Saturday, 30 April 2016

Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh / The Moon And The Bonfire by Cesare Pavese / Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I was lucky to hear Simon Singh at an Eastbourne Sceptics In The Pub meeting where he discussed his then new book about the Mathematical Secrets Of The Simpsons. Fermat's Last Theorem was also name-dropped during the evening and it has taken me this long to get to reading it! I was put off by feeling that I would probably be unable to understand any of the actual maths, however was pleasantly surprised to discover that my comprehension didn't fail me until over half-way through and the underlying story can be appreciated even if the algebra is skipped!

Fermat's Last Theorem tells the story of this most enigmatic equation both through the mathematical history that led to its solution and through small biographies of the men and women who were fascinated by it. I was delighted to see female names, albeit only a few, but I hadn't expected any. Singh has a talent for presenting the human stories behind scientific and, in this case, mathematical achievements and I found myself getting quite caught up in the excitement. For a moment I even wished I had tried harder in maths at school - until the next bout of equations reminded me why I didn't!

I think those who are versed in maths will probably get more from this book overall, but it was an interesting read even without full understanding and I appreciated the historical context of each separate discovery, layering up until Andrew Wiles' showstopping moment and beyond. As when I read Sophie's World, I doubt many of the names will remain in my memory for long, but I very much enjoyed Singh's writing and would turn to his books again to guide me though similar subjects.

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Books by Simon Singh / Science and mathematics / Books from England

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I registered this book at Bookcrossing

I found a copy of The Moon And The Bonfires in Totnes Community Bookshop on Tuesday. As the novella was published in 1950, I am counting it as my 1950s read for the 2016 Goodreads / Bookcrossing Decade Challenge.

Anguilla, who we only ever know through his childhood nickname meaning 'the eel' was an orphan, raised in poverty by foster parents in a relatively remote Italian valley. As a child he seems to have accepted his lowly status, but never felt as though he fitted in and really belonged. As the book starts, Anguilla is returning to the valley after years spent away travelling and making a relative fortune in America. He is self-consciously aware of his new position in society and wanted his return to make waves. However lives and deaths have happened in his absence and the people he imagined himself impressing are no longer around to witness his triumph.

I wasn't overkeen on Pavese's writing style and especially not his frequent derogatory remarks about women although I expect these could be explained away by the era of the writing. However, as the story progresses and Anguilla reminisces about his childhood and adolescence, I was drawn more into the tale. Pavese's descriptions of everyday deprivation and poverty are shocking and I understood how this could result in routine violence and tragedy. The Moon And The Bonfire takes its title from local superstitions which lead Anguilla, despite his early contrary protestations, to realise that this simple valley is where he truly belongs, even lacking a known family history to back up that knowledge. Anguilla feels the passing of the seasons and the rhythm of the rural year although modernity and wartime suspicions have destroyed much of what he expected to return to. The Moon And The Bonfire is ultimately a moving tribute to a lost way of living.

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Books by Cesare Pavese / Novellas / Books from Italy

Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I read Chinese Cinderella in September 2013 and this is another of my recently rediscovered and unblogged mini book reviews. I remember that I left the book on a Hailsham park bench for Bookcrossing. I wonder where it has got to now?

An interesting glimpse into the life of a Chinese girl from a wealthy family living in Tianjin and Shanghai in the 1940s. The book is a Puffin and intended for a younger audience so does not go into great depth about the political and social situation in China at the time although there is an overview at the end. It is more concerned with scenes from Adeline's early life with which older children could identify. The book was very quick to read and has inspired me to look out for the 'adult' version of Adeline's autobiography, Falling Leaves.

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Books by Adeline Yen Mah / Biography and memoir / Books from China

Friday, 29 April 2016

We visit The Shops At Dartington and find Totnes Community Bookshop

Dave was intrigued when he saw The Shops marked on the
Upcycled figure at The Shops 
map at nearby Dartington. Normally towns don't bother to announce their retail district so proudly so he investigated further. It turns out that The Shops At Dartington are part of something a bit special. The estate was purchased by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1925 and they 'embarked on what they called the Dartington Experiment to regenerate a rural community.' The Elmhirsts welcomed people who were interested in social change and reform - artists, economists, horticulturalists - and the estate is still very much a social enterprise today, ploughing any commercial profit back into local projects. There is a full calendar of musical, artistic, culinary and literary events as well as an arthouse cinema, beautiful gardens, restaurants and the eponymous Shops. Parking is pretty cheap and we also spotted a Sustrans cycle / walking route from Totnes.

