Sample Sunday: Decision Time On Henry James

I’ve moved further along the shelves of my unread books, to land on authors whose surnames all start with the letter J. The three books I’m featuring this week are a mix of classics, crime fiction and non fiction.

Let’s see whether these are books I want to keep or move along to a more receptive home.

The Ambassadors by Henry James

This is a left over from my ClassicsClub project. I added it to that project without being sure I really wanted to read it because I’m have something of a chequered history with Mr James. His slow and ultra-detailed prose is an acquired taste.

I tried, but failed with The Wings Of A Dove many years ago. Struggled with Portrait of A Lady though ended up enjoying it and may well read it again. Then enjoyed two of his shorter works: Daisy Miller and Washington Square.

The Ambassadors is one of his final novels and James counted it as his favourite. It’s a portrait of a man’s late awakening to the importance of morality that is founded not on the dictates of convention but on its value per se. Graham Greene and E.M. Forster thought it was marvellous but F.R. Leavis considered it to be ‘not only not one of his great books, but to be a bad one.’

The Verdict: I’m tempted to keep it knowing that I will need to be in the right frame of mind to read it.

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone

I’m pretty sure I bought this as a Kindle daily deal. I should really learn not to open those emails late at night. It’s book one in a series featuring three generations of the Skelf family from Edinburgh. When the patriarch die, his wife, daughter and grand-daughter step in to run the family funeral home and private investigation business. Each ends up with a mystery to unravel.

I’ve read only one book by Johnstone — The Jump — and thought it was a clever pyschological study about grief though some of the plotting was far-fetched. Dark Matter sounds a very different kettle of fish. I’ve seen it described as “darkly funny ” which doesn’t give me confidence that it won’t end up being a stupid narrative about amateurs bumbling about looking for clues. I see RavenCrimeReads rated it highly, ranking it as one of her favourite Doug Johnstone novels but I don’t think I can get over my incredulity that he same family would run a private investigation business AND a funeral parlour.

The Verdict: Abandon. I have some of Johnstone’s other novels which could suit me better.

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones l

I’m partial to the odd splurge of history, but can’t always find books that hit the sweet spot between the very academic and the very popular (for that read simplistic). I heard Dan Jones talk about this book when he was a guest on a BBC History Today podcast and it sounded as if he is a historian who can tell a rattling good story but back it up with sound research.

This is going to help fill in the gaps in my knowledge about the period of the Wars of the Roses and how in-flighting amongst the Plantagenets cost them the throne.

The Verdict: Keep. A book to maybe dip into rather than read cover to cover.

Sample Sunday is when I take a look at all the unread books on my shelves and decide which to keep and which to let free. The goal isn’t to shrink the TBR as such, but rather it’s about making sure my shelves have only books I do want to read.What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached? If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “Sample Sunday: Decision Time On Henry James

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I am D.O.N.E. with Henry James. No pressure, but I would 100% support your decision to bin (metaphorically) The Ambassadors. He has tortured enough of us with his turgid prose!

  • I’ve managed a handful of James’s shorter novels or novellas and they seem to help me get over that obscurity of language that he is famed for, but I’ve yet to try his longer works. Can’t comment on either the Johnstone or the Jones novels, sorry, and so I’ve really not been of any use, have I? 🙂

  • Having persevered with all three of the Henry James longer works you mention I find him hopelessly turgid

  • I’m hardly unbiased but I adore James (wrote a long blog post once about how this came about) and would never discard anything he wrote; his novels are patient and will wait until you can handle them. It took me most of a lifetime (and at least two failed attempts) befoer I managed The Ambassadors but the wait was worth it.
    If shelf space is scarce I’d ditch the other two; popular histories about British royalty are pretty easy to come by if you develop a yearning in this direciton and the mystery sounds pretty pedestrian. If you have the room, well, keep them all! (I hate getting rid of books).

    • I shall wait for a time when I know I can give the James full attention. It’s not going to be one I think I can read late at night in bed; maybe best to take on a long journey

  • I’m interested to see here what others think about Henry James. I had my HJ phase a long time ago and read heaps but still have a couple on the TBR. (Though not The Ambassadors so I must have read that one.)
    But TBH I don’t know what I would make of him now… we read so differently as we get older…

    • Definitely notice that my tastes have changed – I want more “meaty” issue based novels now.

      • Depends what the issue is: some issues are overworked IMO and there isn’t much more that I want to read about them.

  • I never throw out anything, so it’s no good taking advice from me. But throw out a Penguin Classic? Unimaginable.

    • Good point Bill. If it was say a Wordsworth classic edition I wouldn’t hesitate to give that away – I don’t like the printing or the paper. But Penguin classics are in a different league.
      I never throw out though – I take books to charity shops or spread around some of the little free libraries

  • I’ve had mixed experiences with Henry James too, but I would probably keep The Ambassadors, particularly if James himself described it as his favourite. I definitely recommend keeping The Hollow Crown – I remember finding it slightly biased towards the Lancastrian side, but otherwise Dan Jones does a great job of making a complex period of history easy to understand.

    • Thanks for the insight on the Hollow Crown Helen. I’ve not come across anyone who has read this who could thus give me an opinion

  • I’m tempted at first to say ditch the lot, as I found my one encounter with James a struggle. But if you do plan to keep any, I would say that one!

    • If Portrait of A Lady hadn’t been on my OU course I wouldn’t have persevered with it.

  • I endorse the decision to keep “The Ambassadors.” It’s one of the first James novels I ever read, and it’s now on my “to be reread” list.

    • Interesting to see from the comments how much james is dividing opinions


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