Six Degrees of Separation: From A Gentleman in Moscow to Poor Miss Finch

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 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a book I read a few years ago – it’s not often that I’ve read the starting book in one of these chains and it does make things slightly easier! It tells the story of a Russian Count who is sentenced to spend the rest of his days under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. I really enjoyed this book and found it quite inspiring that the Count managed to lead such a fulfilling life during his confinement.

Another novel set in and around a hotel, this time in Cyprus, is The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop (1). The story takes place in Famagusta in 1974, when the Sunrise Hotel is evacuated during a Greek military coup and Turkish invasion. I found the book a bit uneven, but loved the setting and the vivid descriptions of the abandoned city.

Famagusta already had a troubled history, long before the events of The Sunrise. In Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions (2), the third in her House of Niccolò series, our hero Nicholas arrives in Cyprus in the early 1460s just as the island is torn apart by the conflict between Queen Carlotta and her half-brother James de Lusignan and the city of Famagusta finds itself under siege.

The Niccolò series takes us all over 15th century Europe and Africa, but the first book, Niccolò Rising, is set mainly in Bruges. I can’t think of many other books I’ve read that have Bruges as a setting, apart from an obvious one: The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan (3). This novel is presented as the fictional memoirs of the 15th century artist Hans Memling who becomes acquainted with Edward IV and the future Richard III during their exile in Flanders.

My next link is to another book with Master in the title. There were a few I could have chosen, but I decided on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (4). I remember feeling intimidated by this book before I started to read it, but I needn’t have worried because I absolutely loved this weird and wonderful Russian classic.

A famous phrase from the book is “manuscripts don’t burn”, which makes my next link a very easy one. A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger (5) follows the poet John Gower as he searches 14th century London for a missing book of prophecies which predicts the death of the King of England. John Gower was a real person and although there’s not much biographical information on him available, we do know that he became blind in later life and in the sequel, The Invention of Fire, we see him trying to cope with his loss of sight.

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins (6) is a novel with a blind heroine and it handles the subject of blindness in a way that is both sensitive and fascinating. It’s not quite as ‘sensational’ as some of his other novels (and has a very strange subplot involving twins with blue skin), but I still enjoyed it!

And that’s my chain for this month. In October we’ll be starting with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

Six Degrees of Separation: From House of Names to Rebecca

Thanks to everyone who wished me luck with my house move last week. I am starting to get settled in the new house but still have a lot to do! I’m a few days late with my Six Degrees of Separation post for August (I usually try to have my post ready for the first Saturday of the month) as I’m still waiting for my broadband to be activated so am having to do things where and when I can, but I’m hoping everything will be back to normal soon.

Six Degrees of Separation is 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 doing something slightly different; instead of Kate giving us the first title, we are starting with the book with which we finished last month’s chain! In my case, that was House of Names by Colm Tóibín, a novel which retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus from Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia.

I have used the title ‘house of names’ as my first link and have chosen a book with a person’s name in its title. There are lots of those, so I had plenty of choice, but the one I’ve decided on is Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson. This is the story of a young woman growing up in the 1950s who struggles to communicate verbally and is sent to live in a residential home for people with disabilities, the Briar Mental Institute. I found it both moving and inspirational – not the sort of book to be easily forgotten.

Another novel about a young woman who is considered to be ‘different’ is Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (another name in the title too). First published in 1934, it is based on a real life crime which took place in 1877 and is a very dark and disturbing story. It’s published by Persephone and I read it last year for a Persephone Readathon.

There are several other Persephones with names in the titles, including Virginia Woolf’s Flush. Flush is the name of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog and the novel is written from his perspective. It’s a fascinating and creative combination of fact and fiction; I loved it!

Virginia Woolf also wrote Orlando. It was the first of her books that I read and I remember finding it surprisingly accessible and entertaining. Orlando is the name of a very unusual protagonist: a character who lives for four hundred years and changes gender along the way!

Another novel which plays with time in an interesting way is Mariana by Susanna Kearsley. In Mariana, we meet Julia Beckett, who moves into a lonely farmhouse called Greywethers and becomes obsessed with the life of Mariana Farr, a woman who lived in the house during the 17th century.

