Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Month In Books - February 2017

Considering that February is the shortest month, I still seem to have read a lot of books including four for a FeministFebruary reading challenge! And I am delighted that Literary Flits hosted another four Guest Reviews. If you have an indie author, small press or global literature book review that you would like to share please do get in touch. It doesn't need to be exclusive content and you can check here to see if a book has already been reviewed. I look forward to hearing from you!


Guest reviews

Nothing Is Strange by Mike Russell

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Author Rebecca Gransden was kind enough to donate February's first guest review and chose to talk about this collection of short stories that are full of surreal imagery.


Ivy Feckett Is Looking For Love by Jay Spencer Green

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A Brummie romance for people who don't like reading romance books and "a helluva lot more as well" says author and poet, Harry Whitewolf.


The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

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Blogger and author Vikki Patis guest reviewed Mazzola's historical fiction novel set in Victorian England where a woman called Sarah Gale is sentenced to hang for murder. I reviewed Vikki's short story collection, Weltanschauung, this month too - scroll down for the link.


One-Two by Igor Eliseev

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For February's last Guest Review, author Mark Benjamin talks about a Russian novel. One-Two is a tale of conjoined twins, Faith and Hope, set against a bleak background of 1980s and 1990s Perestroika Russia.


My reviews

The Secret Book Of Kings by Yochi Brandes

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This was my first book for the Feminist February Challenge. Based on biblical history, Brandes explores the theory that our knowledge of the past is overly influenced by only knowing the stories of the victors. Here, she imagines the founding of Israel from the point of view of the vanquished House of Saul instead of the victorious House of David.


Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon

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This Spanish-authored crime novel set in Tokyo has some of the most gorgeous descriptive prose I have read in months. I was disappointed by the unoriginal direction the story takes, but, for crime fiction fans especially, this novel is worth consideration.


Three Daughters Of Eve by Elif Shafak

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My second Feminist February read and also my Book of the Month! I loved this Turkish philosophical novel with its many thoughtful discussions on faith and culture, religion and God. It is a slow burn which might not appeal to some readers, but I thought the pace suited Shafak's themes perfectly.


Rhoda Fleming by George Meredith

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And from the best of the month to the worst! This novel was so dull, I actually gave up on it after seventy pages. DNF.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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A second Japan-set novel, this historical fiction epic follows the fortunes of a Korean family who emigrate to Japan in search of a better life and struggle to ever beseen as more than second-class citizens.


The Queen Of Diamonds by Patricia Loufbourrow

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After Patricia interesting world building in the first of this steampunk series, I was keen to see how the books would progress. Unfortunately this second instalment is more a rambling diversion and I don't think I will continue through the planned eleven further volumes.


We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Feminist February again and Adichie's essay, based on a talk she gave in 2014, is essential reading on the subject! It focuses particularly on Nigerian situations and experiences, but I could easily identify similarities in my own life.


The Model by Lars Saabye Christensen

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My enjoyment of this Norwegian thriller was marred by my utter dislike of its artist protagonist who was so completely self-centred that I struggled to see past him to the story itself. A shame because otherwise this novel is nicely written, but it didn't work for me.


Revenge Of The Mantis by Vered Ehsani

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My fourth Feminist February book and the third of Ehsani's African steampunk series. Mrs Beatrice Knight is fast becoming one of my favourite characters and I think this is her best adventure yet.


The Good Dictator by Goncalo J Nunes Dias

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If you like dystopian fiction this Portuguese indie authored novel portrays an interesting perspective on the end of society as we know it. I liked the ambiguity of Dias' title which becomes more compelling a question as the story progresses.


Russian Absurd: Selected Writings by Daniil Kharms

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This new translation of Kharms' 1930s Absurdist short stories and poetry was certainly an experience to read. It took me a while to get into and the stories present a surreal and dark impression of the Soviet era.


The Fashion In Shrouds by Margery Allingham

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Another 1930s read and this book unexpectedly turned out to be the complete antithesis of feminism. One of the Campion series, it is a competent mystery tale but I was frequently amazed at its vicious misogyny and racism. We have certainly come a long way in eighty years!