We began wandering around outside this pretty venue
The Sustrans route leading away from the bridge 
which is all old stone and flowers. Lots of the trees were in full blossom and there are interesting details like the above upcycled figure near to the Restore shop. Restore is a voluntary enterprise, part of Refurnish Devon, which brings people together to learn how to repair and restore their existing furniture as well as upcycling individual pieces for the shop. Right now there's a nice gateleg table there!

We managed not to allow ourselves into the very tempting food shop and also bypassed another business selling fire bowls, outdoor pizza ovens and the like. A homewares shop had Christy towels at half price, but we don't have the space! Instead we spent our time (and money) in a greeting card shop which has a fabulous range of cards - special occasions, humorous, and arty. I especially appreciated their support of local artists and liked designs by Kerry Tremlett from Exeter and Sally Anderson from
Sally Anderson greeting cards 
Teignmouth. Our final discovery was a branch of the vegetarian Cranks Restaurant which Dave remembers as the first veggie eaterie in London. He even ate there in 1967 and we are planning to treat me to a birthday lunch at the Dartington establishment (on Tuesday, just as a by the way!) so I will review it next week. I think if we do find our perfect abode in Torquay, we will be visiting Dartington fairly frequently!

Another town we would be visiting frequently would be Totnes. We have already stopped by once and loved its hippy vibe. This time we hoped for another good DVD, but couldn't find anything promising that we hadn't already seen. My other aim was to find a cafe with a book exchange shelf because I thought Totnes looked a likely place. I wasn't able to google one either there or in Torquay - so if you know better, please let me know. But in the meantime, we made the wonderful discovery of the Totnes Community Bookshop in Castle Street. It officially became a community enterprise in March and hosts events such as open mic poetry evenings, author visits and acoustic music. I think all the books are second hand, but are in good condition and there's an excellent selection. Most of the paperbacks that caught my eye were £2 each so we chose five between us and, best of all, I got a £1 trade-in each on the three I had hoped to exchange. So if you want to read Daughter Of The Killing Fields, Fermat's Last Theorem (review blogged tomorrow) or The Amateur Marriage, my copies are now all at the Totnes Community Bookshop. Go take a look!

Photo from Totnes Community Bookshop FB page

Thursday, 28 April 2016

#ThrowbackThursday - where we were on this date in Aprils past

I have enjoyed joining in #ThrowbackThursday on Twitter
Shadows Of The Wanderer by Ana Pacheco 
for ages now, but it only recently occurred to me that I could do a similar feature on my blog. For those of you who haven't come across the hashtag before, the idea is to look back across the years and reminisce about what you were doing on the same date. Stephanie Jane (the blog) has been around since 2013 and I have posts on Theatrical Eastbourne back to 2012 so let's see what we were up to! All links go to my old posts, so do click through for the full story, and if you write your own #ThrowbackThursday post, pop the link in the Comments!

At the end of April 2012 I had just visited a Willie Doherty photographic and video exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. Doherty is from Northern Ireland and much of his work is an attempt to understand the daily fear, oppression and uncertainty of people living within a divided community. I liked the ambiguity of his work and several of the photographs got more frightening the longer I observed and thought about them.

A year later and April 2013 was all about the theatre. We
had returned from a fortnight's holiday in Austin, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana, to cold, grey, miserable England in March. Wearing all our clothing (not quite!) for two days while we tried to get the house back up to temperature was the genesis of our travelling idea - no more British winters! - but in the meantime I consoled myself with a cultural overload: three plays, a musical, a film, a storytelling workshop and an incredible Matthew Bourne ballet.

At the end of April 2014 we had been home a month from
Books to read! 
our first European caravan travels - six months around Portugal and Spain - and I started what would become a frantic ebaying and freegling of everything in our house that wasn't actually bolted to the walls! We hadn't yet decided to sell up and embrace the nomadic life full-time, but I remember feeling claustrophobic back indoors and this was exacerbated by the sheer amount of stuff I had accumulated over the years. I didn't have a job to return to either so the clearout helped with cashflow. I still had reading time though so April 2014's memory is a roundup post of six book reviews.

This time last year we had been on the road for nearly
eight months and were beginning our UK summer tour. The end of April saw us in Norwich admiring the Ana Pacheco sculpture Shadows Of The Wanderer at Norwich Cathedral (pictured at the top of this post), buying local produce at the permanent market, and visiting a couple of excellent eateries. Dave found his very own Place too!

