Six Degrees of Separation – From Ishiguro to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. I’ve often been tempted to join in when I’ve come across other bloggers’ posts, so since my on-going reading slump has led to a severe shortage of reviews, now seems like a good time! 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 Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I haven’t read it, but looking at the blurb tells me it’s the story “of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England”. People who have read it frequently describe it as disturbing. It made me think of…

the children's home

Charles Lambert’s The Children’s Home. This is a book about a man living in isolation due to a horrific facial disfigurement, whose life is disrupted by the mysterious arrival of a group of children who turn up one by one as if from nowhere. In many ways the setting feels contemporary but as we learn more we discover that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850. Creepy, isn't she?
Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850.
Creepy, isn’t she?

It has the feel of a dark and corrupted fairy tale, which reminded me of…

we have always lived in the castle

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about two women living in a house where a horrific crime had been committed. The villagers are sure that the older sister, Constance, poisoned most of her family; while through Merricat, the younger sister’s, eyes we see how the women isolate themselves from the outside world. Merricat is a wonderful creation and I love how Jackson inverts the usual Gothic themes.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

The book reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the old witch tales, but seen from the perspective of the witch – I came to believe the castle may have been made of gingerbread.

grimm rackham illustrations

Which made me think of…

Pleasures of the Table

Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology edited by Christina Hardyment which contains, amongst a feast of other goodies, Emily Dickinson’s recipe for Gingerbread. This anthology is filled with excerpts and quotes from literature, poetry and recipe books, and is gorgeously illustrated from the British Library’s own collection, often the specific illustrations that accompanied the original text.

 “Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?” Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers
“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”
Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

My favourite section was Childish Things, which included an excerpt from the picnic in…

the wind in the willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This is a book I have always loved and return to regularly. It’s not for the story of Mr Toad of Toad Hall that I love it, fun though that is. The chapters I love most are the ones that explore Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home.

Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!


I credit this as the book that first made me appreciate not just the story in a book, but the wonder of beautiful writing for its own sake. And that made me think of…

the blue guitar

John Banville’s The Blue Guitar. This book was my introduction to Banville. It tells the tale of narcissistic but loveable Olly Orme, who stole his friend’s wife and is hiding from the consequences. Many long-term fans felt this one didn’t have as much substance as some of his earlier books, but I was dazzled by the beauty and sparkling wit of the prose and the wonderfully entertaining, quirky character Banville created in Olly.

What I saw, with jarring clarity, was that there is no such thing as woman. Woman, I realised, is a thing of legend, a phantasm who flies through the world, settling here and there on this or that unsuspecting mortal female, whom she turns, briefly but momentously, into an object of yearning, veneration and terror.

Wonderful, quirky characters always lead me back to…

martin chuzzlewit

Dickens. His descriptions are never of the “he had black hair and piercing blue eyes” category. Instead he paints word pictures that show us the person’s innermost character etched in his physical appearance. Here he is in Martin Chuzzlewit, describing Scadder, a bit-part in the novel, but still Dickens takes the time to create something unique – a pocket-sketch that tells us not only what Scadder looks like but exactly what kind of man we’re dealing with…

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them…

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

General Choke and Mr Scadder by Sol Eytinge, Jr.
General Choke and Mr Scadder by Sol Eytinge, Jr.

* * * * *

So Ishiguro to Dickens via skewed societies, corrupted fairytales,
gingerbread recipes, scrumptious picnics, sumptuous prose
and wonderfully quirky characters.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

FictionFan Awards 2013 – Literary/Contemporary Fiction

All stand please…


…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Literary/Contemporary Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…


All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.


There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary Fiction





Book of the Year 2013


For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!




* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in



This was an almost impossible choice – the year started with a bang and, quite frankly, ended with a whimper. So many pretentious and/or tedious reads by self-indulgent established authors that I’m considering a new award category of Books to Put Under the Shoogly Table Leg. But against that dull background, a few shone all the more brightly…



Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenueBased around a vinyl-record shop in Oakland, California, this is a story of people coping with change. Strongly character-driven, full of warmth and humour, Chabon creates a vivid and exuberant world that is a delight to spend time in. Watch out for the soaring 11-page tour-de-force sentence in the middle of the book – a technical (and possibly artistic) marvel. Brilliantly written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching this master wordsmith ply his trade outweighs the underlying lack of substance.

