About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 29 October 2015

"The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse" by Pie Marie Eatwell

The 5th Duke of Portland was a weird bloke. He hated being seen and lived a more or less invisible life, either at his London residence or at Welbeck Abbey, near Worksop. His hobby seemed to be to build a vast network of underground rooms and passages beneath the Abbey. He kept himself to himself and didn't seem to like women.

Thomas Charles Druce had no birth or baptismal certificate. Following a brief spell living in Bury St Edmunds as a 'linen draper' he disappeared for a while and then reappeared as a department store owner. He had three illegitimate children, then he married their mother and had another three legitimate children before he died in 1864.

In 1898 the widow of his eldest legitimate son claimed that Druce was actually the alter ego of the 4th Duke, that the burial was a sham, that the grave was empty, and that therefore her son was the rightful heir of the Portland Estate. She applied to have the grave opened to see if there was indeed a body in it. But the Duke, and Druce's eldest (illegitimate) son who had inherited his father's money (but could not inherit any title) blocked the move.

The court case dragged on for years.

This superbly written book takes us through the dimensions of this mystery. Eatwell delves into and dissects the claims, counter-claims, perjuries and hidden truths. Some aspects are really spooky and she brings the tension out. She answers questions: why did Druce not marry his wife until after the first three children were born. Some questions she cannot answer: what did Druce do when he disappeared, why is their no record of his birth, who was he? But the excitement continues to the end.

A brilliant, weird, true life page-turner. October 2015; 300 pages

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

"Consciousness Explained" by Daniel Dennett

What is consciousness? Is it Gilbert Ryle's "Ghost in the Machine"? Is it our spirit or soul, entirely distinct from our body?

When we think it certainly seems that there is a Ghost watching a television inside our heads. Is mind entirely distinct from body?

Dennett seeks to debunk this mind-body duality that originated with Descartes and the Cartesian Theatre that goes with it. Mind cannot be separate from body and still be able to interact with it, yet I seem to be able to move my body by thinking. Instead, we are just evolved networks of neurons. Dennett disucsses psychological illusions that cannot be explained by the Cartesian Theatre; he uses the Multiple Drafts model to explain them in which a pandemonium of neural circuits is always responding to sensory inputs; the resulting conflict between different drafts is resolved by paying attention to whichever demon is presently shouting loudest. Even ourselves, suggest Dennett, are not single entities (our guts are ecosystems for bacteria, our boundaries are porous and multiple personality disorder suggests that our sense of self  is illusory).

This is a very important book. It is difficult to understand its arguments and compelling and logical. It is a work of philosophy that appeals to common sense (whilst demolishing a huge common illusion) and as such deserves a place on the bookshelf of every serious thinker.

He writes well too, so that this is an accessible text.

October 2015; 455 pages

Another brilliant philosophical work from a modern thinker is Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

"The Duke's Children" by Anthony Trollope

This is the sixth and final instalment of the political Palliser series of novels which started with Can You Forgive Her? and continued through Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister.

At the very start of the book the delightful, charismatic Lady Glencora Palliser, Duchess of Omnium, dies. Given that she is so central to a number of the other books, this feels as if Trollope has decided to tie one hand behind his back; it is like the Forsyte Saga without Irene. She leaves a devastated husband, the Duke, most recently Prime Minister, and three grown up children: Lord Silverbridge who has been sent down from Oxford and intends to enter Parliament as a Conservative MP (the Pallisers have always been Liberal); he owns racehorses and is apt to lose huge sums of money gambling; Lady Mary who, with all the stubbornness of her mother, has decided to marry an impoverished commoner; and Lord Gerald who is in the process of being sent down from Cambridge. The story is mainly about Silverbridge who gets into scrapes and scandals of which the chief is his desire to marry an unsuitable woman.

As always with Trollope, true love succeeds if you are rich enough. If you are poor you can expect a lifetime of sexual frustration.

As always with Trollope, the lower classes are cads and bounders and generally come to a bad end. If a man drops his aitches he might as well go straight to prison.

