587 books directly related to France 📚

All 587 France books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Grape Expectations: A Family's Vineyard Adventure in France

By Caro Feely,

Book cover of Grape Expectations: A Family's Vineyard Adventure in France

Why this book?

Enjoying wine is second nature here in France. But what does it take to produce a perfect vintage? This no-frills memoir gave me the answers. 

An Irish couple moves to the Dordogne. Realising their dream, they buy a vineyard in financial trouble only to find that they have taken on more than they realised. And it’s tough on them all. Caro takes the reader on a detailed journey, describing the challenges of renovating their dilapidated farmhouse whilst learning to become wine-makers. 

I was fascinated by the gritty realities and hard work needed to make their vineyard a going concern. I was also hugely impressed. I suspect that many others in a similar situation would have given up. Amazingly, they continue whilst bringing up their young daughters and integrating into their local community. I was engrossed throughout.


Fields of Glory: A Novel Fields of Glory

By Jean Rouaud,

Book cover of Fields of Glory: A Novel Fields of Glory

Why this book?

This is the first book of a fictionalized family history, starting with the omniscient narrator’s maternal grandparents and paternal aunt, who are all born in the late 1880s: the World War I generation. The story takes place near Nantes, which until 1956 was part of Brittany, but then was administratively moved to a new department, the Loire Atlantic—though most people in Nantes and Brittany continue to believe the Nantois are Breton. As with many things French, the issue is far from settled.

Rouaud creates character through vignettes—and they’re wonderful: grandpa smoking; grandpa driving; grandma complaining about grandpa smoking and driving; their car—the infamous, uncomfortable, 2CV, deux chevaux—in the rain, the wind, on hills, having to wipe the windshield by hand to see, clearing grandma’s side, not grandpa’s, whose vision is blocked by pouring rain, streaking mud, and cigarette smoke. The rain leaks through the windows, the vents, and canvas roof. Rain, “life’s companion… the ennui of interminable drizzle,” creates the sadness of personality. My favorite vignette is the day grandpa disappears from his daughter’s house. Everyone, including the fire department is called to find him—he’s 75 at the time. He returns, nonchalant, at the end of the day with a story about his visit to the exotic gardens in Hyères, with gorgeous descriptions of the plants and trees he has seen, touched, smelled (he’s an amateur botanist). Grandma suspects a ruse, a mystery woman, someone with a slender ankle (unlike hers) and “a body conditioned by half-century of sea bathing (also unlike hers). She rifles through his pants pockets and finds a ticket stub to the Ile du Levant, a nudist paradise. No one says a word. A year later grandpa is dead. 

That’s when we meet Aunt Marie, bird-like, austere, a severe believer. It’s Brittany, the church, rain, and death are everywhere, one or more of them on every page, but it’s not morose or depressing. It’s hilarious. It’s the unbelieving omniscient narrator living in the land of the very believing, seeing, hearing, commenting, laughing—at himself, his family, the church, death, and life; Aunt Marie has a saint for every day and every occurrence; Uncle Remi, a non-believer is the church organist; the deaths of the father, uncles, aunt, and grandparents, told in the most beautiful and surreal language.   

The final section of the book ties the family together, clarifying their history, relationships, and love: Marie, Joseph, Emile and Pierre, three brothers and a sister created, defined, and limited by the trenches of World War I. Emile and Joseph die there; Marie gives herself to God there. Pierre returns from there, marries Aline, and they have a son, another Joseph, who dies at age 40, one year after his wife Martha (the daughter of grandpa and grandma) dies in childbirth, leaving our omniscient author an orphan with a rich family history to discover and an ironic, absurd, iconoclastic voice to tell their story. I love this book. 


Wind, Sand and Stars

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery,

Book cover of Wind, Sand and Stars

Why this book?

Saint-Exupery’s descriptions of what he sees and feels during enthralling activities amid stunning landscapes left me enchanted. The feelings he captures extend beyond the mere act of flying and into human relationships and our quest for meaning, written in beautiful, often philosophical prose. He approached flying as a metaphor for life and the human condition. Even if I will never fly, he made me care. 


A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By Sonia Purnell,

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Why this book?

When I read this book, I couldn’t believe that I and most other people knew nothing about the one-legged American the Nazis called the most dangerous of all Allied spies. This biography is as exhilarating as any good thriller. Throughout Virginia Hall’s sensational career, she dealt not only with the enemy but with needless obstacles posed by men who were her colleagues. With only brief training in spy craft and short-lived college education, the 35-year-old Hall masterminded prison breaks for Allied agents, organized French resistance to that country’s German occupiers, and re-established a broken chain of radio operatives throughout the region. As the Nazis closed in on her in winter 1942, she limped to freedom on her wooden leg across “one of the cruelest mountain passes in the Pyrenees.” Within two years she was back in Nazi-occupied France to risk her life again supplying money, weapons, and organization to French Resistance fighters. 


A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

By Sarah Helm,

Book cover of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

Why this book?

Sarah Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins is perfectly titled. On one level, Vera was the 2nd in command of SOE’s French Section, responsible for recruiting, training, and deploying SOE operatives into France. On another level, there were the closely guarded secrets of her own life.

Sarah Helm’s biography revealed a workaholic, an immigrant who became more English than the English, and whose loyalty to her charges, and the Allied cause, was unswerving. After the war, when 118 SOE agent didn’t make it home, Vera launched a personal crusade to find out what happened to them – a mission that took her across Allied-Occupied Germany to the concentration camps. (She found all but one.)

On a side note, Vera Atkins has been fictionalised on both big and small screens, from Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny to Foyle’s War Hilda Pierce. Her legacy remains an inspiration.


The Invisible Woman

By Erika Robuck,

Book cover of The Invisible Woman

Why this book?

Virginia Hall is one woman whose stunning personal story ought to make her a household name. Robuck’s fascinating novel drops the reader into France in March of 1944, where the Nazis terrorize the population and American Special Ops leader Virginia Hall is doing all she can to subvert the occupiers and assist in the lead-up to D-Day. I barely breathed while reading this novel of one of the founding ladies of the CIA – and the best part of all? The story is true, and oh-so-inspiring. 


The New Paris: The People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement

By Lindsey Tramuta,

Book cover of The New Paris: The People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement

Why this book?

The description above segues nicely into The New Paris by Lindsey Traumata, published in 2017. Traumata now has a second book published, and hosts a podcast, and is popular on social media. I have spent at least a month (and sometimes three) in Paris annually over the past six years and think of Traumata’s first book as a good friend. She writes wonderful profiles of people, and she keeps readers updated about bistros, winemakers, new cuisine. Her writing is elegant, and I read her descriptions as avidly as I do a novel, constantly making notes. So different from the usual guidebooks.


Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France

By Rita Kramer,

Book cover of Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France

Why this book?

The story of four women agents from the SOE’s French section and their journey to a death camp in France is movingly told. They travel from different directions and come from different backgrounds but meet their tragic fate together. The book captures the spirit of resistance and their heroism.


Carve Her Name with Pride: The Story of Violette Szabo

By R.J. Minney,

Book cover of Carve Her Name with Pride: The Story of Violette Szabo

Why this book?

Originally published in 1956, this book is still worth a read, even though more material on the SOE agents is now available. Violette Szabo’s bravery, her death in Ravensbruck Concentration camp at the age of 23 and her posthumous George Cross collected by her daughter Tania, continues to move and inspire.


A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse: A Cookbook

By Mimi Thorisson,

Book cover of A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse: A Cookbook

Why this book?

If you like to cook and love France this book with its wonderful photography is also a coffee table book. Just looking through it will transport you to the French countryside where I lived and worked and adore. The recipes are not convoluted and are simple and delicious.


Chocolat

By Joanne Harris,

Book cover of Chocolat

Why this book?

I love stories about women who stand up for themselves against manipulative authoritarians, especially women who can do so with a sense of humor. Add to that, a bit of magic, and you’ve got me hooked. Chocolat does both in such a satisfying way that it has become one of my all-time favorite reads.


The Nightingale

By Kristin Hannah,

Book cover of The Nightingale

Why this book?

Maybe it’s the sister thing, but this book pleased me way more than other recent WWII novels that are touted as “great literature.” Sisters Isabelle Rossignol and Vianne Mauriac struggle to survive during the occupation of France, opposing the Nazis in different ways, with different results. Their courage in the face of danger and their dedication to each other result in a wonderful read.


The Cooking of Provincial France

By Mark Kauffman, M.F.K. Fisher,

Book cover of The Cooking of Provincial France

Why this book?

The Time-Life Foods of the World series first published in the 1960s is hands down, to this day, the best books on the various cuisines of the world. Every book in the series is top-notch but the one on provincial French cooking was edited by the famous food writer M. F. K. Fisher. The book, as all in the series, is not written from a chef's point of view, but for the home cook. The recipes are classics and easily do-able by an even slightly competent home cook. They were originally sold as a box set consisting of a large book of text with several recipes and alluring photographs and a smaller spiral-bound book of recipes.


French Regional Cooking

By Anne Willan,

Book cover of French Regional Cooking

Why this book?

Willan is an Englishwoman who lived most of her life in France where she founded and ran the École de Cuisine La Varenne, in Paris and Burgundy. All her books are great, but this book is superlative, and I would put it in the same ranks as the Time-Life book. Its depth of knowledge and breadth is wonderful and there is much to explore and learn. The recipes are gems and work every time.


The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944

By Michael Neiberg,

Book cover of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944

Why this book?

Michael Neiberg is a Professor of History at the US Army War College. Neiberg is the author of numerous books and is one of America’s leading historians of the First World War. However, Professor Neiberg also researches and writes on various aspects of the Second World War and his skill as a scholar of French history is clearly evident in this book. This is a fast-paced, meticulously researched, and gripping account of the liberation of Paris in August 1944. How the City of Light finally regained its freedom is a complex but compelling story. That story is brilliantly presented in The Blood of Free Men.


Make the Kaiser Dance: Living Memories of a Forgotten War: The American Experience in World War I

By Henry Berry,

Book cover of Make the Kaiser Dance: Living Memories of a Forgotten War: The American Experience in World War I

Why this book?

Numerous fascinating first-hand accounts of American “Doughboys” who saw front-line service in World War I. Many of the stories are poignant and personal.


Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

By Martha Ann,

Book cover of Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

Why this book?

One of the very best books in English about France during this time, Hanna mines a treasure trove of letters between a married peasant couple from southwest France to tell an intimate history of the war, of its effects on families, women, villages, men, and the countryside. War stories take place on battlefields, of course, but also in homes and in hearts. Anyone wanting to understand the experience of the Great War at the front, on the home front, and everywhere in between, should start here.


A Very Long Engagement

By Sebastien Japrisot,

Book cover of A Very Long Engagement

Why this book?

Unable to walk since childhood, Mathilde Donnay never lets her limitations get in her way. She is on the search for her fiancé who was reported killed in the Great War, but whom she believes might still be alive. Mathilde is feisty, caring, strategic, and driven—all things I’d like to be.


Strange Defeat

By Marc Bloch,

Book cover of Strange Defeat

Why this book?

An extraordinary account of the fall of France by a leading historian of the time, written in its aftermath. Both a first-person account of the debacle and a profound meditation on the structural problems of French state, army and society that led to defeat. All the more moving because Bloch was removed from his academic post as a Jew by Vichy and shot by the Germans as a resister in 1944.


The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Arthur Goldhammer (translator), Henry Rousso,

Book cover of The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

Why this book?

A classic, dramatically original study of conflicting French interpretations of the German Occupation in World War II and the anti-democratic regime of Vichy. Rousso shows how de Gaulle tried to unify the country after the Liberation by celebrating a myth of widespread French Resistance and obscuring the extent to which French collaboration enabled the horrors of the Shoah and the destruction of democracy. Rousso follows the story as it played out in the ensuing decades as more and more evidence of collaboration came to light, and ideological conflicts stretching back to the Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th century shook the county once again. At a time when authoritarian governments and xenophobia are rising around the world, Rousso’s book offers a timely lesson and a warning. 


Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

By Anne De Courcy,

Book cover of Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

Why this book?

There have been so many biographies of Coco Chanel, good and bad, that it must be hard to find anything new (or nice) to say about her. This capsule history offers fresh insights into her lifestyle, inspirations, and obsessions. At La Pausa—her entirely beige bolt-hole on the French Riviera—Chanel waited out World War II alongside the likes of Colette, Igor Stravinsky, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, Wallis Simpson, and Somerset Maugham, who famously called the Riviera “a sunny place for shady people.” That reputation is certainly borne out by de Courcy’s book, which paints Chanel and her circle as being blissfully, willfully ignorant of the stealth war between the Nazis and the French Resistance raging around them.


Arthur Young's Travels in France: During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789

By Arthur Young,

Book cover of Arthur Young's Travels in France: During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789

Why this book?

Young was an English agriculturalist who took time out from farming to analyse life and developments in the countryside. He toured Britain, then Ireland, and finally France. Here, he lucked in. He wandered the fields, lanes, and city streets of France as the Revolution was brewing and then erupting. Although not an aristo himself, he frequented nobility and royalty, and was amazed at the blissful indifference of the idle rich about what was going on around them. He saw the extreme poverty of the peasants, who were being worked and starved to death by their absentee landlords. He witnessed the actual events of the Revolution and had to talk himself out of getting lynched as a potential aristo spy. It’s a book to browse rather than consume whole, and contains whole pages about crop yields and diseases, but at times it is the most measured first-hand view of the Revolution that I’ve ever read, and much more convincing than any analysis I’ve come across by a French writer.


Les Miserables

By Lee Fahnestock, Norman Macafee, Victor Hugo

Book cover of Les Miserables

Why this book?

Les Miz was the first book I truly read as a kid. I was in high school, and we mostly read boring old textbooks and I never had an interest in reading anything outside of what was required. That all changed when I was assigned to read Hugo’s novel in sophomore English class. Not only did I learn about the turbulent history of France, but I saw it through the eyes of Jean Valjean. Jean fought against all odds to live the life he wanted to live and change the lives of people around him. I’ll never forget that twist midway through the book that forced me to go back and read to see what I had missed.


Second Harvest

By Louis William Graux, Henri Fluchere, Geoffrey Myers, Jean Giono

Book cover of Second Harvest

Why this book?

A bit of a cheat, this one. It’s probably my favourite French novel, precisely because it is timeless and seems to ignore everything about French history. I don’t think there’s one mention or symptom of the Revolution, no scar of the First World War, no French over-intellectualizing. It’s just nature and humankind going head-to-head in a brutally realistic, but starkly beautiful, Provençal landscape. By the way, I don’t like the English title – Regain means regrowth, the first signs of recovery. Personally, I’d prefer a title like Signs of Life. And this novel is all about a tiny hamlet in southern France that is on the verge of death. Only one man of working age remains amongst the ruined houses; the fields are fallow; there are no women. Then a tinker comes through, dragging his unwilling, abused femme with him. She catches the lone male peasant’s eye, cosmic chemistry occurs, and from then on everything is an explosion of primeval forces: hormones, sprouting seeds, bodily fluids, cruel nature harnessed by a man and woman determined to forge a new existence. And it’s all told in a subdued, sparse, non-intellectual way that is a bit like a baguette – flour, water, salt and yeast are all you really need for a tasty, satisfying loaf.


Battle: The Story of the Bulge

By John Toland,

Book cover of Battle: The Story of the Bulge

Why this book?

