Six Degrees of Separation: From Rodham to Cold Comfort Farm

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 starting with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I haven’t read it, but I know that it’s an alternate history imagining what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton.

However, I have read one of Curtis Sittenfeld’s earlier novels, Prep (1), which follows four years in the life of Lee Fiora, a teenage girl with social anxiety who attends a boarding school in Massachusetts. This seems to be a book that people either love or hate; I think whether or not you enjoy it probably depends on how strongly you can relate to the main character.

Another girl who goes to boarding school, in Canada this time, is Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (2). This is the seventh book in a series of mysteries starring Flavia and in this one she is investigating the disappearances of three girls at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. Not my favourite in the series, but I do love the Flavia books overall.

The title of that book comes from the lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Another book which also takes its inspiration from the same source is Golden Lads by Daphne du Maurier (3), a biography of two important Elizabethan figures, Francis and Anthony Bacon.

My next link is to another book with the word ‘Golden’ in the title: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (4). I found this a very entertaining novel set in 18th century New York, in those days still a small community just beginning to expand into the city we know today.

Stella Tillyard’s Call Upon the Water (5) is also set, at least partly, in the same location – but a century earlier, when the settlement was known as New Amsterdam. The rest of the novel is set in England and follows a Dutch engineer working on the draining of the marshlands in the Fens.

Finally, I’m going to link to a book written by another Stella – Stella Gibbons. Gibbons wrote many novels, as well as some short stories and poetry, but the only one I have read is her most famous one, Cold Comfort Farm (6). Because I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, I haven’t attempted any of her other work yet but maybe I will one day.

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And that’s my chain for this month! My links included school stories, Cymbeline, the word ‘golden’, old New York and the name Stella. In October, we will be starting with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – finally a book that I’ve read!

Top Ten Tuesday: Colourful titles on my TBR

The theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is Books with Colours in the Titles. Looking at the books I have waiting to be read on my TBR, I was surprised to see how many have a colourful title! Here are ten of them:

1. Red Sky at Night by Jane Aiken Hodge – I have had mixed experiences with Jane Aiken Hodge’s books so far – I’ve enjoyed some but been disappointed by others. I hope this book, which is set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, will be a good one.

2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West – I’ve been interested in reading this book about Rebecca West’s journey through 1930s Yugoslavia for years but have been put off by the length. I will make a start on it eventually!

3. Dawn of the White Rose by Mary Pershall – I found this in a charity shop last year. It looks a bit too light and romance-y for my taste, but I was drawn to it because it’s about Isabel de Clare and William Marshal, whom I’ve enjoyed reading about in Elizabeth Chadwick’s books.

4. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – I’ve read some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories but none of his novels. I’ve had a copy of this one on my shelf for a long time and still haven’t read it.

5. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss – This is a non-fiction book on the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers (two of my favourite classics). It has been on my TBR since just after it was published in 2012.

6. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – Another book that has been on my TBR since 2012, when it was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I still want to read it; it’s just one of those books that I never seem able to get around to!

7. Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram – I downloaded this when it was on special offer for Kindle a while ago. It sounds like an entertaining romantic adventure novel set in medieval England, originally published in the 1970s but recently reissued.

8. A Thread of Gold by Helen Cannam – I found this on the same day as the book above. From the blurb, it seems to be a family saga set in the vineyards of France in the late 19th and early 20th century.

9. The Turquoise by Anya Seton – I read a lot of Anya Seton’s books years ago and loved them, but there are still a few that I haven’t read. This book, set in 19th century New York and New Mexico is one of them.

10. White Corridor by Christopher Fowler – I enjoyed the first four books in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series, then for some reason stopped and never continued with the fifth one, White Corridor. I’m determined to read it soon.

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Have you read any of these? Do you have any colourful titles on your own TBR?

Six Degrees of Separation: From How to do Nothing to The Great Impersonation

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 starting with How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. As usual, I haven’t read it, but here is the blurb:

This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.

When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as…doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

I don’t think this is a book I would be interested in reading, but if you’ve read it let me know what you thought.

Another word for ‘nothing’ is ‘zero’, so my first link takes me to Towards Zero by Agatha Christie (1), one of only five Christie novels to feature the detective Superintendent Battle. In this book, which I remember enjoying, Battle is investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian in her home by the sea.

Tressilian is also the name of the main character in Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea-Hawk (2). Sir Oliver Tressilian is a gentleman from Cornwall who is betrayed and sold into slavery before being liberated by Barbary pirates who operate from the city of Algiers. I love Sabatini’s books and can highly recommend this one!

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett (3) is also set partly in Algiers, as well as several other beautifully described locations around the Mediterranean and North Africa. This, and the other five novels that make up Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, are some of my absolute favourites, but if you haven’t read them yet you really need to start with The Game of Kings.

All of the books in the Lymond Chronicles have titles inspired by the game of chess. So does Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (4), a novel set at the Tudor court and telling the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. The story is told partly from Katherine’s perspective and partly from her maid, Dorothy Fownten’s. Although I think some of Fremantle’s later books are better, I did enjoy this one.

