Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hidden in Paris by Corine Gantz


I was one lucky lady to win a copy of Hidden in Paris , by Corine Gantz on the France Daily Photo blog (see here); not only was it a book I had wanted to read for a while and I’ve now got myself a signed copy, but also because it was a great read.

I will warn any of you gentlemen readers out there that it probably won’t be for you, but ladies you’ll love it.  Hidden in Paris has a great mix of ‘screwed up’ (in the nicest possible way) characters, all running from something, who find themselves in the bosom of Annie’s house in Paris.  Annie is lovely and I’m sure she and I would be great friends; she is a home bird who loves to cook (and to eat).  But she too has issues to resolve in her life, and it’s the financial ones that she tackles by renting out rooms to strangers, offering them the chance to start over in Paris.  Who could refuse an offer like that?  In the six months they are together things change for them all as they learn to let go and move on in a bid to find happiness.  It’s a book about life and Annie’s house coming back to life by filling it with other people.

Corrine writes about emotions with a heartfelt honesty that is very personal and raised the odd tear at times too.  There is a sexy Frenchman on hand for flirtatious entertainment, but for a book set in Paris I would have been disappointed if there hadn’t been.  It was the sort of book that had me agreeing to accompany Ade on a three hour round trip (to collect another iMac), just so I could get three sneaky hours reading in on a Saturday morning without feeling guilty!  It is also about food, good home cooked family food.  Which leads me onto Hidden in Paris -- The Cookbook , which I actually read before the novel -  one of my better finds from trawling Amazon Kindle for anything with a French theme and also my first eCookbook.  All the dishes in the cookbook  appear somewhere in the novel.  None of the recipes are difficult; from the humble croque-monsieur to the famous coq-au-vin to a scrumptious mousse au chocolat, they are simple French home cooking recipes, with photos too.  I can really recommend getting both of these books together.

You can follow Corrine on her blog (here) or Facebook page (here).


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen


Treachery in Bordeaux, by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen.  Written in French, and already adapted to a French TV series, this book has been translated and brought to the English reading market by Le French Book.  Set up in 2011 by Anne Trager, who has lived in France for 26 years, the company’s motto is ‘If we love it, we translate it’ and their aim is to reach a broader audience for the many great books that are written in French.  Thanks to Anne for sending me a copy to review.

I was immediately attracted to this book as it is set in Bordeaux, a city I love.  The descriptions of the city, the surrounding areas and the vineyards didn’t disappoint and made me want to get myself back there toute de suite – and I must now explore the town of Blaye that is situated on the other side of the Gironde estuary.  Not surprising for a French book set in Bordeaux, the wine is a key player, but just as good as the wine tasting ‘notes’ are the descriptions of the food; real regional dishes mouth-wateringly described.  But all is not well for one of the estates, the Moniales Haut-Brion, and we find ourselves with a mystery to be solved.  Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker, who is battling his own demons as he struggles to finish his latest wine guide, turns detective to try to work out what has caused some barrels at Moniales to turn.  Can his team stop the contamination ruining the entire cellar, is it just bad luck, or poor hygiene or was it a malicious act?  If so, why?  

It is a good read with some strong characters, it moves nicely and is easy to follow, even with quite a bit of technical wine speak.  The only thing that didn’t feel quite right for me was some of the American phrases in the translation, sorry Anne!  I guess it is just a cultural thing (I am an English girl after all), but leaving your car in a ‘downtown lot’ when in the French town of Blaye with it’s Vauban citadel didn’t ring true to me.  However, I do appreciate the bigger ‘English’ audience is the American speaking one.

There are two other books available by Le French Book that I will be reading (and reviewing) very soon, The Paris Lawyer, by Sylvie Granotier and The 7th Woman, by Frédérique Molay.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tout Sweet by Karen Wheeler


Having lived the dream in France for over eight years you may think reading about other peoples lives in France wouldn’t interest me anymore – wrong, I love it.  Before we moved I couldn’t get enough of these sorts of books and although I will admit to loosing interest in them for a few years after we moved, which is probably why I missed Tout Sweet when it first came out, I am happy to play catch up now. 

