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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
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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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near as much as you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Genesis.

Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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Dan Richards – Climbing Days

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Almost every mountain.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 322
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-31192-7
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Rating: 5/5

Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.

Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.

The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.

As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:

My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.

The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.

I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.

A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.

‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1

Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.

The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.

It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.

References

1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.

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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

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Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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