Thursday, 30 October 2014

Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

We are having a lazy day today - only three dips in the sea - after having
Gargoyle guarding the Pont del Regne 
walked ourselves a tad too far around Valencia yesterday. For our second day in the city, we decided to visit the spectacular Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias which was designed by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. The architecture itself makes the area worth a visit and we spent a good while staring up and across at bizarre structures that are reminiscent of some ancient sea creature lurking in pools of sparkling clear water. Of course, building the whole complex had gone catastrophically over budget by the time it was completed in 2005 so there is a degree of controversy locally. However from the tourist point of view, it was a must see for us!

In a departure from our usual practice, we actually paid up to go inside two of the buildings instead of just gawping for free from the outside. L'Hemisferic resembles a giant eye and houses an IMAX cinema. We were able to see a fascinating short film, narrated by Miranda Richardson no less(!), which explored the discoveries made by astronomers using the Very Large Telescopes in the Atacama desert. Some NASA footage was shown too including stunning close-ups of the surface of Mars. I've not visited an IMAX before. Is the seating always so steeply tiered or is this due to L'Hemisferic's shape?

The second building for us was El Museo de les Ciencias. This huge interactive gallery is spread over four floors and contains seemingly endless fun exhibits covering a wide range of sciences. It is the perfect place to go if you have school-age kids or if you are a big kid yourself! There's so much to see and almost all the exhibits are practical. We saw ourselves through a thermal imaging camera and I failed to build a roman arch - it fell down. We made a tornado and tried to grab a metal spiral that turned out not to be there at all. The museum even has a big Foucault Pendulum hanging from the roof.

I was wrong about Cabanyal being the closest railway station to La Ciudad and we ended up going to Valencia Del Nord and walking from there. We chose to head straight for a huge park that bisects the city along the original route of the now-diverted River Turia. This is a wonderful space that includes grassy lawns, trails, shaded areas, flower beds, more joggers and cyclists than we could shake a stick at (note to self - take more sticks next time!) and all of the length that we saw was neat and well-cared-for. A great resource for city dwellers and tourists alike. The scary gargoyle pictured was one of a pair guarding one end of the Pont Del Regne bridge. It vaguely reminded me of the one in Ghostbusters and I thought the image best suited for this almost-Halloween post. Unfortunately, I am yet to find out who the sculptor was so more Googling needed.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving / The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz / The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

The Legend Of Sleepy HollowThe Legend Of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard a recording of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a few years ago - 2010 according to Goodreads - and, having then recently seen the Johnny Depp film version, I was very distracted by trying to mesh the two tales. The film is very different to Washington Irving's original storyline.
Now, for Halloween 2014, offered members a new recording for free so I gave the story another chance and am glad I did. The narrator, Tom Mison, is apparently in a TV series set in Sleepy Hollow, but he also does an excellent job of the reading. I love Irving's detailed descriptions of the town and its residents, their appearances and especially their food!
I was surprised that, despite references to the headless horseman, he is quite a peripheral character making this a less spooky tale than I expected although, this time around, a satisfying one. Perhaps even more story would have been nice? I have updated my star rating from three to four!.

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to InfinityThe Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven H. Strogatz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dave bought a couple of maths books a while ago, inspired by our going to a fascinating Simon Singh talk about the hidden maths in the Simpsons TV series. The Joy of X was the first I've tried to read.

The first few pages were fine and I could follow exactly what Strogatz was saying. However, once we got past 'fish fish fish fish fish fish', it all got a bit tougher! Strogatz does explain his topics well and in normal English rather than obscure language, even if math instead of maths does grate a bit to begin with. I enjoyed the historical explanations of each topic and the progression of chapters also helped. I think I understood most of what was written, although being able to reproduce the thoughts independently probably isn't going to happen, but a lot that lost me during Secondary School is now much clearer. Strogatz's enthusiasm really comes across throughout the text and this joy in his subject is infectious. I spotted a sine wave in the distribution of pebbles on the beach tide line this morning. Yay me!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm nearly at the end of this year's AudioSYNC downloads and one I saved up was this short story pairing of The Shawl and Rosa. The title story is very short yet the more powerful for this. A woman, Rosa, walks with her baby daughter and her teenage niece. We discover they are Jewish, they lived in Warsaw, and they are walking to a camp. So much of this story is unsaid that my imagination could take off to fill in the heartrending details. The horror, pain and also resignation of the people is difficult to comprehend. And, although we can anticipate much of the ending before we get there, the reality of it is still unbearably shocking.
Some thirty years later, in a much longer story, the eponymous Rosa is eking out an existence in Miami. Alone and still primarily living in her past, her single room is spartan and hardly a home. Paid for by her niece whom Rosa considers she rescued despite everything, the two women have a bizarre symbiotic relationship. Each clinging to the other over miles due to their shared history even though Stella, the niece, has endeavoured to shut those years out of her new American life. I was more intrigued by this relationship than by a potentially burgeoning romance for Rosa with an older Polish man, also from Warsaw but who left in the 1920s so 'not my Warsaw' to Rosa.
Rosa, the story, is a less harrowing listen than The Shawl but its subject of what happens afterwards, how survivors manage to exist and live after escaping horror is just as thought-provoking and not something to which I had previously given much consideration

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Our first day in Valencia

One reason we chose to spend time in this area of Spain is the city of Valencia which has
The spirit of Valencia 
been on our bucket list for a while, but never quite made it to citybreak status. We also considered visiting last year when we stayed not so far away at Navajas, but it was Fallas time and neither of us are keen on crowds!