Click to see the full review

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castleThis is a deliciously wicked little book that turns the traditional witchy story on its head. Merricat lives with her sister and uncle – all that’s left of her family after a mass poisoning. Everyone believes Merricat’s sister Constance to be guilty, and the little family is shunned by the villagers. But they live quite contentedly in their isolation…until Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing the harsh reality of the outside world with him. Twisty and clever, Jackson’s superb writing hides the darkness at the heart of the story until it’s too late for the reader to escape. Merricat may haunt your dreams…or your nightmares…

Click to see the full review

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And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

and the mountains echoedWithin the first few pages of this book, the reader knows s/he’s in the hands of a master storyteller. In a village in rural Afghanistan, mid 1940s, a father tells a folk tale to his two young children. On the next day, they will travel to Kabul and start a chain of events that will take the reader on a journey across the world and through the decades. A beautiful and emotional book, peopled with unforgettable characters, this is told almost as a series of short stories, each concentrating on one person’s tale; but Hosseini brings us round in a perfect circle and the last few chapters bring all these disparate episodes into one immensely moving whole.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

EquilateralThis shortish novel took me completely by surprise with its scope and deceptive simplicity, and left me breathless. Not a word is wasted or misplaced as Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science. Sly and subtle humour runs throughout, as our Victorian hero sets out to signal man’s existence to the technologically advanced Martians by building a giant equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert and setting it ablaze. Superbly written, the prose is pared back to the bone with every word precisely placed to create an atmospheric, sometimes poetic, and entirely absorbing narrative. This book left me gasping and grinning, and I still can’t think of it without smiling. In any other year, it would have been an outright winner…

Click to see the full review

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fallen land 2

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery


In this extraordinary book, Patrick Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. A disturbing psychological thriller, this works just as well as a metaphor for a society where love and trust have been overwhelmed by suspicion and fear. Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are. This was the first book I blogged about – indeed, the book that inspired me to blog, in an attempt to spread the word about Flanery. His first book, Absolution, was my FF Award Winner in 2012 and this year he has achieved the double with Fallen Land. What next from this exciting and talented author? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out…

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Science/Nature/Environment Award

Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Something wicked this way comes…”

I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror!

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

we have always lived in the castleWith all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…

Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.

Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.

A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…


To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 3…

Episode 3

Great writers never die...
Great writers never die…

Since this is the first TBR Thursday for three weeks, you can only imagine how many reviews have tickled my fancy in that time – a stupendous total of 23 made it on to the longlist. Shortlisting has never been so hard, but with a TBR pile which remains stubbornly at 99 (despite my best endeavours), I have been ruthless. So with my usual thanks to all the bloggers who have entertained, intrigued and tempted me, here goes…

The Silver Medallists

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

blessed are those who thirstRooms filled with blood begin another investigation for Hanne Wilhelmsen…

The Game’s Afoot says: “Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is an extremely rewarding reading. Despite being relatively short, the novel has a wide scope…: a police investigation, the trauma of a rape victim, the private investigation of the victim’s father, the twisted motives of the perpetrator and the further development of some of the characters that we have first met in The Blind Goddess. “

See the full review at The Game’s Afoot


die a littleModern noir from the writer of the brilliant The End of Everything

Sparkcharms says Die a Little isn’t just a noir novel, but a commentary that reaches far deeper into our own psyches, whether we’re in LA or Mississippi. There is darkness in all of us, and it’s a beguiling thing, even to the most straight-laced of us. Some are encompassed, and when that happens, disentangling oneself from it becomes excruciatingly hard.”

See the full review at Sparkcharms


the housekeeper and the professorA Japanese story about love, family, memory…and mathematics…

Need to Read Blog says It is a quick read, but will leave a definite mark on your mind. Although I couldn’t understand all of the mathematical formulas within it, it doesn’t matter so much. What is important however, is to understand the professor’s passion, which is so strong that it leaps off of the words on the pages, and right into the hearts of the readers.”

See the full review at Need to Read Blog


the english spyThe Act of Union of 1707 and the spying of Daniel Defoe…

BooksPlease says “This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about. The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland…’

See the full review at BooksPlease


And the Gold Medallist is…


we have always lived in the castle

Murder and madness with a magical edge…

LitBeetle says More than anything, I was charmed by their lunacy, and it’s not until later, as the mystery unfolded and with some space from finishing the book, that I realized how disturbing it all is. Make sure you wear a decent shawl while reading this, because–between Merricat’s quietly frightening mind and Jackson’s simple but eloquent writing–We Have Always Lived in the Castle will give you chills.”

Litbeetle’s reviews always inspire me with enthusiasm – time to put it to the test!

See the full review at litbeetle

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…