Bill Bryson

Have you ever had those authors that you’ve really wanted to like but just can’t get into them?  The books that everybody is raving about but simply pass you by?

Bill Bryson is like that for me.  I’ve picked up his books many times, wanting to read them, wanting to like them.  Everybody swears by him, waxes lyrical about how good a writer he is and how amusing.

I watched ‘A Walk in the Woods’ with my hubby who declared that this was one of his favourite Bryson books and that the book was much better than the film.  I get that.  I’m one of those people who often feel that the book is better than the movie.  With this in mind, I decided to give Bryson another go, this time on Audible.

I’ve recently discovered the joy of audio books.  I love that I can be doing one thing and ‘reading’ a book at the same time.  This is particularly appealing when I’m at work and the task at hand is something mundane and repetitive.  I’ve listed to several of the ‘Last Kingdom’ series this way and thoroughly enjoyed them. I can’t wait to get some time to myself so that I’m able to listen to some more.

Not so with Bryson.

I decided to start at the beginning with ‘The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America’.  I didn’t even get past chapter one.  What was supposed to be comical came out as a deluge of whinge.  It may have been the narrator, who was particularly nasally, but I think I’m just going to have to accept that Bryson simply isn’t my kind of author.  It’s a shame because I’d very much like to have read and enjoyed his books.  Instead I found myself taking the unprecedented step of returning the book to audible because I wasn’t enjoying it!

So, I’m moving on to Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’.  Life is too short for books you don’t enjoy!

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The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell

I’ve been meaning to read Bernard Cornwell for a while.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about his novels.  Somehow he has escaped me until now and all I can say is how??  I have truly missed out.

I started ‘The Last Kingdom‘ last week and I am totally engrossed.  I’ve been living and breathing this novel.  Cornwell has described a world so vividly that I can smell the fires burning, see the Viking Ships and feel the fear of the Saxons.

Cornwell’s vocabulary is simply magnificent, descriptive and relevant but not alienating and leaving me reaching for the dictionary every 5 seconds.  I am utterly in love with his writing style and his characters which have real depth.

The Last Kingdom tells the story of Uhtred, a young boy who is born English but adopted by a Dane when he is orphaned, learning the Danish ways and becoming Danish at heart….or does he?  Where does his loyalties lie?  Is he English or Danish?

As I mentioned earlier, Cornwell’s characters are given depth and you grow to love or hate them throughout the novel.  You come to care about their fate.  In chapter 7, something happens which absolutely gutted me.  There were simply no words.  I’m not going to go into details as it will lessen the impact when you read it for yourself (and I truly hope you do decide to read it for yourself because you will be in for a treat!).  I couldn’t believe it.  I text my husband (who has read the books) in shock and I experienced true emotion about that scene.

It stayed with me and I was still thinking about it the next day.  I love books that have that kind of effect on me, that make me feel real emotions.  I wanted to let out a Viking roar and go and avenge the wrongdoings!

George R.R. Martin gets a lot of credit for not pulling punches with his main characters and not being afraid to give them the chop but equally, Cornwell doesn’t either.  He is just more subtle about it.  You don’t see the rain of blows that is going to fall and it hits you that bit harder.  With Martin, it’s become a bit of a cliche and you go into a book wondering ‘who’s next?’.

I haven’t finished The Last Kingdom yet but I felt driven to write about it, shout from the rooftops about how good this novel is and how much you need to read it.  I have the next book in the series lined up and ready to go.

I can’t wait to slip between the covers with Bernard Cornwell and see what lies in store for Uhtred.  In fact, that’s just what I’m going to do now!

The Dynamite Room – Jason Hewitt

Last Tuesday night found me heading off to my local library for an author talk entitled ‘Writing Evil: Fiction and the Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany’.  Essentially it covered books written about World War 2 which has long been a fascination of mine.

I was there to see Jason Hewitt, author of Devastation Road which is a powerful book that I’d highly recommend.  The author talk was great, it was interesting to hear the authors talk about what motivated them to write the novels they wrote, how they felt and see from their point of view what they wanted to achieve with their writing.

