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A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey

A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey
Pub. Date: January 12, 2016
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Thomas Dunne Books!)
Summary: Manchester 1787. When budding young criminal Mary Jebb swindles Michael Croxon’s brother with a blank pound note, he chases her into the night and sets in motion a train of sinister events. Condemned to seven years of transportation to Australia, Mary sends him a ‘Penny Heart’-a token of her vow of revenge.

Two years later, Michael marries naïve young Grace Moore. Although initially overjoyed at the union, Grace quickly realizes that her husband is more interested in her fortune than her company. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she turns to her new cook to help mend her ailing marriage. But Mary Jebb, shipwrecked, maltreated, and recently hired, has different plans for the unsuspecting owners of Delafosse Hall.
Genre: Historical Fiction

What starts as a simple con turns into a revenge-fueled journey ‘cross years and continents. Mary Jebb is a petty criminal, never thinking twice about dipping a hand into a stranger’s pocket. When two fine young (aka very wealthy) gentlemen happen upon her, Mary knows this is her moment, her chance to really score. And she nearly does it, nearly gets away before the blank pound note is discovered. Apprehended, Mary is sentenced to death – by hanging.

A few years later, Michael Croxon is set to wed innocent, shy Grace. It soon becomes apparent that Michael is more interested in her vast land and hefty inheritance. Distraught and lonely, Grace finds a soothing shoulder in the Croxon’s newly hired cook, Peg. Peg, however, has plans of her own and, after years of waiting, she is ready to make good on a promise to Michael Croxon.

A Taste for Nightshade is a book that, on the surface, sounds perfect for me: 1700s England, a female criminal hellbent on revenge, recipes. Its execution, however, fell short. I haven’t yet read Martine’s debut, An Appetite for Violets, but early reviews mention it is the stronger of the two, and therein lies my first issue with A Taste for Nightshade: the recipes. Shocking, right? As someone who’s a huge fan of cozy mysteries, a book that includes recipes should be totally up my alley! Whereas Violets has a reason for including recipes (the main character is a cook) in Nightshade the inclusion is simply confusing. After each chapter – regardless of whether it’s one of Peg’s or not – a quick instruction is given. These recipes add absolutely nothing to the story and the few meals that are mentioned are only done so in passing. To be honest, halfway through I began skipping them altogether.

My other issue is with the story itself. When I actually put my mind to it and sat down, I had no problem churning through massive chunks (I ended up reading the last 300 pages in one go.) That said, it was hard to actually bring myself to that point. When a book is easy to ignore you know that’s not a good thing. It took me an entire week to get through the first 150 pages before I decided to finally finish it. Martine’s writing is stunning and gave a wonderful sense of place to an otherwise lackluster tale. The downfall was the pace. There was simply too much she seemed to want to fit into these pages and it all felt a bit rushed. I never truly understood several characters’ motivations and actions – there wasn’t enough time devoted to fully telling their story.

Books so firmly in that grey middle area of decent are the hardest for me to discuss and I’ve held off on reviewing this one for that very reason. I just don’t have anything to say and what I have said has only been after grasping at the oh so weak opinions I managed to form. Yes, I was easily able to walk away from or altogether ignore this book. Yes, when I actually did sit down I found myself enjoying the story. That said, there were some problems that kept me from really getting into this book and investing in the lives of these characters. A Taste for Nightshade was just okay and that’s so disappointing to me.

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