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November book reviews

A culinary journey, a musical thriller, a move to Céret and more...

EDITOR'S CHOICE: In the Restaurant - Christoph Ribbat

From soup to molecular gastronomy, our restaurants have all but matched the massive change in our modern lives. It is a journey from the earliest inn serving ‘restorative’ bouillons when food is scarce, to micro dishes served in establishments whose walls are weighed down with Michelin stars.

Paris is where restaurants started in the mid-18th century and by the end of the century – after far-flung representatives of the post Revolution National Assembly set a new trend for convivial dining – there is food for everyone. Or those who could afford to pay.

Bite-sized sections, stuffed full of juicy information and odd facts you will be keen to share, make this book a real pleasure to read.No wonder it has been described as an ‘entertaining smorgasbord of tasty stories’.

It is just that: entertaining and mouthwatering – but also a little shocking. Quite a lot shocking, in fact.

There was little excess in early restaurants because there was no extra but, now, excess seems the norm. Whether maltreatment of staff, the bone-weariness of chefs and the boredom of dishes they no longer care about, the production-line phrases staff repeat on cue… or the casual insults of customers.

The joy of In the Restaurant is that it is, for the most part, good-natured… a nice place to spend some time.

In the Restaurant – Society in Four Courses, Christoph Ribbat; Pushkin, £16.99; ISBN: 978-1-78227-308-0

The Accordionist, Fred Vargas

Louis Kehlweiler has been called in to establish the innocence of an accordionist...

SHOCKINGLY original, disturbingly eccentric and massively involving, Vargas books are a step beyond ordinary crime fiction and take you on a startling journey.

Former Interior Ministry investigator Louis Kehlweiler has been called in to establish the innocence of accordionist Clément Vauquer, who is being sought by Paris police for the brutal murders of two women.

Clément was seen outside the houses of the two women and seeks refuge with former prostitute Marthe Gardel, a bookseller on the Seine embankment.

The problem is that Clément is not smart: he calls himself an idiot – and with reason. He was set up.

Marthe wants to help him to catch the real killer so calls in Louis, an investigator, who in turn calls in Mathias, Marc and Lucien, the Three Evangelists.

Their quirky interplay and unconventional way of thinking – each is a specialist in a branch of history – makes for a droll, entertaining read. Translator Siân Reynolds has a knack of rendering their cadences and ticks into readable English.

However, they may have bitten off more than they can chew with Clément. It is next to impossible to get solid information from him: he can barely read, is unable to do two things at the same time… yet plays the accordion exquisitely.

The Accordionist, Fred Vargas, Harvill Secker; £16.99 ISBN: 978-1-846-55998-3

The Ceret Diaries - MJ Keevil

SEARCHING on Google for ‘somewhere better to live, where the grass is greener, the sky bluer and the taxes lower’ the author aims to rebuild her marriage with a cycle trip from the Lake District to Perpignan.

Beginning the adventure with a whopper of a lie does not seem a good place to start. Indeed, MJ Keevil has neglected to tell ‘hubby’ that while he thinks they will be cycling back, she plans to find a house to buy! Somehow, ‘hubby’ becomes enthused, too, and they head to Céret where they find their dream… at a nightmarish three times their budget and needing more than just a new bed to be liveable.

As in all such stories, their efforts to make it habitable are fun, amusing and shocking in various stages. Their ability to get on with the locals while only barely speaking the language is encouraging – although ‘hubby’ seems ‘incapable of any communication in French’.

But, manage they do (although they do seem to have a money tree that can fund trips to India) and a remarkable story comes to life in the history of their Catalan farmhouse which sits on a main wartime escape route to and from Spain.

Also remarkable is their way of making it all work. With llamas, goats, yoga and a handy supply of fellow expats, they create a life ‘somewhere better’.

The Ceret Diaries, MJ Keevil; Amazon, £4.50; ISBN: 978-1-5351-60452

The War in the West – The Allies Fight Back, 1941-1943 - James Holland

THESE are the turning points of the Second World War as Germany’s economy falters, Hitler invades Russia and the Führer’s recognised technical superiority in tanks is undone against the overwhelming numerical superiority of US-supplied Shermans.

Not to mention the Battle of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Thousand Bomber raids over Germany and the war in northern Africa…

This is a monumental work – the 800+ page paperback weighs well more than half a kilo – as it manages also to look at the home front where Britain’s factories and shipyards were churning out the fighting machinery that Germany could not.

But, despite its bulk, it is not an unwieldy read and there is a flow and consistent stimulation of interest – although a section on shipping figures is a key exception.

One of writer and historian James Holland’s main points is that Germany was, essentially, doomed from the beginning if it did not win quickly. Its failure to close down Britain and its lack of strength in depth allowed the Allies to gain in fighting capability.

The War in the West – The Allies Fight Back, 1941-1943, James Holland; Corgi, £9.99; 

ISBN: 978-0-593-07167-0

French Holiday Cookery, Camping Lite - Liz Garnett

WALKING into a supermarket, never mind an ordinary shop, can be a bit baffling for a stranger in France so this could be an invaluable addition to the suitcase of those heading for a camping or self-catering holiday.

Aimed at people with only two rings to cook on, it uses readily-available ingredients – no searching for curry powder – and all are translated into French (or a fairly close approximation). It is not aimed at those who do not enjoy eating parsley as it seems to pop up regularly.

French Holiday Cookery – Camping Lite, Liz Garnett; Beachthorpe Press; £9.95 

ISBN: 978-0-9935603-2-3

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