Six Degrees of Separation: from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Strong Poison

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Alice Carroll

This month the chain begins with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll– a book I read as a child and loved. 

I was tempted to make my first link to Through the Looking Glass, Carroll’s follow-up book, or another of the books I loved as a child, but instead I chose:

Malice in wonderland

Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake. In this Golden Age mystery Wonderland is a holiday camp, set on a cliff top overlooking the sea and there are several allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The train to Wonderland plunges into a tunnel, just as Alice falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in Wonderland. And there is a prankster in the camp, the self-styled ‘Mad Hatter’, who is playing nasty and cruel practical jokes on the holiday makers. One of the visitors is Paul Perry, a young man who calls himself a scientist, who is there taking notes for the Mass Observation project.

Our Longest days

Mass Observation is my second link.  In August 1939, with war approaching, the Organisation asked its panel to keep diaries to record their daily lives and selections from fifteen of these diaries are included in Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War edited by Sandra Koa Wing.  

Testament of youth

Diaries provide the next link – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is based on her diaries, telling of her life up to 1925, concentrating on the World War One years. Vera was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) during the war, nursing casualties both in Britain and France.

AC Autobiography

Agatha Christie was also a VAD member during World War One. In 1917 she worked in a hospital dispensary in Torquay and studied to take her Apothecaries Hall examination so she could dispense for a medical officer or a chemist. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was whilst she was working in the dispensary that she first thought of writing a detective story. Surrounded by poisons she decided it should be about a murder by poisoning.

Mysterious Affair at Styles

So my fifth link is to the first detective story she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It is set during the First World War I at Styles Court, a country house in Essex, owned by the very wealthy Mrs Inglethorp, who dies from strychnine poisoning. Captain Hastings enlists the help of Poirot, who is living in the village of Styles St Mary with other Belgian refugees, to investigate the matter.

Strong Poison

And my final link is Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective, and Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, first met in this murder mystery. Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes, who died from arsenic poisoning. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her. 

My chain is linked by books about Wonderland, the Mass Observation project, diaries VADs and poison. It passes from fantasy land through the World War One years, and back into the world of fiction. It includes crime fiction and non-fiction.

Next month (December 7, 2019), we’ll begin with Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript, Sanditon.

Six Degrees of Separation: from A Gentleman in Moscow to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

A Gentleman in Moscow

This month the chain begins with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a book I haven’t read, or even heard of before. It looks interesting from the description on Amazon:

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

My first link is to another book set in Moscow Mrs Harris goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico This is a lovely little book. Mrs Harris is a London char lady who wins a trip to Moscow, where she wants to find her employer’s long-lost love. Mayhem ensues when she is thought to be Lady Char (the Russians not understanding what a ‘char lady’ is had converted it to ‘Lady Char’) and also a spy.

My second link is to a book about another visitor to Moscow: Archangel by Robert Harris. Set in present day Russia, it tells the story of Fluke Kelso, a former Oxford historian who is in Moscow for a conference on the newly opened Soviet archives. He learns of the existence of a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin and his search takes him to the vast forests near the White Sea port of Archangel.

Moving away from Moscow, but still in Russia my third link is Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett. It begins in 1911 in pre-revolutionary Russia with Inna Feldman travelling by train to St Petersburg to escape the pogroms in Kiev. I liked the way Inna’s personal story is intermingled with the historical characters of the time, including Father Grigory (Rasputin), Prince Youssoupoff and Lenin.

The next book that came into my mind is another book set in St Petersburg and featuring Rasputin – Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It begins in 1916 in St Petersburg. Sashenka’s mother parties with Rasputin whilst Sashenka is involved with conspiracy. It then moves forward to 1939 in Moscow under Stalin and ends in the 1990s when a young historian researches her life and discovers her fate. I haven’t read this book yet, even though I’ve had it for a long time.

My fifth link is a book I did read a long time ago, also set in Russia during the Russian Revolution – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. At this distance in time my memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember more about the film of the book starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif amongst others. I’d love to read it again sometime …

And so to the last link. It really should be to another book set in Russia to complete the chain with just one common theme. I wondered about a few – Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, or War and Peace, but eventually settled on a non fiction book, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes,  Unlike the other books in my chain I haven’t read this book, and it is not one of my TBRs – but it is now. It’s been described as the most vivid, moving and comprehensive history of the Russian Revolution available today. It’s long – 960 pages – and has won several awards.

 

My chain has one link throughout – Russia – passing from Moscow to St Petersburg and covering the modern day and the Russian Revolutionary period. Apart from the last book they are all fiction, beginning with the rather twee novel about Mrs Harris in Moscow. And for once I haven’t included any crime fiction!

