The Almanack by Martine Bailey

As someone who loves puzzles and word games of all kinds, I was captivated by Martine Bailey’s latest novel, The Almanack. Each chapter opens with a riddle, the answers to which are listed at the end of the book but are also carefully hidden somewhere within the relevant chapter. If, for example, the solution to a riddle is ‘cherry’, in the pages that follow you will see a character eating cherries. Sometimes the allusion is so brief you could easily miss it but in other cases it will form the theme for the whole chapter.

The story itself is a murder mystery set in Georgian England. It begins in 1752 with Tabitha Hart’s reluctant return from London to the village of Netherlea in Cheshire in answer to an urgent summons from her mother. Unfortunately she arrives too late; her mother has died under suspicious circumstances, the only clues to her fate being some cryptic notes scribbled in the margins of her almanack, in which she describes her terror of someone referred to only as ‘D’.

As Tabitha sets out to identify the mysterious D, she comes up against the hostility of the other villagers, who disapprove of the life she has been leading in London. However, she receives help in her search from an unlikely source: a troubled young writer called Nat Starling, a newcomer to Netherlea who may be hiding secrets of his own.

This is the first book I’ve read by Martine Bailey and I was very impressed by her recreation of 18th century village life. With her descriptions of ancient superstitions and beliefs, a community ruled by the seasons and the weather, and the conflict between the old ways of life and the new, I was often reminded of Thomas Hardy. The reluctance of the villagers to move forward and embrace change is illustrated particularly well when they discover that Britain is to switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, jumping forward by eleven days in September. They are confused and angry about the ‘stolen days’, with some of them believing their lifespan has somehow been shortened.

Time and calendars are important themes in this novel. First, there is the almanack in the story, which Tabitha’s mother had been using to plan her days and which holds some of the keys to the mystery. Then there’s the way in which the book itself is structured like an almanack, with each chapter headed by the date, some astrological information and a prophecy relating to something that will happen that day. Riddles, prophecies and predictions are woven throughout the text of the novel too, with the unknown villain using them to taunt and tease Tabitha and Nat.

I really enjoyed this book and its many layers. There were times, though, when all of the extra little features started to distract me from the story; I became too caught up in looking for clues to the riddles and for prophecies coming true and found myself losing track of the central mystery. Still, this was an unusual and entertaining read and I will now have to try Martine Bailey’s other two books, An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart, both of which sound intriguing too.

Thanks to Black Thorn for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Stacey Halls’ new novel, The Foundling, begins on a cold November evening in 1747 with Bess Bright about to make a very difficult decision, one no new mother should ever have to face. She has brought her illegitimate baby daughter, Clara – less than a day old – to London’s Foundling Hospital and is planning to leave her there. Aware that, as an impoverished shrimp seller, she has little to offer her daughter but hunger and hardship, she is sure Clara will have a happier childhood at the Foundling, where at least she will be fed, clothed and educated. As she walks away from the hospital, leaving her baby behind, Bess consoles herself with the knowledge that it needn’t be forever; she has left a token – half of a heart made from whalebone – as proof of identity if she is ever in a position to bring Clara home again.

After six years of working hard and saving every penny she can, Bess returns to the hospital to collect her child, dreading being told that Clara has died of some childhood illness. Nothing can prepare her for the shock she receives when she enters the Foundling and is informed that her daughter has already been claimed – by someone who gave her name as Bess Bright and knew about the whalebone token. Bess is horrified. What has happened to Clara? Who has taken her little girl and what have they done with her?

I was very impressed with The Foundling, my first Stacey Halls novel. Although there wasn’t as much mystery as I would have liked and some of my biggest questions were answered a lot earlier than I’d expected, I was still kept in suspense wondering whether there would be a happy ending for Bess and her daughter or whether fate would have something else in store. I liked Bess and loved the descriptions of the London in which she lived and worked, from her lodgings in Black and White Court, where the alleys are ‘choked by coal smoke’, to the lively fish markets of Billingsgate where she and her father sell their shrimps.

However, this is not just Bess Bright’s story. It’s also the story of another woman, Alexandra Callard, a widow who is leading a very different sort of life in another part of London. Apart from attending church, Alexandra hasn’t left her elegant townhouse for years and neither has her little girl, Charlotte. Just the thought of going outside and walking along the street fills her with fear and she’s convinced that her child will be safer indoors too. Then one day, a friend persuades her to employ a nursemaid to help with Charlotte and the arrival of a new face in the household poses a threat to the secure little bubble Alexandra has built around herself.

I didn’t like Alexandra as much as Bess, but bringing a second narrator into the story – especially one who lived in such a different world – added variety and the chance to see things from another perspective. Unlike Bess, Alexandra doesn’t have to worry about money and has everything she needs within the four walls of her luxurious home, but due to her mental health problems her life is still not very happy. We eventually find out what has caused her agoraphobia and I did have a lot of sympathy, but I still found her a cold and rather selfish person.

