Six Degrees of Separation – From Yates 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 Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.

kate winslet in RR

It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…

enigma 2

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

enigma 1

The WW2 setting reminded me of…


Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!


And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…

the birds

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

That story is called The Apple Tree, which made me think of…

the color master

The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskinOne of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…

the shapeshifters

Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914


Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…

the voices beyond

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Stalin poster

* * * * *

So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock,  apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

the shapeshiftersWeirdly wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…

In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Stefan Spjut
Stefan Spjut

There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.

If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 58…

Episode 58


I’m traumatised to report that, because of the addition of my selections for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, the TBR has leapt up to a dramatic 148 – the highest figure since measurements began! I’m further traumatised by the fact that I have no fewer than 18 books for review over the next three months, that I gaily didn’t include in my 20 list. What do you think my chances are of reading 38 books, reviewing them and watching Wimbledon between now and 4th September?


Oh well… here’s a few I’ll get to some time…



being nixonCourtesy of NetGalley. All I know about Nixon is Watergate, and I’m still not totally clear what that was all about! So time to find out more…

The Blurb says The New York Times bestselling author of Ike’s Bluff and Sea of Thunder brings new life to one of American history’s most infamous, paradoxical, and enigmatic politicians: Richard Nixon. Dispensing with myths to achieve an intimate and evenhanded look at the actual man, Evan Thomas delivers the best single-volume biography of Nixon to date, a radical, unique portrait of a complicated figure who was both determinedly optimistic and tragically flawed.

What drove a painfully shy outcast in elite Washington society—a man so self-conscious he refused to make eye contact during meetings—to pursue power and public office? How did a president so attuned to the American political id that he won reelection in a historic landslide lack the self-awareness to recognize the gaping character flaws that would drive him from office and forever taint his legacy?

In Being Nixon, Evan Thomas peels away the layers of the complex, confounding figure who became America’s thirty-seventh president.

 * * * * *



the shapeshiftersCourtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m classifying this as fiction, but frankly that’s only because I don’t have a category for weird. Hoping it’s weirdly wonderful though… it seems to be dividing reviewers.

The Blurb says Summer 1978. A young boy disappears without a trace from a summer cabin. His mother claims that he was carried away by a giant. He is never found.

Twenty-five years later, another child goes missing. This time there’s a lead, a single photograph taken by Susso Myren. She has devoted her life to the search for trolls, legendary giants known as stallo who can control human thoughts and assume animal form. Convinced that trolls are real, she follows the trail of missing children to northern Sweden. But humans, some part stallo themselves, have been watching over the creatures for generations, and this hidden society of protectors won’t hesitate to close its deadly ranks.

Mixing folklore and history, suspense and the supernatural, The Shapeshifters is an extraordinary journey into a frozen land where myth bleeds into reality.

* * * * *



bitter fruitsCourtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure why I requested this one – I have a sneaking feeling I just liked the cover. But it sounds like an interesting debut…

The Blurb says “Detective Inspector Erica Martin’s first case in the university city of Durham is Emily Brabents, a first-year student, who is found dead in the river.

DI Martin visits Joyce College, a cradle for the country’s future elite, and finds a close-knit community full of secrets, jealousy and obsession.

Her search reveals a vicious online trolling culture but could Emily, from the privileged and popular crowd, have been a victim? Should the sudden confession to the murder by the student president be believed?

And just who is the mysterious Daniel Shepherd whose name keeps appearing in the investigation…?

* * * * *



the voices beyondCourtesy of NetGalley. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Oland Quartet – I haven’t read the other three, but I get the impression they can be read as standalones – linked by setting rather than plot. We shall see…

The Blurb saysSummer on the beautiful Swedish island of Öland. Visitors arrive in their thousands, ready to enjoy the calm and relaxation of this paradise. Amongst them is Jonas Kloss, excited at the prospect of staying with his aunt, uncle and older cousins. But it is not as he had hoped. One night he takes a boat out onto the moonlit sea. A ship looms out of the darkness and the horror he finds on board is unimaginable.

Fleeing for his life, Jonas arrives at the door of an elderly islander, Gerlof Davidsson. Once Gerlof has heard his tale of dead sailors and axe-wielding madmen, he realizes that this will be a summer like none other Öland has ever seen.

For one man – the Homecomer – this is a very special journey. He seeks revenge that he’s waited a lifetime to exact…

* * * * *


NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?