Chris Maden's Blog

September 1, 2023

The Ende of the World

It’s a bit of a push to include this post under “The Natural World,” but touristing in the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia is about as close as I could get. It saddens me that there have been so few posts in this category in the past year or two. I need to get out more. A lot more. I’ll be trading conspiracy theories if this computer-bound life goes on much longer.

For those who have never heard of Flores, click here for a rather dry wikipedia entry.

Our tour started in Ende, which lives up to its name at the end of the world haha.There we met Marino, who was to be our guide for the tour. He had dreadlocks down to his hips, but insisted that although he liked reggae music, he is not Rastafarian. Like most people from Flores (Floratians?), he is Catholic. Although, as the trip went on, I began to suspect that the Catholicism was a thin veneer on a deep base of animism.

Ende is an administrative kind of town whose main claim to fame is that Soeharto, the father of Indonesian independence during the colonial era and the country’s first president, stayed there for a few years in Indonesia’s run-up to independence. Indonesia’s motto translates to strength through diversity, and Soeharto, a Muslim, resided with a Dutch pastor. After independence, Soeharto asked the Dutchman if there was anything he’d like, and the Dutchman asked for and was granted Indonesian citizenship.

Our first port of call was Kelimutu, a somewhat active volcano which has three crater lakes, each a different colour. The wiki article linked to has better photos than I could take. The local people believe that the spirits of the dead go to these craters, the young to one, the old to another and the evil to a third.

I wonder which of the latter two I’ll go to.

Despite a fair lashing of tourists, I enjoyed our quick walk up the summit, and a diversion through a forest trail on the way down. And the sunrise was nice, though my phone camera was too crappy to catch it. So here, as a consolation prize, is the view from our room on our return:

Rice paddies and hills, and very, very quiet.

In Flores, terraced rice paddies are an exception. The larger ethnic group in Flores seems to be the Bajo people, who never got the hang of terraced rice paddies. As Flores is very hilly, the Bajo people rely on potatoes, carrots, tubers, and any number of game animals for their diet – along with Flores chilies, which are not just spicy hot, but very tasty.

A consistent theme of this trip became that Floratians refused to believe that a foreigner (me!) would eat the same food at the same spice level as they do. I can’t blame them. Although Flores is very far off the beaten path, I’ve noticed that distance from paths that are beaten doesn’t affect tourists’ diets. One time in Ladakh in India, a group of a dozen tourists sat at a table next to us. Each ordered the same biryani, no one shared, and they left half the food uneaten. Click, got the photo of spectacular landscape, curious humanoids, but we’re not changing our diet or cultural eating patterns one little bit, seems to be the attitude. Their loss – but I suppose that’s what Floratians are used to.

The next day was a medley. We started out with a walk through the jungle, with a very well-informed guide who pointed out all sorts of jungle plants. At one point, we (my wife and I) recognised the smell of mint. Our guide had never heard of it, but when we pointed out the plants, he told us that variety of mint was poisonous. We saw a cashew-nut tree and found out that the nuts grow on a fruit which is very tasty, and very, very sour. Refreshing to eat after a long walk, but not something most people would have in the dining room fruit bowl. He also pointed out cocoa nuts, which are suffering from a blight, and the Tiger Balm plant. South-East Asians place great reliance on Tiger Balm as a cure for everything from a sniffle to a broken leg to tertiary syphilis. Useless to me: I can’t abide the smell.

One of Flores’s major exports is coffee. I’d never seen a coffee tree before:

Here’s me learning about coffee from a young man just returned from university in Manchester, England. That particular plantation is second-generation, the current owner being an Indonesian who naturalised in Holland. She has great but rather vague plans for her plantation. I hope they come to fruition, whatever they are.

Just down the road we found a village.

The boh-tree is a kind of marker for the villagers, who can become quite dispersed so need a reference point and, as boh-trees live forever and are huge, they serve the purpose. The gentleman between my wife and me was the headman of the tribe. He was a former schoolteacher who spoke excellent English. He related this tale:

Once, an immigrant from Java had turned up and, without making any overtures of friendship to his village, built a house on their land. The village was very unhappy about this so, as head, it fell upon him to do something about it. In prosecution of this, he sacrificed a dog, drank its blood, ate its liver and led the villagers to the offending house – which they torched. “That was five or six years ago,” he concluded. “The police have still never come.”