One of my favourite novels, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, also features a house (Manderley) and a former resident whose presence is still strongly felt. And, of course, the title of the book is a name – which links back to the first book in this chain, House of Names.

And that’s my chain for this month! Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned?

Next month we’ll begin with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Six in Six: The 2019 Edition

We’re halfway through the year and I’m pleased to see that the Six in Six meme, 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 2019 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 crime novels

1. The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
2. Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence
3. Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford
4. A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs
5. The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
6. And Death Came Too by Richard Hull

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Six books with a touch of fantasy

1. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
2. The Binding by Bridget Collins
3. Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
4. The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick
5. The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence
6. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

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Six books that are not novels

1. The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (short stories)
2. Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg (non-fiction)
3. The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham (short stories)
4. The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith John Coleman (non-fiction)
5. The Doll by Daphne du Maurier (short stories)
6. Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough (narrative poem – I know this could be classed as a novel in verse, but I needed a sixth book!)

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Six books set in different countries

1. The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (Iceland)
2. Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (Ireland)
3. Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (India and Italy)
4. Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (France)
5. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (Korea)
6. Death in Kenya by MM Kaye (Kenya)

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Six authors read for the first time this year

1. E Phillips Oppenheim (The Great Impersonation)
2. Sarah Moss (Bodies of Light)
3. John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps)
4. Michelle Paver (Wakenhyrst)
5. Alex Reeve (The House on Half Moon Street)
6. Samantha Harvey (The Western Wind)

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Six of my favourite books so far this year

1. The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop
2. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
3. The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman
4. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
5. Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
6. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

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Have you read any of these books? Will you be taking part in Six in Six this year too?

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who share my name

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl, is a ‘Character Freebie’ (any topic of our choice that deals with book characters).

I thought it might be fun to list some characters who have the same name as me (Helen). I wondered whether I would be able to think of ten, but it turned out to be easier than I expected – in fact, I could have included more!

1. Helen Burns – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The saintly Helen Burns was Jane’s best friend at Lowood School and although her role in the novel is short and tragic, she has a lasting influence on Jane’s life.

2. Helen Irvine – Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Helen of Kirkconnel Lea was the heroine of a famous ballad and her story is told in this beautifully written historical fiction novel.

3. Helen of Mar – The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

The daughter of the Earl of Mar, Lady Helen falls in love with Scottish hero William Wallace in Jane Porter’s 1809 novel.

4. Helen Franklin – Melmoth by Sarah Perry

This secretive Helen becomes fascinated by the story of Melmoth the Witness and discovers that the legend holds a personal significance.

5. Helen Schlegel – Howards End by E.M. Forster

The younger and more impulsive and passionate of the two Schlegel sisters in Forster’s classic novel.

6. Helen of Troy – For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

I’m sure this famous Helen needs no introduction!

7. Helen Fong – China Dolls by Lisa See

One of three young women who become friends after meeting at an audition for dancers at a San Francisco nightclub in 1938.

8. DCI Helen Rowley – Sacrifice and the Lacey Flint series by Sharon Bolton

A recurring, though minor, character throughout Bolton’s Lacey Flint series (as Dana Tulloch’s partner) and also has a bigger role to play in the standalone novel Sacrifice.

9. Helen Giniver – The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

This Helen is one of several characters whose lives and relationships are explored in Sarah Waters’ World War II novel.

10. Helen Huntingdon – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

A Brontë character started my list so another Brontë character will finish it! Written in diary format, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall describes Helen Huntingdon’s marriage to an abusive, drunken husband.

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Can you think of any other literary Helens? Are there any fictional characters who share your own name?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Where the Wild Things Are to House of Names

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 a children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

I can’t remember ever reading this book, or having it read to me, as a child. I wondered if I would be the only person to admit that, but having looked at a few other people’s chains today I’m pleased to see that it’s not just me! For my first link, I’m going to choose a children’s picture book that I do remember: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This means I’ll have to break my own rule of only including books in my chain that I’ve already reviewed on my blog.

