Browsing through the Backlist

Guilty as charged. I read a book. I thoroughly enjoy it. ‘That was great’. I think. ‘I must read more by her/him’. But then another enticing book by somebody else entirely comes along, and … I don’t.

Cathy of What Cathy Read Next fame has a challenge to help put this right, and she’s called it Backlist Burrow. Choose six authors whom you’ve enjoyed, find two books from their backlist … read them … and report back. I don’t undertake to read two, though I might. But one for sure. And here are my chosen authors.

I read Edith Wharton‘s novella Ethan Frome for Six Degrees of Separation back in December 2021, and immediately vowed to read more from this upper-class New Yorker who, during the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth was able to portray so incisively the characters she created. I still haven’t. Now I have to…

I wonder if this resembles the Massachussetts that Ethan Frome knew? (Ilse Orsel, Unsplash)

Another unforgettable character was Berta Isla. Javier Marías describes her life thoughtfully, discursively. Her husband, working for the secret service is almost constantly absent and unable in any way meaningfully to communicate with her and participate in the marriage. I want to read more from Marías.

Berta and her husband Tomás grew up together in Spain (though not in Zaragoza where this photo of the Basilica of Pilar was taken). After University in Oxford, his career took him to the mists of she-knew-not-where. (Oxford: Lina Kivaka, Pexels)

I read Mary Lawson‘s A Town called Solace when it was chosen for our local bookgroup. I immediately fell for the complex web of characters she created, and the interest she brought to the life of a small and humdrum Canadian town. So – more please!

I wonder if this is a track near Solace? (Ember Navarro, Unsplash)

When I chose Roy Jacobsen‘s Eyes of the Rigel from the library, I was unaware that this Norwegian tale, set on a small island after WWII was the last book in a trilogy: an immersive story of memory, belonging and guilt. I need to catch up with the first two: The Unseen, and White Shadow.

Northern Lights in northern Norway (Dee: Unsplash)

Nicola Upson‘s Stanley and Elsie, a fictionalised telling of the story of the painter Stanley Spencer was a compulsive read. Having a look at her crime novels centred on the life of Josephine Tey seems like a good move to me.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Stanley Spencer

Georgina Harding. Here’s another author I want more of, and here’s another instance of my inadvertently starting off with the third book in a trilogy: Harvest. This is a thoughtful picture of a family accommodating itself to an earlier tragedy. I’d like to read the back stories in The Gun Room and Land of the Living.

Harvest, not in Norfolk where Harding’s Harvest is set, but here in North Yorkshire.

This of course is in addition to tackling the (largely virtual) tottering pile of books recommended by friends, book bloggers, newspaper reviews. Really, it’s all quite impossible.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Mason to MacIntyre

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

Regular readers know that I’ve spent the last month in the Balkans and Barcelona, where copies of this month’s starter book, Meg Mason‘s Sorrow and Bliss weren’t readily available. So I haven’t read it. But I will.

It appears to be about a woman struggling with mental illness. So I’ll go for my first link to the struggles of a teenage girl, Sal, by Mick Kitson. This is the story of Sal and her half sister Peppa’s escape from life with their alcoholic mother and abusive step-father. Thirteen year old Sal, who narrates the story, has long planned this escape, making use of carefully learnt bush skills to live rough in Galloway Forest Park Scotland. Circumstances have made her wise beyond her years, though failing at school. It’s an incredible, yet credible story of the consequences of one man’s unremitting abuse, and of a mother totally unable to protect her daughters. An involving read both for an adult and YA audience.

I’ll link this to Mary Lawson‘s A Town called Solace. This is a small, fictional town in Northern Ontario, where it’s easy to imagine that life is simple, perhaps a little dull. But 7 year old Clara’s rebellious but much-loved older sister has run away – disappeared completely. Clara’s responsible for feeding her elderly neighbour Elizabeth’s cat during a hospital stay. And during this time, an unknown man, who turns out to be called Liam, seems to be moving into Elizabeth’s home. Clara, Elizabeth and Liam each have a story which develops told from their own perspective. It’s multi-layered: in their own ways these characters are dealing with grief, bewilderment and remorse. They have secrets they’re reluctant to share, and have lost faith in at least some of their fellows. They’re richly developed as complex, satisfyingly likeable characters. This is a book to savour.

The next character has a simple and apparently dull life too, just like Solace. She appears in Convenience Store Woman by Sakaya Murata.  Our heroine, Keiko, despite her university education, has contentedly spent her whole 18 year career working in a convenience store. She lives for her work there, striving to be a dependable employee. No husband, boyfriend, or child: she doesn’t feel the lack of these, though her family worries. She’s a misfit, a cog, but a contented one. And then …. A quick and quirky read, though one which poses questions to ponder after the last page has been turned.

Another loner is the hero of The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths. The second book in the series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway lives up to the promise of the first. The character of Ruth herself, and the detective with whom she works on this case continues to develop in an interesting way. The plot, involving the discovery of the bones of a child on a site currently being redeveloped is intricate enough to be intriguing, without being over-complicated. I took this book with me on holiday. Ideal reading in the circumstances.

A long-ago crime brings me to my next link. The Statement by Brian Moore. My recent life in France had made me familiar with tales of the Resistance in WWII France, as well as knowing something of the unpalatable doings of the Vichy Government and their unpleasant foot soldiers, the Milice. So I was eager to read this story, based on a true one, of one man’s unsavoury war time crimes and of his post-war protection by the Catholic church. Will he escape justice in the end? This is a clever, complex thriller leaving us in little doubt as to Moore’s feelings about the Catholic hierarchy. There are twists till the very last page. To be read perhaps more than once for full impact.

Although we’ll stay with WWII, we’ll lighten the mood. Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre. A really absorbing and interesting read. This book tells the story of an ultimately successful attempt by the British to deceive the Nazis about their plans to invade in Southern Europe. Such an attempt is bound to be complex, involving political acumen, spying know-how, involvement of those in high places and yet secrecy at every level. Ben Macintyre handles his material and the wealth of characters skillfully, and turns out a rollicking tale. Yet he does not ignore the pathos surrounding the life of the almost unknown Welshman who is at the centre of this story: you’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean.

Next month’s starting book is one that formed part of the very first Six Degrees chain that I ever joined in on. It’s Katherine May‘s Wintering. And very appropriate for the less than sunny British summer we’re currently experiencing here.

Finally, an apology. Last month, hardly any of you who commented on my post received replies. I’m so sorry. I planned to write these on my return from Europe, but WordPress decided otherwise and firmly closed comments, despite my best efforts to open them again.