Compared to Macdonald’s tome, Toland’s book is a far more succinct account of the Battle of the Bulge (If you could call 444 pages succinct!). Toland doesn’t spend a lot of time on exposition. He dives right into the battle after the first twenty pages, which is refreshing because too many authors and historians spend too much time, writing about the build-up before the battle. Before you know it, you’re already halfway through the book and it’s only December 16. Toland avoids that pitfall. His prose is simple and straightforward. If you can’t read a 900-page book about the Bulge, then read Toland’s account.


D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Book cover of D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II

Why this book?

Published in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day (Operation Overlord) in 1994, Ambrose’s 656-page tome covers the broad scope of the massive, history-changing operation, with special attention paid to the parachute and glider operations. The author details the overall planning of the air-and-sea operation—and analyzes why the most carefully planned invasion in history nearly went terribly wrong. This is the ultimate history of the battle that changed the outcome of World War II.


Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Book cover of Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944

Why this book?

One of my all-time favorite books; it inspired me to become a military historian. Through extensive interviews with the actual participants, Ambrose detailed how gilder-borne British commandos pulled off a nearly textbook example of how to take an enemy-held bridge. Whenever I lead tours to Normandy, I always make sure we stop at Pegasus Bridge and recount the valor of the British troops who performed what many said was impossible.


Holy Blood, Holy Grail

By Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent

Book cover of Holy Blood, Holy Grail

Why this book?

This book is a near-perfect example of how an ancient myth can spawn a modern urban myth or conspiracy theory. Best known today for having inspired Dan Brown’s blockbuster The da Vinci Code – so much so that the authors unsuccessfully sued Brown’s publisher for plagiarism – this book weaves together fragments of myth and mysticism, strange events from more recent history, and political intrigue to create a fascinating tale about the lost bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalen.


The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

By Douglas Starr,

Book cover of The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

Why this book?

Starr, a journalist, dug deep into French archives to document the crime spree and investigation of “French Ripper” Joseph Vacher, whom journalists speculated might be the still-uncaught Jack the Ripper. Lacassagne evaluated Vacher, who was accused of viciously murdering and mutilating fourteen young people around the French countryside. Starr includes the story of how a magistrate meticulously created one of the earliest behavioral profiles, which Lacassagne used for his own analysis. This is an impressive story of mental detection in 1896, a time when there were few resources, especially for cross-jurisdiction investigation. It took a special kind of inventive mind to link incident reports and make this savage killer accountable every crime he committed. Years before the publication of the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes, Lacassagne exercised full critical examination and became one of the top innovators in Europe.


Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes,

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

I first read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. Every so often, I return to it in order to immerse myself in its wonderful prose and insights. It combines travelogue with biography, detective work with a probing inner exploration and is both an account of a physical journey and a remap of the writer’s imagination. He begins with his homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey and describes his own trek over the Cevennes. He starts out with the idea that he will be a poet and finishes his walk having been led "far away into the undiscovered land of other’s men and women’s lives. It led towards biography."

It is the turning point of his life and for the remainder of the book – as he hunts down his subjects which include Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Gerard de Nerval, and Gautier – he goes on to explore the nature of the relationship between the biographer and the quarry. The book has so enraptured me that I found myself walking in the company of friends over the Cevennes in Stevenson’s and Holmes’s footsteps. It was one of the best journeys of my own life. 


The Oxford History of the French Revolution

By William Doyle,

Book cover of The Oxford History of the French Revolution

Why this book?

Bill Doyle is the leading British interpreter of the French Revolution and this is a subtle account of its causes and course. Very good on the need to look for specific political causes rather than any supposedly inevitable pattern of socio-economic conflict.


The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751

By Ian Wood,

Book cover of The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751

Why this book?

The Merovingians – the Frankish royal family – were the closest, and most powerful, neighbour to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages. They influenced trade, culture, and religion of early England, at times as partners, at times as hegemons of the island. At the same time, they built the foundation on which the Carolingians built their empire, the New Rome that would control the great swathes of Europe for centuries to come. Ian Wood’s excellent book is possibly the most detailed account of their rule ever written. 


The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589

By Robert Knecht,

Book cover of The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589

Why this book?

A scholarly account of the family that ruled France from 1328 to 1589. Knecht concentrates on the high politics, but his book is a valuable linkage of the Middle Ages and the early-modern age, taking readers from the Hundred Years’ War to the French Wars of Religion. France’s bloody history emerges clearly.


Brave Men

By Ernie Pyle,

Book cover of Brave Men

Why this book?

Alright, this is not technically a book about WWII letters, but it’s very close, and my favorite historical accounts’ book ever. Just like with wartime correspondence, Ernie Pyle wrote from the battlefield about the daily routine of the regular GI while experiencing it himself. Just like in a personal military letter, you get to know a tired civilian in uniform rather than a multi-medal bearing superhero with a thirst for action. With his exceptional writing, Pyle painted touching and realistic portraits, not of the Generals we've already read all about, but of the simple soldier who simply did his job and won the war with his sweat and blood.


Paris in the Fifties

By Stanley Karnow,

Book cover of Paris in the Fifties

Why this book?

While not strictly a book on fashion in Paris, it is a wonderful exploration of all things French after World War II, and one of those things was the Christian Dior couture house. Karnow arrived in Paris in 1947 to study, and soon landed a gig writing for Time magazine. One of his assignments was a cover story on Christian Dior, whose company, in less than a decade, had become so successful it was known as the General Motors of Fashion. In the Dior chapter, Karnow beautifully evokes the mechanisms and machinations of a French couture house, and shows how fashion and Paris were deeply intertwined at the time. The rest of the book is a rollicking good read, too.


Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon

By Christine Haynes,

Book cover of Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon

Why this book?

Where my book, Fighting Terror, zooms in on the Allied Council, and its encompassing security culture, Christine Haynes’ rich and detailed book reconstructs the interactions between occupying soldiers and the occupied in Paris and across the French countryside. She meticulously details how these interactions involved violence, but also promoted cultural exchange (vernacular, songs, dances, fashion, food) and reconciliation between the French and their former enemies. Her book reads as a narrative on how to transform former enemies into allies, a unique blueprint for fraternizing-through-occupying on the ground.


Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

By Kate Vigurs,

Book cover of Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

Why this book?

Special Operations Executive had the directive to “Set Europe ablaze” and from 1942 began recruiting women as field operatives. 39 were sent into France (of which 26 returned), and Kate Vigurs tells their stories in Mission France. Superbly researched and well written, this book is a really good all-rounder. Broken into 3 sections (Foundations, War, and Death & Deliverance), it tells each woman’s story, from their recruitment to either their death or demob. I loved the fact that she covered the lesser-known agents as well as the big names. Be prepared to be moved – these women’s exploits are more amazing than a lot of fiction I’ve read!


Fat Dogs and French Estates, Part 4

By Beth Haslam,

Book cover of Fat Dogs and French Estates, Part 4

Why this book?

I think it is an excellent example of how ingenuity and mutual loving support can overcome an otherwise devastating event.

When Beth Haslam and her hilariously grumpy husband, Jack, and their lovable dogs, set off to buy a second home in rural France, they didn't expect to become part-time foresters, raising rare breed pheasants and caring for wild boar. In this fourth episode of Beth's excellent five-part memoir series, the Haslam's have their lives turned upside-down when a raging storm devastates vast sections of their forest. As if this disaster wasn't already bad enough, the authorities then demanded that the 1,000s of fallen trees be removed. But at what cost? Is their idyllic French retirement over, or can they recover and rebuild without going bust?


The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

Why this book?

This is cultural history with a difference and of a difference. It teaches you a lot about the reputation for fashionable culture that France enjoyed for centuries all over the world and continues to enjoy to this day. How much of all that is already packed into the book’s subtitle! The rest of the book is just as accessible and lively and unwilling ever to take itself too seriously. 


The Fall of Paris: June 1940

By Herbert R. Lottman,

Book cover of The Fall of Paris: June 1940

Why this book?

The fall of France is essential historical context for the refugee crisis, and this book is "history with a flair." Focused on Paris—through which millions of refugees were routed and from which two million embarked—Lottman weaves micro-histories (think Eduardo Galeano), culled from an encyclopedic range of accounts, into a panoramic, propulsive day-by-day narrative that prominently features the refugee crisis. A compelling read.


Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Why this book?

In this lively, elegant biography, Andrew Curran retraces the intellectual itinerary of a major eighteenth-century philosopher, Denis Diderot. Very few people ever lived and wrote with as much confidence in the power of posterity to recognize their greatness and the importance of their intellectual contribution after their death. Diderot, indeed, had to hide a significant proportion of his writings because they were just too controversial and ahead of their time. He believed that nothing was more inspirational than to work for the admiration of those who have yet to be born. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a marvelous introduction to the Enlightenment through the portrait of one of its major thinkers, and a great way to understand why people write books for those they will never meet.


Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

By Simon Schama,

Book cover of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Why this book?

There are so many good books on the Enlightenment era, but my favorite ones have tended to deal with events in France. Among my preferred reads is Simon Schama’s Citizens, which I first breezed through in graduate school when it appeared in 1998. Citizens not only provides stunning, jaw-dropping insight into the events of the revolution, it confers an unforgettable texture to the main characters. (The images I have of Danton and Robespierre still come from the pages of this book, despite having read many other works on the same subject.) In recent years some critics have taken the author to task for being “against” the revolution. This still doesn’t bother me a bit. Regardless of the supposed politics or leaning of the author, this is an extraordinary book.


How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

Why this book?

As is the case in many great European cities, most neighborhoods in Paris have accumulated layers and layers of famous inhabitants, momentous events, and deathbed scenes, the most notable of which have earned a historical marker or plaque. At first glance, the city’s buildings and neighborhoods appear timeless, yet much of Paris is actually a palimpsest, a huge manuscript whose neighborhoods have been scraped to the ground and rebuilt time and time again. One of my favorite things in life (quite literally) is walking through the streets of the French capital, and I often find myself thinking of How Paris became Paris while doing so. Joan DeJean is a great writer and provides a narrative of the birth the Paris that we know (or think we know) that is as instructive as it is riveting. The book’s chapters correspond generally to some of the city’s best-known spaces, spaces (such as the old so-called Pont Neuf) that will never be the same for you after you have read the book.


Becoming Josephine: A Novel

By Heather Webb,

Book cover of Becoming Josephine: A Novel

Why this book?

I think most history fans know about the ill-fated relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, but I loved that this novel also highlighted Josephine’s early—and mostly forgotten—years spent in Haiti as France’s ideals of equality spurred the bloody Haitian Revolution. Josephine then also has to survive the French Revolution before she catches Napoleon’s eye.


Slowness

By Milan Kundera,

Book cover of Slowness

Why this book?

I love the way Kundera grapples with big ideas through finely-wrought fiction. I devoured this novel in a single sitting. It explores the romantic entanglements of characters who seem at first unconnected. But it's also a meditation on speed, technology, and slowness, and how these shape our experience of the world, other people, and ourselves. Kundera suggests that slowness opens the way to wisdom and sensuality, memory, and the milk of human kindness. A slower world, he seems to be saying, would be a better world. A beguiling journey through the philosophical underpinnings of the Slow movement.


Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life

By Alan Schom,

Book cover of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life

Why this book?

This relatively recent biography of Napoleon, well researched and written, has Prussia all over it (tangentially), mostly because of the French emperor’s insatiably aggressive appetite, which involved all his neighbors diplomatically, socially, militarily, and economically. Everything Napoleon did had ramifications everywhere else, and it took a united Europe to thwart him. Prussia, along with Great Britain, was in the forefront of this effort. Marshal Blücher's Prussian forces, in fact, provided the last-minute, decisive intervention that led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1814, a pivotal moment in European and Prussia history


Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig, Cedar Paul (translator), Eden Paul (translator)

Book cover of Marie Antoinette

Why this book?

A concise, compelling, and beautifully told story by one of pre-World War II Europe’s finest writers.  Largely based on correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her mother, Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, then with the love of her life, Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen, Zweig’s account clarifies the queen’s character development with grace and understanding, and paints a well-rounded, nuanced picture of Marie-Antoinette from her personal pleasures as a mother and lover, to her suffering and courage during the Revolution.  


Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb

By François-René de Chateaubriand, Robert Baldick (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb

Why this book?

In his memoirs Chateaubriand combined private life and public events, the autobiography of a Romantic with the history of the French revolution. A royalist writer, ambassador, and minister, he believed that ‘legitimate, constitutional monarchy’ was the ‘gentlest and surest path to complete freedom’. His memoirs give brilliant descriptions of the Bourbons, of whom he often despaired, including the ‘infernal vision’ of Talleyrand and Fouché entering Louis XVIII’s study, ‘vice leaning on the arm of crime’; and the bedsheets which royalist ladies converted into white Bourbon flags, to salute the entry of the allies into Paris in 1814.  For him the Hundred Days was the  ‘irredeemable crime and capital error’ of Napoleon; marriage, especially Chateaubriand’s own, was ‘the high road to all misfortunes’. Disabused of everyone, he asks: ‘is life anything but a lie?’


A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés): St. Jean - Roncesvalles - Santiago

By John Brierley,

Book cover of A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés): St. Jean - Roncesvalles - Santiago

Why this book?

This was easily the most useful item we took with us on our own Camino. The maps in Brierley’s guidebook were easy to follow, the descriptions were comprehensive, the recommendations were up to date.

In writing this guidebook, Brierley has balanced philosophical questions about pilgrimage with a host of practical details. Breaking up the journey from St Jean Pied de Port (which is where the majority of pilgrims start their journey) to Santiago de Compostela into thirty-three stages, he has meticulously researched each stage providing a map and contour guide for each - so the walker knows what kind of route, distance and elevation to expect each day. In addition, he provides helpful listings of accommodation and eating places along the journey.


Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld

By Beate Klarsfeld, Serge Klarsfeld, Sam Taylor (translator)

Book cover of Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld

Why this book?

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld made it their life missions to find Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. In their memoir Hunting the Truth, they detail their efforts in tracking down Nazi war criminals. We are with them when we read how they put their lives and well-being at considerable risk for many years. Hunting the Truth is an incredible book about two incredible people.


Paris to the Moon

By Adam Gopnick,

Book cover of Paris to the Moon

Why this book?

New Yorker Adam Gopnick’s memoir about life in Paris with his family is a great reminder of why we all became so enchanted with France, and the French, in the first place. The experiences are relatable, but the insights erudite enough to make you feel smart, and want to dig deeper. It’s a dreamy, vicarious immersion in the life of a sophisticated expatriate who grapples with all the quirks and paradoxes of the French capital and its inhabitants.


Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

By William Alexander,

Book cover of Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

Why this book?

Alexander’s book is a sort of memoir that recounts how, at a quite advanced age, he set out to become fluent in French. It’s funny, insightful, peppered with great observations, and has quite an amazing twist in the plot. His determination to master French – but also the research he explores about language learning in the process – will be inspiring for readers of all ages. A fun and motivating read.


Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

By Pat Shipman,

Book cover of Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

Why this book?

The image of the female spy should have been Marthe McKenna and women spies like her.  Instead, because of a nude dancer from The Netherlands, the popular but unfair image of a spy in spy thrillers and Hollywood films is often that of a devious seductress. The nude dancer’s stage name was Mata Hari, who became the mistress to senior French officers and officials during the war. She may have pretended to spy for both sides to earn money, but revealed no significant secrets. Nonetheless in 1917, the French accused her of being a German spy who had used her seductive talents to obtain secrets that sent tens of thousands of French soldiers to their deaths. The evidence at her trial came nowhere close to proving the accusation, but the French needed a scapegoat for the mutiny and collapse of much of their army. She was convicted, executed by firing squad---and became a legend.


