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

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

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

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 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

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

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

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

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.

Six Degrees of Separation: from the Kelly Gang to Harriet Harman

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

I fully intended to read the book beginning this month’s chain, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.  It had been sitting unread on my shelves for years.  It still is.  Oh dear. I gather it’s an exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

So for my first link, I’ll stay in Australia, in a similar period of history:  Hannah Kent’s Devotion.  It started so well – Hannah Kent can write.  A simple, isolated Lutheran community in Prussia is the setting, and the plan for it to move wholesale to Australia in a six month voyage is mooted and executed during the first half of the book. This early part of the story also details the deep friendship developing between the narrator Hanne, and Thea, a relative newcomer to the village. So far so good, so evocative and well told. In the second half, the book relies on magical realism, and I’ll avoid spoilers, and simply say – it wasn’t for me.

Migrants looking for a better life? A very different story is told in Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country. This story is about one family’s struggle as illegal immigrants from Colombia to America. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a web of different stories, different experiences, as the family struggles with their unsatisfactory status, aiming to secure jobs, accommodation, peace of mind, It’s evocatively told, painting a picture of the discomfort and deprivation that accompanies this family, whether in urban-warfare torn Colombia, or at the margins of American society. A damning indictment of the way in which migrants, more or less wherever they end up, are often treated.

Sadly, the life of a migrant is frequently one of poverty.  Life sentences, by Billy O’Callaghan, details three such impoverished lives. This is an involving, compassionate and evocative story set in Ireland at various points in the twentieth century. It’s the story of Nancy, born into extreme poverty: her son Jer, born in the workhouse, and Nellie, his daughter, also raised in straitened circumstances. It tells of Nancy, who fell in love with a man who avoided his responsibilities when she fell pregnant – twice – by him. Well, she was the one who got pregnant, wasn’t she? Jer was a soldier who found civilian life more difficult than his war-time experiences, while Nellie had to cope with the death of her first-born. There IS a lot of death in this book . This book piercingly shows what unenviable choices real poverty thrusts upon those who survive it. And yet this book is lyrical, tender, and immersive, conjuring up lives and times none of us would wish to share.

Sue Gee’s Earth and Heaven also details the life of a family battling not the extreme poverty of O’Callaghan;s book, but severe money problems all the same.  This is a book which will stay with me. Walter Cox, brought up in Kent in the early years of the 20the century, is – against the odds – a painter. We follow him from his home in Kent to the Slade School of Art and back to Kent with new wife Sarah, a wood engraver, and their friend, sculptor Euan as they struggle to make names for themselves. This beautifully observed book gravely details their lives, loves, losses and longings in a slow-moving story which beautifully conjures up the lives and landscape of the main protagonists. A book to savour.

I’m going to slam straight into a contrasting world where money shortages are really not a problem.  Read this book, and you will enter a privileged 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. Annie Garthwaite‘s book will dispel any notion you might have had that a high-born woman’s lot was to spend the day at her 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.

From one woman with her finger on the pulse of power to another: the autobiography of Harriet Harman MP:  A Woman’s Work.  This is a compelling account of the women’s movement, of life in parliament over the last 40 years, and of Harriet Harman’s struggle to use her role as MP to change the lives of women and families: in many ways successfully while her party was in power, but frustratingly and impotently slowly when they were not. Harriet Harman kept no diaries, so this book is free of obsessive day-to-day minutiae. But it’s a lively and compelling account of a woman struggling to prosper professionally, and to change the lives of women in that most macho of environments, the House of Commons. Even if you don’t share her political views, read this book for an overview of social reform campaigning over the last half century. You may even find yourself grateful to her, and to women like her, for taking on the battles she has fought and often won.

We’ve visited three continents and four different centuries, and explored both extreme poverty and great wealth. I wonder where your chain would take you?

This post is scheduled to appear today, but, away from home just now, I will neither respond to your comments, nor read everyone’s chains. But I will – before too long.

