Mount TBR 2021 Final Checkpoint & Sign Up for Mount TBR 2022

We’ve come to the end of Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge, so it’s time for the final checkpoint!

I began the year aiming for Mount Vancover – that is 36 books and I made it, ending the year by reading 40 of my TBRs, although I haven’t managed to review each one. These are the books I read:

  1. The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards
  2. Exit by Belinda Bauer
  3. The One I Was by Eliza Graham
  4. Cruel Acts by Jane Casey
  5. The Cutting Place by Jane Casey
  6. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  7. English Pastoral by James Rebanks
  8. The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood
  9. Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell
  10. For the Record by David Cameron
  11. The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley
  12. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn – Reached Pike’s Peak
  13. We Are Not In The World by Conor O’Callaghan
  14. A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
  15. Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen
  16. Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
  17. The Mirror Dance by Catriona McPherson
  18. Inland by Tea Obreht
  19. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  20. Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger
  21. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
  22. Katheryn Howard: the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
  23. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
  24. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – Reached Mount Blanc
  25. The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge
  26. Enigma by Robert Harris
  27. Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen
  28. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
  29. Dead Tomorrow by Peter James
  30. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronvitch
  31. Fludd by Hilary Mantel
  32. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
  33. Country Dance by Margiad Evans
  34. Just Like the Other Girls by Claire Douglas
  35. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  36. The Quiet American by Graham Greene – Reached Mt. Vancouver
  37. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  38. The Grand Banks Cafe by Georges Simenon
  39. The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon
  40. Fifty-Fifty by Steve Cavanagh 

My thanks to Bev for hosting Mount TBR 2021. And so on to Mount TBR 2022

Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2022. No library books.  Any reread may count, regardless of how long you’ve owned it prior to 2022, provided you have not counted it for a previous Mount TBR Challenge.  Audiobooks and E-books may count if they are yours and they are one of your primary sources of backlogged books. You may count “Did Not Finish” books provided they meet your own standard for such things, you do not plan to ever finish it, and you move it off your mountain [give it away, sell it, etc. OR remove it from your e-resources].

There is no page limit–if it was published as a book, it counts. No single short stories–but collections of short stories do count. And you do not have to review the books you read.

There are a number of different levels to choose from:

Pike’s Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro*: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s (*aka Cerro El Toro in South America)
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

and for now I’m aiming to climb Mt Vancouver, which is to read 36 books and hope to move up to the higher levels if I can.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I read the Wordsworth Classic edition of Little Dorrit with Illustrations by Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) and an Introduction and Notes by Peter Preston, University of Nottingham. As always, I read the Introduction after I’d read the novel. I finished reading it in June and started writing this review. But it is only today that I realised I hadn’t finished it, so, this post is not as detailed as I would like it to be.

Summary from the back cover:

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens’ eleventh book, was published serially from 1855 to 1857 and in book form in 1857. The novel attacks the injustices of the contemporary English legal system, particularly the institution of debtors’ prison. I found it hard going in parts, ponderous, sombre and serious. But as it’s a long book other parts are more lively, comic and far more enjoyable. That said it is also long-winded, far too wordy, melodramatic with a multitude of characters and a long-drawn out and convoluted plot. It is a great sprawling epic of a novel.

It is satire and Dickens spares no one, but it is those sections that hold up the flow of the novel. I found the first rant at the corruption and workings of the government Circumlocution Office, explaining that its purpose is ‘How Not to Get Things Done’, entertaining at first, but eventually repetitive and increasingly incredible. The account of the Barnacle family going round and round in circles, producing nothing but red tape, became excruciatingly boring.

I can’t say that I particularly liked any of the characters, and some of them are merely caricatures. rather than characters. Little Dorrit is so meek and self-effacing and far too good for her own good. Her father, known as the Father of the Marshalsea, is a most annoying character. He is the prison’s longest inhabitant, the longest debtor, the one to whom the other prisoners pay homage which makes him pompous and full of his self-importance. So much so that he fails to realise he is exploiting Little Dorrit.

