Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

It’s 1746 and Richard Smith has just arrived in New York bearing a bill of credit for one thousand pounds. Presenting this to be cashed at the counting-house of the merchant Lovell on Golden Hill Street, the mysterious Smith causes quite a sensation. Who is he and where has he come from? Where is Lovell supposed to find such a huge amount of money? And what does Smith intend to do with it once he has it?

I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York. One of the things which makes this book such an enjoyable and compelling read, however, is the air of mystery surrounding Richard Smith from beginning to (almost) end.

“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”

His refusal to explain what he is doing in New York and why he needs so much money keeps the other characters – and the reader – guessing until the final pages. Is he really as rich as he seems to be or is he involved in some sort of hoax? Should Lovell trust him or will he be made to look a fool?

Smith’s secretive behaviour arouses both fascination and suspicion among the people he meets. Although he says very little about himself and his past, there is evidence that he has been well educated, travelled extensively in Europe, has a good knowledge of the theatre and an aptitude for dancing, acting and magic tricks – and yet he also makes a number of mistakes and blunders that suggest he may not be as sophisticated as he seems. To complicate things further, Smith soon falls in love with Lovell’s daughter, Tabitha, a character I found just as enigmatic as Smith himself. With her prickly exterior, sharp tongue and often spiteful behaviour, it’s difficult to know how Tabitha really feels about Smith, which is something else to ponder while you read.

Francis Spufford’s writing style is wonderful and perfectly suited to the story and the period; it’s clearly intended to read like an authentic 18th century novel and a lot of care has obviously gone into the choice of words and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes the narrator breaks into the story to speak directly to the reader, passing judgement on the actions of the characters, expressing annoyance (at having to explain the rules of the card game piquet, for example), and making amusing asides and observations. This is the sort of thing I tend to enjoy, although I know not everyone does! The narrative style is not just for show, though – there’s another reason why Spufford has chosen to tell the story in this way, although I didn’t understand until I reached the very end of the book.

Another highlight of the novel is its portrayal of New York at a time when, far from being the major city it is today, it’s a relatively small community still with a significant Dutch influence (seen in the design of the merchants’ houses and the names of the surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – Bouwerij for Bowery and Breuckelen for Brooklyn, for example). It’s a city in its early stages of development, just beginning to expand and prosper, and brought to life through Spufford’s vivid descriptions.

There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel. I had never heard of Francis Spufford before reading this book, but it seems that although he has written several non-fiction books, Golden Hill is his first novel. Naturally I am hoping that he’ll write more!

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

Dragonwyck - Anya Seton Sorry for neglecting my blog recently…I’ve had a busy two weeks at work and haven’t had much time or enthusiasm for blogging. Luckily I have a week off now and will be able to catch up on telling you about all the books I’ve been reading, beginning with this one, Dragonwyck, which I read for the R.I.P challenge.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, having been a fan of Anya Seton’s for years and also being a lover of both historical fiction and gothic novels. Dragonwyck is a combination of both – it includes some typical gothic elements (mysterious deaths, a mansion with haunted rooms and an old servant who tells tales of ghosts and curses) but it also has a fascinating and thoroughly researched historical background.

One day in 1844 Abigail Wells, wife of a Connecticut farmer, receives a letter from her rich cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, offering to take one of her daughters into his home as a governess for his own young daughter, Katrine. Eighteen-year-old Miranda is the one who is chosen and she is thrilled to be given this opportunity to improve her situation in life. Nicholas is the Patroon (landowner) of a large estate called Dragonwyck in Hudson, New York, and after growing up on her parents’ farm the naïve and romantic Miranda is immediately captivated by the handsome Nicholas, his luxurious home and his aristocratic lifestyle.

