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.

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

I had already been drawn to The Drowned City, the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in the 17th century, before it dawned on me that KJ Maitland was Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. All the more reason to want to read it, then!

In January 1606, exactly a year after the execution of the conspirators who tried to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave sweeps up the Bristol Channel, leaving a scene of devastation. Whole families are drowned, buildings are swept away and farmland is destroyed. As the survivors try to come to terms with what has happened, rumours begin to arise. Some say the wave was summoned by witches, others that it was God’s way of taking revenge for the executions. The King’s most trusted adviser, Charles FitzAlan, fears that it’s all part of another Catholic conspiracy and decides to send someone to Bristol to investigate. Luckily, he knows just the man for the job…

That man is Daniel Pursglove, currently languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting what seems to be certain death. Daniel’s particular background and skills have brought him to FitzAlan’s attention and when he is offered his freedom in return for carrying out some investigations in Bristol, he jumps at the chance. Arriving in the city, Daniel begins his search for the missing Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar, but almost immediately finds himself caught up in another mystery – a series of murders. Are they all part of the same plot or is something else going on in the flooded city?

Like Maitland’s earlier novels, this is a dark and atmospheric story with an interesting historical setting. I’ve never read anything about the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 (or 1606; Maitland uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian), so that was something completely new for me. The descriptions of the devastated city in the aftermath of the wave are vivid and even quite eerie and almost otherworldly. It’s always refreshing to read historical novels with a setting other than London, and the flooded Bristol, in a superstitious age when natural disasters were often attributed to witchcraft or messages from heaven, was the perfect choice for this particular story.

Although there a few real historical characters in the book, notably Robert Cecil, most are fictional. Daniel Pursglove, the central character in this and presumably the rest of the series, intrigued me as we know so little about him at first. What is his background? How did he come to be a prisoner? What are the special talents that make him so suitable for this task? As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of Daniel and gradually some of our questions are answered. I’m sure we’ll be learning more about him in future books.

Where this book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the mystery element; once Daniel arrives in Bristol the plot takes off in so many different directions I kept forgetting what his original purpose was in going there. Had it been shorter and more tightly focused, I think I would have enjoyed it much more; instead, I found myself struggling to keep track of what was happening at times. Still, this is a promising start to a new series and I’m definitely interested in reading the second book.

Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Book 16/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

My Commonplace Book: March 2021

A selection of words and pictures to represent March’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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Are there not little chapters in everybody’s life, Beth had read in Vanity Fair only that morning, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of history?

Too soon to tell…but perhaps this was, in fact, going to be one of them.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (2021)

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Frances Cromwell, daughter of Oliver Cromwell

‘We don’t rebel against our parents,’ I begin slowly, as if I am carving each word from stone. ‘We take up our beliefs like a battle standard and advance them further even than they could have imagined. We take their victories for liberty and apply them to our own lives. The freedom to find fulfilment. The freedom to shape our futures. The freedom to choose whom we love.’

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins (2020)

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‘To be sure, my Arcadia is amply supplied with kings and shepherds, lovers and villains, shipwrecks and mistaken identity, but it doesn’t depend on monsters and sorcerers for adventure. My tales take place in the natural world, one in which readers may find mirrors of themselves. Why turn a plot on sorcery when love and envy are sufficient to drive men mad?’

Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller (2020)

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She knew exactly what her father would have said on the matter too, quoting Heraclitus: “No man steps in the same river twice.” To which Rose would have replied, obligingly, “For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux (2020)

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Newstead Abbey in 1880

The contrast between the bustle of Westminster and the serenity of Newstead – with its waterfalls, wildlife and seasonal cloaks of snowdrops, bilberries and yellow gorse – provided a useful introduction to both the natural world and urban living.

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand (2020)

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“Most successes are unhappy. That’s why they are successes – they have to reassure themselves about themselves by achieving something that the world will notice.”

“What extraordinary ideas you have, Anthony.”

“You’ll find they are quite true if you only examine them. The happy people are failures because they are on such good terms with themselves that they don’t give a damn. Like me. They are also usually agreeable to get on with – again like me.”

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie (1945)

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A loyal heart is not enough to keep a man from the gallows, until that heart is ruled by a sagacious mind. A bird has eyes either side of the head, so that it may look two ways at once, but man’s eyes are on the front of his face. He cannot look behind him and in front at the same time, and if he tries, sooner or later, he’ll trip and fall.

