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Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

 
Nick Alexander – You Then, Me Now

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Time to jettison the pain.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (Amazon Publishing)
Pages: 293
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-503-95862-3
First Published: 1st May 2019
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2019
Rating: 4/5

Becky is far beyond the age to know the details about her father but her mother, Laura, has given little information, making excuses all the time. Now a young adult, Becky has had enough; it’s time Laura told her the truth and perhaps a holiday in a place her mother seems to be attached to will help. Past hurts have stopped Laura telling her daughter everything – some things are just too hard to go back to. She’s always struggled with her memories and doesn’t know how to get around them.

You Then, Me Now is a fantastically executed novel that looks at the effects of various types of abuse on personal development. Alexander has created a story that combines the tale of an awful past with other elements that are very pleasant to read. It does this by using a dual narrative that sides more towards Laura’s story (part of Becky’s ‘allocated’ time is spent trying to work out the issues with her mother) but is far from overwhelmed by it.

Laura’s life has never been easy; it started with her mother, whose parenting caused a particularly negative experience. Laura’s mother was beyond strict, with Laura always worried about going so far as a centimetre away from the rules – even as an adult – for the understandable fear that her mother would be on her like a ton of bricks. The effects of all this naturally leads Laura to be very passive in the face of anything she’s not sure about, and she either misses clues entirely or is unable to trust her gut when it comes to assessing the goodness of strangers. This in turn leads her to say ‘yes’ to the sudden offer of a holiday by a man she’s just met who is constantly gaslighting her. So Laura is weak; you may find her frustrating at the start; it’s a symptom of her lack of healing. From start to finish, this part of the story is handled with a lot of care.

Alexander gives his reader something more lighthearted and positive to read about in Becky’s chapters. Becky is looking at her future, using the holiday both as time with her mother and as a getaway for herself. Where Laura’s chapters contain a romance, so too do Becky’s, but the relative relaxed nature of Becky’s romance allows you to relax yourself into the book. The location of the holiday and thus most of the novel, as Laura and Becky leave home soon into the book and Laura’s flashbacks are mostly of events at same location, is the Greek tourist island of Santorini. Alexander’s writing of it is brilliant; you won’t need photos – the descriptions are perfect and very atmospheric. In fact the only thing not so much in its favour is the slightly repetitive use of dinners in restaurants – dinner is expected, but a run down of the meals each time isn’t so much. That said, it does provide more information on Santorini.

Once the book reaches the end of the answers, it turns towards the resolution; this is where the book’s sole problem comes into play. The resolution isn’t entirely unrealistic but it falls in the realms of one-in-a-million and so it’s convenient that it happens. Certainly it keeps the page count under control – Alexander never belabours at any point – but it would’ve been better to have had a resolution that would have taken longer and thus been more credible. This said, as much as it casts a shadow it only casts it over that section – all the deft theme work and time spent on the setting is unaffected, and the ending itself is good.

You Then, Me Now encompasses far more than its name and cover might suggest, and almost in its entirety it achieves its aims with aplomb.

 
Eloisa James – A Kiss At Midnight

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The dream that you wish will come true.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62684-5
First Published: 27th July 2010
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Soon after Kate’s mother died, her father brought home a new wife – his long-term mistress. Now, her father dead, Kate has the attic room and shoulders all the responsibilities over the servants’ and tenants’ employment; her stepmother will let them go if she doesn’t. Kate would like a simple life – a man who loves her, no matter his rank, would be great. One evening her stepmother tells her she must pretend to be her stepsister, Victoria, and meet a prince; the prince’s approval of Victoria is required for her to marry his nephew, and Victoria is already pregnant so it must happen immediately. Kate leaves the house with Victoria’s doting fiancé and three lap dogs, looking forward to Victoria’s recovery from a minor facial injury so that the pretense can be dropped, but her story is heading in a different direction to the one she hoped for.

A Kiss At Midnight is James’ regency romance retelling of Cinderella (the version by Charles Perrault used by Disney). It stays pretty close to the author’s usual level of historical accuracy but allows for slices of fantasy in terms of dialogue and dress – more modern phrases, for example, have been added where the author spied them a good fit.

The book lies more in the realms of ‘based on’ than usual retelling – cover aside, you could potentially get quite a way through it before the details revealed the concept behind James’ story. The author has made some fairy tale devices more realistic, for example the glass slippers which, it is noted, aren’t made of glass because they’d break – instead they’re made of a material that’s a good alternative. There isn’t a pumpkin. There isn’t any magic. Instead, James has substituted concepts and modified others to suit. The stepsister isn’t evil, in fact she’s rather sweet. Cinderella has a good amount of time to get to know the prince before any decisions must be made.

