Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Christmas is coming to Xabia

Xabia is being adorned with its Christmas decorations now. There isn't
Nativity model in Xabia market 
really any sense of the heavy commercial drive that we're used to in the UK so the whole feel is much more relaxed. The old town streets have municipal lights strung over them and are lined with rows of small trees in pots decorated with burlap sacks tied with red chiffon ribbons. Most shops have quite elegant additions to their window displays. Dave noticed an article about the opening of the nativity model in the indoor market so we went along to have a look. It is fantastic! The detail is incredible and includes the market stalls and sellers pictured in the photo above, people baking bread and cakes in a glowing oven, a moving woman figurine embroidering a cloth, and another woman washing her hair. The traditional nativity scene takes place in an inn, as expected, however another inn has a drunken customer falling down its steps! The wise men ride camels past the pyramids in the centre. We were amazed by the ingenuity of the work and its scale - the table top is easily as long as our caravan and probably nearly the same distance across too.

In other festive news, Lidl have completely sold out of chocolate covered marzipan bars. Dave went there a couple of weeks ago and couldn't find any so we were hoping more might arrive. They haven't so we're resorting to Lidl's rather delicious German gingerbreads and lebkuchen instead. Having previously bemoaned the shop, the Lidl gingerbreads Chris and Marta brought when they visited on Saturday changed our minds! We also served and ate our (hopefully) first mince pies. Two varieties were on sale in the friendly Spanish-run Costa Blanca supermarket near the campsite. Coincidentally, the same varieties were also in the British-run Quick Save supermarket opposite it, so I guess they are from the same wholesaler, but interestingly the price was considerably higher in the Quick Save!

I'll finish up with a YouTube of the song that seems to always be playing in Mercadona at the moment - from 1970, it's Jose Feliciano and Feliz Navidad!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A pair of picnic walks from Xabia

We've finally dusted off the pink stripy picnic rucksack
We got to the base of the Montgo and might climb it
next time out! 
- so called because it has a good sized cool bag compartment - here in Xabia and have undertaken two lengthy walks with lunch stops during the past couple of weeks. It is lovely to be somewhere which has great walking routes which are challenging enough for us to get a sense of having pushed ourselves, but not so difficult that we get overwhelmed. I am a lot more confident about scrambling and climbing now, especially due to my trusty boots and walking poles. It still takes me considerably longer to go downhill on rough scree tracks than uphill, but this is the next skill for me to work on! We try to stop for our typical lunch of fresh bread, cheese, apple and jam after 2-3 hours which is generally a little over half way. Our favourite Spanish sheep cheeses are perfect and we enjoy the extra challenge of trying to find the most pleasant place to pause a while.

First off we did a 10k (ish) wander which took us along the base of the nearby Montgo mountain which towers over Xabia and can be seen for miles. It got it's name, meaning elephant, because from a certain direction the mountain's outline and the positioning of a small cave resemble an elephant's head. We found this La Plana Circuit walk on the Javeamigos website which has a good selection of suggested walks from which we could choose. Described as 'energetic', it is mostly paths and tracks but includes one fun section where the 'path' is more of a suggested scramble up a rocky hillside. A route up is marked with paint and muddy footprints, but I couldn't always see that its footholds were any more practical than anywhere else! It reminded me of a dry version of El Torcal, but much shorter.

Our second walk was longer at about 15k and took us just over five hours of actual walking and scrambling so we are proud of ourselves for achieving this. We followed an official route around the Granandella natural park and also found it thanks to the Javeamigos website. The route is frequently and clearly marked with yellow and white painted stripes on trees, rocks and posts. There was an amazing range of surface types within the park so we were strolling along wide concrete tracks one minute, or pine scented rough woodland tracks the next. We saw scrubby areas where wild rosemary, lavender and heathers were profusely growing and flowering. We've bought several jars or local Benitatxell honey and could easily see where its delicious flavour comes from. One part of the route took us scrambling along high rock ledges and we sat in the sunshine overlooking the sparkling sea and a small ruined Castell for our lunch break. A gleeful Dutchman warned us that our post-lunch climb would involve having to pull ourselves up by chains hammered to the rocks. We were a little concerned by this, but soon discovered that this section was no more difficult than we had already climbed to get there. It would have been awful to have been forced to retrace our steps as we were already over half way! The last part of our walk was the reverse of a shorter route we had already done.