Six Degrees of Separation from Armfield to Banville

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

I have only just succeeded in borrowing Julia Armfield’s Our Wives under the Sea from the library, so I’ve barely started reading it. But this seems to be a summary to work with:  It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

Where to start then?

Perhaps with Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers. This is a tender, lyrical novel, largely based in a rural Ireland, whose modest, gentle landscape encompasses the entire book. At the heart of the novel is Paddy, postman and herdsman, his wife Kit, and their daughter Molly who as the book begins, has disappeared – just gone off early one morning, suitcase in hand. I can mention nothing more of the plot without giving too much away. Yet this is a novel full of secrets, many of which reveal themselves as the novel draws to a close. We meet the characters in this book at a distance, and they retain their privacy, may not always be rounded out. But it scarcely matters. This is an intriguing, poetic book which fully absorbed me.

Thinking of how rural Ireland is almost a character in the book put me in mind of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.  This is a marvellous moment of armchair travelling. Schalansky was brought up in East Berlin, at the time of The Wall, where poring over the atlas provided her only means of distant travel. Beautifully mapped, her book takes us to fifty of the smallest and most remote islands in the world. Some are inhabited, some are the domain of academics visiting for months ar a time, some are uninhabited. All have a story to tell. It might be their geology, or a tale of how they were discovered. Or folklore, or a moment or two of history. This book will transport you into regions you never knew about, and like Schalansky, will never visit … except in your mind.

Some of these islands feature in Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland: How Imperialism has shaped Modern Britain.This book is essential reading – for Brits at least. Sanghera presents a wealth of material, examining the history of the British Empire and how it was acquired. Many of us were brought up to regard the Empire and what Britain brought to the countries it had dominion over as something of a triumph, something which all subjects should be grateful for. We were brought up glossing over what slavery means to all involved, whether as slave-owner or slave. The Windrush generation, racism, the continuing legacy of our attitudes to Empire all form part of Sanghera’s narrative. This book is carefully researched, and attempts to be fair. It gives much to think about, and much material to form the basis for thoughtful on-going discussion.  Tough stuff, but also highly readable.

Let’s find a book set – at least partly – in one of those Commonwealth – formerly Empire – countries. The Last Hunt, by Deon Meyer. This is the first book I’ve read by Meyer, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Two parallel stories – the first involving South African cops Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido, given the thankless task of solving a cold case: the second introducing Daniel Darret, an African who after a chequered life has settled in Bordeaux. It’s only at the end these apparently unrelated threads come together. The characters, and the areas and worlds they frequent are well-painted and vivid, and the story, involving corruption in high places seems unsettlingly topical. Only the last chapter of all failed to convince me: and while this was disappointing, it didn’t stop me from feeling I’d had an involving and exciting journey along with the protagonists.

My next book isn’t really a crime story.  Or is it?  You’ll have to read Darke Matter: A Novel, by Rick Gekoski for yourself to find out. James Darke, retired schoolmaster and professional curmudgeon, narrates his story. His much-loved wife Suzy has recently died, wracked by pain in her last months. He lives alone, disapproving of everybody and everything, even his daughter and her husband – though he makes an exception for his grandson Rudy. His distress at watching his wife die encourages him to help her on her way to death through overdosing her, as he admits to his horrified daughter, though she comes to understand and agree.   No spoilers alert here, though you might well wish to refresh your knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, a book Darke re-fashions for his grandson’s entertainment. A perceptive, witty and moving evocation of love, grief, loss, and the fall-out from assisted dying.

Another whodunnit, which, being set in Ireland, links back to the first book in my chain, though not to this month’s starter.  Snow by John Banville. This paints a richly evocative picture of 1950s Co. Wexford in Ireland. A miserably cold snowy winter; a country house peopled with a decaying family of Protestant gentry; a pub-come-shop; a cast of splendidly eccentric characters. This is Cluedo brought to life. Though so much richer. Here is a picture of a narrow and barren society, subservient to the authority of the Catholic church, and with strong memories of their not-so-distant battle for independence. The motives for the murder we learn about on the first page are more important than finding out who committed it. A rewarding read, being a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit.

