This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.
Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2, shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.
Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.
The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth. What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.
Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.
It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.
Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?
This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.
The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.
In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.
Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.
Another month when I have been wrestling to make any headway with #6Degrees. It never seems to get any easier!
This month’s starter book is Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist published in 2018, which I’ve not heard about let alone read. Some basic research tells me it’s about a horrendous episode of bush fires in Western Australia in 2009. They were among the country’s worst fires and caused the deaths of more than 100 people.
Four years earlier, a natural disaster caused the loss of some 1800 people in Florida and Louisiana. They were victims of Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest hurricane since 1928. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is an investigative account of how some of those people died – they were all patients at the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. Suspicion fell on a few of the medical staff who were accused of unlawfully hastening the deaths of some of those patients.
In Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, it is to avoid catastrophe that Allie Fox takes link his family away from their comfortable home in Massachusetts to a new settlement in Honduras. He has become increasingly critical of American consumerism, education and culture and is convinced that a world war is imminent,
While in Honduras he builds a huge ice-making machine called ‘Fat Boy’ powered by hydrogen and ammonia, and transports the ice it produces farther up the river to isolated tribesmen, only to find to his disgust that missionaries have already reached them and ‘corrupted’ them to the ways of the West.
Barbara Kingsolver’s best selling novel The Poisonwood Bible features one of those missionary families: the Prices of Georgia. They move to the Belgian Congo where each of the four daughters develop differently as they adapt to African village life and the political turmoil that overtakes the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.
The setting of the Congo gives me the link to my next book: Joseph Conrad’s best known novella: The Heart of Darkness. It’s a tale within a tale of a steamboat journey to trading posts alongside the Congo river and one man’s obsession with an ivory trader called Kurtz whose methods and interactions with native inhabitants are morally ambiguous.
Heart of Darkness raises questions about imperialism and racism and sees little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages. Similar questions appear in the next book in my chain: R. L Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Although this was essentially an adventure story written for young boys, it poses some interesting questions about moral integrity. Some of the characters who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority – the Squire and the Doctor – are shown to be just as avaricious as the recognisably evil pirates.
It’s a good reminder that fiction written for an audience of young readers can seem simple but is often quite complex when examined more closely. Which takes me to the next and final book in my chain this month. Well actually its just the first book in a very large series.
You might just have heard of Harry Potter…. J K Rowling’s tales of a boy wizard are considered to have done more to encourage young people (especially boys) to read than any number worthy government inspired initiatives. They can be viewed as little more than a spiced up version of the tried and tested boarding school yarn, albeit with a bit of magic sprinkled about. But look more closely and you’ll find a lot more going on: questions about loyalty, dishonesty and the nature of true friendship, for example. Of course, being aimed at children, the presiding morality is that evil (in the form of Voldemort) must be destroyed whatever the cost and good must triumph. The question however is whether the way evil is destroyed is appropriate. Does Harry always come out of his encounters with Voldermort with his integrity intact?
And on that question I will bring the chain to an end. We’ve moved from a book about fire and a deliberate act of damage, to clashes between cultures and good and evil. I had no idea when I started this chain that I would end up talking about Harry Potter!
You’ve read everything on your ‘to read’ shelf (ok, I’m joking) And got through everything you were given as a Christmas gift. So now you’re in the mood to look ahead and start planning what to read over coming months. Naturally the authors and publishers know that no matter how many books lying unopened on your shelves avid readers always want more.
This year will see new issues from some of the foremost writers of our times (work from at least three Nobel Laureates) and a few second books from people whose debuts got them noticed.
The selection below is just a fraction of course of what will be published (they don’t include science fiction, YA or fantasy since none of those genres have appeal for me). If you think I’ve missed something new and notable, do let me know.
And of course tell me what you’re most looking forward to reading.
