Monday, 20 October 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver / The Famished Road by Ben Okri / Lone Shark by Tin Larrick

Big BrotherBig Brother by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn't read anything about Big Brother before I starting on the book itself so was initially intrigued by the premise of Pandora's dilemma at having to accommodate her morbidly obese brother within her family's home for an extended visit. I was drawn into the relationships despite said brother, Edison, being overly irritating and Pandora's husband, Fletcher, feeling somewhat two-dimensional and cartoonish. Something else I noticed early on was that all Shriver's characters have odd first names! After a while I began to wonder where the storyline was as I had read around a quarter of the way through the book and it still felt like scene-setting.

I found it hard to buy into Pandora's decision to dump her husband and his kids in favour of her brother. We are continually told that they are very close siblings and it's impossible to refuse a 'family thing' but this didn't ring true from the way the pair actually behaved at this point. It was like Shriver was contradicting her writing and I wasn't convinced. The diet the pair follow, Edison apparently for a whole year, is dangerous to undertake cold and with just a single doctor's visit and I didn't like that such a drastic measure is being publicised in a best-selling novel. It may work in fiction, but could increase health issues in real life, not solve them.

Finally, after much repetition and the odd inclusion of an Iowan flood, we get to the final climax and its aftermath. Obviously, I'm not going to state what happens as not everyone who reads this will already have read Big Brother, but REALLY?! That's the best you could come up with? It's a disappointing ending!



The Famished RoadThe Famished Road by Ben Okri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/12956998

It took me about 100 pages to really get into the language and style of The Famished Road as it is a very different book to anything else that I have read recently, if at all. Ben Okri's writing has an amazing fluidity that roams from harsh details of life in extreme poverty to incredible flights of surreal fantasy that left me amazed at how he invented such scenes. One one hand, not a lot happens in the novel. Azaro, a young boy whose eyes we see through, spends his time observing the adults around him, avoiding his drunken and abusive father, and hanging out in a local bar. Azaro is a spirit-child who has chosen to remain among humans, but is frequently contacted by bizarre apparitions who try to persuade him to die and, in so doing, come home.

Azaro's neighbours don't come out of the story well, being by turns greedy and grasping or opportunistic and selfish. The bar-owner, Madame Koto, aligns herself with local political heavies to become rich and powerful, also becoming fat and gout-ridden in the process. The rubbish-strewn street is frequently flooded and muddy, the rooms leak and are falling down, there is often not enough to eat and Azaro's mother especially works ridiculously long hours, yet there is always a strand of hope that makes what should be a depressing novel into an uplifting one.

I will criticise its length as the near 600 pages I think could have had more intensity if reduced to around 450. However, that aside, The Famished Road is a wonderful achievement of fantastic writing and magical surrealism.



Lone SharkLone Shark by Tin Larrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lone Shark is my third Tin Larrick novel, although actually the second he wrote. Each, so far, is a stand alone story so I'm not messing up any story arcs for once!

By far the blokiest of the trio, elements of Lone Shark felt like a Guy Ritchie film and there is a fair bit of killing for no other reason than that's what this type of person would do. The plot is interesting and generally keeps up a fast place but I found the characters, other than our anti-hero, Jackson Towne, much more two-dimensional than in, say, Manukau Bluebirds. Larrick's descriptions of place and scene setting are excellent so it was easy to imagine his dystopian London and the furniture shop 'hotel' is a nice touch. Poor Newhaven doesn't fare too well!

I found it difficult to actually place the novel in real time as, although the synopsis states 2017, several of the text references seemed to throw us way past that while some tv namedropping particularly is oddly dated. This was distracting but not enough to ruin the atmosphere, just an occasional pull-up.

As a solid genre thriller, Lone Shark easily holds it own with best-selling authors and is more inventive than many of these. Larrick's real life police experience is well used to enhance without being overdone to make this book an entertaining escapist read. And best of all, at the time of writing, the novel is Free On Kindle!

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sizzling in the Sagunt sunshine

We liked Camping Malvarrosa when we first arrived practically a week ago and are still
Oh look! Girlfriend on a beach with a book! 
impressed with it now which is pretty rare for us! Being so close to warm, swimmable sea is obviously one of the main attractions, but it is also generally peaceful, there is plenty of flat countryside for Dave to explore by bike, I have beaches and lovely promenades to jog and walk along, and we even have History and Culture close by. The site has a section for touring caravans and motorhomes, a separate bit for tents, and the rest is a village of various permanent places but each is an individual encampment rather than simply bland, identikit statics. We have had more luck with wildlife spotting. There are several herons that fish the nearby irrigation canals and we have also seen kingfishers and Dave came across a field, maybe of harvested rice, with dozens of egrets in it. A cheeky red squirrel accompanied us for part of the climb to Sagunt castle. It was much smaller than the grey ones we used to see in Polegate and refused to sit still long enough for us to get a decent photograph.