Moral: if you come to this part of the world and wish to reside, make friends with the villagers first.

The next day, after a rather boring meal at the hotel in the rice padis, we returned West to Bajawa. The route there has two volcanoes which, according to the local people, are dad and mum:

Dad, on the photo on the left, is a chain smoker of many years standing, and was divorced from Mum, who, being demure, spent most of our visit modestly shrouded in the clothes of cloud, but who made a very brief appearance for the photo on the right. The divorce was one of administrative fiat, when the regency that contained both of them split. Thus do the affairs of men afflict local custom.

The village in the foreground of the right-hand photo is of a different tribe to our dog-sacrificing warrior above, but the same overall Bajo people. The tribe in the Bajawa area is matriarchal. I’m not sure what practical difference that makes, but there are great problems when a woman of from one of the matriarchal clans falls in love with a man from one of the patriarchal ones and vice versa. What it seemed to boil down to was ostracism and very large numbers of water-buffalo as the dowry. Though Marino, our be-dreadlocked guide, didn’t like the word dowry.

Our next port of call was a waterfall. I’m not normally much of a waterfall sort of person, but this one involved descending an enormous number of steps to arrive at a natural stone bridge across the water:


The photo on the left is the local guide showing it can be crossed. Marino took one look at this gratuitous display of foolhardiness and shook his head. As did I.

There were more waterfalls the next day. These had the distinction of running both hot and cold at the same time: they were at the confluence of two streams, one from a nearby hot springs which was hot and the other from distant cold rainwater, which was cold.

Marino explained that the person who lives nearby the waterfall had no idea that it could be a tourist thing until Marino suggested it. The resident took the advice and offers food (with chilies for a change!), along with the local firewater. That was a very good meal.

To the extent that Indonesia is ever in the news, it is normally about its appalling treatment of its own environment: the burning of forests in Sumatra, dangerous and cruel extraction of minerals, and the like. Don’t get me wrong: I think Indonesia would be a much happier and wealthier country if they were to preserve the magnificent rainforest and natural bounty to which the country is heir, treat their workers decently, and that Indonesia should be called out for the environmental vandalism and horrid working conditions.

But what tends to get overlooked in the international press is that a lot of Indonesians feel the same way. The rest of the world may be clueless as to where Indonesia is, but Indonesians are very well aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and many younger ones are keen to break ties with the extract-and-burn old guard. So the final delight of this trip was a bamboo university.

This is a small campus, built almost entirely from bamboo. There we learnt that there are three different types of bamboo, each with its own name in the local language, but which I will crudely translate as big, small and medium. The big ones are six inches or more in diameter and can bear structural loads, so are used for the columns and beams of the two-storey building at the centre of the campus. The medium ones are useful for household objects: they make excellent cups and the like. The small ones are used in a myriad of ways, including food (the pith, not the outside).

The university is a private foundation. Indonesia is home to tens of thousands of foundations – its been my privilege to have engaged with a couple – and this reflects the country’s great and thriving civic society. Bajawa’s bamboo university was founded to teach local people how to cultivate bamboo as a cash crop, and to help them treat and find a market for the finished products.

And there we are, at the end of our tour:

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Published on September 01, 2023 22:59

Summer Reading

Sadly, this summer just passed didn’t give me a lot of time to read (and none to write), but I’ve caught up with my reviews on Goodreads. In no particular order, and pay no heed to the dates of reading:


AnnapurnaAnnapurna by Maurice Herzog
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you don’t like books about mountaineering – though if you’ve got this far, you probably already do – stop reading this review. If you do like them, this is one of the greatest climbing books, and one of the greatest adventure books ever written. It grips from the opening sentences to the final words, with the pace of a thriller and a consistent insight into human nature at the limits of what we can achieve.

The French expedition arrived in Nepal in 1950 with an idea to ascend either Annapurna or Dhaulagiri. The core team consisted of eight European mountaineers, one Nepali representing the royal family (which, then, was the state) and three Sherpas, along with many others in support. Although all of the Europeans were experienced in the European Alps, none were experienced in the Himalaya, and the Himalaya turned out to be a very different kettle of fish.

