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Anne Melville – The Daughter Of Hardie

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The events of the early twentieth century.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 283
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-913-09901-5
First Published: October 1988 (as Grace Hardie); 15th August 2019
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2019
Rating: 4/5

Grace is provided with an inheritance a short time after her birth – her mother, Lucy’s, grandfather gives the couple money with which to make a house that will go to their daughter. With four older brothers, little Grace wishes she had more options; as she reaches early adulthood, Britain goes to war. It will change everything for everyone.

The Daughter Of Hardie is the second book about the wine trading turn-of-the-century family that begun with the great The House Of Hardie; continuing in that same vein, Grace’s early years, and those of her brothers, are filled with solid research.

The historical and situational detailing that made up so much of the success of the previous book is in full bloom. After the first several chapters, which are strictly okay – functional but not fascinating – Melville moves her story to the WWI years; the book takes flight, delving into specifics of the War and related subjects in a way that’s rather unique to her. To bring in a present-day literary comparison, Melville is perhaps most akin to Anna Hope whose book, Wake, also looked at slices of life in the same period of history. However the subjects and execution differ; it could well be said that Melville, writing twenty odd years prior to Hope, did it even better; her scenes about these War specifics are short, almost vignettes, but they show a level of care and research that is unmatched.

This adds up to a lot of the immersive quality of the book. We return again to the places and concepts Melville explored before; some remain the same, others have moved on due to the passage of time – Midge’s career, for instance, has progressed albeit within the social limits. Melville has worked a rough 50/50 split between time spent on the new generation and the ‘old’, the 50% that concerns the children naturally skewed in Grace’s favour.

Much more so this time, this book is one for the characters. The plot is thin, a light bildungsroman without big conflicts, but due to all the above, what might have otherwise been slow progression is pretty much perfect. A number of the conflicts involved concern childhood events and their effects.

With Melville’s focus on the war years comes a look at the resulting societal changes – the author continues on her theme of individual agency, the expansion of life choices for women. It’s a major theme however due to the number of characters it’s perhaps not as major, in general, as you may expect; Melville does like to cover a lot of subjects and delve into everyone’s lives. Again, due to the whole this is not a drawback.

There is a bit of a drawback in thelatter chapters. Making a direct relation to a later plot point of the first book, Melville revives an element that had appeared neatly tied up, creating a deus ex machima situation that could… possibly… have been plausible; the grounds are sketchy. It comes across as a bid for more content and characters but none were needed; certainly given that Melville brings it into play then ties it back up again begs the question of ‘why’. Apart from this, however, the ending is fair if surprising, enough closure for what is understandably a prelude to book three and a nice bringing together of various people and situations, all trying to live in a shattered world.

In sum, then, The Daughter Of Hardie is a good continuation of a good story, a compelling compilation of small studies of the war years. Once it gets going it is incredibly immersive and other than a few blips it is a very enjoyable read. It will most intrigue those who want to carry on the story but the way background details have been included it could be read as a standalone – this reviewer would simply suggest you read both for maximum literary enjoyment.

I received this book for review.

 
Anne Melville – The House Of Hardie

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Revolution at Oxford, and the early expeditions to China.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 288
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B07Q4FMJSZ
First Published: 1st July 1987; republished in ebook format by Agora 2nd May 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

In 1874, Gordon Hardie ran away to sea, joining a botanist and becoming an assistant. He comes home to take his place in the family wine business but agrees with his father that before too long he may go to China in search of a legendary lily. Meanwhile, his sister Midge is preparing to attend tutorials at Oxford University; she wants to work in a school and some sympathetic professors are agreeing to teach women so long as they don’t use the main entrances to the colleges. Also preparing for Oxford is Archie Yates, the grandson of a marquess who isn’t too good at studying and plans to have fun. His younger sister, Lucy, longs to see more of the world – she’s hardly ever away from home – and delights in visiting him. With the Marquess a loyal patron of the Hardies, the siblings will meet. It is likely to have a great impact on all of their lives.