We visited Sagunt city which is a few miles away. We had thought we could walk there, but got as far as the pretty Canet de Berenguer in an hour and a half and decided perhaps all the way to Sagunt was a bit optimistic in this heat. It's up to 29 degrees in the afternoons! In common with several towns along this bit of coast, Canet is spread over two sites. There is a pretty coastal strip of summer homes which is practically deserted at this time of year, and the town proper is set back a little inland. Therefore our walk along the beach to Canet only got us to their part of the beach and not an ice cream kiosk in sight! There were lots of large tyre tracks in the sand where the frequent boardwalks out to the sea are being taken up, presumably for safe storage through the winter. We discovered a shady park for a rest and then wandered home.

Sagunt is famous for its historical past having existed since at least the fifth century BCE, been at war with Carthage, and been invaded by Hannibal after an eight month siege. We visited the extensive castle site on a hill above today's town. There are remnants of several eras throughout the site, but sadly not placarded so we weren't always sure what we were looking at. Roman columns and inscriptions abound, but the ancient buildings were plundered for later rebuilds including a Moorish stronghold and the Christian reclamation that followed. There is also a section at the far end which obviously very recent renovation, perhaps to stop subsidence down the hill. A small museum housed some of the best preserved pillars and inscriptions, otherwise outside was a huge jigsaw of broken stone, sorted to a degree, but not yet with its places identified. An interesting aside for the museum was that all the information was bilingual. One language was Spanish, obviously, but the other was not English or French or even German as most of our fellow campers are, but Valenciano. I knew Catalan had its own dialect but we didn't realise that Valencia does too.

There is a railway station nearby with several local trains a day into Valencia. It is supposed to be getting a bit cooler here next week so we plan to take advantage of this to spend a day or two exploring the city. Any suggestions of must-sees?

In the meantime, my eagerly anticipated Kirsty McGee album has arrived. Do you remember I blogged about its Kickstarter campaign? It's called Those Old Demons and we're really enjoying the music. Interesting lyrics and unusual orchestration make it quite different from our usual fare. I think the official release is at the end of October and pre-orders can be placed here:

Monday, 13 October 2014

Seraphita by Honore de Balzac / A Matter of Temperance by Ichabod Temperance / The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

Seraphita (Dodo Press)Seraphita by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I thought I had better read a French book while we are in France and settled upon Honore de Balzac's Seraphita as I had downloaded it from ForgottenBooks ages ago and not yet gotten around to starting it. The edition begins with a lengthy introduction which discusses and explains the religious significance of Seraphita at great length. This was so in depth and dull that I nearly didn't get through it's eighty-odd pages in order to start the novel itself!


Seraphita is set in Norway and Balzac does a fantastic job of describing the country, its landscape, seasons and the people of the isolated rural village where his story is set. I loved reading these passages which actually advanced the story and would love to someday visit a similar remote fjord as it was so romantically presented. However, two long sections of the book are simply Seraphita expounding (over many pages of monologue) various religious doctrines and dogmas and I found these bits incredibly difficult to understand and to remain focused on. The beliefs range across Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism amongst others, and also include mentions the beliefs of races of people on other planets such as Mars and Venus. It is all probably fabulously imagined but felt like sitting through a long harangue. Perhaps it would all make more sense to someone of the time as much of the science has now advanced far beyond that denounced by Seraphita as her proofs.


All in all, this is an odd book for me to have read and it is pretty much two books mashed together - one a lovely story and one a intensely detailed lesson!



A Matter of TemperanceA Matter of Temperance by Ichabod Temperance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A Matter of Temperance was recommended to me by Amazon because I enjoyed another steampunk novel, S C Barrus' Discovering Aberration. Both are indie fiction and entertaining reads but I think Discovering Aberration was the more satisfying of the two.


