The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster – C.M. Spencer

I received Harriet Walters through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways in exchange for an honest review – thank you.

I do hate giving these books low ratings; I always want to support self-published authors. I always root for the underdog. But I cannot judge a self-published author on a different level from someone who’s gone through the traditional process. To me it’s never right to lower standards so that more people “succeed” – that’s just encouraging mediocrity, and the universe has more than enough of that. Also, this edition wasn’t an ARC: this was up for sale on Smashwords (free to me with a coupon code), and – again, in my opinion – before something is offered in exchange for money, be it 99 cents or 99 dollars, it should be as perfect as it can possibly be. To expect anyone to pay for something that has not been perfected is dishonest and dishonorable.

/rant.

The synopsis for the book includes the sentence “It is the author’s hope that people who delight in Jane Austen’s novels will find similar pleasure in The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster.” It is always hazardous (and presumptuous) for a fantasy writer to put his work in the same sentence as Tolkien’s, and for a writer of this brand of fiction to bring Jane Austen into the picture; it just isn’t wise. And it’s usually vilely, drastically off-base. We have had a Tolkien, and we have had an Austen, and to try to emulate them too closely is a mistake on very many levels. To try and to fail is just sad. To try and to fail, and then to invite the comparison, is just catastrophic.

/rant#2

The description for this book is ridiculously spoiler-filled. I referred to it as I began making notes for this less than halfway through the story, to see if I could be reminded of a character’s name, and suddenly had the rest of the plot to the halfway point at least revealed to me. Maybe I’m weird: I like to find out what happens as I read a book. Sometimes that’s the only reason I keep reading something – like, unfortunately, this – purely to find out whether it’s going to end up as I hoped or as I feared. To take that away is to take away a large part of my motivation for finishing the book; in this case, almost all I had left was a feeling of obligation, and that doesn’t enhance enjoyment.

/rant#3

All of that being said, this is a gentle, leisurely read. Very gentle, and very leisurely. In point of fact, very little really happens in the first forty percent or so of the book. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you’re looking for a gentle romance, it might be safe to say you’re not looking for Action! Adventure! on every page. Basically, Harriet and her mother must leave their home, entailed to the next male heir; her mother goes to live with Harriet’s sister and her growing family, and Harriet goes to an aunt with a reputation for being Difficult.

This lady, Aunt Edna, is painted through “reaction shots” in the first chapter as someone no one with any other choice in the matter would ever go live with. Every indication is that it’s going to be an awful situation, and this buildup was actually done pretty well. Someone wishes Harriet happiness in her new home, and there is an exchange of glances to the effect that that’s not likely. And yet … Aunt Edna’s not so bad. She is a bit overbearing in the beginning, but if this was meant to be one of those Heidi-softens-her-grandfather or Anne-softens-Marilla stories, it misses. The reader is told – several times – that Aunt Edna is much happier and less cranky since Harriet arrived, but I never saw it; her tone is pretty much consistent throughout.

Actually, the invisible reformation of Aunt Edna is typical of what happens throughout, of much being made out of little. Aunt Edna is set up as a dragon, and turns out slightly cranky. Harriet’s first meetings with Our Hero, Mr. Ash, are a collection of overreactions that had me scrolling back to see if I missed something – there’s shame and embarrassment and offense taken for no real reason I could see. There was a scene which I completely missed the point of in which a trio of main characters goes shopping and a man makes a point of buying a sword-cane, and my comment at the time was that it had better be a Chekhovian gun: that sword-cane needed to see some kind of use in the ensuing chapters to make its inclusion make sense. It wasn’t, and it didn’t. I have no idea what the purpose of that entire shopping scene was, in the end. There was a scene in which someone gives every sign of True Unrequited Love for someone – and five minutes later she is head over heels for someone else, and nothing else is ever made of the earlier affection. There was a (fairly silly) scene in which Our Hero drinks cider, and then a couple of gulps of brandy, and is soon massively intoxicated; I think what annoyed me about this scene was that in my world apple cider is only alcoholic if specified to be so, and from the rate this generally very sober fellow was belting it back I assumed it wasn’t here either. (A little research shows that cider is generally alcoholic in England, often with a higher alcohol content than beer. I’m not sure how annoyed to be over this; should I have known that? Should the author have made it clearer? I don’t know. I do know I was disgusted when the young man in question became falling-down drunk on what I thought was just a couple of mouthfuls of brandy, and with such convenient timing too.) There is a huge to-do made over the reading of a will, and then the person who became so upset is all sweetness and light for chapter upon chapter … until, kind of abruptly, she’s not, at which time her nastiness a. takes a bizarre and convoluted shape and b. is so out of the blue that it just looks silly. If any of the built-up moments had actually been followed through, this could have been very entertaining. Instead it was like a child with a big Lego set starting to build a city and never getting beyond the foundations.

Something that struck me early on is a repetitiveness of sentence structure. I didn’t count them (and I have no idea how this compares to the average book), but my guess would be that at least 75% of sentences in this book have the most basic subject-verb structure: most sentences begin with “She” or a character’s name, followed by the verb. It’s not really a problem, but there’s an unfortunate rhythm to it, and the fact that I was sitting there noticing that rather than being engaged by what those sentences were saying was telling.

