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Charlotte Smith – Emmeline

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Previous posts refer to the author as Charlotte Turner Smith. For this review I have left out the middle name, matching the original edition of the book.

How my poor heart aches with every step you take.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1788
Date Reviewed: 13th April 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

When orphaned Emmeline’s nursemaid dies, she moves away from the castle she called home. Her rich uncle, who has paid for her upkeep but not bothered to visit her, finally arrives with his son, Delamere, who becomes instantly infatuated with her. Angry at this, the uncle and aunt try to keep Emmeline away from him – and Emmeline would be happy if he did stay away – but he follows her in her travels and harasses her for marriage. All Emmeline wants is to return to her castle, perhaps with her new friends, but her choices are not her own.

Despite the fact of Emmeline‘s success when published and the great historical value it presents to us today, in the context of the here and now the things it includes are difficult; whilst what it shows could be said to show further evidence of why society has changed in the way it treats women, the scenes and characters in the book, particularly when added to the stereotypical fainting, literary devices, and padding, make for a book that is difficult to read.

Chief in this is the role a good half of the male characters play; Emmeline’s beauty – her personality is of little consequence to most – creates, at the instant of meeting, an obsession in the minds of many she meets and the vast majority go on to pursue her in earnest. What we would now consider harassment, narcissism, and emotional abuse, are major features of this book, with Emmeline and her friends travelling extensively in their quest to outrun various suitors, an effort which nevertheless fails to endear her to her uncle; it takes a long time for Lord Montreville to see Delamere’s entitlement and childish temper tantrums, which involve hitting his head against walls.

So the problem isn’t so much that it happens, because in fact it shows well the issue of Emmeline being controlled by her uncle; the issue is the way Emmeline’s friends handle it and how Smith – perhaps because her goal is to illustrate a woman’s lack of choice rather than any sort of commentary on how things are reached – often writes without commentary on it, leaving Emmeline to truly fend for herself. The times when the author is blunt, and these do increase about halfway through, make the novel palatable again, with Emmeline granted authorial leave to stop painting and singing for Delamere, things that give him the idea she likes him, that it seems the author has instructed her to do.

‘The regard she was sensible of for Delamere did not make her blind to his faults; and she saw, with pain, that the ungovernable violence of his temper frequently obscured all his good qualities, and gave his character an appearance of ferocity, which offered no very flattering prospect to whosoever should be his wife.’

And, later:

“His love, too ardent perhaps to last, will decline; while the inconveniences of a narrow fortune will encrease [sic]; and I, who shall be the cause of these conveniences, shall also be the victim.”

On the subject of a women’s choice to live how she wishes, comparisons can be made between Smith and Mrs Stafford. Smith’s husband lost them a lot of money and the author ended up living in jail with him for a time before they separated; Mrs Stafford, mother of a few children, spends more time with Emmeline than she does her husband but her life is necessarily entangled with his so that his lack of care for his family and career of gambling away his money means she must go back to him and try and work things out. In life, Smith left her husband, and died ill and with little money. In fiction her friendships enable her to have a happier, healthier, wealthier family despite him. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, who otherwise hated the book, liked Mrs Stafford.

Otherwise, Emmeline fits every stereotype of novels from the period. If a woman does not carry smelling salts she is very much out of luck, for a great deal of fainting and, on some occasions, actual dying, occurs for relatively minor reasons such as the appearance of one’s lover, the realisation that a person isn’t the golden perfect child they were molded to be and, in what is a particularly unsatisfying literary device, the jealousy of one for another who is also obsessed with a lady no longer available.

One unfortunate drawback to the usage of characters from the 1780s with extreme personality traits is that the hero of the book isn’t all that much of a hero. In comparison to others he is a knight in shining armour, and Smith uses him as a device in order to insert poetry that history tells us was more her sort of thing, but he himself can get quite angry on occasion, jealous, and, whilst historically considered the right thing to do, his enforcement of a woman’s estrangement from her lover when few relatives seem to care – including the woman’s husband – means that he doesn’t come across nearly as well as he perhaps should… particularly as Smith resorts to deus ex machina to continually put him in Emmeline’s path… which, given the rest of the novel, effectively becomes a pursuit.

Smith does acknowledge this:

‘…who seemed providentially to have been thrown in her way on purpose to elucidate her history.’