The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

By Cornelius Ryan,

Book cover of The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

Why this book?

First published in 1959, some 15 years after the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, Cornelius Ryan’s book stands as a classic narrative of that amphibious assault. Writing in the vivid prose of an experienced journalist, Ryan also conducted research like a seasoned historian. He interviewed combatants of every nation and rank and sent questionnaires to many others. I feel like I am in the thick of the fight alongside Allied soldiers in the landing craft approaching the beach and with Germans hunkered down in the fortifications trying to stop their amphibious assault. Throughout his narrative, Ryan blends analyses of the good and bad decisions made by both sides.   


The Witches of Lorraine

By Robin Briggs,

Book cover of The Witches of Lorraine

Why this book?

Alongside Germany, Lorraine was another hotspot of accusations and Briggs has worked over decades in local archives to analyse the patterns of accusations and paint a vivid picture of village life. His book underlines how complex sets of factors worked together, often over many years, to result in accusations and, in some cases, in executions.


Auschwitz and After

By Charlotte Delbo, Rosette C. Lamont (translator),

Book cover of Auschwitz and After

Why this book?

I first read Auschwitz and After in a university course focused on the Holocaust. Toward the course’s end, in a section focusing on memoirs, this book followed Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. While Weisel and Levi’s works are both undeniably masterpieces, Delbo’s work stood out to me because of its form and its feminist perspective. Delbo, a French partisan who was captured and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, lays bare in her work the ways in which gender affected the camp experience. It illuminated to me the different and similar ways in which men and women responded to the horrors of the extermination camps. Furthermore, Delbo’s work is not a linear narrative. Instead, it combines poetry and other non-traditional forms to create a memoir of an experience that Delbo readily admitted language was not equipped to capture. I recommend the work for the ways in which it completed uprooted me and changed my perspective of what I thought was a familiar subject.


The Anti-Witch

By Jeanne Favret-Saada, Matthew Carey (translator),

Book cover of The Anti-Witch

Why this book?

The Anti-Witch is kind of a follow-up to Favret-Saada’s complex and brilliant Deadly Words, in which the author wrestled with the phenomenon of modern witchcraft beliefs in northern France’s Bocage region and tried to get inside the logic of those beliefs. I said modern witchcraft beliefs, because for me as a historian, what Favret-Saada contributed most to my understanding of this phenomenon lay in the way that she insisted on its historicity. That’s a historian’s way of saying that she did not treat witchcraft beliefs as “timeless relics” that some people weirdly “still” believe, but rather as an evolving set of practices and ways of thinking about how the world works, and the place of evil within it.


A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

By Jeremy D. Popkin,

Book cover of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

Why this book?

There are a thousand books on the French Revolution, but most of them focus on the foibles of the aristocracy, or the wild rage of the crowds, or the heroism of Napoleon. Popkin’s new history does a masterful job of covering all the key events and personalities in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and in its unfolding over almost two decades. He is particularly good at placing the Revolution in the context of world history (showing its relation to events in the New World, from the American Revolution to the Revolution in Haiti), and in keeping a focus on the role of the French Revolution in the history of liberty. Indeed, through the eyes of the revolutionaries and their followers in this book, you can watch the dawn of liberty arise in the early years of the Revolution, and then fade under the increasingly militarist and imperial rule of Napoleon.   


The Old Regime and the French Revolution

By Alexis de Tocqueville,

Book cover of The Old Regime and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Like his classic Democracy in America, 19th-century French author Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the great movement for freedom in his own country raises profound questions about the difficult relationship between liberty and equality. Modern scholarship has challenged some of Tocqueville’s assertions, but his warning that events often turn out very differently from what the actors in them intended is as relevant today as it was when his book was first published in 1856.


Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

By Lynn Hunt,

Book cover of Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

Why this book?

A classic example of “the new cultural history,” Lynn Hunt’s short book transformed the way historians look at the French Revolution and has also influenced scholars working on many other subjects. In our age of “culture wars,” Hunt’s demonstration of how slogans, visual images, and even clothing became powerful forces in politics has a relevance that goes beyond the period of the French Revolution.


The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution

By Dominique Godineau, Katherine Streip (translator),

Book cover of The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution

Why this book?

Half of the people who experienced the French Revolution were women, and the recognition of their role in these events is one of the biggest transformations in historians’ perspectives of the past half-century. Dominque Godineau’s thoroughly documented book depicts the everyday lives of women in the revolutionary era and the activists who paved the way for modern feminist movements.


The Pure and the Impure

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Book cover of The Pure and the Impure

Why this book?

Although best known to Anglophone readers for her novel Gigi (1944), Colette considered Ces Plaisirs (These Pleasures) later titled The Pure and the Impure, one of her best works. A titillating exploration into the erotic underground of early twentieth-century Paris, the novel’s semi-autobiographical characters pursue a range of sexual experiences and sensual pleasures. Traversing the capital city’s carnal playgrounds, from its fashionable opium dens to its commercial boudoirs, Colette troubles the complicated relationship between sex and love – presenting both as a worthy if ultimately futile human pursuit.


Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

By Rachel Mesch,

Book cover of Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

Why this book?

Before Trans is a triple biography of three very remarkable French women writers, all of whom preferred men’s clothing and behaved in unladylike ways. The three are Jane Dieulafoy (1850 - 1916), explorer and archeologist; the novelist Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery,1860-1953); and the erotic writer Marc de Montifaud (Marie-Amélie Charteroule de Montifaud,1845-1912). The distinctive feature of this provocative book is the author’s effort to understand these women who chose to defy the boundaries of femininity but lived in a world that was “before trans” – before what we understand today as transgender, where one’s sex and one’s gender self-understanding do not line up. It is a brilliant book, which one reviewer describes (and I agree) as “exceedingly well-written, layered, and compelling.”  Mesch’s pioneering triple biography is not to be missed.


Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris

By Andrew Israel Ross,

Book cover of Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Why this book?

Public City/Public Sex offers a provocative foray into the dance halls, brothels, and even the public urinals of nineteenth-century Paris. By centering sexuality conceptually and geographically, Ross advances the novel argument that public sex constituted public culture in the capital city. Vividly illuminating how urban clandestine and public sexual encounters (between men and women, men and men, and to a lesser extent, women and women) necessitated a new form of civic management, Ross cleverly demonstrates the intricate, intimate ways in which sex was implicated in, and developed alongside, the modern city.


The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: A French Recipe for a Long Life, Well-Lived

By Marie De Hennezel,

Book cover of The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: A French Recipe for a Long Life, Well-Lived

Why this book?

Many books in my personal live-long-live-well library are about the physical element of healthy aging – basically: just keep moving. But healthy aging is just as much from the neck up from the neck down. As this one proves.

Marie de Hennezel is a French palliative-care psychologist …and this book excavates “the inexplicable, incomprehensible force that keeps human beings alive...” The psyche ripens as the body diminishes, and a keen new sensual perception blooms. Takeaway: “To an 80-year-old, a child’s smile has more currency than a three-course banquet does to a 40-year-old...”


French Wine: A History

By Rod Phillips,

Book cover of French Wine: A History

Why this book?

This is the best general survey of French wine in English, from someone who not only teaches the history of modern France at his local university, but who also reviews and writes about wine for his city’s newspaper. As both an academic historian and a journalist, Phillips has written a riveting account of how wine was first introduced to France under the Romans, how many of the vineyards later came under the control of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, how the French state attempted to control and regulate the production of wine in the nineteenth-century, and how smaller wineries are now trying to cope with the global commercialization of the wine industry. Just a great primer on French wine.


Puligny-Montrachet : Journal of a Village in Burgundy

By Simon Loftus,

Book cover of Puligny-Montrachet : Journal of a Village in Burgundy

Why this book?

If terroir is about place, Loftus shows us one particular place in rural Burgundy, and especially the people living there who grow the grapes and make the wine. These vignerons help us understand that good wine is made in the vineyard, not through any manipulation after the harvest in a fermentation tank or oak barrel. Loftus also shows how wine influences local politics, as in 1879 when the village elders petitioned the French government to add the name of their most famous vineyard—Montrachet—to the name of their town, Puligny, thus allowing their Grand Cru vineyard name to appear on the label of humbler bottles bearing just the village name, following in the footsteps of Nuits-St. Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, Aloxe-Corton, and dozens of other Burgundian villages.


Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?

By Marion Demossier,

Book cover of Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?

Why this book?

At some basic level, the drinking culture in eighteenth-century taverns has survived in Parisian wine bars and cafés today. Yet, as a social anthropologist, Demossier shows us that wine-drinking culture has changed into something different today. Since 1980 the number of French people who drank wine every day has plummeted from over 50 percent to barely 20 percent. Yet at the same time, wine has taken on a larger cultural role in French identity as a nation even for those who drink wine less regularly. All the TV programs, books, wine blogs, wine tourism, and consumers flocking to wineries for a degustation at the source demonstrate that drinking wine is now as much a part of what it means to be French as speaking French.


Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

By Marcel Proust, CK Scott Moncrieff (translator),

Book cover of Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

Why this book?

Besides being probably the best novel ever written, this is certainly the best novel ever written about Jews. Set largely during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, when the wrongful conviction of a Jewish officer for treason drove France to the brink of civil war, Proust’s epic novel explores the dynamics of Jewish assimilation and antisemitism with keen insight and biting wit. Half-Jewish himself, Proust understood better than anyone why Jews wanted to be part of a society that regarded them with at best ambivalence and at worst, outright disdain. The novel is about a lot of other things also—childhood, writing, snobbery, homosexuality—but the sections about Jews are among the most penetrating and poignant.


The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

By James McAuley,

Book cover of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

Why this book?

This is a book about a group of fabulously wealthy Jewish families (the Cahen D’Anvers, the Reinachs, the Rothschilds, and others) who amassed first-class art collections and left them to the French state only to see the state turn on them during the German Occupation. With great sensitivity, McAuley explores the lives of these very elite Jews, many of whom were related through ties of friendship and marriage, painting a rich portrait of their gilded but “fragile” world. He shows the complicated motivations behind their collections—the drive to belong and to express that belonging through art. This is certainly a snapshot of a very particular class, but it reveals something profound about the nature of the French-Jewish experience.


The Journal of Hélène Berr

By Hélène Berr,

Book cover of The Journal of Hélène Berr

Why this book?

Hélène Berr was the French Anne Frank: a university student during the German Occupation, she kept a journal of her experience, which her family kept private until 2008, when it became a publishing sensation. The journal covers the period from 1942, when Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, until her arrest in 1944. Gifted with a literary sensibility, Hélène observes the world around her as the walls began to close in, but still manages to grasp moments of love and joy amid the suffering. A precious record of day-to-day life in Occupied France, the journal also provides that rarest of Holocaust narratives: the voice of someone who did not survive.


La Place de l’étoile

By Patrick Modiano, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of La Place de l’étoile

Why this book?

This is the first novel by Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.  It has been translated into English but with a French title, which contains a pun that can’t be translated (referring both to a location in Paris and to the infamous badge imposed by the Nazis). A darkly comic and shocking send-up of French antisemitic literature, the novel features a clownish protagonist named Raphaël Schlemilovitch who embraces every antisemitic stereotype imaginable, becoming in turn, a cosmopolitan, a traitor, a collaborator, and a pimp before winding up on the couch of Sigmund Freud begging to be put out of his misery.  Modiano wrote this novel to exorcise the demons of French literature and it helped him carve out a place as a distinctly Jewish voice in the French literary pantheon.


Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny

By Michael Broers,

Book cover of Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny

Why this book?

Hailed by most reviewers as the definitive biography on Napoleon. It is written by the doyen of Napoleonic studies at Oxford. Based on the meticulous research and the recently completed new & expanded edition of Napoleon’s letters. Despite this Broers wears his erudition lightly and has written a gripping and page-turning life story of the man who changed Europe beyond recognition. It is by far the most European biography ever written on the French Emperor. We all await volume 3 with great anticipation!


Napoleon: The End of Glory

By Munro Price,

Book cover of Napoleon: The End of Glory

Why this book?

The accomplished historian of France across the years of Revolution, Empire and Restoration, Munro Price brings all his arsenal of erudition, archival acumen, and intellectual insight to bear on the last crisis of the empire. His attention to detail, his sensitivity to character and motivation make for one of the most penetrating, illuminating accounts of the implosion of support for Napoleon among the French elites ever written. No non-French scholar had picked through the complex politics of late Napoleonic France with as much skill or precision. Price delivers all this in elegant prose, the sign of a subtle historian.


Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection 1815-1840

By Philip Dwyer,

Book cover of Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection 1815-1840

Why this book?

Bizarrely not many quality works on Napoleon’s exile and afterlife exist in English. It is much to Dwyer’s credit to have written a superb account of the stricken eagle’s exile on Saint Helena. It depicts well how the reality of confinement contrasted markedly with the myth that was fostered by exiles. This is an excellent analysis of these humid days on the South Atlantic followed in the second half by a masterful analysis of how Napoleon became the new Prometheus and Christ for liberals who opposed the Restoration. A riveting read.


The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris

By Lindsey Tramuta, Joann Pai (photographer),

Book cover of The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris

Why this book?

The book is an insider guide to Paris and features interviews with amazing women who are making the city better and more interesting, one action, one thought, one sentence at a time. I finished the book wishing I could meet the Parisiennes over coffee to discuss the different challenges that they faced. 


Let Them Eat Pancakes: One Man's Personal Revolution in the City of Light

By Craig Carlson,

Book cover of Let Them Eat Pancakes: One Man's Personal Revolution in the City of Light

Why this book?

Craig Carlson shares his passion for food and France in this charming, thought-provoking collection of essays. With heart and humor, he shows us the best of America and France, and how we can learn from one another. Whether delving into cultural differences or the challenges and rewards of running a business, Craig is the perfect guide. Let Them Eat Pancakes is a delicious, satisfying dish about following your dreams and dealing with any challenge that arises.


Lacombe Lucien: The Screenplay

By Louis Malle, Patrick Modiano, Sabine Destrée (translator)

Book cover of Lacombe Lucien: The Screenplay

Why this book?

Louis Malle was one of the first film directors to demythologise de Gaulle’s spin that most of France was engaged in resistance to the Nazis. Lacombe Lucien was set in the Lot, Malle’s adoptive home, and he asked for the help of Modiano, Nobel Literary prize winner, to write the screenplay.

Lucien, too young to join the fierce if small Lot Resistance, dropped accidentally into the hands of the Gestapo instead, and through them met and fell for the cultured Jewish Parisienne, France Horn. A strange pairing of young people whose different lives had been interrupted by war, they fled both the Gestapo and the Resistance, hiding from a troubled world in the wilds of the causse, where Lucien, the peasant boy, was in his element. There they blissfully awaited the inevitable.


The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwestern France

By W.S. Merwin,

Book cover of The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwestern France

Why this book?

