'Dreamland' by Nancy Bilyeau

I read ‘Dreamland’ with the Pigeonhole reading community and loved the entire journey; there’s something extra special about shared reading. We also had the author join us, always a treat, and the additional bonus on Nancy’s Bilyeau’s photographs from research and modern day Coney Island.

The Blurb:

The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.

The invitation to Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer working at the Moonrise Bookstore than keeping up appearances with New York City socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.

But soon it transpires that the hedonism of Coney Island affords Peggy the freedom she has been yearning for, and it’s not long before she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.

Disapprove they may, but hidden behind their pomposity lurks a web of deceit, betrayal, and deadly secrets. And as bodies begin to mount up amidst the sweltering clamor of Coney Island, it seems the powerful Batternbergs can get away with anything… even murder.

Extravagant, intoxicating, and thumping with suspense, bestselling Nancy Bilyeau’s magnificent Dreamland is a story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession.

My thoughts:

This is a novel that explores excessive elitist lifestyles, of people living in privileged bubbles where wealth monopolises their lives but also sucks out their humanity.

Our perspective is through the eyes of one of the privileged class, Peggy, a young daughter from the wealthy Batternberg family – but Peggy is a protagonist who fights against the claustrophobic and restrictive life of a woman in an elite class. Peggy is very modern and desires independence and freedom from the controlling and watchful eyes of her domineering family.

Counteracting this is the world of Coney Island and its working class, liberal community. Both are set side by side on the coastline and the contrast couldn’t be sharper. I loved the backdrop and historical detail in the story.

There’s a lot going on in ‘Dreamland’, there’s the story of a young woman’s fight for independence; the story of the wealthy elite’s battle in a changing world to keep their archaic and blindness to reality and, the inner corruption and brutality this world creates wrapped up in a brilliantly crafted murder mystery read.

I found myself immersed Bilyeau’s deliciously vivid prose and into Peggy’s world; following her journey to leave the privileges of her class and make something of herself and into a dangerous path through Coney Island and Dreamland. This book is an adventure and a murder mystery; it’s about first love, loss, addiction, power, corruption, and the battle for independence.

Thoroughly recommended read for those who enjoy historical fiction and mystery genres.

'The Snowdonia Killings' by Simon McCleave – mini review.

A small town murder. A big city detective.

The Blurb:

Detective Inspector Ruth Hunter lives with the pain of her partner’s mysterious and unsolved disappearance. About to hit fifty, the veteran police officer trades in the crime-ridden streets of London for a more peaceful life in rural North Wales. But Ruth has barely settled into her new position in North Wales Police, when the body of a brutally murdered woman is discovered…with strange symbols carved into her skin. Teaming up with an obstinate deputy, Ruth struggles to eliminate anyone from a long line of suspects. When another slain victim is discovered with the same cryptic markings, she’s forced to re-think the investigation.

Has Ruth got what it takes to solve the case before the murderer attacks again?

‘The Snowdonia Killings’ is the first book in the DI Ruth Hunter Crime Thriller series and set against the majestic backdrop of Snowdonia, a timeless land of Arthurian legend, folklore and myth.

My thoughts…

This is a character driven crime novel, predominantly set in the Snowdonia region, and it’s the author’s debut. It’s the story of Ruth, AKA Detective Inspector Ruth Hunter, who transfers at the start of the novel from London’s Metropolitan Police to the contrasting world of Wales and the desire for a more peaceful life. However, she is soon heading up the disturbing murder of a local school deputy and she finds not all is peaceful in the valleys and mountains of Wales.

It seems clear that there’s a long character arc in place for our lead detective; there’s also a tragic journey she is on with her private life that is haunting her daily one. It’s the development of the character threads that are really important in book series; McCleave has constructed protagonists with great potential in Ruth, and also in the character of Nick, her Detective Sergeant. Nick is, initially, the reader’s challenge – he’s a frustrating read at times because he’s battling with alcoholism. What’s important is Nick’s POV enables a glimpse into the world of an alcoholic and how much it’s ingrained into the person, rather than a choice. By the mid-point of the novel, I really was rooting for him, and loved the banter between himself and Ruth. They evolve into a great duo, and I’m certainly interested in following their development beyond this book.

The landscape is also becoming a character, and you can tell how fascinated and loved it is by the author. I enjoyed the descriptions of the natural world, this adds a depth to the writing and an understanding for the reader of the communities living there. We also get little snippets of stories and myths from the surrounding areas, which build the backdrop. I would prefer these to be blended into the storytelling more, rather than having the slight feel of inserts, but this is a minor thought.

