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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Saturnall's Feast
This is a beautiful, descriptive novel which is hard to define, but glorious to read. It is partly a historical novel, set in and around the time of the English Civil War, partly a tale of mythology and also, perhaps mostly, a love story. The book begins with John Sandall and his mother Susan, who grow up in a small village. Preachers accuse John's mother of witchcraft,...
Published on August 28, 2012 by S Riaz

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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It had all the ingredients, but this feast failed to satisfy
Like other readers, I really wanted to like this novel. It had so much buzz at BEA, and they did a beautiful job with the production of the novel, with lovely illustrations, beautiful endpapers, and red ink accents throughout. Alas, despite my optimism, I found Lawrence Norfolk's latest a real slog.

John Saturnall's Feast is the story of John Sandall (who...
Published on September 5, 2012 by Susan Tunis


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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Saturnall's Feast, August 28, 2012
This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
This is a beautiful, descriptive novel which is hard to define, but glorious to read. It is partly a historical novel, set in and around the time of the English Civil War, partly a tale of mythology and also, perhaps mostly, a love story. The book begins with John Sandall and his mother Susan, who grow up in a small village. Preachers accuse John's mother of witchcraft, the local boys bully him and he feels an outcast. Driven from the village, his mother dead, John is taken to Buckland Manor to the care of Sir William Freemantle. Sir William is an embittered man, who has lost his beloved wife, Lady Anne, in childbirth, giving birth to his daughter Lucretia. Lucretia herself is an unhappy young girl, who starves herself and lives in a world of make believe. Yet Buckland Manor cannot be left to a daughter and Sir William is forced to look outward and invite distant relatives who are as "penniless as shepherds", Sir Hector, Lady Caroline and their son Piers to the Manor, hoping for a marriage alliance.

This is a story of Civil War, of John's rise as a cook under Master Scovell, of John's history and of the relationship between a penniless young man and the Lady of the Manor. John's mother always read to him about the Feast of Saturnall and the Master Cook tells him that "every true cook carries a feast inside him." When Lady Lucretia refuses to eat, then John must tempt her appetite. When the King visits, then he must create a feast fit for Royalty and, when starvation threatens, he must feed the troops. This story follows all the twists and turns that history throws at Lucretia and John, as they cope with religious intolerance, war and the impossibility of being together. In some ways, it might have been beneficial to have reigned this novel in, but personally I adored the rambling richness of the prose and the detail given to the creations of the kitchens. From the narrow minded behaviour of a small community, to the running of a large house, through the confusion of the battlefield, the author has created a real feast of a novel; and, although I sense it may not appeal to everyone, I thought it a wonderful read.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It had all the ingredients, but this feast failed to satisfy, September 5, 2012
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This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
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Like other readers, I really wanted to like this novel. It had so much buzz at BEA, and they did a beautiful job with the production of the novel, with lovely illustrations, beautiful endpapers, and red ink accents throughout. Alas, despite my optimism, I found Lawrence Norfolk's latest a real slog.

John Saturnall's Feast is the story of John Sandall (who rechristens himself Saturnall for reasons of his own), on his journey from social outcast to kitchen boy to master chef of a 17th century British estate. Moreover, it is a love story between servant and mistress. And finally, it is the story of a struggle to preserve the custom of an ancient feast (but I'd be lying if I pretended I fully understood anything about that sub-plot).

Many have commented on Norfolk's beautiful prose. Now, I'm a regular reader of literary fiction, but I found the 17th century language difficult and burdensome. Furthermore, the archaic recipes that preceded each chapter brought the action of the novel to a grinding halt--which was unfortunate, as things were already moving at a glacial pace. That seems odd to say about a book that dealt with life and death, love and war, but it took me weeks to get through this novel, simply because it was a chore to pick it up. And again this is strange, as in addition to a love story, this was essentially 17th century food porn, and I love that stuff. But the food was as disinteresting and unappealing as the central characters.

I never connected with either John or Lucy emotionally. I didn't find them especially likable, which made it hard to care about their romance. Nor did I feel that I ever truly understood who they were as people. I will admit that the second half of the novel was more compelling than the first, but that's not really saying that much.

Regular readers of my reviews know that it's rare for me to be so negative, especially for a novel of literary merit. Clearly this book did not work for me, but seems to have resonated far more with other readers. I am sure it's a fine book, but I am happy to at last move on.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating at turns and beautifully written but rushed and ultimately unsatisfying., July 31, 2012
This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
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Lawrence Nofolk has returned to the literary scene with John Saturnall's Feast and readers of his earlier works will be thrilled to hear it. Hovering between magic and reality, this is the story of John Sandall whose mother is shunned as the village witch in The Vale. John does not know who his father is and is confused by the villagers who scorn his mother and torment him, and yet sneak to their hut at night for the remedies she prepares and help for the sick. Even as John is accepted by some of the village children, religious fervor is on the rise in the pre Reformation period in England. A fanatical priest, a weak church leader and an easily swayed mob is all it takes to have John and his mother hounded out of the village and into the forbidden Buccla's woods.