The first part of the expedition was spent exploring the area around the two peaks. It turned out that nearly all of the maps they had were wrong, and some of them very dangerously wrong. Their explorations did map the area and, in the end, they concluded that Dhaulagiri was unclimbable (it was to be ten years before they were proved wrong).

With time before the monsoon running out and supplies dwindling, they turned their attention to Annapurna. After a frenzy of recces, they ruled out one route but found another, and, on the 3rd June 1950, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal became the first people to summit an 8,000 meter peak.

What makes the book great are not the bare facts of the climb, though those are spectacular enough, but the author’s insight into the characters of his fellow climbers: the different attitudes to risk, the their determination, the willingness of some to forego the summit in order that the expedition as a whole would succeed.

He also brilliantly conveys not only the sheer hardship of what it is to climb at high alititude, but also what it’s like to climb with severe oxygen narcosis – it is quite clear from the scenes as he approaches the summit that he is not thinking straight, that his ability to evaluate risk has been lost, and that he is high (as in stoned).

No mountaineering book is complete without the descent. This contains some harrowing scenes. Maurice and Louis were severely frost-bitten, and, with the monsoon rains coming in, the expedition had to get off the mountain and fast. Bounced and jolted down on improvised stretchers, I found myself wincing and grimacing at every unfortunate bump.

Even though the author was one of the worst-affected, he recounts the experience without looking for pity, but with a grim humour: their train pulls up at a station in India and the locals’ (presumed) first experience of Europeans is an amputated toe being thrown from a carriage full of blood and pus.

If the mountaineering section of your library consists of only one book, this should be it.

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The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lent this book, the first of a trilogy that I think ended up becoming a triptych of trilogies, over the summer.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an original fantasy, and this makes the grade. It is gritty, violent and has a very black humour. The pages turn quickly enough. The characters are all nasty in interestingly different ways, and the author deserves credit for including a main character who is a complete moron, yet whose depiction is at once both engaging and funny.

For all that, I can’t quite put this up with Game of Thrones (I wonder if that series ever got finished?). The problem is that this world is neither as complete nor as fully formed; if anything, it is too close for comfort to our world. One of the great constructs in Game of Thrones is a vast ice wall; there is no similar geographical impossibility here. Although nearly all the main characters are physically out of the ordinary, there don’t seem to be any friends or enemies that are non-human in the way of Tolkein or the ice creatures in Game of Thrones. The only exception are the Shanka, but we’re never given a description, so it’s not clear whether they’re Orcs or just a particularly vicious tribe of nasties.

But the bigger missing thing is that, having read this first very thick volume, I still have no idea what’s at stake. There is the survival of a kingdom that is decaying, but its decay appears well-deserved. What’s missing is the clear evil represented by Tolkein’s ring, or the advance of the very non-human zombies in Game of Thrones.

I’ll read (if I can borrow it) the next volume, but only because this one didn’t so much conclude as stop. As an acquaintance once remarked of sex on speed: great fun, but not idea where it’s going.

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The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small IslandThe Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To fans of Bill Bryson – and I am one – this is the usual Bill Bryson fare. On the twentieth anniversary of this American’s “Notes from a Small Island”, he sets off on another circuit of his adopted home, the United Kingdom.

This tour starts in Bognor Regis and ends in Cape Wrath at the other end of the Bryson Line (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is). In between we are treated to the author’s acerbic wit, so funny that there were points when I was laughing so hard that I had to stop reading, and a series of vignettes in various far- and not-so-far-flung parts of the British Isles.

Bryson’s charm is that he is as funny as he is well-informed. Never shy of a rant, his diatribes range from a delightful defenestration of those who profess to write English but are completely ignorant of its grammar, through his own schizophrenic attitude to the National Trust, which excites both admiration and frustration, to his experience with large corporations “… there are people in [British Telecom] who hated you before you were born.”