It’s the very simplest of stories, but the illustrations, the bright colours and the holes in the pages make it very appealing to a child! I can’t think of any other books I’ve read with a caterpillar connection (although I have just started The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley), so I’m going to use the word ‘hungry’ as my next link instead.

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier tells the story of five generations of the Brodrick family beginning in 1820 with Copper John Brodrick, the owner of a copper mine in Ireland. The book reminded me of Penmarric by Susan Howatch, another family saga in which a mine plays an important part – in this case, a tin mine in Cornwall.

The lives of the fictional characters in Penmarric closely mirror the lives of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. Elizabeth Chadwick wrote an excellent trilogy of novels about Eleanor, of which the first is The Summer Queen.

‘The Summer Queen’ makes me think of the woman who was known as ‘The Winter Queen’ – Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia. She was given that name because her husband’s reign in Bohemia only lasted for one winter (1619 to 1620). Elizabeth is one of the characters whose story is told in Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows, a novel set in multiple time periods.

My final link is to another book with ‘House of’ in the title. I had a few options here, including House of Glass by Susan Fletcher and House of Gold by Natasha Solomons, but the one I’ve chosen to end my chain is House of Names by Colm Tóibín, which retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus from Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia.

And that’s my chain for this month. My links have included picture books, the word ‘hungry’, mining, Eleanor of Aquitaine, summer and winter, and ‘house of’ books.

In August, instead of Kate giving us the first book in the chain, we will be starting with the book we ended our chain with this month, which for me will be House of Names.

Top Ten Tuesday: Special books from my childhood

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl, asks for our top ten childhood favourites.

There were many, many books that I loved as a child, so this is by no means a definitive top ten and if I did this again next week it could be a different list entirely. For now, though, here are ten books – in no particular order – that bring back special memories.

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1. Watership Down by Richard Adams

I was about ten years old when I first read this book and it immediately became a favourite. I have re-read it many times since – the last time was in 2010 and I still loved it as much as ever. It’s beautifully written and certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as just ‘a book about talking rabbits’; it’s about so much more than that and has a lot to offer an adult reader as well as a child.

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2. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams

I think I was probably about seven years old when I fell in love with Gobbolino, a little cat who is rejected by his mistress, a witch, because he has blue eyes and a white paw. Dreaming of being an ordinary kitchen cat, Gobbolino sets out in search of a new owner, but finds that nobody wants to give a home to a witch’s cat. This book was published in 1942, a few years after Williams’ more famous children’s book The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse. I loved the little wooden horse too, but his adventures never resonated with me as much as Gobbolino’s!

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3. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

I loved this book as a child, despite it being so sad and despite the themes of animal cruelty and suffering making me cry every time I used to read it. I had (and still have, somewhere) a gorgeous hardback edition with colour illustrations and it’s the book itself that I remember as much as the story. The image above doesn’t really do it justice!

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4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I had a lovely hardback edition of The Secret Garden too, although I’m not sure what happened to it (it was not the one pictured above). It’s been a very long time since I last read this book but I still remember the excitement when Mary discovers the door to the locked garden at Misselthwaite Manor. I’ll have to put it on my list for a re-read in the near future, if I can find my copy.

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5. Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril

I loved books about ballet as a child, and nearly included Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this list, but I think I preferred the Drina series by Jean Estoril (a pseudonym of Mabel Esther Allan). The series was published in the 1950s and 60s and consisted of eleven books following the dancing career of Drina Adams. Some of the later books were stronger and more interesting, but the first, Ballet for Drina, is the one I remember most clearly.

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6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Little Women, but my first copy of it was an abridged version for younger children with the cover shown above. It was part of a series of classics and I also had a few of the others including Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Kidnapped. I didn’t like any of them as much as Little Women! My grandmother later gave me her own old copy which contained both Little Women and Good Wives and I still have that book on my shelf.

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7. A Visit to Folly Castle by Nina Beachcroft

A more obscure one next. I read this several times as a child and loved it, but had forgotten both the title and the author’s name so spent hours a few months ago googling everything I could remember about the plot to try to identify it! It was a fantasy novel about a girl called Emma who finds a message in a bottle that leads her to the home of Cassandra, a lonely girl who is desperate for a friend. As Emma begins to get to know Cassandra, she discovers that there is something not quite human about her new friend’s family. Does anyone else remember this one?

