Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: THE LAST BANQUET, by Jonathan Grimwood

The Last Banquet, by Jonathan Grimwood. Published 2013 by Europa Edition. Literary Fiction.

The Last Banquet is a novel set in the fading days of ancien regime France; Jean-Marie d'Aumont comes from an aristocratic line but his parents are dead, starved to death because the law forbids them to work. He has been placed in a school for the aristocracy, where he mixes with those above and beneath his own station, wealthier boys of the nobility and nouveaux riches alike who will become lifelong friends and rivals in different ways.  But right from the start Jean-Marie is different, marked out by his obsession with all things gustatory.

Emile is his first friend, a wealthy boy of unclear lineage whom the other boys do not fully accept. Jean-Marie comes to see that friends like Charlot, a duke's son, will get him farther in life. When Charlot invites Jean-Marie to his chateau, Jean-Marie fixes his attentions on pretty Virginie, Charlot's sister, and saves her life. In the mean time Jean-Marie begins more studied experiments with food and eating, and he records many of his recipes in this book, which comprise his memoirs and which we realize he is writing near the end of his life.

Jean-Marie's growth and life span the end of the old days, before the revolution swept away the aristocratic way of life. He sees filth and corruption at the highest levels of society, and eventually finds love and peace in a place he never expected. He marries, has children, and watches one of his children die. He grows as an artist of food and corresponds with many of the leading minds of his generation. His trajectory mirrors that of his milieu, and their end is his end.

The Last Banquet is the first hardcover novel published by Europa which is known for its attractive and distinctive French-flapped paperbacks. It's a very strong novel that I think Francophiles and foodies will enjoy along with historical-fiction readers. Jean-Marie's adventures are fun to follow, picaresque in style as it were without a strong overarching plot- like a fictional biography, and there is sweetness and humor mixed in with the history, melodrama and action. I'm not sure I want to try too many of the book's recipes, but I found The Last Banquet to be a fine, meaty literary meal.

This is my 14th book for the 2013 Europa Challenge.


FTC Disclosure: I received a copy for review from Europa Editions.

Monday, October 28, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, I finished The Last Banquet and found it to be a pretty solid piece of historical fiction. More on that later in the week, but if you like reading about ancien régime France, pick this one up.

I'm still in the thick of Daniel Stein, Interpreter, but I'll probably finish this week and I'm loving it. Reading Ludmila Ulitskaya is always a treat. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to it. She's just amazing. This is a difficult book in many ways- her main character is based on a controversial real person, a Jewish man who became a Catholic priest and challenged Israel's Right of Return laws early in the life of that country- and the writing and characters are top-notch.

I also started reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, about the path a boy's life travels after the sudden death of his mother. I'm only a little way in but I'm definitely hooked!

What about you? What are you reading this week? See more at

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: AS MUSIC AND SPLENDOUR, by Kate O'Brien

As Music and Splendour, by Kate O'Brien. Published 2005 by Penguin Ireland. Literary Fiction.

As Music and Splendour is a book to fall in love with, but also a book to make you think. It tells the story of two Irish teenagers, Clare and Rose, who are sent to a music school in Paris by their communities to become professional singers. Their education is not a gift; it is literally a debt to be repaid, and both girls are expected to earn out their tuition once they graduate and take their place among the professional opera stars of Italy.

In Paris they are awkward and shy and still just children; but when they go to Rome they transform and begin to become what they are destined to be. Both young women work hard at singing and take their obligations seriously, and both are gifted with voices that lend themselves to their work. Clare finds a surer home in sacred music while Rose finds a natural place in the world of opera. They attract attention from those around them- fellow singers, Irish expatriates, devotees and hangers-on of the world of music. They fall in love, Rose with a moody Frenchman named Rene and an aristocratic Italian, Antonio; Clare finds herself in a triangle with her music teacher Duarte and his student, Luisa.