Soon she becomes aware that she is falling in love with Nicholas and is sure he feels the same way – the only problem is, Nicholas is married. When tragedy strikes at Dragonwyck, Miranda’s life is transformed again, but this time she begins to uncover some of the house’s dark secrets and to learn the truth about her mysterious cousin Nicholas. As Anya Seton explains in her author’s note introducing the story: “All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations…”

As a gothic novel I didn’t find Dragonwyck particularly creepy – although it’s certainly a very dark book, with an oppressive, unsettling atmosphere. But the real attraction of this book for me was its wonderful historical setting that gave me some fascinating insights into areas of American history I hadn’t read about before. We learn about the Patroon system, for example, which began when landholders in the Dutch colony of New Netherland were given power over large areas of land, similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. This led to an uprising of the tenants known as the Anti-Rent War and this forms a large part of Dragonwyck’s historical backdrop. We also learn about the Astor Place Riot during William Charles Macready’s performance in Macbeth and about the steamboat captains who would race each other on the Hudson River with total disregard for the safety of their passengers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

There are also a few brief appearances by real historical figures, most notably Edgar Allan Poe, but these felt as if they had been woven naturally into the story rather than name-dropping for the sake of it (in fact, the Poe episode does have a significance to the plot which only gradually becomes apparent later in the story). The main focus though, is on the three main fictional characters – Miranda, Nicholas and the doctor, Jeff Turner – and you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of those three, because to attempt to explain why I liked or disliked each character would risk giving away too much of the story.

I did enjoy Dragonwyck but not as much as some of Anya Seton’s other novels (and I don’t think it really comes close to the brilliance of Jane Eyre or Rebecca, two books that it has been compared with). I do love reading ‘older’ historical fiction novels like this one though, as they seem to somehow have a completely different feel from modern ones. This book was published in 1944 and there’s a film too from 1946 with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. I haven’t seen it, so I’d be interested to know what it’s like and how faithful it is to the book.

As well as this book, I have now read Katherine (one of my favourite historical fiction novels), Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Devil Water. If there are any of her others that you think I should look out for, please let me know which ones!

Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

Seven for a Secret One of the most surprising books I read last year was The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. Surprising because it didn’t really sound like my type of book, yet once I started reading I loved it from the first page. Seven for a Secret is the second in the series and just as good as the first. While I like discovering new authors and meeting new characters, there is something comforting about reading a book that is the second or subsequent in a series and returning to a world you’re familiar with and characters you already know.

This series is set in 19th century New York City and follows the adventures of Timothy Wilde, a ‘copper star’ with the newly formed New York Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers are required to wear for identification). After Timothy’s crime-solving skills in The Gods of Gotham brought him to the attention of Chief George Washington Matsell, he has now been given a special position as one of the department’s first detectives. In Seven for a Secret, Timothy is on the trail of a gang of ‘blackbirders’ (people employed to catch runaway slaves and return them to slavery in the South). The gang have captured the family of Lucy Adams, who insists that they are free New Yorkers and not slaves. Timothy promises to help and with the assistance of his brother Valentine sets out to investigate the crime.

Some of the characters we met in the previous novel are back again in this one including Julius Carpenter, Gentle Jim, Bird Daly and Silkie Marsh, but there are plenty of new characters too, from six-year-old chimney sweeps to corrupt Democratic Party members. But one of my favourite things about this series is the relationship between the two Wilde brothers, Timothy and Valentine. Tim continues to be torn between admiration for Val and disgust with his less savoury habits; Val continues to be the exasperated but protective older brother. I love them both, but I have to say I think Val is a wonderful creation and the more interesting character of the two.

The thing that really sets this series apart from other historical mystery novels I’ve read is the setting and the plots that arise from that setting. Before discovering these books I had virtually no knowledge at all of the early days of policing in New York or the work of the ‘copper stars’. And although I have read quite a lot of novels that deal with the subject of slavery, I hadn’t read anything that looked at this particular aspect of slavery. But much as I love Timothy Wilde and think he’s a great narrator, I did sometimes feel that his attitudes towards slavery and other issues raised in this book seemed more like the reactions of someone living in 2013 rather than the 1840s. Other than that, the atmosphere of 19th century New York is completely believable; as in the first novel, the feeling of authenticity is enhanced by the inclusion of ‘flash’, a sort of slang used mainly by criminals but also spoken by both Wildes. There’s a useful flash dictionary at the front of the book to help translate any unfamiliar words, but in most cases it’s easy enough to work out what is being said.

