Friday, 2 December 2016

Beck Valley Books Advent Calendar

I've loved being part of Beck Valley Book Tours over on Literary Flits in recent months. You can see the books I have already reviewed for them Through This Link. There's another three coming up over the next couple of weeks too and they all have giveaways, so keep your eyes peeled. Now I am excited to spread some seasonal joy on this blog by sharing Beck Valley Book's unique interactive Christmas Advent Calendar for booklovers! (And I'm only 1 day late in posting it) If you're looking for bookish gifts or just want to treat yourself, dive right in! The Advent Calendar is full of fabulous books from many amazing authors, ideal for Christmas Gifts or for you to enjoy, and there's special offers too!

Hover over the dates and they will become alive with wonderful book choices and offers! Click on the blog post link for each date to be taken to the author's own Christmas Advent page where you will find out much more plus what makes Christmas special for them this year.

Hover over the advent calendar dates to find out which book is hidden behind...






Merry Christmas from all the Beck Valley Books reviewing team xx

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Alet les Bains - we're in Cathar country

Alet les Bains 
Our newest campsite is the pretty Val d'Aleth in Alet les Bains. The town itself is small and incredibly historic. It dates back to Roman times and many of the narrow streets and overhanging buildings still have a distinctly Medieval feel. The campsite is at the edge of town, right on the banks of the river Aude, and is approached over an old stone bridge which looked a tad snug as we drove up to it, but was absolutely fine! The sharp right turn into the campsite lane is wider than it first appears too! We're using our ACSI card here to get us a price of €16 a night which includes the pitch, two people, 6A electricity and free wifi. The wifi is technically only around the Reception building, but at quiet times the signal does stretch as far as our pitch. At the moment though I am sitting out in glorious sunshine at a picnic bench to write this post.

The campsite is just over the river from the main road so there is fairly constant traffic noise, but it has lots of trees and hedges so feels tranquil. There's a railway line too and Alet les Bains station is easily walkable from the site. Trains go to Carcassonne and Quillan. The shower block onsite is reasonably new and smart, and there is a small shop in Reception. There's also several shelves of swappable books in a variety of languages. That's me sorted then!

Lion at Alet les Bains 
We took a wander around Alet les Bains on our first afternoon and stopped in at the little tourist office where we were given several local walking maps. We're hoping to get a walk from St Polycarpe in this afternoon. Alet les Bains is famous for its ruined 12th century abbey. Visits are possible when the tourist office is open (not every day at this time of year), but we just peered through the fence for now. There's another tiny book exchange under cover in the main square. It's community run which was great to see. All the books here are in French. Alet les Bains also has thermal springs and a large old 'Thermes' Spa park and building with this lion statue created by Mce Denonvilliers. Slightly further away from the old town, although nowhere is very far here, we discovered another community project - a recreated Medieval Garden with beds of plants separated according to their purpose, medicinal, edible, etc. The Garden was only started this summer and, obviously, doesn't look its best in November, but we enjoyed seeing how many plants we could recognise and labels we could translate.

Jardin Medieval at Alet les Bains 

I'm not sure how long we will stay here. Our plan before we arrived was maybe three weeks because the campsite shuts between Christmas and New Year. There's several towns nearby to explore, walks to take and this area of France is beautiful. I love seeing the golden vine fields! We might even take a trip back to Carcassonne. It must be about a decade since we were last there.

Symbols in Alet les Bains square 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Month in Books - November 2016

I hadn't initially thought that November was outstanding month of book reading but, looking back to write this post I see I was wrong. I mostly awarded three or four star ratings so goods and very goods rather than five star wows - although there are two of those! - but I did have a good run of indie author reads including two travel memoirs, a great mental health YA novel, an interesting self help guide and another thought-provoking Joss Sheldon novel. There's also a Christmas classic and thrilling Scandi-crime fiction.
If you read all the way through to the end of this post, I'm running a giveaway for my last read of November!



Four Chambers by John Henry Winter

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Winter was inspired to write this novella by quantum physics and his boom explores the idea of disparate events being connected in tiny and unexpected ways. It is cleverly done and I needed to read slowly (for me) so as not to miss any hints that were later shown to be important connections.


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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I have seen several theatrical and film versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, but hadn't actually read the book since childhood and that was probably an abridged version. I loved rediscovering this timeless classic and thought Dickens' portrayal of London and her people must be pretty much impossible to top!