Two things let this book down. The first is that, quite simply, it wasn’t about the British Isles. It was about the part of England south of the Midlands. Everything north and west of that is an afterthought, a kind of bow to necessity. The second is that it is less than the sum of its parts: this is a book with an acute case of sequelitus, written not because the author wanted to write it, but because he, his publisher or his agent saw a few bucks.

I hope he succeeds in making a few bucks. But I also hope his next book will be written because he wants to write it, not because someone else wants him to write it.

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The Woman in the WindowThe Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this mystery with a twist. What I liked most is how deeply rooted it is in the tradition of black and white murder mysteries, mostly Hitchcock, and how it blends those with a gripping tale of a woman, Anna Fox, who lives in complete isolation and whom we never quite trust as a narrator.

That distrust is very skillfully played out and central to the plot. I would have liked to use the analogy of a Matryoshka doll, but that’s weak because the dolls are the same in every layer, just smaller, whereas in this book, each layer reveals a different shape and appearance of Anna. This is a woman with serious issues and each revelation makes us realise how damaged she is.

Yet there was a section about a third of the way through when that distrust played against the book, when I was ready to give up on both Anna and the book; when I stopped trusting the author. The problem was that the trauma central to Anna is simply not credible. She would not have survived.

So, a great and intricate plot, skillfully woven, and clever. But not one I’d read again.

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Published on September 01, 2023 20:20

May 12, 2023

Yang Ming Shan

The idea was to take on more Himalayas. However, that needed planning and I and my hiking companion, DC, seem to have lost the art of doing that. In addition, the only time that we were both available was too late in the season in Nepal, and the flights were ludicrously expensive. So, I had a brainwave: Taiwan.I’d been there a few times over the years but had never explored, and the Taiwanese Alps looked interesting.

They still do. The alps consists of national parks that, if you’re a foreigner, need to be booked 35 days to four months in advance, and we’d booked our tickets more like three weeks in advance. And although it did occur to us that we could kind of pretend to be local foreigners, the Taiwanese authorities can be strict, and languishing in jail for a week didn’t seem a good way of exploring the country.

So, to Yang Ming Shan, an area that is in the north of the island. It doesn’t have the altitude of the Taiwanese Alps, but it seemed from the map to have lots of trails, and was generally quite lumpy. And, if we hiked all that had to offer, there was the Taipei Grand Trail, which encircles the city.

For those who’d rather skip the words, you can jump to DC’s facebook page, which has all the pictures he took. The common theme of these pictures is: mist.

Our arrival in the suburb of Bei Tou was characteristic of a bygone era. DC stands for “Diamond Card,” and the cabin crew on the flight from Hong Kong were more than obliging when it came to keeping us topped up. As a result, our arrival in Taipei will forever remain shrouded in mystery. I remember a lot of red wine on a very short flight, a very long queue at immigration, and then there’s blank during which we took a lot of public transport to arrive, by some miracle, at the hotel. We found some noodles, had a beer from 7-11 in the park opposite the hotel and staggered back to our respective rooms.

Day one saw us both at breakfast by 7ish. A quick exploration of the area found a Subway, so we bought a couple of takeaway subways for lunch – which became our modus operandi. The public transport, once we got the hang of it, is excellent; we took a bus up to the park and walked through the thickening mist. All those views you see on the official websites were obscured from us. We passed a house built for Chiang Kai-Shek, and I saw a small snake. After a while we stumbled on a signposted path which we followed up to the start of the rise to Qixing or Seven Stars Mountain. Here, the mist became cloud. The trails in the national park (and elsewhere) were laid with rock paving stones which seem to provide the perfect surface for a particularly slippery and treacherous type of moss, which led to a few near slips. Anyway, the prospect of ascending a steep and high mountain for no views at all did not appeal, so we went instead to the Qingtiangang Grasslands where we found a small-but-perfectly-formed temple and some very damp feral cows. By this time, I was becoming distinctly cold, so we headed back and down. Bei Tou is known for its natural springs and a hot tub after a long walk has rarely felt so good.

Dinner that evening was a shock. Not so much dinner as looking for it: the Taipei I remembered was a city with a big drinking culture. That night, it took us the better part of an hour to find a restaurant that even served beer.