W.S. Merwin was an American Poet Laureate and ecologist manqué. Travelling around Europe after university, by the time he reached the Lot he was already something of a linguist and also a Buddhist. He settled into a simple life in a house near Loubressac, exploring the Causse de Gramat until he knew it intimately. He conversed with the shepherdesses in Occitan, the language of his beloved troubadours, exploring the ancient transhumance trails, the unique flora, fauna, and culture of the limestone causse. This is a poet’s book and he knew and understood the causse as few outsiders ever do. The Lost Upland is a book about the causse.


Et toute ma sympathie

By Françoise Sagan,

Book cover of Et toute ma sympathie

Why this book?

Sagan was born in the Lot at Cajarc and is buried there. She returned most summers to seek the peace and quiet of an area so different from the demi-monde of the mad, bad, and dangerous metropolitan life she was more used to inhabiting. She took her sustenance from riding across its stony wastes and introduced her famous friends to it too. Mitterrand and Pompidou were frequent visitors.

Her memoirs were published in two books. Avec mon meilleur souvenir was translated into English as With Fondest Regards and details many of her trips to America and meetings with Billie Holliday and Truman Capote. Her second memoir, Et toute ma sympathie, has not been translated but contains a few pages on the Lot. She doesn’t seem keen to share the place with many. But Sagan, author of fifty novels, starting with Bonjour tristesse when she was a teenager, was grounded by the area and drew her strength from its authenticity.

“The causses....it’s the fantastic, reassuring impression that France is empty.”


Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War

By Hal Vaughan,

Book cover of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War

Why this book?

I have always adored the Chanel brand and have been intrigued by Coco Chanel’s childhood story and her rise to fame. Then to read the back story of her activities during World War 2 in Paris, I was gutted. The author depicts her as a full-on collaborator. All done in a bid to save her fortune, but at the expense of others. In this explosive narrative the author pieces together Chanel’s hidden years, her relationships with top-ranking Nazis, and her anti-Semitism.  


Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960

By Frederick Cooper,

Book cover of Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960

Why this book?

In this superb, prize-winning book, Cooper shows that despite France’s often gruesome treatment of its African colonies, its postwar leaders tried to make amends. After taking power in 1958, Charles de Gaulle gave each of France’s African territories three choices: 1) full departmental status within the French Republic (à la Martinique and Guadeloupe); 2) internal autonomy and democratic self-government in a newly dubbed French Community modeled on the British Commonwealth; 3) complete independence with a cutoff of all financial assistance. Every territory voted for option 2, except Guinea, which chose independence. Although the Community option ultimately fell apart, Cooper shows nonetheless that there was nothing inevitable about the devolution of France’s African empire into a series of independent nation-states.


A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Book cover of A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

Why this book?

A Passion for History is a conversation between Natalie Zemon Davis, a prominent historian and an extraordinary woman, with Denis Crouzet, also a historian and a sharp observer. Above all, they discuss how to do research, write, and teach history. In addition, Natalie Zemon Davis shares her memories of being an ambitious Jewish girl in America of the 40s and her way to combine academic aspirations with family life, and her views on other subjects, such as politics, feminism, cinema, and freedom. This lively dialogue of two remarkable intellectuals is a thrilling read.


The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris

By Anna-Louise Milne,

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris

Why this book?

Beginning in the seventeenth century at the moment when Paris was redesigned, it became a great literary city and the center of the French literary tradition. For anyone interested in how the most important French writers have celebrated their city and depicted the ways in which Paris has changed over the centuries and the impact such changes have had on its inhabitants this is the perfect book.


Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

By Philip Dwyer,

Book cover of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

Why this book?

Napoleon Bonaparte brought a decade of revolutionary upheaval to an end when he seized power with the army in November 1799, but he had been made a general by the Revolution and was one of its most celebrated soldiers. The Revolution opened up opportunities for this Corsican “outsider” which would have been impossible before the Revolution: he grabbed them. Dwyer’s prize-winning account of Napoleon’s checkered rise to power at the age of thirty is also a gripping narrative of the unpredictability and drama of the revolutionary decade. It reveals the making of a man whose brilliance, military genius, and vision was qualified by his cynicism, cruelty, and vanity. 


Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

By Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

Why this book?

After 1792 French revolutionaries had to confront European armies and internal counter-revolution in a battle for the survival of the Revolution – and their own lives. The Jacobins saved the Revolution, but an enormous cost in human life. Marisa Linton takes us inside the personal dimensions of this deadly struggle, examining how personal friendships and alliances among revolutionary leaders disintegrated into recrimination and killings. By the Year II (1793-94) the policies of “terror” unleashed at the armed enemies of the Revolution had been extended to other revolutionaries believed to lack the authenticity necessary to the practice of republican “virtue”. Linton unravels the deadly logic of suspicion at a time of violence and acute fear which underpinned this “politicians’ terror”.  


The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

By William Doyle,

Book cover of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

Ever since 1789 people have asked how to explain such a massive upheaval in an apparently stable kingdom. Why did the Revolution follow its particular course after 1789? Why did it result in a civil war and international warfare? When was it “over”? And how “revolutionary” was the Revolution? Was France fundamentally changed as a result of it? What were the international repercussions?

An eminent historian of the eighteenth century here manages to condense decades of research and writing into a pocket-sized paperback. It is a superb, lucid, and up-to-date summary of the origins, course, and outcomes of the Revolution and of the ongoing debates about its meaning and significance, some of which involve Doyle’s own interpretations. 


French Revolution and the People

By David Andress,

Book cover of French Revolution and the People

Why this book?

The elation of the revolutionary months of May-October 1789 was soon replaced by fervent debate about whose revolution this was to be. This was a debate which involved people at every level of society across the new nation. How could the divergent hopes of middle-class politicians and officials, insurgent Parisians, and the divergent mass of the peasantry be reconciled? Others rejected the Revolution altogether. After 1792 the debate became deadly as a European coalition made war on France, often with the collaboration of internal counter-revolutionaries. David Andress has created a vivid and expert narrative of an unfolding struggle over the survival and meaning of the Revolution, with some surprising conclusions.


Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Why this book?

Few studies of the French Revolution by French historians have been made available in English. This is a loss for non-French readers, for it is France’s own revolution after all. No one knows the subject in such formidable depth as do their best historians, and Michel Biard is indubitably one of the very best of his generation. While I myself collaborated in the writing of this book, my principal reason for recommending it here is that it makes Michel Biard’s work more widely available. This up-to-date book appeared in French in 2020, under the title, Terreur! La Révolution française face à ses démons. This study confronts the enigma of ‘the Terror’ head-on, comparing myth and reality. Be prepared for it to challenge many of the assumptions about the French revolutionary terror familiar from school, film, and literature. 


Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

By Ruth Scurr,

Book cover of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Intriguingly, Ruth Scurr’s approach is to give Robespierre ‘the benefit of any rational doubt’ in all the major decisions facing him as a politician. Almost like Robespierre’s best friend, she tries ‘to see things from his point of view’ when seeking to explain his acts. The result is a study that subtly draws the reader in, yet is far from a whitewash. Indeed the more problematic aspects of Robespierre’s character and policies including his drift towards violence, repression, and terror stand out all the more starkly as a result of this fundamentally sympathetic and thoughtful approach.


Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

By Siân Reynolds,

Book cover of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Why this book?

Jean-Marie Roland and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (later Madame “Manon” Roland) were the Revolution’s power couple, their lives both entwined and contrasting with Robespierre’s. Their fascinating and tragic story, expertly researched and retold by Siân Reynolds, has much to tell us about the power and passions of the Revolution and the personal relationships at its heart. We also learn much about provincial life, parenthood, and a companionate marriage. The Rolands were initially political allies of Robespierre, and “Manon” sought to cultivate personal friendship with him, but their bitter falling-out would be fatal for them in November 1793 – and ultimately for Maximilien in July 1794.


Paris in the Terror

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of Paris in the Terror

Why this book?

Loomis bases his account on the life and work of three principals in the Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary demagogue, self-styled ‘People’s Friend’ and proponent of some of the grimmest excesses of the Terror; Danton, the moderate, whose increasing distaste for those excesses and his clash with Robespierre ultimately took him to the scaffold; Robespierre, the prissy, virginal, orphaned lawyer who had once argued passionately against the death penalty and then oversaw the herding of droves of citizens – mostly not aristocrats but largely what the French call the "menu peuple", humble artisans, shopgirls, social nobodies – to the guillotine. Inflexible as a Commandment, he became increasingly obsessed with ‘virtue’ in the twisted belief that legislation alone can enjoin decent behaviour or "civisme". Danton, the ebullient bon viveur rebuffed this nonsense cheerily: ‘Virtue,’ he said ‘is what I do with my wife every night.’

Loomis writes vividly, his book is replete with anecdote – some of it of rather dubious provenance, admittedly – but he evokes brilliantly the claustrophobic atmosphere of a time of overheated emotions, the propensity for wild hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, distorted manipulation of fact, wildly engrossed report, overblown journalism, the paranoia and toxic climate of suspicion, and the sheer horror of living in the French capital through one of the nastiest periods of any nation’s history.


Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd

By M.T. Anderson, Petra Mathers (illustrator),

Book cover of Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd

Why this book?

I love this picture book biography about composer Erik Satie. It has all the ingredients I love—lyrical language, fascinating details, and most of all a compelling story, in this case, about a man as odd and enchanting as his music that sounded happy and sad, like “kick line songs and ancient chants, but mixed together.” His most famous musical composition is Gymnopédie. Although Satie was a musical misfit and struggled throughout his life, in the end, he succeeded, leaving the world with a legacy of unforgettable music.


France and Women, 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics

By James F. McMillan,

Book cover of France and Women, 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics

Why this book?

Every biographer needs a reliable social history, an authority that distils the essential, orders the chronology, and acts as a framework on which to pin all those facts. In his assured style, James F. McMillan artfully weaves the myriad strands of history into a seamless and engaging narrative. From prostitutes to housewives and from workers to salonières, the author spans the whole social spectrum to pinpoint not just what French women did, but why, and crucially, how their actions were received. The scrupulous research, swift pace, and crisp style make this comprehensive study a bible to anyone interested in the history of French women during the long 19th century.


Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

By Gustave Flaubert, Geoffrey Wall (translator),

Book cover of Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

Why this book?

How very terrible is the overmastering desire that torments Madame Bovary! How large is our sympathy and, at the same time, our disgust for this woman of the provinces who, longing for the gay life of a Parisian, as it was in the first half of the nineteenth century, betrayed everyone she knew, including her doltish, if devoted husband, Charles, a country doctor. Fifty-five years have passed since my first acquaintance with Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterwork of psychological and sociological realism, a work that does not pass judgment on human folly but only presents it, although the absurdities of society and the pretentiousness of certain egotists are skewered by the author’s satiric ferocity.

In 1967, I was unprepared by life to receive Flaubert’s insights, rendered in the subtlest of prose, in, arguably, the first example of literacy realism. Do you hunger to read gorgeous language and enjoy a reader’s sensual pleasure? Do you wish, at whatever age you are now, to begin to understand the human heart? (It can never be fully comprehended, only felt.) Read Madame Bovary in the Lydia Davis translation, and prepare to be astonished.


Célestine: Voices from a French Village

By Gillian Tindall,

Book cover of Célestine: Voices from a French Village

Why this book?

A dusty bundle of 150-year-old letters found in a deserted house in rural France forms the premise of this intriguing literary hybrid. Author Gillian Tindall beckons us to follow her on an enthralling, real-life detective story, as she uncovers the life and loves of the letters’ addressee, an obscure provincial innkeeper’s daughter named Célestine Chaumettte. As she pieces Célestine’s story together, Tindall breathes life back into a whole slice of history and a community now vanished. A rich cast of forgotten characters springs from the pages as we see, taste, and smell the many textures of rural society in 19th-century France, along with the seasons and cycles that governed it. This evocative, haunting account of a country girl’s experience and place within this world really is social history at its best.


Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Why this book?

Maximilien Robespierre will always be associated in people’s minds with ‘the Terror’. In reality, he was not a dictator, but one of a group of committed revolutionaries in the National Convention. Within hours of his execution in July 1794 a myth began to circulate that he had been the sole mastermind behind ‘the Terror’. This myth was a way of exculpating the men who had also backed terror during the crisis of the ‘Year II’. Afterward, it was so much simpler for them to lay all the blame onto Robespierre. McPhee’s profound knowledge of the Revolution enables him to situate Robespierre in his context, showing not just how Robespierre affected the course of the Revolution, but how the Revolution changed Robespierre. This is simply by far the best recent study in English of Robespierre’s life.


Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

By Russell Braddon,

Book cover of Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

Why this book?

If ever another film should be made about an SOE agent in occupied France, it should tell the story of Nancy Wake, a brash, fearless Australian who caused havoc for the Nazis as ‘White Mouse’, the nominal leader of a huge Maquis network. I came upon Nancy’s file at the National Archives, and her SOE training report sums up this extraordinary woman: "She is tough, stubborn and plucky, with plenty of initiative. She has a strong personality, is jolly and sociable, but capable of being rather difficult." Those who came up against her would certainly have agreed, including her handlers. This book is a fantastic description of Nancy’s sometimes reckless bravery and incredible achievements inside enemy territory.


Ticket to Freedom

By H.J. Spiller,

Book cover of Ticket to Freedom

Why this book?

A gripping personal account of an airman’s adventurous escape through France and over the Pyrenees. After Herbert Spiller’s Halifax bomber crash-landed to the east of Paris in October 1942, he had the good luck to be helped by the priest and abbot of St-Dizier. They saw him safely on to a train to Paris, where he was taken under the wing of the Comet escape line and then passed south down the line and eventually over the Pyrenees … sometimes at a high cost. Several of the French people who assisted him later died either by execution or in the concentration camps. “You can imagine ... the sense of debt that hangs over me when I ponder on the fact that nine people died through helping me to live and return to duty,” Spiller writes, dedicating his book to all those who risked their lives to help him.


Secret Flotillas: Vol. I: Clandestine Sea Operations to Brittany, 1940-1944

By Brooks Richards,

Book cover of Secret Flotillas: Vol. I: Clandestine Sea Operations to Brittany, 1940-1944

Why this book?

A detailed and authoritative account of the vitally important secret naval operations mounted to rescue Allied service personnel and also ferry secret agents to and from occupied France. Recognised as the official historian of the ‘secret flotillas’, as a Royal Navy officer Brooks Richards took part in many of these operations and thus vividly describes the hazardous voyages, often in small fishing vessels under cover of darkness and well before the days of GPS and other modern navigation tools. In addition to his own wartime experiences, Brooks Richards’ account is informed by extensive personal research, including access to what were then (and some still are) closed government archives.


The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century

By Robert Louis Stein,

Book cover of The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century

Why this book?

This book offers a lucid and very accessible study of the nuts and bolts of the eighteenth-century French sugar business. Readers get a clear understanding of the key aspects of the enterprise that made France the main sugar exporter in the world – from how it was financed, to how it relied on African slave labor, to its cultivation in the Caribbean sugar plantations. It also offers one of the best discussions of the local French domestic industries involved in the sugar business.


There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime

By Sue Peabody,

Book cover of There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime

Why this book?

Sue Peabody’s book on the death of the “free soil principle” in France is a milestone in legal history. Beginning in 1315, when Louis X signed the letters patent that forever associated the words French and France with the eradication of slavery, anyone who was bonded or a serf was supposedly “free” when stepping foot in France. This tenet began to fall apart in 1716, when the then Regent created a loophole for slaveowners returning to France with their enslaved servants. Peabody takes us deep into the legality (and illegality) of slavery on French soil as well as several illustrative court cases. There are No Slaves in France is a model of how archive-extracted research can be woven into a riveting and revealing story. A must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between mercantilism, race, and the legal statutes that created and legislated different categories of people.  