Next month (October 5, 2019), we’ll begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Riviera Set

Little, Brown Book Group|November 2016|448 pages|Library book|3.5 rounded up to 4 on Goodreads*

When I read Cath’s review of The Riviera Set: 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess on her blog Read Warbler I thought it sounded fascinating, so I reserved a copy at the library. I has taken me almost a month to read it, but I did enjoy it.

Mary S Lovell explains in her Introduction that this is ‘less of a biography, more the story of a house and those who peopled it between the years 1930 and 1960.‘ The book begins with Maxine Elliott, telling of her early life  – she was an American, born Jessica Dermot in Rockland, Maine in 1868. She was a most remarkable woman who became an actress, famed for her beauty and her pure speaking voice. She came over to England, had successfully entered the Edwardian social scene in 1899 and after divorcing her husband, actor Nat Goodwin in 1908 she established herself at Hartsbourne, a country house in Hertfordshire. During the First World War she bought a barge and fitted it out as a first-aid clinic and soup kitchen to help with the war relief effort, bringing food and medical supplies to thousands of displaced people in Belgium. Many of the people who socialised at Hartsbourne flocked to visit her there. 

And then in 1930 she commissioned the architect Barry Dierks to build  the Chateau de l’Horizon on the land she had bought on a narrow stretch of rocks with a small promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, first of all about Maxine herself, then the description of the construction of the Chateaux and the years that Maxine owned it and lived there. Maxine really came into her own there as a superb hostess.

chateau de l'horizon

Regular visitors included Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham among many others – famous actors and actresses as well as members of the aristocracy and politicians. I was interested in Clementine Churchill’s reaction to the Riviera set – she disapproved of their behaviour and often didn’t accompany him on his visits.  She also disapproved of Winston’s gambling at the Casino. Then there were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who lived nearby before the Second World War – the picture painted of them is not flattering – and there was much talk about how to address Wallis and whether the women should curtsy to her. By the time the War approached Maxine had lost her sparkle, suffering from ill health and she died in March 1940.

And after her death nothing was the same – and my interest in the book began to wane. The Chateau was bought by Aly Khan, the Aga Khan’s heir presumptive at the time. There is quite a lot about his time there, his womanising, his marriage to Rita Hayworth and the social scene of the post-war period up to 1960. Nevertheless it is a fascinating and entertaining book about a pampered, luxurious and decadent world.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stepleton

Narrative Non-Fiction 4*

Adventures of Maud West

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton and published by Picador, is subtitled ‘Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime‘. With a title like that I thought it sounded just the sort of book I would like – and I did.

It is so intriguing – was Maud West really who she said she was? Susannah Stapleton discovered that she really did exist and was indeed a private investigator with her own detective agency, based in London in the early part of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards.  The book gives plenty of extracts from Maud West’s own accounts of her investigations under Golden Age crime fiction titles such as The Lady Vanishes, The Body in the Library, and They Do It With Mirrors, for example. But these accounts had me wondering just what was the truth and what was fiction. They are so incredible! Maud was truly an amazing person – a master of disguise, equally able to pass herself off as a man, or a fortune teller, or a parlour maid, and skilled with a revolver, able to face down blackmailers. There are photographs of Maud – at work in her office and in a number of disguises. And it was not just in Britain – she worked all over the place including  New York, Cape Town, Brazil, and Jakarta. 

But what makes the book so good, and what kept me glued to the pages are the details of how Susannah Stapleton went about her research, included within the main narrative of her book. I haven’t come across this before – usually  an author lists the sources used at the end – and there is just such a list (a very long and comprehensive list) at the end of this book.  I was more intrigued by Stapleton’s own methods of research into finding out about Maud than I was by Maud herself.

 I also loved all the details of the changing society in which Maud lived – the role of women in the struggle for equality, details of the living and working conditions and of the crimes that real life private detectives investigated – divorces, missing persons, adultery and theft.

It more than lived up to my expectations, but I am still wondering did she really do what she said she did? Whatever the truth she was a complex woman and a very private one at that.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

My Friday Post: The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The book I’m featuring this week is The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray, a library book.

Greedy Queen

 

In July 2005 a pair of extraordinarily large bloomers were auctioned in Wiltshire. They sold for £12,900, breaking the record for the previous pair of similarly generously proportioned underwear, which fetched £6,200 a year earlier, and the news of their sale was widely reported across the media.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Once again she complains of headaches and lethargy, and turned to food as a solace. Creevey remarked that, ‘she eats as heartily as she laughs, I think I may say she gobbles.’