The next morning, a quick trip to Subway and we were set to rock and roll on Section 1 of the Taipei Grand Trail. This was well sign-posted – as is the entire park – and we soon found ourselves striding up between the Taipei University of Arts with its beautiful green campus and eclectic buildings on the one side, and the functional concrete cube of a Technical University on the other. Rising above that, we headed up the first hill and came across two enormous – 100ft / 30m diameter – Chinese graves. Perhaps the Soong family that was so influential at the end of the Ching Dynasty? Be that as it may, the weather held and we managed to knock off a few lower peaks, a circuit, and stumbled across a very colourful golden pheasant that seemed quite unperturbed by us.

With one thing and another, we ended up in Shilin. This supposed night market was bereft of beer, and the only two pubs didn’t open for ages. We ended up outside 7-11.

Day three saw us on Stage 2 of the Grand Trail. This took on the Datong peaks, which turned out to be tough. Very tough. The path involved scrambling up rocks and between trees. I did my best to avoid relying on the ropes, but there were a few points where it was just too steep and too slippery (especially after a few days rain) not to. Hiking with my usual backpack full of stuff – including DC’s lunch as well as mine – didn’t help, but we got to the top. And the next one. And the one after that. By this time, however, the weather was turning for the worse so, rather than head up Seven Stars Mountain, we took the bus back to Qingtiangang and took the long walk down to the city. This was delightful, cutting through different layers of forest and different types of tree. And I only slipped and fell twice! The only problem was at the bottom, where an automated bus stop kindly informed us that it would be 92 minutes before the next bus. As we were ingesting that piece of intelligence, a car pulled up out of nowhere and gave us a lift.

Back once more at Shilin, we skipped its delights, had a beer and took the MRT back. DC had read of a pizza place further up the hill in Beitou. The food was so-so, the beer expensive, and they only took cash – which left me wiped out.

Day four was chucking down rain, so we did sections five and six of the Taipei Grand Trail. I’m sure the views would be nice in good weather. but we barely caught a glimpse of them. The sixth section was one of those that just went on and on. There’s a very steep hill in the middle which had one false summit after another. I would have happily taken one of the shortcuts off the trail at the end, but DC had got the bit between his teeth and, in the end, we only just made it down by dusk. At least the 7-11 was close by. 7-11 was becoming a regular thing.

On the way back, DC remembered a pub downtown, the Brass Monkey. It was a nice change to have a draft beer. All the others had been cans or bottles.

Day five was clear. (By that time, “clear.” was defined by the absence of rain). We headed up to Seven Stars Mountain and summited it with good views – of the mountain’s secondary peaks. The other mountains were hidden in cloud. By the time we were back down at the level of the road, the weather had set in once again, so we pivoted, retraced our steps of two days before and, after a few misturns and directions from friendly hikers in my very limited Mandarin and their very limited English, found our way to the top of Stage 4 of the Grand Taipei Trail. I enjoyed that. It was a slippery, muddy path through the forest, but there was something about it that appealed. I suppose on reflection it was this: the other sections were well signposted and the trails themselves laid with paving stones. This one was more raw, without the flagstones, and all sorts of side paths and whatnot.

By this time 7-11 was the default. We did that and found an excellent dinner in the night market in Beitou. The chefs were amazing: they cranked out one dinner after another, the woks roaring away and their movements almost balletic. The food matched the performance.

The last day saw more rain and we’d pretty much hiked all that Yangmingshan had to offer, so we took on Section 7 of the Taipei Grand Trail. This led us in a meandering route over and around the hills of south Taipei. We lost the trail at one point and ended up ascending a long and winding road, only to find ourselves at the top of the path we were supposed to have taken. DC insisted we find the temple supposedly further down, which led us back to where we’d lost the trail, but no temple. Back up (1000+ steps!) and we found a load of temples, each quite nice. From there, the path was much better marked and took us through tea and strawberry plantations. It did not end at the cable car, but there were some restaurants selling beer so I made an executive decision on that one.

Back to the night market and the same excellent food. One of the chefs burnt himself: he stuck his hand under a tap for a minute and went back to the woks. More Taipei Beer, then back to the 7-11 near the hotel for a last couple of drinks.

In total about 145km hiking, but a total of closer to 180km including our explorations of Taipei, and about 6,000 metres of ascent. Not bad for six days. Next time, the Taiwanese Alps!

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Published on May 12, 2023 21:07

May 3, 2023

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you can see, it’s taken me a long time to get around to reviewing this book. Actually, I’ve been so busy on other stuff, it’s been a while since I’ve even read a new book. Which sucks. But that’s about me.

The book is billed on the blurb as following four guys through their lives together from their early twenties to their early middle age. This is not quite the case: although the four guys do continue through the novel, it is really about one of them, Jude. Jude has a past that unfolds over the course of the novel and his own attempts to reconcile himself to that past form the spine of the story.

It also comes to dominate the story. Willem, JB and Malcolm, the other three of the gang, fade into the background and the story becomes about Jude’s self-engrossment, his intellectual brilliance and his emotional deficit. The scenes at the beginning that are touching and sometimes funny (not laugh-aloud funny, but upturned at the corners of the lips funny) start to fade and the dark side of Jude’s past takes over.

Ultimately, this fails to convince.

Although Jude’s past gets fully explained in emotional terms, Jude suffers numerous medical conditions as a result of it, and those conditions are vague and elusive. We’re told how they came to be, but not what they are, and that was confusing. The novel seems to take place in the New York of the 1980s to early 2000s. This was a time of huge social change, especially in attitudes towards gay people, yet the attitudes in the novel are entirely contemporary.

But what put me off was that, two thirds of the way into the novel, I’d stopped liking Jude. I should have been feeling sympathy for his appalling life. Instead, his inability to get over it was starting to wear. His constant neediness, his passive-aggressive approach, and the utter lack of sensitivity to those who were trying to help him: all of this lost me.

It wasn’t that the portrayal was unconvincing. To the contrary, it was very convincing. I got to know Jude very well; I just didn’t like him any more. There didn’t seem to be a single redeeming feature. And that left me cold.

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Published on May 03, 2023 01:06

December 15, 2022

Via Ai Monti – Road to the Mountains!

I would have liked, when I was recently living in the area surrounding Lake Como, to have hiked the entire trail of the Road of the Mountains of Como (which is roughly what the Via Dei Monti Lariani translates to). Sadly, some things are not meant to be.

My attempts began with the ascent of Mt Bisbino, a 1,400m mountain that rises above Cernobbio, the lakeside town where I was staying. After three months in the flatter parts of England, I’d become rather fat, flabby and unfit, so my wife and I took it easy on our first attempt. This took us up through alpine villages that overlooked the lake, albeit not with views that were spectacular. About an hour into it, my wife had had enough, so we found our way down and took a bus home.

Attempt #2 got me further. I found the setting off point, which was covered in leaves which were as pretty as any of the scenery:

However, I was on a short leash, with meetings and zoom calls and all the other things that modern life throws at us, so had to content myself with a hurried descent.

Attempt #3, by which time I was back to walking with my usual 7kg backpack (“the kitchen sink”) was more successful. I followed the trail up through the lower beach forests and then through pinewoods, to get to the top…

…and was duly rewarded – for in Italy one is never far away from people and Italians are never far away from food – with a treat:

Thus fortified, I found a way down that was much more direct than the way up.

Our next adventure was with my wife and our nephew. This was a fast-forward hike: the Via has five sections and this hike started at the transition from section 2 to section 3. Unfortunately, our energetic plans were pretty much scuppered by the local buses, which put timetables on their website that bear no relationship to those on the bus stops. As a result, we turned up in Menaggio to find out that we had a two-hour wait for the bus to the start of that section, which rather reduced the available walking time. Here is a little of our walk:

By this time, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever actually see the Via. So, for my next attempt, I started early, bought a pizza and slice of cake at the local Lebanese shop, and set off. I ascended the first 1000m of Mt Bisbino – again – but turned right and found the trail:

This, unfortunately, turned out to be about as much scenery as section 1 had to offer. The path followed a countour line around rather than over mountains. At one point, I spotted what seemed to be an alternative route, but which led to a closed shooting lodge. That diversion took an hour and by that time it was very clear that I had no chance of making it to the end of section 1 while it was still day. Moreover, the end of section 1 was a long way from the main road and I doubted there was a bus that would take me home. So, I took a walk directly back to Aregno, then a ferry to meet my wife and nephew. Some nice bits on the way:

and this was the closest I came to seeing wildlife:

Cute, but dead.