But it is Dickens’ description of life in the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison, that fascinated me, based on Dickens own father’s imprisonment there. The families could live with the debtors and were free to come and go, until the prison gates were locked at night. It was a separate society that worked on a system of hierarchy, run by the prisoners who had access to a pub, The Snuggery, and a shop, for those who had money. But it carried a terrible stigma of shame and corrupted them all – even Little Dorrit lied to herself about her father’s true situation. Once you were imprisoned there was practically no way you could be freed, unless your debts were paid and that was impossible when you couldn’t earn any money.

There are so many characters and so many sub-plots that I’m not going to attempt to write about them, other than to say at times I was amused and bemused, caught up in the stories, and dismayed at its length and complexity. Although I’ve been critical of some of the novel in this post and I think it could be my least favourite of all of Dickens’ books that I’ve read, overall I did enjoy it enough to give it 3.5 stars on Goodreads.

Country Dance by Margiad Evans: a short review

Country Dance by Margiad Evans, a novella, is set in the the border country between Wales and England in the late 19th century. It’s the story of Ann Goodman, the daughter of an English shepherd and a Welsh mother. It’s told in diary form, telling how she left her cousin’s farm, Twelve Poplars in Wales, for her parents’ home in England to look after her mother. She had promised Gabriel, an English shepherd working on her cousin’s farm that she would keep a diary of her visit to England.

Whilst in England her father’s employer, a Welsh landowner, Evan ap Evans, takes a fancy to her. When Gabriel visits her he is infuriated by Evan’s attentions to her, especially as they talk together in Welsh. And it is this relationship that sets in motion the conflict between the two men.

I was confused when I began reading, trying to work out these relationships and I wondered why Ann was living in Wales away from her parents – I don’t think that was ever explained. But anyway as she rejects both men this turns the book into a tragedy, with the English and the Welsh at each others’ throats, divided by language and profound misunderstandings. Ann, herself is equally torn between her dual heritage.

Whilst I didn’t love this book, I did enjoy reading it and would like to read more of Margiad Evans’ work.

Artist and writer Margiad Evans (Peggy Whistler) was born in Uxbridge in 1909. Her work includes Country Dance (1932); The Wooden Doctor (1933); Turf or Stone (1934), and Creed (1936), as well as non-fiction, short stories, autobiography and two collections of poetry, Poems from Obscurity (1947) and A Candle Ahead (1956). 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Parthian Books (1 Dec. 2012)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 110 pages
  • My Rating: 3*

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital| Oct 2010| 210 pages| my own copy| 4*

I heard of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American years ago. So when it was on offer for 99p at Amazon three years ago I bought the e-book version, with an Introduction by Zadie Smith. It’s one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. The nudge to read it now came from FictionFan’s Wanderlust Bingo as it fits nicely into the Southeast Asia Square as it is set in Vietnam * (see below). I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Vietnam before so I enjoyed it for its setting in Saigon and a glimpse of the situation in Vietnam under French colonialism in the early 1950s.

There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American. (Extract from Zadie Smith’s Introduction)

The Quiet American was first published in 1955 and is about America’s early involvement in Vietnam. It’s only the second book of Greene’s that I’ve read. The main characters are a cynical British journalist, Thomas Fowler, Phuong, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman who lives with him, and Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American – the ‘Quiet American,’ of the title. Phuong’s sister is keen for her and Fowler to marry, but he has a wife in England, who won’t agree to a divorce. Matters between all three characters come to a head when Pyle falls in love with Phuong and wants to marry her.

The book begins with a death and then goes back to the events that led up to that death. Although there is plenty of action the book revolves around these three characters and their relationships. Fowler is tired and jaded, addicted to opium and the thought of losing Phuong forces him to face the possibility of a lonely and bleak future. She meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes for him. Pyle, on the other hand is bright, confident and optimistic, certain that he can offer Phuong a better future.