The Last Hotel Room by Sean McLachlan

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I have been impressed with all my KindleScout reward books so far and The Last Hotel Room was no exception. McLachlan evokes various aspects of life in Tangier, Morocco, and also explores the predicament of Syrian refugees trapped in poverty within the city.


Berta La Larga by Cuca Canals

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This young adult novel reads like a myth or a fairytale and it is great fun. Very Spanish in style, it tells of poor Berta who is supposed to have magical powers but seems to only be possessed of great height. However when she falls in love with a postman from the hated neighbouring village, her powers are unleashed to devastating effect.



Road To Nowhere by Jim Fusilli

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I bought this audiobook from Audible a few years ago, but for some unknown reason it wouldn't download so got forgotten about until now. It's an odd crime thriller, well narrated but with a strange premise that I couldn't completely get behind. I did like the female characters' portrayal although our 'hero' is depicted in too enigmatic a way for me to understand him.


London Overground: A Day's Walk Around The Ginger Line by Iain Sinclair

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I had been looking forward to reading this one as I like urban history, long distance walking and trains. However I was disappointed. There were some sections which were interesting, but much of the book is Sinclair's reminiscences about his own arty and literary friends and it came across to me as too pretentious.


The MacKinnon's Bride by Tanya Anne Crosby

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If you are a light romance fan and have never heard how Scottish people really speak then you might well like The MacKinnon's Bride. It's light and pretty predictable and I did quite enjoy the quick read. The interspersed 'historical language' is very odd though!


Wasp Days by Erhard von Buren

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It took a while for me to get into this book and I don't think it is one that would appeal to a wide audience. Essentially an elderly man reminiscing about his life, I was interested in historical Paris and in a journey he took to China.


Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson

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A great charity shop find and, as soon as he finished reading, Dave was straight on to Amazon to buy another mystery in this series! Perhaps not completely believable, but go with the flow for an exciting read.


Three Days In Damascus by Kim Schultz

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Another perspective on the refugee crisis, Schultz's newly published memoir recounts her long-distance relationship with an Iraqi man stranded in Syria.


March by Geraldine Brooks

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One reason I chose to read Little Women recently was because I knew I had this audiobook awaiting me. It fills in a story of Mr March, the girls' absent father, during the American Civil War and in his younger years. I particularly liked how Brooks weaves her novel around the original.


I Am The Ocean by Samita Sarkar

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Canadian Sarkar spent a month travelling in America alone and this memoir recounts both her physical experiences and her spiritual growth during her journey. Her Hare Krishna faith is an important aspect of the book.



The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

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Another great charity shop find! We had already seen the film of this book and, unsurprisingly, there is a lot more to the novel although the film keeps very closely to its source material. I was fascinated by the portrayal of a Maori New Zealand community.



The Little Voice by Joss Sheldon

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Newly published last week, this first person narrated novel explores how we condition our children and asks whether what is considered to be best for our society is damaging its members. This is the second of Sheldon's books that I have loved and he has joined my favourite author list!


Your Flight To Happiness by Toni Mackenzie

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This self help guide to emotional resilience uses the author's former career as an air stewardess as its hook and includess useful exercises and mindfulness ideas, most of which look fairy easy to implement.


Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

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Disappointing historical fiction because there wasn't enough period detail for my tastes. The book is set during the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s and does have a nice spy story mystery, but the characters aren't all particularly well developed.


And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 

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A bit of a sprawl of a novel, I didn't think this book had a strong enough structure and it lost direction during the second half. It's still good, but I think not a patch on Hosseini's first two books.


My Friends Are All Strange by M C Lesh

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Newly published in October this year, Lesh has written an insightful YA novel of a teenager trying to cope with her disintegrating mental health. This book is suitable for older readers too and I have a copy to give away on Literary Flits this week. (The post publishes itself at noon today).

Eighteen books later, that's all my November reads and I am set to start on December's delights! I know I have one Christmassy novella lined up and it comes with a Blog Tour giveaway for you to enter. There will be a witchy fantasy story with a giveaway too and I am wondering whether to take the plunge and start The Luminaries. I can't keep being intimidated by its brickness forever!

Monday, 28 November 2016

A brief stop at Champagnac-La-Riviere in the Limousin

Chez Trangiroux 
We've paused for a few days in the village of Champagnac-La-Riviere which is in the Limousin region of France to visit our friends Chris and Marta who have a base nearby. Our campsite here is again Camping Parc Verger and there have been a few changes since we were last here in April. There's now a little swimming pool - although it's closed for the winter - and plans are afoot for a cafe in the New Year. Franc and Lisa were welcoming again and we managed to get the same pitch as before with its view over the neighbouring lake. The water level is so low we can scarcely see it though. Apparently this part of France has experienced an unusually dry summer. I took advantage of the book exchange in Reception for a spot of BookCrossing so if you're wanting to read Turkish Gambit or And The Mountains Echoed, my copies are here!

