Six Degrees of Separation: Shirley Jackson to Lisa Taddeo

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us. Links can be anything that comes to your mind and need not have rhyme or reason…

The starting book for this month is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’d never heard of this short, frightening story – which caused an absolute uproar when published the 1940s in the New Yorker. So of course I had to see what all the fuss was about – and it’s a terrifying little tale which much to say about mob mentality, tradition and conformity in insular communities. You can read the whole story at this link – it won’t take you very long – and is perfectly timed for Halloween…

I don’t often seek out scary books, but I kept seeing Mona Awad’s Bunny everywhere last year and decided to give it a go. It’s set at an exclusive MFA program in New England, where a group of girls start doing some very strange sh*t and the boundary between the real and the imaginary totally collapses in a bizarre, genre-bending way. It wasn’t for me, but to each their own…

I just re-read this one for book club, so it’s at the front of my mind – hello to another very well-known literary milieu, the prestigious Vermont liberal arts college where the characters of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History find themselves – an elite group of students studying ancient Greek who get similarly wrapped up in their claustrophobic, perverse world…

Tartt is the recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Medal (as well as the Pulitzer – show off…) just as is Colson Whitehead for his 2017 book The Underground Railroad, an unflinching story set on a slave plantation in Georgia as the protagonists search for freedom via the underground railroad, in this imagining a very real network of train tracks to help enslaved people escape hell.

More than a century on, the protagonists of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage are a modern-day married couple also living in Georgia and also dealing with the pernicious effects of institutional racism as the husband, Roy, is wrongfully imprisoned.

And for modern-day relationships put under the microscope, no-one has done it better in recent years than Lisa Taddeo with Three Women, a journalistic tour-de-force charting the sex and love lives of three real American women in all their realness.

Thanks for reading my October Six Degrees! Have you read any of these? If you participate in the tag, where did your links take you?

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Book Review - Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr book review

Book review: ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Anthony Doerr – an epic and imaginative premise that doesn’t quite reach its ambitions ★★★

When I tell you that this book contains multitudes, I’m not exaggerating. It spans time and space and galaxies, taking us from the 15th century siege of Constantinople to a spaceship of humans fleeing a dying plant to 20th-21st century suburban Idaho. You’d be forgiven for abdicating then and there and thinking, no thanks.

‘Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world.’

In our 15th century timeline, Omeir is a young village boy who is conscripted into the invading Ottoman army. In the same timeline, Anna lives within the walls of Constantinople, an orphan who is fed and clothed in return for embroidering religious garments for holy men. With no access to education, a chance encounter with written language sparks an insatiable curiosity.

‘Almost overnight, the streets glow with meaning. She reads inscriptions on coins, on cornerstones and tombstones, on lead seals and buttress piers and marble plaques… each twisting lane of the city a great battered manuscript in its own right.’

Access to knowledge is central, too, to Konstance’s story. Effectively imprisoned on a ‘windowless disk hurtling through interstellar space’ a hundred or so years from our present day, the spaceship is governed by an AI called Sybil, containing the ‘collective wisdom of our species’. Within the on-board VR library, Konstance is able to explore earth – through a three-dimensional Google Earth type of technology – and begin to piece together the central mysteries about her existence.

In modern-day Idaho, Zeno is a former Korean war veteran with a passion for ancient Greek who works at the Lakeport public library. Seymour is a vulnerable teenage boy who enters the library on a cold February day in 2020 to detonate a bomb.

‘Ambitious’ is certainly the right word for this epic, meticulous novel from Anthony Doerr. The problem is that Doerr doesn’t really know quite how to channel, or hone, his ambition. There’s a lot to love in this book – his trademark way of rendering people and place with precision and empathy, a highly imaginative retelling of worlds far removed from our own, a genre-blending of historical, fantasy, science fiction. But the ambition of the book overwhelms it more than once.

The thread that ties together these seemingly disparate narratives of Zeno, Omeir, Konstance, Anna and Seymour is an ancient Greek story by Antonius Diogenes, telling the comical and fantastical tale of a shepherd’s misadventures to a city in the sky. That story in itself isn’t that important – the point that Doerr seems to be making is that the survival of ancient, long-forgotten texts is a miracle in itself. Upon learning of the discovery of the ancient manuscript, centuries after its inception, Zeno’s voice fills with emotion.