I've loved looking back over the past few years and am still amazed at how much we have changed our lives. I'll do another #ThrowbackThursday post at the end of next month remembering that date in years gone by.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Dead Girls by Jorge Ibarguengoitia / The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka / Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel

The Dead Girls by Jorge Ibarg├╝engoitia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I read The Dead Girls in August 2013 and this is one of a few mini book reviews from that time which never got blogged so I am rectifying the oversight now with this trio of reviews and a smattering over the next book review posts!

I found this novel in my local Oxfam bookshop in English translation. It was only £2 so I didn't have great expectations but was pleasantly surprised. The story, fiction but inspired by a true event, is written with dry humour in a style that often reads like police reports interspersed with witness statements. The plot is not that of a standard crime thriller and incorporates a lot of black humour. The characters develop as we discover more about them and all their actions are completely believable given the circumstances in which they find themselves. The Dead Girls is very readable and Jorge has great understanding of human nature and motivation. An enjoyable read and a satisfying novel.

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Books by Jorge Ibarguengoitia / Crime fiction / Books from Mexico

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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My first Kafka book which I approached with a little apprehension as I wasn't sure I would understand the story. My fears were unfounded as Metamorphosis is a very accessible story. I listened to it on audio and I think that hearing the words at speaking pace was good because I tend to rush when reading which, in this case, would have meant missing a lot of the more subtle meanings.

Gregor Samsa's transformation is the most obvious in Metamorphosis, but all the family undergo a change in their characters caused by his situation. I found myself able to identify with aspects of his sister's behaviour and his father's distance, as well as Gregor's sense of isolation.
Metamorphosis was an excellent introduction for me to Kafka's work and I shall seek out more of his stories.

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Books by Franz Kafka / Fantasy fiction / Books from Czech Republic

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Another surprisingly excellent book which was £2 in Oxfam! The story of how an isolated mountain village copes with the aftermath of war is horribly real and all too understandable. We see through the eyes of Brodeck who was exiled to a concentration camp at the start of the war. He returned to find his name on a monument of the dead, his wife mute, and his position within the community irrevocably changed. Brodeck's Report is a powerful book of the depths to which humanity can sink when driven by hate, by fear, or by power.

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Books by Philippe Claudel / War fiction / Books from France

Monday, 25 April 2016

Dave eats 'the best cake in months' in Brixham

Yesterday, being Saturday, we didn't have any flats to view
Dave loved one of these!
Scroll down to see which and where ...
so thought we might indulge in a spot of sightseeing instead. I had stayed at a Pontins holiday camp near Paignton with my grandparents, probably twenty-five years ago now, and didn't remember the town at all and Dave says we visited Brixham with Chris and Marta, albeit a decade ago, and I can't recall that either. For those of you wondering at my terrible memory, it's always been like that. The acts of reading and writing tend to cement experiences in my mind so I can often remember books I have read far better than places I have actually visited. It's part of the reason I blog our travels so extensively now - recalling a blog post opens up memories that would otherwise vanish!

We began in Paignton with a stroll around and the
Demolition site in Paignton 
intention of checking out a few second-hand furniture shops. Since our Axminster visit last summer alerted us to the savings and more interesting styles to be found by going 'vintage', we agreed that this would be the best and most fun way to kit out any new non-travelling abode. To be honest, Paignton itself underwhelmed both of us. Elegant old buildings are in poor states of repair and the whole town felt quite run-down and unloved. We spotted pretty stained glass windows in this house pictured, but it is now just a facade, soon to be demolished like the rest of the building. On a more positive note, we found several pre-loved furniture shops, these best of which I think was The Bargain Box because everything was laid out with room to view. We also discovered a great little Asian supermarket, Siam, where we got more sweet chilli sauce and noted they have black rice for more of Kim's Rice Pudding. Our two-hour car park ticket was plenty here though and we drove on to Brixham.

The first thing to note about Brixham is the distance from
View from Brixham harbour walk 
the harbour car park into the harbour itself. We had just started to be concerned that we had missed the turning when we found it. The road gets very narrow and I bet it is great 'fun' in the height of summer! Walking back in along the harbourside was picturesque and I loved looking over at the pretty painted houses on the opposing hills. Brixham certainly is charming! We stayed mostly around by the harbour, wandering through the last of the Arts And Crafts Market, peering in at the touristy souvenir and homewares shops, and wondering how on earth seventy-one men managed to live together on the Golden Hind for months at a time without all murdering each other!

