The White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov Classics Club spin

The White Guard cover

I got The White Guard in the Classics Club Spin which was almost ideal really as I was reading it while on my way to Russia, except I was going to St Petersburg, not Kiev which is the setting of the book which first appeared in serial form in 1925 but wasn’t published in book form in Russia until 1966.

The setting is the city of Kiev in 1918 – the October Revolution. The Turbin family had been well off but they’ve just lost their beloved mother. It’s particularly poignant as her eldest son Alexei had just returned from the front after serving for years in a disastrous campaign in the Tsarist army. At last the whole family is together, but without their mother. There’s a younger brother, Nikolka and a sister Elena who is married to an army captain and also Anyuta the maid all living in the family apartment but it isn’t long before Talberg the husband abandons them, running away to save his own skin, the brothers had never trusted him anyway.

The city is chaotic with the German army roaming around and various other factions trying to grab the power.

The Bolshevik thugs are running around in the city, attacking anyone that they recognise as having been an officer in the Tsarist army, and it’s very easy for the officers to be pinpointed. Criminals are taking advantage of the chaos to blackmail people into giving up their valuables. The apartment becomes a refuge for others sheltering from the violence.

This is a really great read, conveying the atmosphere of danger, fear and panic as the normal rules of society have broken down and nobody has any idea of what the new future is going to hold for them.

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

Walking Naked by Nina Bawden

 Walking Naked cover

Walking Naked by Nina Bawden was first published in 1981 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1992. It all feels very autobiographical but I gather that Bawden habitually plundered her own life for use in her novels.

The action takes place on one day. Laura is an author and is happily married to Andrew who is her second husband. He’s successful and socially adept where Laura is awkward and uncomfortable. It begins with Andrew playing a game of tennis with a visiting American business contact, with the wives looking on.

It’s a busy day as next on the agenda is a prison visit to Laura’s grown up son by her previous husband. The son is being charged with drug smuggling, he’s either guilty or a complete idiot. It’s a situation that finds Laura and Andrew feeling powerless, an unusual state for them to be in.

Laura is carrying a lot of baggage from her wartime childhood when she felt abandoned by her mother. Her anxiety manifests itself as a fear and dread that her home is silently being attacked by dry rot and is about to tumble down around her and her family.

But it’s Laura who is telling this tale and she’s a very flawed character, skipping back and forth between the past and the present the reader slowly discovers that Laura isn’t as she has portrayed herself.

This was well written but not a comfy read as it’s dealing with broken families and damaged people.

You can read Bawden’s obituary here

Subscriber problems

Sandra and Valerie commented that they hadn’t been getting my blogposts via email as they should do as they’re subscribers. I had a bit of a delve into Pining’s internals and the upshot is – the subscribers list seems to have disappeared while I was on holiday! The only subscription there is Sandra as she had resubscribed. It’s a mystery to me how things like that can happen. Hopefully Duncan has a backup and he can sort it out eventually – when he has time. Meanwhile if you were a subscriber and by some miracle you are checking in here, maybe you could just resubscribe. Technology can be a real pain in the neck.

On another subject – did you read that Hilary Mantel has at last finished the third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, you can read about it here. It’s to be called The Mirror and the Light. I got quite excited by that news as it has been an eight year wait, sadly it isn’t over yet as it won’t be published until March 2020. I don’t suppose it’ll be that long in coming.

Emily of New Moon and Emily’s Quest by L.M. Montgomery

 Emily of New Moon cover

It was only after I started reading Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery that I realised that I was reading the second book in a trilogy – not ideal, but I did enjoy it. When Joan mentioned that the whole set was available for the Kindle for just 49p, it was a no-brainer, even although I’ve bought hardly any books for my Kindle as I tend to use it for classic books that are free as they’re so ancient.

So I caught up with Emily of New Moon which tells the sad story of how Emily was orphaned after the death of her beloved father. Her parents had run off to get married and more or less been disowned by their families but her mother’s family stepped up to give Emily a home albeit with great reluctance, drawing straws to see who in the family of elderly aunts and uncles would be unfortunate enough to have to take on the burden of Emily’s upbringing.

It falls to Aunt Ruth and Aunt Elizabeth of New Moon to take Emily in. It’s a strict Presbyterian household which means no frivolous fun is allowed and life is grim, especially as poor Emily has to share a bed with her eldest and most austere aunt who even disapproves of Emily writing her stories and poems which are condemned as being lies.