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland (2021)

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It was his belief that only people whose emotions are communal rather than individual can honestly experience passion without jealousy. Though love may die quickly among civilised people, self-love and rivalry are harder to kill. Indeed they only flourish the more under suppression.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy (1941)

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Italian Chapel, Orkney

There can be no single point when a person breaks, surely. Rather, a person’s patience is like the cloth bandage that holds a wound together: over time, it is rubbed thinner and thinner, until the material is all but worn away. The final threads are simply a mesh over the rawness.

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea (2021)

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When the worst happens, dread, at least, is over.

The Pact by Sharon Bolton (2021)

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Favourite book read in March:

The Rose Code

Authors read for the first time in March:

Kate Quinn, Miranda Malins, Naomi Miller, Margaux DeRoux, Emily Brand

Places visited in my March reading:

England, USA, Italy, Scotland

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, it’s always nice to come across books featuring historical figures I’ve never read about before. The Puritan Princess, Miranda Malins’ debut novel, tells the story of Frances Cromwell, youngest daughter of Oliver Cromwell. Despite the title, Frances never actually became a princess, but the book covers the period from 1657 to 1658 when this looked as though it could be a possibility.

Following years of civil war and the execution of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell has been named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland…but for some of his supporters, this is not enough. In 1657, Parliament offers him the crown, leaving Cromwell facing a dilemma. On the one hand, accepting might bring about stability, which is what Parliament hopes, but on the other, having recently been involved in abolishing the monarchy, he is reluctant to become monarch himself. History tells us that he will eventually turn the offer down, but while it is under consideration Frances wonders what his decision will mean for her and what implications it could have for her marriage. Frances is in love with the young courtier Robert Rich, whose father supported the opposite side in the recent civil war; they already face difficulties in persuading Cromwell to allow them to marry and any change in Frances’ status could make it even less likely.

As well as her relationship with Robert, the relationships Frances has with her sisters also form an important part of the story. Her eldest sisters, Bridget and Elizabeth are much older; they reached adulthood before their father rose to power and can remember a different way of life; Mary, though, is only a year older than Frances and the two are very close, to the extent that Mary is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for her sister’s sake. Less attention is given to Cromwell’s sons, but they do appear in the novel now and then – Richard, who will succeed his father as Lord Protector, and Henry, who is Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell himself is shown in a much more positive light than usual. Seen through his daughter’s eyes, he is depicted as a loving father and husband, fond of art, music and hunting – very different from the image most people have of the strict Puritan opposed to all forms of enjoyment. However, although it’s good to see a different side of Cromwell, because the story is narrated by Frances and she is clearly biased in favour of her father, I don’t think it’s a very balanced portrayal.

I found the first half of the book slightly slow and repetitive as it is mainly concerned with whether or not Frances will marry Robert Rich and whether or not Cromwell will accept the crown, but I’m glad I kept going as the plot does become more gripping later on. I previously knew very little about the final years of Cromwell’s Protectorate and, as I’ve said, I had never read about Frances until now, so I do feel that I’ve learned something new from The Puritan Princess and I’m already looking forward to Miranda Malins’ next book.

Book 15/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Prophet by Martine Bailey

When I finished reading Martine Bailey’s The Almanack last year I didn’t know there was going to be a sequel and didn’t expect one, so it was a nice surprise to come across The Prophet and to reacquaint myself with characters I hadn’t thought I would meet again. This book does work as a standalone, though, so if you haven’t read The Almanack yet, don’t worry!

The story begins in 1753, on Old May Day – eleven days were ‘lost’ the year before when Britain changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar – and Tabitha De Vallory and her husband Nat have decided to ride into the forest to see the giant Mondrem Oak which has been decorated for the occasion. Tabitha also has a special reason of her own for wanting to visit the oak; she is pregnant and wants to ask the tree spirit for a safe childbirth. However, she and Nat are unprepared for what they actually find beneath the tree – the dead body of a young woman, brutally murdered.

The woman’s death has coincided with the arrival of a group of people who are on their way to America to start a new life in Pennsylvania and have set up camp in the forest before continuing their journey to the coast. Led by a charismatic young preacher known as Baptist Gunn, the group deny all knowledge of the murder, but are they telling the truth? Could the dead woman be linked to Gunn’s prophecy predicting the coming of a second messiah on Midsummer’s Day?

I enjoyed being back in Netherlea, the Cheshire village in and around which these books are set. It’s a small community steeped in tradition and folklore, where people’s lives are still ruled by ancient superstitions and rituals, making them suspicious of things that are new and unfamiliar – the perfect setting in which a religious cult like Baptist Gunn’s can take root and develop. The conflict between new and old is also explored through the themes of pregnancy and childbirth as Tabitha looks forward to the arrival of her baby with both excitement and anxiety.

