Thursday, 29 January 2015

Farmageddon by Philip Lymbery / The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen / Not The End by Kate Vane

Another three reviews for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge! These three are all for reads that I have finished in the last week. I've not had time to go plundering the archives again. As well as their blog pages, Sophie and Suze are running some great giveaways via the Challenge Facebook Page and you can get to everyone else's reviews there too.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap MeatFarmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been strongly affected by reading Farmageddon. It is a powerful illustration of the short sighted approach taken to food production since the 1950s. I expected most of the book to cover familiar ground as I thought I had a good grasp of the current situation regarding factory farming in the UK. It turns out that I don't!

I was shocked by the degree of illness and disease reported in densely farmed animals. Even farmed salmon, which I buy thinking it is the responsible way to preserve wild stocks, have volumes of lice that are nauseating to consider. I was also amazed to learn about the lack of nutritional value of the resulting meat. Dave and I have noticed our food seeming bland compared to remembered meals in the past, but had assumed it was our tastebuds fading. Apparently this is not the case and the unnaturally speedy growth rates of these animals are the cause. Also, the sheer volume of food and drugs consumed by these animals in their short, unpleasant lives cannot possibly be sustainable, and I don't want my taxes continuing to be spent on subsidising the system.

Fortunately, after all the doom and gloom of animal suffering, ludicrous volumes of waste, destroyed land and rivers, there is a strong message of hope and extensive suggestions for how individual consumers can help to make a real difference. And it's not just Go Veggie either! Realistic advice that we plan to follow includes buying smaller quantities of higher welfare meat. I think the price should then be similar overall and the nutritional content will be higher. Meatfree Mondays is another fun idea for which there are numerous recipe suggestions online (from independent sources, not CIWF).

With regards to the actual writing, I did wonder if the material had originally been conceived as independent essays or lectures because there is a fair amount of overlap to the themed sections. I normally read books cover to cover within a couple of days, but found the repetition too much in this case. Reading a single section then putting Farmageddon aside for a while before returning to it I think is a better approach. The repetition then feels more like reinforcement! Arguments are well made and examples of practices are given from around the world. Most facts are backed up with notes of their sources, although flipping to the back on a Kindle is tedious so I soon gave that up! Nonetheless, I would recommend Farmageddon to pretty much everyone as an eye-opening read.

The Finkler QuestionThe Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Finkler Question is a great example of not believing everything you are told! Having been seduced by the many quotes on the covers and inside the first few pages, I was expecting a hysterically funny novel.
Oh dear.

Our hero, the improbably named Julian Treslove, is particularly unsympathetic. Humour is attempted from his attempts to create a Jewish identity for himself because he is apparently so jealous of 'their' sense of family and solidarity. Many discussions are had about what Jewish people do or don't do, think or don't think. These themes are overworked by about a third of the way through the novel, but carry on regardless. He has had a number of relationships, all with women whose names begin with J, and views all his partners in terms of tragic opera heroines. His sons, whom he 'hilariously' cannot tell apart, have operatic names and one of their mother's not knowing her Puccini from her Verdi is running joke.

The best I managed was a smattering of wry smiles. I guess I am not typical of Jacobsen's target market, but even so, I have no idea how The Finkler Question managed to be a Booker Prize winner. I've given it a two star 'meh' rating because I did plough through to the end rather than giving up. However I don't recommend anyone else to bother!

Not the EndNot the End by Kate Vane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was kindly given a copy of Not The End by the author in return for an honest review.

Not The End is set in a generic coastal Devon town which is an amalgam of such seaside resorts. I've not been to that part of the world since childhood holidays, but could easily picture the scenes thanks to Kate Vane's atmospheric descriptions. We follow the experiences of a trio of strangers whose lives intersect following the discovery on the beach by one, Brenda, of an elderly woman who drowned.

I loved Vane's creation of her characters. Each of the leads are very real, as are their friends, co-workers and families. It is not easy to maintain strong characters with such a large cast of faces to keep track of, but Vane does a great job. Even in chapters where it could be a page or more before significant names are mentioned, I found I always knew whose story I was reading. Brenda's story is particularly poignant and I was willing her to stand up to the ghastly Paula. I also liked Teri as I could picture someone with whom I have worked who was just like that!