‘Erasure is always stalking us, you know? So to hold in your hands something that has evaded it for so long—’

It’s a compelling premise – but I’m not sure that the central idea is compelling enough to bind this 600+ page novel together, and for the reader to see it through. The worlds are imaginatively crafted, the characters developed and distinct – but we don’t get enough time with any of them, leading to a disjointed reading experience – interrupted further by passages from the Diogenes text throughout, a story that didn’t really interest me much.

All The Light We Cannot See is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years (I mean, it won the Putlizer – that’s not an original thought) and I had so many aspirations for this book. I feel a twinge of sadness that it wasn’t all I was hoping it to be – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be that for other readers.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Cloud Cuckoo Land will be published on the 28th September, 2021.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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6 Books I Read In One Sitting

You may notice that this topic looks awfully like yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I half drafted this weeks ago, and since then work has been very busy (I start my new job on Monday), then Tuesday came and went, so this is where we find ourselves…

The days of curling up with a book and reading non-stop now seem to be few and far between – but over the years I’ve had delightful read-in-one-sitting experiences. These are some of the most memorable.

One Day by David Nicholls

I took this with me on a 2-month trip to India in 2012, and the host family I stayed with definitely thought I was strange for being so absorbed in this book. Tony Parsons on the cover says it’s totally brilliant, and I can’t put it better myself. A contemporary classic (and I love the film, Ann Hathaway’s accent excepting).

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Holidays. The perfect time to indulge in lying-on-the-sofa-reading behaviours for days on end. I read Such A Fun Age during Thanksgiving 2019, and was so engrossed it even distracted me from shopping in the Black Friday sales.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling

This was published on the 21st June 2003 – how is that a whopping 18 years ago? But I remember the day like it was yesterday – chasing the postman in his red Royal Mail van around the village so that I could get my hands on it as soon as humanly possible. I think my first read was over 2 days, and then I promptly started it all over again and finished it in 24 hours.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I Know About Love accompanied me for a full cosy winter’s day in 2018 where I read it in one sitting, apart from breaks for tea and snacks. It feels like a chat with your best friend and is highly recommended millennial woman reading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

One of my favourite books of all time from the greatest Modernist writer VW – I’ve read this in one sitting on multiple occasions. It’s a short one, too – so if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This may be cheating a little, as took me about a month to get through the first chapter, but after that I was hooked. I read the rest of the novel almost in one sitting lying on the bottom bunk in a hostel on the Chinese island of Hainan, in summer 2015, and I would not stop talking about it.

Thanks for reading! Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.


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Book Review - The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Book Review | The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Frida Liu had a very bad day. But in this dystopian universe, only slightly removed from our own, having a very bad day can be the end of the life you love. She leaves her crying daughter Harriet at home – just briefly, just to get a coffee – and then to run to the office, and then… by the time she returns home, the neighbours have called the police. Before she has time to catch her breath, she’s placed under state surveillance.

Her ex-husband and his new wife (the one he cheated on her with while pregnant and abandoned her for shortly after Harriet was born) assume custody of Harriet while Frida awaits her fate. In addition to the surveillance, she must attend supervised play sessions with Harriet. But it’s no good – she’s determined an unfit mother. The adjudicators who watched the footage felt that her crying, meant to show repentance, seemed to be in self-pity. And so she has the option to go to the school for good mothers, a one-year program in which they will transform her ‘from the inside out.’

‘Frida begins to weep. She needs to tell the judge about the house of her mind in the house of her body. Those houses are cleaner now and less afraid. She would never leave Harriet like that, not again.’

Soon after the mothers arrive at the residential program more like a prison, they are presented with AI dolls, created to resemble their own flesh-and-blood children. These proxy children with ‘the new-car smell, the faint click…, the chips in her eyes,…her fingernails that never grow.’ They will act as spies, ‘collecting data.’

‘They’ll gauge the mothers’ love. The mothers’ heart rates will be monitored to judge anger. Their blinking patterns and expressions will be monitored to detect stress, fear, ingratitude, deception, boredom, ambivalence, and a host of other feelings.’

There’s a growing undercurrent of despair throughout the novel, as the women are systematically stripped of their identities and institutionalised. What can only be described as psychological torture is metered out to these mothers – their one privilege of being allowed a 10-minute phone call on Sundays with their children is retracted for the most minor of infractions. Not all of their group can – or will – survive it.

Frida’s experience as a woman of colour and the daughter of immigrants factors heavily into her feelings of guilt and grief at the suffering her parents are enduring during her sentence. Her ethnicity also factors into the way she is assessed at the home; judged to be too passive, too cold, too detached, reflecting implicit racist stereotypes that work to her disadvantage as she desperately tries to prove herself a fit mother.

