23 October 2012

Book Reviews: Vacation reading!

Image not mine. Found here
So many of my recent posts have been dedicated to travel that it feels really good to get back to a few old-fashioned book reviews. Here are the books that I started and/or finished reading while on vacation earlier this month:

1. Safekeeping by Karen Hesse. My coworker, Marika, gave me an ARC of this one with the suggestion that I might like it, and she was mostly right. It's the story of a girl named Radley, an only child who has almost everything, who is volunteering in Haiti when there's a presidential assassination and a coup d'etat back home in the US. She flies back home to New England right away, but when her parents don't show up at the airport to pick her up, she decides to make her way there on foot. It's a martial law scene of rampant looting and pillaging, and it's illegal to cross state lines without papers. Radley finally makes it to her parents' house but nobody is there and she's too scared to trust anybody enough to ask what happened. Eventually she starts walking north to the Canadian border and she meets another young girl on the run, and they form an uneasy alliance.  They make it to Canada with several near-misses and take shelter in an abandoned school house, where a lonely widow looks out for them without being too obvious about it--she doesn't want to spook the girls into running again.  After a few months, Radley sees news that the situation in the US is better and she gets safe passage back home again, where she discovers her parents have been dead since before she left Haiti.

The book is scattered throughout with Hesse's photographs, but I thought they were more a distraction to the store than an enhancement. The writing is serviceable and Radley is largely believable, but the book feels like it is three incomplete stories jammed together to make a full-length novel.  Fleshing the three storylines out and using better transitions than the photos would create a more satisfying read.

Attachments Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. This one I picked up because there's a distinct possibility that Reading Rambo would disavow all interwebs friendship with me if I didn't. It's a fun and light read of two friends who work at the same newspaper. Beth and Jennifer are smart and funny, and more than half of this book comprises their emails back & forth to each other. The internet is a newish thing at the time the book is set, which is why Lincoln also has a job at the paper. He's the IT guy who runs a crack programming team to avoid the Y2K problems and who is also the gatekeeper of all illegal email activity. Company email with suspicious words or phrases is flagged into Lincoln's email box so he can monitor it and give out warnings to employees who are abusing the no-personal-email rule.

Naturally he falls in love with Beth through her emails. He's a tall, dishy self-identified geek who lives with his mom and has a standing Friday night gaming date with his college buds. And Beth and Jennifer start to mildly obsess over Cute Guy, whom they spot from time to time at work but don't really know what he does. When he turns out to also be Nice and a Shining-Armor-Wearing-Knight, it's time to swoon. But wait--how can confess his love to Beth without seeming like a creepy, stalking-you-by-email loser? Ahh, good times.  A good beach read.

The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. It seems interesting to me that in the last few weeks I've read two books and seen one very fine film about caregivers and their patients.  While this book was pretty good and I'm glad I read it, it was the one for which I cared least among the three. It's the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a man who is no longer a father or a husband, and Trevor, the young man with MD entrusted to his care. The cover compares it to Little Miss Sunshine, so I was sold on it.

The last 50 pages or so really made the book worthwhile for me--that's where I finally really clicked with the story.  The big reveal behind Ben's tragedy, when it finally comes, is almost anticlimactic and not very revealing at all.  Tragic, to be sure, but since the narrator natters on and on about every single little thing, I was expecting more than just those 3-4 explanatory sentences about the car and the cliff.

The Dinner by Hermann Koch. Holy crap, but was I ever unprepared for this book! I read an uncorrected proof with NO book description whatsoever--the opening chapter made me think it was set in L.A., featuring famous bougie-type people.  Couldn't have been more wrong. This book defines "unreliable narrator" and while it gets off to a slow start, before too long, it pretty much knocks you over the head with disturbing images and plot. It was totally insidious the way this book worked on me.  To say more would, I think, do a disservice to the reader. It's an anti-beach read, so that might explain why it took me so long to work my way through this slim book, but I mostly read it at night before falling asleep, which was a better atmosphere than reading it on a sunny beach.

Not exceptionally written (or perhaps it was in the translation) but this book is dark and underhanded and extremely interesting. It's translated from the Dutch and will be published by Hogarth Press in 2013.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
ARC cover
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This one is tied with The Dinner for the best book I read on vacation. Okay, imagine if Jasper Fforde had written The Name of the Rose and placed it in a 21st century setting. Throw in a secret society of bibliophiles that dates back to Aldus and the incunabula. Now populate it with a mysterious bookshop owner, a brilliant Google maven who believes the secret to immortality lies in unlocking the codes to traditional knowledge, and a fantasy-reading, computer programming bookseller who discovers than a venerable typeface might be the answer everybody is looking for.

Seriously, it's a trip to read. Very funny and clever. If you're at all interested in the history of printing and bookmaking, typography & design, mysteries, pop culture, or Google, give this book a spin.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Finished book cover

NB: Check out the difference in the ARC cover from the finished copy. The actual book cover glows in the dark and is really, really cool. Another reason to buy the physical book and not the e-book!

NB part deux: All of the books I read were in ARC format, and I either requested them from the publisher or they were sent unsolicited. 

22 October 2012

Virgin Gorda Day III

Sunrise over North Sound at Euphoria
Another day dawns clear and bright after a night of storms.  I had tried to lie awake to listen to the sounds of the rain, but the pull of sleep was too strong.  The tradeoff is that I'm able to bounce out of bed with an energy unknown at home and photograph the sun as it comes up. Then I make the coffee and find a quiet place to read until it's time to get ready for breakfast.

This time, DH makes French toast for us. Previous guests had left two kinds of syrup in the fridge and we had the mixings for everything else, including nutmeg and cinnamon to complete the island flavor.  It made me think of a wonderful breakfast I'd eaten on Virgin Gorda several years ago: bushwhacker French toast at the Flying Iguana.  Puck, the owner/chef (I think both), entertained us with stories and with his parrots in between courses, while DH and I had joked that vacationing in New Orleans and the Caribbean were the only two places where we can spend more on alcohol than food during breakfast!

Savannah Bay, looking left
Savannah Bay, looking right
Anyway, we soon packed up our beach bags, chairs and snorkel gear and hit the road to Savannah Bay, a beach that DH and I had visited in the past to make photographs but hadn't spent much time, for lack of shade. That's one reason I was pushing to get out of the villa so early. There is a carpark area immediately off of the main road, but it's easier to follow the rutted road closer to the beach, where there is parking and turnaround room.

We settled into a shady spot under a cluster of sea grapes and were quickly joined by the local beach fowl. DH and Mom decided to read for a while, so Melanie and I went snorkeling.  The water was cloudier here than it had been at Spring Bay the day before, so visibility was probably only about 15-20 feet or so.  Melanie quickly got nervous at how deep the water was getting on the far shoal (probably around 20 feet), plus her fins were still giving her issues, so we turned around and snorkeled closer to shore.  For the first time ever, my mask wasn't cooperating and was continuously leaking water and I couldn't fix it, so all in all, it was a frustrating excursion into the water. We stayed out there for about 45 minutes, though, and it was as fun as it could be while having to pause every couple of minutes to clear my mask.

Savannah Bay: again with the crowds 
Warning sign on the far end of the beach

Mom and Melanie reading
My book was calling to me before too long, so we got out of the water and walked back to where we were set up--we had drifted almost all of the way down the beach. We spent the next few hours reading, sunning, and hanging out in that gorgeous, gorgeous water, and right before we left, DH and I walked the beach. We were starting to get a likkle peckish around 1:00, so we packed up everything and were headed to the car when minor disaster struck.

Double self-portrait on Savannah Bay
The skin on my husband's forearms is so very thin and easily damaged, that when the beachbag he'd been carrying on his shoulder slid down, it sheared off two sizeable flaps of his skin. We'd been planning to eat lunch while we were out, but instead, we had to make a beeline back to Euphoria to patch him up.

His arm, two days later. Would have been too gross to post an earlier photo
Thank goodness that the villa had a first aid kit on hand!  We travel with most of the things we needed, like non-stick gauze and some self-adhesive ACE-bandage-like tape, plus some Neosporin and bacitracin. What we didn't have was something to gently cleanse the wound. We poured some bottled water over it to clean away the blood, but that stung like billy-o. We had some gin we thought about using, but DH was adamant about not wasting good alcohol. Luckily there was some sterile saline solution in the kit that we used. I did "waste" a little gin to sterilize my tweezers so I could pull the skin all the way back to get any air bubbles out, then laid it back gently into place, smoothing it down with the bacitracin. Mom and Melanie could barely watch.

Outdoor dining at NailBay's Sugar Cane restaurant
Since this happens on a regular basis to my DH, we weren't particularly fazed by it, other than feeling hungrier than ever by the time we were ready to leave. I proposed that we head towards Nail Bay, a suggestion that met with universal approval, and off we went to seek a late lunch.  It was a little after 2:00 when we arrived at Sugar Cane, Nail Bay's restaurant, and we were relieved to hear that they were still serving lunch.

Sugar Cane
DH and Melanie at Sugar Cane
Mom and I  at Sugar Cane
It was a very pleasant oasis, nice and breezy and pretty to look at, but unfortunately very buggy. The server was aware of the insect problem and she warned us of it before taking the outdoor seating, but we preferred to sit out under the large umbrellas rather than under the roof by the bar. I'd swear that it was sand fleas nipping our ankles and lower legs, but I can't imagine that they'd be up there.  We applied rounds of insect repellent, but that didn't seem to do much good.

Passionfruit daiquiri: one of my favorite frou-frou beverages.
So clearly having a round of drinks while we decided on lunch would be the only way to cope. We settled on three different appetizers to share, since the drinks did a good bit to fill us up: chicken satay, coconut cracked conch, and nachos. The chicken was pretty good, and you'd have to work pretty hard to mess up nachos, but the conch was very tough. We've been spoiled for conch ever since our first trip to Grenada, where we had it served up so tender you'd swear you were eating a scallop instead. Mr Boots serves up amazing lambi (as conch is known on that island), and no conch we've eaten anywhere else will compare. But I digress.  Bug bites aside, it was a pleasant interlude.
The bar and "inside" dining at Sugar Cane 
The very pretty pool on the opposite side of the bar
While waiting for the check to arrive, Melanie and I got up to explore the sugar mill ruins. I was completely taken by surprise by how awful the mosquitos were swarming, so I didn't stay long. It was sunny and breezy and more than two hours away from the time when the mozzies usually descend; I have no idea what circumstances were converging to make the bugs so terrible at Nail Bay that particular day. I can't imagine that it's like that all the time.

After settling the bill (btw, 15% service charge was already added, so we added a little additional tip), we headed back to Euphoria for either a nap or a swim before cleaning up for dinner. On our previous trip to Virgin Gorda, our best meal by far had been at The Rock Cafe, so we decided to make reservations there for dinner, requesting an outdoor table near the waterfall for the ambience. (Inside, it's nothing special AND the music is really, really loud, so this was important.) But first we went to a new place called CocoMaya so that we could have cocktails and watch the sunset.  If we liked what we saw, we'd come back another night.

On the beach at CocoMaya
Mom at CocoMaya 
Some more outdoor seating at CocoMaya
Melanie and DH at one of the outdoor cocktail areas

Well, we liked what we saw.  I'd read reviews of CocoMaya online before coming and knew to be prepared with insect repellent, and boy, was it ever needed.  The sand fleas were awful, and of course the mosquitos hit at twilight like they do everywhere.  But it was a fun place, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a menu of more creative cocktails. Between our two visits, we tried almost all of them:

We arrived just in time for sunset, and what a difference it makes between my little phone camera and my husband's camera he uses for work.  Check it out:

We enjoyed our cocktails immensely: DH ordered a Pimm's cup, Mom had a Cinnamon Girl, Melanie had the Strawberry Mule, and I had the Cohiba. I liked mine best, of course. Really, though, it was well mixed, quite refreshing, and not at all too sweet.  For someone who loves her desserts with an unparalleled passion, I'm not all that crazy about sweet cocktails.

My Cohiba
Once the sun went down, we climbed up to the bar to order another round of cocktails. I'm not kidding--the bar was so tall we all had to hoist ourselves up. DH and I opted to be just a swangin', which was a lot of fun but also challenging for those who are not the height of Scandinavian basketball players.

Hard to tell here, but we're on a very high porch swing
Blurry shot of Josey in mixology action
Here was where we met Miss Josey, our wonderful bartender, and we had a blast chatting with her while she helped us pick our next beverage. DH reverted to his usual gin, while Melanie went out on a limn to try the tamarind & chile margarita, Mom had the Utopia champagne cocktail, and I had the ginger-lychee champagne cocktail. They were all good, but Melanie's was definitely the most interesting!
Check out how high that bar is!