We were also invited to join Chris and Marta on a challenging excursion to the Moorish steps which we disappointedly declined as Dave did a fantastic 2 1/2 hour bike ride the day before - and temporarily knackered his knees. Our friends set out anyway and we since learned that the route was a six hour spectacular consisting entirely of ups and downs - no flat bits for respite. Congrats to Chris & Marta for completing the walk as I think it would have taken both Dave and I well past our enjoyment thresholds!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

OMG, we went to Benidorm!

It feels like ages since I wrote a travelling blog post and checking the
Incredible carousel at Denia medieval market 
publish dates reveals that the last was almost a week ago. We had two fab days out over the weekend and I've not shared them yet!

Before we get to the headline feature, I must write about the wonderful medieval market that took place in nearby Denia over the past national holiday weekend. We drove in on the Saturday and met up there with Chris and Marta who had cycled from their campsite. Their route is flat but it's still a good 7-8 miles each way. The market took over pretty much all of the old town and consisted of dozens of stalls, decorated in a medieval style, together with dressed-up stallholders, and suitable fabric bunting strung across the narrow streets overhead. Many of the stalls were selling jewellery but there were also several with huge bowls of various dried fruits, one deliciously scented one with loose teas, some working craftspeople - a stone mason and a wood sculptor - and a blacksmith whose presentation included a metal dragon that would 'breathe' a gas jet of flame on demand. There was a quartet of wandering minstrels playing instruments including reeded recorder type things that we thought were crumhorns but later googling changed our minds to the possibility that they were Spanish hanchet shawms. The Early Music Shop website has an audio file of one - it's quite a distinctive sound! In the centre square children could get pony rides or take a turn on the incredible hand-cranked carousel pictured above. Click in to get a larger view and see all the detail. The boards around it are printed with words about or by Da Vinci and each of the seats was based on one of his inventions! The operator was able to propel the whole carousel, loaded with children, simply by pushing at one of the contraptions or by cranking a handle on the central stand. The only electrical connection was for halogen bulb lanterns which would be lit after dark so I guess, other than those lanterns, the technology could have been medieval. We saw another smaller carousel later on which had only four hanging seats and was powered by a wheel-less bicycle. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around although it did get chilly in the shaded streets. We were there until mid-afternoon by which time the more unfortunate stallholders were already looking very cold and the market wasn't due to close until half past eleven each night!

In total contrast, our Sunday excursion to Benidorm came about simply because I have never been and wanted to see if it really is as awful as the tv programme would have me believe. I forgot to check which hotel was used for filming so don't know if we actually passed it. The promenade along the beach is lovely and was packed with Spanish couples and families taking a pre-lunch stroll. The bay and built-up-ness create a great wind-free sun trap so it was several degrees warmer there than here. Some people were sunbathing while others held open-air religious services. One woman was being acosted by dozens of white pigeons but she had purchased bird seed from a nearby stall for the purpose and her son thought it very funny. We walked nearly an hour from a little marina to the end of the prom passing both the insane new Intempo building pictured below - my fear of heights would go into overdrive if we stayed in the cone - and the beautifully sparkly red trike. Dave used to have a guitar that colour. I liked the walk and we stopped for lunch in a nice bar/cafe, Taperia Botafumeiro, where Dave got adventurous and ordered cuttlefish and I had a Galician empanada. Then we continued our wander into the narrow streets of the older part of town and the atmosphere changed considerably. We had found the Brits! Most of the bars at this end of the beach were resolutely English, both in clientele and in food and drink offered, and they were packed out. It felt quite strange to suddenly be effectively in a different country when the original Spanish lifestyle continued just metres away. Bizarre place!

The maddest building
in Benidorm? 
Pretty red tricycle in Benidorm 

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Fall Of Troy by Peter Ackroyd / Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi / The Awakening by Emma Jones

The Fall Of TroyThe Fall Of Troy by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

Not very impressed by The Fall Of Troy. The central character of Heinrich Obermann is the only one who is fleshed out and he is a very unlikeable selfish fantasist, bent on completely destroying a valuable archaeological site in his desperation to make the site fit the demands of his imagination. All the supporting characters are two-dimensional and poorly created so it is difficult to understand their actions and why they behave as they do. I think that a good knowledge of ancient Greek myths and the work of Homer might add to the appeal of Ackroyd's novel because his characters at times appear to be recreating the legends, but unfortunately the synopsis doesn't state that this expertise is essential to the reader's understanding and my bare bones remembrances weren't up to the task. Fortunately this is only a short book so not too much reading time wasted!