My next link is to another book about a queen – a self-proclaimed queen this time, rather than a real one! Queen Lucia by EF Benson (5) is the first book in Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series; it was my choice for the 1920 Club earlier this year and kept me entertained during the early stages of lockdown when I really needed something fun and light!

Like Queen Lucia, The Great Impersonation by E Phillips Oppenheim (6) was also published in 1920 and is also a lot of fun to read. It has a very clever plot involving a case of mistaken identities and keeps the reader guessing until the end.

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And that’s my chain for this month. My links have included synonyms for ‘nothing’, the name Tressilian, Algiers, chess-related titles, queens and the year 1920. In September we will be starting with Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

Six in Six: The 2020 Edition

We’re more than halfway through the year and I’m pleased to see that Six in Six, hosted by Jo of The Book Jotter, is back again! I love to take part in this as I think it’s the perfect way to reflect on our reading over the first six months of the year. The idea of Six in Six is that we choose six categories (Jo has provided a list of suggestions or you can come up with new topics of your own if you prefer) and then try to fit six of the books or authors you’ve read this year into each category. It’s not as easy as it sounds and I usually find that there’s a lot of overlap as some books could fit into more than one category, but it’s always fun to do.

Here is my 2020 Six in Six, with links to reviews where possible (I’m behind with reviews and will be posting the rest of them eventually).

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Six classic mysteries

1. Murder to Music by Margaret Newman
2. Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton
3. The Long Farewell by Michael Innes
4. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
5. Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence
6. The Hollow by Agatha Christie

Six books set in a country other than my own:

1. The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies (Burma/Myanmar)
2. Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten (Russia)
3. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (Spain and Chile)
4. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (Canada)
5. The Split by Sharon Bolton (South Georgia)
6. The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas (Italy)

Six books by authors new to me this year:

1. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
2. The Almanack by Martine Bailey
3. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin
4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
5. Queen Lucia by EF Benson
6. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Six books about royalty:

1. Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin (Minette, sister of Charles II)
2. The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Eleanor of Provence)
3. The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon)
4. Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney (Macbeth and his wife Cora/Gruoch)
5. The Brothers York by Thomas Penn (Edward IV and Richard III)
6. The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick (Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster)

Six books I’ve particularly enjoyed so far this year:

1. In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse
2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
3. A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
4. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
5. A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
6. Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

Six pretty covers:

1. The Foundling by Stacey Halls
2. Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin
3. Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
5. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
6. The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

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Have you read any of these? Are you taking part in this year’s Six in Six too?

Six Degrees of Separation: From What I Loved to Britannia Mews

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 starting with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It’s not a book that I’ve read, but here’s the blurb:

In 1975 art historian Leo Hertzberg discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a New York gallery. He buys the work, tracks down its creator, Bill Weschler, and the two men embark on a life-long friendship.

This is the story of their intense and trouble relationship, of the women in their lives and their work, of art and hysteria, love and seduction and their sons – born the same year but whose lives take very different paths.

Like Leo, the heroine of Nicola Cornick’s supernatural time-slip novel, The Phantom Tree (1) finds a painting in a gallery which changes her life. The painting is of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.

Mary Seymour, born in 1548, disappears from historical records after 1550, but in The Phantom Tree, Cornick imagines that she was raised at Wolf Hall with her Seymour cousins. This provides an obvious link to Wolf Hall (2), the first book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor novels about Thomas Cromwell.

The word ‘wolf’ makes me think of Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada (3), a novel first published in 1937. Set in Germany, it follows a group of people struggling to survive in the aftermath of the First World War with hyperinflation leaving the economy in ruins.

Wolf Among Wolves is translated from the original German. Another German novel I’ve read in translation is The Beggar King by Oliver Pötzsch (4), the third in a series of historical mysteries following the adventures of a 17th century Bavarian hangman and his daughter.

This leads me to The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (5), one of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels, starring an eleven-year-old detective and chemistry genius. In this book, Flavia is investigating a murder which takes place during a puppet show.

In Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp (6), our heroine marries a man who creates wonderful hand-made puppets and she later opens a successful puppet theatre in a coach house in her street, Britannia Mews. I highly recommend this book; I loved watching the changing nature of Britannia Mews and its inhabitants over the course of the novel.

And that’s my chain for July. My links have included paintings in galleries, the Seymours of Wolf Hall, the word ‘wolf’, German translations, hangmen and puppets.

In August we will be starting with How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Normal People to The Ivy 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, the book we are starting with is Normal People by Sally Rooney. I haven’t read this book and probably won’t, but here is the blurb:

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins.

Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.

Thinking of another book with the word ‘people’ in the title leads me to The Good People by Hannah Kent (1), a novel set in Ireland in the 1820s and steeped in legend, folklore and ancient beliefs.

