6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to ‘You Belong Here’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, 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.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoë Heller (2003)

This is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog. I read it in one sitting and described it as a “cracking read”. Essentially it’s two intertwined stories about two very different relationships: the secret and scandalous love affair between a teacher, Sheba, and her 15-year-old pupil; and the developing friendship between Sheba and her confidante, Barbara, a history teacher at the same school.

The Best Kind of People

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall (2016)

Another novel about sexual misconduct at a school, this one was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2016. The book explores the outfall on three members of a family, whose patriarch, George Woodbury, a popular science teacher, is accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip.

‘Vladímír’ by ulia May Jonas (2022)

This is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier. But the narrator has her own sexual picaddilloes and develops an obsession with  a new male colleague, Vladímír, which highlights timely issues about power and consent.

‘Stoner’ by John Williams (1965)

Another campus novel, Stoner charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later, covering his career, which becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor as time goes on, and a loveless marriage that falls apart.

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin (2008)

Marriage between a young academic couple forms the major focus of this compelling novel which covers a 15-year-period, from the pair’s college courtship to the onset of middle-age. It’s essentially a novel about domesticity, and how easily we fall into it, but it’s also a story about friendship and how  life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad (2012)

Another portrait of a marriage, Everybody has Everything is about what happens when a happily married couple — a high-flying corporate lawyer and an out-of-work documentary filmmaker — have parenthood unexpectedly thrust upon them when a friend’s toddler is left in their care. The tensions come to the fore because one is ambivalent about parenthood while the other embraces it with enthusiaism.

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed (2018)

The long-lasting impact that parents can have on their children forms the hub of this brilliantly written novel, which spans more than 40 years. It tells the story of Jen and Steven who meet as teenagers, marry young and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the impact the divorce has on their three children who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student to a novel that explores the long-lasting impact of a divorce on three children well into adulthood, via stories about sex scandals on campus, academic life and marriages under stress. 

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, 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.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Wintering’ to ‘Dirty Tricks’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI’m not sure where June went (I’m still trying to figure out what happened to May) and so this month’s Six Degrees of Separation — a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest —  caught me a little unawares. But at least I remembered: last month it completely passed me by! (Did anyone notice?)

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Wintering’ by Katherine May (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but now having looked it up online I can see why: it holds absolutely no appeal to me. It supposedly “offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat” via “a moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world”. So, given this isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, it makes it difficult to know what to link it to, so I’m going for a seasonal theme and choosing…

Minds of Winter

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin (2016)

This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps over two centuries and is jam-packed with everything you would ever want to know about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. It also interleaves a modern-day storyline about the “Arnold 294” chronometer, an important marine timepiece, thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic. However, when it reappeared in Britain 150 years later disguised as a Victorian carriage clock people began to wonder when and how it had been returned…

Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan (2008)

Sir John Franklin appears in this historical novel about a young Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was “adopted” by the Franklins in Tasmania as a kind of experiment to prove that the “savage” could be “tamed”.  Sir John was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843 before he went on his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage. Charles Dickens, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration, is also another real life character in this novel.

‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’ great-granddaughter, and this comic novel — one of my favourites — is largely based on her time as a journalist working on an English provincial newspaper in the years after the Second World War. It reads very much like the diary of a young reporter learning the ropes and is filled with hilarious moments as Poppy tries to convince her editor that women are not a nuisance in the office. Poppy’s experience living in a boarding house ruled by a strict take-no-prisoners landlady is also very funny.

‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)

Life in a boarding house features strongly in this blackly comic novel by Muriel Spark. The story focuses on a forthright young woman who works for a struggling book publisher. She deeply offends a purple-prosed author by calling him out on his bad writing and from there, things escalate into farce.

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Bad behaviour is the central focus of this novel, another black comedy, in which Matt, a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman, loses his grip on reality. While he’s obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. The author scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michaele Dibdin (1999)

A troubled character who is also unreliable and unscrupulous stars in this wickedly funny novel. The unnamed narrator justifies his behaviour in outlandish ways. Initially, it’s easy to pity him but as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. He not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, but he is also so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath. His behaviour is so bad that the book is laugh-out-loud funny!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a self-help book about self-care to a black comedy about a psychopath, via novels about polar exploration, taming a “savage” in Tasmania in the 19th century, being a woman reporter on a provincial newspaper in the 1940s, life in a 1950s London boarding house and bad behaviour by a businessman in the 2000s.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ to ‘Rememberings’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeTime to get my linking hat on!

