Thursday, 19 May 2011

Greek Holidays & The Cat of Portovecchio by Maria Strani-Potts

The Arillas sunset
The best thing to come through my letter box this month was our holiday tickets.

We fly to Corfu tomorrow morning for two weeks, and I'm very excited.  It's been a very long and at times, tough year.

Working in the voluntary sector has brought lots of changes, worries about future funding and feelings of despair at times.

We've been holidaying in Greece for the past 12 years, visiting different islands, and sometimes returning to the same place.

Three years ago we discovered the tiny resort of Arillas, on the north west coast of Corfu and fell in love with the place.  It's tiny as resorts go, with just a few tavernas and bars, a couple of shops and a beautiful beach.

The people are friendly, the food is great and the sun usually shines.  So, it's off we go for our longed for break, hoping for peace and quiet and a time to relax, and looking forward to the wonderful sunsets.

Not only do I love Greece as a place, I also love to read about it.  I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction and over the years have read some wonderful books set in different parts of the country.

Earlier this year I managed to get hold of a copy of The Cat of Portovecchio by Maria Strani-Potts, and I finished reading it today.  It's fairly difficult to get hold of in this country, I believe it was published in Australia as the author lived there for a while, but I'd recommend it as a wonderful taste of the island of Corfu.  Reading it brought back so many memories of times on the island and especially visiting Corfu Town.

Subtitled 'Corfu Tales', the novel is set in a small coastal village called Portovecchio in the 1950s.  It's a novel, but not in the traditional sense.  The story is made up of short tales about the inhabitants of the village, but all linked together to create a story of a community.

The main character is Louisa - a small girl whose mother has recently died, she lives now with her father Tony and his new wife Blossom in Portovechhio.

The sense of Corfu is so wonderfully written, the characters are so lifelike and jump from the pages.

The peasant-like Blossom with her bowed legs and big appetite, the wicked priest Father Anthony who is bad to the core, and innocent Theodora who is badly treated yet nursed with love by the women of the village.

And in amongst these character is Mamee - the cat of the title.  Abandoned by her owners, loved by Louisa, the little cat brings the villagers together, stealing food and causing a nuisance, but also protecting them and comforting them.

It would have been so easy for this to be just another twee little story about the good old days, but instead Maria Strani-Potts has created an enchanting story about a community that has it's bad parts and lots of good parts.  With a theme of traditonal greek cookery in each chapter too, this is a perfect read.

Friday, 13 May 2011

A New Camera and The Yorkshire Wildlife Park

I was lucky enough to bag a great new camera through the Amazon Vine programme last month.  It's a Nikon S9100 Coolpix Digital and worth around £300, so you can imagine how chuffed I was to get it to review.
To be honest, I'm not the greatest photographer in the world, nor do I like anything that's too complicated.  I'm a bit of a point and shoot sort of girl, and although it's great to have the special effects and little extras, it will be Martin that uses those I suspect.
Great photo eh?
So we took the camera with us to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park during the Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of the month.  We went with my brother James, and my eight-year old nephew Dylan.  It's just outside Doncaster, only around 20 minute drive from us and it really is a great day out.  I was really impressed by how clean the park was and the animals are fantastic.  My favourites were the Meerkats and the Lemur House.  The Lemurs roam free within the enclosure and come right up close - they were so funny.
Well, back to the camera.   It's fabulous!   The zoom lens is brilliant, we got some great photos of the Lions and although they were quite a distance away from us, the photos are really good close ups.  I'm very impressed with it.  It's really sleek and super simple to use.  The perfect camera for what I want, and also has the little extras that gadget-mad Martin likes to play about with.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

More Presents for Costa and Nero

A parcel arrived for Costa and Nero on Friday - a big bag of Royal Canin cat food - from a lovely book friend who had won some in a competition.
Costa and Nero sunning themselves
Costa and Nero are incredibly spoilt brats who find it amusing to turn their noses up at food that was perfectly acceptable yesterday, or even this morning.  They look at you with 'that' glare - as if to say 'what on earth is this muck that you expect us to eat?'     Oh, I've tried every food - cheap food, expensive food, jelly, pate, morsels - the lot.   At first they wolf it down with gusto and then, half way through a box, it is discarded.
They've had their first taste of the Royal Canin - and they approve!  Well, today they do, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Wonder who rules this household?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

My latest review book from the Amazon Vine programme is The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's adult novels; The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game are two of my all-time favourite books.

 was however, a little disappointed by his last young adult novel that was published a while ago; The Prince of the Mist, so I tried not to expect too much of The Midnight Palace.

