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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
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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David Eddings – Guardians Of The West

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It’s time to battle against evil once more.

Publisher: Corgi (Random House)
Pages: 423
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-552-14802-3
First Published: 1987
Date Reviewed: 4th December 2011
Rating: 3.5/5

Please note that as this is the first book in a follow-up series, The Malloreon, to The Belgariad (also a five-book series) there may be content in this review that is considered a spoiler for The Belgariad. You might also like to note that despite the book’s cover, all of the books about this particular world were actually written by both Eddings and his wife. It is only in more recent years that this information has come to light.

Garion, now king of Riva with his wife, Ce’Nedra, as his queen, has been finding life suitably routine. It is definitely hard work being the Overlord of his fellow kings, and it’s annoying how everyone comes to him to dump their problems at his feet – but war torn the West is not. But of course there would not be a story if this routine wasn’t to change, and as another prophecy appears to begin and the Orb starts speaking once more of trouble, Garion and his friends are sure to be displaced from peace soon enough. Who is this new Child of Dark and will the Rivan royal couple ever provide the kingdom with an heir?

If you enjoyed The Belgariad, picking up Guardians Of The West feels a bit like coming home. Whereas in the first series the reader was still getting to know the characters and Eddings wrote them accordingly, in Guardians Of The West there is very much the sense that Eddings has relaxed, believing (rightly, really) that his readers know the people he is talking about. He has altered the way that he writes about them ever so slightly – they are most certainly the same characters, but now it feels as though you’ve been invited into their inner circle. This said the plot is largely the same as the previous.

There are more jokes this time round, however this is at once both a very good thing – the jokes are often very funny – and a bad thing – it can become too self-indulgent. For the most part the truly laugh-out-loud moments outweigh the lesser ones, but towards the end of the book the sheer number of lines such as Barak’s constant declarations of liking a person, and the misfit that is humour during what is purported to be a massive bloody battle, doesn’t work. The reader sees a little bit of the battle and then spends the rest of the time listening to the characters, who are all royal or high up in society, discussing strategy or simply bantering amongst themselves. Although the series is a comic fantasy, the total disregard by Eddings to present anything resembling reality in this case is difficult to get over.

Unfortunately this is joined by predictability. As soon as battles happen, nay, as soon as they are a possibility, there is no need to read further as you know exactly how it will end. Such was also the case in The Belgariad. Unlike other authors, Eddings never includes any chances that the characters will fail. Although you know, considering the genre, that good will ultimately triumph, there is never any sense of danger. The characters arrive, talk for a bit, attack, win, find they haven’t won completely, go back to talk more, and etcetera. And winning is all too easy for them.

In regards to strategy, once the main crux of the book begins the narrative always going back to discussions. The discussions take ages, and while there can be interest in the minute details Eddings goes into, one can’t help but wonder if Eddings ought to have joined the army instead of becoming a writer because he clearly has a passion for working things out. Once the characters win, someone comes along to tell them that they haven’t actually won, and that is part of the cycle of repetition; there are a good several strategic discussions within a fifth of the book’s pages. After the first couple of discussions it becomes dreadfully boring.

Interspersed are pointless dialogues, silly ideas, and things the reader didn’t need to know. Indeed when the characters finally discover the true next step, one that needs to be taken then and there, they sit down for alcohol and humorous conversation. And individual characters are always going off to do something secret, something that generally turns the tide on things within the blink of an eye. The extensive use of magic to solve problems, despite the fact that the book is a fantasy and is therefore “allowed” to use magic, can make things that might have been exciting rather dull. And in addition to all of this, Ce’Nedra’s constant refrain of “I want my baby”, despite the reader’s knowledge of her personality, can make a person want to change the text so that she is less selfish and remembers that it takes two to make one.

So while Eddings knows how to plan battles, he does not know how to stage the action. But he does know a lot about showing rather than telling, which of course has a lot to do with the negative aspects but is overall a winner. Although he may be influenced by the likes of Tolkien, Eddings never goes down the path of describing so much scenery that you fall asleep. He prefers to tell his tale through dialogue, which makes his book a quick read. And for the most part his characters are well-defined, they never lose their personality and apart from the times when they are all complimenting each other too much it would be easy enough to be able to read the conversations between small groups without the name labels of who said what.

You have to be prepared that nothing will really happen for the vast majority of the book – unless you don’t mind reading about domestic routine – and that it is filled by short dips into the lives of the characters over the course of several years. Why Eddings felt the need to leave such a gap yet still try and fill the reader in is incomprehensible, he may as well have just begun by summarising. He wanted Errand to be more grown up, and that makes sense, but we do not learn that much about Errand that couldn’t have been condensed into a few pages. Some of the plot points are very interesting, but when Eddings employs a written, and thus longer, version of what film makers do to show the passing of time (think quick shots of scenes and music overlays) one does wonder why he is doing it.

Eddings is good at creating stories, but his writing could have done with more polish. Some phrasing is awkward and the modern Americanisms don’t always fit the rest of the text. This particular edition of the book is rife with errors that should have been picked up during the editing process and it’s just lucky that the story is strong enough to keep the reader from becoming distracted by them.

Guardians Of The West is a rather flawed book, but the setting and characters balance out the problems. It may work as a stand-alone, but is best read after having finished The Belgariad because the characters will likely appear funnier and the information gleaned from that first series helps to explain this one. Fans of fantasy will find it okay, but this series is definitely for those with a love for quick comedy.

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