As well as the two contrasting views of Georgian London, The Foundling explores several other interesting issues, particularly what it means to be a mother and what sort of environment is the most suitable in which to raise a happy, healthy child. The way the book ended was probably the best outcome, but I think there were at least two other possible endings and either could have been used to make a valid point. Having enjoyed this so much, I will have to read Stacey Halls’ previous book, The Familiars, about the Pendle Witch Trials.

The Bastille Spy by CS Quinn

Set during the French Revolution and featuring an almost super-human female spy and a handsome, charismatic pirate, this book feels like a cross between The Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean. As the first in a new series – Revolutionary Spy – I’m not sure whether I really liked it enough to want to continue with the next one, but it was certainly entertaining.

Our heroine Attica Morgan is the illegitimate daughter of a British nobleman and an African slave. Raised and educated in England, Attica wants to make the most of the opportunities she has been given and do everything she can to help relieve the suffering of others, whether they are those who are born or sold into slavery, or those who have become political prisoners. With her impressive range of skills and abilities, as well as her intelligence and fearlessness, Attica has been admitted to the secret society known as the Sealed Knot and as the novel opens in 1789, she is preparing to head to France on a new mission.

Armed with her deadly Mangbetu knife and her quick wits, Attica arrives in a Paris where revolution is brewing. A diamond necklace intended for Marie Antoinette has gone missing, something which could have serious repercussions for the monarchy if the jewels are not found. Attica’s task is to locate the necklace, but more important to her is the safety of her cousin Grace, who was sent to Paris on a mission of her own and has disappeared as thoroughly as the diamonds. Meanwhile, a prisoner has been murdered inside the notorious Bastille, but who was he and who was responsible for his death?

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Attica crosses paths with some of the leading figures of the Revolution, including Maximilien Robespierre who is on the trail of an elusive British spy known only by the codename ‘Mouron’, or ‘Pimpernel’. If she is to evade Robespierre’s clutches and survive long enough to complete her mission, Attica needs someone she can trust, but there’s only the pirate Captain Jemmy Avery – and it’s impossible to tell which side he is on and for whom he is really working.

The story moves along at a whirlwind pace, never slowing down for a second as Attica and her friends rush from one adventure to another, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies. There’s plenty of historical detail in between, but something about the writing style, the language and the characters made the book feel more ‘modern’ than I would have preferred. Attica herself isn’t very believable as an 18th century woman – but then, she wouldn’t be very believable in any other time period anyway! It seems there is nothing she can’t do, from picking locks and wielding weapons to speaking a multitude of foreign languages and decoding secret messages. This makes her fun to spend time with, but I would have liked to have seen a few more flaws and vulnerabilities to round out her character.

Only part of the story is told from Attica’s point of view. There are also some chapters which focus on Robespierre, as well as some in which we follow the adventures of Attica’s cousin Grace. Next to the larger-than-life Attica, Grace is a quieter, less memorable character, but I enjoyed the occasional change of perspective.

I might be tempted to read the next book in this series, but at the moment I don’t think so. However, I’m determined that 2020 will be the year I read Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, which I’ve only been putting off reading because of the length.

Thanks to Corvus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

It’s 1768 and Sara Kemp has just arrived in Spitalfields, the London parish which has become home to a thriving community of Huguenot silk weavers. Sara is full of hope and optimism, ready to start a new life, but before she’s had time to get her bearings she finds herself the victim of a cruel trick which leaves her with no choice other than to live and work in a notorious brothel.

In a much more respectable house nearby lives the master weaver Elias Thorel and his wife Esther. Their marriage is not a loving or happy one, but Esther has been trying to take an interest in her husband’s work and has discovered an aptitude for designing floral patterns. There’s nothing she wants more than to see one of her own designs woven in silk, but Elias is scornful and refuses to acknowledge her talent. Still determined to turn her dreams into reality, Esther approaches the journeyman weaver who has been using the loom in the Thorels’ attic to weave his master piece.

Two women leading very different lives – but their paths cross when Esther is distributing Bibles in the poorer areas of Spitalfields and sees Sara being abused by her madam outside the brothel. Soon Sara is working as a lady’s maid in Esther’s household, but how will she repay Esther for her act of kindness?

I was drawn to Blackberry and Wild Rose by the beautiful cover – and the mention of an 18th century setting and the comparisons to Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier made me want to read it even more. Of course, none of those things guaranteed that I would like the book, but I’m pleased to say that I did!

