Regional treats

19th July 1996 at 01:00
There is something satisfyingly neat about reading a book set in your holiday destination. Northern France, a favourite of mine, provides plenty of possibilities.

When visiting Rouen I enjoyed not only Flaubert's Parrot (Picador Pounds 5.99) but the story by Flaubert, from Trois Contes, which inspired Julian Barnes' clever literary quest. Like his protagonist I discovered that there are several (stuffed) contenders for the role of the parrot mistaken for the Holy Ghost by Flaubert's peasant heroine. Start at the medical museum attached to the hospital where Flaubert's father was director. This sounds perilously close to the spurious literary trail of the "Morse's Oxford" variety, but it felt like pure discovery at the time.

This year, visiting Picardy, I would find Sebastian Faulkes' Birdsong (Vintage Pounds 5.99) horribly appropriate. But, much as I admire this brilliant evocation of the Battle of the Somme for its unflinching but never prurient realism, its sensitive but never sentimental handling of human relationships, I'm not ready to re-read it yet and will take instead Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety (Penguin Pounds 6.99. This is set partly in northern France and promises to be a gripping fictional history of the French Revolution.

Anyone going to see the Bayeux Tapestry would do well to read Odo's Hanging by Peter Benson (Sceptre Books Pounds 5.99). It is a gently humorous account of the design and execution of the tapestry, scene by scene. The rivalry between vigorous, rumbustious, plain-speaking Turold, the artist, and his politically scheming employer, Bishop Odo, unfolds through the narrative of Robert, Turold's dumb assistant.

Michele Roberts' Daughters of the House (Virago Pounds 5.99) is redolent of the Normandy she knew as a child. Roberts is a poet too and her elegant, fastidious, perfectly judged language makes this tale of shameful secret unforgettable.

Heather Neill is the literary editor of The TES

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