Ultimately, coffee called though and we decided on The Bay Coffee Company to patronise. They have three shops in Brixham and the enticing cake display pictured at the top of this post. (I have 'borrowed' their photo from twitter as I forgot to snap one myself.) I had a slice of Lemon Treacle Tart which was lovely if not particularly lemony, and Dave's 'best cake in months' comment was for his Yogurt Topped Raspberry Flapjack - shown far left on the middle shelf. So now you know - and when Dave compliments food then it must be excellent! I picked up a loyalty card as I think we may well return.

Let them eat fish - a real Banksy? 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

I hit the Google Adsense threshold and we go flat hunting in Torquay

I was delighted to receive an e-mail from Google Adsense on Friday morning letting me know that they had sent me a payment! I have finally hit their £60 payout threshold and it's only taken four years of blogging! Thank you to everyone who has visited and especially to those who have clicked on advertisements. You might remember back in August last year I posted about the monetisation avenues I use here. Well, that Affiliate Window payout and this Google one brings my total blog earnings up to £81.69. (It's a good thing I write for the love of it!)

In other news, our search for a new permanent base has begun in Torquay this week. Dave has been intensively researching on Rightmove for months to narrow down locations after our UK tour last summer and the Torbay area seemed like a good place to start. It was interesting to learn that the lack of contrast meant he hadn't been anticipating our winter travels with such excitement this year. For the previous two winters, we had exchanged house living for our caravan lifestyle. Departing in October 2015, we had already been in Bailey for thirteen months.

We have only seen eight flats so far but they are beginning to blend together so it's hard to remember exactly which features we liked from each! One in particular did 'tick most of our boxes' (I hate that phrase), but we're not yet completely convinced as it is very near (i.e. over) the top end of our budget. So in the meantime, if you know of a spacious two bedroom flat in good decorative order on the first floor with no other flats above it, which has interesting architectural features but isn't Grade Anything Listed, has double glazing and an outside space such as a balcony or low-maintenance garden or terrace, with off-road parking and ground level bicycle storage, that would be a secure lock-up-and-leave in a quiet and pretty area with a shortish walk to good local shops but with no loud children or yappy dogs within earshot, could you let me know?!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Frankfurter and apple pasta salad recipe

Frankfurter and apple pasta salad 
I thought it was a while since I had submitted a Credit Crunch Munch recipe and, checking back through old posts, I saw that it has been three months. The last was my Smoked Salmon Pie recipe back in January! Credit Crunch Munch was devised by Camilla at FabFood4All and Helen at Fuss Free Flavours. It's a great monthly resource for good food on a budget and April's host is Sarah at From Plate To Pen.

This month's Pasta Salad is great for using up part packets and could be infinitely varied to suit whatever you have to hand. I had two frankfurter sausages left from a previous hot dog lunch and a few ounces of French macaroni curves that Dave wasn't keen on, so rummaged in the fridge and cupboards to fill out a whole salad that would provide a couple of lunches me. Dave doesn't DO salad!

100g (ish) macaroni
2 frankfurter sausages
2 Cox apples
Small tin sweetcorn
2 tbsp mayonnaise
A good slug of Mustard flavoured salad dressing

Cook the macaroni according to its packet instructions then drain and rinse under cold water to cool it down.

While the pasta is cooking, cut each frankfurter into four pieces, then each quarter into four lengthwise sticks.

Peel, core and dice the apples.

Drain the sweetcorn.

Put the frankfurters, apples and sweetcorn into a large bowl - remembering it must also be large enough to add the pasta later (yes, oops!). Stir in the mayonnaise and enough salad dressing to taste. We've still got a bottle of a French Bouton d'Or creamy mustard dressing in the fridge at the moment so I used some of that. We've also got pesto which I think could have been nice too.

Stir in the cooked and cooled pasta. Serve either just as it is or with a big handful of fresh green salad leaves.

I did expect this salad to be more colourful - I do love brightly coloured food - but the mayonnaise muted the yellow sweetcorn and pink frankfurters so it does all look at bit magnolia! It tastes good though and I liked the sweetness of the apple against the mustard in the dressing.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Daughter Of The Killing Fields by Theary Seng / The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain / Saloon War At Seven Rivers by Kendall Hanson

Daughter of the Killing Fields: Asrei's Story by Theary C. Seng
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I found Daughter Of The Killing Fields by Theary Seng on the book exchange shelves at Camping Casteillets in France. Knowing little about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia other than what I had learned from The Killing Fields film which I watched years ago, I thought it would be interesting to read an account by someone who actually lived through the regime's rule. Dave attempted to read this book before me and gave up fairly early on because he couldn't get on with the writing style and I also found it difficult to identify all the different people about whom Seng writes. There is a family tree diagram and glossary of Cambodian honorifics at the front of the book, but names seem change depending on the speaker which is tricky for my Western mind to grasp.