There is a lot of gentle humour in Not The End and some wonderfully witty digs too. Vane's sharp observations of people's behaviour raised several giggles from me. The confidence of the weatherman was one such instance and I would love to know which real cafe the wonderfully child-UNfriendly one is based on. Wicked of me to say so, but it sounds like just our sort of place! I enjoyed the time I spent in Dormouth and would be happy to return there should a second novel be written.

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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

We pitch up at Roquetas De Mar and Caravan Of Thieves have five days to go

After only a short drive of less than two hours yesterday, we are now at
Bailey on pitches 631 and 649 at Roquetas 
what we expect to be the most southerly of our camping destinations this winter. Roquetas De Mar is on the coast near to Almeria and Camping Roquetas is sandwiched between the towns of Roquetas and Aguadulce.

The site is a five minute walk from miles of sandy beach and there is a small gate with a footpath directly there from the back of the site. We can see the gate from our pitch and are amazed at the almost constant bicycle and pedestrian traffic heading in and out. Our last two campsites have been almost bicycle free zones due to their locations so we need to get used to that almost silent zip again - before we get run down by a flock of Dutch bicis! Yesterday afternoon we walked along the beach for a couple of hours and today Dave has cycled it and I went for a jog. There are separate cycle and pedestrian paths - all very tranquil!

As for the camping itself, we love the showers here! Huge cubicles and unlimited hot water. Plus there are several shower blocks, each with multiple washing up and laundry stations, so not yet any need to queue which we were beginning to get a little fed up with at Camping El Quinto. Camping Roquetas is a large site and is practically full. We were given a choice of only five pitches yesterday out of a couple of hundred. There is a great deal during the winter months where everyone gets a double pitch for the same price as a summer single, plus long stay discounts which kick in after just two days and it gets cheaper in stages the longer we stay. As you can see in the photo above, we have tons of room and our car is parked behind Bailey so already using about a third of the space.

Another plus is that the electricity is metered. We are thinking about
Toys for grown-ups! 
everything we turn on and whether it could use our cheap Repsol gas instead of electricity. Even with the heating on low overnight, we only used two euros worth in our first twenty-four hours. We were unsure whether we would be able to stay here more than a couple of weeks without the walking opportunities we had gotten used to at Mojacar. Having now seen the cycling and jogging facilities, an onsite biosalud set-up (a playground for grown-ups!) which I love using, plus some city days visiting Almeria, we might manage near to a month!

A final note on something completely different! If you're looking for some brand new music, the inventive band Caravan Of Thieves have got just fivr days left on their PledgeMusic campaign. They are raising money for their new album Kiss Kiss. Previews and studio photos are available via the PledgeMusic page. I like what I've heard so far so am in for the download!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback / Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas / Indian Tales by Rudyard Kipling

I am going to submit these three reviews as my first for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge. It runs from the 23rd of January until the 2nd of February and the idea is to catch up with all those as yet unwritten reviews. I think I'm pretty up to date with my current reads so am going to use the opportunity to post some pre-blog reviews. For this post, Wolf Winter and Indian Tales are recent reads. Under Milk Wood is from a couple of years ago.

Wolf WinterWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Wolf Winter from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I absolutely loved Wolf Winter! Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the novel tells of a tiny settler community's struggle to survive during a particularly harsh and bitter winter. Adding to their fear is the knowledge that one amongst them is a murderer. Recent Finnish immigrant, Maija, is determined to discover who was responsible for a violent murder that occurred pretty much as her family arrived, however Wolf Winter is not a standard whodunnit thriller. Instead, the story is a thoughtful and measured exploration of living in an incredibly inhospitable environment and of how, when even basic survival is not guaranteed, fear can become a significant enemy.

I loved Ekback's wonderfully real descriptions of Blackasen mountain and the settler homesteads dotted around its base. Her writing allowed me to picture every aspect of the place and also to understand the eerie isolation of Maija and her children. Knowing that other people are not especially far away, but that your chances of reaching them mean they might as well be on the moon, is a terrifying prospect. Ekback never overdoes the threats to her characters so their predicaments are thoroughly believable throughout the novel, yet she continues to weave in extra strands until fear itself becomes one of their greatest challenges. Wolf Winter is not a fast moving novel. Instead its cleverly varying pace acts more like a pressure cooker and, once engrossed in the story, I found it difficult to tear myself away from the pages. A device I particularly liked was illustrating the passing of time with a series of spaced descriptive paragraphs with little or no action. The contrast then to fast-moving violent incidents was very effective.