It's a salt and cayenne-lined rim for this margarita!
Soon it was time to head over to the Rock Cafe to make our dinner reservations--it's very close to CocoMaya and easily could have been walked, but we drove instead rather than leaving our car at the bar.

Pretty setting, but too dark to get a better photo
I'm sorry to say that in comparison, Rock Cafe was disappointing. It was also very mosquito-y there, which means it was an island-wide problem and not endemic to one area, and there was a very drunken young man seated at the next table who wanted to make lots of conversation.

We requested a second lantern just to read the menus!
The location is, admittedly, very pretty, but the food, with the exception of my mom's chicken picatta, was mediocre.  DH and I had each ordered the snapper in a caper & butter sauce, and the quality was not in line with its Anguilla-like price. When we're in Anguilla, we're happy to pay those prices because the food is, almost invariably, outstanding.
Mel's seafood pasta

The snapper

Mom's chicken
Dessert wasn't much better, I'm afraid.  They had two choices: chocolate cake or vanilla ice cream, so we asked for a little of both.  The portions of each were ample, but the cake was stale. Since we were celebrating my birthday, DH agreed that he would drive home that night, but it was his first time behind the wheel on the trip, so the ride home was an adventure for everybody.  The roads are super-dark, and unless you know them well and know when it's going to bottom out or turn sharply to either side, it's a little challenging, to say the least. Speed bumps and dips seemingly came out of nowhere, so it felt not unlike Mr Toad's Wild Ride. Home again, home again, piggledy-pop!

We tried to stay up chatting about this, that, & the other, but I promptly fell asleep on the sofa before dragging myself to bed.  After all, I had to maintain my strength for our next day's adventure: the Baths.

Sunset from CocoMaya

19 October 2012

Photo Tour of Euphoria Villa, Leverick Bay, Virgin Gorda, BVI

One of things I knew I wanted to do while on this trip was take lots of photos of the villa where we stayed, in the hopes that it might be helpful to other people wanting to rent there in the future. There are tons of websites out there that feature Euphoria, and they all seem to have the same professional photos. We were lucky because the villa in person looked even lovelier than the pictures we'd seen, but that's not always the case when renting. I do want to mention two other websites, though, to give the most complete portrait of Euphoria: this one, which is the owner's video tour, and the one from VRBO, which gives the full run down in list form of every amenity on offer.

The owners of Euphoria recently refurbished the kitchen area and it's difficult to image a more comfortable place to make one's home-away-from-home. The kitchen is fully stocked with the usual items & appliances, such as a coffee maker, microwave, toaster, blender, etc, but it also had a toaster oven and an air popcorn popper. We ate breakfast in the villa each morning and dined in three nights for dinner; usually when we rent villas, we either make do with what's already stocked, or we try to find the missing item on the island to purchase and leave behind for the next guests.  But in Euphoria, there was nothing missing. We had pizza cutters, wine openers, two full sets of kitchen knives, saute pans, stock pots & colanders of all sizes. We were spoiled for culinary choice, really, and previous guests had even left behind various spices. My sole criticism is that the knives could have been sharper, as my DH had difficulty finding a knife that would cleanly slice our tomatoes and other veggies.

The cupboards came stocked with plates, dishes, three sizes of bowls, and drinkware in both glass and plastic incarnations. The main table could sit six people in maximum comfort and eight people with a little less comfort, I'd guess. Cloth napkins and placemats rounded out our dining experience. Out the door in the above photo is the gas grill and the path leading down to the separate guest suite below, with its own kitchen efficiency. We didn't use that space, but we peeked into it.

The bedroom DH and I shared was very comfortable (to say it was the best sleep of my adult life would not be an exaggeration), with a king-sized Tempurpedic bed, en suite bathroom, and a small walk-in closet. The bedroom had air conditioning, which we used most nights but one night we felt so comfortable with the breeze coming in through the screen doors and jalousied windows that we went without the a/c. I imagine that if we ever had the luxury of multi-week vacations that after the first few nights of acclimating to the island's temperatures and humidity that we'd go without the a/c altogether.

These are rocking chairs. No better place to read, ever!
We had sliding glass doors looking out to the pool area and another set leading to a small deck that was my favorite place to catch the early morning light over coffee, or to read in the shade in the afternoon.

