Sunday, 1 March 2015

Days out in Cullera and Valencia

It has been a busy few days around here! We braved fairly high winds on
From Cullera castle to
the Sanctuary 
Wednesday for a walk into Cullera town and up to both the Sanctuary and the Islamic Castle. Believe it or not, there is a footpath up this rock cliff and we managed to climb it, although with a couple of nervy moments on my part. Several of the historic observation towers below the castle have been restored including one which I think I remember is the only octagonal example in Spain. The views from the castle across the surrounding countryside and also out to sea are fantastic. Entry is only 3 euros (or 1 euro for Jubilados (Poor Old Pensioners!)) and the next-door Sanctuary is free to visit. A few castle rooms have cases of interesting artifacts unearthed within Cullera. These include some delicate jewellery, pots, arrowheads, decorated glass fragments and the like. There is also a short film of the history of Cullera. It is in Spanish but spoken slowly and with clear enough visuals that we could work out pretty much what was going on during each era.
Spot the footpath? 
Restored Islamic tower, Cullera 
A train journey on Thursday took us back to Valencia to meet up with our friends Andy and Barbara. They have rented a gorgeous little apartment for a few nights before moving on to Granada and Seville. We wandered the streets of Valencia for an afternoon after having visited the Silk Exchange which is an elegant building but with a distinct lack of informative placards.
Sculpture on a Valencian balcony 
Ornate door in Valencia 
Yesterday Andy and Barbara returned the visit by getting the train from Valencia to Cullera. We walked the Sendero PR CV 336 from the aforementioned castle along the hill ridge out above the distinctive CULLERA hill sign - it's painted in huge white letters on the cliffs and is even lit at night - towards the Faro (lighthouse) where we descended to beach level and our fist Menu Del Dia meal of the trip. Lots of food so we were glad to have got the energetic walking out of the way first leaving only a gentle stroll back along the beach.

Asphodel flowers, no Wendel

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen / Aquarium by David Vann / Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah

Eminent HipstersEminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a Steely Dan fan - we even got to see them play in Hammersmith maybe five years ago - I was pleased when Dave got Eminent Hipsters for his Kindle a while ago. The new Amazon sharing system means we each get to read the other's purchases, a system which I admit benefits me far more than Dave!

Eminent Hipsters is a book of two uneven halves. The first section contains essays written by Fagen about his childhood and adolescent musical influences and I very much enjoyed reading these. I was too pleased with myself for recognising names such as Bill Evans, but was mostly ignorant and scribbling down suggestions for later YouTubing. I think that the book really needs to come with an accompanying music download! Still, it is interesting to understand where Fagen's music comes from and his self-deprecating humour is entertaining to read.

I presume that the selected essays were deemed insufficient in volume for publication though because the book's second half consists of a tour diary. Unfortunately this doesn't bear much relation to the first half so I found the mid-way swerve disconcerting. Here we meet cantankerous old git Fagen who basically complains a lot about a touring lifestyle which he must surely not actually be forced into. Personally, I would have preferred more of the thoughtful essays and none of the diary.

AquariumAquarium by David Vann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of Aquarium from the publisher, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. And I'm very pleased to have done so - it's a strong, powerful novel! I am including this review in Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Aquarium is set in Seattle and tells of a short period of the life of a twelve-year-old girl, Caitlin, who lives with her mother, Sheri, a woman struggling to make ends meet by working long hours in a dead-end job. They have a poor standard of accommodation and Sheri's work means Caitlin is often left alone for several hours, time she chooses to spend at the local aquarium gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of rare fish. I liked the inclusion of the line-drawn fish illustrations. Caitlin's meeting there with an older man is the catalyst for the events that drive the novel, but Vann does not take us to obvious territory.

This is not an easy novel to read. By that, I mean that the themes it examines are heavy and dark. The writing is superb - spare and frequently brutal and impossible to look away from. Vann has created perfectly believable characters that really got through to me. The destruction of a family by fear then poverty is graphically portrayed and the carry-though to the next generation is frightening to comprehend. My favourite character, I think, is Sheri although I didn't actually like her or many of her actions. This woman has fought incredibly hard to escape her past and her sheer rage at finding herself flung backwards absolutely crackles off the pages.

I will definitely be looking out for more David Vann novels in the future and will be adding his existing titles to my Goodreads TBR list.

Hurting Distance (Spilling CID, #2)Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up in paperback - an actual book! - on a campsite book exchange a month or so ago. Mainstream crime thrillers aren't my usual fare, but I was swayed by the three pages of positive review quotes in the front. I really must learn not to take any notice of these as I think, in fact, I read a different book!