Every character is a very real person, convincing in their actions. Maija's immigrant Finn family are used to snowy winters, but their outsiders' view of Blackasen life and responses to it is expertly portrayed. The particular difficulties of women to be heard in a strongly patriarchal society is an important theme, as is that of the Church and its failure to understand the settlers lives. I had no idea that the temporary trading and taxation towns existed so was fascinated by this detail.

I think Wolf Winter will appeal to readers who enjoy character driven novels and especially the creeping dread style of Nordic Noir. Perhaps parallels can be drawn with the recently successful Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I also thought was brilliant(!), although I think Wolf Winter is a more magically mysterious tale. A wonderful novel and I will eagerly await Ekback's next work.

Under Milk Wood (BBC Radio Collection)Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Under Milk Wood is deservedly famous as a piece of writing and although I had not heard this audio recording before I downloaded it from Audible a couple of years ago, I had heard of it. Richard Burton's narration is wonderfully atmospheric throughout and I love the way the character voices are integrated into the whole work, especially where they speak over each other. Each person is recognisable, inflated and exaggerated no doubt, but not so much as to make them grotesque. The children's singing is a great touch. From the initial idea of a quaint Welsh village, Under Milk Wood gets darker and more poignant and I think this vintage BBC radio programme is probably the definitive recording. Even having seen an outstanding theatre production since my first listen to the radio version, I still believe the audio twinned with imagination is the best way to experience Under Milk Wood. Audio doesn't get much better than this.

Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling (Annotated)Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've given up! After repeatedly returning to this ForgottenBooks short story collection for over a month, I just don't want to try any more. I know that Indian Tales is probably very much 'of its time' but the attitudes then are so different to today and I don't even think that the writing is up to Kipling's standard elsewhere. Too much gung ho militarism, racism and male chauvinism, and very little actually about India which was what I wanted to read in the first place.

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

Walking around the abandoned Bedar mineral mines

If you're looking for spectacular views and an unusual walk in the
We only peered into this tunnel 
Mojacar / Bedar area of Spain, you would probably enjoy the Sendero Local 77 walking route which takes in the now abandoned Bedar mines. We spent three hours exploring there on Tuesday afternoon and were so taken with the industrial remains and the gorgeous rock colours that we are returning there with friends on Saturday - weather permitting. It's turned distinctly chilly here the last few days and I almost got blown over by the wind today!

We parked off road at the beginning of the official walk. This Wikiloc page has several maps and routes uploaded by others who have walked here. There's a narrow road off the Los Gallardos to Bedar main road with a large abandoned stone building visible from the main road. The building has a large bricked-up arch at each end and looks as though trains originally drove through it. Park by the map placard, start walking past the building and then head up the steep track to your left. All the best Spanish walks seem to start with a steep uphill!

The beginning is wide tracks passing agricultural land and this tree which we are yet to identify. It really stood out against the predominantly alond and olive trees. We saw our first almond blossom of the year too. We also saw this bizarre cut-away hill which appears to be quarried for soil. It looked even more spectacular on our return as the sun was setting and really brought out the colours.

Well, it's not almond or olive! 
This cutaway hill is a
distinctive landmark 

We mostly stuck to the SL-A 77 route with a few quick diversions to interesting viewpoints such as the Hoyo Jupiter (Jupiter Pit) which is probably the most unusual landscape I have seen since Iceland. We saw rockscapes in purples, in vivid yellows, and in a delicate cream colour. If only a pop-up geologist like on Coast could have been conveniently placed to explain to us what we were seeing. The hillsides are dotted with numerous caves and mineshafts, plus we saw the remains of a cable car tower and railway signal boxes. Part of the route is along the now dismantled railway and crosses a narrow barranco - not the greatest place for those with vertigo but there are ropes each side. We went through tunnels hewn through the hills and peered into others that had been closed off. It was a fun walk and a memorable afternoon!

It's awfully dark and gloomy in there!
This final photo was actually taken on the beach near
Sopalmo but shows the beautiful rock colours 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Canvey Island by James Runcie / Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald / Swans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas

Canvey IslandCanvey Island by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our copy of Canvey Island, discovered on a campsite book exchange, was ex-library and had been mislabeled on the spine as biography. I didn't realise this until I was about to start reading it so my thoughts over the first few chapters were probably affected by expecting a true memoir rather than a fictional tale.