The mystery element of the novel is also interesting; both Tabitha and Nat have a personal connection to the dead woman which makes it even more important for them to find out what happened to her. In addition to the prophet Gunn, there are several other suspects and some of the revelations towards the end of the book surprised me! As well as trying to solve the mystery, Tabitha is trying to put her past behind her and adjust to a new way of life as the lady of Bold Hall, with all the changes in status her marriage has brought her.

Of the two books, I think I preferred The Almanack, mainly because I loved the little riddles at the start of every chapter which aren’t included in this one, but The Prophet was still an enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

Thanks to Severn House for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Book 14/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

First published in 1941, this is the third book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series. Although I’ve been reading the books in order so far, it’s really not necessary and you could start anywhere. I think the first one, Dance of Death, is still my favourite but this one comes close.

The Deadly Truth begins with biochemist Roger Slater being visited in his laboratory by the glamorous Claudia Bethune and telling her about a new drug he is developing: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. After Claudia departs, Roger discovers that one of the tubes containing the drug has disappeared; aware of Claudia’s love of practical jokes and of the drug’s dangerous properties, he sets off in pursuit but, by the time he catches up with her, it’s too late. Guests are arriving at Claudia’s house for a dinner party – and are about to be served a very special cocktail.

Later that night, Dr Basil Willing, who is renting a beach hut on Claudia’s land, thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethunes’ house and decides to investigate. It turns out there is no fire, but what he does find inside the house is just as shocking – Claudia, slumped at the table, strangled by her own emerald necklace. As the details of the dinner party begin to emerge, Basil learns that, having had their drinks spiked with the truth serum, each guest had revealed truths about themselves that they would have preferred to keep secret. Now that the effects of the drug have worn off, can Basil separate the truth from the lies and identify the murderer?

Helen McCloy’s novels all have such unusual and intriguing plots! They may seem far-fetched and unlikely at first, but really the murder in each one is just a starting point for McCloy to introduce some fascinating psychological and scientific themes and ideas; in this book, as well as the discussions of truth and lies, there’s also an interesting exploration of sound and deafness. As a New York psychiatrist, Basil Willing solves the crimes through his understanding of the human mind, looking at personalities and motives rather than spending too much time on technicalities such as alibis, and this is the kind of mystery novel I prefer. Basil does have some specialist knowledge which plays an important part in the solution of this particular mystery, but even without this knowledge the clues are there for an observant reader to pick up on. Unfortunately, I was not observant enough and allowed the red herrings McCloy drops into the story to lead me away from the correct suspect!

I think Helen McCloy is one of the best of the ‘forgotten’ crime authors I’ve discovered recently. She also seems to have been quite prolific; there are ten other Basil Willing novels and lots of standalones, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Walter Scott Prize 2021 Shortlist

Following the announcement of the 2021 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in February, the shortlist has been revealed today. As you may know, I am slowly working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here), so I will be trying to read all of the books below eventually. There are five books on this year’s list and here they are:

Image courtesy of The Walter Scott Prize

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The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

“In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana – the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer’s hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel…

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is ambitious, accomplished and astonishingly good: an engrossing, intense and compelling exploration of the horror and brutality of conflict, and the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual limits that people reach in war time. It is also a poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world.”

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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

“It is 1788. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth is hungry for life but, as the ward of a Devon clergyman, knows she has few prospects. When proud, scarred soldier John Macarthur promises her the earth one midsummer’s night, she believes him.

But Elizabeth soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Her new husband is reckless, tormented, driven by some dark rage at the world. He tells her he is to take up a position as Lieutenant in a New South Wales penal colony and she has no choice but to go. Sailing for six months to the far side of the globe with a child growing inside her, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours.

All her life she has learned to be obliging, to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.”

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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

“England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.”

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.”

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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

“Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.”

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The only one of these I’ve read so far is Hamnet and although I wasn’t a fan, I’m aware that most people have loved it so I won’t be at all surprised if it wins. I’m sure The Mirror and the Light will be another strong contender; I haven’t finished it yet, but will eventually! Of the remaining three books, The Dictionary of Lost Words doesn’t appeal to me much but I’m looking forward to reading the other two (although The Tolstoy Estate hasn’t been published here in the UK yet).

What do you think of this shortlist? Which book do you think will win?