This month sees the posthumous publication of the final book written by Iain Banks. It’s a collection of poetry written in collaboration with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. Publisher Little, Brown will issue this to mark what would have been Banks’ 61st birthday
Neil Gaiman brings out his third collection of short fiction Trigger Warning which includes some previously published pieces of short fiction and a special Doctor Who story written for the fiftieth anniversary of the series in 2013. One story in the collection, “Black Dog,” is a new work of fiction that revisits the world of American Gods,
From John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, comes A History of Loneliness, a story of an Irish priest who has endured recent, founded outcries against the church. He’s forced to examine his role in this scandal.
And if you love the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, watch out for her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which she says will be her last. Like many of her previous books, it is a family saga set in Baltimore, as told by the aging Abby Whitshank and her husband Red, who will soon need to be cared for by her children and grandchildren. Tyler talks about this novel in a BBC interview
SJ Watson aims to repeat the soaring success of Before I Go to Sleep with a new novel. Second Life. It’s another psychological thriller featuring a woman leading a double life.
Arguably the literary event of the year happens on March 5 when Kazuo Ishiguro publishes his first nobel in 10 years. The Buried Giant is set in Britain during the Dark Ages, opening as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Details are scarce but according to Ishiguro, this is a novel about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”.
That’s enough to hook me, and anyway this is by Ishiguro so sure to be good. Hence why I’ve already put my name on the wait list at the library…
Two years ago, Huffington Post named Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, one of their Best Books of 2013. I added it to my wish list though have yet to get to it. Now she returns with an epic tale of four talented but frustrated college friends trying to find their way in New York and how their friendships shift as the years pass.
One book The Guardian has suggested we keep an eye out for is an unusual work in translation due out in March by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. They describe The Dirty Dust as an exuberant novel set in a graveyard and told entirely in the voices of the dead. Apparently it’s been labelled the most important prose work in modern Irish though by whom it’s not clear. Could be a good one though for people who like something different.
Two Nobel laureates hit the bookshops this month. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is about race, family dysfunction and how past traumas reverberate to the present. Her publishers are keeping quiet so further details are hard to come by but just Morrison’s name will make it certain this book will be hard to miss the closer we get to the publication date.
it’s taken two years to translate into English but Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The Discreet Hero, finally gets some exposure outside his native country of Peru where it has been a best seller. The narrative follows two businessmen – one the victim of extortion, and one whose children want to kill him.
Early Warning by Jane Smiley is the second instalment in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants from 1920 to 2020. The first book,Some Luck covered the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the midst of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era.
So successful was Kate Atkinson with her 2013 novel Life after Life (I disliked it so much I couldn’t finish it) that she’s chosen to go back to the same family for her next book A God in Ruins. It’s about the fortunes of Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula Todd (the girl who kept dying in Life after Life). He’s a RAF pilot and aspiring poet.
Amitav Ghosh, whose Glass Palace I reviewed recently will publish the final novel in a trilogy this month. Flood of Fire starts in 1839 when China bans the lucrative opium trade from British plantations in India. An expeditionary force is despatched to try and reverse the decision but when they arrive in Hong Kong they get caught up in what became known as the first Opium War. Knowing Ghosh this will be as meticulously researched as his other historical novels.
This month sees the publication of the last novel written by Kent Haruf who died last year. In Our Souls at Night he returns to the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt with a story of a widower and a widow who come together and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. This could be one to cherish.
Judy Blume is an author who needs no introduction, having brought pleasure to millions of children and young adults during her 16 year career. With In the Unlikely Event she branches into a new field with her first novel for adults in which she tells the story of a community reeling in the wake of a series of freak plane accidents.
Love + Hate by Hanif Kureishi was meant to have come out in December to mark Kureishi’s birthday but for some reason publication was delayed. This is a collection of short fiction and essays. One story features a Pakistani woman who has begun a new life in Paris, there’s an essay about the writing of Kureishi’s acclaimed film Le Week-End, and an account of Kafka’s relationship with his father. The book ends with a long piece of reportage from which the collection takes its title, about the conman who stole Kureishi’s life savings, a man who provoked the author’s admiration but also revulsion
Another offering from the Faber stable is The Festival of Insignificance by the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. It’s been fifteen years since publication of his last novel, so his fans will likely be disappointed that his first book after so long is a very slim one indeed It’s a story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal).
