Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

I loved this! I have read all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels – The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England, and The Blue, about an 18th century porcelain painter – and enjoyed them all, but I think Dreamland, her new historical thriller, is her best yet.

It’s the summer of 1911 and twenty-year-old Peggy Batternberg, one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, has just started an unpaid job at New York’s Moonrise Bookstore. Her family disapprove, but Peggy has been feeling uncomfortable with her sheltered, privileged lifestyle and is enjoying the experience of doing something useful for a change and getting to know people from different backgrounds. However, she has hardly had time to settle into her new job when she is ordered to join the rest of her family at the Oriental Hotel near Coney Island to spend the summer there at the invitation of her sister’s fiancé, Henry Taul.

Peggy is disappointed and angry. She resents having to leave her position at the Moonrise and she dislikes Henry, so it is with a lot of reluctance that she agrees to change her plans. Shortly after her arrival at the hotel, she slips away from her Batternberg relatives and ventures through the gates of Dreamland, the newest and most impressive of Coney Island’s three huge amusement parks. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Stefan, a Serbian artist who sells hot dogs from a cart – definitely not the sort of man considered suitable company for a Batternberg heiress! Her family would be even more shocked if they knew that she had become mixed up in a murder investigation, but that’s exactly what happens when the body of a young woman is found on the beach near the hotel…

There was so much to enjoy about this book. First, the setting. I have never been to Coney Island but Nancy Bilyeau describes it all so well – the luxurious hotels, the beach and, most importantly, the rides, shows and other attractions of Dreamland itself – that I could form a clear picture of everything in my mind. In reality, the events that take place towards the end of the novel happened in May 1911, but Bilyeau plays around slightly with the dates so that the story unfolds during the summer heatwave instead, adding even more atmosphere to the novel.

Although Peggy is a fictional character, she is loosely based on the real American heiress and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. It was interesting to follow her personal development over the course of that summer at Coney Island as she becomes increasingly aware of the disparity between the world in which she has grown up and the world populated by those who are less advantaged. Her visits to Dreamland open her eyes to a whole different way of life and her relationship with Stefan shows her the difficulties faced by immigrants in a society where they are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

I think the mystery aspect of the novel was actually my least favourite part of the book. There were only a few suspects and the eventual solution didn’t surprise me. What interested me more was the prejudiced way in which the investigation was handled by the police and the assumptions they made about various people based on factors such as name, nationality, gender and level of wealth.

The way Dreamland ended seemed to leave things open for another book about these characters; I would love to read a sequel, but if there’s not going to be one then I’m sure Nancy Bilyeau will find another equally fascinating setting and time period to write about next!

Thanks to Endeavour Quill for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence

Hilda Lawrence was an American crime author best known for her series of novels featuring the private investigator Mark East, published during the 1940s. This one from 1947, Death of a Doll, is the third in the series and has been reissued this month by Agora Books. Lawrence is one of several ‘forgotten’ or lesser known crime writers to be brought back into print by various publishers recently; sometimes it’s easy to see why an author’s books have been allowed to fade into obscurity, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this one and am hoping the rest of the Mark East series will be made available again too.

The story is set in and around Hope House, a home for young women in New York City run by Monica Brady and her assistant Angelina Small. The home provides seventy girls with a safe refuge where, for a small fee, they can have a bed, hot water, two meals a day and the opportunity to make new friends. At the beginning of the novel we meet Ruth Miller, a woman in her twenties who works in Blackmans department store and who is excitedly telling her regular customer, Roberta Sutton, that she has been offered a place at Hope House. We don’t know why Ruth has found herself with nowhere else to go and nobody to turn to, but she gives the reader a hint that there has been some sort of trouble in her past. Later that day, we see her arriving at her new home, suitcase in hand, full of optimism for the future.

Two days later, Ruth is dead, having fallen from a window on the seventh floor of Hope House during a party at which all of the girls were dressed in rag doll costumes. Suicide is assumed, but Roberta is not convinced. Why would Ruth have killed herself just as her life was beginning to improve? What the reader knows, but the characters don’t – although some of them suspect – is that during those few days at Hope House, Ruth came face to face with someone from the past…but who was it and how could this have led to her death?

Roberta calls in her private investigator friend, Mark East, who arrives in New York accompanied by two more amateur detectives, the elderly spinsters Miss Beulah and Miss Bessy. It’s going to be difficult to know where to start – there’s so little known about Ruth and her background, and the fact that all of the girls were dressed in identical doll costumes on the night of her death doesn’t help – but surely between the three of them they can solve the mystery?

