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.

My Commonplace Book: May 2019

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

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

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‘I am come on a painful errand. I am sorry not to find you looking better.’

‘So you have said. But if it is painful, shall we not do best to get it over with? Hard things are best said quickly.’

The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge (1965)

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Then all at once she turned to me, her face pale, her eyes strangely alight. She said, ‘Is it possible to love someone so much, that it gives one a pleasure, an unaccountable pleasure to hurt them? To hurt them by jealousy I mean, and to hurt oneself at the same time. Pleasure and pain, an equal mingling of pleasure and pain, just as an experiment, a rare sensation?’

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier (2011)

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James IV of Scotland

But this tantalising clue unfortunately does not lead to finding a full version of the tale that the king lived for three full years after Flodden. It is like a bookmark stuck between the leaves of a legend, imprinted with some of the words but not enough detail. Where was James supposed to be for those three years – on the road to Jerusalem perhaps, or in the dungeon of Home Castle? And how did he finally die?

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman (2019)

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And so the barge drives onwards, through the river din, for the river is wakening, quickening, as they pass. Sounds carried over the water: church bells, waterman’s oaths, paddles and thrumming steam-engines, children playing and the ever-present sound of the water-birds that fly overhead. Onwards drives the barge. Past quays and boatyards, warehouses and landing stages, houses and spires. Past ramshackle old public houses that teeter down to the water. Onwards drives the barge. Amid mail boats and passenger boats, paddle and screw steamers, rowing boats and skiffs, steam-yachts, steam-ferries and tugs. Watercraft of every size negotiating the beneficient, polluted, bottomless, shallow, fast-rushing, mud-slickened, under-towed Thames.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)

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Charles II performing the royal touch, said to cure scrofula or ‘the king’s evil’.

We exchanged glances, he and I, and I guessed that we were thinking along the same lines: that both of us took orders from people who preferred not to know precisely how their wishes were carried out, especially beforehand; that sometimes they preferred to hint at their desires to us rather than speak them plainly; and that in a manner of speaking we were their left hands, which operated in the dark, so their right hands might be seen to be spotlessly clean by the unforgiving light of day.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor (2019)

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A dog is a great promoter of friendly intercourse. Our interest and liking for Bob had quite broken down the natural stiffness of the good servant. As we went up to the bedroom floors, our guide was talking quite garrulously as she gave us accounts of Bob’s wonderful sagacity. The ball had been left at the foot of the stairs. As we passed him, Bob gave us a look of deep disgust and stalked down in a dignified fashion to retrieve it. As we turned to the right I saw him slowly coming up again with it in his mouth, his gait that of an extremely old man forced by unthinking persons to exert himself unduly.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie (1937)

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The mourner banquets on memory; making that which seems the poison of life, its ailment. During the hours of regret we recall the images of departed joys; and in weeping over each tender remembrance, tears so softly shed embalm the wounds of grief.

The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter (1809)

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The French Revolution. 1804 engraving of a painting by Jean-Louis Prieur.

My waking moments were bitter with remorse at the way in which I had abused my freedom when I had had it. One takes liberty for granted, and until it’s gone one doesn’t realise that one has been imprisoning oneself all the time.

The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop (1961)

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Favourite books read in May:

The Way to the Lantern, The King’s Evil, Dumb Witness and Things in Jars. Yes, four favourites this month!

New authors read in May:

Keith J. Coleman, Jess Kidd, Jane Porter, Audrey Erskine Lindop

Countries visited in May:

Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany, France

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy in May?

The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness (also published in the US as Poirot Loses a Client) was May’s selection for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge I’ve been taking part in this year. I missed last month’s because the chosen book – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – was one I’d read before and wasn’t ready to read again – but this one was new to me and sounded very appealing.

Published in 1937, Dumb Witness is one of several Christie novels which feature her famous detective Hercule Poirot and are narrated by his friend Captain Hastings. The novel opens with the family of old Emily Arundell gathering to celebrate the Easter weekend at her home, Littlegreen House, in the fictional village of Market Basing. Emily’s dog, Bob, is excited because there are more people to play his favourite game with him – bouncing his ball from the top of the stairs to the bottom. When Emily gets up during the night and falls down the stairs, however, it’s poor Bob who gets the blame. He must have left his ball there and his mistress didn’t see it in the dark; what other explanation could there be? And yet…

Surely — surely, she must be mistaken…One often had queer fancies after an event had happened. She tried — earnestly she tried — to recall the slippery roundness of Bob’s ball under her foot…
But she could recall nothing of the kind.
Instead —

Convinced that her fall was not an accident and not Bob’s fault, Emily writes to Hercule Poirot and hints that she would like him to investigate the ‘incident of the dog’s ball’, but by the time he receives the letter it’s too late. Emily Arundell is dead, presumably of natural causes. Studying the letter she sent him, Poirot is sure that it wasn’t a natural death at all so, with Hastings by his side, he sets off for Littlegreen House to prove that Miss Arundell has been murdered.