As always with Trollope, he provides his own spoilers. One of the most charming chapters is the one in which he explains that most authors like to start a narrative in media res (in the middle of things) but he feels that this is to put the cart before the horse. He tries it, but is constitutionally unable to refrain from putting the horse first. All of his massive novels start slowly for the very reason that he must build up the details: he is painstaking but unfortunately the pains he is giving are the reader's.

He is also unable to remember all the details. This novel shows all the sings of having been written very fast and not edited. Thus Tregear denies having a sister in chapter 4 but by chapter 55 has acquired an elder sister.

It is a good book, on the whole, and Silverbridge is a charming youth with whose weaknesses and vacillations I very much sympathised. The bulk of the tension is whether the femme fatale will get her hooks into him and make him marry her before he can achieve true love. She is a very unsympathetic portrait although her schemes are intitally thwarted by herself because she cannot bear to be bad. In contrast, Silverbridge is a true gentlemen.

There was a moment of humour when Popplewell tries to court Miss Bonnaseen but far less than in other books. Most of it is the same plot of all the Palliser novels, recycled yet again.

October 2015; 506 pages

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

"The fault in our stars" by John Green

Sixteen-year-old Hazel has terminal cancer. She meets hot-bodied Augustus (17) at the local support group. He is in remission having lost a leg. Together they read a book about a a young child having cancer; the book ends mid-sentence and, desperate to know what happened to the other characters they get in touch with the author, who lives in Amsterdam. As they fall in love, disease, and plot twists threaten their happiness.

Hazel writes with vicious humour about the world of teenage cancer sufferers and the ways that other people who are going to live try to make mortality bearable. Isaac beats cancer by sacrificing his eyes; his girlfriend dumps him before the operation because you can't dump a blind boy. Caroline died of brain cancer which made her really nasty towards the end. From Cancer Perks (the little benefits you get when people feel sorry for you) to wetting the bed, from not daring to fall in love in case your death destroys the one you love to climbing the stairs when you lungs are filling with fluid, this book is exceptional.

As in Paper Towns, Green's portrayal of challenged, intelligent, wise-beyond-their-years teenagers is exceptional. Hazel's humour in the face of adversity (or as she might put it: Humour. In. The. Face. Of. Adversity.) is matched only by that of Augustus. When they want to travel to Amsterdam they seek funding from the Wish Genies but Hazel has already used her wish when she was 13. "What'd you do?" asks Augustus. "I sighed loudly. 'I was thirteen,' I said. 'Not Disney,' he said. I said nothing. 'You did not go to Disney World'. I said nothing. 'Hazel GRACE,' he shouted. 'You did not use your one dying Wish to go to Disney World with your parents.' 'Also Epcott Center,' I mumbled. 'Oh my God,' Augustus said. 'I can't believe I have a crush on a girl with such cliche wishes.' 'I was thirteen,' I said again, although of course I was only thinking crush crush crush crush crush."

But there are many harder moments. When she meets Isaac for the first time after his eye operation she tells him 'I have gotten really hot since you went blind.' There is the moment when she mentions that having cancer is a side effect of the mutation that caused evolution; her tragedy, her existence, is nothing more than a side effect. When they finally meet the famous author (who is horrible to them) he asks Augustus: "'Did you close the deal with that chick yet?' Whereupon I encountered for the first and only time a truly speechless Augustus Waters. 'I,' he started, 'um, I, Hazel, um. Well.'" But, to start with at least, she can't kiss him because she is frightened he will care about her too much and be hurt when she dies; she compares her death to a grenade going off that will hurt a lot of people.

As well as the enormously attractive characters, there is a lot of reality. Her lungs filling with fluid make it hard for her to climb stairs, sometimes even eating is exhausting. He finds it difficult to get into the back seat of a car because of his prosthesis. She carts an oxygen tank with her everywhere. And her mum is doing a course in social work so she will be able to have a meaning to life after Hazel dies but she doesn't tell Hazel because how can you tell your child that you are thinking about your life after their death?