I think what I loved about this book is how comfortable the characters seem with themselves even as they struggle to grow up and find themselves. Clare and Rose know the world they live in- the stage- is not the one for which their Irish upbringing has prepared them, but they accept it anyway, because it's what they want. These women do not spend a lot of time angsting over sin or choices or the strange turns life takes. They accept them, and move on, even when they suffer heartbreak. They are clear-headed; they know what they want, and they take it. When they come against their limitations, they find a way to make things work anyway.

And I loved Clare and Rose for their vivacity and joie de vivre. She doesn't make her heroines blushing virgins but women who aren't afraid of life. O'Brien has created two very appealing heroines, very modern in their self-confidence and very real in their frailties. She has also created a compelling world and brought the world of music beautifully to life including a variety of intriguing and colorful supporting players. If you love books about Italy and music especially you will enjoy this book! As Music and Splendour is a wonderful book that will keep you reading and keep you under its spell, and then it will leave a lovely melody behind.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: THE DAUGHTERS OF MARS, by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally. Published 2013 by Atria Books. Literary Fiction.

I'd never read Thomas Keneally before, although I know him as the Booker-Prize-winning author of Schindler's Ark and many other books (he's incredibly prolific) but something about his latest The Daughters of Mars caught my eye at the bookstore one day. I read the opening paragraph and got hooked then found the rest of the book to be as addictive reading as those opening lines.

The Daughters of Mars is about Naomi and Sally Durance, two Australian sisters who volunteer as nurses during World War 1. They share a secret between them, not only a rivalry as sisters do but shared guilt and complicity in the death of their mother after a long illness. They have grown up on a farm in rural Australia and Naomi is the first to leave; Sally tries to look after their father but she too feels compelled to leave for the war. At first she and Naomi are stationed together, on a hospital ship called the Archimedes, but their fates diverge after a pivotal and devastating turn of events.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way things kept happening. This is no melancholy meditation on war or sisterhood or whatnot. We get some of that, and the relationships between the characters and especially the two sisters are crucial but it's also very much a plot book. Something new and important happens with nearly every chapter. Being set in hospitals there are plenty of gory details to go around but not as much as I frankly expected. The book follows the sisters' relationships and fates, that of their friends and fellow-nurses and their romances. Naomi gets involved with an English aristocrat who founds her own volunteer hospital, and Sally's career goes off on its own course.

I found The Daughters of Mars to be a really moving and meaty, and one that I can see recommending to lots of readers due to its mixture of plot, character and historical setting. The women travel from Australia to Egypt to Europe and back again and we see the changing, volatile world through their eyes. Their lives and that of their family and friends are indelibly shaped and changed by war and the book is a really solid and satisfying read that I think lots of readers will really enjoy.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

 Well I had a long week and things are finally starting to settle down after getting home, getting over jetlag, getting sick and getting better. I've even stacked up my books and put them in a pile near my bookshelf, so that's progress, right?

I finished As Music and Splendour last week, and loved it, but since then I've been a little at loose ends. I picked up The Art of Joy, the Italian tome I started before my trip, and have been reading it a little each day. I'm still enjoying it and I plan to finish but it's long. Meanwhile Donna Tartt's new book is out tomorrow and my customers have been clamoring, so I feel like I need to read that for them so we can talk about it, but it's also long. So we'll see.

As a treat to myself I started reading Ludmila Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter, her latest book (it came out in paperback last spring) about a Polish Jew who works as an interpreter for the Gestapo during World War 2 and ends up becoming a monk, then moving to Israel. It's his life story told through a winding trail of letters covering a lot of space and time. The characters include an upper-class Boston lady, an Polish-American in search of her roots, her mercurial mother and Daniel/Dieter himself. Ulitskaya is such a solid writer, and I've enjoyed her books so much in the past. So far, so good!

I also started Jonathan Grimwood's The Last Banquet, about an impoverished French aristocrat with a taste for the culinary arts, and his journey through the Revolution. It's the first hardcover published by Europa Editions and if you like historical fiction I recommend it so far. If you liked Andrew Miller's Pure, one of my favorites of recent years, this a natural next book for you. Grimwood is doing an event at my bookstore this week and I look forward to meeting him!