 Emily's Quest cover

In Emily’s Quest she has managed to persuade her relatives to allow her to go to college, but she has to promise not to write any fiction for the three years that she’ll be there. The older Emily doesn’t seem to be quite as charming, she’s grown out of the puppy stage I suppose and has to think of training to earn a living. Eventually she is allowed to resume writing fiction and Aunt Ruth is amazed to discover that Emily can actually make money at it – that’s not to be sniffed at at all. Emily is pursued by all sorts of men but she disappoints her family by turning down her cousin’s offer of marriage – they’re hoping to marry her off within the family as her cousin will inherit New Moon eventually and it seems an easy way to solve the problem of Emily’s future. Thankfully she has other ideas. The idea of cousins marrying gives me the shudders.

These books were a perfect read for me tucked away in my cabin whilst sailing the Baltic Sea which was so flat and steady I often had to look out of the window to see if we were still actually sailing!

Calum’s Road by Roger Hutchinson

Calum's Road cover

Calum’s Road by Roger Hutchinson is a fairly well known tale withing Scotland anyway as I recall Calum MacLeod being interviewed on TV years ago. Calum had been hoping for years that a road would be built linking his house in the north of the island of Raasay with the southern part, but the powers that were at that time in Inverness Council obviously had no intention of financing the project. Calum eventually set about building the road himself, no mean feat as he had to dig out trees, heather and massive rocks in what was a very rough and twisting terrain. The MacLeod house was the last one to still be inhabited in that area, all of the neighbours had moved away, but Calum owned his home so that wasn’t an option for him. Raasay is an island which is situated between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland.

Calum was undoubtedly a great character of determination with amazing strength and resilience. He was furious at the way people like himself were treated as he could see his own way of life and the Gaelic culture dying out. With the local school being closed down it meant that his daughter had to go away as a boarder with very little in the way of care being taken on by those in authority. It meant an end to family life.

I don’t think I enjoyed this one quite as much as others might have. It is very repetitive at times with the exact same long conversation appearing as many as three times for some peculiar reason. Although I can see that for Calum and his wife a good road surface was a boon, I can’t help thinking that yet another road can’t really be a plus for a place that sounds idyllic and until then unspoilt.

Towards the end of the book it’s mentioned that Calum said that the day before he had counted 17 cars in the car park, and that was something he seemed to be very proud of as those cars were only there because he had gone to the trouble of building the road. I couldn’t help feeling sad that yet another beautiful wilderess had been spoiled and polluted in the name of advancement.

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

 The Colour of Murder cover

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was first published in 1957 but British Library Crime Classics reprinted it in 2018. It has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

John Wilkins sort of drifted into marriage with May who came from a rough background and is a determined social climber, but as wives go – she’s cold and materialistic. Unfortunately John’s family’s wealth is in the past and he’s working in the complaints department of a department store in Oxford.

When John goes to the local library to change a library book he falls for Sheila the new young assistant, and becomes somewhat obsessed by her, almost immediately he’s wishing that May didn’t exist. John has given up just about everything that he enjoyed doing before he married May, she just wants to play bridge and disapproved of him being a member of the tennis club. Sheila is a member of the club so he starts playing tennis again and eventually gets a date with her, of course Sheila doesn’t know he’s married.

It’s all going to be very messy, but not in the way that most readers would have anticipated.

I’m not sure if it’s just that I’ve read too many vintage crime books recently or if this is a particularly predictable book, but I knew what was going on as soon as there was a murder – and that’s always a disappointment.

I was particularly annoyed because I read a book by Symons called Bloody Murder which is his thoughts on a lot of vintage crime fiction writers and he fairly tore into a few of them. He really didn’t rate Elizabeth Ferrars at all, but I think all of the books I’ve read by her have been better than this one. The cover is good though as ever from British Library Crime Classics. It has been taken from a 1930s holiday poster advertising the south-east of England holiday resort of Brighton in East Sussex.

Lord Byron’s Novel The Evening Land by John Crowley

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

Lord Byron’s Novel The Evening Land by John Crowley was published in 2005 and it was Jack who recommended that I read it. This is the first book by John Crowley that I’ve read and it’s fair to say that although I quite enjoyed it, I wasn’t as enamoured of it as Jack was. You can read his review here.

Apparently when Lord Byron died his estranged wife told their daughter Ada Byron (Countess of Lovelace) to burn a lot of his papers which included a novel that the he had written but never had published. This Crowley novel imagines that Ada couldn’t bring herself to destroy his novel so being an absolute whizz at things mathematical she transcribed the entire book into a secret code. When Byron’s papers turn up in an old trunk in an English storeroom there’s huge excitement among some academics and interested parties who have found out about it, so The Evening Land is interspersed by emails between a few people who are unsure whether the papers are genuine or fake.