There are times, however, when, perhaps realising that her story is veering too far from the path, the author uses devices. These do jolt you out of the experience but thankfully normal service is resumed as soon as possible. The sudden, fairy-tale-aligned appearance of a previously unknown godmother, for example, is backed up by an ample backstory to provide reason for the character popping out of nowhere. (The godmother does effectively pop up out of nowhere which, as the story moves on, seems less of a ‘must include her quickly’ element and more of a ‘the original idea was strange, let’s just go with it’.)

The story in general is good, the changes making the retelling better. The characters are well developed and matched, and James has ensured that there’s lots of chemistry. The light humour is great as is the ‘cute’ factor – the dogs, who James has spent an equal amount of time characterising. Less successful is the change to the ball, which is partly due to the reading expectation that it be excellent but also down to James’ choice to use it as a chance to cement the couple’s feelings whilst making it a more passive experience for the heroine – a bit too ‘wait around while I go enjoy the evening’, to hint without spoiling.

A Kiss At Midnight is a very good book, certainly one of James’ best, but its role as retelling has its drawbacks no matter how small.

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Louisa May Alcott – Good Wives

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part Two. Part One received its own post last week.

‘Cos I can’t help falling in love with you.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1869
Date Reviewed: 11th July 2019
Rating: 5/5

We open with a marriage: having fallen in love with Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, Meg is getting married. It will be an interesting time for the family as all four daughters grow older and find their place in the world. Meg will want to make a good home for herself and John, Jo will want to write and travel, Amy will want to improve her art and find riches, and Beth just wants to feel like herself again. Meanwhile, Laurie will go to college as Jo wants him to, hoping to find success in doing what she wishes.

Good Wives takes us back to the March family and their friends, beginning a few years after the curtain fell in Part One. With a bit more plot and time away from home, whilst it has many aspects that will not please readers of the first Part, it succeeds in being incredibly thoughtful and an extremely good work in terms of both its general literary value and its value as a contextual look into Alcott’s life and dreams.

The novel is both a regular continuation of a story, and Alcott’s rebuke of the idea of marriage and the resulting lack of agency women of the period experienced. The rebuke involves passages that suggest a not-so-veiled personal affront she felt from readers about her life; whilst Alcott may not have made note of such in her journals, certainly the content of the novel’s text speaks directly her audience.

To speak of the idea of marriage first, none of the marriages in this book are particularly convincing. Whilst Meg’s marriage gets more time in terms of a show of the domestic space and post-honeymoon period, and the character John Brooke, Meg’s husband, was a part of Part One and thus was somewhat developed prior to the union, both Jo and Amy’s marriages are decidedly lacklustre. Debates abound regarding the suitability of both these marriages, which revolves around the fact that Alcott matches the wrong man to one of the women, with the woman he should have married later marrying a person who rightly or wrongly is consigned to be largely forgotten by readers. Whilst Amy’s marriage has enough of a backstory and prior development of the characters for the readers to understand what might happen later on, Alcott’s effective shoe-horning of Mr Bhaer into the story makes an already bad thread worse.

Alcott’s effective overturning of what would be the most natural and expected conclusion to the story is surely a further effect – following the inclusion of marriage in itself – of Alcott’s not wanting to go along with the social mores and expectations of the time and culture she lived in.

We see this first, perhaps, during the wedding ceremony for Meg and John, wherein Meg gives the first kiss to her mother, an inappropriate action if ever there was one, a fact which Alcott makes reference to in her narration. From there, whether we consider the kiss part of the problems or not, Alcott devises communication problems that led to resentment, wherein Meg is overwhelmed and bored of being in the home whilst John enjoys himself but doesn’t know what to do to change it. Alcott knows exactly what they should do; she has Meg go to her mother for advice. It’s a very basic issue that one would expect the couple to be able to work out themselves, but in contriving the scene Alcott makes Meg have to talk to Marmee about it instead.

Is there something in this defaulting to Marmee over relationship issues when it comes to Alcott’s dislike of marriage? Marmee’s advice had been sought before, but its inclusion in the daughters’ romantic relationships brings in a different aspect. In 2014, Sarah Rivas, then an MA student, proposed the concept of the ‘Cult of Marmee’, in which the four March daughters’ lives revolve around what Marmee thinks. This explanation has a lot going for it; the enmeshment and inability to do much if anything independent of Marmee’s views and wishes pervades both Parts of the book. The subject is too vast to be included further in this post, but Rivas’ point stands together with what we can see of Alcott’s use of marriage in Good Wives, this usage of something her readers had reportedly asked for in a sequel to their new favourite book, but twisted into a version that would help Alcott as she struggled with everything that marriage in her era meant for women’s agency.