Camping Malvarrosa is fairly well situated for Almenara train station. It's not easily walkable in this heat, but is only a short drive and - joy of joys - has a free car park. The return fare to Valencia Del Nord was only 11 euros for the both of us and the journey time of about 40 minutes each way meant we got to see a bit of the surrounding towns and countryside. We stayed on through the Valencia Cabanyal station which looks like it will be the nearest to the City of Arts and Sciences as we're saving that architecture feast for our next visit.

The Del Nord station is beautifully tiled throughout the entrance hall. Ticket sellers sit in ornate wooden booths, and even the clock is worth a moment's admiration. There is a restored, originally horse-drawn, trolley car on the concourse. Interestingly, it was brought over from Bristol and used in Valencia for summer tourist tours. If you ever visit, be sure to turn back once you're outside the station to take in its exterior. I presume it has been fairly recently renovated and the paintwork and decoration is impressive with a hint of whimsy. Valencia must have been a very prosperous city when this structure was built!

Our destination for this first day was the El Carme district of the old city. It is a little run down, but no less attractive for that. Narrow streets are mostly one way which could make it confusing for traffic and there were a surprising number of cyclists taking advantage of the quieter routes. We spent most of the time, as we tend to do, in wandering the streets, drinking in the atmosphere and pointing out interesting murals or doors, etc, to each other. The pictured mural of an singer stood in a paella pan was just on the end wall of a house. I guess it depicts an interpretation of the spirit of Valencia. Dave said he'd buy me a similar dress but I'm not sure I can quite fill it in the same way!

We were delighted to stumble across a small museum called the House of Rocks. Nothing to do with geology, this is where the ceremonial figures and carriages that make up the Corpus Christi procession are housed for the rest of the year. We saw 10 huge human figures, each of which must be three times a person's height and which are wheeled through the streets by someone walking inside the base. The 11 carriages, or 'roca', have lifesize carvings detailing various biblical stories and are fantastically detailed. The earliest was first paraded in 1511!! It was a wonderful experience to be able to get so close to amazing workmanship. I am sure the carriages look impressive in the procession but so much of the work would be invisible at any distance.

More religion followed with our next stop which was the basilica. Somewhat bizarrely, it seemed to only be open because a service was taking place so all the clergy and choir were decked out in their vestments in front of a small congregation in the centre while, around the outside portico, a steady stream of tourists were muttering to each other and taking photographs! The tableau above the altar was absolutely stunning and with so much gilt that it was hard to make out the details of its scene. Obviously we weren't welcome to wander that bit! There was also beautiful paintings of angels and religious figures all around the high domed ceiling right overhead.

After all that history, our heads must have been turned a bit because, instead of our usual grabbing coffees and cakes for lunch, we actually sat down to a proper tapas meal at Cerveceria Navellos. We had croquetas, caramelised morcilla, a very-heavily-mayonnaised salad and deep-fried camembert. All delicious and elegantly presented!

We returned to the station via more contemporary shopping streets including one which had a dozen or so high-end designer stores. A quick stop-off in Valencia's Lush outlet for more shampoo bars and a rich Jungle conditioner bar - all the sea swimming is making my hair a tad brittle - and we stumbled back to our train with slightly sore feet!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Muscle memory is a wonderful thing

I'm still on a small high this morning having managed thirty minutes of jogging yesterday
Tiled street art mural in Sagunt 
evening without - touch wood - any ill effects or damaging my leg again. Woo hoo! I found it quite incredible how my body remembered my best pace and things like breathing coordination without any real conscious effort on my part. Quite fortunate really! I was even 'swift' enough to get back to our pitch in time for the evening bat show - dozens of little bats swooping and diving for bugs right above the caravans and motorhomes. There was a fabulous display yesterday because they were silhouetted against an orange-pink sunset. We learnt the German for bat - fliedermaus - and I looked up the Spanish too - murcielago.

Turning right out of Camping Malvarrosa leads to miles of beach, turning left and hopping over a small dry canal reveals the elegant boardwalks and paved promenades of Casa Blanca. Yes, really, although Not This One. Plus Dave's cycle explorations discovered a blocked off road which must have been the old route but is now cyclists and pedestrians only and it runs parallel to the sea but set back. Consequently, I now have a route out along the prom, across a playgound and the new road, then back along the old road. Yesterday's jog was thirty minutes running interspersed with a couple of short walk breaks. Hopefully I can work up to continuously running before we move on, maybe even start lapping.

Before I change subjects, huge congrats to Victoria Hazell for her Abingdon marathon finish. Fantastic time!!

The above mural is discreetly tucked away on a wall in Sagunt. There isn't a lot of street art in the city so I think we were lucky to have spotted it. I love the design and the colour. Finding the image still on my phone reminded me that I overlooked blogging about the Teatro Romano in Sagunt which we visited on the same day as the castle. It has been extensively renovated which has apparently drawn much criticism from those who believe ancient monuments should be left as discovered. However, having walked around inside, I liked the way the space has been brought up to date. Ancient rock seating is still visible to either side of the auditorium and a thin white skim covers the central part which is now used again. I think the skim is concrete or similar so today's audiences still get the authentic uncomfortable Roman experience. The stage reminded me of the one at The Globe in London. There is the same openness to the elements and no obvious concessions to scenery. I guess props and costume would suffice. We thought we might take in a show, albeit in Spanish, but the theatre is only active through the summer months so we are too late. Maybe another year?

A neat(ish) segue into another arts topic because the first instalment of another Kickstarter project, S C Barrus' episodic novel The Gin Thief appeared for download in my emails this morning. I enjoyed his previous, Discovering Aberration, so have been looking forward to the new work. I'm already loving the cover. If you didn't Kick for this, you catch catch up on Amazon at the end of the month.

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!

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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