Six Degrees of Separation: From Friendaholic to Best of Friends

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.

Kate W: Books are my Favourite and Best

This month’s starter book is Elizabeth Day‘s Friendaholic. I haven’t read it, but apparently the clue is in the title: it’s an exploration of friendship.

I’ll start then with a book I’m just reading now. It’s Small Worlds, by Caleb Azumah Nelson. At its foundation are two things: the narrator’s strong friendships, deeply rooted in his wider family, and his love – their love- of music, which underpins all their moments of togetherness and happiness.

There’s a lot of dancing in Nelson’s book. So let’s go to Strasbourg in 1518, to a story based on a historically documented ‘plague’ of hysterical dancing: The Dance Tree, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, set in a time of famine, superstition, religious and moral outrage. This is largely the story of Lisbet, pregnant again having already lost nine babies in very early infancy, and beekeeper extraordinaire. Why has her sister-in-law Nethe been required to do penance in a religious community for seven years? Why have hundreds of women been dancing in a frenzy, for hour after hour, day after day? Why do yet more and more people join them? Here are family secrets, forbidden love, frightened and powerless women examined in a story rich in feeling and entirely readable.

I’ll take you to Glasgow now, to the recent past, to a city which seems to have had parallels with the Strasbourg depicted in the last book. Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart. Mungo grows up on a down-trodden Glasgow housing estate, immediately post-Thatcher: fatherless, with an increasingly absent and alcoholic mother whom he adores, a clever older sister who looks out for him, and a violent, lawless older brother. Why, at the beginning of the story, does his mother send him away on a fishing weekend with two fellow alcoholics whom she hardly knows? We return throughout the narrative to find out more. Mainly, we are in the poverty-stricken community Mungo calls home. And it’s here he meets James, and discovers his sexuality. That’s bad enough, but in sectarian Glasgow, Mungo is Protestant, James Catholic … This is a story with a deeply rooted sense of place, illuminating and pacy dialogue, with sectarianism, violence, fear and deprivation at its heart, examining what it means to be male in such a society, and the risks attendant on being gay.

We’ll stay in Scotland, but lighten the mood, by picking up a copy of Borges and me: an encounter by Jay Parini. A romp of a read – a lightly fictionalised account of Parini’s encounter with Borges: a writer whose work I, like Parini, have never (so far) read. Jay Parini, an American, was a post-graduate student at St. Andrew’s University, dodging the draft to the Vietnam War. He’s going through young-man-angst about the subject for his thesis (his supervisor doesn’t seem keen on Parini’s choice of poet Mackay Brown), his draft-dodging and his (lack of) love life. When a friend of his, Alistair, is called out of town on a family emergency, Parini is called in to house-sit Alistair’s guest, the blind and elderly post-modernist writer Borges. Almost immediately, at Borges’ request, they embark on a road trip round Scotland for which Parini is expected to be Borges’ ‘eyes’. Shambolic and unpredictable, Borges is also a fount of dizzying literary talk. This is a trip to savour. A book which is a funny and wry account of an unlikely and thoroughly Quixotic journey: indeed Borges names Parini’s ancient Morris Minor after Quixote’s horse Rocinante. And it’s persuaded me too, that it’s about time I read some of Borges’ writing.

More men thrown together almost by happenstance: this is very much not a romp of a read. A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli. An account of three German soldiers whose task on a bitterly cold winter day during WWII is to hunt down Jews in hiding and bring them back to the Polish concentration camp where they are based, for an inevitable end. This unenviable task is better than the alternative: staying in camp to shoot those who were found the previous day. They’re friends simply through circumstance, so they talk about family – about the teenage son of one of them – and they find just one Jew. Is he their enemy, deserving his fate, or is he just like them, a young man doing his best to survive? What if they return to camp with nobody to show for their day’s hunting? As the men retreat to an abandoned cottage to prepare a meagre meal, their hatred and fear jostle with their well-submerged more humane feelings to provide the rest of the drama for this short, thought provoking book.

Let’s complete the circle by turning to another book whose protagonists’ family history lies elsewhere, as was the case with Small Worlds (Ghana) but whose home is now London. Kamila Shamsie‘s Best of Friends. This is a book of two halves. The first takes us to 1980s Karachi, and to the lives of two 14 year old schoolgirls. Zahra’s exceptionally bright and will do well. She’s less privileged than Maryam, who expects to inherit her grandfather’s successful leather business. An event takes place which comes in many ways to define their futures. Fast forward 40 years. The girls, now women are living in London, are successful and content. In many ways they are ciphers representing on the one hand liberal and inclusive politics, on the other successful entrepreneurship. Their strong friendship endures. Until the event from their teenage years comes back to haunt them. I didn’t quite believe in this and though the ending is intriguing, I was a little disappointed in this latest book from Shamsie.

So there we have it: a chain that explores friendship in its many guises. Next month? The chain-starter is the winner of the International Booker Prize: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov and translated by Angela Rodel.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Hydra to Purple Hibiscus

Goodness!  I completely forgot that today is Six Degrees of Separation day.  I’ll have to play catch-up.