Hurting Distance is OK. At four hundred pages, it is a bit too long for its story, but the convoluted plot is certainly unguessable too far before the end. The main protagonist, Naomi, gets to be both spoken about and to speak directly to the reader which is odd at first but does work as a device. Every so often, a chapter will be written in the first person, as Naomi talking to her talking to her beloved Robert. Otherwise the novel is written in third person and present time.

In common with most crime thrillers, there is a serial criminal on the loose, this time a rapist, although Hannah doesn't overdo the clock ticking scenario. Instead there is a huge tangle of personal relationships and characters involved in convenient coincidences - while discussing how they don't believe in coincidences. I did appreciate a comment about linking arrows on the police evidence wall having become just a blob - perhaps an observation of Hannah's plot plan?! The police behaviour is what actually ruined this book for me. The villain and victims are cleverly set up but then the police behave like their TV counterparts, not real police at all. Then so much of the novel's forward drive depends on their irrational actions and jumped-to conclusions that I got quite irritated by the end.

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Monday, 23 February 2015

The windy delights of Cullera

We didn't need to stop overnight at Bigastro after all. The first part of our
Mulberry trees at Camping Santa Marta 
journey went so well that we just pushed on after lunch and arrived here at Camping Santa Marta in Cullera about 5pm on Friday. To be honest, I felt a bit despondent about the site when we first got here. There's nothing particularly wrong, but it felt dark and is mostly empty which did feel odd after the bustle of Roquetas. We initially had our terrace of a dozen or so pitches to ourselves. Now, a couple of days later, there are only three pitches remaining empty - apparently we are trendsetters! Our arrival was much later in the day than usual so the sun had already sunk behind the neighbouring hotel block and we don't have a nature view, more of a currently-unoccupied-apartments view! We are on an open section of the site where the pitches are marked with the pictured mulberry trees which have beautifully pale coloured trunks and branches. Unlike pretty much every other tree here, they aren't yet showing any signs of Spring. Most of the rest of the site is under a pine tree canopy so very shaded all year round.

In sunny daylight, there are quirky features here that are fun. This huge
Dave thinks at the Roca De Los Pensamientos 
boulder, the Roca De Los Pensamientos, is signposted and is right in the middle of a number of chalets. I suspect the owners were simply unable to shift it when building the site, but it now has a 'myth' and visitors are meant to lay a hand on the stone and think a happy thought - as Dave is doing in this photo!

We also have a 15th century Ermita in the cliff above the site and this path leads up there from the edge of the tent pitches. It's a big campsite. The path is made easier with lots of concrete steps added amongst the natural stone and the climb took us about 15 minutes, but we did stop to admire the views out to sea part way up. Unfortunately, the main part of the Ermita is sealed off with a locked gate. I think there might be a chapel through an arched doorway but we couldn't see it. Instead, I took a photo of 'next door'. The Ermita track is supposed to continue on and around the top of the hill, but practically vanished into undergrowth soon after the locked gate so we came back down the same way we went up.

Path to the Ermita 

At the Ermita 

The swimming pool is empty and both the supermercado and the cafe are closed up for the winter, but the shower blocks are lovely. Nice decor and copious quantities of hot water. We are also happy that not only is there hot water for washing up and laundry, but these sinks are all indoors. A luxury especially considering that there are still very strong winds here most of the time. I just learned that there was an earthquake today too - we failed to notice at the time.

Tiled street in Cullera 

Castle above Cullera 

Exploration of the local area has already begun in earnest with a lengthy cycle ride along the wide beachfront promenade to a river with small boats moored each side. We also found the railway station which we will need to get into Valencia soon. A car journey took us the other way along the front and around a lighthouse. And today we walked into and around Cullera admiring the architecture. It being a Monday afternoon, nothing was open, but we saw this stunning tiled street and the castle on the hill above town. A large park just off the seafront included a duck pond and a giant fibreglass squid. What more do you need?


Over the next week or so we want to visit the castle as the approach to it is supposed to be worth seeing. Sadly the Rice Museum is closed at the moment, but there are several other tempting walks and cycle rides, a lagoon to wander around and hopefully a Civil War air shelter to visit. Plus we have two days back in Valencia with our friends Andy and Barbara. No time to waste ... !