What are you reading this week? See more at

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My Vacation in Books!

So I ended up bringing home about 14 books. I had two shipped back because the bookstore offered free shipping but hauled the rest in my bags. Most of them are small paperbacks so that wasn't too much of a problem, and I did think to leave room when I was packing!

Deirdre Madden's Time Present and Time Past, about a Dublin family. "When Fintan Buckley develops an interest in old autochrome photographs, strange things start to happen." I bought it at Manor Books in Malahide.

Francesca Duranti's The House on Moon Lake. I loved her book Happy Ending and I've heard this is even better. From Little Shop of Books in Howth.

Arimathea by Frank McGuinness. "In the nineteen forties an Italian painter comes to work in remote Donegal. Nothing and no-one is the same afterwards..." This book was a staff pick at a couple of different stores in Ireland. I finally picked it up at Kenny's in Galway.

Gene Kerrigan's new crime novel Dark Times in the City, from No Alibis in Belfast. It turns out I already had the Europa version, but what the heck. They were so nice to be me at No Alibis, I have no regrets.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. I know I could get this easily in the U.S. but I loved the Ennis Bookshop too much to leave empty-handed.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. When I saw the American cover I realized I'd seen it around before but never noticed it till it was staff-picked at the Waterstone's near St. Paul's in London.

I Hate Martin Amis et al. by Peter Barry. This came from a gift shop that also sold books called Volte Face on a quiet London side street.

Your Mixtape Unravels My Heart, by Maire T. Robinson, from the Winding Stair in Dublin. Just looked neat.

Malarky, by Anakana Schofield. "A philandering husband. A son lost to war. A woman on the brink." A black Irish comedy I couldn't resist. I forget where I bought it.

Three books from the Persephone shop in London: It's Hard to be Hip Over Thirty, by Judith Viorst; The World that Was Ours, by Hilda Bernstein; Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson. I could have packed up that entire store though!

The People's Manifesto, by Mark Thomas, from Bookmarks in London. This book is a collection of ways members of the British public would like to change its government, as presented by a comedian who traveled the country soliciting suggestions. This may be the best thing I found!

I visited a friend in Killarney who gave me As Music and Splendour by Kate O'Brien. Thanks Marcella! I loved it.

That's it! My husband out-bought me with piles of Terry Pratchett books and some rare Douglas Adams and Doctor Who stuff, too. But we both had a blast! In case you're wondering if all we did was book-shop, I can assure you we found enough time for regular sight-seeing too. Just ask my broken-in clogs!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Vacation in Bookstores Part 2- Ireland and Belfast

After departing London, Jeff and I headed to Ireland, one of my favorite places in the world. No one beats the Irish for friendliness and hospitality; when you go to Ireland, you're treated like one of the family. Especially if like me you are Irish-American!

I spent a summer in Dublin when I was 22 and the country has stayed with me every day since then. This trip was my first return since that time and I sincerely hope it will not be my last.

When I lived in Dublin I positively haunted the Secret Book and Record Store on Wicklow Street. I was so delighted to find them still open after a lot of years. It's a great place to browse and poke for all kinds of used books. I bought books there all those years ago that I still own. I love that place!

Another store I visited back then is Books Upstairs, just around the corner (ish) at 36 College Green. It's a small store but full of new and used books with a good selection of Irish history.  I was delighted to find it again!

Dublin's Waterstone's is gone away but over on Dawson Street you can still find Hodges Figgis, a wonderful new-books store specializing in all things Irish. Jeff and I had a good long browse here. It's a beautiful store with elegant fixtures and a lovely atmosphere.

You can find books in English and Irish here, and the signage is all bilingual, too.

Wandering over to the lively Temple Bar part of town, you can find The Gutter Bookshop, a beautiful suburban-style independent store full of new releases and idiosyncratic favorites. This store more than any other reminded me of Porter Square Books, the indie where I work. It was just adorable.