The House Of Hardie is the first book in a trilogy, a family saga set in the Victorian era. A story of class, gender, and exploration, it looks at two pairs of siblings and their relationships with each other, as well as the ways they work to achieve their differing dreams.

This book is sensational. Placing an emphasis on the middle class and looking at lesser-known subjects, it offers everything you might want in a historical novel, and then some. (This is provided you don’t mind some romance.) It’s clear that Melville did a lot of research and had a mind to create a work that would be as immersive as possible. Rather like Elizabeth Chadwick, who started publishing her medieval historical fiction in the early 1990s, Melville looks to draw her readers fully into the world she’s writing about. She does not use the sights, smells, and similar details in the way Chadwick does, and she limits her description, but the effect is the same; this book will steal your time and you’ll be very happy for it.

One of the major themes, the success of the social commentary is down to Melville’s dedication to presenting everyday life for Victorians in Oxford and limiting the inclusion of the aristocracy. The Yates’ position, the aristocrats without an inheritance – both a narrative device and realistic – enables Melville to take her discussion where she wants it to be; the inevitable romances allow for further discussion. It’s difficult to move up in the world, and difficult to move down, and where the class lines are less defined – high-born, penniless; profitable ‘every-man’ – there’s another layer of conversation when sparks fly. Needless to say the characterisation is fabulous. There’s a fair amount of introspective but Melville never scrimps on dialogue. And the employment of the second major theme – education for women – allows for a lot of forward-thinking, and brief references to books.

“A woman in England is expected by her husband to shriek at the sight of a mouse but to endure without complaint the pain of having a baby every year, and she fulfils both those expectations. If she were given a different pattern to follow, she would take the mouse to bed with her as a pet and think nothing of it.”

Oxford University is the place of education for the sons of aristocrats, and, as the years pass, women too. More than anything else, Midge wants a degree, and whilst as a woman she can’t receive a certificate she’s allowed to do everything that for a man would mean receiving one. In the space for exposition Midge’s studies create, the author gives a brief history of the early movements towards women’s equal access to education, using Midge’s experiences as a sort of case study to show specifics. This together with the chapters focused on Archie who stays in Magdalen College proper, equate to a well-rounded history – quite apt for a book that looks at two students of the subject. And the author never misses a chance to add to your mental image of Victorian Oxford, having the river freeze over for ice skating, involving everyone in Eights Week (yearly since 1715), and making time for walks and other excursions. It’s a championing of Oxford to rival Philip Pullman.

The romance threads in this book are strong, as well written as everything else; the book is historical romance but not quite at the level the label implies. The class issues are forefront, and Melville puts career above romance. Both relationships evolve in ways that come as a surprise, Melville wanting to look at another aspect of relationships than the easy happily-ever-after. She’s quite diligent in this, including concepts that are the opposite of romance when she wants to show historical context or indeed imply the drawbacks to these siblings of different social classes knowing each other. When the romances had previously been moving along well, these changes can be hard to read, but they make the stories less predictable.

The final section is absolutely fascinating, a story high on adventure in a literal manner. The basic narrative (obvious fiction aside) is as good as any non-fiction account and the author handles the differences between what a Victorian explorer would have written and what we expect to hear about now, with aplomb. For example, her white western characters often think of their discomfort amongst those of an entirely different culture that doesn’t match English standards of behaviour, and then Melville uses description to show the goodness in these ‘savage’ people; at other times the characters try to learn a little about the people around them, hindered only by the author’s concern that they adhere to the thoughts of their time.

Why, then, is this well planned and well executed book not the recipient of the highest rating here? As the story heads towards its final section it starts to focus more on one set of characters, swiftly cutting out the other set altogether. This is all well and good as the look at education and the relationship there had previously been at the forefront, but the narrowing down to one set of characters has an immediate effect on the atmosphere of the book; though it’s right that the atmosphere changes to fit the change in the story, the beauty of the book was in the way Melville switched between the characters and the variety of commentary and content that was provided, the result of the good writing. This naturally becomes a bit lost.