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Woman In The Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana / The Daemon Device by Wendy Callahan / The Next Always by Nora Roberts

The Woman in the Movie Star DressThe Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of The Woman In The Movie Star Dress from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is also my fourth review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

I was intrigued by the synopsis of this novel and the 1940s glamour of its cover, but was concerned that it might be too whimsical or require too much suspension of disbelief. Native American woman, Genevieve Nightcloud, works in a vintage clothing shop in Hollywood. She's at a pretty low point with major family troubles, no man and two dead-end jobs to make ends meet. Then a vintage red dress and matching cloche hat turn up in the shop under strange circumstances and Genevieve starts to realise that the spirits of previous wearers leave their auras in their clothes. Dress in Marlene Dietrich's outfit and feel her persona!

I was a bit sceptical at first, but this novel really worked for me. It's a bit romance, a lot noir and is deeper than it sounds. Plus there's loads of old and not-so-old movie references which I love. Once I got past my Mr Benn thoughts - "and as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared" - I enjoyed the read. Asthana has created good characters in Genevieve, Todd and Renzo, and both her father and brother are completely believable. I liked the complications of Genevieve's mother having lived as more than simply a Mum and felt the issues raised by this storyline were sensitively handled.

The Woman In The Movie Star Dress could be considered a coming-of-age novel. It's theme of dressing for confidence and self-belief is interesting to think about. To what extent can clothes really make the woman?

The Daemon Device (Aetheric Artifacts, #2)The Daemon Device by Wendy L. Callahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought the four volume compendium of the Aetheric Artifacts series as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2 on Facebook last November.

I've been putting off reading The Daemon Device as I thoroughly enjoyed its predecessor, The Chronos Clock, and there is only one more book afterwards so I don't want the series to end too soon. Having said that, I devoured The Daemon Device in a single afternoon - it was raining outside!

We return to Demetra and Francis just after his mother has dropped her refusing to let the couple marry bombshell and Demetra is most definitely not amused. In another fantastically mad plot, D&A set off in search of Demetra's past, hoping that they can establish whether the refusal has a good reason or is simple prejudice. I loved new character Aunt Verti and the various ways her name can be interpreted. She is great fun. I also found Demetra's mother interesting as many times she seemed a more juvenile version of her daughter which is a fun twist.

The verbal sparring between all the characters was up to the giggle-worthy standards set previously. I still haven't got a clue on the science of any inventions but love picturing them and Callahan's descriptions of the new transportation methods are great fun. Horseless carriages - imagine that!

The Daemon Device was just as satisfying as I hoped it would be and now I just have to try and wait a while before ending the trilogy.

The Next Always (Inn BoonsBoro, #1)The Next Always by Nora Roberts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a copy of The Next Always free from Amazon in return for having purchased a Kindle ebook during a promotional period.

I don't often pick up romance novels so I believe that The Next Always is the first Nora Roberts novel I've read. It's certainly the first in a very long time and likely to be the last too. I was disappointed at just how bland and formulaic the story was. Essentially just a long advertisement for the Boonsboro Inn - is Roberts an owner? - most of the book is taken up with lists of the luxurious furniture and fittings. We also meet a perfectly nice widow, Clare, who has nice children and falls in love with the nice man, Beckett, doing up the Inn. Surrounded by their nice friends and community, they overcome minor perils and, presumably, go on to live happily ever after as a Family.

Based on this one novel, I have no idea how Roberts sells so many thousands of books. I have read far more inventive fare from relatively unknown indie authors who could seriously benefit from 1% of her publicity, yet are ignored in favour of this drivel. Yawn.

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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Carrot coconut and almond cake recipe

This cake came about as a way to use up a couple of carrots that were
Carrot coconut and almond cake 
still sitting in our veg rack, a bit beyond their best. I looked at a few other recipes online but they all called for what seemed to me to be a ridiculous amount of oil. A couple of oil-free recipes used nuts instead and I had a half pack of ground almonds left over from making our Valentine's Day chocolate marzipans. Not enough to fulfil any recipe requirements though, so instead I made up the difference with wholemeal flour and then purloined the remainder of a tin of coconut milk that Dave had needed for a Goan curry. All the liquid was gone but there was a good three tablespoons of the soft cream coconut which turned out to be perfect for moistening this cake!

60g ground almonds
150g sugar (inc 1 tbsp vanilla sugar if you have it)
120g finely grated carrot
1 tsp grated lemon zest and a splash of lemon juice
2 eggs
120 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
Most of the solid cream in a 400g tin of coconut milk (discard the liquid)

Preheat the oven to 180c

Place the grated carrot in a large mixing bowl with the ground almonds and the sugars. Add the lemon zest and juice.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and mix well.