The Americans at this time were not actively involved in the war against the Vietminh and Pyle has been sent to promote democracy and combat communism through a mysterious ‘Third Force’. However he is naive and gets involved in violent action causing injury and death to many innocent people. At that point Fowler realises he has to intervene.

*I know very little about Vietnam and its history, before the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and was a little confused about what was happening during the period in which this book is set and the references to the Vietminh. So, I had to look it up – In the late 19th century Vietnam was controlled by the French. In September 1945 the Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed its independence. From 1946 to 1954, the French opposed independence, and Ho Chi Minh led guerrilla warfare against them in the first Indochina War that ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. (see Britannica)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Penguin| Revised edition 2003| 1313 pages| 4*

I have had a paperback copy of The Count of Monte Cristo for many years. This year I joined in Karen’s Back to the Classics 2021 Reading Challenge, which gave me the incentive to read it now, as it meets the criteria for category five: a classic by a non-white author. It’s also a book on my Classics Club list. Dumas was born in 1802. His father was the illegitimate son of the Marquis de La Pailleterie and Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave from Haiti. He was a prolific writer, producing 41 novels, 23 plays, 7 historical works and 6 travel books.

The Count of Monte Cristo was first serialised in a French newspaper in 18 parts in 1844 and later translated into English. There have been several translations, editions and abridged versions since then. I really had very little idea of the plot and had not watched any of the film or TV adaptations. As I found it hard to read my paperback version I read an e-book version, so much easier to see!

It begins in 1815 when Edmond Dantès, a sailor, having returned to Marseilles, and celebrating his betrothal to Mercedes is wrongly accused of being a Bonapartist and imprisoned in the Chateau d’If on the Isle of Monte Cristo, for fourteen years. His accusers were Fernand, who was also in love with Mercedes, assisted by Danglars, one of Dantès’ shipmates and Caderousse, a drunkard who went along with the others’ plot to get rid of him. The King’s Attorney, Villefort has his own reasons for condemning Dantès to conceal his father’s involvement with the Bonapartists.

I was quickly drawn into the story with the account of how Dantès survived his imprisonment after meeting the Abbé Faria, who tells him of a great hoard of treasure and offers to share it with him. He educates Dantès in languages, culture, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and science and together they plan to escape. But the Abbé dies and Dantès ingeniously uses his death to make his own miraculous escape. Whilst in prison Dantès had vowed to get his revenge on the four men responsible for his imprisonment and the rest of the books tells how he went about it. It’s a complicated and elaborate plan that he carries out remorselessly, one that takes him several years to achieve.

It’s a great story, action-packed, and full of high drama and emotion. It’s a love story, a story of revenge and retribution, about justice, intrigue and betrayal. There’s imprisonment and a daring escape, bandits, murder, madness, and suicide. In addition there’s a female poisoner, a scene of torture, an execution, drug-induced sexual fantasies and above all a conflict between good and evil.

But it is very long (Dumas was paid by the line) and a difficult book to review as there is so much in it.There’s a wealth of characters, but the absolute star of the book is the Count of Monte Cristo himself, in his several guises. It’s a theatrical drama, melodramatic in parts, a book I found difficult to put down and it had me turning page after page as I just had to find out what would happen next. There are episodes that really beggar belief, and it has its slow moments where I just wanted Dumas to get on with the story and for Monte Cristo to get his revenge, but it all wove together to make a spectacular whole.

I loved it!

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

i’m still reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and am stuck in the middle of the book where the narrative is so slow as Cromwell reminisces about his childhood and early adult years. I’m also reading The Count of Monte Cristo, such a long book, but it is moving along swiftly and although it’s a bit confusing with all the aliases that Dantès uses I think I’ve now got them straight in my head, and I’m really enjoying it.

But it’s time I started something new – so I picked a book at random off my bookshelves and began reading The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell, the second book in his Kurt Wallander series.

The Book Begins:

It started snowing shortly after 10am.

The man in the wheelhouse of the fishing boat cursed. He’d heard the forecast, but hoped they might make the Swedish coast before the storm hit.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. *Grab a book, any book. *Turn to Page 56 or 56% on your  ereader . If you have to improvise, that is okay. *Find a snippet, short and sweet, but no spoilers!