This novel takes a little while to get going, but I read the latter half almost in one sitting. It simmers with a quiet rage; a world somewhere between our current one and not so many steps from Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. Particularly with current US events and the Texas legislation to make abortion almost completely illegal, patriarchal claws continue to sink into our lives to deprive us of basic choices. It’s important to keep fighting the good fight – otherwise these fictionalised visions of a dystopian US might become closer to our reality.

The School for Good Mothers will be published in January 2022. Add it to your Goodreads TBR!

Book Review The Plot

Book Review | The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jacob ‘Finch’ Bonner – the affected middle name adopted due to his love of Harper Lee – is a struggling writer. After the modest success – in literary circles – of his first book, he’s in his thirties and finds himself  ‘sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers, from which so few of them ever emerged’.

Failing to come up with any new ideas, and feeling left in the dirt as the stars of his contemporaries continue to rise, he takes up a position at a small MFA program, teaching creative writing. Among his students is the insufferable narcissist Evan Parker, determined that writing is not something that can be taught (leaving Jake questioning, understandably, as to why Evan has bothered to attend the program). But despite his personal faults, Jake can’t deny that Evan has achieved that elusive goal – he’s got a damn good plot.

A few years pass, and Jake expects to hear about Evan’s book as it is undoubtedly picked up by a big publisher. But nothing happens, and a Google search brings up Evan’s obituary – his debut unpublished, confined to the recesses of history. So Jake steals the plot, and it catapults him into the hallowed halls of success he’s always dreamed of. Soon, he’s selling out thousand-seat concert halls and is plagued by adoring fans at book signings. He justifies his plagiarism to himself, of course:

 ‘Every single work of art was in conversation with every other work of art: bouncing against its predecessors, drawing form its contemporaries, harmonizing with the patterns… And that was a beautiful, thrilling thing.’

But he can’t quite shake his guilt and fear that the past will come back to bite him – and his worst fears are confirmed when he begins to receive anonymous, threatening messages.

In an interesting (and effective) structural choice, Korelitz weaves passages from Jake’s bestselling novel into the pages of the The Plot, running concurrently with Jake’s own narrative. Far from feeling disjointed or disruptive, this adds an extra dimension to the story.

I picked this one up because I loved the HBO adaptation of The Undoing, based on the book You Should Have Known by Korelitz. I also read John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky earlier this year, and really enjoyed it in all its wicked psychological drama and wit – and sensed immediate comparisons with the themes of literary theft and fame. The Plot isn’t as good as either of the above – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. It begins as a slow-burn psychological drama, which feels consistent but plodding throughout – the pace hardly picks up even when it really needs to for the sake of the plot. The twist is pretty easy to see in advance, even if we’re not quite sure how we’ll get there. But the story really shines as an exploration of the torturous nature of writing and elusive pursuit of success, and the nebulous ownership over the stories we tell.

‘The superstition held that if you did not do right by the great story that had chosen you, among all possible writers, to bring it to life, that great story didn’t just leave you to spin your stupid and ineffectual wheels. It actually went to somebody else. A great story, in other words, wanted to be told. And if you weren’t going to do that, it was out of here; it was going to find somebody else who would.’

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Plot will be published on May 11th, 2021.

Book Review | The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng

Book Review | The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng

Kelly walks through a door on her twenty-ninth birthday and finds herself in another life. A moderately-successful Chicago-based artist, she suddenly finds herself married and living the suburbs. The problem is, she has all the memories of both lives coalescing in her mind, and no idea about how she got there.

‘The possibility of my entire history ceasing to exist, of it never having existed, induces a dreamlike horror that stops up my throat. I can’t speak.’

She remembers, for example, that she loves her husband, Eric. She knows the name of her nieces and nephews that do not exist in her ‘real’ life. She knows the contents of all the cupboards in her suburban kitchen. But at the same time, she has the memories of her Chicago life – her best friend, Linnea. Her cat and roommates. Her beloved art studio. Experiencing, understandably, a profound sense of disorientation, she bolts to Chicago when Eric has gone to work, desperate to retrace her steps and find any traces of the life that was once hers. It’s a slow burn mystery, and I was intrigued to see how it would play out within the confines of the genre.

‘What I’m searching for is some emotional connection to the life I find myself living. But even with my entire history laid out in front of me, I’m unable to feel that it’s mine.’