Starving in the woods as winter comes on, John's mother shares with him an ancient book of recipes that detail a feast. She shares with him the mythology, or history, of the woods and a little of what his lineage might have been. John's mother dies of starvation and exposure but the recipes are now in John's head. He quickly finds that his mother has left instructions with the church leader for where John is to be sent after her death. He arrives, bedraggled and confused, at Buckland Manor house where he encounters Lucerita, the daughter of the house, and in short order, ends up working in the kitchens.

Norforlk has obviously done his research into the running of kitchens in large houses and food preparation in the 1600's. This section of the novel is rife with imagery and detail and the sheer magnitude of the work done in the kitchens to run a large house comes through very well; as does the odd fascination with food being presented as a physically built work of art. Towering castles of marzipan, birds stuffed in other birds and stuffed in successively larger animals, tokens hidden in pies, birds cooked and refeathered to appear alive - while historically fascinating these are not recipes to tickle the reader's taste buds! But . . . as John slogs his way up from the scullery to kitchen boy to cook, the English Reformation is gathering force and war breaks out. John follows the Lord of the Manor into battle as his cook, is witness to the massacre and gore of war and returns to a much poorer Buckland Manor. As the home of a Loyalist, the Manor is plundered by mobs and the few residents that remain there scrounge for food as they try to survive the years until the Restoration finally arrives and things go back to how they used to be.

There is romance in this novel. There is a torrid affair, war, fantastical dishes, adventure, lovers torn apart and a mystery. Frankly, there was too much of everything for the 400 pages to contain. The first half of the novel is superb. John coping with the villagers and then learning to live in the kitchens is fascinating and beautifully written. The mytology of Bucilla and Saturnus is riveting. However, when John's feelings for Lucerita take the forefront, the novel suddenly seems rushed and hops from event to event. There are sections here where I found myself wishing there were more details and more explanations for what was taking place.

The book is well written and a smooth read and you do find yourself caring about the characters and drawn into the novel. John's time in the village reminded me of stories set during the time of the Salem witch trials, his time in the kitchens had a flavor of Peake's Gormenghast books but the latter half of the book resembled a rushed and predictable romance novel set in the South during the American Civil war! Lucerita, for her strength and poise, is not a terribly likeable character. The more interesting minor characters are not fully explored. John's parentage is explained cursorily and dismissed. The seperation between classes that fell apart at the manor during the Reformation is restored without a blink once the Restoration takes place. The mythology of Buccla's woods crops up again and again and serves well as a criticism of what harm Religious dogma can do but the link between the characters and the mythology is vague.

Unfortunately, while worth reading for the sheer beauty of the writing and the glimpse into the time period, I think Norforlk's latest offering falls short in the end.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me., June 22, 2013
This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
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Others have claimed the prose is beautiful in Lawrence Norfolk's new novel, John Saturnall's Feast; I found the writing to be an obstruction. Confusing, and hard to read, it became onerous to pick this book up and lumber my way through it. There was no connection to the characters, and the story was very slow. Intending to gobble this book up (what a wonderful theme!), I was disappointed to find it such a distasteful feast. Yet I can see this novel's appeal to some readers, perhaps lovers of fantasy, and those attracted to the originality of the story, thus the ranking of two stars.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favorites of the year!, September 8, 2012
This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
John Saturnall is sent to Buckland Manor as a young orphan, in hopes that he will find work and a place where he can fit in, as it is his best chance for a decent life. John has a natural talent for smells and tastes. He can break the flavors down in their complexity, pulling them apart and identifying their individual parts. His talent reminded me of that of Moses in The Bells, except Moses' talent dealt with the sense of hearing and John's is that of taste and smell.

Given John's talent, he quickly finds his place in the kitchen of the manor, where he excels. His first day at the manor is marked by an eventful meeting with the daughter of the manor, and this begins a remarkable relationship that goes through the years.

This story has an almost fairytale feel to it. The descriptions of the food is fantastical (seeming almost unreal). The characters have lovely, quirky little names, and a lyrical way of speaking.

My final word: Tragic and charming, and with delicious descriptions, this story was an absolute delight. It is bound to be one of my favorites of the year, and will be earning a place on my permanent library shelves!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A feast for the brain, July 6, 2013
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L. Fry "pretty good knitter" (Scottsdale, Arizona United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
I hate to cook. That said, I still loved this book and there was a great deal about cooking and how one became a cook in 17th century England. Sort of like the book Chef, but in an earlier time. Well, there is a lot more including a convoluted plot, a love story, battles, and lots of feasting as well as times of starvation. And recipes, lots of recipes, but very few you would want to replicate, and none you could microwave. It took 2 1/2 days of hand cranking a spit with a boar over a blazing fire before the juices ran clear when pierced.

The writing, although not exactly modern day English and full of archaic words for a great many foods, (sallat [salad] being the easiest to decipher)is still easily understood and appropriate for this book.

This is a book I wanted to finish yet didn't want to end. That's why I gave it 5 stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard Times In Olde England, July 5, 2013
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Fanciful look at protestant fanatics in the mid 17th century. I like the way the author blends cooking into the story and depicts the undercurrent of older belief systems in rural society. The story depicts the conflict between the imposition of authoritarian organized religion on the indigenous, more benign older, more humane belief system that once existed in Europe.