The central crime and mystery was tightly plotted, there’re enough suspects to drive the narrative and whodunit genre forward; this is the book’s strength.

There are also several more books on the way for DI Ruth Hunter, so this could grow into an interesting series… for a first debut novel, there’s a lot of potential for the series and the writer’s development.

A huge thank you to Simon for asking me to read his book in exchange for an honest review; it’s been a pleasure.

The Author

Simon McCleave was born in South London. When leaving University, he worked in television and film development. He was a Script Editor at the BBC, a producer at Channel 4 before working as a Story Analyst in Los Angeles. He worked on films such as ‘The Full Monty’ and television series such as ‘Our Friends In The North’.

Simon then became a script writer for television and film. He wrote on series such as Silent Witness, Murder In Suburbia, Teachers, Attachments, The Bill, Eastenders and many more. His film, ‘Out of the Game’ for Channel 4 was critically acclaimed – ‘An unflinching portrayal of male friendship.’ (Time Out)

‘The Snowdonia Killings’ is his first novel.

Simon lives in North Wales with his wife and two children.

Simon can be contacted at simonmccleave.com and contact @simonmccleave.com.

'The End of Magic' by Mark Stay and 'The Foundling' by Stacey Halls – reading with the PigeonholeHQ community

I really enjoy reading with the Pigeonhole community – I guess that might sound rather strange, but it’s nothing to do with pigeons. It’s a book reading club. I read on my app, but you can use your desktop computer. So, in a nutshell, it’s like a digital book group, sharing a book and chatting in the margins with other readers. Another great aspect of this, is the author often joins in, adding images and documents. Check it out at http://www.thepigeonhole.com

Two recent reads are the above two books: ‘The Foundling’ and ‘The End of Magic’. Both of them very different, but incredibly good fun to read.

‘The End of Magic’

Blurb:

Sander Bree is a royal mage. Steeped in privilege, he lives a cushy life advising the king on matters of court and politics, yet still complains that he’s stuck in a rut.

Rosheen Katell is a freelance mage and, with Anzu her griffin, she’s worked hard to build a reputation as a trustworthy truth seer. She never lies, never kills. 

The source of their power is the Lapis Moon in orbit above. Very soon, that magic will be gone, changing their lives and their world forever. Sander must keep a promise that would have been difficult enough with magic, but is a suicide mission without it. Rosheen is forced to side with a murderous warlord, and her once-solid principles are tested and found wanting. Both will be set against one another in a war unlike anything the world has seen before, in this sweeping fantasy of magic’s ending.

My thoughts…

Mark Stay’s ‘The End of Magic’ is a hugely enjoyable magical romp with conflicted characters; mythical and magical creatures; a truly villainous villain and the battle to save magic in a rich and creative fantasy world. What makes this book a joy is the wit and humour which laces the story together; it’s also a twisty interpretation of the genre. Our ‘heroes’ are certainly flawed but we find ourselves connecting with them despite this. At the heart of this story, is how a catastrophic natural event changes everyone’s fates and offers each character choices and ultimately redemptive paths, if they so choose. Blood thirsty, battle fuelled and with an epic disaster to face, this is a great read!

If you like a darkly witty spin to your fantasy reading then I’d highly recommend ‘The End of Magic’.

‘The Foundling’ by Stacey Halls

Blurb:

London, 1754. Six years after leaving her illegitimate daughter Clara at London’s Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the child she has never known. Dreading the worst – that Clara has died in care – the last thing she expects to hear is that her daughter has already been reclaimed – by her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl – and why.

Less than a mile from Bess’ lodgings in the city, in a quiet, gloomy townhouse on the edge of London, a young widow has not left the house in a decade. When her close friend – an ambitious young doctor at the Foundling Hospital – persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart.

My thoughts:

I really enjoyed Stacey Halls first novel, ‘The Familiars’, so I was very excited to read ‘The Foundling’, particularly so when it appeared on the Pigeonhole Book Club.

I was captivated from the opening pages. I’ve been interested in the Foundling Hospital since I visited the museum in London quite a few years ago now. If you’re not aware of it, the Hospital was founded by Thomas Coram in 1739 to help care for babies at risk of being abandoned. At that time, it was estimated that a thousand babies a year were being abandoned – Halls novel begins with a young mother taking her baby to the hospital to be cared for until she could reclaim her. Sadly, many babies were never reclaimed, but our protagonist never forgets her baby and works tirelessly to raise the funds to collect her child. However, a twist in the tale causes more suffering and builds the story of Bess Bright, born to poverty but with a good heart and determination to do right by her child in a harsh and cruel world.