With this comes a change in the way the romance is written. Whilst there had been problems to overcome in the relationships prior to this, the problems in the final chapters are magnified because of the decision to look at the one couple. Maybe it’s the relative silence of the new location, but it becomes repetitive, leaning towards that particular sort of angst that is more device than anything else. And, due to it, the perhaps surprising way in which the other romance unfolded becomes less surprising-but-powerful choice and more way-to-cull-character-count.

The good thing is that these factors only affect the section they are included in – the book might not end quite how you were hoping or thinking, but that doesn’t change the success of the rest of the book. It may be ironic that this is due to the final section changing location and structure but, regardless, it applies.

The House Of Hardie is a great feat. An adventure, a number of lessons, some romance, and a particular attention to storytelling that is at the top end of the scale. Recommended to anyone who likes the idea of taking a trip to the era and reading history in the context of history. You’re not going to be able to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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Raymond Jean – Reader For Hire

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Hiring power.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67022-9
First Published: 1986 in French; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Lectrice (The Reader)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Marie-Constance has a nice speaking voice. She puts an advert in the paper, offering her services as a reader. She takes on her first three clients: wheelchair user, Eric, a 14 year old coddled by his mother; a widowed countess who may be old but will not be beaten; a managing director who wants to be able to impress at dinners but has no time to read. And it seems these people need her and need books more than she expected.

Reader For Hire is an exploratory novella that looks at the power of people in the context of the power of books, of reading. Open to interpretation, it offers a simple character-driven narrative and plenty of pleasurable reading moments.

There are many elements to this book. One: it’s a book about book. The chapters are full of quotations, mini analysis and odes to reading. Marie-Constance favours classics but there are other sorts of work. Make no mistake, you’ll be adding titles to your wishlist.

The biggest, or strongest, element, is power. The power of reading, what it can do and make you feel, how it expands the mind and can inform an opinion (that may lead to action). Be it Marie-Constance’s voice and manner of delivery or simple just the text, the books have an impact on the listeners. One ends up in hospital, another supporting a strike, and there’s the almost inevitable person who hires Marie-Constance but is more interested in the bedroom. (On this subject Jean asks us to consider further – is it stereotypical perversion or is it specifically to do with the reading?) The readings open minds. It gives the listeners a small voice where they’ve not had one for a while.

It could be said that Marie-Constance is the one with the power. She tends to choose the texts, and she chooses how to deliver them. It’s her presence in her listeners’ lives that changes them. And those who are listened to by society want to listen in return, to set reading on a literal stage and admire it.

It’s also her role as a reader that lands people in trouble. These troubles push her and in some cases her listeners, to re-think, to push a little harder for what they want – unconsciously. There is a place to interpret the book as being about subjugation. Listeners and Marie-Constance are pushed back. It seems that in educating themselves, thinking for themselves further than others may wish them to, they end up in trouble. Marie-Constance has to explain herself on various occasions – she’s just reading, isn’t she?

Reader For Hire asks you to enjoy reading but always question it, study its effect; to look at books and reading in a set few ways, to see the meaning in Marie-Constance herself.

At once simple and complex, this book about books is satisfactory in itself but will make you want to seek out others. By this time it’s likely Marie-Constance is booked until Christmas so it’s a good thing her story is available to all.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Michael Palin – Around The World In 80 Days

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Easy – until you rule out aeroplanes.

Publisher: Orion (Phoenix)
Pages: 241
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 1989 (this edition with extra content, 2010)
Date Reviewed: 28th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Star of Monty Python, Michael Palin, was challenged by the BBC to undertake a journey around the world, imitating Phileas Fogg – to follow Fogg’s example, Palin forgoes aeroplanes for slow sea voyages and train rides and he tries to get from the Reform Club in London, to the same club once again (which he’s not allowed to enter), travelling through the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

Around The World In 80 Days is a rather brief (this detailed later) account of Palin’s journey, a book published to accompany the TV series the journey was primarily created for. It’s safe to say you can read the book without having seen the series, though of course your overall experience would be enhanced by making time for both.