Ichabod Temperance undertakes a fantastical adventure when he first rescues one Persephone Plumtartt from clutches of an invisible otherworldly monster. Our hero has a knack for this kind of chivalry as he continues to repeat the feat, firstly across a slightly-geographically-redesigned Europe, and then across the rest of the world. We read his story from two viewpoints, both his and also Miss Plumtartt's. Unfortunately their characters are not strongly defined so as the chapters rush past, I didn't always know which one was narrating. It doesn't really matter as this book is all about action. Villains are cartoonish and allies are named but not created as defined people. On reflection, this is disappointing as I would have cared more about the quest had more words been expended on character rather than fighting. I liked the initial inventions which are perfectly steampunk, however as the book goes along, more and more items are invented but not described so imagining what the author means is tricky. Also the perils are often surprisingly easily despatched and occasionally seem thrown in for no apparent reason - why were the sirens included? Why the pearl?


For me, A Matter of Temperance felt unfinished. It is a fun fast-paced romp but needs more explanation of the whys and wherefores in order to really reward the reader.



The Grass is SingingThe Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I chose The Grass Is Singing as my 1950s books for the Bookcrossing/Goodreads Decade Challenge. I don't think I've read any Doris Lessing before, certainly not recently, and was pleased to find that I love her writing style! This novel confronts several major issues within a relatively small number of pages yet never feels preachy and is an amazing achievement for a first publication.
Our heroine, Mary, is a free-spirited young white city woman, earning her own wage and not subject to marital or family ties. She has overcome a poverty-stricken childhood, but her chance overhearing of acquaintances gossiping about her make Mary believe that her life is incomplete and would be better with the freedom of marriage. She ignores her own happiness in favour of the beliefs of others and pretty much jumps on the next man who doesn't get out the way quickly enough! Richard Turner is a poor white rural farmer described as living in isolation although he has black workers with whom he communicates every day, but those men and their families can not be suitable as friends and Richard also shuns the companionship of neighbouring white families.
After their marriage, Mary joins Richard on his farm, initially happily as she goes to work improving the shack in which he lives. However, there is little money so this task is quickly completed and it is at this point that Lessing's story begins to draw in its claustrophobic threads. We know from the first chapter that Mary has died and Richard is mad, presumably with grief. Now we start to discover why. Perhaps Mary's terrible treatment of a succession of black houseboys, the result of institutionalised racism, has led to murder; perhaps she cannot stand the months and years of isolation; perhaps the sheer heat of living in essentially a tin box is to blame; perhaps Richard can no longer bear her criticism of his poor farming decisions which results in their downward-spiralling into ever deeper poverty.
Each of Lessing's themes - racism, sexism, isolation, not belonging, poverty - are beautifully and powerfully portrayed. The Turner's predicament is completely believable and I pitied the couple intensely while at the same time being exasperated at them for being so unable to drag themselves away from their self-imposed prison. Even as hope is forced upon them towards the end of the book, we already know it will be too late and the poignancy of this is almost unbearable.
The Grass Is Singing is a wonderful novel and, while I look forward to reading more of her work, I think this debut will have been very hard for her to beat.

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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Why on earth did we return to Zaragoza?

We spent a single night at the municipal campsite on the outskirts of Zaragoza last year. It was the only site at a suitable distance to break up our journey and you might remember that we weren't too keen on it then. Back in March, it was bleak, practically deserted and had a really creepy air. However, as it is still the only practical site on our journey in the opposite direction now, we thought we could brave it for one more night. And we did! But we didn't enjoy it! The site was practically full and there must have been a few thousand people there in motorhomes, caravans, statics, and dozens and dozens of small tents. It felt like a completely different place to how it was in March. However, as we could manage without electricity, we weren't even offered the luxury of an individual pitch for our 23.66 euros this time. Instead, we snagged a spot in a line-up of caravans and motor homes on a bit of waste ground - might as well have been parked up in one of those freeloader sites instead. As today is the Fiesta Nacional de España (National Day) in Spain, there was a huge party going on in the city of Zaragoza last night with a firework display and also thumping music until five o'clock this morning. Yippee! Do you see the tree in front of our car? We had to undertake Reversing in order to get away this morning and (fortunately) managed quite an elegant manoeuvre in front of an audience.