Part historical drama, part mystery, this is a very moving and dramatic story inspired by a mother, who is forced to abandon their child, in an attempt to give their child a future. This novel also addresses the flawed way the mothers would leave tokens behind for their babies, so they could be identified and matched upon re-claiming. In the London Foundlings Museum you can see some of the tokens on display; it’s truly heartbreaking. These tokens were often pieces of material cut from the babies clothes, half being kept in the hospital records and the other given to the mother. In the novel, Bess Bright leaves half of an engraved heart with her baby and this becomes the novels central mystery. This is also the story of another woman, the widow Alexandra, trapped by circumstance and trauma; when her world collides with Bess’s, the story begins in earnest.

I would highly recommend ‘The Foundling’, it’s a beautifully written story that tugs at your heartstrings throughout. It’s a story of two women, born into different worlds, of different tragedies but both connected by their journeys. The story is told via alternating first-person points of view, so you are able to piece together the story and also understand both the women and their different perspectives. Hall balances the darkness and the light enough to provide the right balance for the reader.

Beautifully written, compelling and heart-wrenching. Highly recommended read.

So, if you fancy an online reading group, then do take a look at The Pigeonhole.

A look at some of my favourite books of 2019

Overall, I read 203 books in 2019, not as many as 2018 but I’m still really happy with that, particularly as I set a goal of 80. The sad thing is, I have about 200 still on my TBR and 2020 is looking like another good year for publishing…so the lure of adding to my bookshelves will be undeniable and irresistible. Thank you to all the publishers and publicists who have sent me books to read and chat about; I’ve loved being a part of the lovely blogging community this year and look forward to another year of talking books in 2020.

When I talk about books, I am very conscious of the subjectivity of the reader. I strongly believe that each story calls to different people for different reasons. I won’t review a book negatively just because I don’t agree with some subject matter, or how it’s handled, or the meandering pace etc. I think every book has value for someone and every writer has put their heart and soul onto the pages, and that is no easy task. I will always respond to a book that hasn’t worked for me, by highlighting the story, themes, setting and characters, to inform others who might be interested. I see very negative, quite angry reviews that have caused other people not to read that particular book, and I find this sad. It’s like the movies isn’t it, a bad critical review by no means will suggest you won’t like it. Kindness, thoughtfulness and care with our words is always the way forward. For me, particularly as I have gotten older is… I just simply enjoy a good story. I like to jump into my imagination and bring the words on the page to life. A story calls to different people for different reasons, and I don’t care if you’re 50 years old and love YA books… just enjoy and read away! So, let’s chat about some of my favourite stories.

In no particular order, and for no particular reason, other than doing a damn good job of being my escape from reality: my most memorable reads of 2019.

A double whammy from my favourite crime series by Jane Casey. ‘Cruel Acts‘ was published this year and I was incredibly lucky to receive an arc of ‘The Cutting Place‘ before it’s 2020 publication. If you haven’t read any Casey, her Maeve Kerrigan series featuring DI Josh Derwent is a must if you enjoy character driven crime books. I thought ‘Cruel Acts’ was brilliant for plotting and character developments, but ‘The Cutting Place’ topped it! Absolutely loved this one. I’m a great fan of book series with long-term relationship plotting and the central duo of Kerrigan and Derwent is a huge focus in the latest read; I was glued to the pages until the final word. I’m looking forward to the audio book release next year, as the narrator, Caroline Lennon, is brilliant. Highly recommended. Begin with ‘The Burning’ and see the writing go from strength to strength. 5 stars reads.

Laura Purcell’s gothic novels ‘The Silent Companions‘, ‘The Corset‘ and ‘Bone China‘ were all firm favourites. I do enjoy gothic fiction and it’s great to not have to draw from my classic collection.

M.W.Craven’s Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw series, starting with ‘The Puppet Show‘ and following with ‘Black Summer‘. Smartly and intricately plotted crime reads with a cracking crime solving team.

Dark Matter‘ by Michelle Paver – I loved this incredibly well-written ghost story about a man embarking on an Arctic Expedition that soon becomes a nightmare. There’s recently been a BBC Radio 4 reading, which is well worth a listen.

