Six Degrees of Separation – From O’Farrell to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. This month’s starting book is…

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

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.

All the glowing reviews of this have tempted me to read it, but I believe it’s present tense (ugh!) and for some unaccountable and pretentious reason O’Farrell has chosen to refer to Anne Hathaway as Agnes, which would irritate me profoundly every time she was mentioned. In my first choice of books, she’s Anne…

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan. Shakespeare may get the title billing, and I loved his story as imagined by Morgan, but for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. Will says:

‘You made Will Shakespeare, Anne. And without you there wouldn’t be a life, but the unformed shape of one, never to be.’ 

And such is Jude Morgan’s skill that this reader believed this completely.

Morgan introduces us to Shakespeare’s theatre friends and rivals, including Kit Marlowe, who stars in my next choice…

Crimson Rose by MJ Trow. It’s the opening night of Marlowe’s new play Tamburlaine Part 2 at the Rose Theatre and everyone is expecting it to be spectacular, especially the bit where they shoot the Governor. But as the guns go off, screams are heard from the audience and a woman falls dead, shot through the neck. This is a clever and funny mystery where Shakespeare is shown as a kind of hick just up from the country, while Marlowe is a 16th century James Bond. Great fun, especially the interactions among the theatre company.

More theatrical fun in my third book…

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. I adore the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon…?

.‘May I ask how old she is?’ inquired Nicholas.
….‘You may, sir,’ replied Mr Crummles, looking steadily in his questioner’s face, as some men do when they have doubts about being implicitly believed in what they are going to say. ‘She is ten years of age, sir.’
….‘Not more!’
….‘Not a day.’
….‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas, ‘it’s extraordinary.’
….It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age–not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the infant phenomenon these additional phenomena.

Moving away from fiction but staying with Dickens and the stage takes me to…

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow. A superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Simon Callow as Dickens

Simon Callow has often performed as Dickens, and he also appeared in the film Shakespeare In Love, set during the period when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. My next choice is set in that same period, though that’s where the resemblance ends!

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell. A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. This is a light-hearted historical mystery, which may not be one for purists but gives a great depiction of how theatre operated in Shakespeare’s day.

Shakespeare wrote some pretty good plays, but I feel his main claim to fame is as the creator of the fretful porpentine, our very own star of Tuesday Terror! The porpy, who rather neatly comes from Hamlet, also turns up in my last book…

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse. With sundered hearts all over the place, drunken uncles dressed in Sindbad costumes and pestilential Boy Scouts to deal with, it’s surprising that Bertie and Jeeves have time for a little literary discussion…

….Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

* * * * *

So from O’Farrell to Wodehouse via Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, theatricals, Dickens, Simon Callow, and the fretful porpentine.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

Knotted locks and knitted socks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bertie isn’t keen on visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, home to Aunt Agatha, the most terrifying of his aunts. But Jeeves is keen to do a spot of fishing and Uncle Percy needs Jeeves’ help in finding a way to pull off a big business deal, so Bertie gives in gracefully. After all, Aunt Agatha is off elsewhere on a visit, ex-fiancée Florence Craye can be no threat to his bachelorhood now that she’s engaged to D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and while his young cousin Edwin is always a pestilence, how much harm could one Boy Scout possibly do? But when Florence and Stilton fall out over Stilton’s insistence on being the village policeman and Edwin burns down Bertie’s cottage whilst doing his daily act of kindness, things take a sinister turn. Meantime Uncle Percy is refusing to allow his ward Nobby Hopwood to marry the light of her life, Boko Fittleworth. Even for Jeeves, it will be a tall order to set everything right…

….Florence was obviously in the grip of some powerful emotion. She quivered gently, as if in the early stages of palsy, and her face, as far as I could gather from the sketchy view I was able to obtain of it, was pale and set, like the white of a hard-boiled egg.
….“D’Arcy Cheesewright,” she said, getting right off the mark without so much as a preliminary ‘What ho, there’, “is an obstinate, mulish, pig-headed, overbearing, unimaginative, tyrannical jack-in-office!”
….Her words froze me to the core. I was conscious of a sense of frightful peril. Owing to young Edwin’s infernal officiousness, this pancake had been in receipt only a few hours earlier of a handsome diamond brooch, ostensibly a present from Bertram W., and now, right on top of it, she had had a falling out with Stilton, so substantial that it took her six distinct adjectives to describe him. When a girl uses six derogatory adjectives in her attempt to paint the portrait of the loved one, it means something. One may indicate a merely temporary tiff. Six is big stuff.

All the Jeeves and Wooster books have fundamentally the same plot, which is part of their charm but doesn’t make it easy to find new things to say in reviews! This is a particular favourite of mine, partly because I like Florence as one of Bertie’s recurring girlfriends – she’s not as drippy as Madeline nor as haughty as Honoria, and I often felt she would have been a serious contender in the matrimonial stakes had it not been for her desire to improve poor Bertie’s mind by forcing him to read highbrow literature. Bertie, as we know, prefers to relax with the latest murder mystery. Edwin and his acts of kindness bring trauma and despair to all his unwilling victims and much hilarity to the reader.

….“Oh, hullo, Bertie” he said, grinning all over his loathsome face.
….“Hullo, you frightful young squirt,” I responded civilly. “What are you doing here?”
….“Tidying up.”
….I touched on a point of absorbing interest.
….“Was it you who left that bally pail there?”
….“Where?”
….“In the middle of the hall.”
….“Coo! Yes, I remember now. I put it there to be out of the way.”
….“I see. Well, you’ll be amused to learn that I’ve nearly broken my leg.”
….He started. A fanatic gleam came into his eyes. He looked like a boy confronted with an unexpected saucer of ice cream.
….“I say! Have you really? This is a bit of bunce. I can give you first aid.”

