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

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.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Hamnet to Macbeth

It’s the first Saturday of the month (and of the new year) 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 beginning with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I read this book last year and although I thought the writing was beautiful, I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done. It’s a great book to start this month’s chain with, though, because there are so many possible options for the first link!

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Shakespeare is not named in Hamnet; he is always referred to as ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’, which puts the focus on Agnes and their children. The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan (1) does use Shakespeare’s name, as well as the more commonly used Anne Hathaway in place of Agnes, but it also focuses on Shakespeare as a husband and father and is written largely from his wife’s perspective.

Another book I’ve read with a title beginning ‘The Secret Life of’ is The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (2), a biography of one of my favourite Victorian authors. The writer of the biography, William M. Clarke, was married to Collins’ great-granddaughter, which gave him access to personal information about Collins’ private life, family relationships and romantic entanglements, and these things form the basis of the book. However, I found the writing style quite dry and I would also have preferred more discussion and analysis of Collins’ work as well as his life.

Next, I’m linking to a book by Wilkie Collins himself: The Frozen Deep (3), not one of his better known books but still one that I enjoyed reading. It’s a short one – a novella, really – but still an entertaining and compelling story, inspired by reports of Sir John Franklin’s famously doomed 1845 voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage during which the ships became icebound and the members of the expedition disappeared.

Clare Carson’s historical novel The Canary Keeper (4) is set just a few years after the Franklin Expedition. The novel follows Birdie Quinn, a young woman who finds herself a suspect in a murder case, as she travels to the Orkney Islands to try to identify the real killer and clear her name. As she investigates, she discovers some fascinating links between the murder and the expedition.

I can only think of one other novel I’ve read set in Orkney and that is King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (5), a very different kind of story from The Canary Keeper and taking place many centuries earlier! This beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel is based around the theory that Macbeth, the historical King of Alba, and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were the same person.

This, of course, leads me to Macbeth by William Shakespeare (6) and so brings the chain full circle! It’s not often that I manage to do that, so I’m pleased to have achieved it with my first chain of the year.

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And that’s this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. My links included Shakespeare, secret lives, Wilkie Collins, the Franklin Expedition, Orkney and Thorfinn/Macbeth.

In February we will be starting with Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to A Long Petal of the Sea

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 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I read a lot of Judy Blume books in my childhood/early teens and this is one I particularly remember – not every detail of the plot, but certain scenes and lines. Here’s the blurb:

Life isn’t easy for Margaret. She’s moved away from her childhood home, she’s starting a new school, finding new friends – and she’s convinced she’s not normal. For a start she hasn’t got a clue whether she wants to be Jewish like her father or Christian like her mother. Everyone else seems really sure of who they are. And, worst of all, she’s a ‘late developer’. She just knows that all her friends are going to need a bra before she does. It’s too embarrassing to talk to her parents about these things. So she talks to God instead – and waits for an answer…

For my first link I have chosen another novel with a question as the title: Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart (1). Of all of the Stewart suspense novels I’ve read, I think this one and Nine Coaches Waiting are two of the best. Published in 1955, this was her first novel and features some beautiful descriptions of the French countryside where our heroine, Charity, is trying to protect a thirteen-year-old boy whose father has been acquitted of murder.

In Madam, Will You Talk? the characters visit the Château d’If, made famous as the fortress off the coast of Marseille where Edmond Dantes is unjustly imprisoned near the beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (2). If I was forced to choose my absolute favourite classic novel, this would probably be it. At nearly 1,000 pages it has an incredibly complex plot, but it can be described quite simply as a tale of revenge. This leads me to..

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes (3), the second in his series of novels featuring Inspector John Appleby. This Golden Age mystery from 1937 is set in an English country house where a guest is murdered during an amateur performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was the first of the Appleby novels I read and I enjoyed it so much I have since read another seven of them, although with more mixed results.

Another book in which the characters are staging a production of a Shakespeare play is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (4). The play in this case is The Tempest and the novel follows Felix Phillips as he helps a group of prisoners to study the play and improve their literacy. I really enjoyed this book – it has so many different layers and even includes an element of revenge, so has a double link to book 3 in my chain!

Phillip Tempest is the name of the villain in Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase (5). Having only been familiar with Alcott as the author of Little Women and its sequels, I remember being very surprised to discover that she had written a book like this which has much more in common with the Victorian sensation novels of authors like Wilkie Collins than it does with Little Women!

To finish my chain, I’m linking to another book with a title beginning ‘A Long’ – A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (6). I don’t think I’m ever going to be a fan of Allende’s writing; I have tried two of her books and didn’t love either of them, but they always sound interesting and I might be tempted to give her one more chance. A Long Petal of the Sea is set in Spain during the Civil War and then in Chile in the decades that follow.

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And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included titles that are questions, the Château d’If, tales of revenge, Shakespeare’s plays, tempests and titles beginning with ‘A Long’.

