6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beach Read’ to ‘The Second Son’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeHappy New Year all, and welcome to my first post of 2023.

I have had a refreshing “digital detox” over the festive season (my favourite books of 2022 post was scheduled in advance) and stayed off the Internet for almost two weeks. I took an (excruciatingly expensive) air flight to Melbourne to catch up with family I hadn’t seen in three years (because of covid border restrictions) and had a lovely time doing as little as possible for about 9 days. But now it’s time to get back into the swing of things.

What better way to kick-start my blogging mojo than by participating in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme that runs the first Saturday of every month and is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. It works like this: Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. Click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Beach Read’ by Emily Henry (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which I believe is a romantic comedy starring two writers who are polar opposites. The description on Amazon sounds rather fun, although the reviews are mixed. I’m linking this one to…

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (2019)

In this hugely fun novel with a dastardly twist, a narcissistic writer does everything he can to become rich and famous despite having little to no creative ability. He uses people, steals their intellectual copyright, purloins their personal stories and passes off others’ work as his own — regardless of the consequences!

‘Vladimir’ by Julia May Jonas (2022)

Another rip-roaring tale about someone behaving badly and ignoring the consequences is Vladimir, a campus novel starring a popular English professor who pursues a man much younger than herself while her husband stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles (1959)

I’m not really into campus novels, but this American classic, largely set in a boarding school, is a compelling story about a fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys growing up in the shadow of the Second World War.

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch (2009)

I’m linking to this because it has the word “peace” in the title, but it also shares the Second World War setting. In this gripping novella, a group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy in difficult terrain and weather conditions when their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman — which poses complex issues for all who witness it.

‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović (2015)

War crimes feature in this deeply affecting story about a 10-year-old Croatian girl who becomes a child soldier in the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s. When she is smuggled out of the country to begin a new life in the USA, her past continues to haunt her well into adulthood.

‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck (2021)

 In this gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs,.a Croatian immigrant heads up an organised crime family which runs a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.  

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a romantic comedy to a gangland crime novel, via stories about narcissistic people, the Second World War and the Yugoslavian civil war.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Bantam, Book review, Fiction, John Knowles, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles

Fiction – paperback; Bantam USA; 208 pages; 1975.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is well known as a set text in the USA, but I first heard of it only a matter of weeks ago when I read an intriguing review by Trevor Barrett on The Mookse and the Gripes blog. I immediately scoured the internet for a cheap copy and managed to find one listed on BookMooch, which was soon whizzing its way across the Atlantic.

Boarding school novel

The novel, first published in 1959, is set in a boarding school called Devon, which is “sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England”.

The story is told through the eyes of Gene Forrester, a past student, who returns 15 years after graduation and stands among the pleasant surroundings — all “varnish and wax” — and recalls one particular year during World War II which shaped the rest of his life.

Here, in the summer of 1942, Gene was a quiet bookish boy and his best friend and roommate Phineas (sometimes dubbed Finny) was an extroverted, athletic type who charmed students and adults alike. We learn pretty much from the start that Finny is a bit of a daredevil but that he gets away with it.

The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.

Meanwhile, Gene, desperate not to lose face with his friend, succumbs to peer pressure and cuts class, misses meals and skips chapel — often against his better judgment. And it is this crucial inability to say “no” that lands Gene in trouble.

Dark undertones

To say more would reveal crucial plot spoilers, which makes it almost impossible to review this book properly, but if you think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies you’ll come to understand the dark heart that beats very strongly at the centre of this novel.

Of course, there’s an exterior darkness looming over the story too in the form of the war, although it all seems rather remote to Gene, Finny and their fellow 16-year-old students, just a year away from the draft:

We saw nothing real of it; all our impressions of the war were in the false medium of two dimensions — photographs in the papers and magazines, newsreels, posters — or artificially conveyed to us by a voice on the radio, or headlines across the top of a newspaper.

Indeed, Finny is so cut off from the horrors of the war he doesn’t believe it is true. At one point he suggests it is nothing more than a conspiracy created by a “bunch of calculating fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs”. But to Gene, the clever intellectual one, it is more real; in fact, he describes it as his defining moment and 15 years on claims he still “instinctively lives and thinks in its atmosphere”.

Wise and knowing

A Separate Peace is a beautifully wise and knowing book. There’s no driving narrative to force you to keep reading save for a desire to learn what becomes of this fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys, and yet I couldn’t put it down. It encapsulates everything that is wonderful and good in 20th-century literature, coupled with an intelligence that belies its simple premise.

Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, described it as “a quietly vital and cleanly written novel that moves, page by page, toward a most interesting target” — and he is completely right.

This is a lovely gem of a novel and I’m so glad to have discovered it via Trevor’s blog.