Walk signs at Champagnac-La-Riviere 
We've been on two good walks around the local area with our friends. The first was one of their regular routes of about 8km. The second was shorter at 6.3km - Marta has a GPS gadget! - and mostly followed a marked route around the Circuit des Ecureuils. The photograph above is of art at Chez Trangiroux, a house on route which is decorated with several eye-themed artworks. Although chilliness descends once the sun has set here, we had pleasantly warm sunshine over the weekend so the autumnal woods were glorious in shades of orange, yellow and brown. Their paths were deep with fallen leaves too and Marta found a few chanterelle mushrooms. She is quite the eagle-eyed forager! We are delighted to have been given a jar of her homemade Medlar Jelly as a 'Happy Travels' gift. I know it is delicious!

Deyme, near Toulouse, is our destination today and we plan on an overnight stop at Camping Violettes - another good campsite we discovered last trip. If the weather there is gorgeous, we might be tempted to prolong our stay and cycle a little of the Canal du Midi again. Otherwise it will be straight on to pastures new.

Marta's Medlar Jelly 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

We see the Bayeux Tapestry and Battle of Normandy Museum

Bayeux Cathedral 
Our main reason for choosing the Manoir de l'Abbaye campsite which I blogged about yesterday was so we could visit Bayeux and finally see its famous tapestry. That's not all the town has to offer though and we started by visiting the Notre Dame du Bessin Cathedral, a stately and elegant structure which towers over everything. Inside it is mostly plain stone, but with many gorgeously vivid stained glass windows and an incredibly overblown 17th century pulpit. This is about half way down the cathedral, side on to the pews, and would make the speaker look as though they were preaching from within clouds and surrounded by cherubs. Not a subtle message to the congregation! We were lucky to see a worn, but still clear medieval wall painting which had been uncovered when large furniture in front was removed for restoration. We could also peep into a lower possibly Roman level underground, but couldn't walk around as this was closed off for the winter.

I liked this joiner's shop sign 
Also closed for the winter were the pay machines at the d'Ornano which pleased us. Parking is free here from the end of October until the Spring so we didn't have to pay for that or to enter the Cathedral or to wander around the interesting old streets. There is a trail of some twenty boards which explain aspects of Bayeux history from Roman times until the Second World War. We learned that the Roman town here was called Augustodurum. The massive Roman walls which were originally built to protect against Saxon raids were only abandoned during the eighteenth century and we were able to see a small section that has been preserved.

It was a clear but distinctly chilly day so we took the opportunity to warm up at Le Miette Doree, a tiny sandwicherie on Rue Larcher which was offering Soupe Maison at €3 a bowl. The soup was just what we needed and the coffee here was very good too.

Battle of Normandy Museum diorama 
We bought a dual ticket for the Museum of the Battle of Normandy and the Bayeux Tapestry Musem. This was €12 per person and turned out to be great value although Dave was unimpressed at the lack of seniors discount! The Battle of Normandy museum is huge and has extensive exhibits documenting the Allies invasion and ultimate capture of Normandy over the summer of 1944. I was particularly interested in the old photographs and artifacts. There are models in all the various uniforms, vehicles, guns and shells and a detailed diorama which I managed to get a reasonable photo of. The 25 minute film in the little cinema is very good and included a lot of information which was new to us. Most sobering were the images of absolute destruction. Town after town seemingly reduced to rubble. How did anyone survive?

From one war to another and I am happy to say that The Bayeux Tapestry is as incredible in person as it reputation suggests! There is Absolutely No Photography allowed which is understandable so I have 'borrowed' the image below from the museum website. We had read online the evening before our visit that the Tapestry is only 50cm high so I wondered if we would have another Magna Carta moment (is that it?!). Instead I was amazed! We were given audioguide headsets explaining each of the fifty-odd scenes along the seventy metres of embroidery. I wasn't prepared for there to be so much humour in the work - although it does get pretty gruesome later on. After viewing the Tapestry we also explored the accompanying museum which explained its making and the whole 1066 story in great detail and from the Norman perspective. Perhaps not everything I was told at school was true! This museum also has a very good short film and I loved the tiny models of contemporary landscapes and the full size replica of a Norman boat. I can't imagine trying to cross the Channel effectively in a big canoe - with horses!

