Six Degrees of Separation: From Ethan Frome to Murder Under the Christmas Tree

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are beginning with the classic novella Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I’ve read this one and liked it, although it’s still the only book I’ve read by Wharton. Here’s what it’s about:

Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio towards their tragic destinies.

It’s been ten years since I read Ethan Frome, but I still remember the atmospheric setting of Starkfield, Massachusetts with its cold, harsh winters. My first link, then, is to a recent read which is also set in winter, Midnight in Everwood by MA Kuzniar (1). This is a retelling of ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and follows aspiring ballerina Marietta as she hides inside a grandfather clock on Christmas Eve and steps out into the enchanting world of Everwood. The descriptions of snow-covered landscapes are lovely, but I was disappointed with the writing style and the general lack of depth.

Another book with a very strong sense of place – and another wintry setting – is Touch by Alexi Zentner (2). This is a beautifully written novel about three generations of a family who live in a Canadian gold mining and logging town. There are elements of the supernatural and we meet lots of creatures from Canadian and Inuit folklore – sea witches, golden caribou, wood spirits and water monsters – but although I’m not always a fan of magical realism, I thought it worked well here.

I could easily have continued with the winter theme, but I like to have some variety in my chains so I’m going to link instead to another book with the word ‘touch’ in the title: Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart. This is one of Stewart’s later novels, published in 1976, and tells the story of Bryony Ashley who returns to her ancestral home, Ashley Court, to investigate after her father dies under suspicious circumstances leaving her a cryptic message warning her of danger. I enjoyed this book, although it’s not one of my favourites by Stewart.

Bryony Ashley, the heroine of Touch Not the Cat is able to communicate with an unidentified secret lover using telepathy. In Robin Hobb’s fantasy novel Fool’s Assassin (4), the characters use two forms of magic known as the Skill and the Wit in order to form telepathic connections with other people and animals. It’s a great book, but if you’re new to Robin Hobb don’t start with this one – it’s part of a much longer series and you really need to start at the beginning with Assassin’s Apprentice.

Although Fool’s Assassin is the fourteenth book in the sequence and therefore reacquaints us with lots of old friends, it also introduces a fascinating new character, Bee, and a large part of the story is written from her perspective. Her name makes me think of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King (5). This mystery novel teams up a teenage orphan, Mary Russell, with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, who has retired to the countryside to keep bees. It’s the first in a series, of which I’ve still only read two!

There’s a Sherlock Holmes story included in the anthology Murder Under the Christmas Tree edited by Cecily Gayford (6). This Christmas-themed collection features stories by classic crime authors including Dorothy L Sayers, Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham, as well as more recent authors such as Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. I think this book brings my chain to an appropriate end!


And that’s my chain for December. My links have included wintry settings, the word ‘touch’, telepathic connections, bees and Sherlock Holmes!

Next month we’ll be starting with Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

22 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From Ethan Frome to Murder Under the Christmas Tree

  1. margaret21 says:

    I do love a strong sense of place in the books I read. In fact there seems to be plenty here to enjoy, though I don’t ‘do’ fantasy, and might give the Hobb a miss. Thanks!

    • Helen says:

      I think a sense of place can often be as important as plot and characters. I really enjoyed all of the books in my chain this month, apart from Midnight in Everwood which just wasn’t for me.

  2. whatcathyreadnext says:

    My eye (or perhaps that should be my mind) was drawn to the telepathic connections link in your chain. Perhaps we should all concentrate really hard next month and see if we can come up with same chain!

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t set out to end with a Christmas book – it was just a bit of luck! I’ve enjoyed all of Mary Stewart’s novels, even though Touch Not the Cat isn’t a favourite.

  3. Mareli Thalwitzer says:

    I loved Touch not the Cat by Mary Stewart. I might just be biased because of the cat, not that it’s a real cat. I remember that plot so well!

    Still want to read The Beekeepers Apprentice.

    Season Greetings!

    Elza Reads

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed Touch Not the Cat, but there are other Mary Stewart novels that I love more. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was fun, and so was the second book – I don’t know why I still haven’t continued with that series!

  4. rosemarykaye says:

    I so agree with you about Edith Wharton’s evocation of a place, and a season. I listened to Ethan Frome on BBC Sounds, and one of the things i remember most about it is the snow – the bleak silent fields, the intense feeling of cold, then later the sun on the flower pots at the door of the farmhouse. She was a very good writer.

    I love Mary Stewart but I’ve not read this one yet. I agree, though, that some of her books are better than others – I love Madam, Will You Talk? and Wildfire at Midnight, but I was less taken with Thunder on the Right. I like the way her better heroines are so independent and brave. (Charity Selbourne in Madam, Will You Talk? is wonderful.)

    There seem to be a lot of these Christmas crime story collections about. I’ve just found A Very Murderous Christmas, and Murder on Christmas Eve, in a charity shop. Whether I manage to read any of them before Christmas is of course a different matter – they may have to wait till 2022….

    • Helen says:

      The snow in Ethan Frome was the first thing that came to mind when I started to put this month’s chain together!

      I think my favourite Mary Stewart book is Nine Coaches Waiting, but Madam, Will You Talk? is a close second. Wildfire at Midnight is one I still haven’t read, so I’m pleased to hear you loved it.

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