The upshot of this was that I went home with Hewitt’s first book The Dynamite Room which, in my opinion, had a lot to live up to in comparison to Devastation Road.

Both are novels set in World War 2 but at the talk, Hewitt did say that he wanted to explore parts of the war that had not been done before.  This book tells the story of Lydia, an evacuee who runs away from Wales where she has been sent.  She returns home to find her home, the village and the surrounding area deserted.  Later on that night a German soldier arrives, telling her that a full-scale invasion is imminent, she must stay indoors and not run away.

When I started reading this book and for the first 100 pages, I wasn’t convinced, I wasn’t feeling the tension but as the story starts to unravel and you get to know more about the soldier and how he came to be in a village in Suffolk,  you begin to see how war changes people and their relationships, how they do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do outside of war.  It is piercingly sad in places, shocking in others. Hewitt doesn’t pull any punches at all and the book is richer for that.  War isn’t pretty, it is piercingly sad and it is shocking.  That’s the reality of it.

What strikes me most about this novel is the sense of loss.  It stayed with me long after I’d finished the book, much like The Book Thief.  I was thinking about how it could have panned out differently and the scenarios that might have lead to that alternative ending.  I think Hewitt admirably demonstrates the humanity of the German soldier despite him being the enemy and clearly shows the difficult decisions he had to make along the way.

Without a doubt, war brings out the worst in humanity.

 

06.11.16 – Day 4 – Venice

20161106_132746Our last full day in Venice and already I knew I wanted to be here longer.  A friend of mine told me that a few days would be enough but I disagree. Next time I come I want to be here for at least a week. There is so much to see and do.  I feel like I’ve barely scratched the
surface.

We’d decided to visit the Museum (museo) in St Mark’s Square in the morning.  The rain had eased off but already the square was flooded so there were raised boards for people to walk on.  I paddled in the water a bit but it got quite deep and my walking shoes were
already wet.  I wished I’d put my walking boots on!

The Museum was huge, one museum seemed to lead into another, all for one price.  I had to get used to the fact that Italian was the primary language on the display signs with English being a smaller listing.  Usually everything is written in English first.  I’d really 20161106_114510.jpglike to learn some Italian when I come back to Venice and be able to at least read it.

My favourite room by far (unsurprisingly) was the library but it was a close thing with the naval display rooms which were stunning.  Hubby wanted to look at the painting but other than the ones in the naval display, a lot of them were deeply religious and not my thing at all.

20161106_120615In the afternoon we went to the Doge’s Palace which admittedly I wasn’t top of my list but quite honestly I’d have missed out if I hadn’t gone.  The architecture is quite simply stunning.  The pictures I took don’t do it justice.  You have to see it to believe it.  Very opulent and jaw-dropping in places.  The detail in places, especially the ceilings was amazing.  20161106_134939I didn’t know where to look.  It is such a spectacular place with so much to look at.  I could happily have spent the whole day here.

 

I loved particularly loved the corridor that walked over The Bridge of Sighs.  I didn’t know it was there and provided a unique view of one of the most famous landmarks of Venice.  I don’t imagine the prisoners were as excited at me as they were led over the corridor, down into their cells into the dark and dank dungeon…

The weather had cleared up nicely so after we’d finished at the Doge’s Palace we wandered down to the Grand Canal to post my postcards.  Dinner was a fairly quiet affair in a small 20161106_141635local place then more wandering to look for tat to take home with me.  I got the pre-requisite fridge magnet but even the tat was quite expensive so I didn’t buy too much.

During the course of the day, I realised that I know very little about Venetian history so I bought a book, along with a cookery book of traditional Venetian recipes.  I like to take something of the culture home from each place I visit, especially when it comes to food.

I completely fell in love with Venice during my time here.  I hope to visit again soon and explore a bit more of Italy because if Venice is anything to go by, it’s the beginning of a lifelong love affair….

05.11.16 – Day 3, Venice

Today was one our first full day in Venice. I woke up early, excited to be in Venic20161105_095551e and wanting to explore! It was 6am and we’d slept with the balcony door open so I was surrounded by the sounds of Venice as I woke. I love the noise from the boats going passed, people talking to each other in Italian and the sound of the church bells that finally woke hubby around 7am.

