2013 Historical Fiction Recommended books

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood

The Last Banquet

Five words from the blurb: orphan, chef, France, delicacies, obsession

The Last Banquet is a vivid book that grabs the reader’s attention from the first page. It begins with disgusting scenes of a boy eating beetles and continues with investigations into a wide range of bizarre food. The child grows up and becomes a member of the aristocracy, but he continues to experiment with food – preparing and recording the taste of everything from cats to flamingo tongues. As you can tell from the description, this isn’t a book for the squeamish!

The story is set in 18th Century France and brings this period of history to life. The Palace of Versailles, France’s battle with Corsica, and the more personal history of a boy who rises through the social classes, are seemlessly blended together in a strangely compelling narrative.

The writing is excellent. Everything is described evocatively with a simple structure that allows the reader to absorb vast amounts of information without any effort. Many deeper themes are layered in the plot and I especially loved the ideas about food and its role in society:

He touches briefly on the political uses of taste; not just in fashion or furniture but in wine and food. About how taste defines and separates the sexes and the classes and the races. I had been lucky to fall so in love with Roquefort, and to do so immediately. The development of taste is like learning to read – and we live in a world where we deny most of those around us access to its alphabet.

This book also contains some of the most sensual sex scenes I’ve ever read. Most authors struggle with this kind of writing, but Jonathan Grimwood deserves special praise for making the sex scenes feel realistic and erotic. He uses all the senses to create beautiful scenes that feel just as natural and interesting as the experiments with food.

The story and themes of this book are bold and harsh. The author doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, but the inclusion of violence and bizarre butchery never feel gratuitous.

I admired the originality of this book and highly recommend it to those with a strong stomach!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I was both riveted and repulsed by the descriptions of food in this book. Books Are My Favourite and Best

…the novel was at risk of dissolving into a plethora of bizarre fetishes. Three Guys One Book

I rarely get to the end of a book and wish it were longer. This is one of those rare occasions Me and My Big Mouth

2011 Books in Translation

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

A Novel Bookstore Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Five words from the blurb: place, books, envy, secret, literary

A Novel Bookstore revolves around a secret committee, established to select the finest books for a new shop. This book shop will not sell new releases, but will only stock books specifically selected by the committee because of their importance and their ability to move and influence the reader.

For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror and grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

A Novel Bookstore is billed as a mystery because members of the committee receive threats and then suffer violent attacks, but anyone looking for a mystery will be disappointed as this aspect of the book is minor and ultimately disappointing.

The main benefit of this novel is that it recommends a large number books to the reader.

Among the books he wanted for The Good Novel were Dernier amour, by Christian Gailly, which, blown away, he mentioned to me; Sous réserve, a first novel by Hélène Frappat; and, among the foreign novels, short stories by Roberto Bolano. Francesca liked Tristano muore by Antonio Tabucchi, La réfutation majeure, by Pierre Senges, and more than anything, Segalen’s complete Correspondence, published at last.

The main problem, for the English reader, is that most are unavailable in this country. Some books are mentioned briefly, others described at length, but all the ones that intrigued me were impossible to track down.

In a Bengalese novel that I love, The Night on the Shore, the author devotes twelve pages to a description of the preparation of a traditional rich dish for weddings. It’s an unforgettable passage.

This is, perhaps, the point the book is trying to prove. These gems of literature are buried under a sea of averageness and only those with a specialist knowledge will be aware of their existence.

Most blog readers will be familiar with debates about what makes a book important and whether or not readers are wasting their time by reading lighter, more entertaining books, but if you are interested in these discussions you’ll find plenty to hold your attention in this book. I thought the arguments were put across very well, but I had heard all the points before and found reading over 400 pages of them a bit tedious.

This is a book for literature lovers and I’m sure the dream of owning a perfect bookshop will resonate with a lot of people, but although I found some aspects of the literature debate interesting I thought this book was too long for its weak plot.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

While acknowledging that it is highly flawed…I also have to acknowledge that Cossé created a very appealing nook for a book lover to read in for a while. Nonsuch Book

….an engaging read which held my interest, despite the basic implausibility of the story…. A Common Reader 

…it makes me think about what reading means to me, what novels mean to me, what writing means to me. Of Books and Reading

2010 Booker Prize

The Trespass – Rose Tremain

 Long listed for 2010 Booker Prize

I enjoyed The Road Home and had heard wonderful things about many of Tremain’s other books, so was looking forward to reading her new one. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to my expectations and it left me feeling a little disappointed.

Trespass focuses on an isolated French farmhouse. The building belongs to Aramon, a man struggling with alcoholism. His estranged sister, Audrun, lives in a small house in the grounds, but he threatens to ruin her life by selling the farmhouse to Anthony, an English antique dealer. The main theme of the book is sibling rivalry and the boundaries that exist between people, both emotionally and physically.

Unfortunately none of the characters were particularly endearing and so I failed to connect with any of them. It was such a passive reading experience that I often found my mind wandering from the page.

The French countryside was vividly described, but the plot was very slow moving.

Audrun drew her old and frayed cardigan round her body and walked on through the wood, her face lifted to the warmth of the sun. In another month, there would be swallows,  In the hour before dusk they’d circle, not over her bungalow with its low, corrugated iron roof, but over the Mas Lunel, where Aramon still lived. They’d be looking for nesting sites under the tiles, against the cracked stone walls, and she would stand at the window of her flimsy home, or in her little potager, hoeing beans, watching them, watching the sun go down on another day. 

I can’t fault the quality of the writing, but I found the subject matter quite dull. I don’t dream about moving to the French countryside and find the issues with selling property quite tedious, so much of the book held little interest for me.