I really enjoyed this book. Although the story is slow to unfold – a lot of time is spent on exploring the relationships between the various girls and employees at Hope House – I still found it difficult to put down. I didn’t guess the culprit correctly, but felt as though I probably should have done! I did suspect almost all of the ‘dolls’ at one point or another, constantly changing my mind as more information was revealed. The setting is wonderful too; I could vividly picture the interior of Hope House, with Kitty answering the phones on the switchboard, Jewel operating the elevator, and Miss Brady and Miss Small seeing that everything ran smoothly, while making ambitious plans for the future.

My only problem with the book was that I felt there were too many characters and that we saw things from too many different viewpoints. I’m not sure whether we really needed three detectives either. I think Beulah and Bessy were probably included to lighten the mood and provide some comedy, but they didn’t add much to the story in my opinion and I would have preferred to have spent more time following Mark’s investigations instead. Otherwise, this was a great first introduction to Hilda Lawrence’s work and an unusual combination of the cosy and the dark and suspenseful.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels, published in 2015, is Leslie Parry’s first and, so far, her only novel but I enjoyed it so much I hope she will be writing more. It’s a dark, complex and unusual story set in New York City in 1895 and, despite comparisons with The Night Circus, I think it’s a very different sort of book.

There are three main characters to get to know. First there’s Sylvan Threadgill, a ‘night-soil collector’ who makes his living from cleaning privies, as well as fighting in the occasional amateur boxing match. One night, Sylvan finds a newborn baby girl who has been abandoned and left to lie in the dirt of the street. He rescues the baby and, as an orphan himself, resolves to find out what has happened to her parents.

Next, there’s Odile Church, who performs in a Coney Island sideshow as the girl on the wheel of death – spinning in circles as a blindfolded man throws knives in her direction. Odile is trying to come to terms with the tragic death of her mother in a fire and the disappearance of her twin sister Belle, a sword-swallower and contortionist, who has run away to Manhattan with no explanation. Worried about her sister’s state of mind, Odile decides it’s time to go and look for her.

Finally, we meet Alphie, an undertaker’s wife, who has found herself imprisoned in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. She can’t remember how she came to be there, but she’s sure it’s part of a plot dreamed up by her mother-in-law who has never liked her and wants her out of her son’s life.

At first these felt like three completely separate storylines and I couldn’t see how they could be connected in any way. Of course they do eventually come together and then I could appreciate how cleverly structured the whole novel is, with things being revealed only when we really need to know them and the biggest plot twists kept until near the end of the book. For this reason, I can’t discuss some of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, but I will say that there is a lot going on and that there is much more to each of the characters above than meets the eye!

The circus element, which is probably one of the things that draws a lot of readers to this novel, is actually a fairly small part of the story and only a few scenes are set at Coney Island. Most of the action takes place in New York and, more specifically, in the dark side of New York, a world of asylums, opium dens and underground tunnels. The people who populate these dark and unpleasant places are those who are considered to be social outcasts; misfits; men, women and children who are ‘different’ in some way. Odile, Belle, Sylvan and Alphie all fit into this category and I had a lot of sympathy for each of them – life has not been easy for them and all they want is to have a chance of happiness.

Although it is certainly not the most cheerful or uplifting of novels, I found Church of Marvels a fascinating read and, as I’ve said, I would love to read more by Leslie Parry.

The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

The Fatal Flame Since reading The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye’s first novel to feature New York ‘copper star’ Timothy Wilde, I’ve been looking forward to each new book in what I’d hoped would be a long series. I was disappointed to discover that it’s actually a trilogy and The Fatal Flame is the last we’ll see of Tim and his friends – but pleased to have had the chance to read what has been a very enjoyable set of books.

Timothy’s story began in 1845 when his home in Manhattan was destroyed by fire and his brother, Valentine, helped him find work as a copper star in the newly formed New York City Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers wore to identify themselves). In The Gods of Gotham you can read about the early days of Timothy’s career and how his crime-solving skills gained him a position as one of the NYPD’s first detectives, while the second book, Seven for a Secret, followed his investigations into a gang of ‘blackbirders’ (people who hunted down runaway slaves and returned them to slavery in the south). Ideally, these two books should be read before The Fatal Flame as there are some recurring characters and storylines, but it’s not essential.

In this third and final book, set in 1848, a mysterious arsonist appears to be targeting properties belonging to the unscrupulous politician and businessman Robert Symmes. The main suspect is one of his former employees at the New American Textile Manufactory, a woman with a grudge. But as Tim begins to dig deeper into Symmes’ business dealings and his treatment of his female workers, things quickly become much more complex than they seemed at first – especially when Tim’s brother, Valentine, announces that he will be running against Symmes in the next election. Meanwhile, Mercy Underhill, the fascinating, eccentric woman Timothy loves, has returned from London and it’s not long before she befriends Dunla Duffy, a young Irish girl who could hold the key to the mystery.