Seng was only four years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power so this book includes her own memories as well as information gleaned from interviews with surviving family members and other Cambodians. Their stories are horrific especially considering that these events were just forty years ago. I wasn't reading about ancient barbarity, but recent history and this is particularly shocking to consider. Seng writes about how her father was deceived into walking to his death, her time in prison before her mother vanished, and her years of rural peasantry. What shines through her memoir is the ingenuity and strength of these people, their struggle to survive but also their quiet acceptance of the inevitability of death. Perhaps a professional writer might have created a more accessible book overall, however there was a certain raw power in knowing that the person whose words I read had really experienced these incredible years.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain from its publishers, Gallic Books, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The Red Notebook is a deceptive novel in that it seems quite light-hearted on the surface, but actually explores some pretty deep philosophical questions. Is it possible to glimpse what might have been? Can we influence coincidence? Where is the line between harmless curiosity and creepy stalking?

Returning home late one night Laure is mugged on her doorstep and her designer handbag stolen. Injured in the attack, she seeks refuge in a neighbouring hotel, but is later rushed to hospital. Next morning, bookseller Laurent finds the bag and, as a good citizen, takes it to the police. However they really aren't interested so Laurent undertakes his own amateur detective mission in order to track down its owner. The Red Notebook of the title is in the handbag and contains Laure's comments and thoughts on her life. There's nothing written there to identify her, but Laurent becomes so fascinated that he begins to cross social boundaries in his determination to find her.

I loved the gentle and very French style of this book which makes it a fascinating romance where, as readers, we never quite know whether Laure and Laurent will ever meet. And if they do, will their realities match up to their imaginations? Laurain has a deft touch and a lovely way of portraying his characters which comes through perfectly, even in translation. I was rooting for Laurent all the way through the book, even when his behaviour did start to get a little creepy. In the hands of a different writer, this could have become a sleazy or even a chilling book, but Laurain cleverly stays just on the happy side of the line. Yes, on reflection some of the coincidences are just too coincidental to be truly believable, but that didn't matter to me as I was so swept up in the romantic potential. I liked that both Laure and Laurent were independent people with pasts, cautious but open to possibilities, and Laurent's daughter is a great creation. I squirmed at the cafe scene! Laurain doesn't rush to his conclusion and often diverts into literary discussion or other asides. These do slow the pace, sometimes adding to its tension, but occasionally seeming like unnecessary padding. However The Red Notebook is still a relatively short book which I easily read in a few hours and I came away from it feeling uplifted and very satisfied with the tale.

The Saloon War at Seven Rivers by Kendall Hanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Having enjoyed The Bordello Kid, the first book in Kendall Hanson's Farr And Fat Jack western series, I was happy to download this second book, Saloon War At Seven Rivers, when I saw it advertised in the author's e-mail newsletter. Farr is still working for Fat Jack's mother providing security for her boarding house and Fat Jack performs much the same function in a saloon up the road. French Kate, who had been badly injured in the previous novel, is making a good recovery, but trouble ensues when her former boss tries to 'encourage' her to return to work.

Saloon War concentrates more on the action than it does the characterisations so I didn't feel the same depth to this story as I did its forerunner. I was disappointed by this because it was what I particularly liked about the first book. We learn a little more about Farr's unconventional upbringing, but newly starring characters such as the Olsen family and the gunman Graver never become fully rounded creations. I liked the overall story arc and, again, we have a satisfying ending, but Saloon War felt too short and I think more space could have been given to scene-setting and description. The will-they-won't-they between Farr and Kate is nicely done, but I found it difficult to fully understand the actions of other characters as I didn't know enough about their motivations.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Exploring Torbay and watching Wild in lieu of walking ourselves

We are pitched up on The English Riviera now, at a huge
campsite in between Paignton and Torquay called Widend Touring Park. It is a good location for exploring the Torbay area and we zoomed over to Totnes on our very first day here. Totnes impressed us a lot. It has lots of independent shops, many of the hippy-green variety that appeal to me! There are three health food shops and more organic cotton clothing than I have seen since WOMAD! We bought tofu in The Green Life, delicious fennel and garlic sausages from C.M.McCabe butchers, and a second-hand dvd copy of the Reece Witherspoon film Wild from a fabulous shop, Fretwork Music, that stocked a range of musical instruments, dvds and books. Great mix and the dvd was only £2.99!

