Six Degrees of Separation in June

Books and reading

‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book’.

Bass Rock by Evie Wyld is the starting point this month. And, despite all the rave reviews, I’ve abandoned it for the time being – though not for ever, I hope. It’s about sisterhood, about survival. But it’s also about how women’s lives can be circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men who seek to control them. And this is the link I chose to begin my chain.

Jill Dawson‘s The Language of Birds is a fictionalised account of a family nanny, murdered by Lord Lucan, a story that ignited the British press for months in 1974. Fictionalised, apparently, to protect the many characters in this story who are still alive. This book is a page turner. Mandy the nanny comes across as a warm, likeable person, despite the very difficult circumstances of her childhood, teenage years and young adulthood. Her friend Rosemary, who plays the part of slightly unreliable narrator for part of the story is the vehicle for recurring imagery about birds and the freedom they seem to enjoy.

There’s much to savour here about the portrayal of 1970s England, about class, about mental illness and domestic violence. It’s worth reading for this alone.

The next link is not a murder, it’s a massacre. And it’s a true story: The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand. This book has as its core the shocking 1919 Amritsar Massacre, which saw hundreds of innocent Indian families shot at and killed or injured at the behest of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Twenty years later, in a shooting that had been all those years in the planning, he himself was shot and killed by Udham Singh.

This is the story of that massacre, and of these two men. It’s meticulously researched and involvingly told, and gives a vivid and unappealing picture of the British occupation of India, as well as of the lives of Indians who had gone to America, and specifically England, in search of a better life. This book does much to explain the wider history of the period, and it’s one I’m glad to have read.

We’ll stick with death, but lighten the mood. Mrs. Death misses Death by Salena Godden. An allegory, a story, an anthology of poems – this book is all those things. Mrs Death is an unnoticed (of course unnoticed!) black woman, by turns a bag lady or a charismatic starlet. Wolf is also black, a lad who lost his mum in a Grenfell Tower- like fire. This young man is the person to whom Mrs. Death transmits her stories of heroes, historical figures, ordinary people, whole swathes damaged by war and famine. But death has to happen so life can go on. Lyrical, poetic, sometimes funny, this is a book impossible to categorise, but it’s life affirming too, and ultimately optimistic.

And – oh dear, death again, but this book is like the last, ultimately uplifting. Laura Imai Messina‘s The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Here, in a garden in a remote spot in Japan, a disconnected phone allows the grief-stricken to send their voices into the wind as they talk to those they have lost. Yui lost her mother and daughter in the 2011 tsunami. Tasheki’s wife is also dead. Slowly, gently, these two forge a relationship, and begin their journey of healing together. Each chapter is interspersed with random fragmented memories, which enrich the story and ground it in reality, giving just a little grit to a tale that might otherwise be just a little too other-worldly. And apparently, this phone box really does exist.

That’s enough of death. But we could stay in Japan perhaps? Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. Meet Sentaro, a bit of a loser who has a humdrum existence making and selling sweet bean dorayaki for his snack-shack. They’re not the best – he cuts corners. Then along comes Tokue, a spectacularly ugly old woman who begs him for a job, and finally he gives in. She introduces him to her highly superior sweet bean paste, and business looks up. He learns that she had been incarcerated in a leper colony for much of her life- hence her deformities – though she is no longer infectious. This is their story – one of confronting prejudice and your own demons, and in which they come to learn that being a useful member of society is not the be-all and end-all. A charming and lyrically written story, if perhaps a little sentimental for hard-bitten English sensibilities.

Here’s another book about a meeting between two people who ordinarily would never meet. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. What a romp! I galloped through this story set in eighteenth century London, in which a decent-but-dull merchant – a widower, meets an indecent-but-colourful high-end courtesan. They’re connected by a ‘mermaid’, which was brought back on one of the merchant’s ships and is exciting the curiosity of Londoners. Gowar has done her homework, and the language, the scene-setting all ring true. This is a totally implausible narrative which I swallowed cheerfully and willingly. The perfect antidote to pandemic routine, despite shades of dark intruding towards the end.

I’ve just noticed another link in this chain. All the authors are women. No. That’s not true. Durian Sukegawa isn’t. But his translator is. Without Alison Watts’ efforts, I could never have read this book .

Six Degrees of Separation

68 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation in June

  1. I love the photos accompanying your choices. Adding the Dawson to my TBR list – looks good!
    I know a little bit about the phone box in Japan (a friend alerted me to a movie that’s coming out about it, because I work in grief counselling).