The Case Of The Killer Divorce by Barbara Venkataraman

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The second in the Jamie Quinn cosy mystery series. These Florida crime stories are good fun reads and I liked that we get to know our heroine, Jamie, much better in this book. I am currently running a Giveaway to win the Jamie Quinn trilogy. The Giveaway is open worldwide until midnight on the 4th March. Click through here to enter.


Dan's Narrowboat Life by Daniel Mark Brown

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This second volume of Dan's narrowboating memoirs again does a good job of portraying just how beautiful and serene the British countryside is around the Llangollen canal along the Welsh borders. He makes the lifestyle sound incredibly tempting - even in the depths of winter!


The Question Of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak

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My first ever Indonesian novel, this book explores events surrounding the Communist purges and mass imprisonments after the Civil War. I thought too many characters took centre stage leading me to get confused at time. I would have also preferred more history and less doomed romance.


Purple, Silver, Olive, Orange by Helen Smith

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At just fifty pages Purple, Silver, Olive, Orange is a quick futuristic read, but one which I found provoked disproportionate levels of thought about romance, relationships and expectations. It's themes are deceptively deep considering the apparent simplicity and brevity of the tale.


Weltanschauung by Vikki Patis

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In this collection of five short stories Patis explores dark themes, putting her mostly very ordinary characters into extraordinary situations where their mental health and resilience are severely tested. She is not constrained by any specific genre so the tales encompass horror, thriller and dystopian science fiction, all with a chilling psychological aspect that I particularly enjoyed.


Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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This novel of Cameroonian immigrants attempting to settle and build themselves an American life in New York is very readable. I was impressed by a strong start, but as the book progressed I found it to be too lightweight for its themes.


Fyre by Katherine Bogle

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Finally a rich fantasy short story collection which is set in the years preceding Bogle's novel, Haven, and shows the young queen as a child with her brothers and sister. This book review will publish at noon (UK time) today.


So that's it for Literary Flits' 23 February books. I hope at least one of these might tempt your reading tastebuds! Don't forget to enter the Jamie Quinn boxset giveaway. I already have some great books lined up for March including the second in my Jane Austen Challenge, three Guest Reviews, and titles from as far afield as India, Japan and Finland.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Cycling from Benicarlo to Peniscola

Peniscola old town 
After the shock of a rainy day on Friday we made the most of Saturday's glorious sunshine by taking our bicycles to the beach. Camping l'Orangeraie is a little inland, but it's only about a fifteen minute drive to the coast. We parked up just outside Benicarlo to do a cycle ride that Dave had planned along the seafront. There is a dedicated cycle path linking Benicarlo with Peniscola.

Initially bicycles have to share the road through the edge of town, but even on a Saturday morning there wasn't much traffic and Spanish car drivers are very good about giving cyclists a wide berth. I always feel far safer cycling on roads out here than I do in the UK. Soon though we saw the cycle path start up on the left pavement from where it continues for about five miles. Although the space is shared with pedestrians, the separate spaces are marked with white lines that were generally well observed. The coast is perfectly flat and we were lucky with only a light breeze so the cycling was a pleasure in both directions. The promenade was considerably busier with cyclists and pedestrians in the late morning. Returning mid-afternoon we practically had it all to ourselves.

Peniscola Castle behind an odd sculpture which may also be a fountain 

Looking up the hill to the castle 
Peniscola was a pleasant surprise as, although right down by the beach is built up with modern hotels and apartment blocks, the old town climbing the hill to the castle retains much of its charm. It's not such a steep climb as in Onda and we were both reminded of Mojacar pueblo although I couldn't say exactly what prompted me to make that connection. We didn't pay to go up the castle itself, preferring to explore the outer walls and the town itself. One street was overfilled with touristy tat shops, but the narrow residential streets are peaceful and pretty and almost all surfaced with small cobbles. We lunched TexMex at La Frontera. The food was ok, but not a patch on the decor which was great fun. I especially liked a door curtain made of upcycled beer bottle caps.

Virgin de Ermitana church 
The baroque Valencian style church high up in the town is named for the Virgin of Ermitana. Tradition has it that a small hermitage stood on this spot in the first years of Christianity and over the centuries that dwelling was rebuilt and rebuilt until it grew into the 18th century edifice we see today.