My attempt at section 2 was a little more successful. I started early, caught the bus to the village (and verified that I wouldn’t have got out of that village until the following morning had I completed section 1). The trail was a little difficult to find: in the opening parts, I followed the instructions on the website until I realised they were wrong, backtracked and stumbled across the Via. There was later a fork which sent me on an enjoyable diversion up a hill and through forested summits before joining the path.

Once I’d ascended, the walking was mostly along the flat, and through beach forests (again!). I did come across an unexpected feature, which I climbed (two tourists from New Zealand happened to be there to photograph me):

A little later a different couple stopped me and asked in their halting Italian where Lenno was. I was about to reply in my halting Italian when they had a quick conversation and I answered their native French in my fluent-but-schoolboy French.

The real problem was, though, that I wasn’t seeing very much.

I would have liked to have hiked along the ridge line in the photo above. The trail, however, followed the contour inside the forest, and most of the views were of the next trees.

I was rewarded at the end. Once again, I had to stop a little short because I was running out of daylight, but on the way down from Ossino, the lake opened out:

What a delight!

In the end, I managed about half of the total distance of the trail. The signposting was good where it needed to be, but it wasn’t always obvious. The public transport links are such that, to hike the trail properly, one needs to do it in several successive days, not one section at a time. However, there are climbers’ huts, places to camp and places to buy provisions. One of these years, now that I know what’s involved, I’ll be back. In the meantime, at least I managed to remove some of the flab and most of the unfitness.

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Published on December 15, 2022 04:19

December 10, 2022

Blood Runs East by S.H. Stratman

Blood Runs EastBlood Runs East by S.H. Stratman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this sanguine romp through the Hong Kong of the early 1990s. Jonah, a journalist at a small-time newspaper in mid-West USA, finds a job in a minor newspaper in Hong Kong. The newspaper is owned as a hobby business by a billionaire; run by Kim, who we meet a few times without ever getting to know, and their star reporter and sole other member of staff is Vic, a hard-nosed crime reporter, whom we get to know very well (and who, as other reviewers observe, gets all the best one-liners).

A series of gory crimes and murders take place. It soon becomes apparent that these are not ordinary but ritualistic in nature. As the mystery develops, dark powers and ancient forces emerge, and Jonah finds that he himself has something in common with those powers and forces: he starts to avoid light; he starts to crave raw meat. He confronts deep ethical questions about good and evil; in one brilliant and compelling scene, he finds himself pursuing a young man through the night and, when he hunts down his prey – but you’ll have to read that yourself.

This would be a five-star rating were it not for the minor but very annoying flaws. The book is full of typos. “[d]rying retching” was distracting, but a sentence that began with “Their” when the author meant “They’re” and another with “Whose” when it should have been “Who’s” forced me to re-read: the spell was broken. There were a couple of threads that got broken: Betty, a paramedic, is in an ambulance crash in which two people die and blood is stolen, but she and the accident enter the narrative once and are never heard from or of again – but I did want to find out what became of her. There are errors of geography – the container ports face Tsing Yi, not Lantau, and, while there is a bridge over Aberdeen Harbour, that bridge seemed to have been written in over Victoria Harbour. Some of the action happens in the container terminals: a bonded area with strict security, but which the characters wander into without hindrance.

This may seem like nit-picking, but when you want the reader to believe in the supernatural, it is all the more convincing when the real-world the reader knows is depicted with utmost fidelity.

I have a feeling that this is intended as the first book of a series. The chase scene I referred to above is classic, and if the later books build on that, I’d be first in the line to buy signed copies.

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Published on December 10, 2022 19:15

November 3, 2022

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prisoner of Heaven (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #3)The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read one of the other books in this series a few years ago, so was pleased when this one jumped off the shelf at me.

Somehow this one wasn’t quite as good as the one I read before (which was much longer). The plot involved a few characters that rang vague bells in the back of my head, with the action jumping between the late 1950s, which was the now, and the late 1930s, the end of the Spanish Civil War, which was then.