I was looking forward to the “violent crime” mentioned in the blurb, but although the plot picked up a bit when it occurred, my lack of empathy with the characters meant that I wasn’t as involved as I should have been.

Recommended to those who enjoy quiet books, especially if you are considering a move to France.

Opinions seem quite mixed:

I’d find myself getting lost in it and being mildly surprised that I wasn’t somewhere in the French countryside, but in the cafeteria at work. Just Add Books

The style and the themes hit, but for me, the emotional side of the story didn’t. Fleur Fisher Reads

….hardly goes beyond the ordinary. Kevin from Canada

2000 - 2007

The Republic of Trees – Sam Taylor

I loved The Island at the End of the World and so was keen to read some of Sam Taylor’s earlier books. The Republic of Trees is his debut novel, but unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as The Island at the End of the World.

The Republic of Trees is set in France and follows a group of four teenagers as they decide to run away from home and build a life for themselves in the forest.  They create their own “Republic”, surviving by hunting for their own food among the trees.

I loved this first section! I think many children dream of running away and living without adults. This book perfectly captured their emotions – the insecurity and innocence was a joy to read!

Though we never talked about being caught, I could sense our fear in the silences between the words. In the evenings nothing looked the same – the forest became ghostly, insubstantial – and when I closed my eyes at night I worried that it wouldn’t be here the next morning.

As the book progressed it slowly became darker. There was an increasing sense of foreboding and although I had no idea what would happen I knew that it wouldn’t be good.

I found that I enjoyed the book less at it progressed. The beautiful realism of those initial chapters was lost in a series of bizarre events. The actions of the teenagers didn’t seem to make sense and I had no idea what motivated the events that occurred.

Overall I’d say it was a good debut novel, but I recommend starting with one of his other books.

Thoughts of Other Bloggers:

….just didn’t do it for me.  Reading Matters

Not quite as good as The Island at the End of the World, but good all the same. Peachy Books

It’s definitely powerful, and not for everyone. The Literary Amnesiac

Sam Taylor has recently launched a creative writing course at his beautiful home in Southern France. If I was a writer I’d love to go and make use of his advice while enjoying the great food, wine and scenery of rural France.

If you are an aspiring writer then I recommend looking at his website – I’m sure you’ll be tempted!

Have you read any of Sam Taylor’s books?

Which one did you enjoy the most?


1700s Books in Translation Classics

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

Translated from the French by Helen Constantine

Dangerous Liaisons was the latest choice for my book-group and I was very pleased to be forced to read it, as there was no way I’d have picked it up myself!

First published in 1782, the book is written entirely in the form of letters between members of the French aristocracy. The two central characters are former lovers who enjoy seducing others; through increasingly deceptive letters they try to win the attention of a married woman and an innocent convent girl.

Unfortunately the book annoyed me from the beginning. I have never been a fan of reading about privileged people who have nothing to worry about other than their own appearance – they are so self absorbed that I just want to slap them! The characters in this book were some of the worst I’ve come across, spending their entire day writing letters to each other and gossiping. This just holds no interest for me. 

You say she is plainly dressed; and so she is: all ornament spoils her; everything that hides her detracts from her beauty; in the abandonment of déshabillé she is truly ravishing.

Their soppy proclamations of love for each other irritated me and I just didn’t care what happened to any of them.

The letter format also meant that there were no descriptions, depriving the book of period atmosphere. It could easily have been set in a different country, or even time period, and little would change. Some would say this was a plus-point, but I would have loved to know what their surroundings looked like and to imagine the sounds and smells of the city.

I waded through 177 pages of increasingly dull conversations before I finally decided that I my time would be better spent reading a book that I enjoy – I gave up and read the plot summary on wikipedia!

I was the only member of the book group to hate it –  the 7 other people present loved the wicked characters and their manipulative ways. I appear to be in the minority on this one, so please don’t avoid the book on my account.


Have you read Dangerous Liaisons?

Did you enjoy it?

2008 Books in Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I had seen nothing but praise for this book in the blogging world, so was keen to find out why everyone raves about it.  Unfortunately the book failed to live up to expectations, so I am going explain why I just didn’t get this book at all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris and focuses on Renée, a concierge with a secret passion for culture. Living in the same apartment building is Paloma, a suicidal twelve-year-old. The outlook of both women is changed when one of their privileged neighbours dies.

The book started off very slowly, but I was prepared for that. I had seen several reviews that described the beginning as being uninspiring, but they assured me that after 100 pages I would be completely hooked. I admit that it did pick up a bit towards the end, but instead of falling in love with the characters I found myself being increasingly wound up by them. Was I the only one who found the characters very annoying? I didn’t understand why Renée needed to keep her passions hidden and found the whole idea of her pretending to watch television ridiculous.

Paloma was equally annoying. I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!

The book was packed with profound statements, but there were so many that it felt contrived. It was as though a philosophy text book had been regurgitated and disguised as a novel.

The words were also ridiculously long and obscure – all those syllables meant that the flow of the text was continually broken up. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which I have had to use a dictionary so often, and I think I have a pretty good vocabulary – it just came across as pretentious.

The only reason I finished the book was so I could assure myself that it was the same all the way to the end. In previous years I would have given up within 20 pages, so if you find yourself agreeing with me then I recommend you save yourself a few hours and find something else to read.

This is a fantastic choice for book clubs, as it is bound to divide people, but I’m afraid that I’m on the side of those who dislike this book.

Please can you explain why you love this book?

Did you enjoy every single word?