A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
Cora Blake is working at the cannery in Deer Isle, Maine, when she gets an invitation to travel to France. Cora is a Gold Star Mother, having lost her son Sammy in World War I. A volunteer librarian who is raising her nieces, Cora has never stopped grieving for her son, and looks forward to the trip in 1931, with four other Gold Star Mothers, all from different backgrounds. Cora’s group gathers in New York City, and meets Lily, the nurse assigned to them, and their escort, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond. Immediately there’s a problem; Mrs. Selma Russell is African American and not meant to be part of their group. She is sent to a different hotel, and Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell joins the group. Once in France, they tour Paris, where Cora meets wounded journalist Reed, who wants to tell her story. It is a journey of new experiences, shared grief, and unexpected tragedy. Reed’s article also has surprising consequences for Cora. We don’t meet the ladies from any of the other groups on their ship, and at least one storyline is dropped. Cora is excellent company for the reader, but I was hoping for more depth and less drama. I think this book would be a good choice for a book discussion.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
If you enjoy reading about art or Paris, this book may be appealing. To begin with, I found the title a bit misleading. The main characters are Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and I was expecting a grand romance. Degas gives Mary painting advice, and they are friends from time to time, when he isn’t being excessively critical or rude. Occasionally they are more than friends, but mostly not. The author’s focus is on painting, the artists’ community in 19th century Paris, Paris itself, and the illnesses and vision problems of the characters. Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet have a shared past, and Mary’s parents and sister Lydia, subject of many of Mary’s paintings, are the other featured characters, especially after they move from Philadelphia to live with Mary in Paris. The summary of the last forty years of Mary Cassatt’s life and work and the lives of her family and colleagues at the end was too compressed, but overall the book really kept my interest.
The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle
Sometimes I just want a light, fun book to read. That description perfectly fits Peter Mayle’s books. How about a luxurious working vacation in the south of France? American sleuth Sam Levitt and his girlfriend Elena are off to Marseille so that Sam can help wealthy Francis Reboul win a waterfront development contract. Readers of The Vintage Caper may remember that Reboul was Levitt’s quarry in a wine theft case, but he isn’t the type to hold a grudge. British rival Lord Wapping will stop at nothing to win the contest, while the other developer is Parisian, and not likely to win many votes in Marseille. Much sightseeing, fine wines, and gourmet dining are enjoyed by Sam and Elena until Lord Wapping’s thugs resort to kidnapping. This is a very breezy and relaxed caper, and enjoyable to read.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd
When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.
Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
Do you remember watching the movie Chocolat with Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp or reading the book by Joanne Harris? It’s been more than ten years, but I still remember how much I enjoyed it. I apparently missed the next book set in the French village of Lansquenet, Blackberry Wine, but I eagerly picked up Joanne Harris’ newest book, Peaches for Father Francis.
Vianne, Roux, and her daughters are living on a houseboat in Paris and Vianne still makes chocolates. One day, Vianne gets a letter from an old friend in Lansquenet who has died, and she and the girls travel back to Lansquenet, to find the village much changed. Muslim immigrants have moved to town, and there is some discord between the Catholic and Muslim communities. Father Francis Reynaud, the priest who tried to make Vianne leave town years ago when she opened a chocolate shop during Lent, is now suspected of setting fire to a school for Muslim girls and a younger, more modern priest is temporarily taking over his duties. Vianne uncovers some dark secrets within both communities, and Father Francis is stunned to learn that she has become his friend. Vianne again tries to work her magic with chocolate and reunite the community, while also worrying about Roux, left behind in Paris. Charming and eccentric, as well as suspenseful, I will remember this book for a long time.
The Girl in the Blue Beret, by Bobbie Ann Mason
Marshall Stone, a commercial airline pilot, is being forced to retire in 1980 at age 60. Now that he has more free time, he wonders what happened to the people he met in 1944, when his B-17 bomber was shot down and crash landed in a Belgian field near the French border. Recently widowed, he rents a temporary flat in Paris, and revisits his past. He writes to his surviving crew mates, and meets Nicolas Albert, whose parents hid him and other aviators as part of the French resistance. Nicolas helps Marshall trace the people and places he encountered in the months before he was smuggled back to England. He most wants to meet Annette Vallon, the girl in the blue beret, and her friend Robert. As Marshall remembers his wartime experiences, Nicolas, Annette, and Robert’s daughter gradually explain what happened to them. The author was inspired by the real-life adventure of her father-in-law, and the people who helped him. A moving and memorable book, it reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. For more information about the book, visit the author’s web site.
Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco
“I hate, therefore I am” describes the main character Simonio Simonini in this historical novel set in mid-nineteenth century Paris. Simonini, as well as his alter ego Abbe Dalla Piccola, is a talented forger and conspirator who seems to be behind numerous slanders concerning Jews, Jesuits, Freemasons, the Illuminati, and other groups lurking behind government and heads of state, all trying to subvert the body politic with their schemes for world domination. Simonini hates the Germans, the French, the Italians, the British, and just about everyone else. He is phobic about women and values fine cuisine. The novel is about his escapades during the Franco- Prussian war and his involvement in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the Dreyfuss affair.
I like Eco’s writing because he is funny and erudite, but it is an acquired taste. This book is not for everyone as it shows the rampant anti-Semitism present in Europe at that time. The Prague Cemetery takes conspiracy theories to the ultimate level, and is recommended for fans of conspiracy thrillers.
Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A historical mystical fantasy with Celtic elements and a harrowing love story; Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay, has been called astonishing. It swept me away. Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2008 and a Locus Award finalist.
See the author’s web site to find out more about Ysabel.