Canvey Island begins during the real-life flooding in 1953 which caused considerable damage and loss of life all along that part of the British coast. I remembered having previously watched a TV documentary about it. Our young 'hero' Martin describes finding himself alone, swimming through the flood waters to safety, but having been forced to leave his mother trapped en route. Each chapter is told from a different point of view with the various family members taking turns to advance his story through the following decades. While I have read other books where this device works well - The Spinning Heart springs to mind - I wasn't so convinced here because the characters aren't all strongly defined. I thought Aunt Vi, Claire and George had distinctive voices, but the others morphed together. I was particularly disappointed that Martin seemed bland. His life seemed more to happen around him than because of him.

I liked reading the well-researched periods of the flood and its aftermath, and also about the Greenham Common Encampments. Runcie has obviously taken time over the small details in order to make this historical side of the novel accurate. Perhaps it is a bit heavy on the nostalgia and the racist incidents, while undoubtedly realistic, make for uncomfortable reading. As a tale of family deceptions and intrigue, Canvey Island is pleasant enough and I would recommend it for a cosy winter read!

InnocenceInnocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've still not ultimately decided whether to award Innocence a three-star Good rating or a four-star Great rating. On the plus side, I did enjoy the writing style and there are many instances of dry witty humour that got me smiling. Fitzgerald's characters are unusually direct with each other, often to the point of downright rudeness, and they behave in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Barney, Cousin Cesare and Aunt Mad who both have strongly drawn mannerisms, but I was less appreciative of the two leads, Chiara and Dr Rossi, who were vague by comparison. I think I got a good sense of the Florentine residences and Valsassina from Fitzgerald's inspired descriptions.

However, I definitely did not like that the novel simply stops instead of having an ending. It is almost as though the publisher has missed off the final chapter! Several of the story directions are almost as frustrating. The writing does not dwell at all on its characters' emotions so I often found it difficult to understand why they followed certain paths. Their lack of social convention explains some instances but others remain baffling and I still have no idea what Chiara and Rossi actually saw in each other.

Innocence was recommended to me by a friend who lent me her copy of the book. I am looking forward to discussing the work with her now that we have both finished reading it. Hmmm!

Swans Are Fat TooSwans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was unexpectedly delighted with Swans Are Fat Too as it is a lovely story of a frumpy, overweight maiden aunt being effectively dumped upon from a great height by her family, yet ending up gaining the confidence to go for her dreams. I think I first found the novel via twitter and had it on my Amazon wishlist for ages before buying. To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a good book. I'm not sure why!

Hania is a world class pianist but has failed to make a career of this in America because her obesity alienates shallow audiences. When her grandmother dies, Hania is persuaded to return to her native Poland for the funeral. Upon arrival, she discovers that the relatives with whom she thought she would stay have actually absconded leaving her with the sole care of their emotionally damaged children, Kalina and Maks. The situation is bleak but Granas manages to inject a lot of gentle humour into her tale. She walks a careful line around Hania's obesity, laughing with her rather than at her so, as the reader, I was always rooting for Hania to succeed. She is a wonderfully resourceful woman and I enjoyed seeing her confidence grow through the story. The will-they-won't-they burgeoning romance with Konstanty upstairs is a great counterpoint to the escapades of the children and I was often cringing with embarrassment for Hania too. The lake!

A large part of Swans Are Fat Too is taken up with Hania's work translating and editing a history of Poland for Konstanty. We get to read a lot of this work too which could have been overly dry, but it is clipped into short sections and interspersed with Hania's comments querying Poland's historical reliance on their more bloodthirsty leaders when deciding upon heroes and erecting their statues. I thought that the same is so true of Britain! I wouldn't say I learned much history from Swans Are Fat Too because there's a lot of information and I wasn't in studying mode. However, the concise presentation gave an interesting overview and, of course, great insights into both Hania's and Konstanty's characters.

I don't often read women's fiction and romance stories so Swans Are Fat Too was a departure from the norm for me. However I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would happily buy more of Michelle Granas' writing.

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Monday, 19 January 2015

Fruit scones recipe and I win some delicious cupcakes

I got a wonderful Facebook message yesterday evening. I've won half a dozen cupcakes from Eastbourne Cooke's Cakes! The company is run by superb baker Vee Cooke with whom I used to work. Now she's running her own cake baking business which I am happy to highly recommend. It's been a few years now since I've been treated to Vee's creations so this is definitely something to look forward to when we swan back through Sussex in April. Woo hoo! Thank you Vee!