The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth Century Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth Century Paris

Why this book?

People have always smiled, right?  Wrong. Jones shows that in the early 18th century, open mouths were considered repulsive, partly because most people had terrible teeth.  He looks at dentistry in 18th-century Paris, at what the smile meant, at the reasons smiling became acceptable. But then it went out of fashion again, at least in public, until the 20th century. Brilliant.


Journal of My Life

By Jacques-Louis Ménétra,

Book cover of Journal of My Life

Why this book?

The only first-hand account of life in Paris written by an artisan, matter-of-factly describing the city’s casual violence and bawdiness, the joys, and hardships, loves, and hatreds. Wonderfully translated, it captures a way of looking at the world that we’ve lost.  But also the thoughtfulness of a largely self-educated man who is loyal to family and friends, rejects conventional religious belief, and supports the French Revolution.


Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris

By Louise E. Robbins,

Book cover of Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Why this book?

Animals were everywhere in eighteenth-century Paris: captives in menageries, pets in apartments, trained and displayed at fairs and in the streets, pitted against each other in bloody fights. Exotic parrots linked Paris to tropical Africa and the Americas. An entire guild sold only birds and small animals. Attitudes towards animals are extraordinarily revealing about any society, and this is a book full of insights.


Ninety-Three

By Victor Hugo,

Book cover of Ninety-Three

Why this book?

This is the last of Hugo’s novels, but regarded as his greatest work. In the book, the author meticulously describes the bloody fighting between the Republic and Royalist during the French Revolution. The monarchist revolt in the Vendee was brutally suppressed by the Republic. The emotional struggle of the three main characters gives readers a heartbroken impact, which shows that these characters were torn between political values and their conscience.


Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution

By Ian Coller,

Book cover of Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Similarly contributing to a broadening of perspective on the French Revolution, Ian Coller’s new book examines the way in which Muslims figured into the history of this world-historical event.  Making creative use of scattered and fragmentary sources on Muslims in eighteenth-century France and its empire, he shows how they were central to discussions of the “universalism” of the rights guaranteed by the revolutionary government. While this government was initially supported by much of the Muslim world, it ultimately undermined Muslim support—and the republic itself—by attempting to impose its vision of universal “liberty” in the invasion of Egypt in 1798, which brought the young general Napoleon Bonaparte to power.


Life in Revolutionary France

By Mette Herder (editor), Jennifer Heuer (editor),

Book cover of Life in Revolutionary France

Why this book?

This new collection of essays by an international team of cutting-edge scholars allows readers to see how the French Revolution affected ordinary men and women, in Paris, the French provinces, and the French empire overseas.  Treating a broad range of topics—from female activism to property, justice, medicine, food, material culture, childhood, religion, and war—these essays collectively paint a vivid picture of everyday life during this tumultuous period.  Each essay is accompanied by a primary document from the time, which enables readers to see for themselves the kinds of sources on which historians rely in their work.  Inspired by innovative historiographical approaches to spaces, emotions, and artifacts, Life in Revolutionary France paves the way for new research into the everyday experience of revolution.


Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

By Ian Coller,

Book cover of Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Why this book?

Ian Coller’s study shows how, even in the Napoleonic era, the empire was a two-way process that left a lasting legacy for modern France. He discusses the community of Arabs - several hundred Egyptians, Syrians, and others - who followed the French army back home after the Egyptian Campaign to settle in France, mainly in Marseille and Paris. They faced critical issues of identity and cultural isolation, forging few links with the native French, and their story leads Coller to reflect on the history of France more generally, with due emphasis on the processes of memory formation and forgetting.


The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why this book?

Jordan’s is probably the most elegantly written of the five studies and stands out for providing a particularly generous allocation of space to Robespierre’s voice, telling the story of his life as much as possible through his own words. At the same time, Jordan’s intellectual biography is quietly attentive to providing a sense of the complex political environment in which any French revolutionary statesman had to act.


Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

By Leonie Frieda,

Book cover of Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Why this book?

Catherine de Medici has been reviled as an evil and power-hungry queen mother of three French kings, and as the architect of the St. Bartholomew’s Day’s Massacre—the most infamous episode in the decades-long French Wars of Religion. She was even slanderously accused of murdering another queen by sending her poisoned gloves, in keeping with her “Machiavellian” Italian extraction. Leonie Frieda’s biography corrects the “Black Legend” of Catherine and provides a vivid portrait of the complex woman who wielded unprecedented power as queen regent in France, where Salic Law prohibited women from exercising sovereignty in their own right, as did her contemporary Elizabeth I. She shows that from her husband Henri II’s unexpected death in a gruesome accident through the reigns of her sons, who unfortunately did not inherit their mother’s ability, Catherine displayed “intelligence, courage, and an indefatigable spirit” in exercising political power and acting as an exceptional patron of the arts. 


Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

By Catherine de Medicis, Leah L. Chang (translator), Katherine Kong (translator)

Book cover of Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

Why this book?

From her arrival as a fourteen-year-old bride to her death as queen mother fifty-five years later, Catherine de Medici was praised as a devoted wife and mother and able ruler but also condemned as a foreigner, a poisoner, and murderer of Protestants. This rare collection of primary sources translated into English allows readers to become familiar with the sources of such positive and negative assessments of this controversial queen. The letters included here, selected from her many volumes of correspondence, reveal her concerns as a mother and as a political figure.

Excerpts from Venetian ambassadors' gossipy reports bring to light principal figures of the French court--their character, their motives, and political interests. Other sources in the collection extravagantly praise the character and actions of the queen. The several polemical sources included in the collection offer a sharp contrast. The vehement charges leveled against Catherine allow readers to recognize and understand how her Black Legend came to dominate the conventional understanding of this powerful queen.


Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

By Dena Goodman (editor), Thomas E. Kaiser (editor),

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

Why this book?

This collection of articles offers an intriguing approach to the topic of women, power, and sex by focusing on the many uses of Marie Antoinette. The essays, by prominent historians, art historians, and literary scholars, examine Marie Antoinette as a “site of history” where political and cultural contests occurred. The authors analyze pamphlets, archival materials, portraits, French Revolutionary pornography, and modern films to consider the central questions Marie Antoinette raised about her identity as a foreign queen, woman, wife, mother, and political figure.

She embodied the contradictions in old regime politics, culture, and gender identity and has been used subsequently to address political and gender issues to the present. Each essay offers a distinct, intriguing perspective on the reciprocal influence of this queen and the history of France. The collection reveals the wealth of purposes this queen served and the rich variety of interpretations she provoked.


The Night Rainbow

By Claire King,

Book cover of The Night Rainbow

Why this book?

Five-year-old Peony narrates the story of her life in Southern France and the imaginary world which she creates with the younger Margot. Known as Pea, she lives in a rundown farmhouse, where her recently bereaved and heavily pregnant English mother sleeps most of the time. Bold and brave, Pea’s ability to cope with absent parenting is beautifully imagined. She looks after herself and Margo and makes forays into the community her mother has rejected. The language she uses and her understanding of the world is delightfully quirky.


The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

By Rudolph Chelminski,

Book cover of The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

Why this book?

Think Friend of the Devil is merely fiction? Consider this: Bernard Loiseau rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of his profession, earning the ultimate accolade of three stars in the Michelin Guide for his restaurant La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, France. Yet in 2003, immediately after the lunch service, this acclaimed chef blew his brains out with a shotgun. The Perfectionist traces his life, obsessions, and insecurities to give us a chilling portrait of why attaining your dreams might be the most dangerous situation of all.


Judgment of Paris: Judgment of Paris

By George M. Taber,

Book cover of Judgment of Paris: Judgment of Paris

Why this book?

An inspiring story of how prejudice in the wine world was brought into focus which started a revolution in the way wines from around the world are viewed. It uncovers the people and places involved in shattering conventional wisdom and demonstrating that exceptional wines can be produced in many countries. So well told is this story, that it inspired the film Bottle Shock.


Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure

By Don Kladstrup, Petie Kladstrup,

Book cover of Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure

Why this book?

You don’t need to know about wine or WWII to enjoy the story of how French wine was ingeniously protected from pillaging Germans during the Occupation. It reads like a war movie, about wine. Some anecdotes with a touch of James Bond about them, with others more Allo Allo. Sadly, the heroism involved continues to this day, but now with Lebanese wine producers. Indeed, there is another more recent book covering this very topic too.


Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray (translator),

Book cover of Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Why this book?

Montaillou, which was published while I was in graduate school, provided a new, highly personalized way to study medieval social history: not with quantitative data but through a nuanced examination of court records that offer a mirror into the everyday lives of obscure villagers. When I first read the “Miracles of Saint Louis” I realized this source for late thirteenth century Paris was nearly as rich as Le Roy Ladurie’s inquisitorial record concerning Montaillou. Had Montaillou not been written, I might not have seen the potential in the “Miracles of Saint Louis,” and thus I might not have written Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris.


The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

By Peter Sis,

Book cover of The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Why this book?

Let me start by saying that Peter Sís is a genius and his books are like no one else’s. This story about Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of the beloved classic, The Little Prince, is original in every possible way. Maps and mountains are transformed into creatures smiling at each other. In a scene describing the German invasion of France in 1940, his careful tiny crosshatching gives way to loose watercolor, red paint that spreads across the page like fire or blood. At the end, where Saint-Exupéry dreams of the Little Prince, is a stunning double-page spread with no words, just an expanse of blue with prince-like golden stars on the far horizon. The book is sheer perfection.


The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War

By Jean-Yves Le Naour, Penny Allen (translator),

Book cover of The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War

Why this book?

With some 1.5 million men dead, and several million more wounded, the story of France and the Great War is in many ways simply the story of grief, and this work captures that beautifully. Through the tragic, true story of a wounded amnesiac veteran whose name and family are unknown, Le Naour tells the crucial story of women, families, and an entire culture in mourning, in many ways hopelessly. Yet the veteran and the people who try to help him or claim him as their own retain their dignity and humanity in this account.


The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan, David Fernbach (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

Why this book?

Hazan knows every nook and cranny of his city. He exults in the buildings and architecture, but his main subject is the people who wove the fabric of its diverse communities and their histories. He takes us on a historical journey that passes from the salons of the old aristocracy to the artisanal districts where popular, revolutionary activism was born. Hazan makes no attempt to conceal his left-wing sympathies, but he is equally at home admiring the Art Nouveau gems of the well-heeled 16th arrondissement as he is enjoying the vibrant, ethnically diverse northern districts of the city. Hazan’s love of the human life of Paris shines through.


La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of Marquise Du Châtelet

By Judith Zinsser,

Book cover of La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of Marquise Du Châtelet

Why this book?

This splendid biography traces the life and times of the Marquise Du Châtelet, born in Paris in December 1706, who became one of the most erudite women of her époque. For fifteen years she was the companion to Voltaire, the best-known of the French philosophes. She mastered calculus and translated Newton’s Principia, in addition to carrying on an active social life and raising several children. She died at the age of 42, following the birth of a daughter conceived with another lover. The author explains her subject’s life course as “from a life of frivolity to a life of the mind.” It’s a great read.


The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame Du Coudray

By Nina Rattner Gelbart,

Book cover of The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame Du Coudray

Why this book?

Too many babies were dying at birth (or shortly thereafter) and French authorities had become obsessed with increasing the country’s population. Who would have thought, though, that King Louis XV of France would decide to sponsor and finance (for over 20 years) a remarkable Paris-trained midwife to tour France on behalf of the re-education of peasant midwives? As the King’s envoy, Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray (born c. 1715) toured France from 1760 to 1783 carrying out her mission in some 40 cities and large towns.

Her important textbook on obstetrics, first published in 1759 (5 editions by 1785) and her invention of an obstetrical cloth female mannequin (she called it her “machine”) facilitated her revolutionary hands-on method of teaching the craft of delivering babies. Du Coudray was an imposing presence and a remarkable exception amidst the ongoing illiteracy and superstition that plagued peasant women. Nina Gelbart’s biography, the result of painstaking research -- and reading between the lines -- tells the breathtaking tale of this extraordinary woman.


Becoming a Queen in Early Modern Europe: East and West

By Kataryzna Kosior,

Book cover of Becoming a Queen in Early Modern Europe: East and West

Why this book?

Early modern Europe is a ‘hot spot’ for queenship studies and there are countless individual biographies, works on groups of royal women and collections on key themes which I could have recommended. I’ve chosen this work as, like Earenfight, it is a great place to begin exploring what it meant to be a queen in this period. Unlike Earenfight, this book is divided up by key themes instead of working chronologically, exploring various facets such as royal weddings and ceremonial, motherhood and political agency. Kosior also brings together plenty of European examples to illustrate these themes and a distinctive feature is that she includes Polish royal women who are often missing in studies of queenship, which gives this book a unique and interesting angle.


Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

By John France,

Book cover of Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

Why this book?

John France has a knack for making the history of war interesting and readable, without taking away its gore and horror, without making you think it in any way romantic or desirable. The title already captures it: the book is largely about the rise of Europe (or later: the West) on the back of military prowess, but at what perilous price! The book aptly traces military traditions and continuity of ideas and concepts, but also profound changes, from Antiquity to the present, giving us a grasp of the essence of warfare during different periods. This book can be said to replace Sir Charles Oman’s old classic.


Marguerite Makes a Book

By Bruce Robertson, Kathryn Hewitt (illustrator),

Book cover of Marguerite Makes a Book

Why this book?

I added this book simply because I think it’s charming. Although written for children, grownups will love it, too! In 15th century Paris, Marguerite, the young daughter of a manuscript illuminator, has to help her aging father illuminate a Book of Hours for a very important lady or her father will lose both his commission and his reputation. This beautifully illustrated book joins Marguerite through each step of her illuminated book’s creation. You will be transported to medieval Paris and Marguerite’s workshop as you read and gaze at the pictures! This book was inspired by a rare collection of illuminated manuscripts held by the J. Paul Getty Museum.


Sentimental Education

By Gustave Flaubert,

Book cover of Sentimental Education

Why this book?

I think this is a better book than MME Bovary. It's quite in the tradition of Marivaudage but Flaubert has such a light though ruthless touch that at times you just don't know where your sympathies lie. If Flaubert has been a surgeon he's have been an expert with the smallest, finest scalpels! His technique stands in great contrast to the work of Hugo and Zola, and he certainly outmanoeuvres Balzac! I often wish he'd written more, but what he's left us is pure gold. You might like to compare this book with Fontane's Effi Briest – another stunning novel–of–manners. I was hard put to it to make a choice between these two novels for my 4th choice.


Saint Joan

By Bernard Shaw,

Book cover of Saint Joan

Why this book?

Although written as a play, it has a foreword detailing its subject—the life of Joan of Arc. Joan was the inspiration and much-admired heroine of Rebecca Roberts in my own book. Based closely on the Inquisition records, it has very moving moments, whether read or performed as a play.


Platform

By Michel Houellebecq,

Book cover of Platform

Why this book?

I felt I needed to include one title about Thailand’s endlessly discussed, sordid sex industry. Houellebecq’s acidic 2004 novel takes the country’s massive sleaze trade head-on, crammed with self-loathing observations of its male protagonist, his world eventually smashed to pieces by a terrorist attack and a heart-breaking ending in the country’s Gomorra-by-the-sea beach resort Pattaya. Audacious, cynical, yet nonetheless filled with humanity, and there’s plenty of sex, Viagra, fun, and despair as well. Platform puts all other fiction covering the country’s exploitative underbelly to shame. 


