Sunday, 29 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Saturday, 28 March 2015

From Limoges to Tours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Ruins of village street in Oradour Sur Glane 

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

Saturday, 21 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

PerfectPerfect by Rachel Joyce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

NemesisNemesis by Louise Marley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Interesting modern art museum in Vilafames - @_MACVAC

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

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

Small sculpture and doorway
on MACVAC terrace 

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

MACVAC terrace 

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

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

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Monday, 16 March 2015

Bread pudding recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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