In January we are starting with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Uprooted to Jamaica Inn

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 is slightly different as we’ve been given the freedom of starting with any book with which we ended a previous chain. As I’ve been taking part in Six Degrees of Separation most months for nearly three years, I had plenty of options but decided to choose the book that ended my chain this time last year, in November 2019. That book was Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a fantasy novel set in a world closely resembling sixteenth century Poland. Our narrator, Agnieszka, lives in a village on the edge of a dark, forbidden forest until her seventeeth birthday when she is selected by a great wizard known as the Dragon who takes her away with him to his tower.

Thinking of the name of the wizard in Uprooted leads me to a book with the word ‘Dragon’ in the title: Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley (1). This is not one of my favourite Kearsley novels, but I did enjoy it. It’s set in modern day Wales but steeped in Arthurian myths and legends.

Staying with those myths and legends, my next link is to Mary Stewart’s series of Arthurian novels which begins with The Crystal Cave (2). The title refers to a magical, crystal-filled cave near Merlin’s home in Wales where Merlin retreats on several occasions throughout the series to receive visions and revelations.

Another novel in which some of the characters live in caves is The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley (3). This is the fifth book in Riley’s Seven Sisters series and is set in both present day Scotland and in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There are some wonderful descriptions of the caves of Sacromonte, the traditional home of the Spanish gitano community.

That Lady by Kate O’Brien (4) is also set in Spain, but in a much earlier period. Beginning in 1576, it tells the story of Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, and her relationship with King Philip II. As you can see from the portrait on the book cover, Ana wore an eye patch which, according to the novel, was because she lost an eye fighting a duel.

Someone else who lived in the same century as Ana and also wore a patch after losing an eye was Francis Bryan, the subject of a non-fiction book by Sarah Beth-Watkins which I read earlier in the year. Sir Francis Bryan: Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador (5) gives a short and factual account of Bryan’s life at the Tudor court. Bryan was nicknamed ‘the Vicar of Hell’ and this takes me to the final book in my chain.

Jamaica Inn (6), Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel of smugglers and shipwrecks on the Cornish coast also features a ‘vicar’ whose name is Francis: Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun. I first read Jamaica Inn many years ago, immediately after reading Rebecca, and found it disappointing in comparison; I read it again more recently and really enjoyed it the second time.

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And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included dragons, Arthurian legends, cave-dwellers, Spanish history, eye patches and vicars called Francis.

In December we are starting with a book I remember from my childhood: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Turn of the Screw to The Turn of the Key

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 that I have actually read – not something that happens very often! The book is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and if you haven’t read it, here is the blurb from Goodreads:

In what Henry James called a ‘trap for the unwary’, The Turn of the Screw tells of a nameless young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by a dark foreboding of menace within the house, she soon comes to believe that something malevolent is stalking the children in her care. But is the threat to her young charges really a malign and ghostly presence or something else entirely?

John Harding’s Florence and Giles (1), a Gothic novel about two children who believe their lives are in danger after the arrival of a sinister governess, is inspired by The Turn of the Screw (as you might have guessed from the very similar names of the characters: Florence and Giles, and Flora and Miles).  I loved it, although I hadn’t actually read The Turn of the Screw at the time, so didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which it was a homage to that other book.     

Another book with lots of ghostly and Gothic elements and a plot involving a governess with two young charges is This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2).  The influence of The Turn of the Screw is clear here too, although the story probably owes as much to Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins as it does to Henry James.  It was the first John Boyne novel I’ve read and still one of my favourites.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic novel, Uncle Silas (3), also features a governess – an evil and villainous one called Madame de la Rougierre, who arrives at the Ruthyn family estate of Knowl to become a companion to Maud Ruthyn. A very entertaining tale of “gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison and family secrets.” 

Not all governesses are as evil as Madame de la Rougierre!  Linda Martin in Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (4) is a governess and she is the heroine of the novel. As soon as Linda arrives at the de Valmy family chateau in France to become governess to young Philippe de Valmy, she is convinced that something is wrong and the tension builds and builds until the truth is revealed. I’ve read most of Stewart’s novels and this is probably my favourite; it’s certainly the most exciting and atmospheric. 

Nine Coaches Waiting shares some plot elements with Jane Eyre, as does Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (5).  Jane Steele herself is a fan of the Charlotte Bronte classic and becomes aware of some of the parallels between her own life and Jane Eyre’s.  After her unhappy schooldays come to an end, Jane returns to her childhood home, Highgate House, to take up a position as governess to Sahjara, the young ward of the house’s new master, Mr Thornfield.  Mystery, romance and suspense follow!

It’s not often that I am able to link the last book in one of my chains back to the first, but as soon as I saw that we were beginning this month with The Turn of the Screw I knew I would have to end with The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (6).  Not quite a governess, but a ‘live-in nanny’, our narrator Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House in Scotland to find that she is just the latest in a long string of nannies in a very short time period. Could the ghostly occurrences taking place in the house be the reason?

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Well, that’s my chain for October. I usually try to link each book to the one before in a different way each time, but this month I’ve kept it very simple: all of the books in my chain include a governess, children and a house that is either haunted or hiding secrets of some sort.

For November’s starting point, we can use a book with which we’ve ended a previous chain and continue from there.