Blurb:

What does it mean to eat like a queen? Elizabeth gorged on sugar, Mary on chocolate and Anne was known as ‘Brandy Nan’. Victoria ate all of this and more. The Greedy Queen celebrates Victoria’s appetite, both for food and, indeed, for life.

Born in May 1819, Victoria came ‘as plump as a partridge’. In her early years she lived on milk and bread under the Kensington system; in her old age she suffered constant indigestion yet continued to over-eat. From intimate breakfasts with the King of France, to romping at tea-parties with her children, and from state balls to her last sip of milk, her life is examined through what she ate, when and with whom. In the royal household, Victoria was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, secretaries, dressers and coachmen, but below stairs there was another category of servant: her cooks. More fundamental and yet completely hidden, they are now uncovered in their working environment for the first time.

Voracious and adventurous in her tastes, Queen Victoria was head of state during a revolution in how we ate – from the highest tables to the most humble. Bursting with original research, The Greedy Queen considers Britain’s most iconic monarch from a new perspective, telling the story of British food along the way.

~~~

With chapters on kitchens, cooks, and ordinary eating as well as extraordinary eating this is a different look at Queen Victoria’s life and reign plus an appendix of modernised recipes.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

 

My Friday Post: A Foreign Field by Ben Macintyre

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring one of my TBRs, A Foreign Field by Ben Macintyre. It’s non-fiction about four young British soldiers who were trapped behind enemy lines at the height of the fighting on the Western Front in August 1914. 

A Foreign Field

It begins with a Prologue:

Prologue

The glutinous mud of Picardy caked at my shoe-soles like mortar, and damp seeped into my socks as the rain spilled from an ashen sky. Ina patch of cow-trodden pasture beside the little town of Le Catelet we stared out from beneath a canopy of umbrellas at a pitted chalk rampart, the ivy-strangled remnant of a vast medieval castle, to which a small plaque had been nailed: ‘Ici ont été fusillés quatre soldats Britannique.’ Four British soldiers were executed by firing squad on this spot.

Followed by Chapter One – The Angels of Mons:

On a balmy evening at the end of August in the year 1914, four young soldiers of the British army – two English and two Irish  – crouched in terror under a hedgerow near the Somme river in northern France, painfully adjusting to the realisation that they were profoundly lost, adrift in a briefly tranquil no-man’s land somewhere between their retreating comrades and the rapidly advancing German army, the largest concentration of armed men the world had ever seen.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Local gossips thought that Jeanne was a’racy’ type; she smoked cigarettes, drove an automobile without gloves on, and treated everybody with exactly the same direct, penetrating and faintly lofty manner, usually from the saddle.

~~~

I enjoyed reading Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat about the Allies’ deception plan code-named Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily, so I’m hoping I’ll like this one too.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

WWW Wednesday: 19 December 2018

IMG_1384-0

WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s been over a month since I last wrote a WWW post so I thought it was time for another one.

I’m currently reading: just one book – Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman. I began it in November because it was the 100th  anniversary of the end of the First World War and I wanted to know more about it.

Great Britain's Great War

So far I’ve read just over half the book – now just starting to read about 1916 and the situation in Ireland. It’s written chronologically, analysing the causes of the war and why people at the time believed it to be unavoidable and even necessary. Paxman writes clearly and goes into detail which means it’s not a quick read and I’m taking it slowly. He writes about the people involved – the men who enlisted and those who were conscripted, the conditions they experienced from the trenches to the French brothels they frequented. It’s also about life back in Britain and the changes the war brought about. It is fascinating.

This morning I finished:

The Division Bell Mystery

Qnother fascinating book – The The Division Bell Mystery first published in 1932 by Ellen Wilkinson, a 1930s politician, about a murder in the House of Commons.  One of the reasons I enjoyed this so much is the setting in the House of Commons and the details it gives of not only the procedures and traditions, but a look behind the scenes and what it was like for the early women MPs. It’s a good murder mystery too!

My next book could be:

It’s time to start another novel but I am torn, as usual, and am trying to decide what to read next. It will probably be The Accordionist by Fred Vargas as it is a library book dues back at the beginning of January.

The Accordionist (Three Evangelists 3)

It’s the final novel in the Three Evangelists Trilogy – I’ve read the first two. This one has the same characters – three thirty-something historians, Mathias, Marc and Lucien, all specialists in three different periods of history, who live in a rambling house in Paris.

I love Fred Vargas’s quirky crime fiction, with eccentric characters and intricate plots that I find so difficult to solve. This one is about the murder of two Parisian women killed in their homes. The police suspect young accordionist Clément Vauquer and it seems like an open-and-shut case.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you?