Next month, the chain will begin with Peter Carey‘s True History of the Kelly Gang, a book which has unaccountably sat unread on my shelves for ages. Its moment has come!

Six Degrees of Separation in March: from The End of the Affair to The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

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

I struggled to construct my chain this month, but … here goes.

We start with The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, A book about a man, a woman, God, and several other secondary characters. Our hero, Bendrix finds it easy to get in touch with hatred and bitterness, and it’s quite hard to reconcile this with the love he feels for Sarah, the woman he had an intense affair with over several years, while maintaining friendly relationship with her civil servant husband. Apart from Sarah’s relationship with God, much of the reason for the End of this Affair comes down to poor communication.

Which leads to my first link: Slaughter, by Rosanna Hildyard. The three stories which make up this slim volume are set in the northern Yorkshire Pennines. Here, life is bleak, tough. Characters who inhabit such a landscape are tough too, and get through life by doing, by surviving. Communication, one with another, is not their strong suit. In the first, set at the time of Foot and Mouth Disease, a young townie tries to get to grips with her dyed-in-the-wool country farmer partner, wondering the while if the epidemic is a punishment for farming in the first place. Outside are the dogs features another mismatched couple. If only they could communicate! But they can’t. Not even the dog can help. The final story, Cull yaw is shocking, involving a would-be-ethical farmer and his vegetarian partner. This couple too communicate in silences, and attack their difficulties with desperation. This is not a comfortable read – especially in this time of Covid. It illustrates well the possible consequences of failing to talk meaningfully. It paints a powerfully bleak picture of the landscape and surroundings in this part of England, whilst pointing up its raw beauty too. This is, I think, a book which will stay with me. 

A different kind of mis-communication comes next, where the expectations of the young people who journeyed from the Caribbean on the Windrush in 1948 to begin a new life in the Promised Land come up against the blank uncomprehending prejudices of the existing population. This Lovely City, by Louise Hare is above all the story of 19 year old Lawrie, and Evie, his young mixed race neighbour. It’s a story of racism, both casual and unthinking, and hate-fuelled. It’s a crime mystery too. It refers to many issues connected with the attitudes of the time towards ‘coloureds’ and women, but despite this it’s in many ways an easy, engaging read. I found the ending just a little too neat and this was disappointing, but Hare has written an involving book and I’ll be glad to read anything she writes in future.

Blonde Roots, by Bernadine Evaristo turns this world upside down. Black people are in charge, whites are their slaves. Feudal Britain, eighteenth and nineteenth century worlds, the modern age and a dystopian future all combine in this world of toil and truble (sic) in which Doris, kidnapped from her home into slavery, finds herself. There’s much to enjoy and admire in this early novel from Evaristo: the playful place names such as Londolo: details such as the efforts of whyte (sic) women to achieve the curly Aphro (sic) looks of their former masters. The speech patterns of the slaves, rooted in those of their black masters didn’t work for me, and overall, this was an only partially successful attempt to demonstrate that tyranny rules when we begin to regard others as inferior to ourselves.

A different kind of underdog – a man with dwarfism – features in The Smallest Man, by Francis Quinn. This story is based on – though is in no sense a biography of – Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf in the court of Charles 1. This is a charming tale, telling the rags-to-riches story of Nat Davy, who avoids being sold as a fairground attraction when his father, who wants rid of him, gets a better offer. Intelligent, witty and a quick thinker, Nat becomes the unhappy queen’s confidante. But Stuart England is a hotbed of political and religious discontent, and Nat is soon at the heart of the action, and doesn’t always make the best choices. An enjoyable, immersive and-despite the weighty matters of the period – ultimately quite a light and easy to read book. An impressive debut from Frances Quinn.