This month’s chain-starter isn’t yet published in the UK, so I haven’t read it: Hydra by Adriane Howell

I gather something bad has happened to the heroine as the book begins, so I’ll start with Dolores by Laureen Aimee Curtis. Dolores is a somewhat enigmatic character who fetches up at the gate of a convent – pregnant. The nuns take the young woman in, and she adjusts to their life while her mind slips back to the years before: to the assignations in love motels, sometimes to life back at home, to a boy called Angelo. Life happens to her, almost without her input. The nuns hadn’t known she was already pregnant when she came to their door. She gives birth, and they name her son. What will happen to this confused young woman? We don’t find out. Perhaps this convent, full of mainly elderly and unworldly women will remain her home. Or not. Dolores’ life has been pretty grim so far and seems likely to remain so. Somehow, we as readers remain detached from her, as the author herself does. A strange, visceral book which kept me thinking beyond the time I turned the last page.

Let’s stay with – well, not nuns – but those who have chosen the religious life:  Victoria Mackenzie’s For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain. Two female mediaeval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe tell their stories in alternating short chapters. Julian is the better known figure, for her Revelations of Divine Love, written when she was an anchoress, enclosed in a tiny windowed cell abutting a Norwich church. Both she and the other figure in the book, Marjorie Kent, had visions. Whereas Julian chooses to see little, but see it intensely, Marjorie is very different. Illiterate and rambunctious, with little time for her husband and children, she loudly proclaims her visions of Christ to anyone who will listen, and indeed those who do not wish to listen. Both took risks. To go against current Christian orthodoxy, especially as a woman, risked excommunication and a painful death. In the book, and we cannot know if this happened, the two meet, and this unlikely pair make a genuine connection. Beautifully written, and quickly read, this is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

So to another woman, isolated from her professional peers simply by virtue of being a woman:  Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. While Elizabeth Zott, hero of this book, was fighting her battles for acceptance as an academic and chemist in the ’60s, I was a schoolgirl at an all-girls’ grammar school where achievement was expected, and the norm. All the same, our academic prowess when, post graduation, we entered the world of work was not always remunerated as favourably as that of our male colleagues. So this story of a woman who was disregarded while her research was nicked by her male colleagues was bound to interest me, as was her determination not to patronise her female audience when she was hired to do a TV cookery show. But … the characterisation was thin (EZ herself), or frankly unbelievable (her small daughter), and the males disappointingly stereotypical – especially the villains of the piece. As a page-turner it wasn’t wholly successful for me.I’m out of step.  Most readers seem to love it.

I’ve just finished Go as a River by Shelley Read (Whom I’ve met!  She came to an event organised this week by our local independent bookshop and spoke engagingly and with warm enthusiasm). Victoria lives in a small inward-looking town in Colorado – one that will have been covered by a new reservoir by the end of the book. Hers is a family of men, the women in her life having died in tragic circumstances when she was only 12. They’re either hardworking and grim (father), brutal (brother) or bitter and disabled (uncle). She is their housekeeper. One day, she meets an itinerant young man, a Native American, despised and reviled by the local community: racism is rampant . Falling in love with him changes the trajectory of her life, and is the story which makes up this book. In this account, we have the wild and rugged forest landscape which surrounds her town vividly brought to life, as well as the emotional life of Read’s characters. This is an immersive tale of love, loss and resilience. As a debut novel, it’s a triumph.

Victoria is only 17 when her story begins. Ana, in Dominicana by Angie Cruz, is 15 and living in the Dominican Republic with her family. Since the age of 11 she has been promised in marriage to a man more than twice her age. Love doesn’t come into it. This wheeler dealer, a Dominican now based in New York is her family’s best chance of emigrating there with Ana as the sponsor. New York as Ana finds it is not a city paved in gold, but a shabby flat in which she is more or less a prisoner with a sometimes violent and unpredictable husband. This is her story of her feisty struggles to make a life for herself, and gain some independence, while maintaining contact with her family in troubled political times ( the late 1960s). A good read, up-beat and engaging even when times are very hard, and a real insight into the struggles and compromises of being an immigrant with responsibilities to those who have been left behind.

Lastly, another 15 year old, whom we meet in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager who lives a privileged life with her brother Jaja and her parents. Her father is a successful businessman who is proud of the way he is able to support his community with his generosity. His devotion to his Catholic religion is however fanatical and more than a little warped, his expectations of his children controlling and cruel. Their home life is set against the turbulent politics of the time, and the contrast with their father’s sister’s family. They are in much more straitened circumstances, but surround each other with easy-going love. It’s the play between these two sets of attitudes that brings this story into being, and allows Kambili gradually to find her voice. A compelling and often uncomfortable page-turner.

Each of these books is linked by having as their protagonists women, isolated either by choice or circumstance.  Perhaps they could have done with reading next month’s starter book: Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict, by Elizabeth Day.

Six Degrees of Separation: to Write a Book, or to Cook a Bear?

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: Katc W

This month’s starter book, Beach Read by Emily Henry is one I had no desire to read. However, one summary I read describes it as being about two very different writers. ‘she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast‘ Goodreads).

