Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: Alba is Mine by Jen Black

Today, I'm sharing my review for Alba is Mine by author Jen Black. Set in 11th century Scotland, it's right up my street with its sense of adventure, politics and a touch of romance.

An absolutely gripping read, Alba Is Mine is the kind of story that stays with you well beyond the last page. It's well-plotted, with realistic characters, and the author describes the setting very well.

Buchan Coast, north-east Scotland, image Pixabay

It is the year 1034, and King Malcolm II sends Finlay of Moray north on a mission to Finlay's half-brother, Thorfinn of Orkney – a thorn in Malcolm’s side. Finlay, who recently discovered his childhood love, Kilda, married off to another, is stalling when Thorfinn suggests marriage to his own headstrong sister, Ratagan, as part of the negotiations with Malcolm. 

When news of Malcolm's death, and ambitious Duncan's accession to the throne, reach them, Finlay sides with Thorfinn to fight against the one man that stands between him and the throne of Alba he rightly claims. But with Kilda's scheming, and Ratagan's temper, can he focus on the task ahead?

I enjoyed reading this adventure of a dark period in Scotland’s history. Assassinations amongst heirs to the throne were commonplace, and loyalties could shift overnight. Ms Black described the politics of the day well within the context of the plot, and without turning the novel into a history timeline. Add a few likeable characters for readers to rally for and the gorgeous setting that is Scotland, and you have a gripping combination.

Its absorbing mix of romance, adventure and politics makes Alba Is Mine a must-read for fans of medieval Scottish romantic fiction with a strong dash of action and intrigue. 


In 1034, the fuse has been lit that will change the kingship of Alba. When his place in the succession is rejected, Finlay of Moray rebels against his uncle the king and sides with half-brother Thorfinn of Orkney.

With his intended bride married off to his cousin, his boyhood friend joining the opposing side and the threat of war looming, there is little happiness for Finlay. Wanting to cement the bond between them, Thorfinn badgers him to marry his beautiful sister, but Finlay, reluctant to abandon hope of his first love, grimly resists the idea.

This absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.

Alba is Mine is available in ebook and paperback formats on various Amazon outlets, including Amazon UK and on Amazon.com.

Follow the author at: https://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Visiting Montolieu, the village of books

Today, we went on a leisurely drive into the Cabardès area, a hilly forest area at the southern feet of the Montagne Noire. Or, in simple terms, just twenty minutes’ drive north from Carcassonne!
Montolieu, Aude, France
We were on our way to Montolieu, little realising that we'd taken the (very!) scenic route there. We found a quicker, but less pretty way back later, so it was well worth it. You're heading into higher ground, along tree-lined roads which offer welcome shade on a day that reached 36C in the area.

Montolieu is known as the ’village du livre’ – the village of books. A large museum there (which we didn't visit) was set up in the early 1990s to showcase bookmaking and a love for books. Over the years that followed, people established a range of mostly second-hand bookshops. No more than twenty across the village, but just enough for a good browse. Which we did, of course...

The area, then called Valseguier, was inhabited in pre-historic times, and an abbey was founded there around AD800. The Romans grew vines and olives and sheep were kept for production of wool. During the first three hundred years, minerals were mined and exported. After the Romans, the Visigoths arrived, followed by the Saracens, who, in turn, were chased further south by the Franks.

In the early 13th century, the Cathars – a sect based on an early Christian doctrine – were persecuted by the Catholic church throughout the Languedoc area. With the help of the abbey, Simon de Montfort, the leader of the so-called, Albigensian Crusade, put particular pressure on local Cathars and confiscated property of Cathars and of those lords who had dared to tolerate them. Not long after, the French King Louis VIII annexed much of the region and had the fortress at Montolieu destroyed. And then came the Inquisition...

To find out more about Montolieu's fascinating history through time, check this link (in French).

The location of Montolieu is stunning. Set on an incline, with several rivers and streams coming together below, you have a bit of a climb at times, but the houses on the narrow lanes provide plenty of shade either side.

The bookshops are cosy, quaint, and filled with shelves upon shelves of books. Many have boxes outside with reduced titles ranging from Yoga and 1970s romance novels to Dan Brown! I bought two – one classic and one for research. Can't leave a book place without buying books, eh?!

my purchases
There are a number of bars and restaurants, so visitors have a great choice, though many will likely be closed at times during winter, as is so often the case in the region. We found a shady spot for a chilled glass of rosé (with ample ice cubes provided), and enjoyed some people-watching time...