What passes for a pitch at Zaragoza 

Thank goodness that after a few hours' driving, we are now somewhere very lovely. Camping Malvarrosa is just outside Sagunto and is a fair sized site with a small village of permanent encampments plus a row of touring pitches several of which - including ours - are right on the beach. And I mean Right On The Beach. I can hear the Mediterranean waves about 50 metres away and we step out the back of our pitch onto the sandy beach. Bliss! We set up the awning this evening and sat out in it to eat our dinner with the sea on one side and some quiet opera arias escaping from a German caravan over the way. Very civilised and completely the opposite of yesterday. We're not sure if any shops will be open tomorrow due to the Holiday, but if we can't get anything locally, there is a restaurant on site with a 7 euro Plata Del Dia that might just do instead. Dave - in his hunter-gatherer guise - is going to explore the vicinity on his bike in the morning while I might go for a run on the beach.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A new jockey wheel and lunching in Biarritz

Firstly, for those still holding their breath in suspense: Yes! (the two animals we saw on our walk were coypu. Since then we have also seen a mouse and a v formation of geese. A European safari!
A shiny new jockey wheel and the knackered old one 

Tuesday was a potentially fraught day which turned out well in almost everything. Firstly, the French man who had suggested driving to Tarnos for our replacement jockey rushed over on Monday evening as he had seen similar wheels in the local Bricolage, only 3km away in Socoa. We started our quest there - close but not quite the right size or right size but not strong enough. So on to Tarnos we went and to a fantastic shop called Agest which sells motor homes and has loads of spare parts from bulbs to skylights. Even better, the shelves are spaced out and well lit so you can actually see all the stock clearly! We had a choice of jockey wheels on their own or in assembly and 'treated' ourselves to the posh metal €19 one. The all plastic match to our previous one was just €6 - no wonder the damn thing broke! The Agest salesman even replaced the split pin free of charge from their service stock. The whole experience was so simple that we were finished ages earlier than expected so, instead of our planned Buffalo Grill (*) meal, we decided to go and see Biarritz instead.

Biarritz is one of those places that is known for its glamour but I think this has faded a little now. The cream colored Casino on the front looked familiar - probably from old photos or maybe a Bond film - but many of the buildings looked worn around the edges. There were still dozens of expensive clothes shops though and lots of eating venues so much of the town's economy must still be tourism. We struck lucky lunching outside a creperie/salon de the just over the road from the concert hall. Dave had a savoury tart and I had a honey drizzled goat's cheese salad which was delicious. Then we strolled around some more and watched surfers riding and falling from the bigger waves back from the horseshoe beach.

Another day, another town and St Jean De Luz, almost walkable from our Larrouleta campsite, is well worth a visit. There's interesting architecture and the town has obviously been affluent for many years. The Villa Germaine on the promenade has brightly painted squares and spheres along its roofline. Again, expensive clothes shops dominate, but there are also boutique art galleries and several shops dedicated to edible regional products. I finally located the one food we'd been having no luck finding, even in the huge Leclerc supermarket - oats. Apparently the French don't do porridge!

One more place to tell you about and this one's a bit mad. We drove up a winding mountain road to Col d'Ibardin where we had be told we could go walking. We did do a nice walk to a lake and back seeing semi-wild ponies and the oddest black and white goat - front half totally black, back half totally white. However what was odd about Col d'Ibardin was that suddenly, in the middle of nowhere halfway up a mountain road, there is a large Avia petrol station and about a dozen shops selling alcohol, perfume, tourist tat, leather goods and shoes! We were flabbergasted! Dave talked to one of the shopkeepers in Spanish and we discovered that the border between France and Spain runs down the road at this point so we had technically arrived in Spain. The duty on the goods was Spanish, not French, so that little winding road was pretty busy.

(* We have a fondness for Buffalo Grill because not only do they do good fast(ish) food and I like their salads, but we were parked up outside one having eaten there when Dave asked if I'd like to move in with him all those years ago!)

Monday, 6 October 2014

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Vol II by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / The New Life by Orhan Pamuk / Extreme Measures by Martin Brookes

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. I - VIThe Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. I - VI by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second of the four volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories was one of the downloads in this summer's AudioSYNC programme and Volume II has the stories The Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb, The Five Orange Pips, and Silver Blaze.

As the stories are short and we are already meant to be acquainted with Holmes and Watson, there is very little in the way of description about them. Unfortunately, as I am not a particular fan, this made our heroes rather flat. Their clients and foes were also not fleshed out in any great detail.

However the plot lines which were main focus of each tale were generally cleverly thought through and it was fun to try to guess the conclusion ahead of Holmes. David Timson does a great job of the narration and his style complements the writing perfectly. I don't think I will search out the other three volumes though because I can see too many of such tales together quickly becoming overly formulaic and, dare I say, a tad dull.