The other thing I love is that this is the one in which Shakespeare’s fretful porpentine is a running joke. Some of you may have been fooled by my occasional use of quotes from Shakespeare, the great poets and even the Bible into thinking I am widely read and deeply intellectual. Not so! Almost every quote I know came to me via Bertie Wooster, and I’m pretty sure the fretful porpentine and I first met here…

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books. His Bertie is Bertie, and he’s brilliant at creating appropriate voices and personas for the whole cast of characters. In this one, there’s a fabulous scene where Uncle Percy gets riotously drunk and Cecil’s performance had me chuckling and guffawing all the way through. If you need a bit of joy in the morning, the evening or any other time, I heartily recommend this and the other Jeeves audiobooks. Forget the pasta and toilet roll – stockpile these in preparation for your social distancing. What better company could you possibly have?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
….Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.
….But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check.

~The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

* * * * *

….Mrs. Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs. Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving. Her dresses were severe and tubular. She wore them with the air of a prison wardress. If Sam’s theatrical guests, in a general sense, be looked upon as Royalists, then Mrs. Dreed was without question the Roundhead in their midst.

~Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude

* * * * *

….The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers and trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Julián Marías, a disciple of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Marías said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.’

~The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

* * * * *

….His wife replied very emotionally, “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls.”
….He struck his hands together and shouted at her, “Not so fast…. Slow down. Do you think I have any doubts about that, woman? If I did, not even murder would satisfy me. I’m just talking about what will go through the minds of some people who don’t know us. ‘No man has ever seen either of my daughters…’ God’s will be done. Would you have wanted a man to see them? What a crazy prattler you are. I’m repeating what might be rumoured by fools. Yes… he’s an officer in the area. He walks along our streets morning and evening. So it’s not out of the question that people, if they learned he was marrying one of the girls, would suspect that he might have seen one of them. I would despise giving my daughter to someone if that meant stirring up doubts about my honour. No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me… me… me… me…”

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

* * * * *

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

~Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

* * * * *

So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 229…

Episode 229

The relentless horror of the TBR continues to grow – up FIVE again, to 218. In my defence (I feel I use that phrase a lot these days…), three of them are unsolicited ones I received from publishers, all of which look interesting, so really, it’s not (all) my fault! I may have to put all the challenges to one side and have a month of reading review copies only to catch up.

Here are a few that should be exercising my brain soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

We had a runaway winner in last week’s poll, gaining nearly half of all votes cast! And it seems the appropriate choice since it’s the oldest on my TBR. Serena was the runner-up, closely followed by Bloodstream, with poor old JK Rowling trailing in well behind the rest of the field. Thanks to everyone who voted – I shall be reading and reviewing this one by the end of May…

The Blurb says: From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Death in White Pyjamas & Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Courtesy of the British Library. A twofer! I’ve quite enjoyed the couple of John Budes I’ve read previously although he hasn’t so far become one of the stars of the BL collection for me. But he has two chances to convince me in this new volume… they both sound good! And such a great cover again…

The Blurb says: Two of John Bude’s finest Golden Age mysteries return to the limelight.

Death in White Pyjamas: A theatre-owner, a ‘slightly sinister’ producer, a burgeoning playwright and a cast of ego-driven actors have gathered at a country home to read through the promising script for Pigs in Porcelain. Before the production ever reaches the stage, one of their number is found murdered in the grounds wearing what mysteriously seems to be somebody else’s white pyjamas. Enter Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane to unravel this curious plot.

Death Knows No Calendar: Investigating a deadly shooting with no shooter in a locked artist’s studio, detective fiction enthusiast Major Tom Boddy has a long day ahead of him. With four colourful suspects to scrutinise, and not one but two ‘impossible’ elements of the crime to solve, this extremely rare and thoroughly entertaining mystery is long overdue its return to print. 

* * * * *

Historical Fiction/Folklore

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Courtesy of riverrun at Quercus via NetGalley. Sounds utterly weird and way out of my comfort zone, but I adored Kehlmann’s F: A Novel and suspect if anyone can pull this off, he can…

The Blurb says: He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!

In a village like every other village in Germany, a scrawny boy balances on a rope between two trees. He’s practising. He practises by the mill, by the blacksmiths; he practises in the forest at night, where the Cold Woman whispers and goblins roam. When he comes out, he will never be the same.

Tyll will escape the ordinary villages. In the mines he will defy death. On the battlefield he will run faster than cannonballs. In the courts he will trick the heads of state. As a travelling entertainer, his journey will take him across the land and into the heart of a never-ending war.

A prince’s doomed acceptance of the Bohemian throne has European armies lurching brutally for dominion and now the Winter King casts a sunless pall. Between the quests of fat counts, witch-hunters and scheming queens, Tyll dances his mocking fugue; exposing the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools.

With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time.

* * * * *

Wodehouse on Audio

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

Time to top up my happiness quotient with a little trip to Wodehouse world in the company of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and the perfect narrator for these stories, Jonathan Cecil. I’ve already started listening to this and am remembering the reason the word “guffaw” was invented…  

The Blurb says: Trapped in rural Steeple Bumpleigh, a man less stalwart than Bertie Wooster would probably give way at the knees.

For among those present were Florence Craye, to whom Bertie had once been engaged and her new fiance ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright, who sees Bertie as a snake in the grass. And that biggest blot on the landscape, Edwin the Boy Scout, who is busy doing acts of kindness out of sheer malevolence.

All Bertie’s forebodings are fully justified. For in his efforts to oil the wheels of commerce, promote the course of true love and avoid the consequences of a vendetta, he becomes the prey of all and sundry. In fact only Jeeves can save him…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?