From one curiosity – a dwarf- to another – a monkey. The Hartlepool Monkey, by Sean Longley. I’m a bit in two minds about this book. Largely, I enjoyed this retelling of the true story of the monkey who was hanged as a spy in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars. The book had three narrators: the doctor who ‘adopted’ the monkey; the courtesan whom the doctor loved; and Warren, the one guinea brief who defended Jacques the monkey in court. It was full of charming and idiosyncratic detail. But this led to the book being longer than perhaps was justified. The monkey also learnt to talk, and this improbable detail let the story down for me, quite considerably. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable and readable book.

My next and last link is a bit of a stretch. It includes not one, but two animals in its title, but no further connection exists. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon has been widely feted, but not by me. It took me at least 250 pages to begin to become remotely interested in the lives of the characters who inhabited The Avenue in that sweltering summer of 1976: one I remember well, as I was pregnant with my first child, and for once in my life didn’t relish the heat. I had difficulty remembering which character was which and I didn’t believe in the young heroines, Grace and Tilly, who seemed remarkably unworldly. I was an extremely unworldly 10 year old once, but even I wasn’t as credulous as them . Most of all, I resented Cannon’s polished little metaphors and similes. They were clever, but Cannon all but put them in italics to make sure we noticed them. The plot seemed pointless. Some parts stretched credulity. For example, virtually the entire neighbourhood turns out to look at some rust-stained drainpipe that apparently looks like Jesus. Really?

And how that links back to Graham Greene’s book is anybody’s guess.

Next month’s starter is Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea, which is jostling for a place on the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

Six Degrees of Separation: from No One is Talking About This to The Liar’s Dictionary

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

I didn’t get on with this month’s starting book for the chain: No One is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood.  In fact I got nowhere near finishing it, so my chain will go off immediately at a wrong tangent, as I understand the second half is very different from the first.  I thought one reason I failed to engage with this book is that its protagonist is an extreme consumer of social media.  And I don’t ‘do’ social media.

I decided, therefore that I would choose a hero who hasn’t even heard of social media, Hilary Byrd, of Carys DaviesMission House. Byrd, a slightly washed out, failed Englishman of middle years, is in India trying to escape from his pale and disappointing life. He finds himself in a town which is clearly Ooty, that haven for the English in Time of Empire. And it’s here that he meets The Padre, who offers him accommodation: and Jamshed, who becomes his driver. And Priscilla, the Padre’s adopted daughter. And Ravi, would be Country and Western singer, Jamshed’s nephew. This is the story of how their lives – all disappointing lives in many ways – come to intertwine. Beautifully written in short, sometimes apparently unrelated chapters, this is a book which had me immersed in the life and times of every character. 

Byrd is not exactly a mainstream character.  Neither is Charlie Gilmour, who tells his own story in Featherhood.  This is an astonishingly readable book, which combines a tale of caring and raising a magpie fallen from its nest with a parallel account of Gilmour’s absent father. He too once raised a corvid, a jackdaw, but he was a far less reliable and responsible carer for his son – and several other children whom he fathered, while taking on few of the responsibilities of fatherhood. Charlie’s father, Heathcote suffered debilitating mental breakdowns and it becomes apparent to Charlie himself that he risks following the same trajectory: his late adolescence and early adulthood is peppered with difficulties which involve a spell in prison. This potentially weighty tale is leavened by accounts of the joy and mayhem which Benzene the magpie introduces to the lives of his whole family. As Charlie himself points out, Do Not Try This at Home. But his having done so has produced a delight of a book with a serious undertone.

The next book is fiction, told as autobiography, and it’s another chronicle of a life in crisis.  Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.  This is not a bed time story. Instead, it is a slow burn, of the kind the French seem so good at. Written in the first person, the narrator is a successful and respected author. She’s suffering from burnout, and this is the moment in which she makes a new friend – a friend who makes herself indispensable: a friend who begins to make her doubt herself: a friend who takes away any kind of belief in herself, slowly, skilfully and insidiously. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable read, and maybe perhaps just a little too long. On balance though, it was tautly constructed and I’ll read more from Delphine de Vigan.