The narrative gets even more interesting when the two timelines appear to begin to bleed into one another – Kelly’s tattoos begin to appear on her arms, before fading immediately. Photos disappear and reappear on the walls. And there’s a general unease about Eric, too. He seems almost too perfect – and those of us acquainted with a thriller know that can only mean one thing.

It’s a great concept, and compelling reading for the first 60% or so. I haven’t read anything with this premise, so to me, at least, it felt like a refreshing take on a manipulative relationship. My main problem was that it was sort of sci-fi, sort of thriller – without accomplishing either entirely effectively. Taking on a sci-fi concept, like this, requires real finesse. I’ve never read anything that falls into the science-fiction without the science category (though if this is a well-established genre, I stand corrected!) and to me the light-touch on how the time travel actually worked just left too many plot holes for me to truly buy in to the concept.

This may not be a deal breaker for other readers, and this book certainly had its merits. I just wish there was a little more of an investment in the details for the world-building and central premise to be fully and effectively executed.

With thanks to Berkley Books for the advanced copy. The Other Me will be published on August 10th, 2021.

The Dinner Guest B P Walter

Book Review | The Dinner Guest by B. P. Walter

Rachel, working a dead-end job at a garden centre, is mindlessly scrolling Instagram. And then she sees something which makes her sit up. She quits her job, ends her lease, and moves to London – intent on finding the family she saw in the photo.

And as luck would have it, she does. The Allerton-Joneses are browsing a bookshop in their native Kensington, and Rachel engineers the perfect accidental meeting. From then on, she steadily ingratiates herself into their inner circle. But such a manoeuvre is not without its challenges. Whilst Matthew and Charlie Allerton-Jones are from the upper-echelons of British society, the very definition of being born with a silver spoon, Rachel’s meagre savings stretch to renting on a scary housing estate in Pimlico. Their fine dining and housekeeper-cooked meals contrast sharply with her discount Sainsbury’s pizzas. But Rachel knows she has to persevere with her plan, whatever the cost.

‘It’s a mirage. A charade. Stacks of money in concrete form, that’s all. Rows of houses filled with people who haven’t a clue about the horrors of this world.’

This domestic noir opens with a brutal murder, I should mention. When we first meet our protagonists, one of them is dead – and another holding a knife. But it will take the unspooling over the course of the novel to find out the how, and the why, behind this attack.

The pacing is steady, and I was engrossed in the plot and the cast of complex characters. The way that B P Walter deftly managed the twists and turns in the plot was one of the novel’s greatest strengths, divulging and withholding information at exactly the right pace to keep the reader engaged. I found the exploration of the lives of the mega-wealthy and what goes on behind the façade of respectability to be one of the most interesting things about this novel. It gives you a window into how such people live (Charlie name drops dinner with a past Prime Minister, garden parties with a verifiable Lord and Lady), and to just what extent that contrasts with the life Rachel leads. And – importantly – how money and connections enable the rich to act with impunity.

‘Back then, I’m not sure I ever felt guilty, knowing where a portion of our income came from. I’m not sure. You see, when you’re brought up being told certain things are the way of the world, it becomes very hard to question them when you’ve just accepted them for so long. And I’m not sure it bothers me much now.’

A very solid addition to the domestic noir genre, and highly recommended for anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with a bit more substance. My only gripe would be the way this is marketed – it’s not really appropriate to name drop Donna Tartt or to try to market this towards fans of a literary thriller. The title and tagline would also suggest that the dinner is a central point of this thriller – when that’s very much not the case, and the key plot points of the novel span the course of several decades. I hope that readers can go in with the right expectations and enjoy this gripping read for what it is.  

Read if you enjoyed: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, Our House by Louise Candlish

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. The Dinner Guest will be published on 27th May 2021.

Book Review | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella is trying to make it as a Black millennial in an extremely white industry – publishing. Having landed her dream job at prestigious New York publishing house Wagner, she’s worked hard to gain recognition as an editorial assistant. Sure, she has to put up with microaggressions on a regular basis – but for working under some of the country’s most eminent editors, it’s a price she’s willing to pay.

‘She could see the thread that ran between the cultural faux pas of major corporations and the major faux pas of police offers all over the country.’

When Harlem-bred Hazel starts working for Wagner, Nella is initially delighted to have another colleague of colour. But things start to grow uncomfortable as Hazel’s star rises and she begins to infringe upon projects and relationships promised to Nella. To her face a solid ally, Hazel soon becomes her worst nightmare.

