Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
We’re starting this month with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t read but I remember it popping up frequently in my Twitter feed when it was published. I do know that it’s a thriller set in small town Australia.
As is Lesley Glaister’s nail-biting As Far as You Can Go which sees a British couple running a remote Australian farm after answering an advertisement. I remember being gripped by this as their letters to the outside world go unanswered and the farm’s owners’ behaviour becomes increasingly odd.
Cassie and Graham are running away from problems in Glaister’s spooky thriller as is Dylan who is escaping the bailiffs in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. The only place left to go is the caravan his mother left him in Scotland where the temperature is plummeting.
There’s a distinctly dystopian flavour to Fagan’s novel as there is to Megan’s Hunter’s strikingly poetic The End We Start From, the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.
I’m using Hunter’s name to link with Carson McCuller’s classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which tells the story of a deaf-mute whose kindly nature draws in his fellow townspeople, many lonely and unhappy.
McCuller’s celebrated debut is set in small mill town in America, down on its uppers, as is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls which is set against the backdrop of the eponymous town in the state of Maine where the manager of the local diner has a lot on his plate.
Maine is right next door to New Hampshire which leads me to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and the Berrys, the family that runs it. I’ve gone off the boil somewhat with Irving’s recent novels but this is one of his best: a showcase for his consummate storytelling skills and entertaining characters.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a hotel on the US Eastern seaboard run by an eccentric family. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.
As so often seems to be the case, part one of this preview is mostly made up of novels originating in the States but top of the list has to be one set very close to where I live in the UK, and coincidentally it’s the only one I’ve read. Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walkis the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge but with the spectre of the French Revolution looming across the channel, Diner’s plans look set to fail. Politics, both national and domestic, run through this novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Sadly, as I’m sure readers will know, this is Dunmore’s last novel. She’ll be much missed.
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is also set in a turbulent time: 2007, the year before the global financial crash. Recently arrived from Cameroon, Jende Jonga and his family have high hopes for their new life, all the more so when Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The fates of the two men’s families become closely interlinked and the Jongas begin to believe that the American Dream might be within their grasp until it becomes clear that both the Edwards family and the world of finance have distinctly rocky foundations. ‘Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way’ say the publishers. The financial crash offers fertile ground for fiction just as 9/11 did, and this sounds like an interesting take on it.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History is about another immigrant to America, this time from Yemen. As Jacob waits at a psychiatric clinic he casts his mind back over his life – from his childhood in an Egyptian whorehouse to his life as a gay man in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic – interrupted by taunts from Satan and scoldings from Death. ‘Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.
Tim Muphy’s Christodora also has the AIDS epidemic as its backdrop. The Christodora is the apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village whose inhabitants Murphy’s novel follows from the 1980s to the 2020s: ‘Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself’ as the publishers put it which sounds right up my New York city loving alley. Of course it could be a sprawling mess but I’ll certainly be trying it out. Great jacket, too.
Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut, takes us out of the city to the American South where Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.
My final choice is also set in a down-at heel-town and may well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.
That’s it for August’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles, they’re here. Part two shortly…
I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.
This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.
Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.
Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion
Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.
First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.
Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.
Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.
So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.
The first part of January’s preview roamed around the world taking in Pakistan, Poland, Estonia, Ghana and the UK – home for me. This second part has its feet firmly planted in the US, beginning with a debut which has caused quite a stir in my neck of the Twitter woods. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.
Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack is set on the other side of the continent from Little Deaths near lovely San Francisco. Jack and Milly were married in 1952, caught up in the wave of optimism that swept through post-war America. Sixty years later, having weathered infidelity and disappointment, they’re still together despite sharing little in common. In what the publishers describe as ‘a love story that tells the truth – or one or two truths – about love and marriage’ Jones’ novel charts a long relationship and the social change that has transformed Jack and Milly’s world. Sounds very appealing to me.
I first spotted Nathan Hill’s The Nix back in the summer in a Berlin bookshop. I would have bought it then had we not been at the beginning of the holiday – it’s quite a doorstop. Samuel hasn’t seen his mother since her departure from the family home when he was a child. Now she’s everywhere, accused of committing the kind of crime that captivates the media who are painting her as a radical hippie. Samuel is inveigled by his publisher into telling his mother’s story but first he needs to get his hands on the facts. In a novel which ‘moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s, to New York City during Occupy Wall Street, back to Chicago in 1968 and, finally, to wartime Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. Samuel will unexpectedly find that he has to rethink everything he ever knew about his mother – a woman with an epic story of her own, a story she has kept hidden from the world’ according to the publishers. Sounds right up my alley.
The two friends at the centre of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others would have pounced on Faye’s story with glee, I’m sure. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening become the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators also explores friendship, coincidentally in the film world. Both from the rural South and both fanatical about comics, Sharon and Mel are visual arts majors at a snobby East Coast liberal arts college. Ten years after graduation they’re living and working together in Brooklyn, doing well for themselves in a small way. Their first full-length film is based on Mel’s childhood, making the private public which inevitably has consequences. ‘Sweeping and intimate at once, the novel is an exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership. Whitaker captures the shifting dynamics between Mel and Sharon—between all the characters, really—with such precision and sharpness that it’s hard to let them go’ say the publishers which puts me in mind of Rachel B. Glaser’s wonderful Paulina & Fran.
Michael Chabon’s Moonglow ventures into that same public/private territory, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.
My final choice might well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits the down-at-heel town of North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.
That’s it for the goodie-packed January. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested and if you’d like to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…