Tout Sweet: Hanging Up my High Heels for a New Life in France is a very readable book; from the moment you take in the illustrations on the front cover you can’t help stepping into Karen’s life and devouring chapter after chapter.  She is one brave lady, moving over here in her thirties (like we did) is not as common as retiring over here, and to do it alone is pretty unique.  I got some strange looks when people realised I would be here alone for a lot of the time when Ade was away working, so I can imagine the reactions she received. It is therefore not surprising that one of the French villagers assumed she was married to one of the other expats, oops!  

Karen also lives in the Poitou-Charentes, so we are almost neighbours, and it was nice to be familiar with some of the places she wrote about, especially as our UK lives were so different.  Karen was a fashion editor, based in London with a glitzy social life, champagne receptions, designer clothes and handbags, the names of which when she mentioned them often meant nothing to me – oh yes, I really am that backward when it comes to fashion.  Adapting to life in a village where the entertainment was expat scrabble evenings and a cup of tea, plus renovating and decorating her house (undertaken in designer dresses, no less), can’t have been easy, but she coped and writes an entertaining account for her readers with some heartfelt personal bits too.  Living in France does change you, and I was glad to see that she also does more in the kitchen now she is living in France, just like me.  She makes her little house sound so inviting I wanted to join her for an apero in her flowery courtyard, despite having my own flowery outside terrace where I’m often to be found supping rosé and avoiding expat social events!  Karen, if you are reading this and want to join me for a virtual apero and give a shout out to your books you would be more than welcome to guest post here.

If you want to find out what rural French living for us expats is all about this book is for you.

I am now off to catch up on her next adventures in France in Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France and Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France. before she finishes the book she is currently busy working on, Sweet Encore.  Happy scribbling, Karen.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson


Every summer weekend, somewhere close to home, we can find ourselves a village brocante to visit.  Increasingly, as well as the French ‘antiques’, families clearing out old clothes and toys and other general bric-a-brac, there is often an English second hand book stall, or two.  One of my lucky finds recently was The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson.

Set in Provence and inspired by the atmospheric, crumbling old house owned by Deborah and her husband this is an intriguing read.  It is a book full of mystery and secrets; the secrets of the past, of the house Les Genevriers, and of the different people we meet who live or have lived there.  It is also full of the scents that change with the seasons and that Deborah’s descriptions really bring to life.  The perfumes of Provence, the lavender especially, play a big part and the character of Marthe Lincel, a blind girl who goes on to make her fortune in the perfume industry, is particularly fascinating.  Deborah also has a blog where she has recently announced she is working on more stories set in this area, and in particular Marthe’s life during the war (see here). I was rather excited to read this, and am looking forward to the Lavender Field. 

The Lantern had me gripped from the beginning, desperate to find out what was happening, as the past and present seemed to blur and mingle.  The passion and the darkness of the new owners, who to trust, who’s secrets would be revealed, who is guilty, what are they guilty of and how would the past meet the present.  Many a late night was had as I employed the ‘just one more chapter’ policy again and again.  This book contains so much I will definitely read it again, probably to refresh my memory before reading more about Marthe in The Lavender Field.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg


French Village Diaries book review Julia StaggAnother great read for me this summer was the second book set in the Pyrenean village of Fogas, The Parisian's Return , by Julia Stagg.  This book continues on immediately where L'Auberge finishes.  I liked that it did this; firstly as all my favourite characters are still there and secondly because there was so much more I wanted to know about life in the village.  It is all change in Fogas as the focus shifts off Paul and Lorna (the owners of the auberge) and almost immediately we meet a new character ‘Le Parisian’ and to say things don’t go to plan for him straight away is a bit of an understatement.  His presence is not initially welcome, especially as he wants to make changes.  Change is often difficult to accept and especially so when it happens in the heart of the village at the bar/epicerie.  It takes the locals some getting used to, although little by little he gains their respect.  Things are also changing for Stephanie, as she tries to get her new business off the ground, but with the distractions of a bit of love interest and a few mysterious happenings, things don’t go to plan for her either.  The other new character makes a much more understated entrance into the village, but is no less integral to the story. 