Most of the other characters we got to know in the previous novels are also back again in this one, including Bird Daly, Silkie Marsh, Jim Playfair and Elena Boehm. With this being the end of the trilogy, the personal story of each character is brought to a close, in one way or another – I would have hoped for a happier ending for one or two of them, but was satisfied with the way most of their stories concluded. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching the relationship between Timothy and Valentine (my favourite character) develop throughout the three books and I loved their scenes together in this book, especially towards the end.

I have mentioned in my posts on the previous two Timothy Wilde books the use of flash (the language of the criminal underworld) and how it adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the story. Each novel includes a glossary which translates the flash terminology, although by the time you reach the third book in the series you’ll find yourself relying on it less and less (and the meaning can often be worked out from the context anyway). In this book, we see flash being used for the purpose for which it was originally intended – as a secret language to enable the speakers to hold a conversation that is unintelligible to anyone else who may be listening.

Another of the highlights of this trilogy has been seeing how Lyndsay Faye brings to life the New York City of the 19th century and tackles some of the important issues facing the people who lived there during that period. I have hinted at two of the main themes in The Fatal Flame already: political corruption and the exploitation of female employees (particularly Irish immigrants). Sometimes, though, Timothy’s attitudes towards the injustices of 19th century life make him feel slightly unconvincing as a man of his time, which is really my only criticism of the book and of the trilogy as a whole.

The language, the setting, the atmosphere and, most of all, Tim and Val Wilde – I’ve found so much to enjoy in these three novels! Now I’m wondering what Lyndsay Faye will be writing next.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys Although the title of this novel is The Burgess Boys, there are actually three Burgess siblings – Jim, Bob and their sister Susan. Jim and Bob live in New York, while Susan is the only one to have remained in Shirley Falls, Maine – the town where they grew up. Jim is an ambitious and successful lawyer, whose defence of the singer Wally Packer has made him a household name. His younger brother, Bob, also has a career in the law but has never matched Jim’s achievements; he has spent his whole life blaming himself for an accident which killed his father, and as a result he doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Susan, Bob’s twin, is a single mother living in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son, Zach.

Shirley Falls, predominantly a white community, has recently become home to large numbers of Somali immigrants. Racial tensions in the town are already high and when Zach throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque during Ramadan, it causes a national scandal. Jim and Bob return to the town of their childhood to support their sister and find out why their nephew has done something so terrible, but in the process they make some surprising discoveries about themselves and about each other.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher last year but didn’t read it as it didn’t sound very appealing to me and as I hadn’t requested it I didn’t feel under any obligation to read it if I didn’t want to. I do remember reading some positive reviews of it, though, and when I noticed it was named on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I decided to give it a try. Now that I’ve read it I think my initial reaction was correct because it really wasn’t my type of book at all; I was interested enough to keep reading right to the end and I appreciated the quality of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, but this was a book that I could admire without particularly enjoying.

I found this quite a subdued and depressing novel. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, seem to be such unhappy people, dissatisfied with their lives, their marriages and their jobs. With the possible exception of the good-natured Bob Burgess and one of the Somali characters, Abdikarim Ahmed, I didn’t like any of them. I thought Susan was cold and bitter, Jim was over-confident and insensitive, and Helen (Jim’s wife) was shallow and self-absorbed. There’s certainly a lot of character development and by the end of the book it’s obvious that there is more to each person than originally meets the eye – but they are simply not people that I had much interest in getting to know.

I do think it was a good idea to write part of the novel from the perspective of the Somali immigrants. I was struck by the way so many of the non-Muslim people in Shirley Falls, while not necessarily racist, seem to have almost no knowledge of Islamic culture or the customs of the Somali people who are living among them (they incorrectly refer to them as Somalians, for example, and in some cases have never heard of Ramadan and don’t know why a pig’s head might be offensive to a Muslim). However, I never felt I completely understood Zach and why he did what he did, although the author does her best to make us feel sympathetic towards him by portraying him as a shy, awkward teenager who (slightly unbelievably) was unaware of the implications of his actions.

The Burgess Boys is a thought-provoking read and a good portrayal of a dysfunctional family, but I found the story disappointingly flat and boring, lacking any sort of drama or interesting plot developments. However, despite not enjoying this book very much I haven’t ruled out trying one of Elizabeth Strout’s other books at some point, particularly Olive Kitteridge which sounds much better than this one.

Norah by Cynthia G. Neale

Norah Norah McCabe is a young Irish woman living in Five Points, New York City in the 1850s. Having left Ireland during the Famine to come to America as an immigrant, Norah is determined to work hard and escape a life of poverty. Her first venture is a used clothing store called A Bee in Your Bonnet which she runs with her friend, Mary, but when the purchase of an expensive dress leads to them both being implicated in a murder inquiry this proves to be an unexpected turning point in Norah’s career. Offered a job as a reporter for the Irish-American newspaper, she meets a man who introduces her to revolutionary politics – and finds herself both in love and in serious danger.