On the day we arrived we were lucky enough to run into an open book market in Temple Bar. Several tables were laid out with books of all descriptions- everything from romance novels to rare Irish classics. It was so much fun to browse!

Cross the River Liffey and you'll find The Winding Stair, a charming, cramped used bookshop with all kinds of treasures. They also sell small-press Irish books you won't likely find anywhere else, and they have a cute tea room as well.

Here are some vintage Penguin paperbacks from their shelves, to give you an idea:
 On the same side of the river, around the corner from O'Connell Street on Parnell, you'll find Chapters, the queen of Dublin independent bookstores. Oh. My. God.

The first floor is a huge and endless array of new books, but that doesn't begin to hint at the wonders that await you in the second-floor used emporium. My husband collects first edition Terry Pratchett books, and let's just say that after visiting Chapters we visited the Dublin post office. Ohhh myyy.

After leaving Dublin we proceeded to drive around the country, stopping in at various cities and towns along the way, sometimes for a couple of days, sometimes just for lunch. We visited bookstores in Kilkenny, Killarney, Dingle, Galway, Ennis, Donegal, Letterkenny and Belfast. Here are my favorites:

The Ennis Bookshop, in Ennis, Co. Clare, was beautiful and friendly and adorable. I would love to work here! They had a nice range of new books and I felt very at-home there. Ennis also had a great Oxfam shop we enjoyed browsing. Walking around Ennis we got heckled for not wearing Co. Clare's official colors- they were about to head into a national hurling championship, I think- but we loved Ennis anyway.

Dingle Bookshop in County Kerry was great and had a remarkable selection of local-interest books. There was lots to admire and covet, and Dingle is an adorable village.

Kenny's in Galway is one of those pilgrimage bookstores. It's enormous, cavernous and crazy, but you'll love it. It's a drive outside of the city center but if you go to Galway you must go to Kenny's. If you go to Galway and don't go to Kenny's, we're not friends anymore.

I loved No Alibis, a crime and mystery bookstore in Belfast featuring a great selection of crime but also some of the friendliest booksellers on the island. They are a small store and carry lots besides crime, but that's the real reason to go of course.

Speaking of Belfast, I had a good time browsing St. George's market and Coppice Books, a fun used bookstall there. I had a nice chat with the proprietor and really enjoyed checking out the selection.

Back in the IRL, Manor Books in Malahide is another delightful indie with a great selection and friendly booksellers. I had a wonderful visit here on a Saturday evening, my last night in the country.

On our last morning in Ireland we managed to squeeze in one more bookstore before we left for the airport, the Little Shop of Books in the picturesque seaside community of Howth.

They win for best shop sign, right? We enjoyed browsing this used bookstore and chatting with the owner, who treated us with great Irish hospitality and provided a fitting end to our wonderful trip around this loveliest of countries.

And yes, along the way we did buy some books. I didn't buy books at every store I visited, but I wanted to! Come back soon for that post!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My Vacation in Bookstores Part 1- London

When you think about cities like London and countries like Ireland, you don't really think about museums and history and tourist attractions. You think about bookstores, right? Well, so do I. My husband and I just spent three weeks in Ireland and the UK- one week in London, where he was attending a conference, and then two weeks circling the coast of Ireland (and Northern Ireland) in a little rental car. As you will see, I managed to nip into a bookshop or two on my way.

Bookish street art in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London
Our first day in London we hit Piccadilly Circus for the best chain bookstore in the world (at least as far as I'm concerned), Waterstone's.

Waterstone's used to have a store in Boston and I still miss its tempting displays, chic decor and comprehensive selection. If you want it, it's here. And the Piccadilly location has a cute cafe in addition to four huge floors of bookish madness.

South Kensington Books is a small shop near the Victoria and Albert Museum. They carry familiar titles as well as maps and information for travelers. It's a very pretty spot.

