It’s such a pleasure today to share my review of The Almanack by Martine Bailey. Why the two covers? The one on the left is the hardback, published by Severn House: the one on the right is for the paperback and kindle versions, to be published by Black Thorn Books on 7th November, and available now for pre-order. My thanks to Severn House for my advance reading e-copy, provided via netgalley.
I often say that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of historical novels – I tend to prefer a dual time thread, with a contemporary story to accompany it – but for Martine Bailey’s lovely books I’m always happy to make an exception. My interest was first piqued when I heard Martine speak about her research for her first novel, An Appetite for Violets, at Knaresborough Library (goodness, was that really four years ago?), and I finally got round to reading and reviewing it in 2017 (you’ll find that review here). But the first book of hers that I read and enjoyed was her second, The Penny Heart: you’ll find that review here, together with an interview. So, is the new one as good? But of course it is…!
The philosophy of time, destiny and the stars pervade this intricate historical mystery in which a young woman determines to avenge her mother’s death.
1752, Midsummer. Following a desperate summons from her mother, Tabitha Hart departs London for her home village of Netherlea – only to discover that her mother has drowned. Determined to discover the truth about the Widow Hart’s death, Tabitha consults her almanack and uncovers a series of cryptic notes describing her mother’s terror of someone she names only as ‘D’. Teaming up with young writer Nat Starling, Tabitha begins a race against time to unmask ‘D’ before more deaths follow.
But as the summer draws to a close and the snow sets in, cutting off Netherlea from the outside world, Tabitha and Nat are forced to face the darkest hours of their lives. With the year predicted to meet a ‘violent, bloody end” will Tabitha survive long enough to bring her mother’s killer to justice?
From the moment Tabitha wakes at an inn on her journey to Netherlea, finding that she has been robbed by her companion for the night, left with nothing other than the underclothes she’s wearing and a purloined watch shaped as a silver skull, this wonderful book drew me into its vividly created world and refused to let me go until the very last page. It’s 1752, an era of social change but still largely ruled by superstition and the changing seasons – and a year rather more unsettled than many by the fact that eleven days are due to be “lost” by the synchronisation of the calendars.
And it’s the calendars of the time that provide the framework for the story, each chapter following the structure of the almanack by which people plan and live their lives, each chapter opening with a riddle to solve (you’ll be pleased to hear solutions are provided!), astronomical notes and an enigmatic prediction. And it works exceptionally well, the fairly short chapters taking the suspense filled story inexorably forward, the tension steadily building, the secrets revealed.
When I reviewed the author’s earlier books, I mentioned her exceptional ability to recreate the writing style of the time: it never makes the reading difficult or inaccessible, but gives her characters a distinctive and authentic “voice”, despite the fact that the book is written in the third person. Add to that the obvious depth of her research, her love for her subject, and the way the book appeals to the full range of your senses – well, it’s really quite a heady and intoxicating mix.
But it’s also quite a story, and incredibly well told. Tabitha might be an unlikely heroine, returning home from her life of debauchery in London, to find her mother dead, apparently drowned. You might not take to her at that first encounter – I know I didn’t – but by the book’s end I’d entirely taken her to my heart. While dealing with her bereavement and concealing her family secrets, she takes on her mother’s role as “searcher” (I found this simply fascinating…), laying out the dead and recording the cause in the Book of Mortalities. And she then begins to investigate her mother’s death – with the support of the besotted Nat Starling, another quite wonderful character – and it takes them into a world of threat and danger every bit as terrifying and gripping as that of a modern psychological thriller.
While you’ll grow to love both flawed characters at the book’s centre, there’s also a large cast of supporting characters for you to get your teeth into – every one perfectly drawn, every one three dimensional, the villains and the good, and those whose true character might lie somewhere between the two. There’s tension and mystery, darkness, a wider superstitious and celestial dimension, a romance, some lovely touches of humour – and it all moves at a perfect pace, making you read another chapter, then maybe just one more, until you decide to read to the end because you can’t bear to put it down.
I was totally enchanted by this book – a compulsive read that I think so many readers would enjoy, regardless of any preconceptions about historical fiction. Highly recommended to all – and a definite contender for my books of the year list.
About the author
Martine Bailey’s historical crime debut, An Appetite for Violets, takes 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 the year.
The Penny Heart is a gripping novel of suspense that draws on age-old themes of cooking, trickery and revenge. When timid new wife Grace Moore hires a new cook, she finds she is tied to a world she didn’t know existed…a world of deceit, double-crossing, and murder.
The stars, riddles and murder align in The Almanack, a historical mystery featuring 50 authentic riddles. 1752, Midsummer. Following a desperate summons from her mother, Tabitha Hart departs London for her home village of Netherlea – only to discover that her mother has allegedly drowned. Determined to discover the truth, Tabitha consults her mother’s almanack and uncovers a series of cryptic notes describing her terror of someone she names only as ‘D’.
In pursuit of authenticity Martine 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 lives in Cheshire, England, and is married with one son.