PinocchioPinocchio by Carlo Collodi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading around after finishing Pinocchio, I have learned that its author, Carlo Collodi, didn't actually like children very much and this fairytale was his attempt to scare them into behaving properly. Given the horrors that befall the poor puppet, I can quite believe it! The original Pinocchio is one dark story and I'm not even sure children should be allowed to read it.
I was surprised that I enjoyed reading Pinocchio so much because, in true fairytale style, there is little in the way of proper description or realism in the characters. Everyone is pretty two-dimensional and scenes pass swiftly with the emphasis on action rather than scene-setting. (It is strange how this works in a fairytale, yet is one of my main criticisms of both the other novels in this post. For them, the lack works against the novel.) However, what makes the writing wonderful and gripping is Collodi's fantastic imagination. Having not read this for decades, I could not remember what happens next and there is no way I could have guessed! Even tiny cameo roles like the Snail are fun. I could have done with less of the repetitive moralising, but otherwise Pinocchio is a great read.

The AwakeningThe Awakening by Emma Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My second novel of the year to be titled The Awakening although this one is a very different prospect from Kate Chopin's story. Emma Jones' The Awakening, her first novel, was published almost exactly a year ago. I first spotted it via twitter then was reminded by Sophie's post on her Reviewed The Book blog.

Staunchly in the Young Adult genre, The Awakening is told in the first person by Lauren, a young woman who unexpectedly discovers that her new boyfriend is a vampire. Swiftly taken under his family's wing, she learns about their history, her own family's supernatural past and the possibilities for her future both with boyfriend, Gavin, or maybe with his cousin, the black sheep, Daniel.
Unfortunately, The Awakening suffers from frequent poor punctuation, typos and spelling mistakes which at times make it tricky to follow. I noticed earlier reviews have also commented on this and most would be easy to spot and correct. I think this would improve the reading experience because, at the moment, these errors keep destroying any atmosphere as its builds up.
Throughout the book, Lauren talks at great length about her predicament and indecision but, infuriatingly, I didn't feel that I particularly got to know either her or Gavin as individuals. Much of the dialogue is generic and repetitive so doesn't illuminate their characteristics. Also, I would have liked a lot more understanding of how Lauren felt at specific times. She sees dark visions that are presumably disturbing, but then pops off to the pub with her mates and everything is normal and forgotten? Also, I would have liked an actual ending as the mid-scene stop simply doesn't work for me. I felt cheated which doesn't inspire me to risk buying any more of the series.
The Awakening has an interesting premise and the overall story arc is entertaining, but it needs more time spent, both for editing and proofreading, to turn it into a strong, dynamic novel.

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Thursday, 4 December 2014

The rain clears and we go to Denia

I nearly had good reason to be glad I'd recently listened to The Ark Before
Dave plays chicken with the sea at Xabia 
Noah as we had a couple of days of such heavy rain here over the weekend that I was becoming a bit concerned about potential flooding. It started with a couple of minutes of gentle patters on the caravan roof, almost like the sparrows jumping about. Then within a few more minutes, the sound resembled ostriches! After the previous strong winds, we lost another night's sleep to thundering rain. It's amazing how much louder sounds are when heard from within a caravan or motorhome compared to from within a house. Bailey has double glazed windows and all the modern insulation, but we are still effectively in an aluminium can! You wouldn't know about the rain from the look of the Rio Gorgos which is still resolutely dry, but it was unusual enough to be chatted about in the local supermercado. We took a wander down to Arenal seafront on Monday and the sea looks very different to before the weekend. It is now an ominous dark green in colour with galloping white horses on the crests of all the waves. There is also lots of standing water on the beach and a coating of a white foamy looking substance. We weren't sure if this was drying salt or pollution. I've put some photos up on Facebook.