The lead-up to the ending promises a great future for Emmeline but Smith draws out the last few chapters with filler material before tying everything up very quickly in the last few pages. After almost 500 turns, or 500 swipes of the screen, it’s a big disappointment.

Given the way this review darts back and forth between saying that things are bad and then that they make sense and are good, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the reviewer – referring to herself in a fashion she has come to find synonymous with 1700s and 1800s writing – is utterly confused as to the merit of this book. But – and this might be an ‘alas!’ – she is not. Seen entirely in the context of its history, society at the time, and the life of the author, Emmeline is quite a feat. Thus, seen as a subject of study for whichever element it is chosen, it is rather good even if, as its declining fame aptly shows, it’s far from the best. But in terms of the reading experience for escape or pleasure, it is not a good one and the general, public, success of the novel is long gone.

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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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Dorthe Nors – Karate Chop

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Spooky coincidences and horrific happenings.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 82
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27432-2
First Published: 25th September 2008 in Danish; 4th February 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Danish
Original title: Kantslag (Side Stroke)
Translated by: Martin Aitken

In this collection of very short stories (some have called it flash fiction) a person left alone by a potentially mysterious boyfriend watches and remembers a documentary about a missing person who left their wife; a grown-up remembers the stories about his grandmother told to them by their mother and aunt – two children brought up by an abusive parent; and a psychologist looks at her bruises and wonders about the way she gets into bad relationships when she well knows the warning signs.

Karate Chop is a thin book of vignettes about realisations of the self and aspects of society. Told in simple prose, the author’s style is one of subtlety – with her writing set somewhere between the almost vague and small shock, Nors’ collection delivers some poignant endings, some horrible endings, and others that are ambiguous.

These endings result in a book that can at times confuse you. Because some of the stories are easy enough to see through – well, easy enough once you’ve worked out the right amount of thinking you must do – the ones that are a lot less opaque can seem not so successful. It can be hard to decipher whether the more vague pieces are like that on purpose – leaning ever more towards subtlety – or just objectively miss the mark. It could be due to the length – no matter how literary the endings, the shortness of the stories means it can be a bit too easy to forget what came before. Make no mistake – there is something to take away from all the stories – but some will fade from memory a lot quicker than others.

The simplicity of Nors’ prose has been translated well; doubtless some changes have been made to aid the reader not familiar with Denmark but if they have they are hard to see. The text flows well and the translation reads as faithful both to the takeaway of the stories and the phrasing.

Highlights of the collection include Mutual Destruction, in which a man watches a neighbour who has previously ‘helped’ him put animals to sleep when they were ill – where is the man’s family? The Winter Garden looks at the moment children start to realise their parents might just be average; Flight looks at a woman who is close to realising what went wrong in her relationship but incapable of seeing it; and the aforementioned story about the tales of the narrator’s grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, And Aunt Ellen, is exceptional.

Karate Chop delivers more than one punch in the reading experience – the title may refer to a particular story but it could equally have been used for a few others. It is a great little collection that takes less time to read than it does to finish thinking about it.

I received this book for review.

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Edith Wharton – The Age Of Innocence

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Everything is awesome (caveat: when you’re part of the team)1.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51128-1)
First Published: 1920
Date Reviewed: 23rd February 2018
Rating: 5/5

1870s New York and young Newland Archer is excited at the prospect of marrying May Welland, looking forward to making their engagement official. But as he watches the opera in his club box, he spies a newcomer with his fiancée’s family; May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska has separated from her European husband and has come to stay in America. Ellen is rather different to the rest, her European ways at odds with New York society and everyone hopes she’ll reunite with her husband… everyone except Newland who is strangely attracted to her.

The Age Of Innocence is a marvellous novel with a highly ironic title. Set at a time of change, it looks at the way a society that does not favour the arts, or anything even one step away from their etiquette and mores, responds when they are confronted with a person who is slightly associated with it.

Wharton speaks of a society she was a member of and uses Newland to examine it as well. There is a lot of characterisation in the book but most of it is by rights and by design set aside for Newland. As the main character (the book is written in the third person) Wharton spends most of her time in his head. Her relative lack of characterisation of the other characters, barring Madame Olenska, is almost a theme in itself, with the society members effectively rendered as stereotypes as befitting Newland’s opinions of them, which, let’s just say, aren’t always correct (and can be frustrating at times). It’s an interesting sort of character-driven novel – there’s actually more plot than characterisation aside from Newland yet it remains character-driven.