In 1995, a young woman called Cheryl Strayed decided to walk 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail across the American wilderness. She was a heroin addict struggling to overcome her grief at losing her mother to cancer. She had never hiked before and set off, alone, with a ridiculously overstuffed backpack and too-small boots. Cheryl published her memoir of her hike years later, in 2012, and it was read by Reece Witherspoon who was then convinced that she had to make a film of Cheryl's journey. Together with director, Jean-Marc Vallee, I think she has done a fantastic job! Wild is just under two hours long, but it flew past for me and I was actually a little disappointed when it finished. The Pacific Crest Trail scenery is stunningly beautiful and Cheryl's story is one of real hope and motivation. I am now so inspired to set out on a long-distance walk of my own! I loved that the real Cheryl was very involved with the filmmaking - her whole family appear in minor roles and her daughter plays Cheryl as a child - and the work feels truthful. Dave did find a lot of the dialogue difficult to hear so we might well watch the film again with subtitles on. Otherwise it is superb!

Back to my reality and a few words about Widend Touring
Our pitch at Widend Touring Park 
Park. I was seriously underwhelmed on arrival. We had booked by phone a few days earlier and had to pay the whole cost of our stay upfront, however they failed to mention Reception's lunchtime closure so we were left stranded in their carpark for twenty-five minutes. An officious woman who said she would find someone to show us to our pitch but failed to do so got quite snarky with Dave when she reappeared. She gave the impression that we should have known Reception would be closed even though we hadn't been told and there's no mention on the website either. Grrr! Not a good start!

The site is large and most pitches are taken, but with unoccupied caravans so it feels like a ghost town. We wonder if there will be an influx at the weekend or over the Bank Holiday. It's pretty peaceful at the moment and cheap for the UK - a deal of stay-six-nights-and-get-the-seventh-free means we are paying under £12 a night including electric - less than many CLs. We have fantastic wifi reception here - our Osprey has five bars of 4G! Water and grey water disposal are close by and the shower block is in good condition, but the doors are kept tied open so it's chilly at this time of year. There was only eight seconds of water on the shower press-button too, though after my shower I tried the next cubicle and that ran for twenty seconds. We are surprised that the only recycling facility is a wheelie bin for newspapers. Everything else has to go in large bins that seem to be just for landfill and we were strongly encouraged to use the tumble driers rather than hanging out our washing - I guess they're not big on environmentalism!

Widend campsite is conveniently located for exploring the Torbay area by car though which is our main objective here as we start our flat-hunting in earnest. I don't yet know if we can do any walks from Widend - I wouldn't fancy walking or cycling on the road past the entrance - but we are only a few minutes' drive from Torquay and Paignton, and a scant fifteen minutes from Totnes. The scenery around here is beautiful, as you would expect from Devon, and we've even had one gloriously sunny day.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt / Over Glassy Horizons by Nico Reznick / Daughter Of Earth And Water by Noel Gerson

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dave bought a copy of Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt as we both enjoyed his previous novels, The Sisters Brothers and Ablutions. I got to 'borrow' it through Amazon's Household Sharing setting for Kindle ebooks. All three of DeWitt's novels are very different and Undermajordomo Minor is almost a fairytale in its style. The story centres around teenager Lucien Minor, who is known as Lucy, as he starts in his new job as a man-of-all-work at a distant castle. I am not sure exactly when or where Undermajordomo Minor is meant to be set and it doesn't really matter. Lucy travels by train, but other elements of DeWitt's world could be medieval Grimm. The castle has the same kind of fairytale timelessness. Its weirdness and the proximity of a nearby village frequently reminded me of the wonderful Gormenghast novels although Mervyn Peake wasn't named amongst other authors in an afterword.

There are some intriguing characters in Undermajordomo Minor. Lucy's mother at the beginning of the book is only to pleased to be rid of him and it was refreshing to read a farewell scene without any gushing emotion. Lucy's attempts to impress his ex-flame Marina are fun, and I thought the thief Memel was one of the most interesting creations. The mad Baron is simply bizarre. None of the portrayals I thought were particularly deep, but this is in keeping with the novel's style, and there are some fascinating descriptive passages which really brought scenes to life. I found it easy to envisage scenes such as the train carriage, the castle interiors, the glorious banquet and the Very Deep Hole. I didn't think Undermajordomo was quite in the same league as DeWitt's previous books, but it is still a very enjoyable read.

