Six Degrees of Separation: From Beezus and Ramona to The Duke’s Children

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.

Having a little sister like four-year-old Ramona isn’t always easy for Beezus Quimby. With a wild imagination, disregard for order, and an appetite for chaos, Ramona makes it hard for Beezus to be the responsible older sister she knows she ought to be…especially when Ramona threatens to ruin Beezus’s birthday party. Newbery Medal winner Beverly Cleary delivers a humorous tale of the ups and downs of sisterhood. Both the younger and older siblings of the family will enjoy this book.

This month we are starting with Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, who sadly died in March this year. This book was the first in her Ramona Quimby series for children and was published in 1955. I read some of the Ramona books as a child and although I can’t remember anything about them now, I know I used to enjoy them!

I’m sure I won’t be the only Six Degrees participant to use books about sisters as my first link this month, but as there are so many to choose from I’m hoping that nobody else will have linked to this one: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang (1). This is a biography of the three Soong sisters, all of whom played an important role in 20th century Chinese politics. Ei-ling or ‘big sister’ became one of China’s richest women through her marriage to the banker HH Kung, ‘little sister’ May-ling was First Lady of the Republic of China, and ‘red sister’ Ching-ling was a supporter of the Communist Party and the wife of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.

I’m sure I have used books with ‘red’ in the title in a previous chain, so I’m going to link now to a book with a different colour in the title. There were lots of options here, but I’ve gone with blue and The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie (2). This is a Poirot novel in which an heiress is murdered for her jewels during a train journey through France. I don’t think it’s one of Christie’s stronger novels (and in fact it was apparently her own least favourite), but it’s still quite enjoyable.

This makes me think of another novel set on a train, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (3), the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based. There are a lot of differences between the book and the film but they share the same basic plot: a young woman makes a new friend during a train journey who later disappears, only for the rest of the passengers to deny that she ever existed.

The idea of a wheel spinning leads me to Fortune’s Wheel (4), one of Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III. This book covers the earlier part of Richard’s life, taking us through the reign of his elder brother, Edward IV, and ending with Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville in 1472. I enjoyed it, but thought the second novel, Some Touch of Pity, was much better.

There’s a picture of a crown on the cover of Fortune’s Wheel and also on the cover of The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (5). First published in French in 1956, this is the third book in the Accursed Kings series telling the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. George R.R. Martin has described this series as the inspiration for his A Game of Thrones.

I haven’t finished The Accursed Kings yet; there are seven books in the series and so far I have only read the first five of them. It’s not the only series I’ve started and haven’t finished – I still need to read the final book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, The Duke’s Children (6). I nearly always love Trollope but the length of his books sometimes puts me off. This one is on my Classics Club list, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.

And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included: sisters, colours, trains and wheels, pictures of crowns and an unfinished series.

In June we are starting with The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. Will you be joining us?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Shuggie Bain to A House of Pomegranates

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 Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize. I haven’t read it and I’m not planning to, but this is what it’s about:

It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.

Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.

It can be difficult to know where to start with a chain when you haven’t read the first book and have no interest in reading it, but the word that jumped out at me in the blurb was Glasgow, so I will begin by linking to another book set in Glasgow – Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (1). The novel is narrated by Harriet Baxter, an elderly woman looking back on her relationship with the artist Ned Gillespie, whom she met while visiting the International Exhibition in Glasgow in the 1880s. The 19th century setting and clever plot twists reminded me of the Victorian sensation novels I love by authors such as Wilkie Collins, so it’s no surprise that I loved this book too.

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart (2) also features a character whose name is Harriet – or ‘Lady Harriet’ as she prefers to call herself. Lady Harriet is a fascinating character who lives in the palace of Dar Ibrahim near Beirut and models herself on the legendary Lady Hester Stanhope, wearing male Arab dress and living in seclusion with only her servants and saluki hounds for company. I always enjoy Mary Stewart’s suspense novels and I think this is a particularly good one!

Hounds are dogs, of course, so this leads me straight to The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (3). This post-apocalyptic novel set in Colorado several years after a flu pandemic kills most of the world’s population was not my usual sort of book at all, but I found it much more interesting than I’d expected. I certainly wouldn’t want to read it now, though! What seemed like pure science fiction a few years ago feels uncomfortably close to reality now.