Yes, it’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I’m feeling a bit brain dead at the moment (I started a new job three weeks ago and my bandwidth is operating at full capacity), so I am going to try to keep this short and sweet: here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey (2000)

I have a love-hate relationship with Peter Carey and this is one of those novels that falls into the latter camp. In my pre-blogging days, I had a hardback copy of True History and tried to read it several times but always became unstuck by about page 50, so abandoned it and never went back. I was a much younger, less experienced reader then, so I reckon I would probably get on with it quite well now. I do, at some stage, plan to give it another go, especially as it was recently featured in the Australian TV series The Books that Made Us.

All that aside, given True History is about a bushranger — the notorious Ned Kelly — my first link is…

The Burial by Courtney Collins

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War.

Another featuring castle rustling is…

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller (2014)

In this novel, a simple, uneducated man joins the police in outback Queensland in the 1950s. His job makes use of his exemplary horsemanship to help track thieves and stolen stock. But his easygoing nature is tested to the limits when a new boss from the city changes the whole way the local community is policed.

Another story about rural policing is…

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher (2013)

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

Another book featuring a single-officer police station is…

A Border Station

‘A Border Station’ by Shane Connaugton (1989)

This is a beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s that follows the day-to-day dramas of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland in a remote house attached to a police barracks, where his father — a fierce, bad-tempered police sergeant — is the only employee.

Another book about the son of a policeman is…

‘Memoir’ by John McGahern (2005)

The late John McGahern is arguably one of Ireland’s greatest writers. He was the eldest son of a policeman, with whom he had a troubled relationship. This memoir concentrates mainly on his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s and reads very much like a love letter to his adored mother, a school teacher, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old.

Another memoir by an Irish writer, albeit of songs, is…

‘Rememberings’ by Sinead O’Connor (2021)

Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor has had a troubled history, both with the public and her own family, and this memoir is a beautifully written account of her side of the story. It’s funny, irreverent, unflinchingly honest and powerful — a bit like the woman herself.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a notorious Irishman to a memoir about a notorious Irishwoman, via books about a female bushranger, rural policing and being the son of a garda sergeant.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

Without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. Oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair regard themselves as travellers, not tourists, but for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The End of the Affair’ to ‘Your Voice in my Head’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s been a couple of months since I participated in Six Degrees of Separation^. It always seems to sneak up on me and then I lose the energy or inclination to take part. I’ve been feeling decidedly lacklustre of late and this week I discovered why: I am anemic and my Vitamin D levels are low. So on to the high-dose supplements, under my GP’s supervision, we go — and after a few days’ dosage, I’m already feeling better (although I know it’s going to take months to get my iron levels up).

But anyway, on with the show! As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene (1951)

This dark but compelling tale is about a doomed love affair that takes place in 1940s war-torn London. Maurice Bendrix, a successful writer, falls for Sarah Miles, the wife of a dreary civil servant with whom he has struck up a business relationship. For five years Maurice and Sarah conduct an illicit, passionate affair until Sarah calls it off without warning or explanation.

Another book about a love affair during the Second World War is…

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H.E. Bates (1944)

I always describe this novel as the loveliest book about war you will ever read. It tells the story of a Royal Airforce pilot who crash lands in Occupied France, together with his crew of four, and is nursed back to health by a young woman with whom he falls in love. It’s not a sappy romance, though, for there are dangers lurking everywhere — can the woman and her family be trusted not to betray them to the Germans, for instance — and the pilot is caught in a heart-breaking dliemma: should he stay or should he go?

Another book about forbidden love in France is…

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson (2019)

This modern romance is about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s. Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

Another book about gay love in prejudiced times is…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)

Published after the author’s death, this novel is supposedly a thinly veiled memoir based on his first-hand experience keeping his homosexuality secret. Set largely in Sydney, the book explores what it is like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your real self from the world. It is a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment.

Another novel with similar themes is…

The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick

‘The Waking of Willie Ryan’ by John Broderick (1963)

This story — of a man who escapes an asylum in rural Ireland to confront the people who put him there — is a damning indictment of how easy it once was to remove troublesome people from society by merely labelling them “insane”. Willie is not insane and probably never has been. But he has dark secrets, about his childhood, about his love for another man, about the real reason he was incarcerated in a mental institution all those years ago.

Another book about escaping from a psychiatric unit is…

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett (2021)

In this evocative memoir, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules. Everett has spent much of her adult life in and out of psychiatric institutions. Her story shows the devastating impact of mental illness on one person’s life, but despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with hope and optimism.

