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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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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Avonlea

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No longer just of the gabled house.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58265-6)
First Published: 1909
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Having decided to stay on in Avonlea, Anne prepares to become the new teacher of Avonlea’s school. Marilla goes to visit a distant in-law; with the lady on her deathbed, Marilla and Anne decide to help, and have her twins sent to live with them. Dora is quiet and good, but Davy turns out to be more trouble than Anne ever was. With new pupils at school, the forming of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, and a new next door neighbour, there will be plenty to keep Anne busy while she continues her studies at home.

Anne Of Avonlea follows directly on from Anne Of Green Gables and is set in the two years following, ending with Anne at 18 years of age. Though a somewhat forced publication1, it reads as a well-planned sequel.

“Priscilla says Mrs. Pendexter’s husband’s sister is married to an English earl; and yet she took a second helping of the plum preserves,” said Diana, as if the two facts were somehow incompatible.

This book is, for many reasons, better than the first: the use of language is better; it’s got a strong comedic aspect to it; and, most importantly, it has a proper plot. Montgomery seems to have come into her own; she even breaks the fourth wall a few times.

The plot – well structured and nicely balanced between the predictable and the not so – fits together with the same use of community and spirit as before. Anne’s sense of purpose is well-defined, and in her role of teacher, Montgomery has the opportunity to create a plethora of new characters.

The new characters are super, especially the twins. Like Anne, you know they’re going to need time and patience. The humour from Davy is top-notch.

“Milty drawed a picture of Anne on his slate and it was awful ugly and I told him if he made pictures of Anne like that I’d lick him at recess. I thought first I’d draw one of him and put horns and a tail on it, but I was afraid it would hurt his feelings, and Anne says you should never hurt anyone’s feelings. It seems it’s dreadful to have your feelings hurt. It’s better to knock a boy down than hurt his feelings if you must do something. Milty said he wasn’t scared of me but he’d just as soon call it somebody else to ‘blige me, so he rubbed out Anne’s name and printed Barbara Shaw’s under it. Milty doesn’t like Barbara ’cause she calls him a sweet little boy and once she patted him on his head.”

As Anne is back home, we get to see more of Diana, and Gilbert returns often. (Suffice to say Anne uses his name in this book, and that promise of romance starts to lay down its foundations.)

Theodore White’s was the next stopping place. Neither Anne nor Diana had ever been there before, and they had only a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Theodore, who was not given to hospitality. Should they go to the back or front door? While they held a whispered consultation Mrs. Theodore appeared at the front door with an armful of newspapers. Deliberately she laid them down one by one on the porch floor and the porch steps, and then down the path to the very feet of her mystified callers.
“Will you please wipe your feet carefully on the grass and then walk on these papers?” she said anxiously. “I’ve just swept the house all over and I can’t have any more dust tracked in.”

So you’ve plot, excellent jokes, fabulous characters, and even some winning subplots. The only thing at odds is Anne herself. Anne’s talkative nature is subdued from the very first pages and Montgomery rarely pays it attention. Likely the reason for the change was down to that idea of growing up and maturing and in its day that probably worked; nowadays we’re more apt to question it. Technically the lack of talk (there is some, and there are some day dreams, too, just not many) means you can focus on the rest of the content, but the reality is you spend time wondering where Anne went. You might want her back.

Anne Of Avonlea is a wonderful book, and a lot more adult-orientated, but that does come at a price. Nevertheless it is still entirely worthy of your time; it’s surely one of the finest books of its day.

We make our own lives wherever we are, after all… college can only help us to do it more easily. They are broad or narrow according to what we put into them, not what we get out. Life is rich and full here… everywhere… if we can only learn how to open our whole hearts to its richness and fulness [sic].

Footnotes

1 Montgomery’s publishers had said that if the first book did well, she’d have to write sequels. In 1908 she wrote in a letter: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” In the next letter she sent, she calls Anne ‘detestable’ (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908, and 22nd December 1908, cited in Lefebvre, 2013, p. 410).

References

Lefebvre (ed) (2013) The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Vol 1, University Of Toronto Press, Toronto

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Green Gables

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Anne with an E – please remember that as without the E it sounds very different…

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58264-9)
First Published: 1908
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

When a friend says she’s going to adopt an orphan to help her at home, siblings Matthew and Marilla ask her to arrange for a boy to be sent to them so that Matthew can have help on the land. The day dawns; Matthew heads to the station to collect the child but finds only a girl – there’s been a mix-up. It’s too late in the day; with no way to send Anne back, Matthew takes her home to Avonlea. The idea is to get the mix-up sorted out, but the siblings find themselves becoming attached to the peculiarly-dressed, red-headed, eleven-year-old who rarely stops talking.

Anne Of Green Gables is a fairly short novel about the new life of a neglected orphan and the impact she has on those living in her new town. Set 30-odd years before it was written, and covering Anne’s first double digit years (she ends the novel aged 16), the book offers a good span of time to get acquainted with its colourful cast of characters, its likeable heroine, and its practically idyllic setting in semi-fictional rural Canada.

The first book in a long series, Anne Of Green Gables has for some time been considered children’s fiction, the publicity materials for it looking in that direction. The story does align with younger people, however it’s worth noting that Montgomery wrote it for all ages (Wikipedia, n.d.); there’s a lot here for adults that children may not necessarily appreciate, to the extent that whilst the plot might not be particularly compelling for older readers, the rest of it is. It’s never too late to read this book.

Thankfully, the plot itself is of little import, which is just as well because it’s effectively a cycle of similar events as Anne makes a mistake (or is thought to have made a mistake, given past events) and reacts to it. Montgomery was inspired by ‘formula Ann’ orphan stories of the time, which accounts for it all – her use of Anne, with that E, relates to it (ibid.), but whilst we may have moved on from being able to appreciate that context, there is much enjoyment to be had in the author’s characters, setting, and use of humour. Albeit that the mistakes do follow a formula, they are funny in their turn; Anne gives her friend a tumbler of alcohol instead of a child-friendly cold drink, and dyes her hair green.

“Don’t be very frightened, Marilla. I was walking the ridgepole and I fell off. I expect I have sprained my ankle. But, Marilla, I might have broken my neck. Let us look on the bright side of things.”

Anne talks, a lot. She day dreams, a lot. But she’s a pretty thoughtful and clever girl. Through her monologues, Montgomery shows well the psychological effects her previous neglect has had, and you see the slight changes over time. Looking at Anne from our present-day perspective, it’s reasonable to say she may well have had ADHD1. Learning is slow but sure.

So in Anne’s monologues there is real purpose, Montgomery using her chatty heroine to show so much; it’s an interesting way of getting around telling, as Anne is actually telling people things but as a character in a story, and with her young age and obliviousness, it becomes the very definition of ‘showing’. The promise of a romance to come is given via Anne’s skirting round the name of a boy, the value of friendship shown in descriptions and ideas, and the importance of dreaming very effectively explained even though the day dreaming in the book tends to hinder work. The relationships Anne has with her friends, with the older people of Avonlea she wins over, and even with those she doesn’t get on with, are wonderfully portrayed.

For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realising that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardlyon this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.

For the repetitive cycle of events, it can be hard on occasion to keep reading without wondering if it’s going to ‘go’ anywhere, but the positives do outweigh the negatives. Anne’s general positiveness is compelling, her tendency not to conform with social rules that create discomfort is satisfying… and it’s just impossible not to like her.

Footnotes

1 For an in-the-know discussion, see the ADHD subreddit thread: Anne Shirley Had ADHD In Anne Of Green Gables

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d.) Anne Of Green Gables, accessed 5th March 2019

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Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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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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