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

‘Bjork grabbed hold of the newspaper again and read aloud, “‘Soviet death patrols. The new Europe has exposed Sweden to crime with a political slant.’ What do they mean by that? Can anyone explain? Wallander?’

Summary:

Sweden, winter, 1991. Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team receive an anonymous tip-off. A few days later a life raft is washed up on a beach. In it are two men, dressed in expensive suits, shot dead.

The dead men were criminals, victims of what seems to have been a gangland hit. But what appears to be an open-and-shut case soon takes on a far more sinister aspect. Wallander travels across the Baltic Sea, to Riga in Latvia, where he is plunged into a frozen, alien world of police surveillance, scarcely veiled threats, and lies.

Doomed always to be one step behind the shadowy figures he pursues, only Wallander’s obstinate desire to see that justice is done brings the truth to light.

I read the first Wallander book, Faceless Killers several years ago and have been wanting to read more, so this book was a lucky random pick from my bookshelves this morning.

What have you been reading lately?

Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and

Contemporary Novellas: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors

5*

Novellas in November began this week, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope you will join in reading – see their blogs for details.

The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. The prompt for this week is contemporary fiction, defined as post 1980 and hosted by Cathy,

My choice this week is Fludd by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1989 by Viking. My copy, published in 2010 by Fourth Estate, has 181 pages followed by additional features at the end, including an About the Author section, and an interview with Hilary Mantel.

Description:

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?

Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.

My thoughts:

It is 1956, set in the north of England in the fictional village of Fetherhoughton, which is loosely based on the village where Mantel grew up. She was brought up as a Catholic and the idea for the story came from a conversation with her mother about her childhood. When she was around four the Bishop decreed that all the statues in the church were to be removed which annoyed the parishioners and she heard the adults talking about what to do with the statues. One suggestion was to bury them. Her mother also told her about a young priest, who everyone liked, and who disappeared. It was assumed that there was a girl involved. The two events combined in her mind and came out as this novel.

Mantel clarifies in a Note before the story begins that the church in Fludd bears some resemblance, but not much to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world. Fludd was a real person (1574 – 1637), a physician, scholar and alchemist and she adds that

In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.

This sets the scene for what follows – there is a mystery that lies beyond the visible world, miraculous things appear to happen and very ordinary things appear miraculous. There is a hint of the supernatural.

The story centres on Fludd, a young priest who comes to the Church of St Thomas Aquinas to help Father Angwin, a cynical priest who has lost his faith. The Bishop, a modern man, is concerned about Father Angwin and wants to bring him and the Catholic community up to date – so the statues in the church have to go. This has a most disturbing effect on all concerned – not just the church and Father Angwin, but also the the nuns in the convent, and the school, both under the stern eye of Mother Perpetua.

Fludd, himself is something of a mystery. When he eats the food disappears, but he is not seen eating. When he pours out whisky for Father Anwin the bottle always remains full. Strange things happen, a wart disappears from one character’s face and finds its way to another’s, one character apparently spontaneously combusts, another disappears and there’s a tobacconist who may or may not be the devil. The real question is just who is Fludd?

I enjoyed it all immensely – partly about religion and superstition, but also a fantasy, a fairy tale, told with wit and humour with brilliant characterisation.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage is my current Classics Club spin book. Although I read my previous spin book, Little Dorrit , I didn’t write a post about it. So, I decided to make an early start with Framley Parsonage to make sure I finished it before the 22nd August deadline – which I did!

Synopsis – Goodreads

A brilliant depiction of social climbing and scandal, Framley Parsonage tells the story of Mark Robarts, a young clergyman with ambitions beyond his small country parish of Framley. In a naive attempt to mix in influential circles, he makes a financial deal with the disreputable local Member of Parliament, but is instead brought to the brink of shame and ruin.