Another memoir about a woman struggling with mental illness is…

‘Your Voice in my Head’ by Emma Forrest (2012)

Emma Forrest was a successful young music journalist when she tried to take her own life. She developed a close relationship with her therapist, but when he died unexpectedly (of lung cancer) she was left distraught. This memoir is not only an unflinchingly honest account of her psychiatric problems, it’s an insightful look at grief and what it is like when a patient loses someone they trust and rely upon. Oh, and it’s also about a doomed love affair — with the Irish actor Colin Farrell who is referred to as GH (which stands for Gypsy Husband) throughout.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a doomed love affair to a memoir about a doomed love affair, via tales of forbidden love and a memoir about life on a psychiatric unit.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

^ Check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate). I don’t generally participate in memes (they always feel like “filler” content to me), but I do like this one because it lets me explore my archive and share reviews of books that have been hidden away for a long time.

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton (1911)

I read this one back in the day I worked in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore (1990-94), then the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere (or so we were told at the time), hence there’s no review on this blog. It was around the time the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out (all the staff went to a preview screening so that we could then push sales of the book). I read the book and enjoyed it so much I thought I would try something else by Edith Wharton and so that’s how I came to read Ethan Frome, which I loved. It’s a heartbreaking read about a man with a limp and how he came to acquire it under bittersweet circumstances.

‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator, Philip Carey, has a limp because he was born with a club foot. The story charts his life from the age of 9 when his mother dies and he is sent away to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a vicarage in the countryside. This, too, is another heartbreaking read, because Philip spends so much of his adult life struggling to just get by despite being sensitive and intelligent. I adored this book and found it so affecting I never wrote a review of it, but the thing that stuck in my head so much was how brutal life was for those in poverty when there was no welfare state to offer assistance of any kind.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarenmbga (2021)

A story about a woman fallen on hard times, this is another deeply affecting read that shows what happens when someone falls into poverty but is unable to rise above it despite having a university education and a lot of potential. I read this one last year and still occasionally think about it. There are two more novels in the trilogy which I plan on reading at some point…

Soviet Milk

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)

Another story about thwarted potential, this novella is set in Latvia when it is under Soviet rule. It shows the impact of an oppressive political regime on an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and their intellectual freedom. The story also looks at the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux (1988)

Damaged mother-daughter bonds are explored in this brutally honest memoir, which became a bestseller in France upon publication in 1988.  Ernaux not only examines the fraught relationship she had with her mother, but she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney (2019)

This collection of 12 essays explore the ways in which an entire family can be impacted when a loved one has Alzheimer’s — in this case, it was the author’s paternal grandfather. There are common themes throughout the essays — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Constellations book cover

‘Constellations’ by Sinéad Gleeson (2019)

This is another essay collection revolving around a personal response to illness. It includes highly personal accounts of issues and events the author has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors. It’s a hugely readable collection themed around the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a tragic accident that leaves a man with a lifelong disability to an essay collection about illness, via stories about poverty, thwarted potential and Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of Separation: From ‘What are you Going Through’ to ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez (2021)

At last! A starting book for Six Degrees that I have actually read! According to the blurb, this is a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that. This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain…

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

Set in the Edwardian era, this novel explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples who meet every year at a German spa resort. But one of the men, the “good soldier” of the title, likes much younger women and takes several mistresses, while his wife turns a blind eye.

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh (2015)

This is not a story about adultery; my link is a bit more obvious — it’s simply another book with “good” in the title! It’s a coming-of-age story set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and is narrated by a schoolboy who’s a smart kid with big dreams. When he gets caught up in events bigger than himself, he must act as the good son to save his family. It’s a really touching tale.

‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston (1977)

The only novel by Jennifer Johnston to be nominated for the Booker Prize, this is another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

‘The Temple House Vanishing’ by Rachel Donohue (2020)

A friendship between a teacher and student is key to the brooding mystery in this deeply atmospheric Irish novel published last year. The narrative swings backwards and forwards between the present day and the early 1990s as a journalist investigates the disappearance of a schoolgirl and her charismatic art teacher from an exclusive Irish boarding school 25 years earlier.

‘The Everlasting Sunday’ by Robert Lukins (2018)

Here’s yet another atmospheric tale set in a school in days gone by. It’s about a teenage boy banished to a reform school — based in a Shropshire manor house — because he has been “found by trouble”. Here he meets a cohort of similarly troubled boys, alliances are formed and tensions rise, culminating in a shocking denouement. Thanks to the setting — the UK’s notorious “big freeze” of 1962/63 — this book is chilling in more ways than one.

