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text 2020-02-21 19:19
The Ghost of Madison Avenue - Nancy Bilyeau

When I began reading this novella, I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the experience. It begins with Helen O'Neill, a widow of Irish American stock, who had been recommended for a prestigious position working in the library of the great and powerful financier J.P Morgan by its librarian Belle da Costa Greene, being locked in a room of the library after being found in Morgan's private study. The time is December 1912, shortly before Christmas.

But as I went on to read further into the book, the author did subtly reveal, by degrees, to the reader the nature of Helen's life with her family in their home in the Bronx (where she had gone to live after her husband had died from fever in 1898 as a soldier in the Spanish American War). Helen is a very sensitive soul with a kind of sixth sense, which the Irish call 'aes sidhe.'.  One wintry night after leaving the library to return home to the Bronx, she makes the acquaintance one night of a young woman dressed in clothes long out of fashion and unsuitable for the time of year. Helen is troubled by the experience and at first is at a loss as to how to make sense of it. She would encounter this woman a few more times, including once in the library itself!  This is 'the ghost of Madison Avenue', a ghost with an interesting connection with one of the main characters which I won't reveal here.  Indeed, there is so much more to this book that evokes mystery and wonder not unlike that one would find in Wilkie Collins' novel, 'The Woman in White.'

I was surprised - and amazed - by what I found from reading "THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE." It left me with a palpable feel for the New York City of 1912, as well as for the lives of some of the Irish Americans who resided and worked there. Thank you, Nancy Bilyeau.

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review 2020-02-13 14:42
Dreamland - Nancy Bilyeau

Peggy Batternburg has been graced with being part of one of America's richest families in New York's gilded age. However, Peggy would gladly give up her family's perks to continue her position at the Moonrise Bookstore. When Peggy is unceremoniously taken from the bookstore by the family patriarch, her Uncle David, she is told that the family is summering at the Oriental Hotel and her presence is needed to secure the engagement of her sister Lydia to Henry Taul, notorious playboy and someone who Peggy would rather forget.  After arriving to the Oriental, Peggy visits Coney Island and the Dreamland park where she finds artwork by Stefan.  Peggy is enraptured with both the artwork and artist.  While Peggy is busy with Stefan, a string of murders seems to follow the couple around.  When Stefan is suspected, Peggy does everything within her power to find the real killer.

I am a fan of all of Nancy Bilyeau's previous books and I couldn't wait to dive into the world and characters of Dreamland.  From the ominous prologue, I was hooked into the mystery of the story.  When Peggy enters the scene, I knew that this young woman would be the one to figure everything out.  Peggy goes against the grain, especially when it comes to her family's wishes.  She is inquisitive, insightful and willing to look deeper into prejudice and bias, especially within herself. I loved the setting of 1911 New York.  Through the writing, the Gilded Age came to life-from the richness of the Oriental Hotel to the atmosphere of Coney Island.  There was a lot of care taken to recreate Coney Island and Dreamland, especially when it came to the people of Dreamland.  Even though we only meet most of the characters of Dreamland briefly, each of is fully realized with a rich background and story.  Stefan's story is teased out slowly and through him we see the plight that many immigrants went through at the time.  Though Stefan is treated unfairly and accused for simply being from his homeland, he does not lose hope or place blame. The mystery is engaging and complex as Peggy begins to realize that every murder can be traced back to her.  Rich with historical detail, excitement, suspense, romance and mystery, Dreamland is an engaging read in a world that I did not want to leave. 

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review 2020-01-08 11:51
A wild ride for lovers of historical fiction, amusement parks, and great female protagonists
Dreamland - Nancy Bilyeau

I thank NetGalley and the publisher for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for the launch of this book and for providing me an ARC copy of it, which I freely chose to review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I recently read and reviewed Bilyeau’s novel The Blue and loved it so much that I did not hesitate when I got an invitation to read her new novel and join the blog tour. Like the previous one, this book also successfully combines history with intrigue, adventures, mystery, a fantastic cast of characters, and a heroine who is trying to find her own way amid a society in turmoil due to changes in the status-quo and to international historical events.