If you’re new to this series you could certainly enjoy Seven for a Secret without having read The Gods of Gotham first, but I would still recommend reading them in the correct order if you can. And really, they are both so good I’m sure whichever one you read first you will want to read the other anyway. I really hope there are going to be more books in this series as I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Tim and Val!

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

This historical fiction novel by Edward Rutherfurd looks at the fascinating story of New York City from its early years as a 17th century Dutch trading post through to the present day. Along the way we learn about some of the important events that have shaped the New York we know today, from wars, blizzards and stock market crashes to the 9/11 tragedy. Some real historical figures make brief appearances – including Peter Stuyvesant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and a few others – but the story is told through the lives of a fictional family, the Masters, who we follow down the generations.

I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of Edward Rutherfurd, having read all of his previous books (London, Sarum, The Forest, Dublin, Ireland Awakening and Russka). Each of Rutherfurd’s novels tells the story of a city or country over a period of hundreds of years and follows the lives of some of the families who lived there. His novels are all written in the same format and although they certainly won’t appeal to everybody I do think that if you read one of his books and enjoy it, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy at least some of his others.

This one, New York, is slightly different to the previous books in that it covers a much shorter period of time (from the 1600s to the present day, in comparison to Sarum, for example, which begins in the ice age and ends in the present day). This means that where in the previous novels it was sometimes necessary to skip forward by a few centuries, missing out several generations, New York is told as a more continuous narrative.

Another difference is that while Rutherfurd’s other books have told the stories of five or six main families, this one concentrates on one in particular: the Master family. I’m not sure I liked the way Rutherfurd chose to follow the Masters throughout the entire book. They were a family of merchants and bankers so their lives revolved around money, banking and the stock exchange, things I don’t find very interesting to read about. The book would have worked better for me if instead of spending so much time with the money-obsessed Masters, there had been more focus on some of the other families we meet: the Caruso family, who were Italian immigrants, the Jewish Adler family, the Irish O’Donnells, and the descendants of Quash the slave.

I also felt that the book was too uneven. I appreciate that when writing a novel like this one it must be very difficult to decide what to include and not to include, but I thought there were some parts that felt very rushed while others dragged on for too long. Also, I found the characters in the earlier chapters more engaging and well-developed. It almost seemed that the author himself had started to lose interest when he reached the 20th century and was making less effort to think of compelling storylines and characters for the later sections of the book.

I don’t want to sound too negative though, because I did think this was a good book and I learned a lot from it. I’m British, have never been to New York (though I would love to) and have never had the opportunity to study its history, so a lot of things mentioned in the novel were new to me. I knew little or nothing about some of the historical events such as the Draft Riots of 1863 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, for example. I expect that if you’re a New Yorker you’ll take different things away from this book than I did (and maybe you’ll notice historical inaccuracies that I wasn’t aware of) but hopefully you’ll still be able to learn something new.

But although I did enjoy New York, it’s not one of Rutherfurd’s best novels in my opinion, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. If you’re new to his books, Sarum (English history with a focus on the city of Salisbury and nearby Stonehenge) would be my personal recommendation as a good place to start, though it really depends on your own areas of interest. If you’d like to try some Russian history, I can also highly recommend Russka, and the two books about Ireland are excellent too. Oh, and one final thing I should say is that Rutherfurd’s novels are very long. This one has over 1,000 pages, though it hasn’t taken me as long to read it as I was expecting. I don’t see how the story of New York could possibly be told in any less than 1,000 pages, so I hope the length won’t put you off!

Have you read any of Edward Rutherfurd’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed?