If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit. Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked […]
Centuries before we’d even heard of payday loans and credit card debt, Anthony Trollope was writing about a society where living on credit is acceptable and loan sharks lurk in the shadows.
The critique of Victorian society found in The Chronicles of Barsetshire is one of the reasons I love the series so much. On the surface they are tales about love, marriage and religious rivalry. Pleasant enough but it’s the way Trollope criticises and mocks the “pillars of society” that makes them stand out for me. Church, aristocracy, government, politicians in general – it seems Trollope holds none of them in high regard.
In Framley Parsonage his scornful eye is turned on Nate Sowerby, a spendthrift Member of Parliament, and the men of power – politicians, socialites, the Duke of Omnium – in his network of acquaintances.
Anthony Trollope spends a good deal of the book demonstrating how these men he labels “gods” and “giants” connive and collude to advance their own interests, even if that is at the expense of the innocents.
Temptations of A Naive Man
The main plot concerns one such innocent. Mark Robarts is an affable man in his twenties who has been given a leg up in life by the mother of his schoolfriend Lord Lufton. Not only has Lady Lufton gifted him a wealthy living as vicar in her parish, Mark and his wife are regular dinner guests at her grand home.
But this is not enough for Mark whose ambitions lie beyond the small parish of Framley. He is flattered when Sowerby pays him attention and dazzled by the prospect that this acquaintance can lead to even more illustrious connections. Though he knows that Lady Lufton disapproves of the MP’s morals and lifestyle, he plunges on regardless, accepting an invitation to spend the weekend with Sowerby, the Dean of Barchester and another MP, Harold Smith.
His decision is partly an act of defiance against Lady Lufton, but he rationalises it as an essential step towards advancing his position in life.
I have no doubt that Harold Smith will be in the government some day, and I cannot afford to neglect such a man’s acquaintance.
In a naive attempt to mix in these influential circles, he gets persuaded by Sowerby to be a signatory to a bill of credit. Sowerby is an old hand at this kind of caper, deftly getting Mark to stand as guarantor for a £400 loan, considerable sum of money for the rather lowly parson.
‘Allow me to draw on you for that amount at three months. Long before that time I shall be flush enough.’ And then, before Mark could answer, he had a bill stamp and pen and ink out on the table before him, and was filling in the bill as though his friend had already given his consent.
The MP makes no attempt to pay back the loan. When the due date materialises he simply gets Mark to sign another note (this time for £500) to buy his racehorse.
In return, Sowerby helps Mark gain a prestigious post at Barchester Cathedral. But too late, Mark discovers that Sowerby is a false friend whose deviousness has brought him to the brink of disgrace, aided by a shady group of people whose business it is to speculate on unpaid debts. It proves to be a wake up call for the young cleric:
His very soul was dismayed by the dirt through which he was forced to wade. He had become unconsciously connected with the lowest dregs of mankind, and would have to see his name mingled with theirs in the daily newspapers.
Anthony Trollope said his intention in Framley Parsonage was to write “the biography of an English clergyman who should not be a bad man, but one led into temptation by his own youth and by the unclerical accidents of the life of those around him.”
It isn’t only Mark whose faults are laid bare. Sowerby is clearly the kind of parasitic person Trollope despises:
It is a remarkable thing with reference to men who are distressed for money… they never seem at a loss for small sums, or deny themselves those luxuries which small sums purchase. Cabs, dinners, wine, theatres, and new gloves are always at the command of men who are drowned in pecuniary embarrassments, whereas those who don’t owe a shilling are so frequently obliged to go without them!“ —
In fact hardly any character (notable exceptions being Mark’s wife and sister) comes out of the story with any grace. They’re avaricious, acquisitive social climbers, driven by determination to get the status and wealth they believe is rightfully theirs. So they manoeuvre to marry their daughters off to someone with a title, get a position in the Cabinet, or acquire even more influence.
Mrs Proudie Returns
The mocking tone Trollope adopts towards many of these figures, makes the book hugely entertaining. Some of the characters from previous books in the series, make an appearance including the formidable Mrs Proudie, wife of the Bishop.
She’s her usual domineering self and still determined to exert her influence even beyond Barchester. There’s one memorable scene in which habing decided to play social hostess, she agonises over what kind of event would best “set the people talking” . Eventually she determines to hold a conversazione.
