Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome

Peter Duck cover

Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome is the third book in his Swallows and Amazons series, it was first published in 1932. This one seems to be very difficult to find in second-hand bookshops and a good friend of mine ended up buying me a new copy of it.

Peter Duck is an old sailor, commonly known as an old salt, he lives in Lowestoft and is spending his time at the harbour watching everything that’s going on and wishing he could go out to sea again while fearing that he never will. He has sailed all around the world in clippers with wool and tea, but his sailing in recent years has been limited to going up and down the local rivers with potatoes and coal.

When he realises that one of the ships in the harbour is on the serious business of stocking up on food, water and everything from the chandlers that they could possibly need for a long voyage he’s very interested. The Wild Cat is a schooner which is going to be crewed by Captain Flint alias Uncle Jim and the children of Swallows and Amazons fame – Nancy, Peggy, Titty, Susan, Roger and John, accompanied by Polly the parrot and Gibber the monkey.

When another adult crew member is unable to join them at the last minute Peter Duck steps in to fill the void. He’s thrilled to have the chance of getting on the high seas again.

But there’s another very smart schooner in the harbour and the captain – Black Jake – has been watching everything that has been going on. He’s an obvious baddy and after hearing Peter Duck telling a tale of his childhood experience of seeing treasure buried on a remote island he’s been determined to find it. So when the Wild Cat sails out of the harbour she’s closely shadowed by Black Jake’s schooner Viper. That schooner is crewed by ex-convicts, a violent bunch of desperadoes.

The Wild Cat heads for Peter Duck’s Caribbean island, named Crab Island by him, by way of the Bay of Biscay through heavy seas, and eventually manages to shake off the Viper. At one point the two ships had been so close that it looked like the crew of the Viper would be able to board the Wild Cat. The young red-headed lad called Bill who had been on the Viper manages to escape from it and is helped onto the Wild Cat by the Swallows and Amazons. He has led a dog’s life on the Viper being frequently whipped, but he’s a knowledgeable sailor and a great help aboard the Wild Cat.

This book is really an updated (for 1932) version of a classic tale of piracy, the children have a lot to learn about real sailing, not just rowing around on a lake. It’s a good old adventurous romp with some danger thrown in – just what I was needing really.

The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett

This book was first published way back in 1748 and it’s the first one I’ve read by Tobias Smollett. I’ve actually owned a copy of this book for about 30 odd years, it’s in two volumes printed in 1914 but I decided to download it onto my Kindle from Project Gutenberg to read it. You can get it here if you’re interested.

Smollett was a local author as he was born in Dalquhurn (pronounced Dalhurn) just a few miles from where I was brought up in Dumbarton on the west coast of Scotland and I often walked past his memorial stone by the side of the road which leads to Loch Lomond. For some reason I always imagined that he was a sort of poor man’s Walter Scott but I was completely wrong. I think Scott can be safely read by the most prudish of people but this book is quite satirical and bawdy and for something which is over 260 years old it’s surprisingly modern in some of its subject matter. That’s quite depressing when you think about it because the same inequalities in life which Smollett was writing about stil exist today.

Anyway, Roderick Random has had the misfortune to be born to a father who has gone against his own father’s wishes and married a woman of no family or fortune. The consequence is that they are penniless, Rory’s mother dies and his father goes off to find his fortune never to be seen again. Rory’s wealthy grandfather ignores him but allows him to be educated and so when Rory is of age he takes himself off to London to try to better himself.

Surprise surprise, London is full of Scotsmen trying to make their way in the world, and the naive Rory is duped and conned time and time again. Whenever he gets a bit of money he loses it quickly and never seems to learn from his mistakes. At one point Rory is press-ganged into the navy and as Smollett was a surgeon in the navy this part is all written from his own experiences on ship during battles.

I enjoyed this book which apparently influenced Dickens and other Victorian novelists. He got into the nitty gritty details of life amongst Georgian sailors and gamblers as well as the so called high society of the times, pointing out how unfair life was, as it still is of course. I was interested to read that the phrase son of a bitch was used in Georgian Britain as nowadays we think of it as being an American term of abuse.

A lot of the book is obviously autobiographical and towards the end of it we meet a character who has had ambitions to become a writer and he describes his appalling treatment at the hands of publishers and stage managers. Smollett had tried to have a tragedy which he had written for the stage published for years but it never was published. I’m sure there are plenty of aspiring writers nowadays who have had exactly the same experience.

It’s quite amazing to think that Roderick Random was published just three years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

I’m going to download Peregrine Pickle next, although I think my next Kindle read will be a Trollope.

The Classics Club

I read about The Classics Club on Anbolyn’s Gudrun’s Tights and decided to join in too. You can read about it here.

