Barchester Towers

by Anthony Trollope

The second of the two Barchester novels that I had read previously.  This time I feel inclined to continue with the other four novels in the series; though perhaps not straight away.

This was my favourite on last reading, and it still is.  A perfect novel: engaging and interesting characters, all of them with some weaknesses; a story with enough suspense and twists and turns that, even though the author gives clues to the reader in various asides as to what is or is not going to happen, there is still enough reason to keep reading in order to find out what happens.  The scenes are carefully and convincingly set, particularly the garden party at the Thornes’ country house.

When I first read this novel and its predecessor, The Warden, I was mainly taken with the very well-observed and carefully crafted depictions of organisational politics.  Though the era and the organisational setting were very different, the behaviours were entirely recognisable as being those of colleagues in the organisation for which I worked at that time.  Trollope has a wonderful insight into the human condition, and the ways in which different character traits play out in the expectations and behaviours of their possessors.  Since most of his main characters in these two novels are clergymen, one might suppose that Trollope would pass judgment on the conflict between their spiritual calling and their temporal ambitions.  In the main, though, the author keeps silent and lets the characters’ actions speak for them.  Even such a worldly, ambitious, impatient man as Dr Grantly, the archdeacon, has his virtues, and can be believed to be sincere in his faith.

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The Warden

by Anthony Trollope

I have read this book, and Barchester Towers, some years ago, and other Trollope novels since. My decision to come back to the Barsetshire Chronicles was prompted by a conversation with a neighbour and fellow reader, with whom I often discuss what she and I are reading. She told me that she had just completed a re-reading if the series, and how much she had enjoyed it. So I decided to take on the challenge myself.

I note that Penguin have decided to produce a special edition of The Warden to mark the bicentenary of Trollope’s birth in 1815.  The book merits being introduced to new readers, whether they are presented with the new edition, lovely to look at and hold, or download the Complete Works for a dollar, as I did.

For me, Barchester Towers is even better than The Warden.  I am looking forward to reading the other four books in the series, which I have not read before.

Poetry Notebook 2006-2014

by Clive James

I don’t know what prompted me to read this book.  Perhaps it was something I saw in a newspaper; perhaps it was a link from some poetry discussion website, visited when I was doing a course on Wordsworth on Future Learn.  I rather suspect it was the latter.  The course was very well presented and extremely satisfying, encouraging me to explore more poetry, and not just Wordsworth’s.

I borrowed James’ book from the library two months ago, and if I have not returned it yet, it is because I have wanted to savour James’s writing and follow up on some of the poets and works he writes about.

This is one of the most enriching reading experiences I have had for a long time.  Clive James writes with humour, scholarship and insight – both mechanical and human.  In reviewing his book, I find myself wanting to write in as accessible and yet learned a fashion as he does, and failing, inevitably.

A bit of background: I first encountered Clive James, like many of my generation perhaps, when he presented TV shows in the late eighties.  The shows were criticism of a kind: reviews of other TV shows, critiques of popular culture, interviews both serious and mocking.  James did not come across as a generous or kind person, though he was clearly entertaining.  He was, indeed, the kind of person you would avoid at a party, lest he ignore you, make fun of you or – if he deigned to talk to you – would leave you tongue-tied.  Not that there has ever been much chance of me going to the kind of party where I would meet such a person.

More recently, in December 2013, I happened to have the radio on in the car, and recognised the distinctive accent of Andrew Marr’s interviewee on ‘Start the Week’.  James was, at that time, already very ill, and spoke about how approaching the end of his life had affected his worldview and his work.  He read one of his poems, and a section from his just-published translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I was greatly moved by the poem, and inspired both to visit his website and to buy a copy of his Dante.  I also blogged about my experience, and copied James’s poem into my blog post.

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So, to the merits of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. Clive James write as if every sentence might be his last – which, indeed, it could be.  So every sentence has to matter.  He is passionate about his subject, generous with the writers he admires, and forgiving (or silent) about those for whom he has less enthusiasm.  This book has introduced me to poets I had never heard of, such as the Australians Les Murray and Stephen Edgar, and rekindled my interest in others whom I may have heard of but never (or hardly ever) read.  Most of all, I couldn’t help but be swept away in James’s enthusiasm for the art of poetry and the technical skill which the best poets display.  He is passionate about form, and – as an accomplished poet himself – is credible in everything he writes about technique.

I feel sure that I will have a more extensive and more satisfying experience reading poetry from now on.  Thank you, Mr James.

In the Tall Grass

by Joe Hill and Stephen King

Joe Hill is Stepehn King’s son. How do you write a short story collaboratively? One suspects that Hill wrote most of it, and King provided editorial input and a name that would ensure sales. Certainly I was convinced – and intrigued- enough to part with 99p.

The story is very much in King’s style, in terms of plot: creepy and gory. It moves along at a good pace. The main characters are lightly deawn but still come to life, and they have a back story as well as an unusually close brother-sister relationship.  The setting is a field alongside a highway through a remote part of Kansas. Could be anywhere, really, and thus the reader’s imagination is set free.

This is a very readable story. Will I be seeking out other works by Joe Hill? I suspect not, or at least, not before I have done more justice to King’s back catalogue.

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

I was really disappointed with this novel. Aware of it on the bestseller lists for some time, but with no burning desire to read it just yet, I got myself a copy when it was selected by our book group.

The setting – Amsterdam in the late seventeenth century – is convincing, and portrays a powerful image of how a rich merchant’s household might have been managed. The characters are real people, though I felt that they were insufficiently developed. 

Johannes and Nella’s relationship develops throughout the book, and despite the unusual circumstances of their marriage, they develop a strong love and respect for each other. Other ‘good’ characters demonstrate loyalty, tact, discretion. And then here are the ‘baddies’. The reasons given for their were not convincing to me. The most interesting character is probably Marin, but we don’t get to know her well.

The miniaturist of the title is elusive – this is part of the story – but also, to me, quite unnecessary to the plot.
And it is the plot that was the biggest disappointment. The author provides an atmosphere: petty-mindedness, religious bigotry, small-town gossip characterise the town of Amsterdam. And it could be said that the town is the novel’s main character.  The story was, to me, of secondary concern to its author, and I found it hard to keep my attention focussed on this novel enough to finish reading it.

4/10