In many ways everyone is a device for Wharton but none more so than the unsuspecting Newland who is used by Wharton to look at the perceived lack of female agency in society, as well as his own thoughts as to teaching his wife what he deems appropriate for her to know.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of arguement – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them.

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his bethrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidence. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)… But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.

So the story is very clever. It’s a man’s world – is it? (You might expect a woman writer in those years to question that – Wharton and Kate Chopin would have got on well – but Wharton’s craftiness will have you wondering what’s on the next page constantly and she is a master of red herrings, nay, pre red herrings.) The author gives a lot of time to Ellen Olenska, ensuring that the woman shines in characterisation away from her role as Newland’s social interest, and allows a second interpretation to take hold in Ellen’s story. The execution of the story is flawless and the ending an absolute triumph.

At once a simple story with little embellishment, The Age Of Innocence is well worth the fairly short investment of time it requires, both for enjoyment and because it’s a worthy classic. You will not regret reading this book.

1 The main line of The Lego Movie theme song seemed too appropriate not to use, however irrelevant it is otherwise.

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April Munday – The Heir’s Tale

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More to learn after the war.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 150
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B075KQ3HX4
First Published: 29th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Ancelin returns home from the war he fought alongside his brothers. His betrothed, Emma, has been waiting a long time and is happy to see him, but so is his sister-in-law Alice, whose husband is now dead. Ancelin has always loved Alice and her sudden interest in him causes him to rethink his betrothal.

The Heir’s Tale is a coming-of-age romance set in the medieval period, and the start of a series of books about a set of brothers.

The research in this book is of a very high standard. Munday strikes the right balance of detailing and holding back to the extent that there are a good few times when it’s easy to get lost in the history. The amount of research is evident but only on consideration, leading to the best of reading experiences where you can relax into it without any worries of the author including too much or any errors. The writing backs it up; it’s solid. There are no anachronisms and the text reads smoothly.

It’s apt to talk about Ancelin’s growing maturity in terms of relationships. The character continually darts back and forth – one minute he knows he likes Emma, the next he’s tempted by his sister-in-law – and it’s a long-term thing, the main conflict in the book. On the surface, Ancelin is a frustrating person to read about however upon reflection it’s quite realistic – it’s all too easy to ascribe modern notions to this young-twenties man and think that he should be better, but when put in the context of his lack of experience and the sudden turnabout of his romantic situation, wherein he has loved Alice for years without her paying any attention and now she’s turned full circle, it makes a lot of sense. The continuation also has another role – it allows Munday to look at the character further.

Here the best example is probably in the character’s gender. Rather than look at Ancelin with an eye to the sort of romance that’s often included – where the male character will act in ways that’s romanticised and dreamed about but not often true to reality – Munday unashamedly puts sex before romance, so that there is more physical action (aside from sex itself which, true to history, doesn’t happen during the betrothal) in places where you might have been expecting roses. This said, there are also roses.

The characters as a whole are good – Emma is very patient with Ancelin but is by no means meek, in fact she’s the strongest character. Ancelin’s brothers get a lot of look in to set up the other books but it doesn’t actively detract; his father is a fair secondary character. Alice however does present a problem.

Alice has very good reason for suddenly showing romantic interest in the brother-in-law she’d previously not spent any thought on – she’s a widow in the medieval world and about to be sent off to a convent against her wishes. It’s obviously rather wretched that she’s trying to break up a prior betrothal, but she doesn’t have many options and as caring as her father-in-law is, society rules will go on ahead.

Where the issue lies is in the actions, the way Alice goes about trying to get Ancelin. You know from the moment Ancelin arrives home from war that Alice is the villain and she’s quite cardboard cut-out. In itself she is just one character but as this becomes part of the conflict of the book, the continuation makes it difficult. It comes to a head towards the end, where it’s obvious to the reader what’s happening but the characters don’t put two and two together. It means it’s a bit too angsty.

There is a lot to like about The Heir’s Tale but it can be overshadowed – the scenes in which Alice is absent, and there are many, are good and show Munday’s work well.

I received this book for review. The author is a friend.

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