The most obvious element that needs to be commented on, considering the bulk of the content was written and concerns the late 1980s, is that the book is understandably dated. Writing in the then-present, Palin carries in his Walkman, ship crews watch films on VHS, and a lot of the country-specific references are now irrelevant or historic-sounding. There isn’t a laptop in sight.

Yet as long as you keep this in mind, the book isn’t old enough to pose any issues. Perhaps the very young reader, who wasn’t born before the Internet, might have trouble catching every reference, but for the most part it isn’t hard. Indeed the book offers the chance to relax in an age where technology wasn’t yet persistent and journeys were more hazardous.

It’s worth noting that the new edition contains Palin’s mini follow-up trip twenty years after the 80 days. It’s written in the same style, details the landscape changes Palin notices, and recounts the reunion with the ship’s crew he was sad to leave those twenty years previous. It’s not a big addition, but it makes the new version of the book the better option nowadays. This said, the book does not end with a grand finale. Palin makes his trip and that’s it. Given the reason for the journey – to attempt Fogg’s mission in reality – there is little think about afterwards.

There is a lot of cultural information in the book, and a lot of it is ageless. So too the historical information. Through Palin’s words it is easy to see how his journey differs in emotion and thought to Fogg’s – Fogg simply travelled without wishing to see the countries he went through, Palin makes a point of using any spare time to talk to people and try local food and wares. He goes clothes shopping in Japan, rides a camel, becomes an extra in a film – for Palin the list goes on and on; one almost feels sorry for Fogg’s belief in western superiority, fictional character or not.

There is a great deal of humour in the book. A lot of it is very British but of the kind that is accessible to anyone. For example, a running theme is Sheffield United Football Club. Palin doesn’t say so outright, but it’s obvious that one of the things he wants to stay updated on is news about his favourite team. There are references to other Monty Python members, and jokes about the many ‘Michael’ incidences on his journey – the camel and its owner being called Michael (a sales pitch it would seem), Palin being called Michael Jackson (as the latter is/was more well-known), and so on. There are also lots of jokes about the different idiosyncrasies and ideas Palin comes across, which may at first seem wrong – but Palin soon starts joking about Britain, too.

Truly this is a book in which the highlights are the comedy and Palin’s focus on getting to know the countries themselves (rather than only the tourist attractions). The book has a lot of information about sea vessels and trains – understandably none on cars or planes – and will therefore appeal to transport enthusiasts too.

This is where we come to the mention of the book being ‘brief’ – there is detail, but only in parts. The book is often written as though bullet points wouldn’t be amiss, and the style is in no way literary. Palin jumps from one day to another, and whilst this could be a reason for suggesting the TV series is paramount to appreciation, it’s more the case that the style is the inevitable effect of the book being a product of Palin’s diary. Indeed if you didn’t know this prior to reading it, you would soon realise, as the amount of detail that is there is more than most people would be able to remember off the bat.

Briefness aside, it’s admirable of Palin that he wrote about every day, come rain or shine, happiness, headache, or sickness.

To sum it up, Palin’s book is relatively short, but it’s sweet. It’s necessarily primarily concerned with transport but this shouldn’t put off those looking for culture. And it’s a whole lot of fun. There are plenty of photographs included – you don’t feel ‘outside’ – and that it is now dated may just be part of its charm. Those with wander lust will love it (note that it may lead to tickets purchased), those who love the slower pace of life will enjoy its use of the sea and the way of the crews as they take their time, and those looking for reports of the culinary kind will find what they seek. With a lot to recommend it to a lot of different people, Around The World In 80 Days is one set of days you’ll want to be escaping to.

I received this book for review from Titan Travel.