One of my favorite London bookstores was the London Review Bookshop, located off Great Russell Street near the British Museum. This is a great, two-floor boutique store (and cafe) featuring literary fiction, criticism and lots of other well-stocked sections. This is the London bookstore where I would want to work!
One thing that I learned about is the prevalence of charity shops in the UK and Ireland. We have them here too, but not so many as they do. And some charity shops are dedicated used bookstores. The Trinity Hospice Shop, near Kensington Palace off the Kensington high street, is one such store, stocked with all kinds of crazy things. Oxfam runs a chain of charity bookshops which I saw positively everywhere so if you're in the UK keep an eye out for them because we found some real treasures in these stores!

Another used bookstore I loved was the Book & Comic Exchange, located around the corner from the Notting Hill Gate Tube on the way to the Portobello Road. This is one of those disorganized, stocked-floor-to-ceiling shops that has who knows what. But it's fun to browse!

Speaking of the Portobello Road, the Portobello Market, held on Saturdays, has a number of bookstalls with the collectible and the curious. This is one such stall, filled with famous-name first editions.

Bookmarks, on Bloomsbury Street not far from an Oxfam bookstore, is a socialist bookstore with a rich selection of leftist political books from publishers large and small. Browsing here will show you another side to life in Great Britain and is well worth your time.

I didn't have a lot of time for the famous Charing Cross Road and its plethora of bookstores but I couldn't leave London without visiting Foyle's. Foyle's is a huge independent bookstore with-what? four or five?- floors of new books. It includes a huge foreign language section and a floor devoted to music and movies, too. You could get lost here!

Nearby Forbidden Planet is the fandom superstore. Here you can find merchandise and gew-gaws for every science fiction and fantasy franchise you can think of. In the basement, you can also find a well-stocked book section larger than some specialist bookstores. It's a must-do for the well-read fan! We visited Forbidden Planet stores in London, Dublin and Belfast.

My favorite bookstore in London though had to be Persephone Books, home of the eponymous publisher of womens' and forgotten books of the early 20th century with the trademark gray covers. It is also the prettiest bookstore I visited, by far:

See, how nice is that? It's a small shop located on Lamb's Conduit Street, a nice pedestrian path not far from the Dickens Museum with cafes and other posh-looking shops nearby. Really delightful. All it needs is its own teashop, then I would hang out there on my days off from the London Review Bookshop.

Hatchards is another beautiful London bookstore on Piccadilly, not far from the big Waterstone's. I really loved the store's quiet, leather-armchair ambiance. If they wouldn't hire me at London Review, my next choice would be to work here!

Not that I'd be able to sit around all day in that yummy sofa as a bookseller, but still!

Come back soon for my post about bookstores in Ireland and Northern Ireland. More bookish fun to come!

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

So... I've been away for three weeks, on a trip to Ireland and the UK, and just got back yesterday. And I read every day of my vacation!

I read and finished Thomas Keneally's new book, The Daughters of Mars, about a pair of Australian sisters who volunteer as nurses during World War 1. They are stationed together at first, then take off on separate trajectories eventually. Along the way they make and lose friends and lovers, are impacted by forces large and small and endure all kinds of things- the sinking of a hospital boat, bombs, disease, death and more. It's a really great book and I highly recommend it to almost any reader because I think its combination of action, character and history has lots of appeal.

Now I'm reading Kate O'Brien's book As Music and Splendour, given to me by one of my Irish pals I got to visit on my trip. (Hi Marcella!) It's a wonderful book about two Irish girls sent to Europe to train as opera singers, and their varying paths through life. Both are gifted singers but one follows her talent to the stages of the continent while the other follows hers in a different direction. I love her writing and I've fallen for her heroines. I can't wait to see where they end up!

I have a lot of catching up to do, with work and life and Etsy and the blog.  But I have so much to tell you about this trip- bookstores and books as well as sights and stories. What a wonderful time we had!

See more It's Monday at