Breakfast was provided by the hotel and was rather a fine (and expensive!) affair that was included in the cost of the room. There were hot options – eggs benedict, cooked breakfast and a few other things – but I opted for the continental breakfast. It was a beautiful selection of meats, breads, cheeses, salmon, herring, pastries and breakfast cake! I’ve long been an advocate of breakfast cake……but I didn’t know one actually existed. Obviously I’ve never been to Italy before! I’m not sure if it’s common but it’s good to know!

I had a beautiful breakfast of croissant, meat (salami and some hams), cheeses, smoked salmon and herring. I was in piggy heaven, so much so that I went up for a second, smaller helping! So far I’ve loved the food in Venice. Even hubby who doesn’t like mozzarella will eat it here.

After breakfast it was time to go out and enjoy the sights. I’m smiling just writing this because I’ve fallen in love with Venice (I do that with a lot of places that I visit!) and I want to see more of Italy, experience its culture and learn it’s language. I’ve not travelled widely in Europe and I feel like I’ve missed out.

Before we visited, I didn’t know a lot about Venice. I knew about the canals, the gondolas but I didn’t know you could walk as much as you do through Venice. It isn’t a huge city but you do need to know where you are going because it is like a maze. I was also surprised that although everybody speaks English to a greater or lesser degree, it’s not always fluent and sometimes there is a lot of pointing, gesturing and smiling involved! Everybody was very friendly and willing to help as much as they could though.

20161105_102535It was pouring with rain when we set out but I was determined not to let it ruin the day. The only real complaint with it was people with umbrellas. Venice was packed and the majority of people had umbrellas so you were running the gauntlet of getting an umbrella in the head. In the end I was holding up my arm to protect my face as I passed people with lethal umbrellas which seemed to solve the problem. People didn’t actually seem to realise how close they were to hitting people with them.

So umbrellas aside, it was a good day. We set off after breakfast and headed for Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) with a small map from the hotel and my in-laws as guides because they had been here before.  Before we got very far we went into a small church that wasn’t far from the hotel.  The exterior, although nice enough, gave no hint of the opulence hidden inside.  I would have loved to have taken some photos but there was a sign asking people not to take pictures.

Hubby and I have agreed that Venice is one of the most beautiful and photogenic cities 20161105_103834that we have been to.  It is filled with beautiful architecture in even the most simple of buildings.

Piazza San Marco was stunning.  I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know much about it.  The star of the show is definitely St Marks Bascilia which is a cathedral, the architecture of which is hard to describe.  Stunning and elaborate.  You could look at the exterior of the building for hours and still miss some of the smaller details..  The queues to get in were quite large so we didn’t go inside, instead we headed for The Bridge of Sighs, an enclosed must-see tourist attraction in Venice.  Legend has it that the Bridge got it’s name because of the sighs of prisoners that crossed it.

I bought some over-priced postcards near the grand canal then our whistlestop tour of the site continued with a walk to the Renalto Bridge.  I was dismayed to find it boarded up because there was repair work taking place. One side of the bride was okay so I managed to get the obligatory tourist picture.

20161105_135323One of the things on my ‘must do’ list was to visit the Jewish Quarter.  There are two memorial plaques there for the Holocaust victims of the city.  I read a book about it long before I knew I was coming to Venice and I vowed that if I was ever to visit, I would go to see the memorials and pay my respects.  It is a very sad part of history and reading about it was heartbreaking.

We got a water-taxi there and the driver (do you call them drivers or pilots??) poin20161105_134737ted out the original entrance to the Ghetto.  It was a lot quieter than central Venice but safe enough for tourists.  As we entered the Ghetto there was a restaurant holding some kind of Jewish party.  It was raucous with people having fun and was good to see.

Unfortunately the museum wasn’t open.  I checked with a guard at the booth in the corner of the square.  I managed to find the memorial and the sculpture by Arbit Blatas.  It was so sad that it brought tears to my eyes, especially the memorial with the nam20161105_134828es and ages of those that were taken.  It is important to me when I travel to get to the essence of a place, not just the touristy bits.  I don’t want a checkbox of activities that I need to fill in to have seen a place, I want to feel it and in this case, wanted to pay my respects and feel the sadness of memorials.  I wanted the good as well as the bad.