Peniscola is proud of its cinematic heritage and has signboards dotted throughout the streets showing where scenes from films such as El CID were located. A dedicated map for cinema fans is available at the Tourist Office. We unexpectedly strolled through a Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones) courtyard location too, albeit for a season we haven't seen yet so I will have to remember to watch out for Varys and Tyrion in Meereen! They would have had this amazing view across the bay from the walls above their heads.



Saturday, 25 February 2017

A very French campsite in Spain at Calig

Our pitch at Camping l'Orangeraie 
We have enjoyed sitting out in glorious sunshine this week at the beautiful Camping l'Orangeraie which is situated just outside a small historical town called Calig. The French-owned campsite is surprisingly green for Spain and pitch boundaries are made up of various trees and shrubs. There are some fabulous old olive trees dotted about which we think we read are a thousand years old - they certainly look as though they could be! Staying here is a little more expensive than at Didota or Ametlla. With our ACSI card the price is €17 per night to include electricity and wifi, and with water right by our pitch. A 10% discount is offered for stays of ten nights or more and we don't think we will have any problem with staying at least that long. It's wonderfully peaceful here. The sanitary block seems new and is very good. There's lots of scalding hot water and plenty of room in the shower cubicles.

Calig 
We took a walk into Calig on Tuesday for Market Day. It's about a ten minute walk along a pretty quiet road to get to the town. The market itself was very small and a bit of a disappointment, but we enjoyed walking around sightseeing. For shopping there is a good bakery and two small supermarkets, plus we saw a couple of greengrocers and a butcher.

Calig is proud of its 13th century fortified tower which looms up from narrow streets in the town centre. There is also an obligatorily oversized church, Sant Llorenc, and we spotted numerous historical details such as large medieval doors and interestingly tiled facades.

The local area is primarily agricultural with mostly almond and mandarin orchards. We have already spent an afternoon walking along camis exploring (actually Dave has been out twice) and hope to go further afield by bicycle one day too because it is reasonably flat here. In the meantime we will just keep soaking up the sun, sat on our loungers with a good book each, awaiting the daily stroll past of the shepherd with his flock of sheep to set the campsite dogs barking!

Sant Llorenc 
 
Tiled facade in Calig 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

#ThrowbackThursday - where we were on this date in Februarys past

Georgette Heyer audiobook 
I have an especially timely start to this month's ThrowbackThursday post. Exactly four years ago, the 23rd of February 2013, I wrote and published my very first Stephanie Jane post. It's my 4th Blogoversary today!
I was already committed to daily blogging of Eastbourne cultural events on Theatrical Eastbourne, but felt I wanted a more personal space too and was excitedly anticipating the wider range of posts I would 'pen'. I had recently listened to a seriously swoon-worthy audiobook so the second half of the post is a breathless recommendation of The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer, deliciously narrated by Richard Armitage!

Alhambra courtyard 
The 22nd February 2014 was a very busy post from Humilladero in Spain. In the previous week we had been walking in the Sierra Nevada national park and the amazing El Torcal park, had stood in a 6000 year old dolmen, and visited the Alhambra in Granada. The Alhambra is absolutely worth every word sung in its praises and we were both blown away by our time there. It was one place that had been on my bucket list to visit for years and I was so excited when we bought our tickets. I loved the intricate plasterwork, the mazes of rooms in the palace and the serene courtyards. Obviously being there in February meant we avoided insane crowd levels, but the site was still surprisingly busy. Fortunately there is plenty of room for everyone to spread out and the palace itself had a strict timed visit policy. We got to the front of the queue for our slot!

Mulberry trees at Cullera 
One year later and we were back in Spain, this time having just arrived at Cullera. I wasn't too enamoured with the campsite when we first arrived, but it grew on me as our stay progressed. Until revisiting my original post in order to write this one I had forgotten about the giant rock, La Roca de los Pensiamentos, which sits right in the middle of numerous chalet pitches. Cullera had its own attractions including good cycling along the seafront as well as inland, but we mainly chose it as being handy for the train into Valencia where we planned to meet up with our friends Andy and Barbara.

Barraca at Montroig del Camp 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the 23rd February 2016 we were in ... Spain! (We do visit other countries, just not in February!) 2016 saw us at Cambrils where we had just spent a walking day exploring the barracas of Montroig del Camp. These small structures are traditionally dry stone built huts that provided shelter for shepherds and agricultural workers. Now they are mostly renovated and maintained as a tourist attraction. It is interesting to see close-up the skill that goes into building a barraca and the variety of designs employed.