First of all, there are the fascinating details of weaving, of using looms, designing patterns, and everything else involved in creating beautiful figured silk. At the beginning of the novel, Esther knows very little of any of this – she only knows that she wants to see her designs brought to life – but she learns a lot from the weaver she befriends, and her enthusiasm (and, I think, the author’s) comes through very strongly:

By the time the candle had burned down to a waxy stump, the thinnest sliver of iridescent silk clung to the heddles. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I breathed. I was finally looking at the very beginning of a silk made to a pattern I had designed. My own creation. ‘How long will it take to finish it?’

I could feel Esther’s excitement and pride as her silk took shape, as well as her disappointment and anger at her husband’s lack of support. Through the stories of Esther’s weaver friend Bisby Lambert and some of the other Spitalfields weavers, we also learn about some of the issues and challenges the industry faced and how the workers had to fight for their rights against unscrupulous masters and the threat of cheap imports from abroad.

An even more engaging aspect of the book is the relationship between the two main characters, Esther and Sara, whose narratives alternate throughout the novel. At first, Esther feels sorry for Sara, as she would for any woman driven to prostitution, and she wants to do what she can to help. Once Sara is there, in the Thorel household, however, their relationship is an uneasy one and Esther begins to wonder whether she has done the right thing in bringing Sara into her home:

She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about. You don’t want to turn it out straight away so you offer it a scrap of food. The next thing you know it’s curled up on your favourite chair, watching you with unblinking elliptic eyes.

As for Sara, she quickly becomes aware that Esther’s life is not as perfect as it seems and that she is hiding some secrets of her own. While a friendship does form between the two women, they are not entirely comfortable around each other and neither is quite sure whether the other can be trusted, which makes for a tense and exciting story! The plot kept me gripped throughout the book and although I thought I could predict how it would end, I was wrong and the ending was actually much more realistic than I’d expected. This is an impressive debut novel and I hope to read more from Sonia Velton in the future.

Thanks to Quercus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

I am counting this book towards the What’s in a Name? challenge (a book with a fruit or vegetable in the title).

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Since reading the Joanna Stafford trilogy (The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry) a few years ago, I’ve been waiting and hoping for a new book from Nancy Bilyeau and here it is at last: The Blue. Bilyeau wrote so convincingly about Tudor England in the Joanna Stafford books that I was surprised to find she was switching to an entirely different period for this latest novel – the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763, a war which involved most of Europe, with Britain and France on opposite sides. Set against this backdrop, The Blue is an exciting, thrilling tale of espionage, art, religious persecution – and the race to create a new and beautiful shade of blue.

Our heroine, Genevieve Planché, is a young Huguenot woman whose family fled France when it became impossible for them to openly practise their religion. Despite her French ancestry, Genevieve has grown up in London among the silk weavers of Spitalfields and considers herself to be English, viewing the French king as someone to be feared. As a talented artist, she longs to have the chance to study painting and develop her skills, but as a woman she discovers that most of the opportunities open to men are closed to her. Her grandfather has made plans for her to go to a porcelain manufactory in Derby where she can paint pretty designs on plates and vases, but that’s not what Genevieve wants out of life. Then, just as she’s losing hope, she meets Sir Gabriel Courtenay at a party and receives a very tempting offer…

Sir Gabriel urges her to take up the position she has been offered at the Derby Porcelain Works and track down their chemist who is working on the development of a new colour blue. If Genevieve can steal the formula for blue and pass it to Sir Gabriel, he will help her travel to Venice where, he tells her, she will be taken seriously as a female artist. Genevieve is quick to agree, but once she is in Derby and the true scale of her mission becomes apparent, she begins to have doubts. Why is Sir Gabriel so desperate for the blue? What is the colour’s significance? And what will happen if she is caught?

The Blue is a fascinating novel – I learned so much about the production and decoration of porcelain, the meanings of different colours, and the ways in which art and science can combine to create things of beauty – but it is also a gripping and suspenseful historical thriller. One of the things I enjoyed most about the story was that it was so difficult to decide who could and could not be trusted. From the young woman Genevieve shares a room with at the Porcelain Works to Sir Gabriel himself, she has no idea who is on her side and who is likely to betray her. Although she sometimes makes silly mistakes, that is to be expected when she is faced with trying to navigate her way through so many dangerous situations!

This is the first book I have read via The Pigeonhole, a website/app which makes books available in daily instalments (referred to as ‘staves’). Each stave ended on a cliffhanger which left me desperate to get back to the story the following morning and reading it over a period of ten days was a wonderful experience. The book is written in present tense, something I usually find off-putting, but it seemed to work much better in the serialised format because it helped me to feel closer to Genevieve, almost as if I was sharing in her adventures as they happened.

I would love to read a sequel to The Blue, but if that doesn’t happen then I will look forward to whatever Nancy Bilyeau chooses to write about next.

Thanks to The Pigeonhole and Endeavour Quill for the opportunity to read this novel.