Somehow, that put me in mind of Maggie O’Farrell‘s The Marriage Portrait. In 15th Century Florence, Lucrezia, third daughter Cosimo de’ Medici, finds herself betrothed, then married to Alfonso, heir to the Duke of Ferrara when her older sister, his original choice, dies. The story flits between her early life in Florence and her early married life. Underneath, throughout her marriage, her conviction that she will be killed by her apparently loving husband bubbles away. This is a tale, sumptuously and evocatively told. It’s a mixture of fact, of weaving in allusions learnt from Browning’s poem My Last Duchess, from myth and fairytale and from gothic horror to create an engaging and highly pictorial story, which goes a long way towards helping us understand what it might have been to be Lucrezia: child, noblewoman, wife.

From one woman’s life to this case a wholly fictional one, as told in Laird Hunt‘s Zorrie. This is the story of an ordinary woman living in rural Indiana, born during the 1930s Depression years. It’s quietly, beautifully told, from the days when Zorrie is orphaned and put in the care of a resentful spinster aunt, through the years of her adolescence, marriage and beyond to old age. Zorrie’s is a narrow world, but she has the same struggles with grief, with loneliness that befall most of us at some stage. But she also experiences love, and deep friendships, and reaps the rewards of steadfast hard work. I was moved by and involved in the story told in this short book. 

From one simple life to another, in Limberlost, by Robbie Arnott. Set in rural Tasmania towards the end of WWII, , this book ‘s earlier pages chronicle the life of young Ned, son of an apple farmer. As the book moves on, episodes from his whole life interweave the narrative, and indicate how events from his boyhood inform the adult he became. What makes this book special is its sparse yet luminous prose: its ability to make readers care for Ned, who has difficulty articulating his feelings and aspirations.  The novel isn’t plot-driven. It relies on various episodes such as his caring for a fierce marsupial, a quoll, whom he has inadvertently trapped to illustrate his character, his inability to trust himself to explain and justify. The one real drama in his marriage isn’t really explored. This quiet, understated book may well be my book-of-the-year 2022.

We’re still crossing continents in my next book: to Europe – to Italy. I’m staying here, by Marco Balzano. A powerful, understated novel sweeping us through much of the twentieth century. Trina narrates her story to her missing daughter. She lives in Curòn, in the German-speaking Italian Tyrol, and witnesses Mussolini’s attempts to Italianise it and stifle its German heritage; the impact of the Nazis and war on their lives; and finally sees their community destroyed by the building of a – it turns out – inefficient dam which drowns Curòn and surrounding villages. Important moments of history are told here through the lives of ordinary people, few of whom are described, other than as, for instance ‘the fat woman’, ‘the old man’ – they become ciphers for us all.. That is what makes this book, so simply told, so potent.

Now we’re off to Spain. I picked Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson from the library shelves for no better reason than that Barcelona is a city I know well since our daughter moved there ten years ago. Yhis is a book with a strong sense of place. Not Tourist Barcelona, with its must-see monuments, its busy cafes and its omni-present pick-pockets: but the varied city which all kinds of people from dyed-in-the-wool Catalans to ex-pats and immigrants call home. Here are three interlinked novellas, each with a very different character at its heart. They never meet, but are linked loosely through neighbours, colleagues and unconnected events. The book explores themes such as immigration, racism, nostalgia, lack of self-knowledge: old relationships that linger on. Thomson conjures up people whose complicated lives are utterly plausible, and a city that lives and breathes without reference to the tourist haunts so many travellers see. An immersive book.

These first five books all have a single character at the story’s heart. My sixth does too in many ways. To Cook a Bear, by Mikael Niemi. But is the hero the narrator, Jusi, or the pastor? We’re in northern Sweden in 1852, within the Arctic Circle – an area where Swedes, Finns and the Sami people all live. Revivalist preacher Laestadius, an avid amateur botanist is pastor in a community here, and takes in an abandoned Sami boy, Jussi, who’s suffered much abuse and poverty. This pastor is astute and observant – more so than the local sheriff, and it’s he who continues his pursuit for the truth when first, a local girl is killed, then another is grievously attacked: the easy, but incorrect answer is – a bear. The pastor teaches Jussi to read, write and use his brain, and it’s largely the boy who tells the story, though he remains, as do the Sami people generally, disregarded and despised by the local community. This is a good story and well told, portraying an isolated community, reliant on gossip, tradition, religion and superstition to get by. There are twists which bring the pastor (who is an actual historical figure) and Jussi into real danger. This is Scandi Noir introduced into the history books, and emphatically not a detective story with added costume.

So I’ve come full circle, by beginning and ending my chain with two stories inspired by the lives of real people. If I’m honest, this was also driven by my wish to include my very favourite book title of 2022: To Cook a Bear. The other factor making this list into a chain is that – quite exceptionally, I read all six of these books straight after one another (though not in this order) since the last appearance of Six Degrees.

And next month’s starter? Trust, by Hernan Diaz. I’ve reserved it at the library already.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Snow Child to a Mistletoe Murder

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.

