Six Degrees of Separation in October

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.

Six Degrees of Separation: Kate W

The Lottery, a short story by Shirley Jackson begins our chain this month. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here. If you haven’t read it yet, every single one of my choices will be a Spoiler Alert.

I’ve been accused, perhaps rightly, of making some dark choices for Six Degrees. And my first choice, linked to that short story, involves death, because it is a murder mystery. But I don’t read Donna Leon‘s books because I’m all that interested in the crime perpetrated. I’m more than a little in love with Our Hero, Commissario Brunetti. I’m more than a little in love with the back streets of the city he calls home, Venice: and with his wife Paola, and his adolescent children: the meals that they eat and the family occasions they share. There’s the endlessly clever Signorina Elettra at the Questura too, and a backdrop of Brunetti’s opposition to corruption and back-handers. Against these riches, the murder mystery is just a bit-part in the story. None of Donna Leon’s books disappoint, so let’s take the first one I ever read to stand in for them all: Death at La Fenice.

We’ll stay in Italy to meet Commissario Montalbano. Maybe you know Andrea Camilleri‘s detective from the series on BBC 4? I met him in print some years ago, and he’s older and less handsome than his TV alter ego. But still as personable. He’s keen on a good meal, keen on swimming in the sea that laps the beach near his home, and can be funny as well as insightful. I’ve just finished Game of Mirrors: an intrigue involving his neighbour, a bombed warehouse, and a trail of false clues.

Another detective now, Joe Faraday. He lived, as I did once, in Portsmouth. He’s real enough too. His wife is dead. He has a profoundly deaf adult son, with whom he bonded in his early years of widowerhood by their shared love of birdwatching. Working with gritty crimes involves juggling paperwork and bureaucracy besides solving the conundrum of the offence, and it’s this rounded picture of Faraday’s life that I find so appealing. The first Faraday novel by Graham Hurley that I read was Turnstone. You might like to try it too.

DI Charlie Priest lived and worked in Yorkshire. His creator, Stuart Pawson was my friend and colleague when we both worked as mediators for the Probation Service: sadly he died a few years ago. Priest loved to pound the moors and fells of Yorkshire, as I do. His life involved too much work and too little play , but like the previous two detectives, he’s a rounded and believable individual. I’m choosing The Judas Sheep, because he dedicated this book to me.

Jason Webster is an English writer living in Spain. He’s fairly recently turned his hand to detective fiction, and his hero is Max Cámara. I was interested in A Death in Valencia since this is a city I thought I knew quite well. As ever, it turned out not to be those parts of the city that I’d visited, but a much seamier place, with corruption at the heart of local government a commonplace. Add a murdered paella chef, and even the pope to the mix for another thoroughly readable story.

My last choice isn’t a murder mystery. But deaths occur, and the whole thing, like the short story we began with almost feels like a pact with the devil. Alix Nathan, in The Warlow Experiment tells us the story of gentleman scientist Charles Powyss, who in the eighteenth century sets up an experiment to study the effects on humans of total isolation. Uneducated labourer Warlow is that isolated man. Offered every comfort, decent food, books (he can barely read), all he needs – apart from human company – it all goes horribly, desperately wrong.

I began with a few murder mysteries. And I end with a death or so too. Unnecessary, bleak, as was the death with which our chain began. Next month’s choice promises to be a harrowing one. I’ll have to see whether I’m up to dealing with reading it: Sigrid NunezWhat Are You Going Through.

Six Degrees of Separation in October

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

Our starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation Challenge is The Turn of the Screw by  Henry James. Our job as participants is to show how one book leads to another, each link taking us further and further from the original (maybe).

I’m linking Turn of the Screw with a detective story set in present-day Venice.  Bear with me.  I’m a big fan of Commissario Brunetti  who lives there with his family.  Enjoying the moments that Brunetti spends at home or ranging round the city he loves for all its faults are a real reason for reading Donna Leon’s books.  Brunetti’s wife Paola teaches at the university, and she’s a big fan of Henry James’ writing.  I’ll put Trace Elements into the mix, as it’s the last Donna Leon I read.

Brunetti’s Venice: often seen from a Police launch while speeding to the scene of crime (Gabriele Diwald, Unsplash)

I like Leon’s writing because she summons up Venice and day-to-day life there so vividly.  Graham Hurley has a similar talent.  His detective, Joe Faraday, lives in Portsmouth, as I once did. Faraday’s life is one of juggling crime, endless paperwork, a bitty personal life, and birdwatching.  It feels very real. Turnstone is the first, but by no means the only one of his books that I’ve read.

Gulls seen from a cross-channel ferry – probably Faraday spotted them too.

Birdwatching had me remembering A Shadow Above. The author, Joe Shute loves ravens. Part natural history; part history; part an exploration of the many legends that this bird has fostered; part investigative journalism; part personal history, this is an engaging, immersive read that goes a long way towards explaining why ravens have a special place in our history.

One of the tame ravens often to be seen near Knaresborough Castle, North Yorkshire.

And so to another author who’s immersed in the natural world – Melissa Harrison. The first book of hers that I read was a novel: At Hawthorn Time.  Even more than the involving story following the lives of a couple with a dissolving marriage newly arrived at the village; a near-vagrant and a disaffected young man, I relished her descriptions of the countryside, whether observations of plant and bird life or a litter strewn roadside edge. Her characters rang true, as well as her clear-eyed descriptions of village life.

What else but hawthorn blossom?

This reminded me of a non-fiction book, a real good read: A Buzz in the Meadow: the Natural History of a French Farm, by Dave Goulson. This is a delight.  The catalyst for writing it is his home in the Charente, bought so he could provide home, in the form of an extensive meadow, to a huge variety of wildlife, specifically insects.  This is no Aga-saga of a Brit in France, but a mixture of reminiscence, hard scientific fact, vivid stories of his own experiments and research, and the work of others.  It’s a page turner and a tale well told with humour, and an eye for the telling detail.  I’m no scientist, but I was absorbed from start to finish.

This praying mantis was spotted not in France, but in Spain, during a family holiday in Catalonia.

Goulson knows his home patch intimately.  Lara Maiklem knows the London Thames intimately.  She’s a mudlarker, who scours the banks of the river looking for its hidden history whenever she can.  World War weaponry, Victorian toys, Georgian clay pipes, Tudor buttons, Roman pottery, even Neolithic flints are all there, waiting to be found.  In Mudlarking, Maiklem writes  an entertaining account of her finds and adventures, stitching them into a readable history of London itself: the growth of the city and its changing fortunes. 

Mudlarking territory along the Thames shoreline.

So there we have it.  Six books following no kind of theme.  But they’re the kinds of book I’ve liked and have enjoyed over the last year or so.

 

Six Degrees of Separation

October Squares: #Kinda Square

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