Tuesday saw us taking a trip out to Denia for the day, partly to discover the town and partly because our Devonian friends, Chris and Marta, are currently staying at the Los Llanos campsite about 12k outside Denia. We saw half a dozen fabulous yachts moored up in Denia marina. Most were flying Caribbean flags and looked dead posh!! The town itself is very Spanish and doesn't have the Anglification of Xabia although there is a hint of a Germanic influence. One thing we are learning on our travels is to make sure that the Austrians have got there first as they open up wonderful cafes with good cakes. We stopped for a coffee and spot of people watching outside a nice cafe called Denou which is on a pretty square not far from the municipal market. This market is a bigger affair than Xabia and there were easily a dozen butcher stalls from which we failed to choose our barbecue offerings that afternoon. There is some kind of Medieval Fair in Denia this weekend coming. It will coincide with two national festival days on Saturday and Monday and is an annual affair so we are planning to return to see what all that is about and to spend more time exploring.

We got lightly lost when trying to find Los Llanos and I was glad we didn't have Bailey on the back when u-turning as the road ended. The campsite is down a roughish track and does look run-down from the approach. However, it has good sized pitches with a more rural feel than the car parky set up here at El Naranjal. The shower block is decorated with fun green and white harlequin tiles and does have toilet paper which we don't. We have doors that close snugly against draughts though and they don't! The site seemed to have fewer people in residence although there are several currently uninhabited permanent pitches, as there are here too, so was quieter in that respect - until our wine got flowing anyway! - but there is constant distant traffic noise from the N332. We thought it was mostly swings and roundabouts as to which campsite is 'better' and the only real downside to Los Llanos is its physical distance from Denia. There's no casually strolling into town as we can do here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn / May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes / He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently going to see Gone Girl at the cinema reminded me that I still had Sharp Objects languishing unread on our Kindle. It's the third Gillian Flynn novel I have read but apparently the first she wrote.
The storyline here is definitely not for the fainthearted and at points I felt quite queasy reading it. The central theme of two girls in a small town in Missouri being murdered is obviously horrific, but having read several crime thrillers over the years, I have pretty much become immune to the emotional pull of murdered young fictional women and girls. It feels bizarre writing that but so many novels start with such a death that it is almost a prerequisite. Where Sharp Objects differs is that our viewpoint into the story comes via Camille, a journalist sent back to cover the story unfolding in her hometown. Camille not only has self harmed and in plenty of detail, but leads us into the bosom of her cold, dysfunctional family as she tries to come to terms with her personal past and the death of her younger sister. The relationships within her home and trailing out across the town are cleverly included in the story, explaining why she is as she is.
I don't think Sharp Objects is as good a story as Gone Girl and it doesn't have the former's intensity, but I appreciate that they both have unusual central female characters who are damaged and bizarre, yet memorable and definitely never stereotypical.

May We Be ForgivenMay We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have awarded May We Be Forgiven three stars overall, but I would actually like to give the first half four stars and the second half just two. Initially the novel is a pretty fast paced descent into horror as our narrator, Harold Silver, finds himself in a family maelstrom caused by his own adultery with his brother's wife and the extreme violence that this unleashes. I enjoyed the drama and pace of these first 250 or so pages. There are darkly humorous passages and the bewilderment of our hero is both real and poignant as he attempts to repair his own life and that of his nephew and niece.
After around about the half way point though, the novel takes a bizarre shift into a surreal fantasy world which sees the introduction of international terrorism, swathes of Nixon-era political blathering, and the sort of saccharine-sweet schmaltz that the Americans can do so well but which I absolutely loathe! Logical plot progression is thrown out the window in favour of stereotyped flat characters and choreographed set pieces that don't bear much relation to each other. Our hero suddenly becomes apparently irresistible to women, patronises both needy American immigrants and South African villagers by throwing vast sums of cash at both, and finds time to adopt an extra child and an elderly couple. The pre-teen nephew and niece seem to mature by at least a decade in a couple of months and there's a lot of description of bodily functions, mostly diarrhoea and belching, but with a truly cringe-inducing phone call about a tampon. I can only think that it's all meant to be funny in a kind of Sex And The City 2 fashion. It isn't.
A very odd book that's about twice as long as is good for it.