This book has everything: gritty reality, soaring romance, and a pulsating vitality injected with eternal humour even in the moments of greatest darkness. October 2015; 313 pages

John Green has also written  An Abundance of Katherines and Turtles All the Way Down; these are not nearly as dark but both take the reality of teenage life and add oddbnall characters and wise-cracks to make a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
Another dark US teen novel is Stephen Chobsky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

"The Croydon Arsenic Mystery" by Diane Janes

On 5th March 1929, in South Croydon, Violet Sidney died. Analysis of her remains suggested arsenic poisoning. Given that her daughter, Vera, had died a few months before and her other daughter Grace's husband shortly before that, their corpses were exhumed and found to contain arsenic. The suspects included the cook, the doctor (who was rumoured to fancy the widowed Grace), the Grace herself, and the son, Tom. It was a classic middle class murder mystery.

But was it? Although eminent forensic scientist Sir Bernard Spilsbury convinced the coroner that arsenic was involved in all three deaths and although Inspector Hedges, the local flat foot, was convinced of Grace's guilt, the police never prosecuted anyone.

Ms Janes follows the twists and turns of this case, through three inquests which sometimes threatened to slip from the coroner's control, through the brow-beating of suspects in a scarily biassed investigation, and through details of a forensic science that was still in its infancy. She castigates the police and the expert witnesses as asserting much much more than they could possibly prove, she shows how one of the analysts added his numbers up wrongly in a document that was provided to the court and never challenged, and she suggests her own unique solution.

She is certainly thorough. This is rather at the expense of clarity. There were so many assertions and challenges during the inquests, which were interleaved in time, that it becomes extremely confusing for the general reader. Much of the first two thirds of the book is devoted to a narrative reconstructing these details. But the book itself only comes alive when she shows how the evidence is flawed and when she looks at each death separately from a more modern perspective. When she sweeps aside the irrelevancies of description, the solutions she proposes become highly probable.

If she had restricted herself to the explanation part of the book it might have been a lot shorter but it would have been a great deal better. October 2015; 195 pages

Friday, 16 October 2015

"Songs of Willow Frost" by Jamie Ford

Chinese boy William lives in an orphanage in Seattle with his friends Sunny and blind Charlotte. One day, on a trip to a cinema, he sees his mother on the screen. Then he discovers she is coming to Seattle. So he runs away to meet her. With blind Charlotte. He wants to know why his mother abandoned him to the nuns. He feels betrayed. Slowly he learns to understand her back story.

This is a great book, told in very simple sentences and short chapters. William is a tough little boy; he is only twelve but he is very grown up for his years (although the first scene has him triumphing at not having wet the bed). He needs to be, for there is much for him to understand and to forgive. The banter between him and Native American ('prarie nigger') Sunny Sixkiller (who gets angry and suggests that of he gets his hands on a certain person he will change his name to Sunny Sevenkiller) is excellent. And blind Charlotte is a little saint, a little too good to be true.

The story of how and why William ended up in the orphanage involves understanding the battle between his mother and her Chinese heritage. Throughout the book we are faced with relics of the time; from the Hoovervilles after the Wall Street Crash through speakeasies and prohibition to the racism and sexism of the time. 

My favourite line in the book was "Sacred Heart [the orphanage] was gossipy enough without him adding more cabbage to the stew."

The book took a while to get going but once it was there the stories were absorbing. I loved William and blind Charlotte trying to survive in depression era Seattle; the simplicity of their reactions was wonderful. I loved the sense of menace when there was no safety net and you couldn't run away because you didn't have enough moneyt even to get on the train. And I was horrified by the details of William's mother's life. 

One of the plot twists was so unexpected (and yet so necessary) that I didn't see it coming until the page before it happened. I think I would have ended the story with the penultimate chapter. But each of the last four chapters has its own powerful emotional punch.

The author has also written Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, also about Seattle, which I will try to read.

October 2015; 406 pages

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

"The Unburied" by Charles Palliser

A Victorian murder mystery with an air of ghostliness.

Dr Edward Courtine, academic historian, goes to Thurchester Cathedral to stay with Austin Frickling, someone he knew as an acquaintance when they were undergraduates together twenty years ago but whom he hasn't seen since then because Austin somehow betrayed him and caused his wife to leave him. Whilst at the Cathedral, Dr Courtine searches for a new manuscript which he hopes will explain how Alfred the Great was involved with the Cathedral's history. There are also two more historical mysteries: how and why ean Freeth was killed during the Civil War and what happened to Cathedral Mason John Gambrill  who disappeared after killing William Burgoyne some years before the Freeth killing.