I’ve listed 55 books which I intend to read within the next five years although in truth I hope it won’t take me so long. These are all books which have been in my house for years, waiting for their moment in the sun but I just haven’t got around to them. Apart from the Freeman Wills Crofts books near the end, I’ll be able to borrow those ones from my library and those are the ones I’m looking forward to reading most because I so enjoyed The 12.30 from Croydon and I love reading vintage crime. I’m going to read The Scarlet Letter first because it’s one of the ones which I think I should have read absolutely yonks ago.

When I get to the end of the 55 I’m going to reward myself with – a pat on the back and more books!

1. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
2. Linda Tressel
3. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
13. Nana by Emile Zola
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
33. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby
39. The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
40. Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
41. The Republic by Pliny
42. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
43. Chatterton Square by E.H. Young
44. Not So Quiet by Hellen Zenna Smith
45. The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
46. The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola
47. The Castle by Franz Kafka
48. Felix Holt the Radical by George Eliot
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I’m not really superstitious but I feel that as this challenge is such a prolonged one I really have to say that I intend finishing these books – and I’m borrowing a phrase from my late Mum here – If I’m Spared – and I’m saying it on behalf of everyone else taking part too because I just feel that these things shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s bad luck. Do I sound a bit mental? Don’t answer that!

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her? is the first in The Palliser Series and I thought it was about time that I got around to reading them, especially as the Angela Thirkell books which I’ve been enjoying recently are very loosely based on the series, although a few generations later.

I had seen a comment from another blogger that the book should have been called Can You Stand Her? and I can see what they mean, but in the preface it says that it could have been called Can She Forgive Herself?

Alice Vavasor is a young woman with a very complicated love life and as her mother died within a year of her marriage to Alice’s father it means that Alice has no older female to guide her in these things. Her cousin Kate Vavasor is keen for Alice to become engaged to Kate’s brother George and George is happy to go along with the idea because it means he would get his hands on Alice’s money.

However Alice broke the engagement because of George’s bad behaviour and subsequently became engaged to John Grey a gentleman who has a small country house, called Nethercoates, in Cambridgeshire. Alice finds the area unlovely and fears that she won’t enjoy life amongst people that she doesn’t know and thinks she will miss the bustle of London, even although she rarely goes into society there.

It has to be said that John Grey could be described as being a decent but boring man and Alice believes that, in modern parlance he’s not that into her. But she’s entirely wrong about that, it’s just that John Grey is a very buttoned-up sort of chap who isn’t very good at showing his feelings.

Inevitably Alice changes her mind yet again and cousin George comes back on the scene, aided and abetted by his sister Kate.

Anyway, that’s the gist of the story but it’s a very long book in two parts, each of over 400 pages in length. So there’s a lot more to it and at times it veers off to Yarmouth where Aunt Morrow, who is a very merry, rich widow and, despite her husband being dead only four months, is setting her cap at various men. She’s a really unlikeable character. Presumably she is in the book to add some humour but I felt it did get in the way of the story and in fact in the introduction which I always read last it did suggest that readers should skip those bits entirely.

But the most interesting character is Lady Glencora and I can see that her husband Plantagenet Palliser is going to be driven to distraction by her and a good thing too.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was Susanne who recommended this one for the CPR Book Group which is a place for neglected authors or books. The only books by Arnold Bennett which I had previously read were all set in The Potteries and this one is completely different from them, as far as I can remember anyway because I think I was a teenager when I read them, which wasn’t yesterday! I don’t know how widely read his books are nowadays, I certainly haven’t come across many people reading them but this one is certainly worth reading.

I really enjoyed this book which was first published in 1902 but my copy is a 1954 Penguin, orange. It could just as well have been in their green vintage crime livery because that is what it is.

The Grand Babylon Hotel in London is the sort of discreet but oppulent place that if you have to ask the price – you can’t afford it. The American multi millionaire Theodore Racksole is staying there with his daughter Nella and he isn’t pleased by the way the head waiter, Jules is looking down his nose at them. On the spur of the moment Theodore decides to buy the prestigious hotel, at least then he’ll be able to get the steak and bottle of Bass which he wants.

Things aren’t what they seem to be and it isn’t long before Theodore and Nella realise that there are nefarious goings on behind the facade of quiet classiness.

This was originally published as a serial and Bennett wrote the 15 installments in 15 days and sold it for £100. It was described as the most original, amusing and thrilling serial written in a decade.

Arnold Bennett lived at the Savoy Hotel in London and it was the chef there who came up with the dish which became known as Omelette Arnold Bennett because he was so fond of it. You can see Sophie Dahl whipping one up if you’re interested.