Mix in the flour, baking powder and spices. When well combined, beat in the coconut cream.

Spoon the mixture into a greased loaf tin and bake at 180c for about an hour. The cake is cooked when an inserted skewer or cocktail stick comes out clean. If the top starts darkening too quickly, cover it with loose aluminium foil.

I realised, after baking the cake, that I also have a part-bag grated coconut in the cupboard that needs using up. If I had remembered sooner, it might have been nice to sprinkle some over the top of the cake, in lieu of icing.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Portrait Of A Marriage by Nigel Nicolson / Bell Of The Desert by Alan Gold / Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold NicolsonPortrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to Orlando by Virginia Woolf last year on audio and, having loved that book, wanted to find out more about its real-life protagonists especially the muse for Orlando him/herself, Vita Sackville-West. Having asked for biography suggestions on Goodreads, several people directed me to Portrait Of A Marriage by Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson. I downloaded it ages ago and have finally gotten around to reading it!

Firstly, I think the authorship should be equally credited to Vita as well as Nigel because two of the book's five sections are an early autobiography penned by Vita! In these pages, I discovered a fascinating complex woman. Vita is intelligent, selfish, passionate, generous, witty and incredibly melodramatic. Born into an aristocratic family, she has no real understanding of her great privilege in comparison with the majority of British people then, and now. She zooms off around Europe, seemingly at a moment's notice, visiting fabulous places as if it is nothing - I was certainly quite jealous of such a lifestyle! However, once I got past this ignorance of the 'real world', I could begin to understand and even empathise with the all-consuming love of her young life. Vita has a passionate affair, beginning before her marriage and continuing afterwards, with another woman, Violet. The two have been friends since childhood but in adulthood, friendship turns to love. Reading both Vita and Violet's letters to each other unveiled amazing emotion between them and it was easy to understand why they were so determined to elope and escape society's refusal to openly accept such a relationship. Interestingly, neither of Vita's parents were faithful to their marriage either - an upper crust behaviour pattern that is fine in private but not in the newspapers.

Later, as Nigel begins to speak, we learn how Vita's marriage to Harold survived the affair leading to a wonderfully romantic love between the pair that lasted their whole lives. I didn't particularly like him either - he was happy to live off British taxes by taking a diplomatic job that placed him all around the world, yet still despised the middle-class taxpayers whose effectively paid his wages. However the quoted letters between the two made for fascinating reading and a great voyeuristic glimpse into a whole other way of living. Both Vita and Harold had affairs with other women and men respectively so, after the early years and the birth of their sons, the marriage was one of minds, not bodies. I was gripped by this intense relationship and, as writers both, their beautifully eloquent expressions of love and pain.

Bell of the Desert: A NovelBell of the Desert: A Novel by Alan Gold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's taken quite a while, by my standards, to read Bell Of The Desert and unfortunately I did feel as though I was having to plough through the latter chapters. As I received the novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my review, I did feel obligated to finish it and there are some good points, but the writing style wasn't really to my taste. I am submitting this review to Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Bell Of The Desert is a fictionalised biography of Gertrude Bell, an amazing explorer, archaeologist and politician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was widely respected throughout the Middle East at the time, although her guarding of her privacy means that she is now far less famous than contemporaries such as T E Lawrence (of Arabia). I do hope the forthcoming Nicole Kidman film doesn't make her famous again for shallow reasons!

Alan Gold has obviously deeply researched parts of his novel and the complicated political webs of The Great War and its aftermath are nicely explained, whether Gertrude is their focus or not. I felt the novel came alive here as its three main protagonists, Gertrude, Lawrence and Arabian King Faisal, danced around each other trying to resolve the bloody mess of broken promises. However, a lot of the novel has already happened by this point and I was disappointed by the superficial treatment of Gertrude's early years in the deserts that so captured her heart. We only visit one archaeological dig - where she meets Lawrence - and I never really felt as though I was being shown this world as she saw it.

Other irritations: several chapters end in cliffhangers which are then ignored, the following chapter beginning much further on in time. For example, at one point Gertrude is captured and imprisoned by a particularly nasty Arab. How will she escape? I still don't know, even having finished the whole book, because the next chapter begins weeks later. The episode is alluded to, but never fully explained. Gold also has a habit of beginning new episodes with several lines only identifying the lead character as 'he' or 'she'. 'She' is generally Gertrude, but there are several male characters from whom to choose and I often got confused who I was reading about.