And then Courtine gets involved in his own murder mystery.

This book, therefore, is multi-layered: three historical mysteries, the mystery about Courtine's marriage and one modern murder. This makes it difficult to follow. And Dr Courtine is a reassuringly Watson-like figure, wrongly interpreting every single fact.

But of all the stories, the reader is most engaged with the present-day murder and most wants to solve that. And here I was disappointed. The book starts with an "Editor's Foreword" in which the editor (not Courtine whose narrative provides the bulk of the story) visits an old woman who had once been an actress and talks about the performance she gave, the performance of her life. This gives a huge clue which makes the modern mystery relatively easy to interpret despite the attempt of the author to strew red herrings in the reader's path from the rather transparent bumblings of Courtine and the utterly comical interpretations of the Superintendent. And, of course, any closed community of men and choirboys is expected to have its seamy side in today's literature.

There is a lot to celebrate in this book with its invocation of December mists in a haunted Cathedral Close but the story would have been better with fewer layers and more mystery to the ones left.

October 2015; 387 pages

Monday, 12 October 2015

"The Sandman" by E T A Hoffmann

In  this short story, Nathanael grows up to fear the Sandman, the bogeyman who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children when they don't fall asleep; he then steals the eyes and takes them back to feed his family who live in a nest in the half-moon. As a child he identifies the Sandman with his father's friend, Coppelius, with whom his father practises alchemy.

After his father's death from one of these experiments, Nathanael grows up and becomes a student. Here he is terrorised by barometer salesman Coppola, who is the very image of Coppelius, and who sells him a telescope. He uses the telescope to spy on Olimpia, the pretty daughter of his Physics teacher, who sits in the window opposite his. He becomes obsessed with Olimpia, forgetting his childhood sweetheart Clara. He dances with Olimpia at a ball, despite the fact that she scarcely says anything other than "Ah ah ah" and she is very stiff and stylised in her movements. Sure enough, she is revealed to be an automaton and Nathanael goes mad.

This story is the basis for the first act of Offenbach's Tales from Hoffmann; another of Hoffmann's short stories became the basis for Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.

The story has in interesting structure. It starts with three letters written by Nathanael; although the author claims that this means that he starts in media res, in the middle of things, these letters actually recount the back story of Nathanael's childhood. The narrator then begins the second portion of the story, the student days; this has a conventional narrative structure. It ends with the destruction of the automaton and Nathanael recovering from his madness. But wait! This is not the end. In a final postscript Nathanael tries to murder Clara and then kills himself. At this stage I wondered whether Hoffman had tried out the happy ending and didn't like it so added another; it felt a little like a false appendix.

The whole tone of the story reminded me very much of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther; it was as fatalistically despairing, a hero doomed from the start. Fortunately, it was much shorter.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing so over the top and hysterical that I couldn't believe in the sinister characters.

October 2015; 73 pages

Supplement, January 2016
I have read Nicholas Royle's The Uncanny. He points out (p 39) the multiple identity confusion:

  • The Sandman
  • The advocate Coppelius who is repellent
  • The narrator's father who has a repulsive face and who practises alchemy with Coppelius
  • The barometer salesman who looks like Coppelius but is called Coppola

Royle (p 46) thinks that Freud missed a lot of the meaning of the Sandman, including the passage which presages Freud's description of the death drive, when  Clara speaks of "a dark power which strives to ruin us within our own selves".

Sunday, 11 October 2015

"The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin

This historical thriller cum detective story is set in Istanbul in 1836 and stars an investigator called Yashim who is a eunuch. In fact, there are lots and lots of eunuchs not to mention Preen the dancing boy and his 'girl' friends. There is also a wonderful Polish ambassador who no longer has a country but still receives an allowance from the Sultan, a clever modernising Sultan who is just a bid fed up of having to have yet another girl in his bed every night, a whole harem of beauties, the formidable Sultan's mother (a childhood friend of the Empress Josephine) and a fabulous wife of the Russian ambassador.

The plot concerns the New Guard who are being trained in modern warfare because the old Janissaries, the Sultan's praetorian guard, have become a state within a state. They used to select the new sultan, strangling the old one with a silk bowstring.