Another post-apocalyptic novel I found surprisingly enjoyable, if unsettling, was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (4). In this book, it’s not a pandemic that brings an end to the world as we know it, but a meteor shower which leaves almost everyone blind, followed by an invasion of triffids – giant killer plants with long, stinging arms.

Susan Fletcher’s House of Glass (5) is the next book in my chain and is also a book about plants – nice normal plants this time, you’ll be pleased to hear! Our heroine, Clara, is an amateur botanist who is offered a job working in the gardens of Shadowbrook, a large estate which appears to be haunted. Although the book seems to be a typical ghost story at first, it turns out to be something slightly different. An impressive and beautifully written novel.

My final link this month is to another book with ‘house of’ in the title: A House of Pomegranates (6), a collection of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. There are four stories in the book and although each one has a moral and a message, they are also very entertaining! Like many fairy tales, they are quite dark in places, but I think they’re suitable for both children and adults. I must get round to reading Oscar Wilde’s other similar collection, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which has been on my TBR since reading this one back in 2011.

And that’s my chain for April! My links have included Glasgow, the name Harriet, dogs, the end of the world, plants and ‘house of’ titles.

In May, we’ll be starting with Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Phosphorescence to The Name of the Rose

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 Phosphorescence by Julia Baird. I haven’t read it, but it is described as:

A beautiful, intimate and inspiring investigation into how we can find and nurture within ourselves that essential quality of internal happiness – the ‘light within’ that Julia Baird calls ‘phosphorescence’ – which will sustain us even through the darkest times.

I’m going to take ‘light’ as my first link and feature a non-fiction book by Seb Falk that I read earlier this year: The Light Ages (1). In this book Falk looks at some of the advances in science, mathematics and astronomy during the medieval period and tries to dispel the idea that the Dark Ages were a time when progress stood still. A fascinating book, but I can’t claim to have understood everything in it!

Another book – fiction this time – in which the history of science plays a part is Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (2), the first volume in his Baroque Cycle. The protagonist Daniel Waterhouse is a 17th century natural philosopher who befriends Isaac Newton and becomes involved in the work of the Royal Society. I had been looking forward to reading this book, which sounded like the sort of thing I would usually love, but unfortunately I didn’t get on very well with it at all. I persevered through all 900 pages but was pleased to reach the end!

This leads me to another very long novel that I was glad to finish: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (3). I read this 18th century classic as part of a year-long readalong with other bloggers and this definitely helped me get through what turned out to be a very repetitive and slow-paced novel. Still, I did appreciate the quality of the writing and found myself really enjoying parts of the book – and I felt a sense of accomplishment when I turned the final page.

Clarissa is an epistolary novel consisting of letters – 537 of them – in which Clarissa Harlowe’s correspondence with her friend Anna Howe reveals the story of how she defies her parents’ plans for her marriage only to fall into the clutches of the notorious ‘libertine’ Robert Lovelace. A much more recent book I’ve read which is also written mainly in the form of letters is The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien (4), which tells the story of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III.

Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose (5) is another novel about Cecily Neville and the part she plays in the Wars of the Roses. I preferred this one to the Anne O’Brien book as it is written as a straightforward narrative rather than in letter form and I think it’s always interesting to see how different authors choose to portray the same historical characters.

To finish my chain, I’m going to link to another book with the word ‘rose’ in the title. There are a few I could choose from, but I’ve decided on The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (6), a book I decided to re-read a few years ago as there was so much I missed the first time I read it. It can be described as a medieval murder mystery but is so much more than that with its themes of religious and political conflict and descriptions of monastic life.

And that’s my chain for March. My links have included: light, science, very long novels, epistolary novels, Cecily Neville and roses.

In April we will be starting with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters with theatrical jobs

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had”. As Jana says we can put our own unique spin on each topic and as I wanted to join in with Lory’s Reading the Theatre month, I have chosen ten characters who have jobs connected with acting and the theatre. These are not all jobs I would like to have myself, but some of them sound fun!

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1. Commedia dell’Arte actor
In one of my favourite books, Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, Andre-Louis Moreau takes the role of Scaramouche the clown in a Commedia dell’Arte troupe as part of an elaborate plan to avenge his murdered friend.