I really loved our glassed-in garden shower in the bathroom, which was done in a terra cotta with island accents and tilework. Some villas go for such a clean, modern look that it's hard to imagine that those places are comfortable, but not Euphoria. Everywhere you look, there are island details, whether it's the tilework, the furnishings, or objets d'art scattered around the villa.

The other king bedded room
My mom was in the other king bedroom that looked out over the pool and which had jalousied windows on two sides of the room and sliding doors to the pool on a third side. Though there was a/c in the room, my mom never used it, preferring to take advantage of the breezes and to better hear the sounds of the Caribbean, both night and day.

View from my mom's room.
Melanie's room was the twin-bedded room off of the entry hallway, and while it had a garden view rather than a water view, it was also the room that could be made the darkest for sleeping since it was south facing. Once the jalousied windows were all shut up for the a/c to be on, the room turned into a crisp little cocoon. Mom and Melanie shared a bathroom in the hallway, and while I never could get a good angle to photograph it, they had a glassed-in shower similar to the one in our bedroom.
Melanie's bedroom and the shared bath are off this hallway.
The painting in the bathroom
I also liked the small, original painting hanging in their bathroom. The house was filled with little artistic touches, which I of course failed to photograph. My favorite piece in the house was a signed & numbered lithograph hanging in the living room of a boy standing in front of a light blue chattel-style home, with long shadows thrown across the image. There were also lots of handmade little touches, like metalwork switchplates for the light switches. It's so nice when the owners put that much thought into the visual aesthetics and place a priority on individual pieces of art rather than put up on their walls the same old, faded island posters that are found everywhere. Even outdoors there were nice touches, such as the bell at the entryway, which DH suspects might be the work of Tom Torrens:
By the front door, seen at night

The area between kitchen & sitting area, with library.
The living room is divided into two sitting areas: one with the flatscreen TV (with DVD and Blue Ray players) and one with some of the most comfortable chairs I've ever sat in.  Those two swiveling, rocking, padded and ultra-comfy chairs were pretty amazing.

The TV area, with screen doors to patio beyond.

The second sitting area
My favorite chair ever.
The second morning, I was sitting there with my coffee and a book and DH asked me why I was inside. I told him to try the chair opposite me and he would understand why, and after that it was rare that I had another chance to sit there, because he and my mom kinda took over.  They know a good thing when they see it  sit on it.

See what I mean? There they are, in my chairs. Behind to the left is the master bedroom, and the sliding door behind my mom leads to the pool and is the cause of all of the backlighting.

Pool, looking toward the master bedroom 
Looking toward mom's bedroom and the dining area
Now, for the outdoor spaces.  One of the best things about villa vacation is that typically you have as much outdoor space as indoor space to call your own, and Euphoria was no exception. No matter whether you wanted some space to yourself or space to be social, a place in the sun or a place in the shade, Euphoria has you covered. The owners had recently bought all new pool furniture in an Adirondack style with padded seat covers, all in a sturdy material that was something like a pressurized polycarbonate. Much better and more durable than the traditional wood for a seaside setting.

That's Prickly Pear in the background
There was another set of chaises longues off of our bedroom
The pool was bigger in person than it looks in any of the photographs I saw on line or made myself. It's not a huge pool--you're not going to swim laps in it or anything--but all four of us could be in there at once, floating around and treading water and not feel like we were going to run into each other.

Pool seen from the living room

Looking at pool from outdoor dining area
Outdoor dining area
There wasn't a bad view from anyplace outside.

My mom's little balcony area
DH posing with one of his books in our little private alcove
We could see Mosquito Island (where Branson's crews were at work), Prickly Pear, and much of the North Sound, including across the water to Bitter End Yacht Club and the just the top of the main dining pavilion at Biras Creek. With my husband's camera I could even get a decent shot of Saba Rock.

Saba Rock, seen from our patio
When standing up, you could see the rooftops of the villas that were lower than ours on the hillside, but when sitting or in the pool, it was nothing but that beautiful horizon. We didn't have a true sunset view, but we could see the play of light to the west in the evenings, but oh, what glorious sunrises we saw!

And here are a couple of shots I made of the villa from the road above Leverick Bay, looking down. It gives a good idea of how close to the water we were:

Euphoria with sailboat in background
Super-closeup shot of Euphoria
And until I get some shared photographs from my mom and Melanie, that concludes our tour of Euphoria Villa for today.  Thanks for coming along for the ride!

One of the many beautiful blooms in the surrounding gardens