We’ll stay in France, and meet a character who has difficulties of a completely different kind.  It feels like an autobiography, and I sense that in large part, it may be.  Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier.  Over the years, I’ve read a lot of accounts of the common soldiers’ lot in WWI, and been both horrified and angry at the suffering and the waste endured. But this novel of French poilu Jean Dartemond is perhaps the most shocking I have read, and would have seemed especially so when it was published in 1930, when memories of those surviving, and their relatives, were still relatively fresh. No wonder publication was suspended during WWII. The day to day suffering, boredom and indignities, the all-too frequent horrors of witnessing disembowelled bodies, skin, bloated cadavers are described with a freshness that makes the horror very present. Towards the end, he describes how, when officers weren’t around, some German and French troops made tentative sallies of friendship across the divide, as they recognised how much more they had in common with each other than with their commanding officers, often remote and somewhat protected. This book, as so many others of its kind, is a true indictment of the horror and futility of war.  

From WWII  to the Cold War and its aftermath.  The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre. This is a thoroughly gripping and shocking book: the story of Oleg Gordievsky, KGB agent turned British spy. The picture painted of Russian society in pre-Gorbachev days, and of the day to day life of a spy, whose life must necessarily be cloaked in such secrecy that not even those you love the most – your wife, your parents – can in any way be privy to your true beliefs and loyalties is a deeply unsettling one. This is a fine and edge-of-seat story. Only it’s not a story. The life of a spy, the machinations of MI6 and the KGB among others, the story of the Cold War and the period after are all true, all recent history, and Ben MacIntyre explains it all well, and places it all in context. I was exhausted after finishing this book. But greatly illuminated by what I’d learnt too.

The life of a spy is, of necessity, the life of a liar.  So let’s come full circle, and mention the Liar’s Dictionary by Eley  Williams.  Dictionaries are scarcely social media, but even now, they enjoy a long reach.  I thought this book would be a sure-fire hit with me, as I’m an inveterate dictionary bowser. I tried this book once, and abandoned it after twenty pages. I tried it again, and grudgingly admired Williams’ pure enjoyment of, and fun with words, but on the whole it left me cold. This is the story of a dictionary, long in the making: and, in alternating chapters, the personal struggles of 19th century Winceworth, and 20th century Mallorie’s and their tussles with mountweazels – fake entries planted in works of reference to identify plagiarists.  For a fuller account and more positive review, read here.

The book to start next month’s chain will be Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I haven’t read that in years. I’d better find a copy.

Six Degrees of Separation … in January

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

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles begins this month’s chain. I plunged into this novel full of hope for a delicious escapist read in the F. Scott Fitzgerald mode: and at first I wasn’t disappointed. Our narrator is Katy Kontent, and she’s full of witty and clever descriptions of the New York world she inhabits and its cast-list. I was happy to involve myself in her life, and that of her friend Eve, as they negotiated their working lives as secretaries, and their social lives, mainly spent in up-and-coming jazz clubs. Where, one evening, they meet rich, winsome Tinker Grey. And it’s at this point I began to lose a little interest. The characters didn’t develop, least of all that of Katy herself, who alludes to her humble origins but never explores them. The plot itself introduced a range of characters who didn’t move the story along, and generally conspired to lose me, though I read to the end willingly enough, hoping that the warm feelings with which I’d begun this novel would return. They didn’t. This was an amiable read with the makings of a great one, and I’m not against giving Amor Towles another go.

Where next? I struggled a bit, then came up with not so much a chain as the spokes of a wheel radiating from Towles’ book.

All my books this month have a female protagonist, and my first link features a woman, Rósa, who might have had things in common with Katy if their circumstances hadn’t been so very different. In The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea, we’re in 17th century Iceland, and can feel its chill, its landscape, its folk and religious history in the pages of the story. Young Rósa rather precipitately marries Jón, the leader in a distant village, to ensure her ailing widowed mother some security. Here she is deliberately isolated by her controlling husband, who is a widower. No spoiler alerts here, but tensions rise as her isolation increases, and as her childhood sweetheart appears on the scene. A cleverly written novel, in which Rósa’s unease, and her increasing inability to keep a grasp on what is real, and what the product of a fevered and frightened imagination keeps the reader guessing.

