Tag Archives: The Arsonist

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Arsonist to Ghost Moth

Back from lovely Lille – more of which later in the week – and it’s time for my favourite meme. Six Degrees of Separation is 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.

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This month we’re starting with Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist which I haven’t read but which I know from Kate’s review is about an appalling conflagration which took place in Australia in 2009 and the man who set some of the fires which contributed to it.

For obvious reasons my first link is to Sue Miller’s The Arsonist about the burning down of summer houses in a small New Hampshire town.

One of the characters in Miller’s novel is called Frankie which leads me to Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie whose main protagonist flees South Africa’s apartheid regime in the ‘60s to live in the UK.

South Africa shares a border with Zimbabwe, the setting for Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory in which the eponymous narrator tells her story from death row, imprisoned for the murder of the white man she’s been living with since she was nine.

Edgeworth Bess shares a similar predicament, telling her story via Billy Archer as she awaits sentencing for the possession of stolen goods in The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of eighteenth-century thieves and whores.

In Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree a girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meet a boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties.

Emily Woof is an actor, a profession she shares with Michèle Forbes who wrote Ghost Moth, set in Northern Ireland, which tells the story of a marriage in alternating narratives, twenty years apart.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an investigation of a devastating fire in Australia to a Northern Irish love story, and this time I’ve read all but our starting point. 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.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2015

I am ChinaNot as spoilt for choice as I’d expected for August paperbacks but there are some excellent treats to look forward to including Xiaolu Guo’s ambitious, Baileys Prize longlisted I Am China, a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present. Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. Gulou’s novel takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

As does Michel Faber’s compelling and unusual The Book of Strange New Things set on a different planet from our own. It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. The knowledge that Faber had written this novel while his wife was dying put the whole thing into a different perspective for me.

Sue Miller writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in the case of The Arsonist it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy. A Cover imagethoroughly enjoyable novel from a writer of reliably good emotionally intelligent fiction.

I’ve not read or reviewed the following three novels but I like the sound of all of them particularly Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad in which a widow moves from her rural home to her daughter’s in Budapest. Iza can’t get the hang of how things are done in the metropolis nor find a way to fit into the life of the daughter she’s never really known. The publisher’s blurb tells us it’s about ‘the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime’ which sounds interesting territory to explore to me.

As does that of Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen which sees a seventy-one-year old serial killer finally awaiting trial interrogated by a low-ranking officer in the sheriff’s department who is trying to extract details of Gload’s many murders. Valentine Millimaki has drawn the short straw – the overnight shift – putting yet more strain on his troubled marriage. An oddly intimate connection springs up between this disparate pair. According to the publisher’s blurb things take ‘a startling turn with a brazen act of violence, a manhunt, and a stunning revelation that leave Gload’s past and Millimaki’s future forever entwined’. Not the kind of billing that’s usually up my alley but this sounds quite riveting.

Cover imageMy last choice, Jamie Kornegay’s Soil,  is also set in small-town USA with an environmental scientist turning to farming in the Mississippi hills. Within a year it all goes to pot when a corpse appears on his family’s property. With his marriage in tatters and convinced he’s been framed, the farmer finds himself caught up in maelstrom of deception and obsession. The blurb describes it as ‘The Coen Brothers meet Crime and Punishment – with a Mississippi twist’ which is enough to get anybody’s attention. We’ll see.

That’s it for August. I’ve reviewed the first three but a click on any of the last three titles will take you to Waterstone’s website if you want a more detailed synopsis. And if you fancy catching up with my August hardback choices here they are. This is my last post for a couple of weeks – H and I are off to explore the Baltic states. No doubt a few books will be read along the way.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller: Reliably good, emotionally intelligent fiction

Cover imageIt’s a little while since I’ve read a Sue Miller novel. She’s an author that I’ve stayed with for many years, starting with The Good Father published way back in 1986. She writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in this case it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy.

Frankie has come back to the family holiday house she feels most at home in, fresh from her latest stint working as an NGO health worker in Kenya. She’s not sure if she will return – her habitual affairs with unavailable men, her doubts about the usefulness of her work and her reasons for doing it have left her unsure of her next move. Her parents have recently retired, planning to live full-time in Pomeroy after what is for Sylvia a lifetime of summers spent there. Frankie notices changes in her father, small absences and confusions that can at first be overlooked but eventually must be faced. At the annual July 4th tea party she meets Bud, the owner of the local newspaper and a newcomer to Pomeroy having left his rootless Washington newspaper days behind. Gradually the attraction between them grows advancing with all the caution of two middle-aged people, wise and a little bruised by experience. All this set against a backdrop of holiday homes burning down, increasing anxiety about arson attacks and the burgeoning tensions between the summer people and the locals.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Miller is her subtlety. In my magazine editor days I remember reading a Jodi Picoult after which I felt as if I’d been bludgeoned with whatever ‘issue’ that particular novel was about. Picoult’s novels are cleverly written and highly addictive but subtlety is not her strong suit. Miller, on the other hand, has got it nailed – she unflinchingly deals with the hard truths and difficult choices that lie beneath the surface of all our lives within a framework of nuanced, seemingly effortless storytelling. Frankie’s struggle with the tensions between what is clearly more than a passing fancy for Bud and her need for work which she will not find within the confines of Pomeroy, the complexities of Sylvia’s marriage and her mixed emotions at what Alfie’s dementia will mean for her and Bud’s wariness about becoming too involved with a woman who looks set for flight are all dealt with perceptively and sensitively. On a larger scale, the divisions between the locals, the summer people and the blow-ins, the question of class and the effects of the rich parachuting themselves every year into a community and expecting to become part of it for just a few fleeting weeks are carefully observed. Over it all hangs our need as individuals to belong somewhere or with someone no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from that need. Another thoroughly good read, then. Nothing to set the world on fire (sorry!) but one which will offer a few hours of intelligent absorption and reflection.

Do you have an author you turn to for a reliably good read? Let me know if you do. I’m always on the lookout for someone new.