Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Collectors by Philip Pullman / The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell / Plainsong by Kent Haruf

The CollectorsThe Collectors by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Collectors in an audio version read by Bill Nighy was Audible's Christmas gift to its members this year and I enjoyed Nighy's narration of the tale. It is a short story at only just over thirty minutes so there isn't much time for character development, but the language Pullman uses means that we do get amazingly detailed portrayals of people and places. His expert use of few words, perfectly chosen, is practically a masterclass! The suspense builds nicely and I liked the knowing nod to Lyra's alternate universe. The ending is expectedly bizarre for a seasonal horror tale, but I didn't really buy into it, hence the drop in stars. However a fun listen all the same. Thank you and Merry Christmas Audible!


The Ragged Trousered PhilanthropistsThe Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/13026942

I am always intrigued by real novels that earn a mention in other novels I've enjoyed so, when The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists cropped up in the entertaining audiobook A Very British Coup, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for a copy. It's taken a while to spot one, but the library at Camping El Naranjal triumphed. I was nearly put off by the sheer volume of this volume - it is well over 700 pages - but as it was a Penguin Modern Classic I assumed they would know a good book when they published one and so took a chance on it.
TRTP is set in a faintly disguised Hastings. We have visited there a few times so I was interested to learn about the town as it was a century ago. Tressell sets his tale among a crew of poor painter-decorators who work amid conditions of almost overwhelming poverty and deprivation. The characters of the workmen and their bosses are well-drawn and easily believable although with a tendency to over-exaggeration at times. Descriptions of the workmen's homes and clothing are heart-rending and I didn't really previously understand just how harsh life could be prior to the introduction of the Welfare State. I remember the subject being exposed in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, but somehow fiction can often make situations more 'real' than factual books. The best parts of this story are the conversations over the dinnertime tea pail. These are sometimes humorous or angry or desperate, and it is where the ensemble cast really comes to life for the reader. Unfortunately, the book also contains a vast amount of lengthy solo speechmaking and narrative political preaching which makes sense in the tale once around, but these passages and arguments are repeated again and again and again. Tressell wrote TRTP to promote his own political belief in socialism - at this period almost pure communism - and frequently allows either his enthusiasm for the new or his anger at the old to run away with him. This is a shame as it makes what could be a fascinating and powerful novel into a longwinded diatribe that ultimately loses its impact. I have given it three stars as much of the actual storyline, physical descriptions and scenes are brilliantly written, but the whole book is easily 300 pages longer than it needs to be.


Plainsong (Plainsong, #1)Plainsong by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plainsong was recommended and a copy given to us by our friends Chris and Marta who were both impressed by the novel. Set in 1980s Colorado, it centres around two pairs of brothers: ageing cattle farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron, and children Ike and Bobby Guthrie; as well as Victoria Roubideaux, a teenage girl thrown out by her mother for getting pregnant. Haruf intertwines their stories to give a wonderful imagining of their small town life in Holt, Colorado. The prose is simple and compulsively easy to read which gives the whole book a real sense of poignancy. Realistic dialogue and descriptions of body language are used to great effect illustrating the often repressed emotion that the characters are unable to express for themselves. With more flowery writing, Plainsong could have become cloying and saccharine, however the stark simplicity of its language makes it very real and memorable.

My favourite characters are the McPherons. This pair of sibling brothers have lived fifty-odd years with only each other since their parents died, yet they don't hesitate to take in Victoria when she has nowhere else to go and are determined to do things properly for her. Much of the gentle humour in Plainsong comes from their sheer awkwardness, but I never felt as though Haruf was mocking them. Their kindness contrasts sharply with Victoria's mother's anger and with the actions of other mothers in the story - Ike and Bobby's mother deserts her family as the result, I think, of her drug addiction. Another character, Beckham, a failing high-school student is shown as an angry bully with his mother exhibiting exactly the same behaviours so it is depressingly obvious to see her life repeated in his. All of Haruf's characters are flawed in themselves while also trying to make the best of their lives in whatever way they know how, and he doesn't make moral distinctions between them. The writing simply states 'what is' and leaves the reader to understand which I appreciated. The novel is ultimately uplifting but without a false-feeling happy ending.

We both enjoyed Plainsong so much that Dave has found two more novels revisiting the town. The next book, Eventide , is already awaiting me on our Kindle.


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