie banshee wailing sound. Troops of drummers beat out primeval rhythms and four large costumes of mythical beasts - a bull, a griffin and two dragons - were each worn by a man who made them dance. The creatures were also loaded with fireworks that sprayed or spun sparks high into the air. Once the procession of these demons and creatures had entered the square, their fireworks were repeated reloaded so they could take turns being centre stage. I noticed that the drummer troops were each associated with a beast. They would start up their rhythm, then speed up when all the beast's fireworks were alight and firing, and slow down again once all the fireworks had burnt out. I guess this was a signal to the man within the costume that he could safely return to his 'team' for reloading. It was all an incredible spectacle!