Kate W: Six Degrees of Separation

This month’s reading began with Eowyn Ivey‘s The Snow Child. I suspected magical realism and expected to cast the whole thing aside. But this reworking of the traditional Russian fable utterly disarmed me. Set in barely-settled 1920s Alaska, the frozen landscape and the fresh and flower-strewn spring, the tough-because-they-have-to-be characters, the hardships and friendships make this a believable, yet lyrical story which transported me willingly to a different world.

I remembered a book which gave me a similar reaction: Cecilia Ekbäck‘s Wolf Winter. As an evocation of life in an isolated 18th century community of far-flung homesteads in northern Sweden it’s quite wonderful. The sheer drudgery of keeping alive in the long dark days of winter; the isolation; the fear of beasts and evil spirits: in fact the pervasiveness and absolute acceptance of a spirit world was involvingly brought to life. But it’s also a murder mystery, and this pulled me in far less. Nevertheless.five years on, those evocative descriptions of tough lives in a tough place stay in my mind.

Yet more tough lives in unforgiving conditions. The North Water, by Ian McGuire. This is a gritty story set largely in a 19th century whaling ship. There’s violence, brutality, bad language, bowel movements a-plenty, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Patrick Sumner has – we eventually discover – left the British Army in disgrace and his options are few. He becomes a ship’s surgeon on the whaling ship, and finds that a hard and desperate life becomes even worse as the ship and its crew battle against an arctic winter and a particularly brutal and amoral member of the crew. An involving and gripping story that recreates a world I can only be grateful not to be a part of. And – British readers – I’ve just discovered that the book has been made into a five part series available on BBC i-player.

Let’s stay at sea, and with fishing, but let’s lighten the mood – please – by turning to Silver Shoals, by Charles Rangeley-Wilson. I was entirely and unexpectedly engaged by this book, an exploration of our nation’s iconic fish: cod, carp, eels, salmon and herring. This is a story of the fish themselves; of fishermen; of the consequences of greed and the way back from it; of geology; meteorology; our nation’s social history as it relates to food and farming; of corruption and political will. It combines serious discussion of issues with good yarns about the fishermen who took Rangeley -Wilson fishing with them, whether on week-long voyages on trawlers, or half day sorties to the local river bank. He travelled north, south, east and west in quest of fish and their stories, and produced and absorbing account which I read in record time because I was so enthralled by all the threads of the story Charles Rangeley-Wilson told.

My next book is set not at sea, but in the mountains. However, there is the same attachment to place here that fisherman seem to have to their chosen piece of water.. A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler. This is a spare and restrained telling of the story of a life. The life of a lonely, but not discontented man living in a small community in a mountain valley, after a chequered and varied early life. This is a man who values solitude, and the landscape in which he lives. His needs are simple, but even these are not always easy to meet. A poetic, satisfying book. It’s a work in translation, but this is an accomplished piece of work which reads beautifully, and deserves re-reading.

Marcus Sedgwick lives in the Haute-Savoie, not really so very far from Seethaller’s hero. One of his books is Snow. This is a beautifully presented and thoughtful little monograph. Always fascinated by snow, Marcus Sedgwick’s chosen home is one where snow in winter is a daily reality. He’s come to appreciate that there is far more than one kind of the stuff, and that some of it is ‘the wrong kind’, getting in the way of the everyday lives of those who are very accustomed to snow of all kinds. He wanders discursively through science, literature, art, and personal anecdote to build up a vivid picture of this fascinating substance which exercises such a grip on our imaginations and our daily lives when we encounter it. A book to read, to savour, and to continue to dip into from time to time.

Now, let’s lighten the mood. It’s nearly Christmas shopping time. Let’s choose another short book, with winter at its heart. The Mistletoe Murder and other Stories, by PD James. The Guardian describes this book as ‘a box of crackers’, and so it is. These are four short stories of murder most foul that were all originally published elsewhere, all set round about Christmas time. They’re clever, and not at all likely to be mistaken for Scandi-noir. These quickly read little gems, nicely presented by Faber and Faber, would make an ideal stocking filler.

So there we have it. From one murder mystery to four murder mysteries, with four stops in between.

It seems to me that next month’s starting book could hardly be more different. It’s Beach Read, by Emily Henry.

Six Degrees of Separation: The Foodie Special

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.

Kate: Six Degrees of Separation

This month, our chain starts off with a recipe book: Jamie Oliver‘s The Naked Chef. I’ve used this and other books by Jamie Oliver as jumping-off points when thinking what to cook. But what I really like is a recipe book that’s a good enough read to enjoy even when not planning meals.

So that’s why I’m starting my chain with Rachel Roddy. I used to follow her when she was a food blogger, a young Englishwoman living in Rome. Then she wrote a book. Then the Guardian newspaper took her up. These days she blogs no longer. But I still use and enjoy that first book, My Kitchen in Rome, in which she talks about Testaccio, the working area of Rome where she lives, far from the tourist hot-spots. She writes about the daily market, her discovery of Roman foods and recipes, and getting to know those who help her on her culinary journey. It’s a right good read. With added recipes.