Perfect Kill‘ by Helen Fields – I’ve been reading these books from the beginning, so it’s great to return to loved characters and this is also a great crime read in itself. Highly recommended series.

Broken Souls‘ by Patricia Gibney is the D.I. Lottie Parker series; this is book seven in the series. Always enjoyable crime reads with plenty of family and relationships drama.

Tracy Chevalier’s ‘A Single Thread‘ was a surprise favourite, and I found it an very moving account of Violet Speedwell, and her endurance to find a place for herself as one of the many surplus women left after the war.

Platform Seven‘ by Louise Doughty was another unexpected winner for me. I loved this supernatural mystery read about loss, abuse and redemption.

Jennifer Donnelly’s The Tea Rose Trilogy – my favourite of the three is ‘The Winter Rose‘ featuring Sid and India, two characters pushed to the extreme and are drawn to each other constantly despite terrible hardships. Great historical fiction.

Katie Welsh’s Sarah Gilchrist books, ‘The Wages of Sin‘ and ‘The Unquiet Heart‘ were also firm favourites. I discovered these books by chance and I really loved the historical setting and the ease of the story-telling.

Spin the Dawn‘ by Elizabeth Lim, was one of my favourite YA fantasy reads this year. The first in the Blood of Stars series and a magical fantasy centred around Chinese culture and pulling on the Mulan idea. Fun.

The Museum of Broken Promises‘ by Elizabeth Buchan was a beautiful story of Laure, the owner of a very different museum. We are taken into the past to uncover what happened to her in 1980s Prague, with the awful backdrop of the Cold War.

It was also great to read the final book in the Fawkes and Baxter series by Daniel Cole, ‘Endgame‘. This series began back in 2017 with ‘Ragdoll‘, the gruesome case of a body found stitched together from six different victims. The middle book in the series being ‘Hangman‘.

Ambrose Parry (a writing duo) published their second novel featuring Dr. Will Raven, called ‘The Art of Dying‘. These are great books, set in mid 1800s Edinburgh. Enjoyable, atmospheric historical crime reads.

We Hunt the Flame‘ was another top YA fantasy read by Hafsah Faizal and is the first book in the Sands of Arawiya series. Rich, immersive language and inspired by ancient Arabia, this is an epic adventure read.

Georgina Clarke’s ‘Death and the Harlot‘ and ‘The Corpse Played Dead‘ were great – really good stories, set in 1759 and featuring Lizzie Hardwicke a prostitute who gets drawn into crime solving to save herself.

Pamela Ford’s ‘To Ride a White Horse‘ was another of those books that just tells a great story. Lovely Sunday afternoon read with a cup of tea in hand.

I loved Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted‘ a fantasy book about a young girl who joins forces with the Dragon, a Wizard to protect her land from an evil, enchanted forest. Thrilling and magical.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton‘ by Elizabeth Haynes comes highly recommended for those who enjoy piecing together events surrounding the murder of a young woman. The novel is told via potential guilty parties and is based on a real murder.

Daisy Jones and the Six‘ by Taylor Jenkins Reid was great – I loved the interview style of this book and piecing together the actual events and feelings in this story of a rock band and one Daisy Jones!

Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series comes highly recommended if you like witty historical investigative fun, with a dash of slow-burn romance. The series begins with ‘A Curious Beginning‘ and this year I read the recent release ‘A Dangerous Collaboration‘. Pure ‘over the top’ entertainment.

Elly Griffiths is another of my go-to authors and her Ruth Galloway books always are good, solid enjoyable reads, this year the 11th in the series came out, ‘The Stone Circle‘.

I loved ‘Where the Crawdad’s Sing‘ by Delia Owens for its wonderful world of the marshes and for the Marsh Girl that lived there. You also get a crime and a court-room drama, but it’s the natural world of the novel that stars for me.

Katherine Arden’s ‘The Winternight Trilogy‘ was a winner for me, I loved this Russian folklore inspired series of books, beginning with ‘The Bear and the Nightingale‘ – all these books are enchanting adventures and I loved each one. Perfect for a cold winter night by the fire.

Not a physical book, but the ‘West Cork‘ podcast was also a highlight; this is a podcast series that explores the investigation of the actual murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Ireland, back in 1996. A brutal crime that is still being investigated today. This podcast is a fascinating and additive insight into the events, the investigation and the suspects.

Well that’s it for books that drew me into their worlds for 2019. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2020! Happy New Year! May it be healthy and happy! Leigh X