Travelling in a strange land

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park (2018)

A “big freeze” also features in this novel which is set during a severe winter snowstorm. Wedding photographer Tom drives across the UK in treacherous conditions to rescue his son stranded in student lodgings. But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels. It’s a beautiful, eloquent, emotional read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about euthanasia to one about a parent’s bereavement, via tales about misbehaving men, young boys caught up in The Troubles, a Gothic mystery set in a boarding school and another one set in a reform school.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of Separation: From ‘The Lottery’ to ‘The South’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson (1948)

In this short story, which you can read online at the New Yorker magazine, a lottery is staged in a small village every year. The “prize”, which is totally shocking, is revealed right at the end. It will give you the chills…

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Another book that will give you the chills is Jackson’s last novel (she died in 1965). We have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously creepy tale about two sisters living in a secluded Gothic mansion with their uncle. The people of the nearest village, where they do their shopping, treat them with scorn and it’s clear they are hated. But why? Well, it’s something to do with poison… (you’ll need to read the book to find out more).

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda (2020)

Poison features in this complex murder mystery from Japan in which 17 members of the same family die after they consume a toxic drink at a celebratory party. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? Again, you need to read the book to find out — although there are no neatly drawn conclusions.

In the woods by Tana Frence

‘In the Woods’ by Tana French (2008)

There are no neatly drawn conclusions in Tana French’s debut crime novel about a policeman with a secret past. When detective Rob Ryan was a young boy he was found clinging to a tree in the local woods, his shoes filled with blood, and the two friends he had been playing with are nowhere to be seen. Now, 20 years on, that event comes rushing back when a 12-year-old girl’s body is found in the same woods.

‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien (2002)

Another Irish murder mystery set in the woods is this controversial novel by Edna O’Brien. Based on a real life triple murder, it is a dark and brooding book. One of the victims had set up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest to concentrate on her art, unaware that there was a disturbed man living wild nearby…

‘A Line Made by Walking’ by Sara Baume (2018)

Another tale about a woman who moves to a remote house to concentrate on her art is this intriguing novel by Irish writer Sara Baume. It turns out that the young female narrator is having a kind of break down and while she’s living in the house under the guise of looking after it for her late grandmother, she is, essentially, running away from her problems.

‘The South’ by Colm Toíbín (1990)

Running away to focus on art is the central theme in Tobin’s debut novel, which is set partly in Ireland and partly in Spain in the 1950s and 60s. It’s a beautiful, languid story, which looks at history, memory, violence and trauma. I would easily add this novel to my Top 10 of all time, I adored it that much.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a creepy Gothic novel about outsiders to a luminous literary novel about art via tales about poisonings, childhood disappearances, murder and creativity in the countryside.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Second Place’ to ‘Tarry Flynn’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month the starting book is…

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021)

Now, I don’t think it’s a secret, but I do not get on with Ms Cusk, having read two of her books in the past, so no surprise that I haven’t read this one and have no interest in doing so, Booker prize-listing or not. I understand it’s a novel about art, so I am going to link to…

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

This wonderfully inventive Australian novella is about Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, one of the most expensive paintings ever acquired by the Australian Government, and is narrated by the painting itself. I told you it was inventive!

Another book about art (and with ‘blue’ in the title) is…

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville (2015)

This rather witty story is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife. It’s told from Oliver’s point of view and written in a deliciously pompous voice by a middle-aged man who has a penchant for petty thievery.

Another story about a badly behaved man carrying out an affair is…

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins (1968)

In this classic Scottish novel, a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer. He runs off with his lover and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. It sounds grim, but it’s actually quite witty — and the reader knows from the start that the man is a total cad and not deserving of our sympathy.

Another novel about a cad is…

‘The Ginger Man’ by JP Donleavy (1955)

In this classic Irish novel set in Dublin, we meet Sebastian Dangerfield, a shameless boozer and womaniser, who misbehaves at every opportunity even though he has a wife and infant child at home. He is the kind of character a reader loves to hate. It’s an enormously fun, if occasionally shocking and ribald, read. It was banned in Ireland for many years.

Another book banned by the Irish Censorship Board is…

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

This gripping novel set in the 1950s is about a fine upstanding church-going woman who has a secret life: she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and has an affair with her husband’s young nephew. It’s a very dark book, one that explores what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality.

Another book that revolves around the Catholic Church’s control of every aspect of Irish life…

Tarry Flynn

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)

This is actually a rather charming and often hilarious story about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s and the pressure he feels to get married and settle down when he’s really not that interested. The local priest, on the other hand, is so worried that the rural area in which the story is set is “in danger of boiling over in wild orgies of lust” that he organises a special Mission to warn parishioners about the sin of sex outside of marriage. But the Mission attracts lots of young women, of marriageable age, so the priest’s plan kind of backfires…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a literary novel about art to a gentle comedy about an Irish farmer via tales about affairs, men behaving badly and Holy Catholic Ireland.

Have you read any of these books? 

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