The book is very readable, especially compared to Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros, which I found challenging and made me reluctant to read other of his books.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you love food and history, with a little romance thrown in, you will like this book., May 2, 2013
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Lenna Webb (Dallas, Texas, US) - See all my reviews
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A stark look at England from the reign of Charles I through civil war, Cromwell's protectorate and on to the restoration. You get a look at life inside a manor house from kitchen and the food it produces from lowly bread made from chestnuts during the worst of times to heavenly desserts during the best of times, to the Lady's chamber. Add in a the history of the time, religious myth and excess and a romance and you have an enjoyable tale with a few unanswered questions, that if answered, would have made the book even better, but did give our book club the chance to speculate.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let us share a little book for dinner, December 11, 2012
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This is a very nice story in a lovely, lovely setting. The garden on the top of the mountain, the garden in the book, the cottage in the wood, the kitchen and the solar... I enjoyed the feast very much and in the spirit of the feast I want to share it - please let me recommend this book to you.
The heroines transformation from fasting to feasting is substantial food for thougt, but the fly in the soup is the sacred nature of the feast which I did not fully understand. Why must the knowledge be kept a secret? How can the feast be misused by those who have sinister reasons for their curiosity? Is it simply a matter of keeping the feast for all or letting the feast belong to the cook? And how does the attitude of the cook matter if the food taste the same? But maybe I shall understand this when I feast upon the book again as I surely will - soon.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breakttaking historical fiction, September 12, 2012
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This review is from: John Saturnall's Feast (Hardcover)
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`John Saturnall's Feast' is set near the start of the English Civil War. John is the child of a woman who is a sort of outcast; an herbalist and midwife, she lives on the outskirts of the village and doesn't go to church. Of course this means she is thought of as a witch. When a plague runs through the village, she is blamed and they are run out of town. They take up living in a deserted house in the woods, living on late season fruit and chestnuts. She is dying, of both starvation and disease, but before she dies, she teaches John to read from a book about a strange feast held in Buccla's Wood. It encompasses every form of food; fish, fowl, vegetables, sweets, mammals are all included, and the feast is for everyone, not just the rich as is the way of the land at the time. At her wish, after her death, he is taken to Buckland Manor where he is put to work in the vast kitchens.

John's life changes totally. Used to being alone or with only a couple of people, he is now constantly pressed by people on all sides. He works every minute of the long day and falls directly into a sleep that never seems to be long enough. Still, given the time and place, it's a good situation. Food is abundant here, he's living inside, and after awhile he gets to learn cooking. He's in a better place than a lot of people.

This is primarily a love story; a love that crosses classes and is forbidden- preserving estates and titles takes precedence over love. It's also an adventure story; the kitchen staff marched with the lord of the manor when he went to war supporting King Charles, and they were expected to fight with the soldiers. I liked the characters. They are not likable all the time; they do stupid, human, things sometimes. But, in the end, it's a story about food.

We might think that cooking back in those days was fairly primitive, but it wasn't. It was actually very sophisticated. One of the culinary trends back then was to create dishes that looked like something else - parts of animals and birds sewn together to create a mythical beast, meat in pastry to look like a bird, sugar creations in the shape of just about anything. Cooks vied to create the most elaborate and surprising dishes- a sort of Iron Chef, Stuarts edition. Most of the year, the diet was rich and varied; the manor supplied fish from its own ponds, poultry, eggs, dairy products, pork, honey, wheat, fruit and vegetables (they did eat their `sallets') and much was stored for winter. A stable trade system meant the upper classes enjoyed sugar and spices. The sheer amount of person power it took to feed a manor was incredible- most workers were specialists, turning the spits in the kitchen, washing the endless stream of dirty dishes, plucking fowl, managing the fish ponds, the dove cote, the hen houses, the spice room, making the salads, cutting up the meat... and all those people had to be fed, too. You can see how a book can be created around a kitchen of the era! The food, and John's relationship to it and how he uses it to speak to the lady of the manor, is lovingly detailed, much more so, really, than the people.

Food was not always plentiful, however. It was easy to starve back then. The stark difference between the incredible plenty of the start of the story versus what they have to deal with when the Roundhead soldiers steal the food from the manor and destroy what they cannot take shows how dramatically life can change. John falls back on how he and his mother lived in the woods, and on what he learned from the book of the Feast. He is the hero of the tale, for all the people living on the manor.

What the Feast was is never made clear. It's like a myth of a Golden Age, when all were equals and food was plentiful. Was it a pagan community that had existed in the woods before Christians arrived? Was it a myth to comfort the reader, a dream to hold onto? Did it have a direct bearing on John's ancestors? Was the book a semi-magical teaching aid that allowed John to excel in the manor kitchens later? In the end, it doesn't matter. It allowed John to hold on and to save the manor.

`John Saturnall's Feast' is a story of cycles and renewals, both earthly as the wheel of the year turns and spiritually, as human hope and happiness comes up again and again.
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John Saturnall's Feast
John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (Hardcover - September 4, 2012)
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