Update on 29th March 2016: I see the question, ‘which feature of michael palin’s “around the world in 80 days” best shows that it is a primary source?’ a lot in my stats so I’ll answer it. Palin’s book is in the form of a diary; the book is a published version of the diary he kept whilst on his travels. Diaries are considered primary sources therefore the diary format of the book shows best that it is a primary source. (If we wanted to look into it further we could suggest the book is also bordering on being a secondary source because it’s in part a commentary of Vernes’ original book both through its detailing of the differences and the very fact Palin is following in Phileas Fogg’s fictional footsteps.)

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David Eddings – King Of The Murgos

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The search continues, and this time they’re heading east.

Publisher: Corgi (Random House)
Pages: 436
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-552-14803-0
First Published: 1988
Date Reviewed: 26th September 2012
Rating: 3.5/5

Garion, his wife Ce’Nedra, and their friends, are still on the journey to find baby Prince Geran who was kidnapped by Zandramas. Fate unknown but destiny acknowledged, the company enter the land of the Murgos on the next step of their trek across the world. It will take them back to the Ulgos and land them in danger with the sacrificing Grolims, but there will be one or two surprises also.

Eddings’s story here is more of the same, which is a very good thing if you like his work in general but likely off-putting if you are looking for difference. There is, as always, the continuation of self-indulgent humour, coincidences that take away all worry that people will not survive a battle, and the unfortunate tendency to present murder followed by yet more humour. And whilst the latter can and often does work in television and other works of fiction, sadly in the case of Garion and company it can feel a little insensitive. Indeed of the humour one must find it particularly enjoyable for it to not become ingratiating, given that it is used in every book in exactly the same manner.

And yet in many ways this book surpasses the previous, Guardians Of The West, and the entire first series, The Belgariad. There is far less info-dumping – where Eddings has always included an entire battle strategy multiple times in one book, here he simply includes a few sentences or paragraphs, meaning that the afore-mentioned lack of worry that the reader has, considering the battles never end in tears, is less of an issue; it’s easier to accept the lack of true thrills when there isn’t any unnecessary logistical planning beforehand. The story features fewer instances of characters suddenly appearing to save the day, and more interesting conversation and revealing background context.

But the additional angles linked to battles and complications can be a disappointment. Indeed complications are never really complications – a ship is wrecked, magic heals, a holy fire is put out and the accused is easily let off. Magic and coercion are obviously going to be used, this is a fantasy book, but it does make conclusions more unbelievable than they would be otherwise.

Eddings has a view on women, but what is it is anyone’s guess. On the one hand we have an author who creates strong women who have no qualms about raising an army and leading it, but on the other we have a group of male characters that worry about their womenfolk seeing the bodies of slaughtered people. A woman will go into battle and kill, but her male friends will still worry about how “the ladies” might get upset over less than that. And in these series it could be argued that the women are far stronger than the men. One could say that Eddings was writing before gender equality became such a big issue, but this book was only released, if one may make a reference to popular culture, a few years before Girl Power entered the 90s. In addition to this there is the constant usage of “yes dear” both as a term of endearment and irritation and given the quasi-medieval yet futuristic landscape of the world Eddings created, it doesn’t sit right.

But for all this there is one striking element in this book that is not as apparent, if indeed it exists, in the others. This is the way Garion and Eriond react towards those who kill violently for no good reason. They, Garion and Eriond, have their values but these are never thrown at the reader, resting steadily with the characters. The reader is a mere observer; there is no lesson in morality, which is just as well because on one occasion there is quite a lot of violent retaliation. What is striking, then, is the way Eddings allows the feelings of the characters to pour onto the page – the way that whilst they will kill without thought when need arises, they see the difference between needs-must and glorified hatred, but their thoughts of action are in most cases given a lecture by the older members of their party.

For the most part, King Of The Murgos is surely a better work than any of the previous, but as it comes to a close the incidences that suggest otherwise rear their ugly heads all at once. One certainly needs to appreciate Eddings’s style considerably in order to find the book a spectacular success, but such appreciation is not required for simple enjoyment. There are a lot of issues with the book, but it is still a solid example of fun fantasy fiction that will appeal to various age groups and both genders.

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