One of the valuable aspects of our caravan travels for me is that, although we might return to the same country for four years running, being able to pitch up in different placers mean we get a wonderfully varied view of everything on offer. It has taken four winters for us to start to think that maybe we have now comprehensively covered the southern Spanish coast. Next year we must decide whether to start repeating places or whether to try something completely new.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

#TreatYourself - special offers that caught my eye

A new look to this TreatYourself post for February! Click on the posters to visit each of these websites!



Multi-award winning director Sam Mendes returns to the West End, directing Jez Butterworth's brand new play The Ferryman. The play will be designed by Rob Howell and developed by and co-produced with Sonia Friedman Productions. Casting for The Ferryman will include Paddy Considine, who will be joined by Laura Donnelly (The River at the Royal Court) and Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma - Star Wars).
Performance dates: 20 June 2017 – 7 October 2017. Monday to Saturday 7.00pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees 1.30pm. Plus 1.30pm matinee on Tuesday 27 June.
Book your tickets well in advance to avoid disappointment!



Sue Roche, one of my favourite illustrators, has a generous offer on her whimsically decorated cotton tote bags throughout February. They usually retail at £10 each, but by using the discount code FREEBAG2 at the checkout in Sue's Shopify store you can get yourself two for the price of one. That's two tote bags for just £5 each. I love this rather dippy looking owl! Other designs from which you can choose include unicorns, cakes, a VW campervan, foxes under a rainbow umbrella, sewing machines, and a beautiful hummingbird. The bags are ideal to roll up in your handbag for unexpected shopping, as book bags, craft bags, or even for school PE kits.


Love hot chocolate, but wish it was a little lighter on the calories? Whittard's were listening and have set to work creating a version of their Luxury Hot Chocolate which has 60% less fat – with a smooth, light texture and a lusciously chocolatey taste, it’s sure to put a spring in your step.
Whittard's Lighter hot chocolate is specially blended to be made with water rather than milk, so it’s extra convenient when you’re on the go. (Hot chocolate hiking, anyone?) And it’s also pretty delicious as an iced drink – just blend up 160 ml of milk, 180 g of ice and 50 g of Lighter Luxury Hot Chocolate powder for half a minute or so, and bingo. Choco-FrappĂ©.



Great bookish discounts are always available as a matter of course at The Book Depository, their delivery is generally very efficient and postage to most countries is free so the price you see on each book's page is what you actually pay. I noticed The Book Depository Bargain Box currently has The Quality Of Silence by Rosamund Lupton at half price and Ross Poldark by Winston Graham at a third off, while the Clearance section has The Carrot Principle at 60% off and the Ladybird Classic Nursery Rhymes Collection at 56% off.



And finally, Waitrose have a superb offer for new online shopping customers at the moment! Get £100 off your first five online grocery orders at waitrose.com - effectively £20 per shop. Your first order must be placed for delivery by 26 February 2017 so hurry! All subsequent orders must be placed for delivery by 31 March 2017 to qualify for this offer and a minimum spend of £100 is required on each order to qualify for this offer.



Monday, 20 February 2017

Oropesa to Benicassim - cycling the Via Verde

Me in front of the Mount Bovalar tunnel 
One of my favourite excursions during our stay in Oropesa was the day we decided to cycle from our Marina d'Or campsite to go and see the beautiful Victorian villas on Benicassim seafront. The two towns are separated by smallish mountains, but fortunately for us, a disused railway line that linked them has now been given a second lease of life as a Via Verde. The same idea as the Voies Vertes network in France, these green routes are only for pedestrians and cyclists and this one was perfect for our journey. It is only about five and a half kilometres long but the distance from the campsite easily doubled that so we ended up with over twenty kilometres cycled altogether.

La Corda or La Colomera 
The Via Verde passes the sixteenth century watchtowers of La Corda and La Colomera as well as going through pretty impressive deep cuttings and through the 570m Mount Bovalar tunnel. We had prepared for the tunnel by making sure our lights worked and carrying an extra head torch but this turned out to be overkill. It was helpful to be able to see other bike lights (and know that we too could be seen) as several groups were whizzing past, but the tunnel's own lighting was perfectly adequate to cycle by and the road surface was surprisingly smooth.

