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Nancy Bilyeau – Dreamland + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Nancy Bilyeau! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland) discuss the lifestyle of Dissolution-era nuns, using a website’s ‘contact me’ form to great success, there being more relics than there were items, using your family’s name in your work, and the grand amusement parks and luxury hotels of New York’s past.

To see all the details and transcript, I’ve made a blog page here. The episode is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Lastly, you can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Ice cream, cotton candy, and crime.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44577-7
First Published: 16th January 2020
Date Reviewed: 11th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Reluctant heiress Peggy is summoned away from the regular bookstore job she loves to attend her family’s holiday, staying in a luxury hotel not far from the amusement parks of early 1900s Coney Island. The Battenbergs have received a sudden invitation to join the mother and son with whom they hope to make an alliance via marriage, and with their own wealth in decline there’s no way they can refuse the offer. They go. But Peggy can’t resist the amusement parks her social class are supposed to stay away from, and when a girl’s body is found and she is amongst a crowd of onlookers, the distance between her circle and the families at the parks shortens considerably, even more so because Peggy’s interest in the other part of Coney Island leads her to meet a working class immigrant and park employee, forming a connection that is unthinkable.

Dreamland is Bilyeau’s fantastic fifth book (third story over all). The setting is incredibly immersive, with the sights and sounds so well described and created that the features stay with you throughout your reading, keeping you in that feeling of somewhat being there yourself as the plot elements keep going on around you.

Of course it is helped by Bilyeau’s choice of setting – this summery location with so many different elements and the grandness of its historical context is incredibly welcoming, albeit that the story is a thriller and thus the situation discomforting.

No surprises then that the research is as thorough as always. The luxurious hotels and amusement parks of Coney Island as detailed by Bilyeau – that are each separate entities as demanded by the class structure no longer stand1, but Bilyeau’s studies and descriptions enable you to get a great idea of what they would have been like. And the character placements mean that you get a pretty good look at both; the number of characters and Peggy’s place in society means that you see more of the hotels – hers in particular – but the descriptions of the parks allow for a built-up picture there, too.

In Peggy, Bilyeau has created a worthy heroine, a good symbol of her time but very relatable today. More curious and desirable of a different life, Peggy moves between the worlds that are otherwise strictly separate, taking a few others along with her; this is naturally where the delineation is most apparent. The wealthy are… wealthy, and privileged, but in Peggy’s choices we see a barrier that has been placed in front of her – it may be positioned as safety guidance, but she isn’t really allowed in the parks.

Peggy’s part in the book shows well the views about women at that time. Peggy is in the highest echelons of society but still she’s essentially just a woman; she goes where the men of the family dictate, and they do dictate. She in fact has less agency, in some ways, than those below her, or at least it seems; Bilyeau shows well how the same values carried over very differently depending on who you were, for example, the regular women can bath in the sea more freely; if Peggy wants to go in the sea she’s required to cover up almost entirely.

The mystery is solid. Interestingly there are only a few options provided for you to really consider however this is in itself as much of a red herring as any other. In providing a very limited number of people who could have ‘dunnit’, the author pushes your focus towards Peggy’s own journey of discovery, and with all the aspects in place there, it’s a ride and a half. The mystery brings into question the changing times of the period, this 1911 year that was on the cusp of a war that would change everyone. It includes the differences between the classes, and the various affects extreme privilege can have. It also, unsurprisingly, shows the favour given to men – of the right class, of course – when it came to investigations.

Once again Bilyeau brings immigration into her stories; here the subject is used quite differently compared to The Blue (where the main character looked at the concept of religious refuge); it studies some of the problems that came with people moving to the States from Europe where they were fairly persons non grata depending on where they were from, not entitled to being believed when there was blame to be found.

Related to this is the romantic subplot; Bilyeau has woven her tale here into the rest of the story and provides it a very satisfying conclusion well in keeping with the time. To be sure the book is a thriller, but the romance is a good addition that further expands on all the topics discussed by the rest of the story.

Dreamland is a very good book; the mystery very well written. The frustration you’ll feel for Peggy keeps you reading as do the sights and sounds of the location, the mix so deliciously at odds with the concept of the area. The fun of the parks will draw you in and the twists of the mystery will hold you there. Find yourself some candy floss and a deck chair or, given the release date – and just as well suited – a warm sweater and hot chocolate – whatever the weather outside your window, this book will pull you into its heatwave summer and a mystery that is very well paced.

Footnotes

1 The area has recently been redeveloped to include one park, which bears the name of one of the originals: Luna (the original three were Luna, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland). Information can be found at Trip Savvy. You can view photographs of the parks and old hotels here.

I received this book for review.

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Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

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Seishi Yokomizo – The Honjin Murders

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A Japanese classic.

Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo (Pushkin Press)
Pages: 181
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27500-8
First Published: 1946; 5th December 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 本陣殺人事件 (Honjin satsujin jiken – The Case Of The Honjin Murder)
Translated by: Louise Heal Kawai

In the early hours of the morning after a wedding, screams and the sound of a koto being plucked are heard from the bridal room. The couple have been killed and there are hand-prints, three fingered, on the walls. A mysterious man had arrived in the hours prior to the wedding.