He Kills CoppersHe Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another repeat author for the third book of this post. I loved both The House of Rumour and The Long Firm by Jake Arnott and so had high hopes for He Kills Coppers. Unfortunately I was disappointed. The novel has a similar London underworld setting to The Long Firm and a few characters make cameo appearances, otherwise it could have been written by a completely different author. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the previous book is absent as mostly are Arnott's descriptions and interesting characterizations. Two main characters, a journalist and a policeman, take turns speaking through first-person viewpoints but their voices are so similarly portrayed that I frequently had trouble trying to distinguish which was which. Much of their language is incredibly hackneyed and there are a lot of unexplained acronyms and jargon words that don't add authenticity, merely irritation. There is also a third-person viewpoint of a murderer on the run. His odd actions are often not really explained so it was difficult to try and build up any sense of him as a person.
He Kills Coppers is a particularly blokey book I think. Attempts at atmosphere and describing emotion are haphazard and often missing altogether leaving the emphasis on action alone. Therefore during later chapters where not much happens, it all got a bit dull. I also noticed spelling and typo errors increasing towards the end of the novel suggesting that perhaps the proof reader had gotten bored by then as well!
Apparently the overall story arc is based on true events - I haven't googled yet to confirm this - but, if so, the blend of imagination and realism that Arnott pulled off so well before just didn't work for me this time around.

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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Murder Out Of The Blue by Steve Turnbull / A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Murder out of the Blue (Maliha Anderson, #1)Murder out of the Blue by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As light relief after the intensity of The Ark Before Noah, I chose one of my new steampunk books for my next read. Bought as part of the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2 (a Facebook event), Murder Out Of The Blue is a novella by a new-to-me indie author and I was primarily attracted to it by the atmospheric cover art and it's price - 77p on Kindle at time of writing.
Murder Out Of The Blue is set a little later than other steampunks I've read and this particular world isn't at all reliant on supernatural phenomena which is refreshing. The fabulous air-ship upon which the tale takes place is temptingly described and I would love for it to be actually invented. I'd certainly buy a ticket!
Maliha Anderson is a strong heroine with an interesting heritage, let down here only by the novella format in that I wanted to learn more about her and her life but extensive characterisation is missing. There are several teasing hints and presumably more will be explained in future books. I am often frustrated by this same trade-off in shorter works as there is essentially room for either story or character, and it takes astounding authors such as Colette to successfully combine both. However Turnbull has still done a good job of introducing his world and heroine here. The crime story is nicely woven together with a satisfying denouement and I enjoyed the reading of it. Perhaps I'll read novellas 2 and 3 back to back to enable greater immersion!

A Tramp AbroadA Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Tramp Abroad is my first 'factual' Mark Twain book and I'm not completely sure how I feel about it. Initially difficult to get into, the first few chapters are an odd blend of observations, hearsay, retelling of local myths and flannel. Once the style settles down, I thought the book flowed more but it's still quite hit and miss - a bit like watching a Monty Python episode. There are very funny anecdotes that are probably greatly exaggerated or mostly made up but with satirical grains of truth that I enjoyed. These are entertaining to read and raised a chuckle. However they are interspersed with other passages that are either bizarrely odd or simply dull. A mountain climbing expedition is so overegged that it becomes boring, but an American trying to strike up conversation on a boat trip made me giggle.
For a foot tour of Europe, Twain only actually visits Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and most of the book is Germanic travel. He obviously is a walker as several of his reminiscences are understanding of the activity and its way of promoting thought and conversation, but if there is a chance to go by any other method, he seizes it every time.
I can't say that any of Twain's travelogue has inspired me to follow in his footsteps and I had hoped it would. Perhaps this is a poor example of his non-fiction writing or perhaps I should stick to reading his fiction.

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while I read a novel that manages to completely transport me to its era and location and I am delighted that Burial Rites by Hannah Kent did just that. Set in 1820s Iceland, Burial Rites weaves a fictional narrative around the historical truths of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. We visited Iceland a few years ago so I could picture the types of landscape within which the story takes place, but even without this experience Kent's wonderful rich descriptions make the desperate rural lives easy to imagine. I could even feel the cold! While Kent has imagined details of houses and clothing, this imagination is obviously rooted in extensive research and historical fact. She has brought Agnes out from being a semi-mythological monster into a real living and breathing woman with a poignant tale to tell. The Icelanders' customs and religious practices are fascinating to learn about as they are familiarly Christian yet shaped by the extreme circumstances of living with the ever-present natural dangers of Iceland. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Burial Rites, even though it is not by any means a happy story. Simply brilliant writing.

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