28 January 2013

Review: Ashton Park by Murray Pura

Ashton Park, the first in The Danforths of Lancashire series, is being marketed as for those who watch Downton Abbey (isn't that everyone?). It is written by a Canadian author and published by an American company. I had a natural fear that it would be full of illogical Americanisms which I find very annoying in books written by Americans but set in England (although it is always a relief to find books that set somewhere other than in the US). Sadly, my fears were soon confirmed.

Things don’t start well, when my advance copy shows map of the Danforth estate with it situated on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean when the estate is supposed to be in Lancashire. Modern maps show that Lancashire borders the Irish Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean (if this wasn’t the case in 1916, then this would have been an ideal fact to include in an introductory ‘note from the author’).

We then have an overwhelming two-page list of characters. This is too many for one novel, even if it is intended to be the beginning of a series. It also contains a reference to the Royal Air Force, which wasn’t formed until 1918 (the novel starts in 1916 but covers several years). The opening chapters have far too many characters and too much information. It makes it hard, as a reader, to know who or what is important.

Our first introduction is to Victoria, one of the Danforth daughters, who comes across as spirited if somewhat unappealing. In this, she reminds me of Lady Mary, my least favourite character from Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, while Lady Mary has improved with age, I am unable to say the same for Victoria. Overall, the characters are lifeless, missing the acerbic wit of the Dowager Duchess, and the dry wit of Carson, the butler at Downton.

In some respects, Pura has captured the English essence, like putting up bunting for a celebration. In others, he has failed miserably. There was the patronising spelling of English words like ‘Leftenant’ and ma’arm (which is spelt ‘ma’am’, despite being pronounced as rhyming with ‘arm’, not ‘ham’). There were factual errors, like references to Northern Ireland (which didn’t exist until 1921. Prior to this, it was either Ulster or northern Ireland). There is a reference to Christchurch, Oxford. Christchurch is a city in New Zealand, while Christ Church is the college from the University of Oxford.

There was a conversation about passing notes to girls in school, at a time when only the lower classes attended mixed schools (the upper classes were either tutored at home or attended single-sex boarding schools). At one point, Kipp couldn’t seem to remember ‘what little French he knew’, where most boys of his social class would have received extensive schooling in both French and Latin. And, as a single man in April 1916, Ben Whitecross should already have been conscripted (under the Military Service Act), so shouldn’t have been at Ashton to woo Victoria. I’m also not convinced that a Conservative would have been in favour of Home Rule for Ireland, given that Conservative voters were the landowners who had the most to lose.

And then we have the Americanisms – quit (resigned in this context), gotten (received – the English don’t use gotten as the past participle of ‘get’), two hundred and thirty pounds of weight (the English weigh in stone and pounds), calling people ‘cute’, meaning attractive (it meant ‘shrewd’ in England at this time), eating oatmeal (porridge), cables (telegrams), and May thirty-first (the thirty-first of May).

There were also issues with the writing, like head-hopping and point of view issues, creative speaker attributions (“flared Emma”), and some sentences that were so complex that they were almost incomprehensible (e.g. “Despite the devastating news she awoke to, Lady Elizabeth greeted them with warmth and grace, clever work with cosmetics by her maid, Cynthia, disguising the redness and swollenness under her eyes.” Technically, this is correct. It just would have been easier to read as two sentences).

You may think I'm being dreadfully picky, and maybe I am. But by 10% of the way through Ashton Park, nothing had happened in the plot to gain or maintain my interest. Sure, Robbie had been captured by the Irish, Emma had cancelled her wedding and Ben has been asked to leave for romancing with Miss Victoria. So it wans’t as though nothing happened. It's just that it was all been very hurried, and the conflict was all very passive and distant. It just didn’t engage me, and I tend to notice these things when I’m not engaged.

Then, at the 27% mark, the book turned interesting for all the wrong reasons. There was a comment to 'Murray' (the author), presumably from the editor. There were another six comments, asking for additional content to fill up plot holes, and asking for facts to be checked or passages to be changed because they were factually incorrect. From an editorial point of view, comments like these are educational and enlightening, but they also raise questions. What version of the book is this? Is the editing almost complete or has it only just begun? Why are they concerned about the correct use of the French language when they haven't even got the English right?

The beginning of Ashton Park has the usual disclaimer that “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to events or locales, is entirely coincidental.” Yet this is historical fiction. It is supposed to contain deliberate and accurate references to relevant historical events (although that disclaimer accurately describes the contents, based on the 27% I managed to read properly. I skipped through the rest, but only found more faults, so finishing the book wouldn’t have improved my review).

I don’t mind receiving an unproofed manuscript for review (as long as this is disclosed at the beginning, as it was), but I don’t think it’s fair to either reviewers or the author to present an unfinished manuscript. I contacted the publisher and received a very prompt and polite reply from the publicist thanking me for my detailed comments, confirming this was not the final version of the book and continuing, “Hopefully, many of the items you listed will no longer be present in the final edited version of the book”. Yet a quick search through the ‘Look Inside’ version on Amazon shows that all the errors I note above are still there in the published version.

I haven't read any previous books by Murray Pura, because the ones I've seen have been Amish, a genre I don't particularly care for. Based on Ashton Park, I don’t think I will read any of his future books either. Please, authors, if you are going to set books in England, make sure the facts are correct and make sure your historical English characters don’t sound like contemporary Americans.

Not recommended for those who like their historical fiction to be historically and culturally accurate. Thanks to Harvest House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Murray Pura at his website.

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