The book begins with a chase through the streets of Calcutta in May 1916. Lieutenant Peake pauses for breath outside the ruins of the Jheeter's Gate station knowing that he only has a few hours to live. Inside his overcoat he is sheltering two newborn babies - twins, a boy and a girl. Peake entrusts them Aryami Bose. Sixteen years later we meet the boy, Ben, and his friends. They have formed a secret club, The Chowbar Society, which meets each week at midnight in the old ruin they have christened The Midnight Palace. Then Aryami Bose turns up with Sheere, Ben's sister, and tells them the story of the parents they never knew. Their father was an engineer and writer who died in tragic circumstances at the inauguration of Jheeter's Gate station. But as the novel unfolds, there is more to their history than meets the eye and they are lured by a shadowy figure from the past into a final showdown in the ruins.

Happily, I was not disappointed by this at all.  

Set in Calcutta in the early part of the twentieth century, this is a brilliantly written mixture of adventure, magic and a little bit of horror.

Probably best for older children as it contains some quite violent and gory scenes, it really is an exciting read.   The setting of Calcutta is wonderful, gothic and mysterious and full of dark corners, strange old houses, corridors and ghosts.  The characters are drawn so well, from the evil Jawahal, who is so dark and menacing, to the hero of the story; Ben, the sixteen year old boy that Jawahal wants to destroy.

This is a really great adventure, with ghostly trains, strange old women and brave young heroes - a fabulous read for the young, and the not so young.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

I received a copy of Pigeon English, written by Stephen Kelman and published by Bloomsbury via the Amazon Vine programme.

Apparently, this novel was plucked from the 'slush pile' by an agent and was then sold for a six-figure sum after a round of frenzied bids were made by various publishers.  Kelman grew up on a council estate in Luton and has based this debut novel on the murder of Damilola Taylor, the ten-year old boy who was killed on a Peckham estate in 2000.

The book is narrated by eleven-year old Harri Opuko, he and his mother and older sister have recently arrived from Ghana and live in a block of flat on an inner-city housing estate.

Harri's father and baby sister are still in Ghana,  his mother works as a midwife.    Although the story centres around the murder of a young boy outside a chicken takeaway shop, it is really Harri's observations of this strange place that he has come to live in.  He finds the language strange - lots of words mean the same thing.  If something is 'gay' then it means it is stupid, and why are there so many ways of saying that you are going to the toilet?

Harri is a typical eleven-year old; fascinated and curious, daring and innocent.  He decides that he must solve the murder case and soon he is out with binoculars, interviewing suspects and trying to get some fingerprints.

There is an air of menace about the story, Harri and his friends are growing up in a violent environment - they play 'suicide bombers' at school, they 'chook' each other with compasses.  Harri however, doesn't seem to understand just how threatening a situation he is getting himself.

Harri is an endearing, quite authentic character and Kelman has captured the innocence and curiosity of a small boy very well.  It's a fascinating look at the world of inner-city gangs with characters who appear real. The only part of the book that I really disliked was the addition of a second narrator, every now and again there is a passage supposedly narrated by a pigeon - a play on the title of the book.  I found this a bit pretentious - almost as if the author was giving the reader a sermon about life, which was not needed at all.

On the whole though, apart from the pigeon, I enjoyed reading this book.  It's a serious subject matter, and a clever way of dealing with it.

I'll look forward to seeing what Stephen Kelman can come up with next.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Amelia Dyer - The Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money

I first became aware of the crimes of Amelia Dyer when I watched the ITV series 'Ladykillers' which was presented by Martina Cole.  I was appalled but strangely fascinated by the story and was delighted when I found a copy of 'Amelia Dyer - The Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money' by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale on the Library for-sale table.
Amelia Dyer was tried and hanged in 1896, she was found guilty of just one murder but it is thought she may have been responsible for up to 400 deaths.    Dyer trained as a nurse, and it was her nursing skills that were to come in so handy in her next 'career' - that of a 'baby farmer' - a woman who took in unwanted infants, for money.
In Victorian Britain, unmarried mothers were stigmatised and unable to get any financial help, the recently passed Poor Law had taken away the financial obligations of fathers, so many of these women were desperate.   So, women like Dyer stepped in and became baby farmers - for a fee they would take the babies, often with the promise that they would care for them as their own.    Dyer, however, just saw these poor children as a way to make money and most of the infants were left to strarve to death, some of them were throttled within hours of coming into her home.
This book is an excellently written account of Dyer's life, her career and the subsequent police investigation and court case.  Although non-fiction, it is never tedious or stuffy and is written almost as though it were a novel.
This really is a fascinating, compelling and incredibly sad story.  How many times do we hark back to the 'good old days', insisting that child cruelty and neglect, drug and alcohol addiction etc are all on rise?  Reading this account of Victorian England makes one realise that things back then were so much worse.  How many unmarried mothers these days have to pass over their newborn baby to an unknown person?