As the description explains, the novel is set in New York and Coney Island in the summer of 1911. Peggy Batternberg, the protagonist (the author explains that she was inspired by the historical figure of Peggy Guggenheim when she created her main character), belongs to the upper class, although as she observes, her family is only a couple of generations away from very humble origins as immigrants, and they would not have figured among the very select of society a few years earlier. They are also Jewish (not very religious), and although their money protects them from the worst of prejudice and antisemitism, that does not mean it does not exist, as the novel exposes time and again. She is trying to lead her own life as a modern woman, but her family’s power and influence, and society’s double standards of morality for men and women make it difficult for her to break completely free, and she ends up having to leave her job at a bookstore and spend the summer holiday at a posh hotel near Coney Island. Of course, although the hotel is very close to the three amusement parks, including the Dreamland of the title, the clientele of both are separated by the chasm of money and social class.

Peggy is a fascinating character. She is very young, determined, and contradictory at times. She is strong but naïve, passionate and rushed, headstrong and totally unrealistic. She tries to be practical and become independent from her family, but she acknowledges that much of what she does is only possible because she has the support of her family, and she does not have to rely solely on her salary, like her colleagues at work. She lost her father when she was young, and she is aware of the kind of hypocritical behaviour the males of her family engage in, but no matter how she struggles against it, she is still trapped by the morality of the period. Following some fairly traumatic experiences with men of her own class (and the male sense of entitlement —especially of men of a certain class— runs through the novel as a theme, and unfortunately recent events only prove that things haven’t changed as much as we might like to think), it is unsurprising that she feels attracted to an artist, a futurist painter, a foreigner, and somebody who is genuinely interested in her as a person, and not as a rich heiress. I am not a fan of love at first-sight (or insta-love) stories, but considering what we know of the character and of her circumstances, it is easy to understand the attraction, and let’s say that I was quite reconciled to it by the end of the story. The character is forced to question herself and her motives more than once throughout the novel, and she does grow and develop as a result.

The story is told, almost in its entirety, in the first person, from Peggy’s point of view, but there are many other characters that create a rich tapestry of both, the wealthy upper-class society of the era (there are some real historical characters that make brief guest appearances as well), and also the working class, the underclass, and the artists working at the fair. The author paints a clear picture of the Batternberg family, its power structure, the differences between male and female roles within the dynasty, and it makes for a sobering and absorbing read, especially because over the course of the story, Peggy discovers things are even worse than she thought, and the web of deceit, secrets, and false appearances is woven thick. The fact that this people of loose morals look down upon hardworking individuals without a second thought is highlighted by the murders that take place in close proximity to the hotel, and how nobody (other than Peggy) seems to care about the victims or their relatives, only about preventing anything from disturbing the elegant guests. By contrast, some of the lower-class characters, that have the most to lose if things go wrong, go out of their way to help, even at a serious personal cost.

I must admit to being quite taken by some of the secondary characters that appear in the story, and in many cases I’d love to know more about them (the whole of Lilliput scene is amazing; Madame Kschessinska is very intriguing; the police detective; Stefan, of course; and what to say about Ben, Peggy’s cousin, a real puzzle), but I agree with many of the reviewers and Lydia, Peggy’s sister, is a favourite of mine as well. She knows her own mind, she is supportive of her sister, and she grows in strength and maturity through the story. With her like with most things and characters in the story, appearances can be deceptive.

The historical background is well achieved, and I loved the descriptions of Coney Island, the seaside hotels, the fast trains, the clothes, the incubators, the art, the buildings… It felt as if I was peering into that era, and even experiencing the heat, tasting the food, and joining in the rides. The descriptions don’t overwhelm the story but help create a realistic setting and increase our understanding of what the period and the place were like. This is a work of fiction, and although some characters and events are recreated, the novel does not claim to historical accuracy (in fact, Dreamland was no longer functioning in the summer of 1911), but I have no doubt that it will encourage readers to learn more about the period and about Coney Island.