The action in the now was very thin. There wasn’t much to keep me engaged, and although there was promise of a grand finale, that stream of action fizzled out with no real conflict or drama. The other challenge the protagonist faced was resolved off-stage which robbed the narrative of what could have been its most interesting part.

The action in the then was much richer (and I think may have included a retelling, from another character’s side, of an incident that happened in the book I previously read). It’s a tale of survival against the odds, along with a nice couple of somewhat literary twists and a couple of well-aimed stabs at literary establishments everywhere. The nasty stuff manages the delicate balance between being cringe-inducing and being gratuitous. A descent into madness is sensitively portrayed, as is the recovery from trauma.

Although I’ve only given the book three stars, I’d love to read the other two books in the series and perhaps, one of these days, save a month to read all four in sequence.

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Published on November 03, 2022 10:32

October 23, 2022

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This gently paced book is about life growing up in the slums of post-war Naples. Elena and Lila become friends at a very early age. Books, education and reading are disparaged in their community of low-earning workers, but Elena and Lila are both precocious readers. Lila is the brighter, but Elena is the more applied, and although their paths start to diverge as they hit their teenage years, their friendship is profound.

It’s difficult to say why I liked this book as much as I did. I needed a change from potboilers, it’s true, but it was more than that. I felt drawn into Elena’s world in a way that few books have drawn me in. Elena and Lila live in a world with many parallels with, but many very big differences from the world in which I grew up. Glasgow in the 1970s was also a place of poverty, fights, rivalries, vendettas, violence and joy. It was also a place of unexpected kindness, acts of extraordinary generosity (often from those who could least afford it) and, despite it all, of almost contrarian optimism. Glasgow didn’t have the passionate romances, declarations of love and displays of emotion of Naples, but there was enough overlap. I was in the moment when Lila is bullied, I was rooting for Elena when she struggles with Latin, I was balling my fists when she is sexually assaulted just as I found her own confusion at her body’s reaction so utterly believable.

Perhaps this is the root of it. The portrayal of the inner lives of young people is very difficult to pull off. Any (honest!) adult remembers their adolescence as a time of confusion, but it’s very difficult to unpack what we were confused about. This book portrays it beautifully without ever falling into the traps of condescension or trivialisation. I look forwards to finding the next three volumes in the series.

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Published on October 23, 2022 02:09

October 10, 2022

Razor GIrl by Carl Hiaasen

Razor Girl (Andrew Yancy, #2)Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was everything that my previous crime thriller (The Long Weekend) was not. Razor Girl was packed full of gags, laugh-out-loud moments, wacky characters and the improbable made to seem plausible.

But, more than that, the book had points to make. One of the characters is a lawyer who specialises in class-action law suits and falls pleasingly victim to the very things that he privately disparages; another is a reality TV star who is faced with the kind of unthinking rage he himself promotes.

If you are looking for serious social commentary on modern-day America, this is probably not the book for you. If you’re looking for an engaging read with an undercurrent of satire, it is.

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Published on October 10, 2022 06:25

October 2, 2022

The Long Weekend by Gilly Macmillan

The Long WeekendThe Long Weekend by Gilly Macmillan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What I wanted was an easy-reading page-turner for a flight. What I got was not easy reading and, at times, not very page-turning.

I found the book difficult to read not because it was from multiple points of view, but because those points of view shifted to quickly, unapologetically and needlessly. In a book of short sections and no chapters, this was tough going. I could be seeing the world through Ruth’s eyes one paragraph and Emily’s the next, only to find myself bumped into Jayne’s head the following paragraph. Maybe I was reading it wrong, but I was constantly struggling to find whose eyes I was looking through.

As a crime novel, I expected a certain degree of characters who are messed up and situations that tested my suspension of disbelief. But in this novel, not a single character seemed anchored in anything other than a horrid world, and the situations span out of control. And the bad guy was all the worse for preying on a teenage girl in a way that was somehow far more chilling than anything in Lolita.

This book could have been a hilarious comedy. As a crime novel, I closed it with a sense of relief.

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Published on October 02, 2022 04:08