Nigel Slater is another food writer featured in the Guardian and Observer. I own just about every book he’s written: but today, even if it’s definitely not OK to start doing the Christmas shopping and enter shops where Christmas musak is already being belted out, it is OK already to have baked the family Christmas cake, I’m featuring his The Christmas Chronicles. It intersperses vignettes from his life with observations from his garden, his travels, his kitchen, his Christmas preparations with recipes for Christmas and the winter season generally. Like Rachel’s book, it’s a jolly good read.

The book which probably started many of us out on our cooking explorations is Elizabeth David‘s A Book of Mediterranean Food, first published in 1959. It doesn’t have the same story book quality of Roddy and Slater’s books, but it’s more than a list of ingredients followed by the instructions. She sets the scene, either with her own words or those of other writers, to explain the joy of say a family lunch, a Greek feast, the snail. She explains which ingredients are best, how you might make do, and when you must not make do. I no longer use David’s books as much as I did, but she’s the foundation on which so many later cooks and their books were built.

We’ll stay in the Mediterranean. I’ve written before about my entirely unrequited love affair with Commissario Guido Brunetti in Donna Leon‘s books set in Venice. In any one of them you’ll find evocatively described meals, family meals prepared by his talented wife Paola, or those taken in one of the neighbourhood restaurants he’s come to know and be known at over the years. Let’s pick on Trace Elements. A dying woman has an important message to relay to Commissario Brunetti about her recently deceased husband. Inevitably, she dies before she’s able to convey clearly what she needed to say. Can Brunetti and his friend and colleague Claudia Griffoni pick the bones out of all this? Inevitably, they can. Inevitably too, there are twists and turns on the way, and an intriguing ending. A classically satisfying tale, with meal time interludes. 

Still in Italy – Sicily this time. Andrea Camilleri‘s Inspector Montalbano is reliably greedy. His housekeeper leaves him tempting suppers to enjoy when he returns from labouring over yet another murder. Local restaurateurs know him well, and keep their choicest dishes for him. All Camilleri’s books about him celebrate his love of food. It’s a long time since I’ve read one, so no review for this one: The Terracotta Dog.

We’ll finish with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie books, which my younger daughter read incessantly for a period when she was about 10. It describes the life and adventures of a pioneer family in 19th century America, and the simple business of living occupied much of their days. In Little House in the Big Woods, for example, we’ll be with mother and daughters as they bake bread, churn butter, grow vegetables, dry fruits, make pickles. Father may turn up with a fowl for the pot. It was a simple, tough and hardworking life lived by an energetic and loving family with a deep uncomplicated faith. As my daughter prepared for her teenage years in a rather different society, these books were her frequent companions.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a book post about food before, and I doubt if I shall again. But it’s been fun. Back to the world of fiction next month, for Eowyn Ivey‘s The Snow Child. Join in on the first Saturday in December with a chain of your own?

Six Degrees of Separation: From a Scandal to a Great Fire

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.

Kate: Six Degrees of Separation

The starter book for this month’s chain is Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.  Despite its being in many ways the shocking story of an affair between a teacher and her pupil, the book is in many ways memorable for having been narrated by a fellow teacher, who proves to be an unreliable narrator.

So I looked for another unreliable narrator, and found one in Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library.  So much hype surrounded this book. And it is immensely readable. But this story of a young woman who gets the opportunity, through being transported to a magical library in the moments before she commits suicide morphs into an entertaining and – yes- thought-provoking manual to help her re-evaluate her life and its disappointments, and to explore some of the paths that might-have-been, in some ways disappoints. Of course her alternative lives, lasting only a few days each, aren’t going to work out since she isn’t given a back-story and knowledge of the participants. In the end I felt I was being given a parable of how to improve on living the life I have been given. And it didn’t quite live up to what I’ve come to expect of Matt Haigh.

Libraries for the next link then: let’s go to Barcelona in 1945.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind revolves around the mysteries of a little known author, Julian Carax.   The main protagonist, Daniel, stumbles across him in a secret library of literature called the Cemetery of Forgotten books. From there it develops into a story of good versus evil; driven by jealousy and shrouded in the unknown.

I’m all in favour of staying in Barcelona, armed with a copy of Robert HughesBarcelona.  This is a wonderful book, which tells Barcelona’s story through the last two thousand years – though its main focus is the last thousand. Hughes’ area of expertise is art and architecture, but in order to tell the story of Barcelona’s cultural past and present, he has painted a vivid picture of the city’s political and social past. Highly readable, this is a book so densely packed with information that it definitely merits a second, perhaps a third reading as an introduction to the history of this fascinating city.

From Barcelona to Florence, another city I know well. Still Life by Sarah Winman is largely set there.  A charming, uplifting book, about the power of loving friendships and community. It begins in Tuscany in WWII with a British soldier, Ulysses, and continues to London’s East End where Ulysses was brought up. An unexpected legacy takes Ulysses back to Tuscany, to live in Florence, where, little by little, his London friends and relations fetch up too. Over the three decades in which this novel takes place, these individuals and his new friends in Florence all live and work together as some large extended family. Florence – not tourist Florence – but a living, working, vibrant community – is star of the show, and since I lived there too for a year, not long after the 1966 floods which feature in the book, I took this story to my heart.