I would venture to guess that you’ve never read a novel quite like this one. A book with similarities? Quite possibly – this a book influenced by others. But unless you’ve read Yokomizo before, it will still be new to you. The Honjin Murders is as original today as it likely was in 1946. Yokomizo creates a story within a story; the basic idea is that an unnamed writer – our narrator – is recounting a true-to-him story. It’s an interesting enough idea as it is, but Yokomizo’s use of real world classical and then-contemporary crime novels seems to not only influence the fiction and the fiction inside that fiction, but is quite possibly linked to Yokomizo’s own reading. The narrator employs these crime novels – Christie, Conan Doyle, among others – in various ways; they inform the way he writes but they also inform the crime he’s writing about, with the detective of this story within a story – Kosuke Kindaichi, who stars in a total of 77 later books – loving crime novels and able to thus recognise the books on the shelves of the victim’s family which every other inspector believes unimportant to the investigation.

The above is actually something you experience later on in your reading – the first thing you become aware of is the part of the story at which the narrator starts his tale. In a way unlike many others, Yokomizo, through his narrator, begins the tale at the effective end – you see the events that precede the murder, and then you hear about the discovery of the bodies. And then you get a diagram of the murder scene, answers about most of the people who are there at the time, even the suspected murderer is cited.

You’d be forgiven at this point in the story for wondering with what the narrator plans to fill the rest of the book, because the rest consists of the vast majority of the pages. What he does is answer almost all the W questions – ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’, and some of the ‘how’ – but leaves out the rest of the ‘how’, a bit of the ‘who’, and all of the ‘why’. This is a whydunnit more than any ‘who’; the ‘why’ is everything here, it carries the story, and it works incredibly well.

The ‘why’ is answered with aplomb, even if the summing up of all the detective’s discoveries is done at the end in one big telling scene. Some of it forms a reminder of history, earlier than the 1930s setting – to note anything further than that would spoil the story. This is a book that has aged, but aged rather well, and the storytelling is such that it’ll likely remain famous for a long time.

The Honjin Murders is an interesting one. It doesn’t seem like a page turner, but you’ll finish it quickly. It doesn’t seem like there are going to be red herrings, and why, anyway, would you read a book when almost all the answers are given straight away? But it will continue to surprise you. (And given everything mentioned so far, the idea of the initially confused reader was likely in Yokomizo’s plan all along.) If you want a crime novel where the (real life) author’s sleuthing exceeds the fictional detective’s, read this book. It is fantastic.

I received this book for review.

 
Stein Riverton – The Iron Chariot + Podcast

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Ghostly goings on?

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books); ebook: Abandoned Bookshop
Pages: 110
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63161-0
First Published: 1909; 18th March 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2019
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot)
Translated by: Lucy Moffatt

Our narrator is staying at a hotel near the coast, close to both sea and plains. One evening he is out walking and barred entry to the farmhouse he wants to visit – over the course of a few holidays he’s taken a liking to Hilde, who co-owns it – and so he leaves, but not before spotting the departure of the forestry inspector, Blinde, from the company of Hilde. The narrator carries on his walk. As the evening continues towards the time for him to return to the hotel, he hears an eerie sound, iron chains rattling which, says the fisherman he passes on his way, precedes a death.

The Iron Chariot is a classic crime novella by a well-known Norwegian author who was also a journalist. A somewhat cosy mystery, it may not be as frightening as it likely was when it was first published, but it’s still a good read.

The narrator is joined, in terms of main characters, by a detective who is requested by a fellow hotel guest when a body is found. The detective is just the sort of character you both want and somewhat expect in a book of the period, very casual in his manner, not in any hurry, and he studies things in a different way to others. His presence is what makes the book a bit of a cosy mystery because aside from him the thriller/paranormal aspects get the most time. You have then an interesting pair of characters – one pretty upbeat, always raring to go yet not worried about time, and the other always nervous, bordering on paranoid, and worried. As you would expect, there is more to the detective’s demeanor than the narrator realises, which is perhaps more compelling in making you continue read than the mysteries themselves – when is the detective going to solve it all and how will he have done it?

The use of location is great, pathetic fallacy employed often but never too much. You can see where the narrator is headed, mentally, when he can’t. And of course the lack of technology means more thought (for all this was obviously not in Riverton’s mind).

Some may find that it’s best to read this book keeping in mind the context of its time; there are a couple of areas to be aware of and, ultimately, forgive. The drawn-out nature of the detective’s work, his unwillingness to tell the narrator what he knows, is entirely suitable but it does feel at times like a device to keep the book going, particularly when you’ve worked out a fair amount and want it to be dealt with. The other element is the predictability; you’ll probably work out at least half of the mystery fairly early on. This is a drawback due to the drawing-out of the mysteries – in the context of the whodunnit it is, like the detective’s work, also suitable. And of course the revelation of a couple of the plot points would have been more surprising in times past.

The Iron Chariot is a perfect choice if you want a book with a truly spooky element (because it is very eerie) but nonetheless want something more easy – cosy – to read as well. And it’s a great example of older crime fiction that’s perhaps different to what you’ve read so far (supposing you’ve not read Riverton in Norwegian before).

I received this book for review.


Today’s podcast

The podcast is also available on iTunes and Spotify.

Tune in as Naomi Hamill, author of How To Be A Kosovan Bride, and me discuss post-war Kosovo, using a narrative method that divides opinion, and researching Albanian folklore.

If you can’t see the media player above or would like to see the purchase links, click here for the SoundCloud track page (be aware it may autoplay).

 
Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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