To accommodate with chairs and sofas as many as the furniture of her noble suite of rooms would allow, especially with the two chairs and padded bench against the walls in the back closet the small inner drawing−room, as she would call it to the clergymen’s wives from Barsetshire and to let the others stand about upright, or ‘group themselves’ as she described it. Then four times during the two hours’ period of her conversazione tea and cake were to be handed around on salvers. It is astonishing how far a very little cake will go in this way, particularly if administered tolerably early after dinner.
Gems like this abound in Framley Parsonage. Trollope’s mocking tone had the ability to make me smile but there were some moments, of which this was one, that were pure laugh-out-loud. This is the fourth of the Barsester Chronicles I’ve read and the combination of social commentary and sharp wit has nudged this ahead of Barchester Towers in my list of favourites.
Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope: EndNotes
About the Book: Framley Parsonage was published serially in the Cornhill Magazine from January 1860 to April 1861 and in three volumes in 1861. It was the fourth of Trollopes’s six Barsetshire novels.
Elizabeth Gaskell was one of its many fans. “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end,” she declared.
About the Author: Anthony Trollope was working as a postal surveyor’s clerk in central Ireland when he began to write, using long train journeys around the island on postal duties. His early novels, which had an Irish settings, were not well received. Returning to England he was given responsibility for investigating and reorganising rural mail delivery in south-western England and south Wales. His investigation took him to Salisbury where he conceived the plot of The Warden, which became the first of the six Barsetshire novels.
When a little free library opened a few weeks ago in my village I absolutely had to take a gander. With shops and libraries closed, this was the only way I could indulge in my favourite hobby of book browsing.
I thought I would come away empty handed but then, tucked away behind the multiple copies of James Patterson and John Grisham novels, I found two slim volumes by M C Beaton.
I’ve never read any of her Agatha Raisin series and probably wouldn’t have been tempted except it just so happened I was in the mood for something not too demanding.
Wit And Humour
And that’s exactly what I got. Book 1, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death, and Book 13, Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate are both delightful escapist novels. I thought I would be mildly entertained but I wasn’t expecting to encounter books that were full of such sharp wit or to feature such an enjoyable non-PC character.
It’s the character of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR queen turned amateur sleuth. that makes the difference in this series. She’s absolutely the star of the show. Without her we’d just have pretty cottages, slightly amusing mysteries (nothing too gory or nasty) and quaint village traditions.
Agatha is definitely not in the Miss Marple mode. Instead of a neatly dressed, quietly spoken amateur sleuth with an acute understanding of human nature we get a brash and prickly career woman.
As the series opens, Agatha has decided to sell up her public relations company and move to a picturesque cottage in the Cotswolds. Accustomed to the buzz of parties and launches, she finds rural life is harder than she imagines. The locals in the village of Carsley are not hostile but don’t go out of their way to welcome her or include her in their social circle. Without friends and work, she quickly becomes bored.
No one asked her for tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call/ In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to ‘Mawnin’, ‘Afternoon’, or talk about the weather. For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her.
To stamp her mark on the village she decides to ingratiate herself with the locals to enter the annual ‘Great Quiche Competition’ . Never having baked anything in her life, she resorts to cheating, buying her ‘entry’ from an expensive London delicatessen. Unfortunately the competition judge dies after tasting her quiche. Agatha’s duplicity is revealed. Shame turns to anger when she is blamed for his death. It spurs her to turn detective and find the murderer herself.
Her methods are unorthodox and she finds herself in more than one scrape before the crime is solved. It’s great fun watching this woman’s inept attempts at detection and all the false trails she follows.
When I caught up with her again in Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate, it was to find that she’d become a fixture in the village. In the intervening years she’d married (twice). Husband number two has just dumped her; the launch she took on as a freelance project turned out to be dull and even her beloved London had lost its sparkle. So it’s back to the Cotswolds and those microwave meals for one.
Bumbling Detective In High Heels
The arrival of a new curate in Carsley is just the tonic she needs. Even though “she swore she would never be interested in a man again” Tristan Delon is a golden-haired, blue-eyed dish. He has all the ladies in Caswell swooning over him. After an intimate dinner for two in his flat, Agatha falls for his charms. she begins to dream of an exciting new adventure with a toy boy. Her dream doesn’t last long – the very next day the curate is found dead.
When the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar, the husband of her best friend, Agatha sets off once more on the trail of a murderer. What follows is often hilarious as Agatha bumbles around following up on clues, worming information out of people and annoying the local police force.