Another book where a city is centre stage, albeit an 18th century version of the city, is Andrew Miller’s Pure, set in Paris.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a well qualified yet naïve young engineer, is sent to oversee the removal of the many thousands of bodies from the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris, some 4 years before the French Revolution.  Miller conjures a vivid picture of the daily round in this little part of eighteenth century Paris: the smells, whether of sour breath or rotting vegetables or a dusty church; and of a world about to change, in the destruction of the cemetery and church which has for so long been at the heart of the community Baratte finds himself in. Violence and death are ever present.  Unsettled by the narrative, the reader is left with an impression of a world about to change, a world which is already changing in ways its citizens cannot comprehend. Uncertainty is what draws the reader in.

A capital city in time of trouble is portrayed in The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor.  What did I enjoy about this book? The picture it evoked of London life in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London. What didn’t I enjoy? The over complex plot, and the flimsy characterisation. The book is peopled by ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, and we know for sure which are which. I’m not minded to read the follow-up book, but I found the description of London at this difficult moment evocative and convincing.

How did we get from a modern comprehensive school to seventeenth century London?  As chains go, it’s a bit unlikely.  Let’s see if next month, when we start with a cookery book, Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef, is a little more convincing.

Six Degrees of Separation: from a Pink Rabbit to a Twenty Two Ton Whale

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

My last book from last month becomes my first this month.  It’s Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and it was a story everyone in the family at some point read as it could appeal to anyone over the age of nine. It is a largely autobiographical account of the author’s journey during the Second World War, as a nine year old child, from Germany via Switzerland and Paris to London, where the family finally settles in pursuit of safety.

All my books this month link together.  They are books which my children, now in their 40s and 30s enjoyed, which have been saved through the years and been passed be read to their own children.  Some books have reached their 8th custodian.  They’ve done so well because back in the day, I strengthened the covers of those Puffin Paperbacks – the only publisher then dipping its toe into this particular market – with cardboard from cereal packets, and covered them with tacky back.  Despite this care, a few books have disintegrated, and it’s a special pleasure when my now-adult-children scour the shops to come up with a new copy of their childhood favourite.

We’ll have to continue with Judith Kerr.  Is there a child in England who hasn’t enjoyed The Tiger who came to Tea?  A passing tiger drops in on a mother and daughter,  cheerfully eats them out of house and home before thanking them politely and wandering off. And they all – probably – live pretty much happily ever after.  The family’s on Copy Number Three of this book.

My children also enjoyed reading about Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat series.  This daffy but much loved cat gets herself into all kinds of domestic scrapes, but of course it always turns out comfortingly well in the end.

Another animal adventure came with The Elephant and the Bad Baby, by Elfrida Vipont – and wittily illustrated by the just-deceased Raymond Briggs. An elephant meets a bad baby and offers him a ride.  They go ‘rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta down the road’ meeting one helpful person after another.  But do you know what?  The baby ‘never once said please.’ And that has consequences.  Lesson eventually learned, everyone in the story has tea together on the very last page.

My children of course joined in the chorus of the previous book.  And they joined in reciting The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, by Edward Lear, and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, even before they could talk fluently.  This book has been loved to death, and has eventually been replaced.

On the top of the Crumpetty Tree

The Quangle Wangle sat,

But his face you could not see,

On account of his Beaver Hat.

For his Hat was a hundred and two feet wide,

With ribbons and bibbons on every side

And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace,

So that nobody ever could see the face

Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.

Who couldn’t love nonsense such as this?

Everyone in the family knows every word of Quentin Blake’s Mr. Magnolia, and will recite it still, at the least provocation.

Mr. Magnolia has only one boot

He has an old trumpet that goes rooty toot

And two lovely sisters who play on the flute.

But ..

Mr. Magnolia has only one boot…

It’s not the same though if we can’t at the same time enjoy the joyous abandon of the illustrations.

And as a right proper northern family, we all enjoy reading about Stanley Bagshaw, by Bob Wilson.

In Huddersgate, famed for its tramlines,

Up north, where it’s boring and slow,

Stanley Bagshaw resides with his Grandma,

At Number Four, Prince Albert Row.

Lovable-but-dim Stanley’s adventures are recorded in rhyme in strip cartoon fashion.  Any title tells you how improbable his adventures are:  Stanley and the Twenty Two Ton Whale, anybody?

Two generations enjoy Stanley Bagshaw’s adventures

Most of these titles are still in print, a tribute to their long-standing charm and ability to engage small children – and indeed their parents.

Next month’s starting book is Zoë Heller‘s Notes on a Scandal.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Form and Emptiness to a Pink Rabbit

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 starting point this month is Ruth Ozeki‘s The Book of Form and Emptiness. I’ve reserved it in the library, but unsurprisingly, my turn hasn’t come yet. I understand that it’s a tale of a boy coming to terms with loss.