Alcott does not mince her words. When speaking of the effects of marriage, she is always brazen, honest, and takes no prisoners. The following quotation is included during a scene which looks at Meg’s life after having given birth:

In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la Liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I’m married”.

Clearly Alcott saw the alternative used in France – where a woman could be married yet not burdened by domesticity – and liked it.

Of the second aspect of Alcott’s rebuke, the personal affront she saw, there is much to go on, all of it related to scenes revolving around Jo. Jo is largely based on Alcott herself, and as Alcott was a writer who did not marry, so too was Jo supposed to write and remain single. We see the beginnings of it all here:

Now, if she [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.

Themes beyond those discussed involve the American slave trade and slavery, an important topic that may nevertheless become forgotten for its seeming lack of inclusion; in Good Wives, Alcott’s support of abolition isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as her thoughts of female agency, but there is some diversity in terms of equality:

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind regardless of rank, age, or color.

The Alcott family in general did not support slavery and actively sought to help black people in difficult situations. We know from Ednah Cheney’s edited collection of Louisa’s journal and letters, published in 1889, that Louisa’s mother hid a fugitive slave in the family’s oven (p. 137).

Alcott’s decision to have Jo become a teacher of sorts is the way in which the author includes her own beliefs. Jo takes a ‘quadroon’ boy (a historic term for a person who is one-quarter black, often fathered by a plantation owner) into her school and it’s noted by Alcott that no one else would likely have taken the boy in. In light of this passage in the book, Sands-O’Connor (2015) says that Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson, had welcomed an African-American child into his school, and, due to this decision, the other pupils left and the school failed. We see, then, the way that the seemingly simple couple of sentences by Alcott about Jo’s acceptance of a child, and the fact that Jo’s school continues to be successful, is a direct response to a real life experience and likely an effort to make things right in the only way the author could.

Alcott was a nurse during the Civil War and wrote about her experiences in a book she called Hospital Sketches. According to Sands-O’Connor, she’d been viewed poorly by a fellow nurse for cuddling an African American baby; she later revised her nursing account to make it more nationally acceptable. The publisher of that book was the one who asked Alcott to write a children’s book and they said at the time that Alcott was not to include anything that would increase racial tensions (ibid.).

This accounts for why the racial equality in Good Wives remains a glimmer. Sands-O’Connor sums it up well: Alcott had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition, and she needed the independence the money from her book would bring in (ibid.). This also accounts for why, in the first Part, we have a father going off to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War without any discussion of the war itself, only his physical wounds.

Good Wives continues the topic of the publishing industry and literary trends that was started in Part One; now that Jo is older and more like the adult Alcott, the information is detailed and incredibly telling.

“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story,'” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.

The above matches with what we know about Alcott’s writing; it fits in with what the two Parts do, except that Alcott narrates more than she lets the characters themselves tell the story. There are other passages like this, including one wherein Jo lets her family critic her work.

As Jo continues with her writing, so does Alcott continue on with her book-about-books. This Part contains many more references than the first; Charles Dickens is a favourite and Alcott includes myriad plays and poems, an influence, perhaps, of her adventures abroad.

The use of travel in this book expands on that in Part One in the way that it increases in its interest and scope. Like in the first book, Alcott ascribes some of her own journeys to some one else, the extent of her own travels being enough to make content for a number of characters’ storylines. We travel to Europe, to New York, and see glimpses of other places. The travels are undoubtedly a highlight of the book in terms of pure enjoyment, the cultural and other historical detailing vibrant and informative, the storytelling open and abundant.

It is unfortunate for Alcott that whilst Good Wives may have done well in her time, the use of domesticity aligning with what her contemporaries wanted, it is impossible to say it is quite as loved now, no matter how much it is still read. The choices she made for her characters are often understandably questioned; without all the historical context and even with it, it’s hard to finish the book feeling completely satisfied with where she takes her characters. It’s difficult not to wonder how the story might have flowed had Alcott been in a more liberal society; undoubtedly she would appreciate the debates we have today. The book is surely one of the best examples of the affects of society on an author’s output for all the reasons mentioned above and more. But it’s also just a very good book, enjoyable for what it says and does and an incredible primary source for the author herself. It may not satisfy the want for a solid story but it well satisfies everything else – it is arguably best read for both enjoyment and in its literary context concurrently.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64
Sands-O’Connor, Karen (2015) Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott, The Race To Read, accessed 9th July 2019.

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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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