Just like The Quiche of Death, in The Case Of The Curious Curate, MC Beaton delivers some deliciously funny scenes. Agatha has a penchant for causing mayhem as she lurches from one theory to another. Though she is so often rude and forceful, by the end of each novel, I did find myself warming to her. I loved the image of this champion of justice fretting about her weight before bunging another high calorie meal into the microwave before heading off in high heels and tight skirt, to do battle with the villain behind net curtains.
Would I read another book in the series? I might do if I were ever feeling a bit down in the dumps and in need of a pure entertainment. I have a feeling they would work really well as audiobooks so I’ll have to look out for them via my library’s digital service.
A Monster Calls is the only fictional book I’ve ever bought purely because I was interested in the illustrations.
I first heard about the book in a Sunday newspaper supplement in which illustrator Jim Kay described the process of creating an imaginary monster for a new children’s novel by Patrick Ness. I was so intrigued by Kay’s explanations of using ink splats, splodges and rubbings from bits of wood to produce textures and patterns, that I just had to see the results for myself.
The finished illustrations are gobsmackingly brilliant. Patrick Ness imagined his monster emerging from a yew tree as a huge, gnarled, creaking, spiky thing. In Kay’s stark black and grey drawings, you get not only a sense of the monster’s scale, but its earthy origins. Hands fashioned from twigs and bark like legs topped with a crown of thorns.
Some scenes are rendered on a single page, others spread across several pages with motifs repeated as smaller drawings elsewhere in the book.
You turn a page on which you’ve just read about the creature that comes knocking on a young boy’s bedroom window, and suddenly you see this huge shape yourself. As a young reader I think I have been petrified. But here’s the really clever part: although the illustrations are detailed, they still leave huge scope for the imagination. There’s plenty of ambiguity for the reader to interpret the scene for themselves.
I’m conscious I haven’t really talked about the narrative but don’t think that’s because I felt the text was somehow inferior to the illustrations. A Monster Calls is in fact a book where the illustrations and text are in perfect harmony. That’s an astonishing achievement considering that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay never met until after the book was completed. They communicated entirely through a third party – the art director at Walker Books, Kay told The Guardian newspaper in a 2012 interview.
A Monster Calls is a fantasy novel aimed at young teen readers. It follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives alone with his ailing mum. Dad isn’t much on the scene because he’s living in America with his a new family. Conor’s grandmother occasionally makes an appearance, but she’s not the “crinkley and smiley with white hair” kind of grandma who giggles at Christmas after a glass of sherry. That’s how grandmas are supposed to look and act, in Connor’s view but his
… wore tailored trouser suits, dyed her hair to keep out the grey, and said things that made no sense at all, like ‘Sixty is the new fifty’ or ‘Classic cars need the most expensive polish.’ What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, argued with waiters and still had a job.
Which leaves the boy isolated and alone, unable to express his fears about his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. There’s no-one he can tell either that he is being bullied at school.
A Monster Comes Calling
For months Connor’s sleeo is disturbed by the same nightmare, “the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming”. One night at precisely 12:07, he hears a voice outside his bedroom window, calling him. Peering out he encounters a towering mass of branches and leaves in human shape, a monster who insists Connor has summoned him.
The monster continues to meet Connor to tell him stories that all touch on the complexity of human emotions and decisions. As the novel progresses, his mother’s condition worsens and Connor’s encounters with the monster unleash an aggressive reaction in the boy.
Why does the monster keep re-appearing? We don’t discover this, or the exact nature of Connor’s nightmare, until the very end of the book. Unlike many books written for children, this one doesn’t have a happy-ever- after kind of ending. Patrick Ness never shrinks from showing a child’s fear of loss and their frustration with their inability to control the future. I thought this was a sad but profound novel that treats a difficult topic of terminal illness with great sensitivity.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: Endnotes
The novel was written based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, She was terminally ill with cancer herself when she had the idea for the story but died before she could complete it. Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write the book although as Ness says in an afterword to my edition, he he used the preliminary idea but gave it a completely different spin.
Patrick Ness and Jim Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration in 2012, making A Monster Calls the only novel to have won both children’s literary awards in 50 years.
You’ll find samples of Jim Kay’s illustrations for the book on his website. His other work, including the illustrations for the Harry Potter books, is just as impressive.
When Eve Smith conceived the plot for her debut novel, The Waiting Rooms, the world was blissfully unaware of Covid-19.