Villa Victoria 
Once in Benicassim, we slowly cycled along the seafront promenade, stopping frequently to read a number of information signs about the villas en route. Mostly built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and in an array of architectural styles, these villas were grouped into districts known as either Heaven or Hell depending on the type of parties that were held there! Several are now owned by Benicassim Town Hall and can be rented out for social functions. Other are still in private hands and it was good to see that only a couple looked in need of serious renovations. Tower blocks do stand between groups of villas which does somewhat ruin the overall effect, but it was still fun to imagine bright young things flocking to the town in its heyday. Our favourites were Villa Victoria which was built in 1911 and Villa Amparo where apparently Ernest Hemingway stayed for a while during the Civil War.

Villa Amparo 

Having seen a whole promenade's worth of gorgeous architecture, our thoughts turned to lunch! We chose to visit Torreon, a seafront restaurant with lots of outdoor tables in the sunshine. They do offer a menu del dia, but we just had burgers - the Chicago Burguer for Dave and a Veggie Burguer for me. Dave wasn't completely overwhelmed(!), but I enjoyed my tasty bean burger which had a slice of tofu in lieu of cheese and was served, saladed up, in a wholemeal bap and with nachos and guacamole.

I'm zooming ahead now! 
On the return cycle we paused to get a closer a look at one of the watchtowers. I can't remember now which one it was and there wasn't much to see close up because the lowest windows and doorway were a good ten feet above ground level. Good defensive strategy, but irritating to tourists!

I liked how busy the Via Verde was even on a weekday afternoon. I know it looks like we had it to ourselves in these photos, but in reality there were plenty of other cyclists, walkers and joggers making use of the car-free space. And a big thanks to Dave for being our official photographer! I had failed to charge my phone so couldn't use its camera. D'oh!

And now I'm so far ahead you can hardly see me! 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Onda's must see attraction: The Tile Museum

Tiles by Francisco Dasi 
I would highly recommend a visit to the Tile Museum (Museo del Azulejo / Museu del Taulell) in Onda for anyone who has a passing interest or more in history, art or local culture. There are over 20,000 tiles in the collection - although not all are on show at once! - which gives a fascinating illustration of technological advances and changes fashions in this region since Roman times. We learned that the combination of the right type of earth for firing, dense forests to provide firewood and the proximity of the ocean trade routes meant that this area, and Onda in particular, was perfectly suited for tile manufacture. Therefore this has been one of the main industries here for over two millennia. The Tile Museum does have examples of very early Roman and Visigoth tiles on display.

The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) of Onda has recognised this history and its importance to tourism by building a fantastic new museum-conservation facility not far from the centre of Onda. Amazingly it is absolutely free to enter and we also received a nicely printed guide. Items in the gift shop are very reasonably priced too! Opened in 2004 I think, the museum not only displays important historic tiles and works by significant local and national artists, but also engages in conservation and restoration work, as well as holding workshops and events.


I loved walking through the aisles of tiles in the large permanent exhibition space. They are all arranged by age so we could easily see the evolution from pink sandstone coloured Roman tiles to brightly decorated 1970s to present day examples. We both loved the musicians tile mural pictured above, but I completely forgot to take a note of the artist's name. Please comment if you know!

Modernist tiles from the early 20th century 
A second permanent exhibition area is dedicated to tile manufacture. It includes various vintage machines and tools as well as a wonderful collection of black and white photographs of former tile factory workers. A nice touch is that as many as possible of these workers have actually been identified and their names are shown alongside each picture. I was fascinated to learn how tiles are both made and decorated. I was already aware that unique tile pictures would be artist-painted by hand, but had never given much thought to early methods of mass production. It turned out that the firing of blank tiles was a man's job, whereas women were employed as stencil painters. Several of the old photos shows rooms seating a couple of dozen women, each with a high stack of tiles, a paper stencil and a wide brush to paint a single colour. The photo below hows a series of tiles illustrating how these stencilled shapes build up to the finished design.


Finally we took a short walk outside, down the side of the museum building, to where a number of antique tiled public benches are on display. Designs ranged from a simple maroon and white check pattern to ornate pictures and I especially liked this yellow and green example with its repeating owl motif.