Montolieu is well worth a visit if you're near Carcassonne. Its quaint, relaxed atmosphere makes you instantly breathe out and take in the pretty little buildings and glorious views around the village.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Visiting Schloss Heidelberg

Today, I'll take you to something very close to (my) home – the imposing ruin of the Renaissance Schloss in Heidelberg, Germany. 

Castle front (c) CD.
One of the most visited tourist sites in Europe – and for many overseas groups the only stop-over in Germany – it is typically overrun in the summer. But if you visit out of the main seasons, like we did last December, you'll find it a little less busy, allowing you to explore and take iconic photos at your leisure.

It feels strange, to visit a castle ruin in the town you were born a good few decades ago. I can't remember the last time I went inside, but it must have been in my early 20s, way back in the early 1990s. Not much has changed 'up there', I think, and the site is still as impressive as always.

We took the funicular train up rather than walk. It was raining, and we didn't fancy sliding on the steep cobbled pavement. Rustic – yes. Safe in the rain – nope, not for us! The funiculars are efficient and run regularly, and they're well worth taking if you're a little unsafe on foot.

Once at the top, we got our tickets. It was hubby's first visit inside the castle, so we joined a guided tour, as that's the only way you can get through the existing rooms. (The rain sadly stopped us from wandering along the extensive gardens afterwards.)

The tour guide clearly knew his history, and a few specialist bits and pieces, but he didn't go too deep into it all. I'd call it 'history light'. Still, a handy little guide, and not to be missed.

So, here's a bit of an expanded history lesson, just for you...

The first official charter of Heidelberg (then called 'Heidelberch') dates back to 1196, however, the area was inhabited throughout the ages. There is evidence, for example, that Celts and other tribes lived in the area long before. And, of course, the Romans travelled through in their attempt to conquer all Germania...

In the 6th century, Heidelberg was annexed into the Kingdom of the Franks, and the subsequent Christianisation saw the building of many important monasteries in the area. 

In 1155, Frederick Barbarossa appointed his half-brother Conrad von Hohenstaufen as Count Palatinate, however, there is no proof that he stayed in an early castle on that particular hill. There may have been a structure dating back to the 11th century, but it could have been located a little further up. The town itself didn't exist back then.

By 1214, a castle had been established on a rocky outcrop on the hillside, but by 1303, two castles are noted in records – not far from each other. The main castle, on the Jettenbühl, was reinforced in the 15th century by King Ruprecht, and more modifications followed.

But it was during the Thirty Years' War that the castle at Heidelberg's fate changed – for the worse. It changed hands several times between General Tilly and the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, and their enemies. 

In the late 1680s, King Louis XIV of France took it upon himself to claim Heidelberg and its Palatinate lands on behalf of his sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, nicknamed Lieselotte. This ultimately led to the sacking of the town and the destruction of the castle. The towers were blown up to prevent any further defensive action. Subsequent Counts Palatinate eventually moved their seat to nearby Mannheim, as rebuilding Heidelberg Castle would prove too expensive.

After that time, it was no longer seen as a worthy residence, and fell into decline, with stones from walls being used to build other residences.

Over the centuries, Heidelberg has always attracted many illustrious visitors: Martin Luther published a thesis here; Goethe stayed here in 1779; British landscape artist William Turner created several paintings of Heidelberg and the area; French author Victor Hugo adored it; and Mark Twain stayed there for a summer...

And I lived in the area, including a couple of years in Heidelberg, for my first 28 years. 😇

So if you're planning a visit to Germany, don't miss out Heidelberg, just 45 minutes south of Frankfurt, where you'll find this incredible gem of a castle and town. Try to avoid the height of summer, but autumn is particularly beautiful with the changing colours of the forests along the Neckar valley. Or, you might just want to visit the pretty Christmas market in December...

I'm leaving you with the words of Victor Hugo...

"Ici à Heidelberg, dans cette ville, dans cette vallée, dans ces décombres, la vie d’homme pensif est charmante… il ne faut pas passer à Heidelberg, il faut y séjourner, il faudrait y vivre!” 
(Victor Hugo, 'Heidelberg')

All images (c) Cathie Dunn, 2018. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review: Overture by Vanessa Couchman

Today, I'm posting the first in a line of reviews of historical novels I've enjoyed reading. 

For several years, I hosted a now defunct historical romance review blog, until I found that 24 hours weren't enough in a day. Now, as I have time to read again, I've discovered many wonderful books from brilliant historical fiction and romance authors, so I'm adding reviews  to this blog to share those stories with readers. 

History and books. What's not to like?!