Robespierre

By J.M. Thompson,

Book cover of Robespierre

Why this book?

Thompson published his life of Robespierre in 1935, yet despite its age, it belies its age and is well worth a look. It is a heavyweight two-volumed biography, that is profoundly researched yet gracefully written. Extraordinarily comprehensive, it spans from shrewd analyses of Robespierre’s ideas and actions down to some of the most trivial (and fascinating) minutiae of his life. Thompson was ordained as a priest, subsequently renouncing his faith, and his study is particularly interesting on Robespierre’s contentious religious ideas.

His conclusion that Robespierre was ‘the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of the French people' is, however, more than a little worrying. Maybe Robespierre is one of those enigmatic characters who is always with us!


The Autumn of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga, Rodney J. Payton (translator), Ulrich Mammitzsch (translator)

Book cover of The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Why this book?

Huizinga’s book was first published more than 100 years ago, in 1919, but it retains its value as a sparkling and original evocation of the world of late medieval Europe: its values, its thought, its violence, and – one of its great strengths - its visual arts. This last is not surprising, since the author’s main focus is on the Netherlands and northern France, where oil painting, the realistic portrait, and the landscape began in European art. The book has been translated into English more than once, with significantly different titles: in 1924 as The Waning of the Middle Ages, then – 72 years later! - as The Autumn of the Middle Ages. In 2020 there appeared yet another version - Autumntide of the Middle Ages. The book is ever young.


Nine Coaches Waiting

By Mary Stewart,

Book cover of Nine Coaches Waiting

Why this book?

This is one of those special books that made me think, “Oh my…I want to write like this.” The blend of old-world atmosphere, 1950s glamor, and gorgeously descriptive, suspenseful writing is magical. Linda Martin, a young Englishwoman with a secret of her own to guard, takes the post of governess to the small heir of a French chateau—a fairytale setting, but disturbing tensions run beneath its surface, and before long Linda finds herself caught up in a desperate attempt to foil a dangerous plot.


The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

By Christine Shaw, Michael Mallett,

Book cover of The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

What would a world awash in mercenaries look like? Like medieval northern Italy, which was the Afghanistan of its day. Back then, mercenaries were how you fought wars, and anyone who could swipe a check could wage war no matter how absurd or petty. Aristocrats, city-states, and popes routinely hired mercenaries. When I wrote The New Rules of War, I spent three months digging through the archives in Florence, Bologna, and other city-states to understand how the dynamics of private warfare worked. For those who want a feel of the times, try this rare book by famed historian Mallett. It was his last book, finished by Shaw after he died.


1855 Bordeaux

By Dewey Markham,

Book cover of 1855 Bordeaux

Why this book?

The 1855 Classification created quality tiers for wines from a number of districts in Bordeaux: the famous First Growth (Premier Cru) wines and their Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growth counterparts. There’s been only one change since then (a Second Growth promoted to First) and people still pay high prices for these wines based on a ranking that is more than 150 years old. Dewey Markham’s book tells the story of the Classification and shows that the wines that topped the list in 1855 were also ranked highest in earlier lists and that the rankings were based on price rather than intrinsic quality. It’s a well-documented book that brings history to bear on the way we look at some of the most prestigious wines of Bordeaux.  


Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

By Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis (translator), Christopher Prendergast (editor)

Book cover of Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

Why this book?

Where to begin? Proust’s gigantic masterpiece is the proverbial gift that keeps giving, none more so than in its explication and then repeated “demonstration” of the very thing it describes, the sensory triggers of what Proust calls involuntary memory but that here become the emotional propulsion for this book about writing the very beautiful book (or books—it comes in six volumes) you are reading.


The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

By Gertrude Stein,

Book cover of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Why this book?

Toklas was Stein’s life partner—their relationship lasted nearly four decades and ended with Stein’s death in 1946. As the book shows, Toklas led a remarkable life, fleeing the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to move to Paris, where she met Stein and became a centrepiece of the avant-garde art scene that included Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Matisse, to name just a few. Although she was viewed as a sort of background figure (it seems she was quite shy), she worked as Stein’s caretaker, editor, critic, confidante, lover, and cook. She finally got the recognition she deserved when Stein published this book, which became her best-known work.


Colette: Earthly Paradise

By Colette,

Book cover of Colette: Earthly Paradise

Why this book?

The first time I went to Paris, I found a copy of this book at a bouquiniste on the Quai de la Tournelle. I can honestly say it has never left my bedside. Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, was a ferocious talent, a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and colossal French cultural figure until her death in 1954. Earthly Paradise is an autobiography in essays, and hers is an extraordinary story. Born in small-town Burgundy, she was a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge, a traveling performer, was married twice, lived as a lesbian for a decade, had a facelift in the 1920s and at the height of her literary fame, opened a beauty salon in Paris. She was to the core a sensualist and though she claimed to dislike feminism, she was a tower of female strength. But the reason this book—just one of her fifty-five—endures is her achingly gorgeous writing.

No one writes about the natural world with such passionate detail, or as keenly about the raw emotion of love, or as passionately about her country. One of the last essays in the book, Paris from my Window, written during the German occupation in 1940-41, is unforgettable, and perhaps the greatest tribute I have ever read to the resilience both of France and its people.  


Map of Another Town

By M.F.K. Fisher,

Book cover of Map of Another Town

Why this book?

California-born Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher’s contribution to our culture was revolutionary. Before her, no man or woman wrote about food as they might about art: what was noteworthy in the meal, how the cauliflower was cooked or the paté presented, and how all of it made her feel. She is perhaps best known for her masterpiece The Gastronomical Me, her memoir about her sensory awakening around food, cooking, and love when she moved to Dijon, France. After returning to the States, Fisher moved with her two daughters to Aix-en-Provence following World War II. By now, the memoir of Provence—the farmhouse, lavender fields, and dappled summer light—have become a genre unto themselves. But as with everything this trailblazer wrote, few have ever done is as well or with such exquisite understatement as Fisher did in Map of Another Town.

It is a soulful and beautifully atmospheric chronicle of building a life as a single mother in a provincial town. As she discovers Aix and the gentle characters who populate it, she simultaneously carves out her own inner map. Best of all are the descriptions of meals at Les Deux Garçons right in the center of town, washed down with a bottle of blanc-de-blanc wine. 


The Josephine B. Trilogy

By Sandra Gulland,

Book cover of The Josephine B. Trilogy

Why this book?

It can be difficult to recall that, while laying waste to the armies of Europe, proving himself to be one of the finest military commanders in history, Napoleon was writing salty love letters home to his wife. Narrated in first-person diary-style by Josephine, Sandra Gulland’s sensational trio of books is a credit to the sometimes-overlooked genre of historical autobiographical fiction. The events around her life with the self-anointed Emperor of the French are defined with both intimacy and sweep. Josephine emerges as a most intriguing woman, charming and clever, and a full participant aside from her husband as he rises and falls.

The three books cover the many phases of her exceptional life. From her childhood in the French colony of Martinique, through her first marriage and imprisonment during the revolution, to her fateful introduction to the “strange little man,” and through their marriage and demise, the woman who became Empress died penniless at her château outside Paris. Throughout the three books, Josephine remains a deft storyteller and somehow reminds us that those who make history—or have a front row to it—are only too humans.  


Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart

By Jean-Claude Baker, Chris Chase,

Book cover of Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart

Why this book?

I can’t remember a 600-page book that I’ve ever read so fast and yes, so hungrily. Baker’s trajectory defies credulity. Above all, it is the paradigmatic story of a Black American targeted by racism in her own country, who found acceptance and fame (and in Baker’s case, so much more) in Paris. From the slums of St. Louis, at nineteen she became an instant sensation with her dazzling performance at La Revue Nègre. She strolled the Champs Élysées with a cheetah and, during the war, hid Jewish refugees in her château in the Dordogne. In the 1963 March on Washington, she spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, the only woman to address the crowd that day. With exhaustive research that never weighs down the narrative, author Jean-Claude Baker, her unofficial thirteenth child who worked for her towards the end of her life, paints a portrait of a hugely complex woman.

As a Black performer victimized by racism in the country of her birth, she also, according to the author, mistreated others (particularly himself) with her mercurial ways. Even when he strips away the veils, we all benefit from knowing the story of the most fascinating and iconic women/activists of the twentieth century. In a fitting coda to the story of Josephine Baker, in late 2021 she became the sixth woman and the first Black woman to be honored at Paris’ Pantheon. 


The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

By Timothy Tackett,

Book cover of The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

Why this book?

This study of the gradual process whereby the idealistic revolution of 1789 descended into terror is extraordinary for its depth of understanding. It’s a profoundly humane book, one which gives weight to the genuine idealism that drove the revolutionaries, yet does not hold back from showing how, under the pressure of war, fear, and internecine politics, these same revolutionaries adopted terrifying measures in support of their goals. Tackett has an unrivalled knowledge of his source material, and one of the great features of this book is the range of voices that emerge out of the documents: men and women of all social backgrounds, revolutionary activists and observers, supporters of the revolution, and horrified opponents. Together these voices invoke what it was like to live through a revolution, both the good and the bad. 


Early One Morning

By Robert Ryan,

Book cover of Early One Morning

Why this book?

The key to a successful historical thriller is a strong sense of time and place, but not so strong that it slows down the plot – it’s still a thriller after all, and while it’s so tempting to find somewhere to put all that research, discipline is essential. I loved this book because Robert Ryan does it particularly well. I took a lot from it for The Fulcrum Files, particularly the mix of action and romance and the basis in real events.


French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters

By Karen Le Billon,

Book cover of French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters

Why this book?

The title alone of this book was enough to get me hooked since my experience with young children was that they typically don’t eat anything – and I know I’m not alone. Le Billon gives us a peek into the culinary lives of French parents and shares her best tips for getting kids to not only eat what the adults eat, which in France may involve both beef tongue and smelly blue cheese, but also enjoy it. 


The Sun Also Rises

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of The Sun Also Rises

Why this book?

I’m recommending The Sun Also Rises because it was the first book to capture the essence of soldiers who struggled to return to civilian life. They used alcohol to hide their pain and drown their PTSD, their struggles with masculinity or to regain it, and inability to love. I like the way this book captures the feelings soldiers have when they leave the service, such as loss of purpose. Soldiers today returning from the wars similarly struggle with alcohol, drug abuse, and all too prevalent suicide. However, the sun will rise tomorrow. 


The Day of the Jackal

By Frederick Forsyth,

Book cover of The Day of the Jackal

Why this book?

The plot of this novel is simple: a dissident political organization hires an assassin to kill the President of France, Charles de Gaulle. Forsyth simultaneously depicted the intricate preparations and precautious taken by the assassin, and the desperate hunt to uncover who is behind the assassination attempt before it is too late. I enjoyed reading this because it provides insight into the thought processes and personalities of the hunter and the hunted. 


Midnight in Europe

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of Midnight in Europe

Why this book?

This is a good book to read if you want to know what it felt like to be in France or other European countries in 1938 before the start of World War II when my father was saying how bad Hitler was but people didn’t believe it. Bad things were already happening and much worse things were to come. In some places you couldn't trust anybody because everybody could be a spy. People who lived in France and didn't want to leave had to face the fact that if they didn't they might lose their freedom and their lives. Franco was leading a revolution to take over Spain, and he had help from the Axis powers. This is an excellent spy novel with an accurate historical setting.


Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

By David Elliott,

Book cover of Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Why this book?

In Voices, David Elliott uses formal verse to explore the last hours that Joan of Arc lived. Told from multiple points of view, including the voice of the flame that will burn Joan at the stake, Elliott chooses specific poetic forms to reflect fundamental truths about the different characters. All forms of verse in the book were popular during Joan’s actual lifetime, and Elliott provides an interesting author’s note at the back of the book. Aside from being a poetic tour de force, Voices is a true page-turner, and readers will root for Joan to triumph over her enemies, even as they dread the inevitable outcome.


Casino Royale

By Ian Fleming,

Book cover of Casino Royale

Why this book?

The first James Bond novel. Obvious choice for me; I’m a huge Fleming/Bond fan and came to the original novels via the films. It was Bond that inspired me to write while on a narrowboat crossing an aqueduct on a Welsh canal thinking this scene should be in a Bond movie. Fleming’s first novel introduces us to a James Bond many wouldn’t recognize. Bond is already tired, vulnerable, and beginning to have serious professional misgivings. The novel’s plot and subplots are based on real-world knowledge Fleming picked up during WWII.

His descriptions of the casino’s glamour and the sensuous descriptions of food and drink would have brought color to the sepia-tinted lives of austerity Britain still navigating past bomb sites and dealing with food rationing when the book was published. There’s troubling chauvinism but there are twists and turns a plenty and a resolution that should garner some sympathy for a physically and emotional battered Bond. I don’t think it’s Fleming’s best (my personal favourite would be From Russia with Love) but to understand Bond you have to read Casino Royale.


Rooftoppers

By Katherine Rundell, Terry Fan (illustrator),

Book cover of Rooftoppers

Why this book?

“On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the English Channel.” From the opening line this is a story you will fall in love with!  Sofie, the orphaned baby in the cello case, is rescued from a shipwreck by an elderly gentleman called Charles who decides to raise her himself. He does an excellent job and I adore Sofie’s bravery, her love of knowledge, and her passion for adventure. Certain that her mother is still alive, Sofie and Charles set off for Paris to look for her, believing that you “never ignore a possible.” This is a fabulous book about pursuing your dreams and the power of hope. Plus the writing is just gorgeous!  


The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog

By Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (illustrator),

Book cover of The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog

Why this book?

A warm inn, and a stranger’s tale gather together a group of travelers as they become fascinated by the story of three gifted children that is sweeping the land. I loved the way this book brought the story of the people in the inn and the marvelous children together step by step. Peppered with real historical figures and legends this book is a must-read for the middle-grade medieval enthusiast. 


The Alice Network

By Kate Quinn,

Book cover of The Alice Network

Why this book?

Like many of my favourite historical novels, this one combines real historical figures with fictional ones, and tells the story of female spies in World War I. Eve Gardiner is the sort of character who will stick with you forever: fierce and vulnerable, flawed and very, very real. Where so many female characters triumph through exceptional wit and beauty, Eve’s triumphs—and her failures—come about through grit and indomitable willpower. Tense, dark, and profoundly transporting, The Alice Network drops you into occupied France with nothing but your wits and the support of a sisterhood of amazing women determined to serve their countries, even at the cost of their lives.


Paris 1919-1939: Art, Life & Culture

By Vincent Bouvet, Gérard Durozoi,

Book cover of Paris 1919-1939: Art, Life & Culture

Why this book?