I was willing to overlook a lot.

I could get past the subject-verb subject-verb thing.

I could accept the constant overuse of character names – in nearly every dialogue exchange, each character consistently used the name of the person being addressed. An example from about 40% in, the first sentence of each part of an exchange, with the rest deleted:

“I’m not sure that a visit would be appropriate under the circumstances, Diane….”
“Nonsense, Harriet….”
“No, not when you put it that way, Diane….”
“Harriet, I would love for you to come….”
“Thank you, Diane….”

This is typical. And when the characters aren’t calling each other by name far more than natural conversation would call for, the dialogue tags are. It’s as though the author was determined that I remember the characters’ names. (I’m afraid it didn’t work so well.)

I do have a bit of a problem with the frequent use of “alright” – which is not all right – and with occasional punctuation abuse (who’s instead of whose, etc.). But if any of these flaws was the only one, I’d be fine.

All together, plus numerous typos and the occasional editorial wall-banger like “Your company is much more preferable…” – along with a cartload of awkward phrasings (“She turned numb eyes to Harriet” does not say what the author wanted it to say; “Yes, but the smirk and foolish grin he usually wears is not very attractive” – can one smirk and grin at the same time?) – it makes for heavy going.

In lieu of lots of events, there is – especially in the first half – a concentration on food such as I don’t recall seeing elsewhere lately. It’s as though the author took Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s philosophy very much to heart: “I think [life] rather consists of eating and drinking.” Every chapter tells what everyone is eating and drinking. Not to the extent that I wanted to pull up a chair and join in, or felt compelled to go rummage through the kitchen to try to replicate anyone’s meal – mostly just lists of food and beverage. There is also a great deal of detail on what everyone wears. More happens in the latter half of the book – but this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I think my biggest problem with the book was the issue of the setting. It’s set in eighteen-oh-something, nicely in Jane Austen’s Regency period. Now, I’ve read a bit set in the period, and I have a fair familiarity with the do’s and don’t’s and mores and manners. But, not being entirely sure I had my facts straight, I asked around. And the collective opinion on several moments in this book is that they’re all but impossible. A few of these:

– “Harriet smiled and managed to wink back at him.” Harriet, a Regency-era spinster of good family, winks at a gentleman she has known for (I believe at this point) less than a month? Wouldn’t happen.

-“…you shall keep me company while Steven dances with all his admirers.”
Abigail stiffened…
“Is something wrong…?”
This was more unprecedented tactlessness and stupidity on the character’s part than anachronistic behavior; basically, Harriet begins the conversation by unsubtly pointing out that Abigail is expected by everyone to be a wallflower right alongside Harriet (in other words, “no one’s going to want to dance with YOU”), and this is the sole reason she’s being invited. And then she continues to cluelessly do and say things equally degrading, like a kitten clawing someone to pieces without any intent or idea of harm.

Hyde Park

– Harriet goes riding on Rotten Row with a man who is, technically, a gentleman. There is no groom accompanying them, or a maid – just the two of them – and when a storm begins to threaten they race home, dodging pedestrians, jumping hedges (were there hedges in Hyde Park? I haven’t seen a good map online… Ah, Kim did the work for me, thank you, my friend!), and – in the real world – utterly destroying Harriet’s reputation. Remember Marianne Dashwood!

– An acquaintance of Harriet’s entertains her in London less than a week after her (the friend’s, not Harriet’s) mother’s death, and less than four months later is giving a country house party. The circumstances for the latter are a bit odd, but it raised my eyebrows. I can only imagine what her neighbors’ reactions would be. I would think she’d be pretty thoroughly snubbed in public after such disgraceful behavior.

– And this one I just don’t understand at all: Discussing the man with whom Harriet shortly goes riding: “But when a man has that large an appetite, mistresses can be a blessing.” This sentence … Well, first of all, it has no place in a conversation between a woman and her spinster friend in a Regency-period novel. Particularly when the woman is trying to fix the spinster up with the man. Secondly – what exactly does this woman know about his appetites? There is no way, except the obvious, she should know what he’s up to unless he’s been utterly flagrant – in which case he would not in any way or shape or form be acceptable company for respectable people.

As I said a few pages back, I always want to like books I get for review. I feel mean and heartless when I pan them. But, sadly, at times I just can’t do anything else.

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2 Responses to The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster – C.M. Spencer

  1. Jane Steen says:

    I support your determination to stay honest. Although I have been known not to review at all when it comes to self-pubbed books that I would one- or two-star and I like the author personally.

    And ‘alright’ drives me NUTS but I agree with Grammar Girl, it’s gaining “shadowy acceptance.” Just don’t use it in a novel that purports to represent people living before, say, 2005, because that will yank me RIGHT out of your story into the Land of Annoyance and you don’t want me to go there.

  2. stewartry says:

    I’ve refrained from reviewing as well on a few occasions – if a book is just clearly not meant for me, I don’t feel right slamming it. But when there’s no earthly reason a book can’t be better – “”Your company is much more preferable…” – I can’t but put it out there. I haven’t read many books by people I know – and happily, as you know, when I have done they’ve been good. :D

    > Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2013 14:44:47 +0000 > To: talavera1809@hotmail.com >

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