Six Degrees of Separation in November.

Books and reading

Last month, I ended my chain of books for Six Degrees of Separation with Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem’s engaging account of uncovering London’s history through those artefacts she discovers lurking under the silt of the Thames. This month, I thought I’d go dredging too, and try to remember books I’d enjoyed several years ago.  What had stuck in my mind?

Maiklem has her own personal museum collection, I’m sure.  Twelve year old Clover Quinn is making a museum, in Carys Bray’s The Museum of You. She’s a sweet child, but a bit isolated from her peers. She likes her dad’s allotment, and museums. In fact she secretly decides to make her own museum in memory of her mum, who died when Clover was six weeks old. Gradually her story unfolds. Her dad Darren’s story unfolds, and her mum Becky’s story unfolds.  A skilfully constructed tale.

Mary Lennox is a solitary child too. Surely, as children, most of us read about this orphaned girl who’s moved from India to England, and about the children she learns to think of as friends? We read about how their lives become fundamentally changed in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, set somewhere in deepest Yorkshire.

My next choice involves another isolated individual, and in Yorkshire too. SanctuaryRobert Edric re-imagines the tragic and self-destructive life of Branwell, brother of the more famous and successful Brontë sisters in a book I haven’t forgotten since I read it maybe five years ago. Branwell is the ‘author’ of this book, and paints a sorry picture of his stumbling path, in the final year of his young life, towards illness, addiction and death.

Another life cut short: Simon Lambeau dies in a surfing accident, and his parents have to decide whether to allow his heart to give someone else the chance of life.  The journey of Simon’s transplant organ explores the metaphysical zone between life and death, and remains one of the most breathtakingly engaging and unusual books I have ever read.  Mend the Living, by Meylis de Karangal.  Just … read it.

None of these is a light read.  Let’s stay with a sea-related theme: The Penguin Lessons, by Tom Mitchell. I didn’t expect to like this book.  The story of how Mitchell keeps a penguin during his days as a school teacher in Argentina promised to be a fey, sentimental read, I thought. But it wasn’t. Though light in tone and amusing, it highlighted the real challenges faced, and life-lessons learnt from caring for a wild beast in a thoroughly domestic setting. A somewhat thought- provoking and satisfying holiday read.

From a penguin in captivity to a fish in captivity: Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer.  A goldfish falls from his usual home on the 27th floor of an apartment block (where he’s sort of looked after by over-sexed Connor) downwards to the pavement beneath. On his way he passes apartments in which small dramas are being acted out, lives becoming changed.  A quirky read.

We seem to have travelled a long way from the Thames in London: to Yorkshire, to France, to Argentina and America.  And I’ve rediscovered the pleasure I had from some books I first read quite some time ago.

Six Degrees of Separation

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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