As for the mystery side of things… There are red-herrings; there is misdirection, and several suspects, as it pertains to the genre. There is a fair amount of action, surprises, scares, and Peggy’s turn as an amateur detective is fraught with risk. Although she is neither experienced not particularly skilled as an investigator, she makes up for it with her determination, persistence, and a good nose for choosing her collaborators. This part of the story is the one that requires a greater suspension of disbelief, but the novel is not intended to be a police procedural, and the intrigue fits well into the overall story arc and will keep readers turning the pages at good speed.

I have already talked about the issue of gender and gender politics that is explored in the novel. Although things were moving and women were fighting for the vote, it was not easy, and if it was hard for privileged women to have a say on how their lives should be run, for working-class women it could get positively dangerous, when not lethal. The author also explores the issue of migration, the suspicion towards foreigners (despite the melting-pot mythos of the United States society), the prejudice of society and authorities towards newcomers, and this is also linked to international politics (and, of course, we readers know that the situation was about to get much worse and it would result in World War I). These subjects are well integrated into the fabric of the novel, elevating it beyond the typical historical adventure romp, and they make comparisons to current historical events unavoidable.

The writing style is compelling, with beautiful descriptions combined with a great skill in making us feel and experience the events first-hand, and a good pace, alternating between action and more contemplative scenes, without ever stalling the flow.

I’ve read some reviews that complain about the ending being somewhat rushed and sudden. It speaks to the skill of the author the fact that we don’t want the story to end, and although there are elements of it that I think could have been further developed, overall I enjoyed the ending, especially because it isn’t a conventional one.

In sum, I enjoyed the wild ride that is Dreamland. I wish I could have visited the real one, but lacking that opportunity, this is a close and satisfying second best. I congratulate the author for this great novel, and I look forward to the next.

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review 2019-03-18 21:49
The BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau
The Blue. A Novel. - Nancy Bilyeau
THE BLUE, A Novel by Nancy Bilyeau
Using actual people and events as the basis, Bilyeau has written an engrossing tale of spying, treachery, art, porcelain making, kings and kingdoms. Blue is a difficult color to create for artists and porcelain makers. It was on of the last colors to be made for artists (late 28th century) and was greatly prized.
Genevieve, an English Huguenot who desired to be an historical artist, is the well-developed main character. She is surrounded by chemists seeking the color blue, spies seeking the color blue, kings and pottery makers seeking the color blue and those willing to kill to help or hinder them.
The intricate plot is thick with chicanery and populated with such personages as Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV, and the founders of Sèvres and Derby porcelain. Of course romance blooms as well.
Book groups who are interested in history, art, or romance will find this tale engrossing and will lead to good discussions.
5 of 5 stars


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review 2019-01-10 12:27
The Blue
The Blue. A Novel. - Nancy Bilyeau
Genevieve Planché  is a French refugee in England.  Her family are Huguenots, unwanted by the French King Louis XV.  Genevieve's grandfather is an artist and she strives to be an artist as well, however the closest she can come in France is painting flowers on silk dresses.   Opportunity arises after a chance meeting with the mesmerizing Sir Gabriel Courtenay. Courtenay promises Geneiveve a placement as an artist in Venice if she will use her talents in order to spy for him at the porcelain factory.  Courtenay is specifically interested in a new color blue that a hidden chemist is working on perfecting at the factory.  Genevieve takes the risk, but soon learns the cost as she meets the infamous chemist and learns who she is truly spying for.
An exciting historical spy thriller that combines art, science and romance for a captivating adventure into the color blue.  Genevieve's spirit immediately captured me as she was willing to fight for a position among the male artists.  Through rich and detailed historical writing I was able to learn about the Huguenots plight in France and their successes in England as well as the growth of the porcelain industry through King Louis XV mistress, Madame Pompadour.  The fight for the development of colors was riveting to me.  There were many reasons why Courtenay seemed to want the specific blue, but I could never imagine the danger that a color would bring as Genevieve's life was turned upside down.  The spy elements and romance between Genevieve and Thomas kept me intrigued, but it was truly the color blue that drove the story.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review. 
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