Stories of fairies, changelings and people being swept away to fairyland feature heavily in The Good People, as they do in one of my recent reads, The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson (2), although this book has a different setting – Scotland during the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks.

One of the main characters in The Ninth Child is Isabel, a doctor’s wife. This immediately made me think of the title character in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (3), whose name is also Isabel.

The Doctor’s Wife is a Victorian novel which explores the feelings of a woman who is trapped in a boring, unexciting marriage and dreams of adventure and romance. One of her heroines is Edith Dombey, who appears in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (4), the next link in my chain. I read Dombey earlier this year and will try to post a review soon!

I have written in the past about the number of books with ‘daughter’ in the title. Other than Dombey and Son, I can only think of a few books I’ve read with ‘son’ in the title and one of them is The Devil and Her Son (5) by Maxwell March, a pseudonym of Margery Allingham.

The Devil and Her Son is an entertaining novel about a young woman who switches identities with a friend, only to find herself the victim of an even bigger deception. Another book about impersonations and stolen identities is The Ivy Tree (6) by one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart – a good choice to bring this month’s chain to an end!

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And that’s my chain for June. My links have included the word ‘people’, fairies, doctor’s wives, Edith Dombey, the word ‘son’ and identity switches.

Next month we will be starting with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.

Top Ten Tuesday – and Historical Musings #60: Ten reasons I love historical fiction

It’s been a while since I took part in Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) so I decided I would join in today. This week’s topic is: “Reasons Why I Love…[a favourite book, genre, author etc]”. I didn’t get round to putting one of my Historical Musings posts together for this month – I’m finding that even though I’m on furlough with all the time in the world to read and blog, I somehow seem to be getting less done than ever before – so I’m combining the two here by listing 10 reasons to love historical fiction.

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1. It provides the perfect opportunity to learn about other times and places.
When I read a good historical fiction novel, I am left with the feeling that not only have I been entertained by a great story, I’ve also learned something new. If a subject particularly interests me, I sometimes look for a non-fiction book so that I can add to my knowledge with some factual information, but in many cases my initial introduction to a new historical period or historical figure has been through fiction.

2. I find it much easier to retain facts gained through reading fiction rather than non-fiction.
For some reason, no matter how hard I try and no matter how fascinating the subject, I often seem to struggle to concentrate when I’m reading non-fiction. By the time I reach the end of the book I find I’ve forgotten a lot of the information I’ve just read. I am much more likely to remember names, dates and facts if they are given to me in the form of historical fiction.

3. It’s a great way of escaping from modern life for a while.
Although I do sometimes like to read contemporary fiction, I am usually much happier reading books set in the past (both classics which were actually written in the past and historical fiction). I live in the modern day, so I like my reading to take me somewhere – and sometime – different, especially at the moment with everything that’s going on in the world!

4. Reading historical fiction can be a thoroughly immersive experience.
I love books where the author has clearly gone to a lot of effort to create a complete and believable historical world – and yet the very best authors make it seem so effortless! My favourite historical fiction books often contain maps, family trees, character lists, authors’ notes and other material all of which adds to the world building. I really do like to feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back in time.

5. Understanding the past can help us to understand the present – and maybe even the future.
Just because a novel is set in the past doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate themes which are universal and timeless. When I read Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, I was struck by the similarities between modern politics and the politics of the Roman Republic, while Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer draws parallels between the extreme weather of 1816 and the climate change the world is experiencing today.

6. There’s so much variety!
Historical mysteries, historical romances, historical adventure novels, quick and light reads, long, challenging or ‘literary’ reads, books set in Ancient Greece, books set at the Tudor court, family sagas, classic novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, Romola or The Three Musketeers…the term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses such a wide range of different types of book that it should always be possible to find something to suit your mood.

7. I love to see how different authors portray the past and how they tackle some of history’s greatest mysteries and controversies.
Some people may wonder why I enjoy reading about the same topics over and over again. Well, no two books are exactly the same and every author has a different approach and a different way of interpreting the same historical people and events. One of my favourite periods is the Wars of the Roses and no two novels I’ve read set in that period offer the same opinion on Richard III or the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. Only by reading as much as possible can you begin to put together a balanced picture and to start to form your own views.

8. Historical fiction can give a voice to women who were unable to tell their own story.
History has often been described as written ‘by men, about men’ and fiction can help to redress the balance. For example, I knew nothing about women like Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli until I read That Lady by Kate O’Brien or Lizzie Burns until I read Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea.

9. It’s a chance to get to know historical figures who have been forgotten or ignored.
Following on from reason 8, I have already mentioned some of the lesser-known women who have been subjects of historical fiction; there are also lots of men who have played important roles throughout history but whose names have been largely forgotten. How many people have heard of the Scottish soldier Thomas Keith and yet he had a fascinating life and career which is recounted in Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff.

10. There are just so many great stories to be told.
From the Thomas Overbury scandal to the Gunpowder Plot, from the Affair of the Poisons to the Pendle Witch Trials, the possibilities are endless!

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Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Can you think of any other reasons to add to this list?