2. Puppeteer
Adelaide Culver, the heroine of Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp, finds a collection of wonderful hand-made puppets created by her late husband and opens a successful Puppet Theatre in an old coach-house.

3. Theatre manager
In Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, meets the famous Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving and becomes manager of his Lyceum Theatre.

4. 6th century actress
Theodora by Stella Duffy is a novel based on the life of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. Before marrying the Emperor Justinian, Theodora receives training as an actress, dancer and acrobat.

5. Music hall star
Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor is a fictional retelling of the life of Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who becomes the Countess of Clancarty through marriage and finds herself involved in a controversial court case.

6. Aspiring actor and con artist
The wonderfully entertaining The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop follows the story of a young actor, pickpocket and con man whose various fake identities lead him into serious trouble during the French Revolution.

7. One of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men
In Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell creates a fictional story for Shakespeare’s brother Richard, imagining that he is an actor with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and must prevent rival London acting companies from stealing William’s plays.

8. A member of an acting family
The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart is a multi-generational family saga taking us from Tudor England to 20th century Hollywood and encompassing just about every type of acting you can think of!

9. Pantomime Cat
Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford is a Golden Age crime novel in which a murder takes place on stage during a traditional British pantomime. Suspicion falls on the actor in the Cat costume!

10. Drama teacher
In Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, Felix Phillips loses his position as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and gets a new job teaching drama and literacy to the prisoners at Fletcher Correctional, directing them in a production of The Tempest.

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Have you read any of these? Can you think of any other books you’ve read with characters who work in the theatre? There were a few more I could have included on my list, but I had to limit myself to ten!

Top Ten Tuesday: Valentine Titles

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is a Valentine’s Day/Love Freebie. I decided to approach this in the same way as my Halloween Top Ten Tuesday and simply list ten words that are often associated with love or Valentine’s Day and find a book I’ve read with each of those words in the title.

Here are the ten books I’ve chosen.

1. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna – I think this is still the only book I’ve read set in Sierra Leone. I found it too slow, but beautifully written and a fascinating glimpse of a country I would otherwise have known nothing about.

2. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh – This novel tells the story of a girl who grows up in foster care before getting a job as a florist’s assistant and discovering the ‘language of flowers’ – the secret meanings of different types of flower and how they can be used to communicate.

3. The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas – This is a sequel to The Three Musketeers, but with a different set of characters. I loved it – it was one of my books of the year a few years ago!

4. A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe – I have read several of Ann Radcliffe’s novels and although this one, published in 1790, is not my favourite, it’s still fun to read and has everything you would expect to find in an early Gothic novel!

5. The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil – This novel follows the story of two students who fall in love but face obstacles due to their different cultural and religious backgrounds. I enjoyed this book, which I found to be much more than just a love story.

6. Passion by Jude Morgan – I love Jude Morgan’s writing and in this fascinating novel he explores the lives of four women and their relationships with the Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats.

7. The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans – This historical mystery set in 1880s London sounded like exactly my sort of book, but I was disappointed by it and felt that there was no real sense of time and place.

8. Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters – A short and entertaining novel about Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. It lacked the depth I prefer in my historical fiction but would probably be a good introduction to the period.

9. Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart – The least suspenseful of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, this is a lovely, gentle book but not one of my favourites.

10. The Valentine House by Emma Henderson – This enjoyable family saga set in the French Alps is the perfect way to finish my Valentine-themed Top Ten Tuesday!

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Have you read any of these books? Which other books with love-related words in the title can you think of?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Redhead by the Side of the Road to The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side

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 Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. It’s a book I haven’t read and know nothing about, but here is the description from Goodreads:

Micah Mortimer isn’t the most polished person you’ll ever meet. His numerous sisters and in-laws regard him oddly but very fondly, but he has his ways and means of navigating the world. He measures out his days running errands for work – his TECH HERMIT sign cheerily displayed on the roof of his car – maintaining an impeccable cleaning regime and going for runs (7:15, every morning). He is content with the steady balance of his life.

But then the order of things starts to tilt. His woman friend Cassia (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a ‘girlfriend’) tells him she’s facing eviction because of a cat. And when a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son, Micah is confronted with another surprise he seems poorly equipped to handle.