Terms like social distancing, the R Rate and viral load hadn’t entered our daily vocabulary and people over 70 weren’t made to feel scared just because of their age. To the average person, death from a pandemic was something that happened far away from their own neighbourhood.
Our new familiarity with the effect of a global health crisis makes the premise of The Waiting Room more believable, more real and definitely more chilling.
A World In Danger
Eve Smith creates a world where antibiotics have been over-used for so long they no longer work. Without effective antibiotics, conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, are becoming more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat. Even a simple injury, like a scratch from your cat, or a mouthful of contaminated water at the swimming pool can be lethal.
Countries respond with travel restrictions, strict border controls, trade embargoes and a desperate drive to find vaccines and treatments. Printed books and libraries become a thing of the past because they can spread infection. ‘Declawed’ breeds of cats become popular pets and entire populations become accustomed to body scans and profile checks as part of infection control.
The UK, one of the worst affected countries, takes even more drastic measures. All citizens have to undergo regular health screening and must show their results before entering buildings or taxis. The few antibiotics that do work, are reserved for those under the age of 70. Anyone over that threshold who picks up an infection is sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms.’ Understandably, the encroachment of a 70th birthday is no cause for celebration.
My stomach churns. It’s a Pavlovian response; it happens every time I look at my calendar.
Those white paper squares are like a game of Sudoku. Each day has a number at the bottom written in the same black felt-tip pen: the one with a rubber tube around its middle, like those used by infants who are struggling to write.
Forty-eight days until my birthday. The big seven-o.
This is no childish anticipation. Quite the opposite. Cut-off. That’s the expression they like to use.
Rolls off the tongue a bit quicker than ‘no longer eligible for treatment’.
For those who do end up in a Waiting Room, there is so little chance of recovery, that many prefer to sign a euthanasia directive.
Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, a hospital nurse who works in one of the Waiting Rooms begins a search for her birth mother. Kate discovers disturbing facts about her mother’s involvement in a scandalous programme to find a cure for tuberculosis .
Thought-provoking pacy novel
Switching from the grasslands of South Africa to hospitals and care homes in the UK, and from the present to 27 years earlier, when a new legal strain of tuberculosis began sweeping Africa, The Waiting Rooms, combines the pace of a mystery novel with a meticulously researched issue-based plot.
Eve Smith ambitiously chose a complex narrative structure for the novel. Alongside the alternating settings and time-lines there are three rotating narratives. One features Kate, another her birth mother Mary and the third focuses on an elderly scientist called Lily who is a resident at an upmarket retirement home (it’s becomes clear that Lily and Mary are the same woman).
In between these narratives, we get snippets of media stories based on government announcements about the pandemic and its effect on the country. They often sounds just like the kind of pronouncements we can expect from the current UK government in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
… the slump is set to continue, with the budget deficit at its highest point since the Antibiotic Crisis. The government defended its position arguing that any reductions in healthcare spending or arbitrary policy changes would be “highly irresponsible” and that recovery would be “a long term process.
These sections provide important context for the events of the novel but I found some of them somewhat jarring. As a former journalist I thought the style of the “media reports” often didn’t ring true. At one point for example, Kate is on her way into work when she encounters an anti-euthanasia protest and is accosted by a journalist.
‘Hey! Hey you!’ shouts the reporter. ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts on legalised killing.’
That phrase ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts’ belongs more in a cosy interview with an academic than amid the mayhem of a demonstration and is not a form of words any journalist would use in those circumstances.
Representations of the media in novels is one of my bête noires. I got over it in this novel because in all other respects, Eve Smith has created in The Waiting Rooms, a world so believable it is petrifying.
Chilling Sense of Reality
In case readers are in any doubt that the antibiotic crisis is feasible or that the over 70s will be the most adversely affected, a postscript to the novel should provide food for thought. Writing about the inspiration for her novel and the premise of the over-70s “cut off”, Eve Smith points to the fact that in the UK, a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions are for people above 75 years-old.
A recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health claims that ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice and discrimination in the UK and Europe. Compounding this, we have social-care systems and health services already in crisis and needs are only going to increase. Put all this together and you have the perfect storm.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith: Endnotes
The Waiting Rooms was published by Orenda Books in ebook format on 9 April, 2020 with the paperback to follow on on 9 July. Thanks to Orenda for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest review.
Eve Smith was inspired to write the book after she read “some scary facts” about antibiotic resistance. If you want to delve into this and other issues covered in the novel, such as tuberculosis and poaching, take a look at the factual information provided on her website.