Over Glassy Horizons by Nico Reznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I was blown away by Nico Reznick's first novel Anhedonia which I read a few weeks ago so was eager to take advantage of a temporary free download of this volume of her poetry entitled Over Glassy Horizons. The twenty-six poems span fifteen years of her writing and a wide range of subjects from advice to other poets to sexual frustration to the mindlessness of modern life to Piers Morgan's American reinvention of himself. I did find the whole collection to be a bit hit and miss for me and didn't feel I completely understood works like 41, but others are surprisingly vivid and inventive.

My personal favourites are Goldfish Smile which examines perceptions of freedom, Starting Over where a couple move house but fail to make a new start, and Paisley Lassie which is a very moving portrait of an elderly woman in a nursing home. Reznick also penned a long poem, Whimper, in response to Allen Ginsberg's famous Howl which I hadn't previously read but have now found online in order to really appreciate Whimper.

Daughter of Earth and Water by Noel Gerson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of this biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Noel Gerson when I saw it advertised in an Endeavour Press e-mail newsletter last year. The book was first published in the 1970s and has now been re-released as an ebook. I thought it made an interesting companion to Glorious Apollo, the novel about Byron I read recently, as there are crossovers where Byron and the Shelley's lives intertwined. It is also perfect timing for me to read this book now as the Endeavour Press virtual Historical Fiction Festival is taking place this week (18th - 22nd April 2016).

Gerson obviously did a lot of research for Daughter Of Earth And Water so was able to both describe many aspects of her life and to discount theories put forward in previous works. She talks about the inspiration for and writing of Frankenstein (I really must read that one day!) as well as Mary's other novels, stories, translations and poetry. I had no idea that she was such an accomplished and intellectual author, easily the equal of her poet husband. Gerson goes into detail about the scandal of the Shelley's early pre-marriage relationship and the philosophical influence of Mary's father, William Godwin, which enabled her to live such a relatively free life for a woman at that time. I was amazed at, and little jealous of, their extensive European travels, especially as everyone seemed to be permanently on the verge of bankruptcy, but the tragedies they endured would try anyone's sanity.

Gerson's writing style is a little dated as is to be expected and the book is let down by frequent typos which I think are caused by automated reading of faded print in an original copy. Mary's friend Tom Medwin gets renamed Toni Medwin, and letters often start with 'my clear'. None of the typos make the book difficult to understand, but the carelessness is distracting and all the instances would be easy to catch and correct if the final copy had been proofread.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Monday, 18 April 2016

Discovering Sophie Ryder #Relationships sculpture in Salisbury

For our last afternoon pitched up near Bournemouth we
Temple to the 200 rabbits by Sophie Ryder 
thought, instead of getting stuck in the city traffic again, we would head in the opposite direction and visit Salisbury. The historic town is beautiful with lots of interesting architecture including the iconic cathedral which, we learned, has the tallest spire in England. We dressed up for the cold and then wished we hadn't as warm sunshine made heavy coats more of a burden than a benefit! Leaning Medieval cottages are pressed in between solid later brick built structures and very modern shopping arcades which make for a unique mix of styles. There is lots of water here too and we enjoyed a short stretch of the River Walk.

Minotaur and Hare Torso by Sophie Ryder 

Having gotten lucky with a free onstreet parking spot in
Medieval house between
more modern structures 
Trinity Road, we started by just strolling around the centre streets. Salisbury Park and Ride doesn't run on Sundays for some reason, but the Culver Street multi-storey car park is free if you can't find an onstreet space. We got a little lost in the one-way system while trying to find Culver Street. It looked so easy on the map!

A three-day Bakhtiyar exhibition of Persian carpets and rugs made for an unusual diversion. Dozens of carpets were on display in The Medieval Hall in Cathedral Close. Unfortunately there were far too many for the space so only a fraction could be properly viewed. The workmanship was gorgeous and the prices were eye-opening too - up to £15,000! Just opposite Cathedral Close, Salisbury Cathedral itself towered up into the blue sky and we were delighted to find a selection of huge galvanised metal sculptures dotted across the lawn. This was the beginning of a five-venue exhibition across Salisbury of Sophie Ryder's work which continues until the 3rd of July and is entitled 'Relationships'.

We only visited the Cathedral lawns and the Cathedral
Salisbury cathedral 
interior venues, both of which are free to view. Further work including drawings and prints are displayed at Sarum College, The Salisbury Museum and Young Gallery. I loved the hare motif which recurs throughout much of Ryder's work. Apparently she views herself as the lady-hare, often accompanied by a male minotaur. Ryder also frequently incorporates horses and greyhound-like dogs. "Her beguiling blend of human and animal forms are used as a metaphor to discuss a complex range of human emotions". Sophie was the youngest student to be admitted to the Royal Academy School since Turner and began her training there at just 17.