We decided to walk back to experience more the city.  It was a very peaceful walk.  I was 20161105_134954salivating in the windows of the food shops.  I love Italian food!  Hubby and I were hungry mid-afternoon so we shared a piece of cake while my in-laws shared a cake.  It was quite funny because our pizza was less per person than the cake was!  I wasn’t sure whether to have a pizza because dinner was booked in the hotel that evening and I knew it would be a very fancy and elaborate affair.  The restaurant has a dress code and no prices on the menu.  Anyway, the pizza was delicious.

Even though a lot of my hobbies are outdoorsy, it is nice to have an excuse to dress up some times and this evening I wore a dress from River Island that I’ve never had the opportunity to wear before, finished off with the obligatory cowboy boots of course!

We met my in-laws in the bar and were fed all kinds of snacks while we waited.  I was tempted to stay in there and fill up!  Dinner was at 7:30pm.  It was very, very nice.  I did wish they would turn up the lights though.  The restaurant was candlelit to give it atmosphere but dark rooms make me want to drop off!  Service was impeccable, food was delicious (especially the risotto that I ordered) though not as good as the train but I can’t help but wonder if a local place would have been just as enjoyable, albeit in a different way.

It was a good evening though and a very good day.  I’m left with the feeling that our time here won’t be enough and we will definitely have to visit for longer next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

04.11.16 – Day 2, Orient Express – Venice

The first night on the train was a mixed bag.  I got some sleep, though not as much as I would have liked.  The train stopped from about midnight until about 3am which surprised me.  I thought that the train kept going through the night.  The cabin got quite hot so we opened the window.  Hubby commented that it would have been nice to have had the noise from the train as we slept and I agreed.  By the time the train got going, the open window was blowing a gale and I couldn’t be bothered to sit up and close it!

In the morning we found out the reason that the train had stopped for so long was because the train had actually broken down in the middle of nowhere and another en20161104_082658gine had to be brought out
to the train.  As a result of that, we were running 4 hours behind schedule.  We had been due to arrive in Venice at 5:30pm but it would most likely be 9:30pm instead.  An additional ‘light’ supper would be provided for those who wanted it.  A light supper, it later transpired, meant 2 courses (main and dessert) instead of the usual 3 courses!
The Steward advised us to let him know when we were ready for breakfast then he would convert our cabins back to daytime mode and bring in a breakfast of fresh fruit salad and pastries with a delicious selection of preserves.  I discovered that I love French honey!

After breakfast we took a wander up to the on-board shop.  I was disappointed to learn that they didn’t have an20161104_103805y fridge magnets.  I did manage to get an Orient Express bear that I was absolutely delighted with! It was an expensive but very memorable souvenir.

We spent some time in the bar playing cribbage.  It was blissfully quiet compared to the night before but the piano player was still playing.  What a lovely way to pass a few hours!

20161104_122404After we’d finished we headed back to our cabin to watch the beautiful scenery.  Part o20161104_131638f the
journey was through the Swiss alps.  Some was beautiful greenery, others were more dramatic mountains, lakes and ravines.  It made us want to do a driving holiday through Switzerland at some point!

The choice of lunch sittings was either 12pm or 2pm.  We choose 2pm as we were still quite 20161104_144056full from all the food we’d been given whilst on board.  I’d have been happy with something smaller but it was a (delicious) 3 course lunch! Sole for starter, duck for main and cheesecake for dessert.  At this point I felt like I never wanted to eat again!

20161104_164336No chance!  Afternoon tea was served in the cabin and a ‘light’ supper was offered at 6pm.  We declined the light supper.

The rest of the afternoon was spent reading and packing up our suitcase ready for when we got into Venice.  We had a short stopover at the Swiss/Italian border so we could swap over the engine and train crew.  It was also an opportunity for guests to stretch their legs which was most welcome.  I’m not used to sitting still for this long!  Again, there were armed police not too far away from the train.

