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.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

Lake Union| 20 February 2018|352 p|Review copy|3*

In 1944, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley parachuted from his stricken plane into the verdant fields of German-occupied Tuscany. Badly wounded, he found refuge in a ruined monastery and in the arms of Sofia Bartoli. But the love that kindled between them was shaken by an irreversible betrayal.

Nearly thirty years later, Hugo’s estranged daughter, Joanna, has returned home to the English countryside to arrange her father’s funeral. Among his personal effects is an unopened letter addressed to Sofia. In it is a startling revelation.

Still dealing with the emotional wounds of her own personal trauma, Joanna embarks on a healing journey to Tuscany to understand her father’s history—and maybe come to understand herself as well. Joanna soon discovers that some would prefer the past be left undisturbed, but she has come too far to let go of her father’s secrets now… 

I enjoyed The Tuscan Child up to a point. I liked the historical setting of 1944 and the descriptions of Tuscany and Italian food are beautiful. It’s easy reading and the dialogue gives a good impression of people speaking in a foreign language in which they are not fluent. Although I love Italian food I did begin to groan when yet another meal was being prepared and described in detail.

But the split narrative between Hugo and Joanna didn’t work too well for me. I liked Hugo’s story more than Joanna’s and I wanted to know what happened to him which kept me reading. But I thought the book was more of a romance than a historical mystery. And I thought the mystery element wasn’t too difficult to work out with rather too many convenient events that revealed what had happened to Hugo.

My thanks to Lake Union for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link