Having read well over two dozen books on the subject of French history, with a general focus on the especially vibrant period in Paris from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, and a laser focus on the 1920s, I find it nearly impossible to rank these five books in the order of their importance. That said, I am choosing this book as my 1st recommendation because at 416 pages, and richly illustrated by hundreds of stunning photographs and images, it casts the broadest, most comprehensive net over this extraordinary era. I proclaim the two decades in Paris that readers will discover in this book, to represent the most important international convergence of painters, sculptors, intellectuals, novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, dancers, actors, choreographers, musicians, composers, photographers, designers, and fashionistas, in the history of the world. Do I exaggerate? Here is a very incomplete list, plucked at random from the index, of a tiny handful of the historic luminaries from diverse disciplines who walk through the pages of this extraordinary work:

Guillaume Apollinaire, Josephine Baker, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Coco Chanel, Robert Capa, Maurice Chevalier, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Sergei Diaghilev, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner, André Gide, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Kiki de Montparnasse, Jeanne Lanvin, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Matisse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Igor Stravinsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Paul Valéry, Emile Zola, among many others...


The Jazz Age in France

By Charles A. Riley II,

Book cover of The Jazz Age in France

Why this book?

This is a terrific coffee table-sized book with wonderful photographs of the sundry characters and vivid reproductions of paintings and other images. Here you’ll find a young, muscular Pablo Picasso with hair—on the beach in his bathing suit in front of Gerald & Sara Murphy’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. This privileged couple—he a fine avant-garde artist in his own right, and she, who became Picasso’s muse, a refined and elegant hostess—were patrons of the arts who surrounded themselves at their home with the young luminaries of the Jazz Age. Chapter headings in this stunning volume tell the tale.

At 174 large pages, this is a beautifully rendered and specific encapsulation of les années folles, from start to finish.


Kiki's Memoirs

By Billy Klüver (editor), Julie Martin (editor), Man Ray (photographer)

Book cover of Kiki's Memoirs

Why this book?

This is an intimate, first-person account of 1920’s Paris, and the life of one of the most central characters of the period—the model, singer, and artist, Kiki of Montparnasse as she was known by all. Born in Burgundy in 1901, christened Alice Prin, and raised by her grandmother in abject poverty, at age twelve she was shipped off to Paris to live with the mother she had never known.

The young Alice’s fierce survival instincts immediately translated into a precocious thirst for experience. At fourteen she had her “first contact with art” when she began posing nude for a sculptor. Thereafter, she assumed the name and embraced life as the irrepressible Kiki. Lover of Man Ray, beloved friend of Soutine, Jean Cocteau, and many other artists of the period, she became the toast of Montparnasse, one of the century’s first truly independent women. Man Ray, Foujita, Kisling, and others immortalized her in their work. Crowds roared for her raunchy songs at the artist’s boîte, Le Jockey. She appeared in nine films, including Leger’s famous Ballet Mécanique, and she painted hundreds of portraits and dream-like landscapes, many of which appear in these frank, funny, and risqué memoirs.

First published in the French edition in 1929, the English translation was banned by a puritanical U.S. Customs and never appeared in this country until this present edition. Kiki’s Memoirs sketches in bold strokes the indomitable spirit of an unforgettable personality who was always a woman, but never a lady.


Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930

By Billy Klüver, Julie Martin,

Book cover of Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930

Why this book?

Due to the title, and the fact that the authors of this book edited my 3rd book, this may seem to be a redundant choice on my part. But I can assure the reader that it is not. Although a fine photo of Kiki also graces the cover, she plays a minor, more metaphoric role in the grand scheme of this large-format work, and only a handful of pages are devoted to her.

On the inside of the cover, and the first thick page to its right, one is presented with 96 roughly 1”x 2” black & white thumbnail photographs, not alphabetically arranged, but as it happens, beginning with a photo image of a portrait of Louis XIV in the top left corner and finishing in the bottom right corner of the following page with a photo of James Joyce. All those photos in between should tip off the reader to the fact that this is a remarkably ambitious, meticulously researched, incredibly comprehensive book that covers far more than the narrow scope of 1920s Paris.

It is also exceptionally well-written, and beautifully illustrated with hundreds of photos, drawings, and maps of the growth of the city, showing us how Montparnasse came to be, and dozens of photos of the artists of all disciplines who populated the quartier during the pivotal first 30 years of the 20th century. Here you will experience in print and images the sense of entering and participating in this vibrantly creative world, in the company of these astonishing characters.


No Place to Lay One's Head

By Francoise Frenkel,

Book cover of No Place to Lay One's Head

Why this book?

This incredible memoir reads like a thriller. Polish-born Francoise ran a Berlin bookshop until she was forced to flee from Nazi persecution, first to Paris, then to Southern France. The term ‘unputdownable’ is a terrible cliché, but was literally the case for me with this breathtaking story of escape and survival. Clear your diary before you open the covers of this compelling book.


The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier

By Thad Carhart,

Book cover of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier

Why this book?

Everyone knows that there are no “French people.” Each region has its particular culture, and Paris is a country unto itself. Focusing on one particular artisan, his clients, and his neighborhood, Carhart helps us to understand what it means to inhabit a single quartier of Paris. It’s one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read – and I don’t even play the piano!


The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

By Thérèse Of Lisieux, Michael Day (translator),

Book cover of The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

Why this book?

Let’s take things in a different direction with Story of a Soul, the spiritual autobiography of a French nun who died in cloistered obscurity in 1897 at the age of 24. Like a lot of people, I was initially skeptical about what wisdom this sheltered, middle-class young woman would have to offer; at first blush, her piety seemed conventional and old-fashioned. But the more I read, the more she won me over: underneath the sometimes-flowery language I discovered a fierce passion (all those exclamation marks!), a refreshing forthrightness, and cunning wisdom that actually subverts conventional piety with its “littleness.” Story of a Soul isn’t an instruction manual; rather, it’s the very personal, joyful account of one young woman’s “little way” to Jesus—a way so simple, anyone can follow it.


D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

By Sarah Rose,

Book cover of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

Why this book?

This book is a story of several different women who participated in the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied France. I love the women that were chosen to be highlighted, including stories of romance, espionage, and torture. A little something for everyone, I suppose. Written like a narrative, this book has wonderful twists and turns (There was even a moment that I genuinely gasped at the reveal of a double agent). If you like tales about strong women from history, this is a must-read.


Camille Claudel: A Life

By Odile Ayral-Clause,

Book cover of Camille Claudel: A Life

Why this book?

This biography is a must-read for anyone who is interested in art, history, and strong, powerful women. It was the first book I read about the great 19th-century sculptress, Camille Claudel. “As recently as twenty years ago, in France, Camille Claudel was known only to a handful of admirers. The brief moments of applause she had enjoyed during her lifetime had never led to important commissions, and the sales of her pieces remained few and far…Camille Claudel displayed many characteristics that contribute to the weaving of myths: she was beautiful, talented, witty, and fiercely independent. She was connected to some of the most visible artists and writers of the era; she even had a romance with Auguste Rodin, the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century. But hidden among the magnificent gifts nature had bestowed upon her was the seed of an illness that eventually brought her to a mental asylum.”

From these words in the Preface, I had the inspiration to create a fictional character in one of the chapters of my own historical novel, as a tribute to this incredible woman that was so much more than a disciple of Rodin, a woman who should never be forgotten.


The Vanished Collection

By Pauline Baer de Perignon, Natasha Lehrer (translator),

Book cover of The Vanished Collection

Why this book?

Pauline Baer de Perignon doesn’t hold anything back – she puts her ego aside as she shares her secret ambitions, doubts and insecurities, triumphs and frustrations on her mission to uncover a distressing chapter in her family’s history. The rhythm and pace are indicative of a book translated from the French - a slow-moving train rather than a speeding locomotive, but that just enhanced the feeling of accompanying the author on her passionate yet painful quest in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


Birdsong

By Sebastian Faulks,

Book cover of Birdsong

Why this book?

This is the most touching love story I have ever read. I do not tend to read period dramas, and so I was hesitant to read a book set during the first world war. However, this book had me in tears so many times. I read this book over ten years ago, yet it is still my favorite love story of all time to date. Beautiful, just beautiful.


Down and Out in Paris and London

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Down and Out in Paris and London

Why this book?

This is one of my all-time favourite books because of how it was written. This book inspired me to be a writer. I read it while doing my erasmus in France where I was working as a waiter in a motel. My working hours were long, like in the book and I really got a sense of the struggle George went through in pursuit of his dream to write. It built into me a resilience that I would one day write something of worth that would be read by others and hopefully instill resilience into them.


The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen

By Jacques Pépin,

Book cover of The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen

Why this book?

This is the heartwarming and inspiring story of the journey a great chef took from serving as a lowly apprentice to becoming a leader in establishing new food traditions in America. I especially enjoyed the many funny stories about Pepin and his family. Warning: the book includes many of his favorite recipes that will cause hunger pangs as you read the book. 


The Ebony Tower

By John Fowles,

Book cover of The Ebony Tower

Why this book?

Another story that's impossible to forget – actually this is a novella in a collection of stories with this name. Again, about a lost house in a forest in France, an artist, a young man in love, and the two young women who bewitch him in turns. John Fowles is an English writer from the 1960s, whose work I loved when young and still do. He was much influenced by Alain-Fournier.


The Parisian

By Isabella Hammad,

Book cover of The Parisian

Why this book?

This is a recent first novel, set mostly in France, about a young Palestinian man who goes there to study medicine and falls in love with the daughter of his host. I’m still reading it, and admiring the sureness of touch, the knowledge of history, and above all the sense of the period – it’s set before World War 1 and continues through the 20th century. Brava, Isabella Hammad!


The Ripening Seed

By Colette,

Book cover of The Ripening Seed

Why this book?

Anyone who wants to read a love story – all of us, surely – has to start with this story of young love set on the coast of the South of France in the early 20th century. Colette’s prose has been well matched by her translators and she’s simply a jewel of a writer and the first woman who really told the truth about love and sexuality.


The Mad Women's Ball

By Victoria Mas, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of The Mad Women's Ball

Why this book?

Mas’ work is less about embracing what we think is our weakness and more about embracing our true strengths even when others consider them nonexistent and thus crazy. I particularly enjoyed this novel because it involves magical realism, as the main character can see and hear spirits. I am a huge fan of blending the fantastical with reality because our lives are magical in ways we often mistake as ordinary. Another thing Mas did well was show how even moderate treatments for hysteria, like hydrotherapy and hypnosis, went too far. 


The Passion of Dolssa

By Julie Berry,

Book cover of The Passion of Dolssa

Why this book?

A healer and a matchmaker cross paths in 12th century France, and….zzzzzzz, right? Or so I thought, until I tried this Printz honor book, a piece of gorgeously written historical fiction that turned out to be a complete page-turner and attention-grabbing thriller. I’m a big TV watcher, so when I say that I was turning off the TV at night to spend more time with this book, you can take that as a 5+ star review. It’s one of my favorite YAs, and for what it’s worth, could just as easily have been shelved as an adult title. 


Timeline

By Michael Crichton,

Book cover of Timeline

Why this book?

I’m not exactly sure if this book qualifies as pure fantasy, but it’s definitely on the fantastical side. An old man from a distant era shows up in the desert, which ultimately leads a group of scientists to follow him back to his realm, the Middle Ages. This was another fun time travel/portal book that explored the idea of parallel times and parallel dimensions, meshing modern times with the medieval era. 


The Secret Stealers

By Jane Healey,

Book cover of The Secret Stealers

Why this book?

I’ve become great friends with Healey over the years due to us having the same publisher, and we write similar historical fiction in that we love telling WWII from the female perspective. Honestly, all Jane’s WWII novels are brilliant, but this is my favorite of hers. Her characters are impossible not to love, and we truly see this moment in history through the eyes of women – I can’t get enough of historical feminism! If you want to read about women doing incredible jobs during the war, this is the book for you.


Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer

By James W. Brown (editor), Lawrence D. Stokes (editor), Cyril Connelly (translator)

Book cover of Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer

Why this book?

This book is about passive resistance to the Nazi occupation; about taking a stand and not talking to the enemy, using silence as a weapon, not letting the invader feel comfortable. There is no action, no fights, no gore, no espionage. A family is obliged to live with a Nazi and endure his presence, but behind the enemy uniform, there is an individual, a human being. I found it touching and beautiful that in the midst of the German invasion of his country, Vercors could write about the enemy in such a tender and tolerant way. This is the book that inspired me to write my second novel about a German in Paris during the occupation.


Goshawk Squadron

By Derek Robinson,

Book cover of Goshawk Squadron

Why this book?

Robinson’s tale of Goshawk Squadron battling the odds in the last year of the Great War cuts through the Biggles-style myths and legends that had dominated the public perception for many years. He shines a light on the bleak and terrifying business of aerial warfare and unflinchingly portrays the horror and helplessness of becoming the loser in a dogfight to the death. Yet from this foreboding vista he prises shining nuggets of laugh-out-loud humour, albeit of the gallows variety. Robinson’s spot-on characterisations and skilfully written battle narratives will place you in the rattling cockpit of a biplane in the hostile hunting grounds over France. This 50th-anniversary reissue is a well-deserved accolade.  


The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (translator),

Book cover of The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Why this book?

Renée is the concierge in an elegant Paris hotel. Widowed and in her 50s, she calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a working-class nobody. She takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but refuses to let her knowledge show. Renée’s friend in the building is 12-year-old Paloma, beyond precocious, who feels so let down by the meaningless in the world that she plans to commit suicide. Both characters are philosophers of sorts.  “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it,” says Paloma. In the end, they rescue one another from despair and loneliness. The experience of the book that was so satisfying for me, is the exchange of ideas about life and happiness, which are expressed more as a kind of philosophical discourse rather than a traditionally plotted novel. The ideas, expressed so intelligently and poetically, kept me going.


Phantom of the Guillotine: The Real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard - Lewis Duval 1769-1844

By Elizabeth Sparrow,

Book cover of Phantom of the Guillotine: The Real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard - Lewis Duval 1769-1844

Why this book?

“This enthralling biography and detective story convincingly identifies the real-life model for Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. It delves into the politics and espionage of Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.” The real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard was an amazing person. Baroness Orczy knew him in her childhood as Lewis Duval, a London-based French lawyer. The story of his exploits in Orczy’s novels is just a shadow of all he accomplished, which Sparrow brings to glittering life. His allies and enemies, how he influenced Napoleon and Pitt, as well as other leaders of the time, and accomplished the impossible many times over, comes alive in this story that begins in his childhood. The boy and man for whom “seeking danger was a compulsion”. It’s how real heroes, ever hidden in the shadows, are made.

I’m using this “thundering good read” now while writing my own YA series. Sent back to 1793 Lyon, Xandra and Marcus have to find and save a 19-year-old French boy they know only as Mouron (French for Scarlet Pimpernel) before the enemy can find and kill him. The man young Royalist lieutenant Louis Bayard becomes will change the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars, saving millions of lives, but killing key scientists and leaders, which is destroying the world of 2045. I also used Phantom of the Guillotine for the sequel to my book, which I hope to publish in the next year.


Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815

By Elizabeth Sparrow,

Book cover of Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815

Why this book?

“A tour de force of research, an essential document for future students of the (Napoleonic Wars) subject.”

Sparrow, “an acknowledged authority on the beginnings of the British Secret Service” is a meticulous researcher, who goes deeply into the world of British and French espionage of the time, and what motivated them to act for or betray their countries. This absolute treasure was given to me by a writer friend. I’ve marked it to bits, with highlights, notes, and Post-Its everywhere. It’s a university course on the deeper facets of the Napoleonic Wars all on its own. Leaving aside heroism, she presents facts about the politics and spymasters, and what they had to do to win the war. This book was invaluable in bringing my own book to life, making characters less hero and more human.