Having had high hopes for this novel which, with its historical and feminist themes, should have been exactly my sort of thing, I was ultimately disappointed. I did learn about Great War politics, but don't feel as though I really got to know Gertrude Bell.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and NightfallNocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to be a 'Marmite' author whom readers either love or hate! Nocturnes is now the third of his books I have read and, looking back on Goodreads, I was interested to see that I have rated them all the same at four stars - very good but not quite wow.

In Nocturnes, we are introduced to a horseshoe of five stories, mostly slightly linked and all incorporating a theme of music and musicians somewhere within their tales. I chose to buy this book on audio so was not only treated to suitable musical snippets leading into and out of each story, but also had five different narrators. I think this helped because I was aware at several points that the lead characters were fairly similar in their way of speaking. Having a new physical voice separated the tales in a way that reading might not have done.

My favourite of the stories was Malvern Hills, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. The natural landscape worked well and I felt this character was the most developed. It was also perhaps the tale with the least greed and vanity in it - perhaps. As well as the poignancy of losing love, brief encounters, and meetings of minds, Ishiguro also tackles interesting themes such as the physical appearance of musicians, the rise and fall of fashions, what makes a life 'successful'. A couple of stories do border on becoming overly saccharine, but there are genuinely funny moments of farce too.
I did feel that all five stories are middles. Nicely observed and beautifully placed, but with ambiguous endings that weren't always satisfying. However, a thoughtful and different collection that made for a cosy retreat over a couple of rainy days.

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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Two veggie dinner recipes and a honey cake

This will probably be our last week at Camping Roquetas, providing the
A honey cake 
weather for the next few days behaves as it is forecast to. We're expecting rain on Tuesday and stronger winds through Wednesday and Thursday, but there should be calm on Friday when we plan move on to Bigastro. If that name sounds familiar, it might because we were there for a couple of nights last year. Fingers crossed for the successful navigation of That Corner this time around!

We have been making the most of our time here, even being able to sit outside reading in hot sunshine earlier today. Yesterday we went for a two hour cycle along some little camino roads in between covered tomato fields. It's bizarre to see literally miles of covered greenhouses, all crammed with tomato plants climbing their way up individual wires, yet with hardly a soul about. Admittedly, it being Saturday afternoon meant most Spaniards had downed tools for their siesta and the start of their weekends, but even so. Dave commented that the region would make a great location for a zombie apocalypse film and it does have a suitably eerie quality.

In between going for beach walks with my headphones - good audiobook at the moment: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro - and keeping up my jogging - 40 minutes non-stop today - I am also enjoying a bout of experimental cookery. This is (so not) Dave's favourite!! In keeping with my less-meat aims, I have been searching out veggie recipe resources online and have found two great websites:

Oh My Veggies was where I found Lentil and Mushroom Burgers. We both enjoyed this meal although the burgers themselves were far more filling than I had anticipated. Together with the cheese-topped rolls I'd seen in the supermarket and sides such as coleslaw and sliced tomatoes, I thought we'd easily eat two each. We only just managed one-and-a-half each. The burgers have a great flavour and were well worth the faff of their cooking. They were a bit crumbly to shape prior to baking, and I almost wished I had a food processor while finely chopping all those mushrooms!
Lentil and mushroom burgers 

Veg Box Recipes is a site I found several years ago and I have made this Veggie Canneloni before. I've been searching it out again over the past week of so but could only remember the grated carrot ingredient so it took a bit of finding! Dave wasn't so keen on this dinner. We both liked the cheese sauce and pasta, but the filling needed to have a stronger flavour. I might add more herbs and spices next time - if there us a next time! I couldn't find canneloni tubes here in Spain. I had to buy canneloni shhets which are flat like lasagna. You soak them all together in hot water for 15 minutes until they soften like fresh pasta, then roll them around the filling. Once I figured out the instructions, it was actually easier than stuffing the brittle tubes!
Veggie canneloni 
Finally, the Honey Cake is today's find and its website is Roger Patterson's Honey Recipes, a wonderful collection of sweet and savoury recipes all using honey to a greater or lesser extent. The photo at the top of this post shows my baking of Kath's Honey Cake. It smelt gorgeous while baking, enabled me to use my new loaf tin, and made a delicious light cake, sweet but with a pleasant nutty tang because I used my locally-made-and-bought Almendro honey. The only problem with this cake is that it didn't last very long. About four hours. It's very moreish!