Thomas Hardy – the Time-Torn Man

by Claire Tomalin

I have loved Tomalin’s biographies ever since picking up Mrs Jordan’s Confession some 20 years ago.  She makes her subjects come alive in the context of their time.

This book did not disappoint.  Published in 2006, it had passed me by at the time, but I pick up a copy at a charity shop while on holiday in Dorset.  I felt that, being in Dorset, I should give Hardy another try.  And what better place to start than a biography of the man.

Let me put my cards on the table: I neither love nor loathe Hardy’s writing, but I very much favour his poetry over his novels, at least the ones I have read (Tess, Jude, Far from the Madding Crowd and, most recently, The Mayor of Casterbridge).  I don’t know that I will go out of my way to read any of the novels again, nor to try any of the ones I have not read.  But I will come back to Hardy’s poetry and his short stories.

Tomlin does justice to the author, his time and, most importantly, the Dorset environment that is so important in his work.  Definitely a good read, and a book that will stay on my shelves for the time being.


Bridget Jones’ Baby

by Helen Fielding

It almost doesn’t seem worth adding this to my blog.  Yes, it was a fun read, and one that only took me a couple of sessions.  Yes, it’s a sweet story – and although nothing like the film, has a happy ending as you know it will do.

I can’t write much more about this.  The film is better, and indeed, I think (and my husband Martin agrees) that the third film is the best of the three.  We are great fans of Bridget Jones, and of rom-coms in general, but this film’s pithy script by Emma Thompson, and that lady’s excellent acting in the character of the doctor, really set this film apart from the other two.

Enough said.  A satisfying holiday read.


by Robert Harris

A fantastic book; I don’t know when I was last so gripped by a book, and so keen to keep on reading.

True, I read it (or started to read it) on holiday, having picked up my copy in a charity shop in Sherborne, Dorset.  The setting doesn’t sound too promising: a conclave to elect the next pope.  But as the characters of various of the cardinals become exposed to the reader through the eyes of the Dean, Cardinal Lomeli, the reader gets swept along with a story which has several twists and turns.  The final twist is astonishing and sublimely satisfying.

It would be hard to say more about this book without spoilers.  Suffice to say that you warm to Lomeli from the start, but also begin to understand that although most (all?) of the papal candidates have flaws, they are ultimately human beings.

The world outside the Vatican does not obtrude through much of the story – but when it does, it is in the most dramatic way.

Harris has, as always, thoroughly researched the background to his story. He describes in some detail the process of the ballots, and even the clothing of the cardinals and the care and reverence with which they don each garment. Too much detail?  Probably not; to understand the thinking of these men it is perhaps necessary to get to grips with the minutiae of their lives.  Prayer takes a central place in this story.  Lamely is finding it difficult and this causes him some distress.  Others are observed praying at various times and in various ways.  You get the feeling that whatever their flaws, these are all pious men.

I can recommend this book unhesitatingly.

Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

It is not that I have read nothing over a month.  But this is the first novel I have read for quite a while.  Instead I have been reading some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, and also some non-fiction, notably Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men.

I have read Hard Times within the past six years (since purchasing a Kindle and promising myself that I would read more nineteenth-century novels, given that they are cheap, if not free, to download, and that I enjoy them!  So it was somewhat disconcerting, when this book was selected by our book group, that I was able to remember little more about the story than the rather improbably fate of Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden but honest working-class hero, shunned by his own fellow workers and by management alike.

The characters are memorable, if somewhat exaggerated – as indeed is the story.  Professor Belinda Jack argues (in Charles Dickens:  Hard Times and Hyperbole) that the use of hyperbole in this novel serves a serious, rather than a comic purpose, and underlines the author’s outrage at the conditions of the working poor.

Professor Jack recommends the story synopsis on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat it here, but refer my readers (and my future self) to that summary.  The story is compelling, and after grinding my way through the first couple of chapters I fairly flew along – helped perhaps by the fact that I am on holiday and so have more time than usual to devote to reading.  Through all its twists and turns, some of them unlikely or barely believable, it is still a good story.  The ending is satisfactory: the ‘good’ characters (Louisa, Sissy) go on to lead worthy lives; the ‘bad’ characters (Bounderby, Mrs Sparsit, young Tom “the whelp”) get their come-uppance, and the misled character (Mr Gradgrind) leans the error of his ways.  The circus folk are seen to be loyal as well as resourceful, if mischievous and devious.  The poor remain poor, and the reader is surely well aware that they will continue to suffer.

An unusual choice for book group, and one that will, I hope, yield some interesting discussion.  I read it too early – the meeting to discuss it is not for another seven weeks.  So it is just as well I am writing up my thoughts straight away, lest I forget this book for a second time…!