My next heroine also labours under a – in her case misplaced – sense of duty. Oyinkan Braithwaite‘s My Sister, the Serial Killer was a quick read, an easy read, and at no point did I think of not finishing reading this story. But – and perhaps I’m not entering into the spirit of things here – a story in which the writer’s sister gets into a routine of killing her boyfriends, while the writer colludes with her deception just left me cold. The short sharp chapters, and the action which jumped hither and thither kept my interest, as did the back story of a controlling, brutal father. But in the end, it was a slightly distasteful read as far as I was concerned. I don’t think I get dark humour … 

And so to Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, by Sophie Divry. Definitely no high drama in this one – not even an unexplained death or two. Born to loving parents in the French provinces, our heroine does well at school, university, marries a kind man, has an affair which comes to an end, and she gets through the rest of her working and retired life looking for something to engage her. In many ways a wry portrait of twentieth century middle class life, it’s also somewhat depressing. Which seems to be the point. Life is absurd, why bother? seems to be the message. Not for nothing was this Madame Bovary descended from Flaubert’s original.

From provincial France in the decades preceding this one to present day provincial England, and Carys Bray‘s When the Lights Go Out. Though very readable, this didn’t equal Bray’s The Museum of You for me. 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.

Now we’re off to Spain, and Mercè Rodoreda‘s In Diamond Square. It must be me. This book regularly appears in lists of ‘must read’ Spanish books, and it failed to engage me.  I nearly gave up at the half way point, but persisted. This is the story of a young woman living in Barcelona who marries her husband after a short courtship. It’s the story of his domination of her, of the birth of their two children, of his going off to fight in the Civil War, and of the years after the conflict is over. Although Natalia, the heroine, writes little about her feelings, these are at the core of this story. What she experiences about the pigeons that her husband introduces into their attic. What she notices about the employers for whom she cleans. What she notices in the grocer’s shop. The smells – of the streets, of the pigeons, of death. I’ve a feeling that my experience of reading this book may change over time and that this is a book I may consider re-reading. Just now, I rather wanted to get it over with.

I’ll end with a book I read over a year ago, and one that’s not a novel – Emily MaitlisAirhead. Not a memoir, not a biography, but a series of bite-sized vignettes about the life of this successful newscaster and interviewer. One who prepares carefully, but flies by the seat of her pants. One who researches, but seizes the moment. One who knows what she wants from an interview, but who will allow happenstance to take control. This is a real insight, wittily written, into the high-octane life of a political journalist. It’s fairly exhausting reading, so what it’s like to be part of her family, I can’t imagine – we learn only a certain amount from reading between the lines of this book. An interesting, well and amusingly written book. Recommended to those of us who keep up with current affairs. 

So there we have it. A series of women whose abilities to make life choices are constrained in most cases by those closest to them. We’ll make an exception for both Katy Kontent and Emily Maitlis, both of whom play by different rules. And did you notice? Emily Maitlis likes the Carys Bray more than I did 😉

Next month? One of last year’s must-read books, which I haven’t yet read: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

Six Degrees of Separation … in December

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

This month’s chain began with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which I’m so glad to have read. Bookish Beck has written a wonderful review of it, which I can’t improve on. Read it here.

Here is a man, Ethan Frome, whose life has not gone according to plan. Javier Cercas, in Lord of All the Dead tells us about another such life, that of Manuel Mena. If you’re a left-leaning writer it’s a bit of an embarrassment to discover, as Javier Cercas did, that your ancestor died fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And yet, unless he follows the story through soon, he realises that the few remaining people who knew Manuel Mena would be dead. And he uncovers a history in which a boy from a backward and poor village in Extremadura, through hard work and determination seems ready to reinvent himself and prosper because of his brains and his schooling. Then he decides to fight for Franco. Cercas discovers, in this account of a brutal civil war that all is not as black and white as it at first appeared, that Mena isn’t necessarily someone for whom he can continue to feel moral superiority. An uncomfortable and thought-provoking read.