Redhead by the Side of the Road is an intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who sometimes finds those around him just out of reach – and a love story about the differences that make us all unique.

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I struggled to think of a first link (some months it’s much more difficult than others, particularly if you haven’t read the book), so I’m afraid I’m going to be unimaginative and just link to another book with the word ‘road’ in the title: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1). In this non-fiction book, first published in 1937, Orwell writes about the poor living conditions of working-class people in the north of England, with a particular focus on miners and their families. In one chapter, Orwell describes how he went down a coal mine himself to observe the working conditions.

Another book from the 1930s – fictional this time – which is set in a coal mining community is How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (2). The story is narrated by Huw Morgan who is looking back on his childhood growing up in the valleys of South Wales, watching his elder brothers go off one by one to join their father in the mines. I loved this poignant and beautifully written novel.

My next link is to another novel set in Wales, but in a much earlier period. Here Be Dragons (3) is the first book in Sharon Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy and tells the story of Joanna, daughter of King John of England, and her marriage to Llewelyn ab Iorweth, Prince of Gwynedd. I loved this book and the second one, Falls the Shadow, and was sorry to hear of Sharon Penman’s death a few weeks ago. I must get round to reading the final book in the trilogy soon.

The title ‘Here Be Dragons’ refers to a term used to describe unexplored territories on maps; there are no actual dragons in the story! My next book, however, does involve dragons. Temeraire by Naomi Novik (4) is the first in a series of historical fantasy novels set during an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons provide military support to the British and French navies. I really enjoyed it and loved the relationship between Captain Will Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, so I don’t know why I still haven’t continued with the second book in the series.

I have read quite a lot of other books set during the Napoleonic Wars but the one I’m going to link to here is Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge (5), a gothic suspense novel from 1966 complete with smugglers, spies, a haunted house and plenty of family secrets! The unusual title, ‘Watch the wall, my darling’, is a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, A Smuggler’s Song.

There are many books that have titles inspired by poetry, so I’m going to finish my chain with Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (6). The title of this Miss Marple mystery is taken from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott – “Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott”.

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And that’s my chain for February. My links have included: the word ‘road’, coal miners, Wales, dragons, the Napoleonic Wars and lines from poems. I have even managed to bring the chain full circle with the word ‘side’ in both the first and last title!

Next month we’re starting with Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I read for the first time in 2020

This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is:

New-to-me authors I read in 2020.

There are lots of authors I read for the first time last year, but I have listed here a mixture of some that I loved and definitely want to explore further and some that I’m still not sure about.

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1. Robertson Davies – I enjoyed Fifth Business, the first book in Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, so the next logical step is to read the next book, The Manticore. I hope to get to it at some point this year.

2. Dorothy B. Hughes – I loved The Expendable Man, published by Persephone, and am looking forward to reading more of her books.

3. Hella S. Haasse – In a Dark Wood Wandering was another of my favourite books from last year. Her other novels all sound intriguing; I just need to decide which one to try next.

4. Ann Patchett – The Dutch House was a surprise; I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did. I had previously dismissed her as not for me, but will now have to investigate her earlier books.

5. Matthew Plampin – Mrs Whistler is a fascinating novel about the artist James Whistler and his relationship with Maud Franklin; Plampin’s other books all seem just as interesting!

6. Maggie O’Farrell – I didn’t love Hamnet as much as most other readers seem to have done, but I liked her writing enough to want to give her another chance.

7. Carol McGrath – I enjoyed The Silken Rose, a novel about Eleanor of Provence, and am looking forward to reading Carol McGrath’s next novel about another medieval queen, Eleanor of Castile, when it is published later this year.

8. Georges Simenon – Now that I’ve read Simenon’s atmospheric 1934 novella, The Man from London, I think I’ll have to try his Maigret series next!

9. Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim was my first Joseph Conrad book, apart from an earlier failed attempt to read Heart of Darkness. I don’t think he’s my sort of author, although I could be tempted to try one more, possibly Nostromo.

10. Ethel Lina White – The Wheel Spins is the book on which The Lady Vanishes was based. Although I didn’t love the book as much as the film, I’m now interested in reading more of her work.

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Have you read any of these authors? Can you recommend which of their books I should try next?