Napoleon's Wars: An International History

By Charles J. Esdaile,

Book cover of Napoleon's Wars: An International History

Why this book?

This compelling history goes “beyond the legend that Napoleon himself helped create, to form a new, genuinely international context for his military career.”

History is most often written by the victors, and real life is never so one-sided. Esdaile writes as though he lived Napoleon’s life, and shows that many times his decisions were made (or changed) because of acts, or provocation, by British diplomats or agents. The quote by Napoleon’s stepdaughter Hortense says it all: “Any man who becomes the sole head of a great country by means other than heredity can only maintain himself in power if he gives the nation either liberty or military glory – if he makes himself, in short, either a Washington or a conqueror...it was impossible for him to establish...an absolute power except by bemusing reason [and] by every three months presenting the French people with some new spectacle.” Esdaile brings this unspoken part of brilliant military triumphs to light, the insecurity and the bombastic, the truth and hypocrisy that was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the demands of the country he ruled as Consul and Emperor.


Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate

By Susan J. Terrio,

Book cover of Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate

Why this book?

Like the other works on my list, Susan Terrio’s book considers how globalization transforms the production, meanings and markets for goods, and the lives of those who make them. Terrio considers how artisanal chocolate makers in Paris and the Bayonne area worked to carve out a high-value market niche for themselves by re-educating the public about the quality and prestige of French handmade chocolates. She documents how they managed to succeed in this project by borrowing terminology and practices from wine connoisseurship, and by linking their handmade chocolate to French identity. I love this book because it provides insights into how our own ideas about taste, quality, and enjoyment are deeply connected to economics, politics, policy, and identity – and because it’s about chocolate, of course! 


Apology For The Woman Writing

By Jenny Diski,

Book cover of Apology For The Woman Writing

Why this book?

This is a book about being a celebrity’s biggest fan. In 16th Century France, eighteen-year-old Marie de Gournay reads the essays of the philosopher Montaigne, and is so overwhelmed that she faints. When she finally meets her idol, she stabs herself with a hairpin to prove her devotion. For two blissful months, she lives as his adopted daughter. When he dies four years later, de Gournay devotes herself to editing the writings he left behind, persisting even though she is despised both by the intellectuals of the time and by her own family. I know how it feels to be that intense, socially awkward, bookish girl and I found Marie’s story extremely moving.


Break of Day

By Colette, Enid McLeod (translator),

Book cover of Break of Day

Why this book?

Break of Day is a uniquely beautiful book, short and elegant. It's about the solace Colette's house and garden in the South of France provided her after a broken marriage. No truer book has been written about that part of France, and how that land can ravish a visitor. I thought of it often when I was writing my own book. Colette had a house in the hills above St.-Tropez, and she writes about gardening, the movements of the day, her animals, the people who come and go, and the delicious, sensual tastes of that part of the world. Break of Day is also an elegy to the memory of her mother, whose strength guides the writer through her exquisite melancholy. Colette writes with a pen dipped in sun, oil, sweat, and salt. 


Village in the Vaucluse

By Laurence Wylie,

Book cover of Village in the Vaucluse

Why this book?

Laurence Wylie's book is a classic account of a year he and his family spent in the village of Roussillon in the South of France in 1950. This book was the key to understanding my own village. At the time, Roussillon was a place with little indoor plumbing, only two phones, and a once-weekly bus service to Avignon. So, is this simply an antiquated description of a year spent in a tiny French community seventy years ago that no longer exists? No. Laurence Wylie, better than any writer before or since, to my mind, captures the character of people in small villages in the South of France. If you stop and live in any village in Provence for any length of time, you might swear that your village is his village’s twin.  


How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

By Alistair Horne,

Book cover of How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

Why this book?

As a St Helena Lullaby puts it, quoted by Horne at the start of his scholarly but eminently readable book, "How far is St Helena from the field of Austerlitz?" Horne is a brilliant historian and he crafts a compelling book tracing Napoleon’s career from its apogee on the field of his greatest victory to its nadir with his exile to St Helena, far out in the south Atlantic. But we don’t just get the events, we get to experience the slippery nature of success, as Spain swallows troops and Russia decimates the Grande Armée. We see this through Napoleon’s own words, and Horne’s relentless research, as he struggles to maintain his dominance. I loved the balanced assessment of this final decade in power. I marvelled at Bonaparte’s brilliance and achievements whilst learning to appreciate how much the odds were stacked against him.


The Fatal Friendship

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of The Fatal Friendship

Why this book?

I loved learning about the close ties that existed between Sweden and France in the late 18th century and the French Revolution figured in the plot of my novel. This fabulous non-fiction work explores the politics, intrigues, and plotting of the period through the intimate connection between Marie Antoinette, doomed Queen of France, and her purported lover, Axel von Fersena Swedish nobleman. The revolution was reaching a fevered pitch when King Gustav III of Sweden sent von Fersen to assist the French royal family in their escape from Paris — an epic failure told with passion by Mr. Loomis! 


The Life of Louis XVI

By John Hardman,

Book cover of The Life of Louis XVI

Why this book?

The great strength of this book is that as well as offering a major reinterpretation of Louis, XVI, it is also a pleasure to read. John Hardman has pioneered the reappraisal of Louis that has been underway over the last twenty years. The unfortunate king has traditionally been portrayed as either reactionary or incompetent (or both). In place of this caricature, Hardman convincingly presents the monarch as a man of high intelligence who was prepared to make many more compromises with the Revolution than historians have allowed. In his view, Louis’ real weakness was not intellectual but psychological: crises of depression that paralysed him at crucial moments after 1789.


The Glass Blowers

By Daphne du Maurier,

Book cover of The Glass Blowers

Why this book?

When most English readers think of a novel about the French Revolution, they come up with A Tale of Two Cities. In contrast, Daphne du Maurier’s The Glass Blowers is almost forgotten. This is unfair, because it is both a marvellous read and a painstakingly researched and remarkably balanced evocation of France’s upheavals from 1789 right through to the 1840s. It is a fictionalized history of Daphne du Maurier’s own ancestors, the glass-blowers of the title, and the divisions and tragedies the Revolution brought to them. A remarkable and moving book.


Adèle

By Leila Slimani,

Book cover of Adèle

Why this book?

Our protagonist, Adèle, is a sex addict in a sexless marriage, longing to escape the quotidian boredom of motherhood. Her desires are clear. “She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.” She also wants to not want this. The interesting question the novel poses indirectly: What do we want of this character? Slimani (of The Perfect Nanny fame) writes so deliciously about Adèle’s desires the answer is clear—we long to watch Adèle falter, we want to hear every terrible thought in her head.


The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology

By Alastair Brotchie (editor), Marina Galletti (editor), André Masson (illustrator), John Harman (translator), Natasha Lehrer (translator)

Book cover of The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology

Why this book?

This book traces the astonishing history and thinking behind the secret society called Acéphale created by Georges Bataille, known as the ‘dissident surrealist.' Secret societies were a feature of occultism throughout history (the word occult itself means 'hidden’). Acéphale was represented as a headless figure holding a burning heart, a dagger, and with a skull in the groin.

The members of the society would meet in silence to perform rituals beneath a lightning-struck oak tree in a forest outside Paris, evoking the ancient Druid rites described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, blended with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Death of God. The book is an outstanding work of scholarship and I would highly recommend this as part of any serious library on surrealism and occultism.


The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck

By Matt Phelan,

Book cover of The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck

Why this book?

Now for something completely different. My own book is for middle-grade readers, so I wanted to include another younger title, and it was perfect timing that this rollicking adventure crossed my path when it did. Hilariously droll, Phelan’s illustrated fiction stars characters lauded for their pivotal role in early flight—the three barnyard aeronauts who made the very first ascent in a hot-air balloon. But their career didn’t end there: the sheep, the rooster, and the duck went on to battle injustice, defeat dastardly villains, and expose nefarious plots against society. Phelan’s extraordinary farm animals are more than fearless aeronauts: they’re covert superheroes in a world of sinister secret societies, Benjamin Franklin, and the world’s first heat-ray. High-flying fun!


Liberation

By Imogen Kealey,

Book cover of Liberation

Why this book?

Want to read a thriller that will keep you turning the pages late into the night? Liberation is for you. And – here’s the kicker – it’s based on the real-life deeds of Nancy Wake. When her husband was snatched by the Gestapo, she joined SOE, trained as an agent, and parachuted into France. Nicknamed “The White Mouse” by the Germans for her ability to evade capture, she led a battalion of 7000 Resistance fighters, killed a man with her bare hands and defeated 22000 Germans (losing only 100 men). Even with a 5-million-franc bounty on her head (the largest bounty of the war), the Germans still couldn’t get their hands on her.

After the war, she sold her medals to fund herself. When asked about it, she blithely commented: "There was no point in keeping them, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway."

Nancy Wake was seriously badass. 


Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts

By Wolf Burchard,

Book cover of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts

Why this book?

Another catalogue (sorry!) but also another opportunity to delve into a rich and beautiful world, this time not Miyazaki’s but the world of Walt Disney and the European Rococo as seen in a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At first glance, this pairing seems an unlikely juxtaposition since the ornamental art of the Rococo flourished in the 18th century. As the beautifully illustrated catalogue and excellent essays by the curator Wolf Burchard amply demonstrate, however, both Walt Disney and the many superb artists who worked for him drew creative and aesthetic inspiration from all aspects of Rococo art. These range from decorative anthropomorphized teapots (think Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast) or the flamboyant costumes and hairstyles of the period, (illustrated in a mesmerizing scene from Cinderella) to Fragonard’s exquisite painting “Girl on a Swing” that shows up briefly but memorably in Frozen 2. This catalogue shows how richly beneficial cultural interchange can be.


The Woman Destroyed

By Beauvoir Simone De,

Book cover of The Woman Destroyed

Why this book?

Abandonment and the end of love terrify me. In The Woman Destroyed, the happy diary of a fifty-year-old woman turns into a descent into hell when Beauvoir's narrator finds out that her husband is having an affair and is actually leaving her. Beauvoir wrote it in order to send a feminist message to women in the fifties, to convince them to get a job and define their identity outside their family life. I wonder, however, whether the intensity of the grief we feel in that novella wasn't experienced by Beauvoir herself the summer when her American lover, the novelist Nelson Algren, broke up their transcontinental passion of four years. 


Monsieur D'Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

By Gary Kates,

Book cover of Monsieur D'Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

Why this book?

Who was s/he – a man, a woman masquerading as a man, or a gender fluid person?

The Chevalier d'Eon was a French courtier and diplomat, decorated military officer, writer – and a cross-dressing spy for Louis XV in a clandestine foreign policy organization known as the Secret du Roi. A well-researched account, Kates' political "thriller" is quite unlike any other crossdresser's biography I've read; it kindles a conception of 18th-century gender fluidity that reflects perception, influence, and political power in a European age when clothes indeed, made the man.


The Great War

By Les Carlyon,

Book cover of The Great War

Why this book?

I read this book cover to cover. It was incredible, full of well-researched detail and analysis. Les really got into the nuts and bolts of the Western Front and why things happened the way they did. It must have been exhausting to research, but well worth it. I found it invaluable in researching my own story. This book chronicles the reality of war in the trenches and goes much deeper than anything I’ve read before. Truly brilliant.


Somme Mud: The War Experiences of an Infantryman in France 1916-1919

By E.P.F. Lynch,

Book cover of Somme Mud: The War Experiences of an Infantryman in France 1916-1919

Why this book?

This is a first-person account of life in the trenches in France and Belgium in WW1. It’s actually a difficult read in places because his writing style is quite unusual and by no means eloquent, but once you get used to it, it’s truly intriguing. He wrote the book with a pencil on exercise books after the war, probably to try and exorcise his demons. It wasn’t until his family found it and took it to a publisher that his story came to light, a very frank and occasionally morbid description of war at its very worst but an essential read.


The Man in the Red Coat

By Julian Barnes,

Book cover of The Man in the Red Coat

Why this book?

The subject of this book is featured in a large portrait by John Singer Sargent, painted in 1881 and entitled “Dr. Pozzi at home.” It would be an understatement to say that the good doctor cut a fascinating figure. Julian Barnes does a wonderful job regaling us with Pozzi’s escapades and explaining how, by the time Pozzi died of a gunshot wound inflicted by a crazed patient, his fame had become international. Barnes is a wonderful raconteur, and he invites us into Pozzi’s colourful life with infectious charm, while offering his own erudite first-person ruminations.


Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

By Evelyne Lever,

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

Why this book?

I am perhaps more familiar with – and fonder of – Marie Antoinette than I am of any other historical personage. Emersed in French history since an early age, I have had a near-lifetime fascination for this complicated woman – who never said, “Let them eat cake!” 

Having researched Antoinette exhaustively (most recently, in connection with her periodic appearances in my own books), since first reading Evelyn Lever’s masterful, beautifully-written work some twenty years ago, I have found myself frequently returning to it. I am drawn to it for its depth and detail, as well as her balanced treatment of an, in many ways, controversial figure. I recommend it as it is a perfect introduction to the life of a captivating woman, as well as presenting a highly satisfying experience for any lover of fine biography. 


The Painted Girls

By Cathy Marie Buchanan,

Book cover of The Painted Girls

Why this book?

This historical work is fiction but based on the true story of Edgar Degas and his models. It was a revelation for me to learn about the brutish lives led by the dancers in the ballet and the hard lives of most women outside the middle and upper class in Paris in 1878. We are taken behind the scene in the ballet, into cramped, unheated, dirty living quarters, brothels, and prisons. Of the three sisters in the story, only one will manage to make a marriage that will lift her out of the inevitability of having to survive through a life of thievery and prostitution on the mean streets of Paris. Unlike the first four books I recommended, this is not a story of a woman’s triumph, but rather one of how incredibly difficult it was for a girl without the trappings of wealth, to simply survive. 


Comet in Summer

By Grace Wilkinson,

Book cover of Comet in Summer

Why this book?

This book is a great summer read. The relationship between young eventer Rio and her project horse is really special and the author does a good job of introducing us to this fun, quirky family, their many pets, and their dilapidated country house. The descriptions of the French countryside and the differences in how horses are cared for in France were really interesting. It is a fun, captivating read.


Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras, 1917

By Jonathan Nicholls,

Book cover of Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras, 1917

Why this book?

By the measure of its daily casualty rate, The Battle of Arras was the costliest British offensive of the First World War, far higher than either the Somme or Passchendaele. One survivor described it as 'the most savage infantry battle of the war.' The strength of this history derives from the fact that Nicholls interviewed so many (now deceased) veterans of both sides and uses their words to inject a visceral dynamism into his text. He takes us from early breakthroughs by the British forces to the, perhaps inevitable, final stalemate. Cuttingly, Nicholls lifts his title directly from a comment made by an officer who rationalised the enormous slaughter as a ‘cheerful sacrifice’ on the part of the soldiers who served and died at his behest.


To Dance with Kings

By Rosalind Laker,

Book cover of To Dance with Kings

Why this book?

This is also a book I read long ago, and it made me want to write historical fiction novels. This is an astounding story of a young peasant woman who is swept up into the Parisian society of King Louis XVI.

The author's attention to historical details in the construction of Versailles and the French Revolution is a standard that I have judged most novels by. It's a beautiful multi-generational story of love and loss, and I'll admit to tears when reading this book. I usually avoid sad books. I want love to never end. Having said that, I'm so glad I read it, and I was amazed at how much French history I learned!