Spanish Republican POW’s interned in Le Vernet, France. You can read about our visit here

From one war to another. Not combat this time, but life as a POW in WWII. Midge Gillies‘s Barbed Wire University: the Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. This was a fascinating read, and Gillies’ own father was a POW, so she’s able to describe his own experiences too. This is an account of the lives of the prisoners, mainly from Germany, Italy and the Far East, and from the officer classes. These men had more leisure time (aka stretches of boredom, without the resources in some cases to do much to relieve it) and therefore left more in the ways of letters and diaries than those working POWs in the ranks. The horrifying differences between the experiences of those incarcerated in Europe, compared with their fellow combatants in the Far East is fully explored. This is a lively account, relying on the diaries, reminiscences and letters of those who spent their war years largely locked up. The skills the men developed which informed their – often highly successful – later careers are quite astonishing in their breadth and depth. The book rightly concentrates on the humdrum daily life of the majority. This is not the book in which to find accounts of daring escapes or would-be escapes. I was left impressed by the resilience, ingenuity and dogged persistence of the POWs whose war time years must have been in different ways as difficult as that of many combatants.

The POWs ‘experiences were not those of the inmates of Auschwitz, where this image comes from. but the watch towers, the fencing would be familiar.

From one type of prison to another: a fictional women’s prison, allegedly situated some miles from my home in Ripon. A Murder Inside, by Frances Brody. We meet a committed new governor, a body in the grounds, a missing prisoner, and a cast obviously destined to appear again in subsequent books in the series..  An enjoyable enough read, but this doesn’t come high on my list of must-reads.

The countryside between Harrogate and Ripon, where this story is located.

A virtual prison this time: that of loneliness. Gail Honneyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m always wary of much-hyped books, and in this case, my wariness wasn’t misplaced. Socially awkward Eleanor is bright, in a job that demands too little of her, and she is totally without friends. Her story, and her back-story slowly come to light. And things start to get better for her, thanks to an unlikely friendship which precipitates a chain of events, such that she is in danger of living happily ever after by the end of the book. I didn’t believe in her, not really. I don’t believe she could have grown up in the circumstances life threw at her quite so unaware of the 21st century. Still, I read it easily enough, and it wasn’t a bad story. Read it on a train journey, maybe.

Office life for Eleanor? (Bernard Hermant, Unsplash)

And here’s another book in a similar vein. A Man called Ove by Frederik Backman. I took against this book in the first few pages. It was obvious that the story line was going to be ‘curmudgeonly old man, widely disliked, is revealed to have a heart of gold, and after about 250 pages, everyone lives happily ever after’. This is exactly what happened. I turned the pages readily enough, but was unconvinced by almost everyone but the cat. I didn’t believe in his friendly new neighbour, or his wife, or another neighbour, Rune. But most of all, I didn’t believe that Ove would turn from irritable and irritating to everyone’s favourite grandfather in the space of about three weeks. Read this one on the train too.

Ove? (GLady, Pixabay)

My last book links not so much to Ove, as to Ethan: but all three books have male heroes. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Simon Scharma observes, on the cover of the edition I read ‘You don’t so much read it as live it’. It’s true. This is an immersive story, mainly set between about 1937 and 1945, about a Hungarian Jew, Andras, who spends time in Paris as a young architecture student, and meets the slightly older Hungarian widow who will become the love of his life. The story follows him as he returns home, and as Hungary becomes ever more implicated in the war. The story of the Jewish population in Hungary isn’t well known in the UK. It’s clear that while they were not on the whole sent to concentration camps, their conditions in the Labour Corps of the army – all that was open to Jewish men – were no better. I couldn’t leave this book till I had finished it. It’s well written, and beautifully researched, though Orringer wears her learning lightly. I’ll read more of her work.

Next month, our chain-beginner is another American writer, Amor Towles: Rules of Civility. I know neither the book, nor the author. Another discovery, courtesy of Six Degrees.