My first link then in Carys Bray‘s The Museum of You. I don’t know why I didn’t connect more with this book. It’s a cleverly written account of twelve year old Clover Quinn and her dad Darren, and their attempts, their very different attempts, to come to terms with the death of Clover’s mother Becky when Clover was only about six weeks old. Clover is a sweet child, but a bit isolated from her peers. She likes her dad’s allotment, and museums. In fact she decides to make a museum to her mum, in secret. Gradually her story unfolds. Darren’s story unfolds. Becky’s story unfolds. This book is very skilfully done. It’s well written. Why didn’t I engage with it more? I don’t have an answer. I’d recommend anyone to read it. Just …. not me.

To make my next link, let’s stay with Carys Bray. When the lights go out. Though very readable, for me it suffered the same problem as her previous book. The subjects: eco-aware Emma versus eco-warrior husband Chris feel rather overdone now. Chris learnt to be a warrior during his now-rejected fundamentalist Christian childhood, and his warriorship consists in being a prophet of doom, rather than in action. We’re meant to find him tedious, and we do. We’re meant to like busy, community-minded Emma, and we do. We’re meant to feel wry sympathy with the Emma and Chris as they parent their teenage children, and deal with Chris’s interfering-in-a-humble-way mother. So it’s an engaging enough read, but one in which I didn’t fully involve myself. 

Ecological matters are a bit of a theme these days, and so is The Pandemic, which is what allows me to make the link to the next book, The Fell, by Sarah Moss. A reminder of a time – a recent time – when our home was our universe. A time when Kate and her teenage son were confined to their house on a two week quarantine because a contact has Covid. I was isolating with Covid when I read this, so I could identify well with Kate’s frustration and longing to be out – to get up there on the moors, at a moment when there won’t be a soul about, and be back in time for tea. Except she isn’t. She gets disorientated, and falls … This story is told in stream of consciousness through the voices of Kate herself, her son Matt, her neighbour Alice, and mountain rescuer Rob. And frankly it got as tedious as Lockdown itself. The ending was suitably shocking, inconclusive and cliff-hanging, which redeemed it somewhat, but I was glad to finish this story. The wrong book at the wrong time for me probably, but I doubt if this book will wear well.

And so to another lockdown book, The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale. I loved this. Having many years ago lived in Italy, though not in Rome, this put me back in touch with many aspects of Italian daily life and culture. It also revived memories of Lockdown. Kneale, who with his family has lived in Rome for 20 years, puts us back to that odd period of genuine fear, when cities were empty of life, shops were closed, as was everything else that makes a city a city. But he dwells on so much more as he looks at Rome’s history and culture. If you’ve enjoyed Kneale’s other writing; if you love Italy, I recommend your reading this vivid account of a resilient city going through yet another test of its mettle.

Let’s stay in Rome. Early One Morning by Virginia Baily. An involving story initially set in Rome in WWII, of a woman, Carla, who finds herself, in one life-changing moment, with not one word spoken, taking charge of a Jewish boy whose family has realised how bad things have become for the Roman Jewish population. The narrative goes back and forth from war time Rome to the same city in the 1970s. It shows us that boy Daniele growing up sullen and resentful of his step-mother, an eventual addict. It introduces a Welsh teenager, Maria, who discovers in an unfortunate way that the man she thought to be her father isn’t. Instead it’s Daniele. She comes to Rome, to Carla, to recover her equilibrium and find out more. An absorbing well-told story, painting a picture of Rome, its sights and foods and characters in a way to relish. A good read indeed.

My last book of all focuses on the dislocation caused, particularly to Jews, by the Second World War. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a largely autobiographical account of the author’s journey as a nine year old child from Germany via Switzerland and Paris to London, where the family finally settles in pursuit of safety. And it’s written by Judith Kerr of The tiger who came to tea fame, and who is also the mother of Matthew Kneale. I read this book many years ago, so greater detail not forthcoming!

It appears that this last book will appear at the head of my chain next month, as we’re invited to use our last book this time as our starting point in September. I wonder if I can make a sturdier, more consistent chain from that?

Six Degrees of Separation:  From Wintering to Harvest

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

Wintering by Katherine May is this month’s Starter-for-Six book.  It also happens to be a book which I included in my first ever contribution to Six Degrees of Separation, back in August 2020.  Here’s what I said then: ‘This book, part memoir, part researched observation shows how winter can bring strength, and inspiration as we bring different ways of coping to this most demanding of seasons. May looks at the animal world (bees for instance), at different cultures who know a lot about winter (the Finns for example), and at her own experiences to show that winter can be far from negative. Instead, it can be one of healing, renewal, acceptance and a source of strength.’