The plot is far fetched (artfully arranged corpses designed as a mezze before the main meal of insurrection) and there are various unsuccessful attempts at assassinating Yashim and his confederates (which don't quite work with the plot revealed at the end) but the power of this delightful book is the window into a wonderfully colourful and utterly bizarre world. From the arcane rules of the guild of soup-makers to Yashim's own cooking; from fighting fires to fighting assassins in the disgusting surroundings of a tannery; from dancing boys to eunuchs (of different types) to the harem; old Istanbul and her traditions explode onto the scene as a riot of colour and smell and flavour.

This novel created a world as rich and wonderful as Gormenghast (but considerably more colourful) with some fabulously strong characters. Great fun. October 2015; 329 pages

Friday, 9 October 2015

"Satan's Circus" by Mike Dash

Satan's Circus was the nickname for an area of Manhattan just west of Broadway where gambling dens and brothels flourished in the years leading up to the First World War. Local politicians and the policemen they appointed ran protection rackets which grew fat on the ill-gotten gains of these businesses. Corruption was rife and to be a 'grafter' didn't mean you worked hard, it meant you took bribes.

Herman Rosenthal was a small time crook who ran remarkably unsuccessful illegal gambling dens. Convinced that his long run of bad luck came from his rivals tipping off the police, he decided to blow the whistle and contacted a journalist. His associates attempted to bribe him to leave town but when he refused they became convinced they would have to silence him more permanently. Despite realising he was being followed and being considerably frightened, he persisted and spilled the beans in two long newspaper articles. Shortly afterwards he was gunned down outside a hotel by four gunmen who escaped on the running board of their getaway taxi. The taxi was soon discovered and the men captured. It was then a matter of finding out who was Mr Big behind the plan by the time-honoured American way of offering immunity to some in order to persuade them to testify against their confederates. In this way the District Attorney constructed a case against a corrupt cop called Charley Becker. With the help of a remarkably biassed trial judge and despite a strong of unconvincing witnesses (including the memorable Bald Jack Rose who was completely hairless and had a face that was exactly like that of a vampire), and despite a successful appeal leading to a retrial, another conviction and a second, unsuccessful appeal, Becker died in the electric chair.

This is an exciting, if squalid story. The author does his best with a large cast of characters but it is not always easy to follow who did what (the murder was carried out by four gunmen, at least four other criminals were involved in organising it, there was also the taxi driver and the taxi owner, there were a strong of other related criminals and then there are the police and the lawyers and all the families of all the men). There are some wonderful nicknames (eg Gyp the Blood) and it certainly served as the inspiration for at least some of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls although this was the era just before prohibition and the rise of the famous New York gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schulz.

The epilogue traces the subsequent careers of the low lifes mentioned on these pages. Arnold Rothstein (who was celebrated in fiction as The Brain in Guys and Dolls and Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby) was the man who fixed the 1919 World Baseball Series; he was shot dead in 1928. Winfield Sheehan who may have been involved with a corrupt Gambling Commission for Tammany Hall became a movie producer and discovered Rita Hayworth and John Wayne. And Charlie Becker's son became a professor of Sociology.

This was a fascinating book, lifting the lid on an underworld whilst managing to remind us always of the precarious and seedy existences the criminals led. The conviction of the policeman was clearly a travesty of justice but on the other hand he had accumulated a remarkable amount of graft in a very short time so he wasn't a nice man. Nevertheless, the description of his electrocution is horrendous.

Great reading. October 2015; 354 pages

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

"Time Must Have A Stop" by Aldous Huxley

Sebastian, a seventeen year old boy who looks much younger, has two desires: to write poetry and to lose his virginity. As any adolescent, he suffers agonies of embarrassment; his typical response is to lie. Thus he has invented an affair with a married woman, the details of which he recites to his cousin, blissfully unaware that she is desperately in love with him. And he hates his father, successful lawyer turned martinet socialist, who refuses to buy him evening clothes; both his rage and his humiliation bring childish tears to his eyes.