I found there to be a greater sense of community in this book than in the first, with less ‘political’ bickering (which I know to be a common element in French village life).  There is a real pulling together, especially at the end when there is drama and a real danger threatens the safety of some of them.  French village life may not have the excitement of city life, but there is never a dull moment in Julia’s village.  I can’t wait to get back to Fogas and read book three, to be published next year.  Same village, same characters, but someone else’s story to be told.

To read my review of L'Auberge see here. Julia's books are published by Hodder Paperbacks and available in paperback and ebook format from all good booksellers and online. Here is the Amazon link.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Interview with Julia Stagg, part two


Welcome back to my terrace where Julia and I are having a good old natter about all things French, and especially the food.

FVD: Now you are not running an auberge, is food (and cooking) still an important part of your day, or just something to satisfy hunger?

JS: For the first twelve months out of the auberge, things were really hectic. We moved house four times, I was settling in to my writing life which involved lots of trips to London and lots of promotional work which took me away from home, so it was a relief not to be cooking on a regular basis. But I still remember the first meal we cooked when we no longer ran the restaurant. It was amazing. A really simple dish of Toulouse sausages braised in cider and served on sage mash potato. It had been a firm favourite with guests in the auberge but we had never sat down at a table and eaten it ourselves! We really savoured that meal. As for now, food is still important but it is no longer as stressful!

FVD: Ooh, that cider sausage dish sounds lovely, might have to give that a try, thanks.  What would be your favourite French dish?

JS: Ooohhh – I love a good cassoulet, as anyone who has read my books will know! And magret de canard, if it is cooked to perfection, is delicious. But I really don’t think I have a favourite dish. Although I know I like things uncomplicated! The best meal I’ve ever had in France was in a small restaurant in Paris, below the Sacré Coeur. It was a simple civet de porcelet but was delicious. A house red. Crusty bread. That’s what makes me happy.

FVD: Did you try to introduce English ingredients to the menu at the auberge?  Did you ever try to sneak Marmite in?

JS: No Marmite – unless it was for cooking in! Horseradish was probably the only ingredient we had to explain to guests. It doesn’t seem to feature much in French cooking. And we did sneak in the odd English-style dessert. Crumble is very much en vogue so we served a lot of rhubarb crumble (the guests loved the fact they could see the rhubarb growing in the garden!). We also introduced guests to pavlovas and amazingly, although it’s not British, to tiramisu! I still can’t believe one of our neighbours could have lived a proportion of his life in Paris, retire back to the Pyrenees and not know what tiramisu was… He quickly became a convert!

FVD: I love my cakes and am lucky enough to live 2 doors away from our village boulangerie, what do you prefer, the French éclair-au-chocolat with the chocolate crème patissiere filling or the English chocolate eclair with a whipped cream filling?

JS: The French éclair every time! The French win hands down when it comes to patisserie. But if we’re talking about puddings…now that’s a different matter! A good sticky toffee pudding has no equal across the channel. So French cakes for elevenses and British puddings after dinner!

FVD: Yum – couldn’t agree more!  Still on a food theme (no surprise there), coffee – do you prefer yours in a cup, mug or bowl?  

JS: A mug but one wide enough….(see below)…

FVD: What are your views (if any) on dunking bread, croissants or chocolate into your coffee?

JS: …to dunk my pain-au-chocolat! I’m a late convert to this. Spent years clearing up messy breakfast dishes with flakes of croissant stuck to mugs and coffee slopped on plates and never quite saw the attraction. Then we visited a friend of ours in Saint-Nazaire and he’d laid on breakfast for us. No plates. Just a mug of coffee and croissants. He proceeded to dunk his croissant and made such a noise of ecstasy on eating it that I copied him. And I’ve been hooked ever since. Try it. It’s gorgeous.

FVD: Umm, no thanks!  A square of dark chocolate dunked in my espresso coffee is all that is permitted ‘dunkable’ here I’m afraid!  What do you prefer sliced white loaf or a baguette? 