This novel is so sharp and clever, with biting social commentary about race in contemporary America and, more specifically, how this plays out in workplaces across the country. It’s probably because Publishing is my jam that I found the Wagner setting so compelling and spot on. Harris addresses the very visible lack of diversity in the industry in an accessible and clear-eyed way that makes it patently obvious just how a) out of touch and b) legitimately bad for business it is to have the same old people uplifting the same old perspectives time and time again.

‘Her coworkers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn’t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house.’

Anyway, off my soapbox.

Things start to turn very sinister when mysterious notes show up on Nella’s desk, telling her to leave Wagner. Rather than report the threats, Nella determines to get to the bottom of it. But the encroaching sense of dread is dialled up as Hazel continues on her upwards trajectory, going so far as to get the head of Wagner, Richard, to donate a hefty sum to her non-for-profit start-up supporting Black poets. Nella’s self-assurance and sanity takes a hit, and she begins to question her relationships with those around her and her ability to do her job.

‘Her spiralling sense of self-worth had started to encroach upon her sanity; her sanity, upon her sleep; and her sleep; upon her ability to be a functioning human being at work. A functioning human being who was able to forgive and forget the fact that a colleague had mistaken her for a dreadlocked girl who was four inches taller than her.’

But then things go…a little south, narrative-wise. Honestly, this might just be because this is an early copy that needs more aggressive an edit – but there were some key plot points in here that had me scratching my head in confusion. I won’t give anything away, but there’s a sub-plot with an underground resistance movement, and some truly bonkers hair products, and although I’ve not got anything against a kooky turn, I really didn’t know what was going on in the latter 25% of this book. I am very much hoping these issues will be ironed out prior to publication, because this really is a compelling, bold and timely novel – and I don’t want readers to be put off by the opaqueness of some key plot points.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Other Black Girl will be published on June 1st, 2021.

The Push by Ashley Audrain

Book Review | The Push by Ashley Audrain

There’s a certain toxicity around notions of motherhood. I’m not a parent, but friends have spoken of the horrors of the internet forum Mumsnet, where everyone has 101 opinions on the only right way to raise children. The pressure on mothers is a particular and peculiar kind of scrutiny that fathers, by and large, escape from. It is mothers who are under the microscope, bound to societal expectations of unflinching devotion and dedication.

In Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, Blythe is all-too-aware of the immensity of parenthood. And whilst her husband, Fox, has a picture-perfect mother to model his own parenting on, Blythe comes from several generations of mothers who are at best absent, at worst abusive.

The narrative flips between the present in Blythe’s voice, and back through the generations as Blythe’s mother and grandmother chart the dysfunctional and disturbing accounts of their own childhoods.

‘We are all grown from something. We carry on the seed, and I was part of her garden.’

It doesn’t have to be the same for Blythe, though – does it? Putting her misgivings to one side, she and Fox have a baby girl, Violet. With the arrival of Violet, Blythe struggles to remember who she is – feeling that her life is now devoted to taking care of a baby who appears to love Fox but recoil from her touch. There’s an expectation gap separating the ideal – gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes – and the real, a baby who screams constantly. And it is this lack of a bond with Violet that Audrain explores unflinchingly throughout the novel. When the pair have another baby, and tragedy strikes, things spiral for them all.

‘Motherhood is like that – there is only the now. the pain of now, the relief of now. the despair of now, the hope.’

It was intriguing and refreshing to hear a story that isn’t often told; one that sheds light on a darker and likely more common than we’d think phenomenon. Audrain explores the guilt and shame that Blythe feels, and yet she is also an unreliable narrator. We are so deep into her psyche that we can’t help but question the way she sees her daughter. And yet by casting aspersions upon her lived experience, we are no better than the reams of people in her life who do not believe her, who silently brand her a hysterical woman, a bad mother.

The second-person narration in Blythe’s narrative, addressing her account to ‘you’, her husband Fox, is cleverly-done. I felt that the flashbacks to the accounts of her mother and grandmother were somewhat lacking – they felt like they slowed down the pace without providing us with that much insight, beyond ‘traumatic childhood.’ This is very much a psychological drama, rather than a thriller, and should be treated as such – don’t go into it expecting twists and turns, as major plot developments are few and far between – which doesn’t help with the pacing. I liked the novel for exploring a lesser-seen experience of motherhood, but felt that the reading experience was hampered by the pace and the lack of depth to the narrative.

With thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced review copy. The Push will be published by Penguin Michael Joseph on January 7th, 2021.