For the summer holiday he goes to Mussolini's Florence to stay with his black sheep Uncle Eustace, a delightful hedonist who buys Degas drawings, eats well, dresses well and enjoys a part-time mistress. Eustace holds out the promise of evening clothes and an education is art and sex, but on the evening that they meet, Eustace suffers a heart attack and dies. Sebastian is left to the miseries of his vicious, blind, step-grandmother and her incredibly beautiful companion, a sexual predator who has determined to make an assault on Sebastian's virginity.

So Sebastian takes the Degas drawing that Uncle Eustace promised him and sells it for a song and purchases the evening clothes. But then the Degas is missed when the estate is valued and Sebastian must somehow get it back. His blunderings have dreadful consequences.

This is rather a good story. But Uncle Eustace (who is easily my favourite character) dies half way through and from there on he appears as a consciousness who is able to swoop forward and backwards in time to laugh, puck-like, at the troubles and torments of the still-living humans. Whilst this is a useful device enabling the author to show the rippling consequences of Sebastian's actions, he goes into heavy descriptions of what it is like to float about in a sort of cross between heaven and nirvana; this is difficult to read. Then , towards the end, as we meet Sebastian fifteen years later and he reflects on it all, we read through Sebastian's philosophical notes. For pages.

In short, Huxley manages to spoil a good little story (a bit like an Ian McEwan book in which one action has cascading consequences) with heavy doses of religious speculation about life after death, philosophical speculation (which I mostly skim read so I don't really know what that was about) and doses of Sebastian's rather pretentious poetry (Uncle Eustace, on the other hand, writes limericks which are presumably very rude but for which we normally and frustratingly only get the first line). These characters deserve much better.

October 2015; 305 pages

Saturday, 3 October 2015

"The Prime Minister" by Anthony Trollope

This is the fifth in Trollope's 'Palliser' series of political novels, following on from:

Once again it stars the wonderfully wayward Lady Glencora, now the Duchess of Omnium, and her husband the Duke, who used to be Plantagenet Palliser when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and has now been kicked upstairs into the Other Place. It also features Irish adventurer MP Phineas Finn and that splendid little minx Lady Eustace.

But the plot revolves around Emily Wharton and her perverse attempt to marry Ferdinand Lopez. Emily's father opposes the match on the grounds that Lopez is not an English gentleman and that too little is known of his antecedents. It is taken for granted that Lopez, who keeps a coach and pairs and is known to banker Mills Happerton, is wealthy although no one can say where the source of his wealth resides. But Emily is obstinate and gets her own way, with predictable consequences. Lopez immediately puts pressure on Emily to extract money from her barrister father so he can keep his rather dodgy speculations afloat.

There are predictable consequences. Emily and her family are tormented by the unscrupulous blackguard. In the end, the rascal is ruined, together with his rather lower class business partner; Lopez commits suicide. Emily is free to marry her original love, the suitable boy next door but she, feeling herself defiled and worthless by her contact with the rogue, is determined to stay a widow in perpetual self-punishment.

I've spoiled it. But Trollope doesn't seem to be interested in suspense. In Phineas Redux, which revolves around a murder, he tells us whodunnit almost as soon as the crime is committed. and in this book there are no surprises. Lopez, characterised as a villain from the start, is a villain. His suicide happens three quarters of the way through the book, leaving a full quarter for the loose ends to be resolved.

In fairness, there is a second plot which is intertwined with the first. The Duke of Omnium, Plantagenet Palliser, becomes Prime Minister of a coalition government. Lady Glencora is in her element, arranging massive house parties. But the Duke hates it. He is too honourable for politics, particularly the sometimes messy task of keeping a coalition together. He is far too thin-skinned; once the People's Banner gets his knife into him he squirms with every word. He can't even smile at people and the parties Glencora organises are often without him, the star attraction, because he is working quietly in his study. It is this exploration of character that Trollope is most interested in. But without the Lopez story, the book would be very heavy and slow. Like all the others, it is 80 chapters long. By his uneven plotting, Trollope undermines the momentum of his book and leaves some parts very slow indeed.

It is also a vehicle for Trollope, who probably thought he was a great liberal reformer, to parade his class snobbery and casual racism.

The Palliser series is concluded in The Duke's Children in which the Duke's political beliefs are tersted when his children threaten to make unsuitable marriages.

Beautifully written, great characters but some bits drag out interminably. October 2015; 691 pages