Earlier yesterday, by coincidence, I had actually been doing some baking
Eight freshly baked fruit scones 
of my own - a simple batch of fruit scones. I was defeated by a tub of aged baking powder when trying for a banana bread loaf last week, but we have since got fresh supplies from Consum (such a great name for a supermarket!). The rain in Spain was falling on the hills so we didn't fancy walking and I was temporarily between books, biscuitless and, dare I say it, a tad bored. So while Dave did man stuff by washing the car, I went all girly and dusted the inside of the caravan with a fine layer of flour! The following ingredients made eight good sized scones.

210g plain flour with 15g baking powder (or 225g self raising flour)
Pinch of salt
25g brown sugar
55g butter
120ml milk
Good handful of sultanas

Preheat the oven to 200c and dust a baking sheet with a little extra flour.

Put the 210g flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together into a large bowl. Chop the butter into pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Add the sultanas and stir in. Add the milk a little at a time, mixing it in with a flat bladed knife until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. My scrawled recipe actually calls for 150ml milk, but I don't think I've ever needed to use the whole amount so I've put a reduced volume here. 

If your pastry cutters are not currently in storage in a different country(!), roll out the dough to about 2cm thick, then cut 5cm wide circles and place them on the baking sheet. If you don't have pastry cutters, you can either roll out the dough as above and improvise; or pull away pieces of dough and gently roll them into flattened balls as I did. They don't have the classic scone shape but the taste is just as good.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Our oven in the house only used to take 8 minutes. The caravan one today took nearer to 15 minutes and the tray needed turning part-way through. Serve warm or cold with butter and jam. We didn't have any cream, but the local fig jam tasted good.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Walking part of the Bedar to Garrucha mining railway and discovering a good tapas cafe in Mojacar

We chose ourselves a fairly easy walk for yesterday afternoon! The
View through abandoned building window 
imaginatively named PR-A 367 takes in a section of a now abandoned mining railway that used to run from the mines in Bedar to the port at Garrucha. It officially begins in the village of Los Gallardos, but we chose to park out by the Camping Los Gallardos entrance instead so we could have a quick nose at the site!

As with the Via Verde that we walked back in March at Navajas, all the track rails, sleepers, etc, have been taken up, but we saw the remains of three derelict station buildings and the walking route goes through steep sided cuttings and across high embankments. There are some dramatic views along the way. Dave took the fabulous photo above looking through one of the buildings to the hills beyond. All three buildings were the same with no doors, windows or roofs, but we could still make out where the fireplaces and chimneys would have been inside. Most of the terrain is unpaved caminos and tracks with a few narrower footpath sections. There was only one short but steep downhill-uphill bit. That was where a stone bridge no longer went completely over the rambla so we had to walk down one bank and up the other. No scrambling needed though! We also passed through agricultural land with large fields of broad beans and what looked like coriander plants. Hard to tell through the white fleece covers.

Abandoned railway building on PR-A 367 
I have clicked out a Google map of the route we took. Follow this link to see it: Our original route was only planned to be about two hours but, once underway, we saw this signpost and couldn't resist adding the loop onto our walk. So the whole walk ended up at three hours and forty minutes. I still don't know what the Pago De Angela Antonia is though.

By contrast, we spent today in the car with flying visits to Nijar, Sorbas, Los Gallardos. Nijar is famous for its rugs and ceramics and has a number of large stores along its high street with an incredible range at very good prices. We saw lots of things we liked, only being restrained from a shopping spree by not having anywhere to put anything. 

Sorbas is a pretty town built on a hillside. It has a web of narrow streets and we got quite confused about where we were. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, we were hoping to find lunch in a nice cafe. The perfectly located one had closed down and we didn't fancy eating by the main road, so just had a quick coffee before heading off to Los Gallardos - which was effectively shut for siesta time!

Ending up back at Mojacar, we headed up to the pueblo (in the lift!) and were fortunate to stumble into the Cafe De Torino. We were warmly greeted and, as well as a large outdoor terrace, the cafe also has a glass-walled room with stunning views for miles and miles! We had perfectly cooked tapas - swordfish, squid and chorizo for Dave; tiny sausages, kidney and a huge salad for me - followed by coffee and a pastry each - strawberry slice and apple tart. All in with beer, wine, bread and crisps for €20 and we're still too full for dinner now!