Eventually one of them cracks the code and The Evening Land – a fairly autobiographical novel ensues.

This book is well written but I’m not keen on the whole idea of people writing in another novelist’s name. To me it’s just too much of a liberty, but that’s probably just me being too serious and po-faced about what is after all a piece of entertainment.

Make sure you click the link to read Jack’s very different thoughts on this book.

Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley – The 1965 Club

Lost Empires cover

Fairly recently I bought a copy of Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley and when I realised it was published in 1965 I decided to read it for The 1965 Club which is hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Lost Empires is supposedly an account of Richard Herncastle’s life on the variety stage. It begins in 1913, Richard is a young aspiring watercolour artist, he’s the nephew of Nick Ollanton a very famous stage magician and when his Uncle Nick offers him a job as one of his assistants in his act Richard agrees to join his merry band.

They tour around Britain playing in music halls, most of them being called ‘The Empire’. Uncle Nick is a bit of a tartar and is particularly harsh with his female assistant Cissie who is also his ‘bit on the side’. But Cissie is lonely and interested in Nick, he’s besotted with Nancy who is one of the other turns on the music hall bill. Nancy isn’t interested in him though and it’s the much older Julie from yet another variety act who he ends up having a rather torrid liaison with. She’s part of the popular comedian Tommy Beamish’s act and also his squeeze on the side, so it’s a dangerous affair for both Richard and Julie. All of the men have been targeted by Nonie – yet another female on the variety bill. She’s one of those women who love to tease men by shoving her bits up against them whenever she can.

I particularly liked Doris who appears towards the end of the book. She’s one of those women who is permanently angry. “She was a devoted wife but only in a furious way, as if being married to Archie was the last straw.” Well – it made me laugh!

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot for fear of ruining it for anyone who might decide to read it. It’s ages since I read anything by Priestley and I have to say, I loved The Good Companions in the past and don’t know why it took me so long to read anything else by him. There’s great writing and some wonderful characters, especially the female ones and for me some laugh out loud moments. Although this book was published in 1965 it pointed out the problem that younger women had with older and more powerful men taking advantage of them – all very topical now.

Apparently this book was dramatised for Granada TV in 1986 starring Colin Firth as Richard Herncastle.

1965 club

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff – The 1965 Club

The Mark of the Horse Lord cover

Participating in The 1965 Club encouraged me to read The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff which I’ve had in the house for at least a couple of years. I would have read it sooner if I had realised that the setting is mainly in the exact place that I grew up – albeit some 2000 years or so earlier than when I was stravaiging about the land around Dumbarton Rock or Theodosia as the Romans called it, and Are-Cluta which is an ancient name for Dumbarton although it was more widely known locally as Alclutha. There is a handy map and glossary in my 1967 reprint of the book.

The Romans are in control of most of Britain and Phaedrus is a young red haired gladiator hoping to win his freedom after spending seven years as a gladiator. He does gain his freedom but a drunken night of celebration leads him into big trouble and imprisonment again.

He’s confused when he’s unexpectedly sprung from prison by a group of strangers, they had spotted how similar in looks Phaedrus is to Midris, their missing king. Eventually they talk Phaedrus into taking the king’s place and to try to eject the usurperer Queen Liadhan from Are Cluta (Dumbarton). Phaedrus will have to make the rest of the tribe believe that he is really King Midris. The real king has been blinded by Liadhan to make sure that he can never be accepted as their king again and he’s earning a living as a leather worker in the south.

While travelling north of the Antonine Wall to Dumbarton Phaedrus works hard at learning the history of all of the tribe so that he won’t be discovered as a fake Midris, and eventually a brutal battle ensues.

As you would expect of Rosemary Sutcliff this book is beautifully written, she does take some liberties with the geography of the area but not many readers would realise that. I was particularly pleased that she included an unusual character in the shape of a young warrior who just happened to be in touch with his feminine side when it came to clothes and jewellery. He was a bit of a fashion icon but the inclusion of Conory seems to have riled up the fundamentalist religious types one of whom cut her Goodreads rating right down to one star!!! for what she kept calling ‘content’. Honestly there is nothing in the least bit sexual in this book. Some people just go around their lives scouring everything for something they can object to, and if it isn’t there then they make up something that will feed their homophobia. I suppose it makes them feel superior somehow.
But we all know better don’t we?!

I’ll give it four stars on Goodreads. If you want to know what Dumbarton Rock (Theodosius) looks like have a keek at some of the posts on this link here.

For a much more detailed review have a look at Helen’s @ She Reads Novels
I read this one for The 1965 Club.

1965 club