We both liked Salisbury very much and could have happily
Introspective by Sophie Ryder 
spent longer in the town. We managed to miss most of a motorbiking convention that had taken over the central square for the day, although we saw lots of motorcycles in the area. A high proportion of shops and cafes were open, considering we visited on a Sunday, and we rediscovered a branch of the Cornish Bakery chain that we had liked in Tavistock. In other mundane news, I finally got a new watch battery after it died on me months ago. I was loathe to buy one overseas as I had already paid for a 'lifetime' battery replacement at Timpson. This means that after a one-off payment of £11-something four years ago, I can take my watch into any Timpson branch and get its battery replaced for no extra payment for as long as I keep the same watch. I was a little dubious, but the woman at Timpson in Ferndown was friendly and efficient and the new battery was completely free.

Sitting horse with girl by Sophie Ryder 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Back in the UK - traffic jams and April showers

Gee, but it's great to be back home!
Donkeys at Lost Pines CS 

We had a beautifully calm Channel crossing which I particularly appreciated - not being a natural sailor! Six hours from Caen to Portsmouth were made even easier by my sleeping for four of them and we had our own cabin which I firmly believe is worth the extra cost. Ouistreham's Les Pommiers campsite was again perfect for the ferry terminal. €18.10 per night with our ACSI card to include electric hookup and good facilities and then only about a ten minute drive along easy, well-signposted roads so not overly taxing for a sleepy person at stupid o'clock in the morning. I am much more confident at driving onto the boat towing the caravan now too. This crossing was aboard the Brittany Ferries' Mont St Michel which seemed to have a far more spacious car deck than we experienced previously on the Cap Finisterre. If you're a bit nervous about towing your caravan on and off a ferry, maybe try and book yourself onto the Mont St Michel. I don't know much about the rest of the boat's facilities. Our cabin was adequate and the sheets weren't as threadbare as I remembered from the other boat. The coffee from the bar was also adequate, but don't be misled by the huge white sofas by the windows - they are surprisingly hard!

Sanitary block at Lost Pines 
After the mostly quieter continental traffic of the past six months, driving the M27 out of Portsmouth felt like being in a video game again, but at least I knew to expect it this year. We headed straight for Bournemouth and are now on a wonderfully ramshackle Camping And Caravanning Club CS in St Leonards. The site is called Lost Pines and costs £12 a night including electric hookup. It is down a very bumpy little rural road and consists of five concrete hardstanding pitches with grass inbetween them. There is a brick-built sanitary block with two toilets and a shower each for men and women. The owners keep four little donkeys in a paddock just behind the CS and this reminded me of Camping Casteillets in southern France. Fellow caravanners who have used Lost Pines over several years told me that the owners used to have a successful market garden, but illness has curtailed this. Greenhouses still line the site entrance, but are overgrown with brambles and falling down - a melancholy sight. It's very quiet here too.

Our pitch at Lost Pines 
Unfortunately for our purposes, Lost Pines is almost a complete EE network blind spot. We zoomed to the nearby EE store at Castlepoint Shopping Centre on Thursday afternoon and were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get a new SIM card for our Osprey. There wasn't even much of a queue. Their current good deal is 32GB of data for £28 per month on a rolling 30-day contract which should suit us. Back at Bailey though, even with the Osprey wedged in the skylight, most of the time we just get two bars of 2G which is scarcely enough to download emails. We are meant to be starting our househunting efforts here. We can't get Rightmove! The signal does improve after about half-past nine of an evening, but in the daytime we are better off driving half a mile away and parking up in a layby.

We drove into Bournemouth yesterday for a stroll around Christchurch Road and then through the Gardens by the seafront. Roadworks on the A338 made it quite a journey just to get that far and I really didn't like the sheer volume of traffic everywhere. I had previously thought of Bournemouth as a town, but it is really more of a busy city - and presumably gets even more manic during the summer season. The Victorian architecture is frequently beautiful however, especially looking up above rows of shops to see interesting window and roof details. Christchurch Road was fascinating for its variety of cultures and range of little independent shops. We saw a dozen different cuisines offered in less than five minutes walking. I don't think I could cope long-term with the noise and bustle though. Plus our Ford Mondeo Estate isn't going to be a convenient car for ad-hoc roadside parking! A shame as there are a few potential in-budget flats that caught our interest online. I think we're going to be moving on soon though.