Let’s find another book where winter is star of the show: Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght. This is an extraordinary book, detailing an extraordinary piece of research. Fish owls are the largest owls on the planet, and they’re endangered, as much as anything by loss of habitat. One of the areas they frequent is the extreme eastern edge of Russia, and it’s here that PhD student from Minnesota, Jonathan Slaght conducts his research, winter after frozen winter, with a changing team of Russian characters with whom he shares cramped cars, freezing tents and the hospitality of forest-dwelling loners. They battle the dangers and difficulties of non-existent roads, early spring melts, and the necessity of spending evenings drinking 95% ethanol – refusing to join in is not an option. So this is a good yarn. But underneath is serious, difficult research, pinning down sites where this elusive owl lives, and eventually trapping specimens to place recorders on them: all of that can and does go wrong. He’s done a good job of detailing the conditions these elusive birds require in order to survive, and now the next stage of encouraging a conservation strategy goes on. This non-scientist was entirely fascinated.

We’ll stay in Russia now.  Russia and Ukraine – I read Kate Quinn‘s The Diamond Eye before the current war.  It’s a book which begins when Hitler was invading Russia and Ukraine.  Mila Pavlichenko, bookish student, and a young mother already estranged from her husband volunteers for the Army, and becomes a deadly sniper: though because she’s a woman, it takes a while for her special skills to be recognised. Quinn paints a graphic picture of the battlefields that are Pavichenko’s new home: the blood and wounds, danger and downright exhaustion are unremitting, day after day. It’s here that profound relationships are forged with colleagues. At a time when she’s exhausted and devastated by loss she’s sent as a delegate on a goodwill mission appealing for support, to America. She makes an unlikely but real friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. And finds that in the war-free land of plenty that is America, there’s even more danger from foes old and new than there was on the battlefield. A thrilling tale, based on the real life that was Mila Pavlichenko’s: mother, student and soldier who played her part in changing the face of modern history.

A strong woman in time of conflict.  That’s Annie Garthwaite‘s Cecily. Read this book, and you will enter into a different world. A fifteenth century world. One in which bloodline counts. One in which it matters what alliances you make, which families you choose to link with yours as you marry off your sons and daughters. You will enter the world inhabited by Cecily, wife of Richard Duke of York.  Garthwaite’s book will dispel any notion you might have had that high-born women’s lot was to spend the day at their needlework. On the contrary, women like Cecily were politically engaged, working with their husbands to secure status and power, both for themselves and their children. Women like Cecily inevitably bore many children: twelve in her case, of whom five died in infancy, while husbands inevitably went off in battle, changing alliances and allegiances as the political wind changed. This absorbing book, given immediacy by its use of the present tense shows us Cecily fiercely promoting her family’s interests, while she brings child after child into the world. We are present in 15th Century England.

More conflict in Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  This is a richly evocative book telling the story of the creation, rise and fall of Biafra, through the eyes of three separate yet connected groups of people. There’s Ugwu, from a traditional village, houseboy to Odenigbo, an Igbo academic. There are Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner and her twin sister Kainene, and her English partner Richard. Their structured lives fall apart as Nigeria itself does, as Biafra emerges as a nation and civil war threatens to destroy them. I’m ashamed at how little I knew of this conflict, remembering it only because of the famine caused by war. Now, an interplay of characters dealing with loyalties, often conflicting, moral responsibility, colonialism and its aftermath brings this piece of history vividly to life, the more so because the author’s family lived through this devastating time. A marvellous and involving read.

Back to conflict in Ancient Greece in Madeline Miller‘s Achilles. I’ve loved the Greek myths since my childhood, so this take on the Iliad was for me a fresh and vibrant re-imagining of the story. I was slightly disbelieving of the strength of the bond between Patroclus and Achilles portrayed by Miller – they were such very different characters – but on the other hand, appreciated the rounding out of these two individuals into fallible human beings. The legendary Achilles is something of a rock star, and he knows it, in the tale as told by Homer. Here, he’s simply a flawed human being who happens to be an excellent warrior. The book brought the ancient conflict to life, and will send me back to the Iliad to read it again.

My last book deals not with war, but with its aftermath: Harvest by Georgina Harding.  This is a carefully painted picture of a family, a family accommodating to a tragedy which occurred some twenty years before – the brutal death of the father, a man who had clearly been deeply affected by WWII, though he never speaks of it. It’s set during the 1970s on the family farm in Norfolk, and its landscape and mores are built up, layering scenes from the present with scenes from the past. Younger son Jonathan, who’s been living for a couple of years in Japan invites his Japanese girlfriend Kumiko for an extended stay. She gets on well with his mother Claire, and is a bright and colourful presence. But somehow, her being there opens cracks. Untold secrets are slowly exposed, and are as out of the family’s control as is the harvest, dependent as it is entirely on the vagaries of the weather. This is a compassionate and sympathetic book, and examines the human heart and its dark and unwilling-to-be-exposed corners. It’s also the last in a trilogy. I was unaware of this as I started to read. And I don’t believe it mattered for my understanding of the story. But I’m now keen to read the two preceding volumes: The Gun Room & The Land of the Living.

I got from winter to Russia to war and more war.  It’s all a bit of a stretch.  But this time I can wholeheartedly recommend every book I mention, so I make no apologies.

Next month’s chain will begin with winner of the 2022 Women’s PrizeThe Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.

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.