Cynthia Neale has previously written two young adult books about Norah McCabe, The Irish Dresser and Hope in New York City, which tell the story of Norah’s journey to America as a teenager and her first years in her new country. This book, subtitled The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York, is the author’s first adult novel and continues Norah’s story. The fact that this is actually the third Norah McCabe book probably explains why from the very first chapter Norah feels like a fully developed, three-dimensional character.

I didn’t always like Norah or agree with her decisions – she can be sharp tongued, impulsive and reluctant to take advice – but she is also ambitious, courageous and resilient. Some of the terrible situations she finds herself in could possibly have been avoided, which was frustrating, but I was pleased to find that she does learn from her mistakes and continues to mature over the course of the novel. While I’m not Irish, not an immigrant and not living in 1850s New York, I could still relate to parts of Norah’s story and enjoy watching her use her wits and intelligence to overcome the obstacles that are constantly being placed in her path.

As a work of historical fiction, the background to the novel has clearly been well researched. Life in the poorer areas of New York during this period was not easy and not always very pleasant and the author doesn’t shy away from describing the violence, corruption and prejudice that Norah encounters. But this is also a book about love, about the importance of family and friends, and about what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century – a woman with dreams and ambitions and the determination to try to make them a reality.

Although the pace was slow at the beginning of the book, there was plenty of drama in the later chapters to make up for it. I found this quite an enjoyable, inspirational read and I’m pleased to have had the chance to get to know Norah McCabe.

Norah book tour

I read Norah as part of a Virtual Book Tour organised by Fireship Press, an independent publisher of historical and nautical fiction and non-fiction. For more reviews, guest posts and giveaways please see the tour schedule.

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Djinni Meet Chava. She’s a golem, a woman made of clay, created by a Rabbi in Poland and brought to life on a ship sailing to America. When her master dies during the voyage, the Golem, only a few days old, finds herself alone in a strange and unfamiliar land.

Ahmad is a djinni, a magical being made of flame, born in the Syrian desert in the seventh century and trapped inside a copper flask by a wizard. Now, many centuries later, the Djinni is released from the flask by a New York tinsmith, but discovers that he is bound to human form by an iron band around his wrist.

As the Golem and the Djinni try to adapt to their new surroundings and struggle to find a place for themselves in New York society, the two are eventually drawn together and their separate storylines begin to merge together in some unexpected ways.

The Golem and the Djinni have many things in common, the most obvious being that they are two non-human creatures trying to survive in the human world. They share a vulnerability and a childlike wonder at the people and things around them, which is what makes them both such endearing characters. But coming from such different cultures, they soon discover that they also have very different natures. Chava, as a golem, is designed to serve a master and satisfy the desires of others, while Ahmad has been imprisoned against his wishes and is desperate to regain his independence. The question of free will is something that comes up in their conversations often. Are the Golem and the Djinni responsible for their own actions or do their natures make them behave in a certain way? How much free will does either of them actually have? And what are the things that make a person human?

I found the relationship between the Golem and the Djinni very moving to read about and I think the reason for that was because it was not written as a typical ‘love at first sight’ romance. At first their relationship is based on curiosity and a longing to be able to discuss things with another outsider. A friendship gradually starts to form but it’s not until they find themselves threatened by a mutual enemy that the Golem and the Djinni realise how much they care about each other. I really liked the fact that the author took her time to introduce us to the characters and allowed their story to develop slowly so that the pace never felt too rushed.

Another thing I loved was the choice of setting – New York in 1899. As the Golem and the Djinni are mythical creatures they could probably have been placed into any setting and their story would still have been interesting, but choosing this specific time and place was particularly fascinating because of the insights we are given into the various immigrant communities of turn of the century New York. Through the Golem we get to know some of the city’s Jewish population and through the Djinni we meet the inhabitants of ‘Little Syria’, as well as learning about the Djinni’s previous life among the Bedouin desert tribes. There are lots of great characters in each of these communities: the old Rabbi who befriends Chava and the tinsmith who befriends Ahmad, the ice cream seller who suffers from a strange affliction that prevents him from looking people in the eye, and the beautiful young girl who receives some late night visits from the Djinni.

As a first novel, The Golem and the Djinni was a very ambitious one but everything worked perfectly. There were so many things about this book that impressed me – the beautiful writing, the clever plot, the blending of fantasy with historical fiction, and most of all, the wonderful characterisation of both Chava and Ahmad. In four months’ time when I make my list of favourite books of the year The Golem and the Djinni is one title that I’m sure will be on that list!

(Now, can anyone tell me why the spelling Djinni is used in the UK edition and Jinni in the American one?)