Benjamin Markovits, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists publishes You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a tale of two college friends who hit on a plan to revitalise poor neighbourhoods in Detroit. One friend is an ex Yale graduate now down on his luck and the other is a wealthy player in the dot com phenomena. It seems like a foolproof idea but they soon find themselves in the midst of everyone else’s battles.
If you loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin then you’ll be keen to get The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières which is another epic romance set around the first world war.
August brings us a short novel by one of the biggest names in literary fiction. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie is inspired by ancient traditions of storytelling. There’s a playful clue in the title but you have to do a bit of arithmetic to find it (hint: add up the numbers).
Attention on world conflicts of the twentieth century continues unabated and who better to help us reflect on the impact of World War 1 than Pat Barker. She took a break from the 1914-18 period for a few years but returned in 2007 with Life Class, the first part of a trilogy about a group of characters in the London Blitz. Book 2 in the sequel, Toby’s Room, came out in 2012 and this year sees the completion with publication of Noonday in which she moves her characters forward to the early years of the second world war. One of the characters in the book was named by a reader who won an auction staged to raise money for Freedom from Torture, a charity that provides therapies and support to torture survivors.
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is the story of a young woman named Purity (or Pip) who is on a quest to uncover her father’s identity, with a “mythical undertone”. There have been hints that he’s adopted a different style for this novel, moving away from his usual realism to a more ‘fabulist’ style.
Novelists have been experimenting for the last few years with new media as a story telling device. The latest to tread the path of interactivity is Iain Pears whose novel Arcadia will be published both in traditional book format and as an interactive app. The idea apparently is to showcase the time-slipping narrative of a spy turned academic. According to his publisher, Faber, the novel’s characters’ lives will intersect in vivid ‘time-slip’ stories. As it mixes genres, periods and styles it can be read as a traditional linear story or episodically – reading and omitting sections as they choose.
I couldn’t resist slipping one non-fiction book into the list though I very rarely read them. It’s a surprise to find Paul Theroux coming out with a new travel book – his last trip covered in The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola had to be abandoned because it was too dangerous to cross through the Congo. He’s in his seventies so he can be forgiven for wanting to be closer to home for his next travel. Deep South sees Theroux set out for the southern states of the US that he has never before explored.
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Faber). The ninth novel from the Nobel laureate conjures the changes in Turkish society over the last few decades from the point of view of an Istanbul street vendor.
October marks the start of a major international project in which Shakespeare’s plays will be retold by acclaimed novelists. Jeanette Winterson‘s re-imagining of The Winter’s Tale launches the series this month.
Sebastian Faulks used to be one of my favourite authors though I found his latest novels rather disappointing. Maybe he will have found his winning formula with Where My Heart Used to Beat. The title is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam and is an exploration of memory, desire and the madness of the 20th century.
These are both rather fallow months, presumably because publishers it’s too late for the Christmas market. All I’ve found of interest so far is a new title by Kenzaburō Ōe , the Nobel winner, Death by Water is about an internationally acclaimed author’s investigation into the mysterious death of his father.
Other notable issues
If you’re still hungry for more then keep an eye out for these second novels from authors whose debuts made a splash.
- Belinda McKeon whose first novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, comes out with her second book in April. Tender is described by publishers Picador as “a dazzling exploration of the complexities of human relationships.”
- AD Miller follows up his Man Booker shortlisted debut, Snowdrops (reviewed by Booker Talk here with The Faithful Couple, a story of male friendship. Publishers Little,Brown say it’s a ” story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal… They clearly have ambitions for this novel since they consider it “a literary novel with mass appeal as well as the potential to win prizes”. We’ll see if that comes true when the book gets published later this spring.