So, the first one up is a beautiful story called Overture by Vanessa Couchman. Overture is the first in the L'Alouette Trilogy about a young girl from rural Aveyron in the south-west of France. A backwater, many would say, but such a beautiful one! 

Disclaimer: I must tell you that I have read the novel prior to its publication. However, it's such a moving tale, of hardship, of loss, and of dreams come true, that you will have to see for yourself whether it's a book you'd like to read.

rural Aveyron (c) Cathie Dunn

We begin in Aveyron in 1897. Marie-Thérèse is a young girl born into a farming family living on a rented farm near a small village. Gifted with a beautiful singing voice, she dreams of becoming a professional singer – at a time when that profession was by far not as accepted and respectable as it is now (well, one could argue the latter point sometimes, but hey...). Highly intelligent, she also knows her place as a dutiful daughter of God-fearing parents, though her dreams continue.

When tragedy strikes, her life is thrown into turmoil. Evicted by their landlord – a particularly uncivilised but powerful man whose advances she rebuffs, with dire consequences – Marie-Thérèse and her mother Augustine find themselves homeless. When a good friend takes them in, they are barely able to make ends meet, and relying on charity is not something either of them can accept easily.

So, with a final sad glance at the only world she has known, Marie-Thérèse and Augustine board a train to stay with her aunt and uncle who run a restaurant specialising in Aveyron cuisine in Paris. Dazzled by the lure of the big city, Marie-Thérèse begins to dream again of a singing career, but the path to fame and fortune is littered with obstacles...

Overture is a beautifully-written tale of a young girl following her dreams. We feel for her when she fails to convince the professionals and when her mother puts her foot down, trying to keep her on a more respectable path. And we rejoice with her when she receives praise for her beautiful voice, and the hard work she puts in. 

The characters are all very well-developed. Marie-Thérèse comes to life with her emotions and actions; her aunt and uncle are real 'characters', flawed and caring beneath a blustery exterior; Frédéric, her mentor in Paris, is intriguing. 

Ms Couchman conveys a deep sense of setting in Overture. Through Marie-Thérèse's eyes, we 'see' Aveyron and its rolling hills of fields and forests, and we feel the vibrant city that Paris was at the turn of the last century. Having recently visited Aveyron, I can only attest to it being exactly as described. Not much has changed there in the last 100 years.

Readers who like historical fiction with a young heroine following her dreams, through hardships and challenges, will love Overture, as will readers of novels set in France. 

As Overture is the first in a trilogy, I'm very much looking forward to the next instalment in Marie-Thérèse's personal and musical journey...


What if you had a unique talent, but everything conspired against your dreams?
France, 1897. Born to a modest farming family, Marie-Thérèse has a remarkable singing voice and wants to become a professional singer. But too many obstacles, including her parents' opposition, stand in her way. And, through no fault of her own, she makes a dangerous enemy of the local landlord.
When the family circumstances change suddenly, Marie-Thérèse and her mother must move to Paris to work in her aunt's restaurant. Her ambitions rekindle, but the road to success is paved with setbacks until a chance meeting gives her a precious opportunity.
She is close to achieving all her dreams, but the ghosts of the past come back to haunt her and threaten Marie-Thérèse's life as well as her career.
Overture is the first in a trilogy set in France, starting in 1897 and finishing at the end of World War II.  

Overture is available in ebook and paperback formats on various Amazon outlets, including Amazon UKAmazon US and Amazon France.

Follow the author on her website!

Thank you for reading this review. I hope you found it useful.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Visiting Najac, a fortress in Aveyron

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to visit author friend Vanessa Couchman at her home in the Tarn et Garonne area, a mere 2 1/2 hour drive from us. She had an author talk organised by a local library on the Friday, so apart from seeing her, I took the chance to explore the area a little. It's well worth it, and I'm hoping to go back again one year.
Château de Najac
Pretty historic villages dot the hillsides covered in forests and fields. It is an agricultural area – as different as could be from our own dry wine-growing region. You fall in love from one place to the next. I'll be writing about these beautiful places next time.

The village of Najac from the tower
Today, the focus is on a medieval fortress: the castle at Najac. Not a fancy 'chateau' as the young French guide told us, but a 'forteresse'. Situated on top of a hill, you have sweeping views over the countryside. An old lane leads directly down the steep slope and up again into the village of the same name located on an opposite hill.

Najac had a varied history, often changing hands. When a square keep was originally built in 1100, the counts of Toulouse held power over the lands, which retained their independence from the kingdom of France, which was confined to the north. But as the dreams of expansion southwards grew, French kings began to take, rebuild and garrison castles in strategic places like Najac.