JS: Neither. I find most baguettes pretty tasteless (I share my character Serge Papon’s view on mass produced bread!) and from an auberge owner’s perspective, inedible a couple of hours after buying and so a waste of money. Luckily we had a bakery nearby that made bread the old-fashioned way and so we were able to get delicious crusty loaves that were close to wholemeal. They kept well (important for the business!) and tasted divine.

FVD: I have to say wholemeal is something I miss (a lot).  Moving away from food and back to the writing, how long does it take you to write a book?  And are you disciplined enough to spend a certain number of hours a day at your desk?

JS: I think the only answer to the first question is ‘as long as I have’. The first book for most writers is written without any deadline. Or any hope of publication! So it can take as long as you want. My very first book (which is in a drawer!) took five years to write - because I had a fulltime job, I moved countries three times in that period and I didn’t really believe I would ever get published. My second book, L’Auberge, took two winters to write. I had no time between March and October, the auberge occupying every waking hour, so once the season was over, I would get back to the writing. Then I sent it off to a literary agent and got a contract with a publisher and suddenly, they wanted the next book within 9 months. Gulp! So The Parisian’s Return took a lot less time to write in terms of months but I was writing full time so it probably took the same amount of time in hours. And that is my pattern now. A book a year. Which I guess answers your next question. Yes, I’m disciplined. In today’s market, every writer who is published has to be as there is such a wealth of talent out there, if you don’t get your ideas down on the page and in to the publisher, someone else will take your place.

FVD: Did you write when you were in France, or maybe have the idea of the Fogas books while you were there?

JS: Totally. We actually moved to the Pyrenees to give me a chance to write. It took a few years to sort out the business but once the auberge was running well, I found more and more time to think and create. Amazing what you can do while ironing sheets or hanging out towels to dry! And yes, the Fogas books were inspired by the area we lived in and came into being because I’d had my first book rejected. I was looking out of the window of the auberge and I could see the neighbour’s bull (very like Sarko in the books!) and I started thinking about how he was always misbehaving and suddenly I had loads of ideas. I scrawled them down on paper and saw that I had enough for a series of books. And the rest…was a lot of hard work which has all been worthwhile!

FVD: You have just finished writing the third book in the Fogas chronicles (and I personally can’t wait to read it), can you tell us a little bit about what we can look forward too?

JS: The third instalment is called The French Postmistress which, if you’ve read the first two, you will know is going to be about Véronique Estaque, the postmistress of Fogas. But in true Fogas style, it’s about more than just her struggle to reopen the post office. It’s also about the government programme to reintroduce bears in the Pyrenees and the havoc this causes to the rural way of life; it’s about community and identity and the pull of one’s roots; and it’s about life in a small village where everyone knows everything about you, sometimes before you even know it yourself!

FVD: (Jumps up and down in excitement)  Any idea when we will be lucky enough to get our hands on a copy?

JS: The proposed publication date in the UK is early summer 2013. I’ll keep readers updated on my facebook page (www.facebook.com/staggjulia) and on my website (www.jstagg.com). There’s a new cover design underway too so the books are about to have a radical makeover. I’ll post more information on the sites above as I have it.

FVD: Are there any more tales to tell from Fogas?  (Please say yes).

JS: Ha – thank you! Yes. I’m working on the fourth book and there will be another to follow. After that, I’ve got a few ideas but they are in the formative stage…

FVD: Phew, so glad to hear that!  You have appeared at The France Show, talking about the books and your French life, are you going to be there next January?

JS: I’m not sure about the France Show – I hope so but I’m still waiting for confirmation. I will, however, be appearing at the French Property Exhibition at Olympia in London (5-7 Oct 2012), giving seminars on learning French and also promoting my books. And trying not to be tempted by all of the amazing properties on sale! Hopefully I’ll see some of your readers there!

FVD: Oh how I would love to escape my French village and be in London next weekend, never mind!  Good luck with the books and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

JS: Mon plaisir! (Do you mind if I just sit here a bit longer – the view is amazing…!)

FVD: Oh you are too kind!  Stay as long as you like, so long as I don’t find you dunking your pain-au-chocolat in the morning!  Don’t forget to say hello to Julia (and please feel free to mention me) if you are lucky enough to be attending the French Property Exhibition in London next weekend.