There aren’t many people who have had dishes named after them. The only others that I can think of at the moment are Peach Melba and Melba toast, named after the opera singer Dame Nelly Melba and Pavlova after Anna. Eggs Benedict too, Lemuel Benedict was an American stockbroker. There must be others though.

The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope

The Belton Estate was first published in serial form in 1865 and for some reason seems to have been quite neglected over the years. I have to say that I really enjoyed it and it was a very quick read for me.

It’s another story featuring that dastardly thing – an entailed estate. Belton Estate is owned by Mr Amedroz, a widower with a grown up son and daughter, so the entailment shouldn’t be a problem. However, the son Charles has been indulged and spoiled by his father and after spending all of his father’s money and leaving nothing for his sister Clara’s future – and being the selfish, self pitying swine that he is, he commits suicide.

Clara is now in dire straits with no money and an ailing elderly father. When her father dies she’ll be penniless and homeless as the estate passes on to a distant cousin Will Belton. Clara fancies herself to be in love with Captain Frederic Aylmer who is a relative by marriage and a Member of Parliament (usually a bad sign), so when Will Belton, an honest, shy and gentle chap falls in love with Clara she turns his offer of marriage down. Silly Clara, but it had to be done, for the sake of the book.

Clara’s father is sure that the wealthy Mrs Winterfield who is Clara’s aunt by marriage will provide for Clara in her will and so thinks that he has nothing to worry about but Clara knows that her aunt is going to leave her estate and money to Captain Aylmer.

Eventually Captain Aylmer proposes marriage to Clara and she accepts but it isn’t long before she is comparing him with Will Belton and as Frederic is a cold man who never seems to be able to behave the way a fiance should to her, things begin to cool.

When Clara’s father dies she goes to stay with her prospective in-laws, whom she hasn’t met before and it’s obvious that Frederic’s mother and sister are dead against him marrying Clara.

That’s as far as I’m going with the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for people who might want to read it. Previously I’ve read The Barchester Chronicles, and I loved those books, so funny. Trollope must have known a fair amount of ghastly women in his time because he writes them so well. Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s wife, is wonderful in her awfulness.

But what struck me about The Belton Estate is that my copy had originally belonged to my mother-in-law. We inherited it along with a bookcase full of books so I’m fairly sure that she read it. We’ve been married for over 34 years and it’s taken me till now to discover who my mother-in-law took as her role model. It was the tyrranical Lady Aylmer of course, Frederic’s mother!

Charles Dickens often wrote about the conditions that poor people had to suffer, because he had been there himself and presumably hoped that he could help by writing about the inequality of life. Trollope, who was of a different class seems to have been trying to do much the same thing for the women of his own class who were put in a difficult position by entails. He’s also very sympathetic to women who were often harshly judged for what would be seen as a small misdemeanour if committed by a man. It seems to have taken another 20 years for entails to be abolished, by the Reform Bill of 1885.

Anyway, I recommend The Belton Estate as a good read, especially if you’re a bit wary of Anthony Trollope’s work.

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

It was a dark and stormy day with the rain battering on the windows and wind howling down the chimneys, so when the gas man finally managed to fix our NEW boiler, (he’s been trying since Thursday) I thought it was the perfect atmosphere for finishing off The Jewel of Seven Stars.

I’m afraid it didn’t help matters though. It says on the cover of this book: STOKER’S CLASSIC TALE OF TERROR, the inspiration for today’s Mummy movies!

At the beginning Abel Trelawny, a keen collector of Egyptian artefacts, appears to have been attacked in his own home and has fallen into a comatose state. It is thought that the many Egyptian mummies which are in his room have caused his illness.

On page 104 one of the characters who has been relating past experiences in Egypt at great length said, “I dare say you find this tedious;” which was exactly what I HAD been thinking!

It didn’t do anything for me at all. I’ve always avoided horror movies and for that reason I didn’t really know much about Frankenstein, so when I actually got around to reading the book earlier in the year I was pleasantly surprised that I really enjoyed it. I thought that I might be missing out on something and as quite a few people have been mentioning Dracula recently I thought I would start off with one of Stoker’s shorter books first. Now I’m not sure if I will bother with Dracula because although this book was only 188 pages long, it did seem to drag.

First published in 1903 this was apparently Stoker’s eighth book, which is a surprise to me because I didn’t think it was very well written and I had been thinking that he must have improved over the years, maybe not then. It was re-written in 1912 and I think it is that version which I read. I suppose it’s because it’s Gothic, but it’s stilted beyond belief, and I say that as someone who reads more Classic books than modern.

Even reading it with tongue firmly in cheek I couldn’t get any enjoyment from it, however I ploughed on regardless to the end. This was a book which I borrowed from the library and the previous borrower had left their bookmark in it less than half-way through, so I can’t be the only person who wasn’t enamoured with it.