There was a square tower keep on the site prior to the current castle, however, it was incorporated into the 'new' fortress in 1253. Built by the locals on order of Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of the saintly King Louis IX, it oozed Royal power.

The site played a role during the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars; and the Templars, charged with heresy, were also held here. Both 'crusades' were part of the conquest of the south by French kings. Soon, the region's cherished independence had been subdued.

The castle changed hands during the Hundred Years' War, when the English occupied it for many years. Later, the Wars of Religion brought the (Protestant) garrison into trouble with the predominantly Catholic villagers, who besieged the castle.

Again and again, Najac was used as a defensive place, but it could also turn into a trap. Starvation and illness often became rife, and those within would be forced to surrender – usually to a horrible fate.

Nowadays, Najac is a pretty (and) impressive ruin that's well worth a visit. The young French lady who gave us an hour-long tour told us much about the history, and showed us beautiful carvings, incredible views and the most amazing defensive archery slits of 6.80 metres in height! Three archers could loosen their arrows comfortable through those gaps. Just imagine...

Blanche de Castile?
Of course, I had to buy two history books in their small shop on the way out. You can never have enough history books... ;-)

Najac castle from the village

Monday, May 13, 2019

Visiting Montségur

A few weeks ago, hubby and I decided on a bit of a road trip – to Montségur, the famous fortress which the Cathars, followers of an earlier version of Christianity, made their home.

View from Montségur over the village and hills
The village of Montségur is located in the Ariège, a département that reaches into the Pyrenees, bordering Spain and Andorra. The Ariège is known for it's beautiful, rugged landscapes – a hikers’ paradise!

Inside the fortress
When we arrived after our drive of 1 1/2 hours, the air held a chill, despite the warm sunshine. At an elevation of around 700m above sea level, no surprise. It was just before lunchtime, and we decided to visit the only open restaurant, which was rustic and reminded us a little of country pubs in Scotland. Apart from two ladies having drinks on the terrace (a bit too chilly for us), we were the only guests. The food was good and service friendly enough.

Then we took a wander around the sleepy village. Many houses were shuttered up, meaning they were either holiday homes or gîtes (self-catered flats). It felt a little abandoned, and I can imagine the winters are quite harsh up there. Unfortunately, the museum was closed on a Monday.

Then we drove back to the car park at the foot of the château de Montségur, which still meant we had to climb the 200m to the peak. A steep climb where you require good hiking shoes and a sense of balance. And a dog that pulls you up... ;-)
The fortress from the foot of the hill

The hill has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and also the Romans were there. The name Montségur has Latin origins: mons securus. In the early 13th century, a vassal of the count of Foix built a fortress on the top of the hill, and a range of dwellings built into the rocks, which were inhabited by his people. Sadly, only few remnants of these early buildings remain.

Of course, the site is best known as being the seat of the Cathars, a ’sect’ whose leanings go back in time to the early Christian teachings, from around 1232. Earlier, the Church had sought – and found – the help of the French kings keen to expand their reaches across the independent south, and in May 1243, the siege of Montségur began. An army of several thousand tried for months to attack and starve out the residents, and in March 1244, they succeeded, most likely by attacking the most difficult, but weakest, spot. Their offer to leave those who converted ’genuinely’ back to Catholicism was declined by many believers, and over 200 ’heretics’ were burnt at the Prats dels Crémats, the ’field of the burnt’. A memorial now stands in this place.
Memorial at the Prats dels Crémats
As Montségur served as a fortress defending the southern border, there are now only few traces remaining of the Cathar days. It is an impressive site, huge, and it's hard to believe that people lived on those steep slopes. We found the ascent tricky, and we’re healthy. But even we took our time on the gravel. (The photo doesn’t really do it justice!) One false step...

Hubby and Ellie Dog
At the top, it was busy with many families visiting. Some had brought a picnic, sitting on the walls of some former settlements, looking out towards the north. A great idea for another visit.

We spent at least 1 1/2 hours up there, walking around the walls and into the ruins. It’s an awe-inspiring site! It did not feel like a place of massacre (such as I sensed when visiting Culloden battle field near Inverness, Scotland), but had a rather peaceful feel to it. Something I didn’t expect.

Now, we have our sight on the other Cathar castles. We have so far visited Lastours and Montségur, and, of course, we look out over Carcassonne every day. So which one will be next?


View from the path leading up

View north from the settlement

View south

Further reading:

(in French, village and castle information)

http://www.cathar.info/cathar_chronolgy.htm#annex (timeline of Cathar history in English)

All images (c) Cathie Dunn and Carcassonne Tour, 2019. All rights reserved.