By about 7pm I was ready to get off the train.  It was dark outside and we were killing time until we were able to get off.  About 45 minutes before we were to disembark the Steward collected our suitcases for sending on to the hotel.  Our hand luggage was also supposed to be sent on but because our train was so delayed we had to carry it with us.  This didn’t go down too well with all of the passengers!

We were met from the train and taken down to the dock to meet the water taxi.  As we 20161104_213115came out of the station, I was struck by the beauty and atmosphere of Venice.  There was a bustling atmosphere with people everywhere.  It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before.  I just wanted to stop, stare and take lots of pictures!

A small water taxi had been organised to take us to our hotel.  It was tiny and I had no idea how it would get 9 or us plus luggage in there but somehow it managed to.  My sea legs left something to be desired and as I got down into the boat  I had to hold onto one of the guys loading the luggage and the one on the boat.  What a good excuse to get handsy with some Italians!!

The journey to the hotel took about 10 minutes and I was mesmerised by the city.  I didn’t know where to look first.  It was so beautiful and so very, very different.  I’ve wanted to go to Venice for as long as I can remember and finally I was here, experiencing it after being on-board The Orient Express for 2 days.  It all felt rather surreal.

20161104_212936We were staying at The Gritti Palace Hotel, which from the outside looks like a club.  As we were disembarking, hotel staff descended on us to take our bags.  The hotel was quite simply stunning.  I was lost for words as we walked into the lobby.  Beautiful doesn’t quite cover it.  The architecture is amazing.  Marble everywhere and a gorgeous library area with leather chairs.  This was somewhere that I could sit for hours reading and people watching.

20161104_215533Our rooms were no less lavish.  The suite (room is too 20161104_215409small a word) was enormous with huge, high ceilings and a balcony looking out over the canal.  The bathroom was gorgeous with a deep bath, shower area and his n hers wash area.  The bed was big enough for 5 (though we contented ourselves with just the two of us!) and complementary champagne, bowls of fruit and water waiting for us.

By the time we were in and settled it was 10:30pm but we were hungry so we headed down 20161104_23092420161104_230931to the bar to get some (very expensive) food.  We sat outside in the bar area, sharing a club sandwich and cheeseburger watching the sites and listening to the sounds of Venice.  It still felt a bit unreal. I was excited to be in Venice and I couldn’t wait to get out and start exploring.

We dec20161104_223003ided to sleep with the balcony door open even though it was cold because we wanted to listen to the sounds of Venice.  We had extra blankets and I wanted to make the most of the experience.

Tomorrow the adventure was to begin anew!  I had a feeling I was going to love Venice!

 

 

03.11.16 – Day 1, Orient Express

The day had finally arrived for our much anticipated holiday – Orient Express to Venice, 2 days there then on to Basel in Switzerland.  It’s my father-in-law’s 7oth birthday and the official reason for the holiday is to celebrate his birthday.  He loves trains so it seemed like an ideal way to celebrate.  My in-laws have been on the Orient Express before but for hubby and I, it was the first time.

I have been looking forward to this since it was booked nearly a year ago.  It feels like one of those once in a lifetime things and a big tick off the bucket list.

The train left from Victoria station in London at 10am so we decided to stay over the night before just in case there were any problems.  We were packed and ready to go by 8:30 and a short while later we were at Victoria checking in.

We had to pack smart because we were only permitted to take a small bag onto the London 20161103_101903train (Bellmond Pullman) which took you to Folkestone where you transferred onto a coach which took you to Calais via the Eurostar.  You could also take a suitcase but you wouldn’t have access to that until you got to the hotel in Venice.  Your small bag that you had access to the on the train had to contain the evening dress and everything you wanted to wear whilst on the train.  The train had a dress code of ‘no jeans, trainers or tshirts) so I had to think carefully about what I took as I can live in jeans, trainers and t-shirts).  Snow as also predicted in Basel so we had to pack for that….