I’ll see what others think of Dracula before embarking on it.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

It has only taken me about 30 odd years but at last I got around to reading Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The 506 closely printed pages had put me off all those years, but I must say that I really did enjoy it. I suppose most people will have already read it or at least seen the fab film, starring the gorgeous Omar Sharif as Doctor Zhivago.

Having read Liza/A Nest of Nobles by Turgenev recently I have to say that I think Doctor Zhivago is far better than Liza. I know there is about 100 years in between the publication of the two books, so it maybe isn’t fair to compare them, but there is just so much more in Doctor Zhivago to get your teeth into.

The Zhivago family had been wealthy, and Yura could remember a time when he was a child when there were Zhivago factories and a Zhivago bank. But his father lost all of their money and committed suicide. Yura’s mother was already dead.

When Yura (Yurii) grows up he becomes a doctor and marries his childhood sweetheart, Tonya. They have a son and when Tonya is pregnant for the second time Yura starts an affair with Lara. Lara had was married to her childhood sweetheart, Pasha, but she believed him to be dead. Using the name of Strelnikov, he was now high up in the Red Army. Was he modelled on Trotsky?

Whilst on one of his journey’s to Lara’s house Yura is abducted at gunpoint by some soldiers who are in search of him to replace their dead doctor but eventually he escapes from the army and ends up back with Lara.

It’s years since I saw the film but I seem to remember that the whole thing concentrates on the love affair between Yura and Lara and I thought that Tonya (his wife) was portrayed as a sort of feckless pain in the neck. Presumably the director David Lean thought he had to do that because people would not be keen on the truth, which was that Yura started screwing around when he realised that his wife was pregnant. I could be completely mis-remembering it. Anyway Pasternak wrote Tonya as being very resourceful and strong, coping with her child, her elderly father and a nursemaid who was still a child herself.

On the other hand Lara hadn’t even managed to seal up the rat holes in her apartment, with the result that the rats were everywhere. I think if I had been in that situation I would have played ‘splat the rat’ until they got the idea and skedaddled.

Yes, as ever, I’m on the side of the wife!

If you are into history, then you will definitely get a lot out of the book which it just isn’t possible to put in a film and as Russia/the Soviet Union has always fascinated me, the book was right up my street.

I was brought up during ‘the Cold War’ when the U.S.S.R. threat was always in the background – especially as my dad worked in the nearby nuclear submarine base at Coulport on the River Clyde. I was still in primary school when I realised that there was a Soviet nuclear missile pointing straight at us, so there wasn’t any point in worrying about it as we would be blasted into oblivion very quickly.

Happy days.

The Country House by John Galsworthy

The only other Galsworthy books which I have read have been The Forsyte Saga series so I was interested to see what one of his more obscure books was like. Previously I have found his books to be very enjoyable and well written and I wasn’t disappointed with this one.

I galloped through it at a good pace because I found it to be so straightforward and clear, which isn’t always the way with Victorian novels. Strictly speaking, I suppose that The Country House is Edwardian as it was first published in 1907. However the action takes place in 1891. The themes are similar to those of The Forsyte Saga – family, marriage and infidelity.

Chapter 1 starts with guests arriving for a house party at Worsted Skeynes, it is the first shooting party of the season. At first I felt that there were rather a lot of characters being thrown at me and everyone seemed to be described minutely. I was a bit worried that it would all be a bit too much for bedtime reading but they all just seemed to fall into place without any complications.

The estate is owned by Horace Pendyce and has been in his family for generations but although it is farmed on model lines, it still runs on a slight loss. He is married to Margery and they have grown up children, 2 boys and 2 girls.

The eldest son, George owns a racehorse and has developed a secret gambling habit whilst living in town. A relationship develops between him and Helen Bellew, who is the estranged wife of a neighbour. She has left her husband, supposedly because he has a drink problem, however as she is a bit of a man-eater, there is always the possibility that she drove him to drink. They are regarded as both being at fault in the break up of the marriage, but when Jasper Bellew serves divorce papers to George, his parents are horrified to discover that he isn’t the sort of character that they had thought him to be.

The thought of such a scandal in his family is almost more than the squire can bear and there is a meeting to discuss the situation with the local rector Mr. Barter, the family solicitor and a cousin. George refuses to attend.

The rest of the book is about George’s parents reaction to his behaviour and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them.

The book deals with the hypocrisy of the divorce laws, as they were then. Actually they didn’t change until fairly recently, it was much the same in the 1970s.

I don’t want to give too much away and spoil things for any would-be readers. Suffice to say that I’m glad that I read the book, although I wouldn’t read it again.