Bayeux Tapestry detail 

Friday, 25 November 2016

En France! Manoir de l'Abbaye at Martragny near Bayeux

Manoir de l'Abbaye at Martragny 
I'd like to start this post with a big thank you to the weather for deciding to have its storm the day before our cross channel sailing! The sea for our crossing was practically flat and I hardly felt poorly at all. I even managed to drink coffee and eat a delicious salmon salad. If only all sailings could be as smooth!

Our first stop was Manoir de l'Abbaye campsite at Martragny, just outside Bayeux. The ACSI registered site is open all year, but as we pulled up the single track lane to the camping field entrance we spotted a barrier across it and our hearts sank. It's ok said Madame, waving from behind us. You can park in the courtyard. Just reverse back down this narrow curving lane. Reverse? We don't DO reverse! Fortunately Dave panicked less than I did and took the wheel. He managed to slowly but surely trundle our caravan back and then in through a huge stone gateway to the Manoir courtyard. Phew! Other than just clipping one corner, our worst caravanning nightmare was averted!

Manoir de l'Abbaye is €21 a night (ACSI price €18 for 3 or more nights) including electricity and free wifi and they only take cash. There is a little shower block in the courtyard, but the chemical toilet point is across the neighbouring camping field. If you stay here in winter too, don't wait until your toilet is full. It's a long traipse! We were glad of the protection provided by thick stone walls and an overhanging barn roof though. Monday night was pretty windy.

The Manoir was apparently built in the 17th century and the main house is a beautiful building. I loved that the barn where we hooked up our electricity was full of random broken furniture, old agricultural implements and a pretty new mini tractor. The three-foot-long door knocker is impressive too! Manoir de l'Abbaye is excellently situated for Bayeux so if you want to see the famous tapestry, this is the campsite to choose. The town is probably even within cycling distance for fitter souls. Just make sure to pull over and ask where you need to pitch up. Don't go zooming up the lane - whatever the signs say!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

#ThrowbackThursday - where we were on this day in Novembers past

Deer print by Mark Hearld 
I can revisit blog posts right back to 2012 for November's ThrowbackThursday post because I know I visited the Emma Mason Gallery in Cornfield Terrace, Eastbourne at the start of their Into The Ark exhibition of prints featuring animals. The exhibition was put on to coincide with that year's Eastbourne Christmas Open Houses. I never actually bought any large prints from Emma Mason, but it is a fabulous place to go for unusual and gorgeous greetings cards such as the Deer pictured here. The Eastbourne Christmas Open Houses is running again this year too, over the first two weekends in December and full details are on this Facebook page.

Estremoz architecture 
This time in November 2013 we were well into our First Great Caravan Adventure and were just about to arrive in Evoramonte in Portugal. We stayed at our second Dutch-owned campsite here and I remember that the shower block was architect-designed and absolutely fabulous. A Dutch couple caravanning on the pitch next to us had been stranded there three weeks while they waited for their Subaru car to be repaired in Lisbon and were understandably delighted when they could finally collect it. This photo is of a great building in our nearest town of Estremoz and we also took the opportunity to visit Evora which boasts incredible Roman ruins including an aqueduct and a temple to Diana.

Regrowing hillside above Xabia 
By the 25th of November 2014 we were in Xabia, Spain, and well into our second Great Caravan Adventure which would go on to last some 20 months. We donned our hiking boots to stride out over the hills overlooking Xabia port to discover eleven historic windmills which had originally been built between the 14th and 18th centuries. It was a bizarre vista as there had been an extensive forest fire only a few months previously so we saw lots of barren hillsides with blackened tree stumps and a few palm trees beginning to regrow. There was a burned car crashed halfway down one hillside too, but we never did find out if that had been the cause of the greater fire or it had crashed earlier and then been consumed.

Old olive mill in Castries 
Then on this day last year we were cycling around Sussargues and Castries in France. We were staying on a campsite in Castries and took advantage of a bright, sunny day for a two hour ride out as dar as Saint Drezery before returning for coffee in a pretty courtyard cafe and a stroll around Castries itself. The old olive mill pictured is now the Mairie (the town hall) and I loved that they had kept all the flowing arches.

This year we are in France again at this point in November and hopefully by the time this blog post publishes itself (I am writing a few days in advance while I still have reliable wifi!) we will have seen the Bayeux Tapestry - all 70 metres of it! That will certainly be a memorable day!