The Bellmond Pullman was a beautiful train, everybody was in high spirits and ready for20161103_102438 the journey that lay ahead.  Some people were day-trippers who were on the way to Canterbury for the day, other were going all the way to Venice.  My only small complaint was that when we checked in our suitcases hubby and I could have checked in our backpacks too.  We decided not to because the lady on the desk told us that there would be overhead storage that would be big enough for them to be put onto.  When we got onto the train we found that wasn’t the case.  We managed to find room under the table and down the side of my chair but it would have been a far more comfortable journey if we’d checked in the bags.  That’s definitely a learning point for next time (if we ever do this again!).

20161103_115016We were served a delicious lunch on the train – pastries, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and a warm crumpet with an added dash for caviar! Alcohol was served in abundance but I settled for water and tea!

The journey down to Folkestone West took just under 2 hours.  It was a comfortable journey (despite the bags) and I was excited to go passed 20161103_131037our house on the train!  I text my neighbours to tell them to wave!

We arrived at Folkestone West to a brass band playing to welcome us…..I kid you not!  I was initially bemused but it was a nice touch, really got you into the spirit of things!!

At Folkestone West we were taken to coaches (luxury no less!) where we were driven to the Eurotunnel.  We got off, went through security and had a little time in terminal building if we wanted it to stretch our legs before getting back onto the coach and boarding the train to take us across the tunnel.  It was a disorientating feeling because the coach isn’t moving  but you can see that the train is.  It only took about 45 minutes in the tunnel before we were taken to the Orien20161103_170112t Express in France.

Catching a glimpse of the train with all the staff waiting to greet us was an amazing experience.  Such a sense of anticipation that we were in for a real treat and that this was would be a once in a lifetime experience.  It’s indescribable.  Excited doesn’t cover it!  Travelling on board the Orient Express has long been on my bucket list but I didn’t know when or if I would be able to do it.

One thing that did surprise me was the armed police walking up and down the station looking moody and fierce.  We found that to be the case in many of the European stations that we stopped in along the way.  On one hand it is good that they are taking security so seriously but on another it was quite scary…

The cabin that would be our home for the next few days was small but well laid out.  Opulent is the word that springs to mind.  It really brings to 20161103_170634mind the roaring 20s.  The cabin was set up for day use with the bed set up as a sofa.  It is changed into bunks when you are at dinner in the evening.

There was a welcome pack waiting for us which told us about life on board and was a nice souvenir.  The washbasin was behind some cupboard doors.  Unfortunately the light in the washbasin stayed constantly on, even when the door was shut so we had to ask the steward to take the lightbulb out!

20161103_210020We spent the afternoon relaxing in the cabin, drinking tea, reading and enjoying the surroundings.  I also had20161103_210104 some contraband hobnobs that I’d smuggled onboard!

There was a choice of dinner sittings – 7pm or 9pm.  We choose the later sitting as we were still quite full from the brunch and hob nobs.  Dress code for dinner was formal so hubby look fantastic in a suit and I finally had the chance to wear a long black dress that I’ve had for ages but never had the occasion to wear.

Hubby and I managed to get a seat in the bar where we sat, enjoyed the atmosphere and piano music.  The atmosphere was pure 20s class.  Walking into the bar where everybody was drinking and chatting was a bit intimidating, especially as at first we couldn’t find any seats!

20161103_220314Dinner was magnificent, there’s no other word for it.  Hubby and I have eaten in some really good restaurants but this topped them all.  The food was amazing.  Lobster and leek lasagne for starter, ‘revisisted’ beef wellington for main, selection of cheeses and mille-feuile for dessert.  I couldn’t move by the time I left that table but I 20161103_222112enjoyed every mouthful of it.  I will definitely need to go to the gym when I get back!

My father-in-law got a birthday cake and the waiters sang happy 20161104_000047birthday to him which the other tables joined in with!  We hadn’t asked for them to do it, they just knew from the booking form that it was his birthday and arranged this for him.
Hubby and I decided not to stay in the bar after dinner and headed back to the cabin which had been made up for bed.  There wasn’t much room once the beds had been assembled so we had to get undressed one at a time and get straight into bed.   There was a dressing gown left for each of us (which we had to give back) and slippers that we could keep.

Its’ the little touches that really stand out for me.  It seems that they have through of everything.