I don’t always review the books I read with my book group, but on this occasion it’s an absolute pleasure to do so. It’s not that long since I read (and really enjoyed) The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey – you’ll find my review here, together with an interview with the author – but I really did want to catch up with Martine’s first novel, An Appetite for Violets, published in paperback two years ago by Hodder. Sometimes there are real advantages in being able to choose my group’s reading material – and, after all, they usually do enjoy historical reads…
That’s how it is for us servants. No one pays you much heed; mostly you’re invisible as furniture. Yet you overhear a conversation here, and add a little gossip there. A writing desk lies open and you cannot help but read a paper. Then you find something, something you should not have found.
Irrepressible Biddy Leigh, under-cook at the foreboding Mawton Hall, only wants to marry her childhood sweetheart and set up her own tavern. But when her elderly master marries the young Lady Carinna, Biddy is unwittingly swept up in a world of scheming, secrets and lies.
Forced to accompany her new mistress to Italy, Biddy takes with her an old household book of recipes, The Cook’s Jewel, in which she records her observations. When she finds herself embroiled in a murderous conspiracy, Biddy realises that the secrets she holds could be the key to her survival – or her downfall…
And the good news is that – with a few exceptions – the book group did really enjoy it. And so did I, very much. I loved the intriguing prologue, but will admit that the abrupt shift to Biddy Leigh’s story did catch me on the back foot a little, wondering what the link might be. But Biddy’s distinctive “voice” soon drew me in – she’s very rough around the edges, feisty and funny and impossible to dislike. The author manages to give her character a real authenticity – I loved the gentle use of contemporary language (nothing difficult – just enough to make her feel “real”), and every bit of dialogue crackles and sparkles.
The story’s just wonderful – intrigue and treachery, greed and betrayal, even very tender romance. It’s sometimes brutal and rather bloody, sometimes totally implausible and unbelievable (but who cares?!), and quite spectacularly gothic – and after the first hundred pages or so it moves at quite a pace, full of action and a rollicking good read. All the characters are wonderfully drawn – Loveday and his vivid memories of his distant homeland (and his halting English – never hard to read, very subtly done) added a wonderful extra dimension, and I loved some of the more incidental characters like the Count (a caricature, but a simply wonderful foil for Biddy). I liked the way letters were used as a device to move the story forward too – very cleverly done, with letters written, received and intercepted to uncover secrets.
And I really can’t talk about this book without mentioning The Cook’s Jewel and its “receipts” (recipes) – one starting every chapter, and featured somewhere within it, often with some surprises around its “fit”. Christmas Pie and the marzipan artistry have particularly stuck in my memory. There’s a real feel of depth of research about the book, but it wears it comfortably – not just the culinary detail but the wider social history, simply fascinating, and I loved finding things out like the source of ambergris and the origin of restaurants.
You might have seen me say that I’m often not the world’s biggest fan of historical novels – if that’s your stance too, this could be a book to change your mind. I loved it – and, even better, there were a few others who walked away from our group meeting today declaring their intention to try The Penny Heart next…
My reading copy of An Appetite for Violets was my own, purchased and dowloaded for kindle from Amazon.
Martine Bailey’s historical crime debut, An Appetite for Violets, took sharp-witted cook Biddy Leigh on a murderous trip to Italy. Its mix of crime, gastronomy and social history was described by Fay Weldon as a new genre, ‘culinary gothic’. An Appetite for Violets was picked by the American Library Association’s Booklist as one of the top ten crime fiction debuts of 2015.
In pursuit of authenticity Martine has studied with TV food historian Ivan Day and experienced Georgian food and fashion at firsthand with an historic re-enactment society. As an amateur cook she won the Merchant Gourmet Recipe Challenge and was a former UK Dessert Champion, cooking at Le Meurice in Paris.
Martine now lives in Cheshire, England, and is married with one son.