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Six Degrees from Atonement


Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.


For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..


From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.


That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.


For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

From Australian mystery to the doyenne of crime in six steps

six degrees June 2016

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.

Our starting book this month is  Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots.  They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.

A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.

Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.

Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes  and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment. 

Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough.  Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol.  The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his  feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.    

Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.

The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone. 

A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to  look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing. 

And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long. 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children actI finished reading The Children Act feeling extremely frustrated with Ian McEwan. He’s proving to be such an inconsistent writer, capable of delivering the sublime Atonement and then going and spoiling things by giving us the absolutely dire Saturday.  The plot for his most recent novel The Children Act was promising so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This slim novel begins in an unusual way by quoting a key section from the piece of legislation known as the Children Act of 2004. It was introduced in the UK in the light of some appalling cases in which various government and health agencies failed to give adequate protection to young people. One of the key provisions says that the child’s welfare is paramount when any decisions are made in situations such as custody, emergency protection or health treatment. 

Decisions like these often fall to the High Court judges in the Family Division. In McEwan’s novel, Fiona Maye is a well-respected judge in that division, renowned for her intellect and her sensitivity when called upon to adjudicate in some emotive situations.  Behind her professional exterior however there is a fragile woman who regrets that she put her career before motherhood. Her life is rocked when her husband of thirty years leaves her when she rejects his request for an open marriage in which he could experience a ‘big passionate affair’  with a woman half his age.

In the meantime an urgent case involving a seventeen year old boy demands her attention. Unless he receives immediate medical treatment he will die. But as a Jehovah’s Witness, like his parents, he rejects the blood transfusion that would allow combined drugs to treat his leukaemia. It falls on Fiona’s shoulders to determine what is in the boy’s best interests.  Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to discover for herself whether Adam understands fully the consequences of his stance or is he simply going along with his parent’s views. Their encounter stirs up deeply buried feelings for Fiona and has momentous consequences for both participants when Fiona has to rule what is best for Adam’s welfare.

If only McEwan had stuck with the legal thread of the novel.  There was absolutely nothing in this novel as interesting as the legal arguments, especially the section in which Fiona delivers her verdict which runs for several pages. Beyond Fiona, the characterisation was flat and uninspiring; the relationship with Adam improbable (increasingly so as the book reaches its finale) and all the stuff about her marriage unconvincing. When Jack returns from his failed passionate adventure for example he offers a really banal sounding explanation.

Having gone to his girlfriend’s flat he tells Fiona he

“felt stupidly obliged to go on with what he had started”. “And the more trapped I felt, the more I realised what an idiot I was to risk everything we have, everything we’ve made together.

Do people really talk like this???? It reminded me of the dreadfully  cliched and pretentious dialogue in Saturday.

Should religious belief be permitted to trump medical knowledge? How should our judicial system the law approach such a case? Should the courts over-rule the family’s wishes and ignore their religious beliefs. McEwan has tapped into a subject which needs to be aired and poses questions which deserve to be addressed but all he really does in this novel is to ask the questions. He could have answered them head on, but instead he ducks and dives under the blanket of a story about relationships. How disappointing.



Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Chisel Beach, Dorset

Chisel Beach, Dorset

1962. The decade labelled The Swinging Sixties was just around the corner.  But the imminent sexual revolution would be wasted on Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, the young newly-weds of Ian McEwan’s Chesil Beach.

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. 

That opening sentence sets the scene for a tightly-focused human drama which takes place against the background of one of the natural wonders of the world; the massive shingle bank of Chesil Beach in Dorset.  Edward and Florence arrive at the hotel for their honeymoon. Naturally they want their first evening to be perfect. But dinner in their room overlooking the bay doesn’t quite live up to their romantic expectations. Soggy, overcooked vegetables served by obtrusive waiters result in a strained atmosphere.

There is however a greater source of tension that rears its head as the night progresses.   Their courtship never progressed beyond a few passionate embraces. Edward was always the most ardent of the pair but accepted (though reluctantly) Florence’s desire to wait until they were married for any greater intimacy. Now the moment is approaching when Edward imagines uninterrupted pleasure will be his. Too late he learns this is one aspect of their life that will forever represent a source of discord. Tragedy ensues.

chesilbeach The scene in the hotel bedroom verges on awkward comedy where you’re not sure whether to laugh or sympathise. But McEwan leaves us in no doubt when the couple meet on the beach later the same night. There is a moment where the drama pivots between the possibility of reconciliation and the possibility of fracture. McEwan is a writer with a superb ability to understand human nature. Here he shows how just a few words, spoken in anger and frustration can be a tipping point,a moment in a relationship from which there is no going back. Words uttered in the heat of the moment that are instantly regretted but whose hurt can never be healed. It’s a painful scene because as readers we can see where it all went wrong. Instead of an enduring flush of romantic love, we get bitterness and disillusionment.

A sad little tale that  taken me years to get around to reading even though I like most of McEwan’s novels. It’s one I can easily imagine re-reading at some point.

Mistakes authors make


photo from Pixabay under creative commons license

They’ve done the research; spent hours in libraries or on line checking their facts (or maybe their paid researcher actually did the grunt work); the book is now out – and guess what? Some  tweed jacket wearer sporting a handlebar moustache  spots an anachronism and can’t wait to point out said defect to the author.

Do we set too great an expectation on our leading authors? Undoubtedly there are some books where the writer has made a fatal flaw that anyone with just a modicum of common sense would recognise (I hate it when authors use twentieth century expressions – usually of American origin – in narratives set in an earlier period). Then there are other novels that contain errors which make no material difference to the narrative. You note them but push them to one side because you’re enjoying the story so much?

Booker Prize Winner Ian McEwan apparently spent two years observing a neurosurgeon for his novel Saturday.The surgeon was less than pleased to find McEwan had his protagonist use a paintbrush to apply antiseptic prior to an operation (not a tool that is common in an operating theatre it seems). I can recall the gruesome details of the surgical procedure in that novel but can’t honestly say that knowing whether the surgeon used a paintbrush or an artist’s brush matters much.

Even his winning novel Amsterdam came in for close scrutiny. After it was published McEwan received a letter from a World War 2 veteran that he’s used the Americansm “on the double”  instead of the ‘at the double” term used by British soldiers of his day.

McEwan reflected on such trips and hazards that confront the novelist at a recent  lecture – summarised in this news article,

Maybe I’ ve been fortunate but I’ve not often seen something amiss  in a work of fiction published by one of the reputable houses. I imagine the texts go through a pretty rigorous process before the print button is pushed. Self- published works are a completely different matter however since the same protective screen is nowhere near as exhaustive.  My frustrations are usually where  one or more characters is a journalist or the plot requires some news item to be reproduced in the text – unless the author is, or has been a journalist themselves, they usually get this wrong. The fictional journalist never behaves as any real journalist would (they don’t check their sources for example, dont ask basic questions) and as for the so called news reports, they make me wonder if the author has ever read a newspaper. The worst offender I’ve come across in recent years was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen byPaul Torday where the so-called newspaper article read more like a government report. Dire.

<td><span style=”color: #000080;”><strong>Error spotting </strong></span>

Have you ever found a mistake in a novel? I don’t mean a spelling error  – those are not the fault of the author anyway, but more a problem in typesetting and proofreading. I mean factual errors or anachronisms? If you spot them are you inclined to write to the publisher to point out the mistake or do you just shrug and move on?

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