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  2. Lovely chain! I’ve read four, all of which I enjoyed very much. Couldn’t resist that Mrs Death Misses Death title as soon as I spotted it on social media and I’m also a fan of The Language of Birds, Sweet Bean Paste and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Quite taken by the idea of The Phonebox at the Edge of the World

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  3. I recently read another fictional account of the Lord Lucan case, so clearly it is still a story that holds much fascination for writers. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the film Sweet Bean, which was rather lovely, although a tad sentimental as well.

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  4. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is fun, isn’t it? I really enjoyed it too. I haven’t read any of the other books in your chain, but I’m interested in reading The Language of Birds and The Patient Assassin.

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  5. Oh, a great chain! I love dark fiction and there’s plenty here for me to add to my library list. I have read Sweet Bean Paste and loved it. I hunted out the movie and it’s lovely too. I have also read the Dawson and much enjoyed it. I like the way she gave a voice to the victim and told her story so vividly without glorifying the murder or the violence.

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  6. Another set of six which I goes into my pile. The pile is getting higher. I get six books every month from you, and there are more sources which feed into it. And I manage to finish maybe two in good months. I will be buried in unread books.

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  7. You do write a compelling review, Margaret. I’d have a go at the Lord Lucan saga and a romp with a mermaid. The rest are a little sombre for me right now. 🙂 🙂 Have a good summer!

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    1. Despite the high death quota, they’re not as sombre as you might think, apart from The Patient Assassin. But yes, that Pandemic does govern our reading choices just now. You have a good summer too!

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  8. Death sure plays a key role in this month’s Six Degrees for you! But it’s all been so cleverly put together. I want to read The language of birds! Haven’t heard of it before. And I’ve just bought The phone box at the edge of the world for our book club. Glad to hear I’ve made a good choice!

    Have a wonderful month of June!

    Elza Reads 6 Degrees – One tomato short of a fruit salad

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    1. And you too. I wonder how your book group will receive The Phone Box …? It’s always good to have a spot of violent disagreement! The Language of Birds would work for a book group too.

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  9. I’ve read three of your choices, all of which I loved, and want to read each of the others, only one of which I’ve heard of (the Godden).

    The Phone Box at the Edge of the World appeals so much that I will break my current moratorium on book buying and place an order with my local bookshop.

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    1. You are good, buying fiction. I get through novels fairly quickly, so my budget wouldn’t stand it, and I tend to buy my non-fiction choices. However, our library got in loads of new stock over lockdown, and I made sure I got my eager hands on lots of pristine copies. Almost as good as owning them! The Phone Box was one of them.

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      1. I’m picky these days about what I buy, mostly for space reasons. Our library shut down for the first lockdown and has only this year started to get back to normal on the book buying front. Yours sounds like the staff have a good eye for books if The Phone Box is typical of their purchases.

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      2. I think they’re pretty good. And I also think they’re going buying-crazy, getting as much as they can before inevitable cuts.

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      3. A good plan of action. Ours are pretty good, getting in most of the long and short listed books for various prizes as well as chart toppers, but it feels like the days when I’d request something in translation or a little more obscure without thinking that they might not get it for me are gone.

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  10. A wonderful selection, Margaret. I have a NetGalley copy of Mrs Death Misses Death which I really must get around to reading. Will look forward to checking out your other titles too.

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  11. Your six are always fascinating and usually new to me. I’m afraid I’ll skip any books to do with violence against women, far too close to home. I’m struggling to read much at all again at the moment. Something light hearted for my summer reads I think.

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  12. Your thread reminded me of an afternoon I spent at a local village fête with my sister and friends in the 1970s. It took place in Bicknacre, a neighbouring village, at the St Giles Hospital and Home for Lepers. I just looked it up and apparently it no longer exists.

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    1. I’d be horrified if it did. I assume leprosy is extinct in the UK, and I gather (Google again) that while it still exists in parts of Africa and Asia (and even sometimes in the USA), it’s perfectly treatable these days. I hope so.

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      1. Yes, it was already treatable in the 70s, but I think St Giles looked after those people who had been left disabled by leprosy. There was still fear that you could catch it even from cured patients and I suppose that was why those who’d been severely affected were in a specialist hospital/home looked after by nuns.

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  13. Oh another Six Degrees of Separation post! I love following Liz Humphreys and look forward to ever one of her Six Degrees post. Now, I can following you down the rabbit of marvelous book choices.

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  14. I’ve avoided reading any six degrees this month, hoping that I’d get my own post up but I’m not convinced that’s going to happen so I’m diving in regardless. Glad I did – so many here that I now want to read! My chain (yes I got the chain listed, just not written anything) also started with the same link but needless to say. it’s totally different to yours. And may still appear!

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      1. Wrote in haste in my reply above. The connection is the same as yours but not the book itself. I can report that reading your chain and others helped: a fledgling six degrees post is in the offing… Fingers crossed it finally gets to fly!

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