One of Trollope’s most enduringly popular novels, Framley Parsonage is an evocative portrayal of country life in nineteenth-century England, told with great compassion, humour and an acute insight into human nature. 

It is the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s series, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, first published in serial form in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, then in book form in 1861.

This is a long book – 688 pages in the Penguin classics edition – and begins slowly. It took me a while to settle into reading it and to sort out who all the characters are and how they relate to each other, There are several plot lines – there’s the clergyman Mark Robarts, the Vicar of Framley, and his attempts to climb up the church hierarchy. Mark through naivety, is bamboozled by Nathaniel Sowerby, a member of parliament. He guarantees a three-month bill of Sowerby’s for £400 (making Mark liable if Sowerby does not pay a £400 debt within that time) and then a further bill for £500. This does not go well for Mark!

Another plot line is that relating to Mark’s sister, Lucy and her on/off romance with Lord Lufton, much to the disapproval of his mother, Lady Lufton. Mark and Lord Lufton were childhood friends and Lady Lufton is Mark’s patroness, which causes problems all round, especially as she would much prefer her son to marry Griselda Grantley, the daughter of Doctor Theophilus Grantly, the Archdeacon of Barchester. There’s also a subplot involving Mrs Grantly and Mrs Proudie, Bishop Proudie’s wife, and their rivalry over their daughters’ marriages. There’s another marriage in the offing, that of the outspoken heiress, Martha Dunstable, to Doctor Thorne, the eponymous hero of the preceding novel in the series, Doctor Thorne.

Framley Parsonage is full of lifelike and interesting characters engaged in their everyday life and inevitable class inequalities and power struggles, described with a fair amount of wit and humour. Interspersed between the plotlines Trollope introduces several sections of political commentary on the Parliamentary shenanigans of the day, which I have to admit were less interesting to me. But it seems that not much has changed in the way the political parties carried on both in parliament and in their relationship with the press. The next book in the series is The Small House at Arlington, which I expect I’ll eventually get round to reading.

Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen

Lake Union| February 2020| 323 pages| 3*

A single twist of fate puts a servant girl to work in Queen Victoria’s royal kitchen, setting off a suspenseful, historical mystery by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and The Victory Garden.

Arriving as Helen Barton from Yorkshire, she pursues her passion for creating culinary delights, served to the delighted Queen Victoria herself. Best of all, she’s been chosen to accompany the queen to Nice. What fortune! Until the threat of blackmail shadows Bella to the Riviera, and a member of the queen’s retinue falls ill and dies.

Having prepared the royal guest’s last meal, Bella is suspected of the poisonous crime. An investigation is sure to follow. Her charade will be over. And her new life will come crashing down—if it doesn’t send her to the gallows.

Set towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1896/7 I thought this sounded interesting when I read the synopsis on NetGalley, and it is. It’s a pleasant easy read, but rather far-fetched.

The novel is based on facts to a certain extent. Rhys Bowen’s Historical Note explains that many aspects of the story are true, including the details about Abdul Karim, the Queen’s Indian Munshi. The Hotel Regina Excelsior above Nice was built for Queen Victoria – she had a separate wing with its own entrance – and she took a team of her cooks with her when she visited each winter.

I thought the beginning of the book was slow and predictable, and there are a few convenient coincidences. Isabella (Bella) Waverley’s father was a member of an aristocratic family, the second son of a second son, who fell on hard times and eventually died an alcoholic. Bella had gone into service and found she had a talent for baking. So when she had the opportunity to take Helen Barton’s position as an under cook at Buckingham Palace, she presented herself as Helen at the Palace. Keeping her real identity a secret was a problem that continued through the book, providing an element of suspense. Then when one of the Queen’s German relatives died, Bella is suspected of poisoning him, and I enjoyed the intrigue and the puzzle of who killed the Count.

Overall I did find the book entertaining. I enjoyed reading about the meals the Queen Victoria’s household were served and the settings both in Buckingham Palace and in the French Riviera are beautifully described. Compared to the slow start the ending is packed with action and romance as well as mystery.

With thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for my review copy.