Wining and Dining in Provence (A Good Year by Peter Mayle)


I’ve always been a fan of Peter Mayle, because he’s a wonderful foodie writer, and I love books set in the idyllic South of France.

I haven’t read any of Mayle’s fictional works since Chasing Cezanne, though, as lately I’ve been reading his non-fiction: Acquired Tastes, A Year in Provence, and A Dog’s Life.

I was yearning for something light and soothing one night, so I picked up one of Mayle’s novels, A Good Year.

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Frenching it up

Setting is one of the important factors that draw me to reading a book, especially when I’m trying out an author for the first time. I find that there are certain settings that appeal to me more than others, and sometimes, the setting alone influences my decision to purchase a book that I’ve never even heard of.

I’m particular about setting because by nature, I’m an escapist reader – I like getting lost in the imagery of the words, transported to the very heart of the story, forgetting for the moment the never-ending to do lists, looming deadlines, and the general chaos of daily life. The setting just makes everything so much more real for the imagination, bringing the plot and characters to life.


the escapist reader
the escapist reader


I like the centers of art: Florence (as in Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus, Diane Haeger’s The Ruby Ring) and Delft (Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring); the musical city of Vienna (Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer and Star of Kazan); Spain, rife with mystery (Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and The Fencing Master); the English countryside, sometimes romantic, other times forbidding (Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale); the vibrant Venice (Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy, Donna Jo Napoli’s Daughter of Venice); and the exotic Morrocco (Barbara Hodgson’s The Tattooed Map, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy) or Greece (Eugene Trivizas’ The Last Black Cat).

The Italian countryside can be quite charming (Under the Tuscan Sun, Every Boy’s Got One), but for a rustic gastronomic adventure, books set in the French countryside always hit the spot for me, providing a heady experience of sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, as in Peter Mayle’s Chasing Cezanne and A Year in Provence; or Joanne Harris’ Chocolat.

Today’s books are non-fiction, but also set against the backdrop of pastoral France: Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration by Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke; and Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook (books #84-85 of 2009), both rummaged at Book Sale for P20 ($0.40) and P40 ($0.80) each, respectively (squee!).
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Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

People think that when they’ve read the Da Vinci Code, all other Grail mysteries will pale in comparison. Surprisingly, the Labyrinth holds up its own quite well, probably because of the difference between the two books.

I love the fact that Labyrinth is a female grail adventure, weaving a story between two female characters that live 800 years apart. Just recently Janeh and I were discussing the difference between male and female authors, and how they focused on different things (males plot driven, females detail-driven), and this novel is a good example.

In present day (2005), Alice Tanner stumbles into a hidden cave while on an archeological dig in the mountains of southwest France. She discovers two skeletons and a labyrinth pattern engraved on the wall and on a ring, which triggers visions of the past and propels her into a dangerous race against those who want the mystery of the cave for themselves.

This narrative alternates with the story of Alaïs, in the year 1209, a plucky 17-year-old living in the French city of Carcassone, a sort of free country (under tolerant Cathar Christians) that welcomes all religions, that has been declared heretical by the Catholic Church. The Crusaders siege the city, and Alaïs’s father, entrusts her with a book that is part of a sacred trilogy connected to the Holy Grail, but evil forces, including her sister Oriane, are out to get this sacred book for their own ends.

The stories are interwoven, with events mirrored in different situations experienced by the two women in their time.

There are some gory bits, surprising from a woman writer, and a lot of adventure — a medieval battle and a modern-day chase, all in one book! There’s even a love story, although I must commend how Mosse integrated into the story without it seeming contrived.

Mosse also skillfully spins out her yarn bit by bit, disclosing details a bit at a time, never fully revealing anything until the end of the novel, making it a page-turner to the very end.

Finally, I love her take on the Grail mystery, because it’s a refreshing point of view, a unique take on the Grail legend (ergo, without the conspiracy spin: she doesn’t claim it’s the truth, unlike Dan Brown, although she does come up with a lot of daring premises) that makes it an extraordinary read.

My copy: originally a mass market paperback, upgraded into a hardcover with dustjacket, mooched from the US

My rating: 5/5 stars

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