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8. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

It seems that a lot of my childhood favourites involved animals! I loved this classic novel about the friendship between Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the spider and a little girl called Fern. I used to like the film too (the animated one from 1973, not the more recent live-action one).

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9. The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton

I could have included almost any Enid Blyton book here, as I read and loved so many of them. Her Malory Towers and St Clare’s school stories and The Five Find-Outers mystery series were particular favourites, but if I had to pick just one of her books it would be The Valley of Adventure. In this book, a group of children find themselves stranded in a lonely Austrian valley surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, trying to hide from a gang of criminals who are searching for hidden treasure.

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10. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

I was torn between several books for the final place on my list, but I finally decided on L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. I did read some of the other titles in the Anne series as well, but was less interested in the later ones. The first book was my favourite because I loved watching the development of Anne’s relationships with Matthew and Marilla.

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Have you read any of these? Which books would be on your list?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Murmur to Great House

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 a book I haven’t read and know nothing about: Murmur by Will Eaves. Goodreads tells me that “taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.”

I struggled to think of how to link this to another book, especially as I prefer to only use books in my chains that I’ve actually read and reviewed. I’ve never read anything else by Will Eaves or anything about Alan Turing and neither the book cover nor the word ‘murmur’ gave me any inspiration either. Eventually, I decided that, as Alan Turing was a mathematician, I would simply choose another novel I’ve read about a mathematician – The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd.

The Words in My Hand tells the story of Helena Jans van der Strom, a Dutch woman who was in a relationship with the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes for more than a decade. The novel explores the significance of the roles they played in each other’s lives and the barriers of class and gender that meant their relationship could never be an equal one.

The story is set mainly in Amsterdam, which is where Helena is working as a maid at the time when Descartes comes to stay in the city. Another book set in 17th century Amsterdam is Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, a novel inspired by Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house which is on display in the Rijksmuseum.

In The Miniaturist, a young woman is given a special wedding present by her husband: a cabinet containing a doll’s house that resembles their own home. She writes to a ‘miniaturist’ asking for some tiny items and figures to put inside it, but when they begin to arrive she is surprised to find how closely they correspond to people and things from her own life. I enjoyed the book but was also disappointed by it because I felt that the mystery of the miniaturist was never fully resolved.

In 2014, The Miniaturist was voted Waterstones Book of the Year, a prize which has been running since 2012. Last year’s winner was Normal People by Sally Rooney, a book I haven’t read, but one that I have read and loved is Stoner by John Williams, which won the award in 2013.

Stoner, published in 1965, is the story of farmer’s son William Stoner who attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture but discovers a passion for literature instead and stays on at the university to teach for the next forty years. Stoner becomes a Professor of English Literature and that makes me think of Edmund Crispin’s detective Gervase Fen, who was Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Fen stars in a series of mystery novels, the first of which is The Case of the Gilded Fly.

In The Case of the Gilded Fly, Fen is investigating a locked room murder which takes place during rehearsals for the premiere of a new play. An Egyptian-style gilded ring is found on the dead woman’s finger. The word ‘gilded’ in the title leads me to Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker, a fictional account of the life of the 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer Thomas Chippendale.

Despite the cover, I didn’t find this a very romantic story, especially as I really disliked the hero and wished the heroine would just forget about him! However, I did love the descriptions of Chippendale’s work and the techniques he used to create his furniture. I particularly enjoyed reading about a doll’s house that he built and furnished in miniature – which of course links this book back to an earlier book in my chain, The Miniaturist!

I need one more link to finish the chain, though, and I have chosen another novel where an item of furniture plays an important part. Great House by Nicole Krauss consists of several stories set in different times and places which are all linked by a writing desk with a dramatic and complex history.

And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included mathematicians, Amsterdam, prize winners, English professors, the word ‘gilded’ and items of furniture. Have you read any of these books?

In July, we will be starting with the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.