The New LifeThe New Life by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/12747714

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Snow a couple of years ago and absolutely loved Orhan Pamuk's writing. His poetic descriptions are beautiful and I managed to completely lose myself in the book. So when I saw a copy of The New Life on a second-hand stall in Bristol, I snapped it up.

The New Life is a mix of books in one. There is the stunning writing in which to lose yourself, a road journey through a Turkey which is being lost even as our narrator discovers it, and a splash of mysticism to aid and baffle the reader in equal measure! The seemingly unending bus journeys are brilliantly portrayed, both their tedium and the mortal risk of boarding. I did not completely understand everything as I read it, although much later became clear with further chapters and, as with Snow, I need to learn more about Turkish culture in order to appreciate all the cultural references.

However this was definitely a full five-star read for me. The characters of Osman, Janan and Mehmet are driven and compulsive, and I felt for their quest to discover the truth behind the book they had read. I would so love to read 'that book' too! My favourite character was Doctor Fine and I certainly sympathised with and understood his battle to slow the oncoming tide of globalisation, or Westernisation as it was to him, and his sadness at it destroying the small lifestyle details that made his Turkey his country. The New Life was originally published twenty years ago and I guess the onslaught has increased since then there as it also has in many other countries. If nothing else, I will take away from this book a renewed desire to Buy Local and support regional producers.



Extreme MeasuresExtreme Measures by Martin Brookes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/12938975

I enjoyed reading this biography of the Victorian polymath Francis Galton. A lesser known cousin of Charles Darwin, he flitted between scientific obsessions after a period of African exploration, discovering and pioneering many things we still use today, such as some forms of statistical analysis and the symbols on weather maps, while at the same time being generally unpleasant to anyone he considered beneath him - that's anyone who wasn't rich, white and male - and getting into tiffs with several other scientists.
Martin Brookes writing style perfectly suits his subject as he is able to smooth over with humour the areas of Galton's life which are particularly anachronistic to 21st century readers while at the same time creating admiration for his genuine achievements. Perhaps Galton's primary obsession with eugenics is why he is not better remembered. The future horrors that were carried out in its name are always apparent in the parts of the book discussing it. However as someone who was very much a man of his time, Galton's life story makes for a fascinating read.

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Sunday, 5 October 2014

To infinity and Bayonne!

Or a little beyond Bayonne as it happens, to Urrugne in Basque country. Our new campsite
Dave took this stunning photo of a egret fishing
at the ornithological park near Le Teich 
is Larrouleta which is a deceptively big site with grass and hardstanding pitches. There's both indoor and outdoor table tennis - we played three games already this morning - plus a covered, heated swimming pool that we tried out yesterday evening. Cool water but considerably warmer than the sea! Dave is very happy that there is a tennis court too - sadly he's only got me to play against but hopefully that will be better than nothing! The surroundings are peaceful, the wifi is good, and there's even a fishing lake to walk around. What more could we need?!

Chatting with an English couple on the pitch next door got us walking directions to Socoa, about 4km away, where there was an interesting Alternative Living market on the harbour front this afternoon. On the way, we caught sight of two animals that we think resembled coypu - will confirm what they were when I've googled it. We wandered around the stalls in Socoa, listened to a fun street band, and watched some people getting their tiny catamaran ready and setting to sea. Definitely wouldn't catch me on one of those - a mini trampoline strung between two canoes!

I'm very proud of Dave as Socoa was his second market In One Day. This morning we drove to Ciboure for their weekly offering and bought some tasty (but pricey) Basque cheese and also a small version of the local specialty cake. It's kind of like a Boterkoek without the spices and has a custard layer in the centre. Pleasant enough but I'm not seeing enough of an attraction to justify it being sold Everywhere. Ciboure and it's neighbour over the river, St Jean de Luz, are both very pretty towns with interesting small shops so we're looking forward to more of an explore, maybe tomorrow.

Then on Tuesday it's off to Bayonne in search of a new jockey wheel as we noticed on arrival here that ours is cracked across the plastic part. Not exactly sure how this happened, but the crack might have started with a steep speed bump in Le Teich. A sweet French guy took a look when we arrived here and reappeared a short while later having searched online, we think, to tell us where the nearest caravan spares shop is. Only twenty-or-so miles away in Bayonne and now Dave has also discovered that there's a Buffalo Grill about a hundred yards away. Now that is a blast from the past!