There is certainly no shortage of suspects. Her nieces and nephew and their partners are all in need of money for various reasons and could all have had an opportunity to carry out the murder, while the person who does actually benefit financially from her death – her companion, Miss Lawson – also has to be considered. Then there are the other servants at Littlegreen House, as well as two spiritualist women who claim to have seen a halo of light around Emily Arundell’s head. With her usual skill, Christie directs our suspicions first at one character, then at another, and although I kept thinking I had identified the culprit, I didn’t manage to guess the correct solution until just before it was revealed. However, I did still pick up on one or two important clues before Poirot did, so I don’t need to feel too ashamed!

I really enjoyed this particular Poirot novel; I usually do tend to enjoy the ones narrated by Hastings and I wish there had been a few more of them. The real star of this book, though, has to be Bob the dog! Although he is presumably the ‘dumb witness’ of the title, Christie gives him a personality of his own – and even some dialogue, of a sort. It’s little touches like this that made this book so entertaining. Now I’m wondering what the June choice for the challenge will be.

20 Books of Summer – 2019

20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, is a very simple idea: make a list of 20 (or 10 or 15) books and read them during the summer months. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds, as I discovered when I took part in 2017 and 2018. Just reading twenty books in three months is not usually a problem for me, but sticking to a list prepared in advance definitely is! Cathy does allow us to add and remove books from our lists, but I prefer not to do that if possible, which makes it even more challenging.

I did consider the ten or fifteen book option this time because I’m expecting this summer to be much busier than usual (if all goes according to plan I should be moving house in July) but I decided just to list twenty anyway and see how far I get with them. This year all of the books on my list are review copies, either physical ones or books I’ve received through NetGalley. It should be a good way to clear some of the backlog!

I’ll see how many of these I can read between 3rd June and 3rd September:

1. The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

2. The Horseman by Tim Pears

3. The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman

4. A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien

5. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor

6. Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

7. Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

8. Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

9. Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

10. The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

11. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

12. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

13. The Anarchist’s Club by Alex Reeve

14. Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

15. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

16. The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley

17. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

18. Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

19. Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C. Wright (non-fiction)

20. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou by Amy Licence (non-fiction)

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Have you read any of these? Will you be taking part in 20 Books of Summer this year?

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

What an unusual book! Not having read anything by Jess Kidd before, I didn’t know what to expect from this new Victorian mystery, but I immediately fell in love with the playful writing and imaginative plot. I knew as soon as the ghost of a tattooed boxer arose from a tomb in Highgate Cemetery that this was going to be no ordinary detective novel.

The story takes place in 1863 and our heroine is Bridie Devine, a former surgeon’s apprentice from Dublin who, since arriving in London, has built a new career for herself as a private investigator. At the beginning of the novel, Bridie – ‘A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap’ – is asked to look into the disappearance of Christabel Berwick, a little girl whose strange physical characteristics make her a valuable prize for those who collect curiosities and oddities. With the ghost of boxer Ruby Doyle by her side, Bridie must try to find Christabel before she becomes a ‘thing in a jar’.

Things in Jars is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. It reminded me, in different ways and at different times, of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Essex Serpent and Once Upon a River, but written in a style that makes it all Jess Kidd’s own. Bridie is a wonderful character; I admired her for her independence and intelligence but had a lot of sympathy for her as well, as the story of her troubled childhood unfolds in parallel with the 1860s one. Her romance with Ruby (as far as you can have a romance with a man who isn’t alive) is both moving and mystifying. Ruby claims to have known her for years, but Bridie can’t remember him. Who is he – and why has he come into her life again?

The secondary characters are excellent too, all described with Dickensian detail, from Bridie’s seven foot tall housemaid Cora Butter with the ‘unnerving glare’ to her landlord, the elderly bell maker Mr Wilks, who has the look of ‘something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time’. The descriptions of London – sometimes written from the perspective of a raven flying over the rooftops – wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel either:

The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and down-draughts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eyes, as blacked as pooled tar, London is laid out – there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!

Below her, streets and lanes, factories and workhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and tree tops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames – the sky’s own dirty mirror.

As for the mystery of Christabel’s disappearance, it really takes second place to the setting and the characters and the humour, but it was interesting enough to keep me gripped until the end, wondering what the little girl’s fate would be. I also enjoyed the way legends of the mythical Irish being known as the merrow were worked into the plot.

I would love Jess Kidd to write another book about Bridie Devine but, failing that, I will have to look for her previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. Although they sound very different from this one, I am looking forward to reading more of her work!

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

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.