Six Degrees of Separation: Wild Swans to A Dark-Adapted Eye

Six Degrees of Separation is 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.

This month the chain begins with Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Falling Leaves Return To Their RootsThe first book in my chain is also about a Chinese daughter. It’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter  by Adeline Yen Mah. She grew up during the Communist Revolution, was blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A moving story set during extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong.

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

My next book is about a fictional daughter: The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham, historical fiction set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War. It covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth Summer should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.

The Tiger in the Smoke (Albert Campion Mystery #14)

This leads on to a book by another author named Allingham. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham in which Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem. Meg’s marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett should have been happy, until she began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, presumed dead in WWII. She calls on old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry – until a brutal triple murder. I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything.

Our Mutual Friend

And the next book is also set in foggy London – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,

… the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking,  wheezing, and choking: inanimate London was a sooty spectre … (page 242)

This book has multiple plots, centred on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. It begins as a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, find a corpse in the Thames.

A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4)

A body found in the Thames provides the next link in my chain to a modern crime fiction novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.  This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. Police Constable Lacey Flint thinks she’s safe. Living on the river, she’s never been happier. Until she finds a body floating on the surface, as she wild-swims in the Thames.

This leads to the last book in my chain, another book with the word ‘dark‘ in the title:

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed.

The narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories.

For once I have read all the books in my chain and they are all books I thoroughly enjoyed, a variety of genres – autobiography, historical fiction, classics and crime fiction. It begins in China and travels to Sussex to London through time from the nineteenth century to the present day.

When I begin a chain I never know where it will end. What about you, where does yours go and where does it end?

Next month (October 7, 2017), the chain begins with a book that I haven’t read (or heard about) – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

The Man Who Climbs Trees by James Aldred

Publication date: 24 August 2017, Ebury Publishing

Source: e-book for review from the publishers

My rating: 5*

It was a delight to read The Man Who Climbs Trees by James Aldred. It is not only full of information but also beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. If you have ever wondered how wildlife/nature documentaries are filmed this book has the answers.

James Aldred, a professional tree climber, wildlife cameraman, and adventurer, explains how he discovered that trees are places of refuge as well as providing unique vantage points to view the world. Trees enthral him, right from the time he first climbed into the canopy of an oak tree in the New Forest. Climbing trees gives him peace within himself and with the world around him. Since he first began climbing trees he has travelled the world climbing many of the world’s tallest trees, filming for the BBC and National Geographic magazine.

It’s incredibly dangerous work. It’s not only the difficulties of climbing some of the world’s tallest trees, but also dealing with extreme weather, attacks from animals, birds and a variety of insects. Perhaps the most horrifying was a sinister rash that appeared all over his body when he was in the Congo. This rash developed into ninety red angry boils, several of them on his head. Then he was woken by something moving beneath the skin of his scalp, squirming and wriggling around; the pain was unbearable. Each boil was home to spine-covered maggots that bot-flies, large black flies with bulbous red eyes, had laid under his skin!  He ended up in hospital with cerebral malaria.

I have always loved trees but I’ll never look at them again with the same eyes after reading this book – such strange and wonderful stories of the nature and significance of trees.

The Man Who Climbs Trees is a wonderful book, full of James Aldred’s adventures and his views on life and spirituality. I loved it. His travels brought him into contact with dozens of different religions and philosophies all containing ‘profound elements of truth’ that he respects very much, concluding that ‘spirituality is where you find it’ and he finds it ‘most easily when up in the trees’.

Added on 6 September 2017

There are no photos in this book but there are some in this article and an amazing video James took of the incredible Korowai tribe in Papua building a tree house. It’s well worth watching.

Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now by Stuart Maconie

I knew of the Jarrow March/Crusade in 1936, but not much about it beyond the fact that men from Jarrow in Tyneside marched from their home town to London to present a petition against the mass unemployment and extreme poverty in the north-east of England. Stuart Maconie has filled in the gaps in his excellent book Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now. In October last year he retraced the route they took, 300 miles, comparing what conditions and attitudes were like in 1936 with those of 2016. The men were accompanied for part of their march by Ellen Wilkinson, who was the MP for Middlesbrough East and it was Ellen who presented their petition to the House of Commons. But despite their protest and all Ellen Wilkinson’s efforts on their behalf it didn’t result in any improvements for employment in Jarrow.

Maconie a writer, broadcaster and journalist, writes fluently and with conviction. The Long Road from Jarrow is a mix of travel writing, social and cultural history and political commentary, with the main emphasis on the current social, cultural and political scene. It’s a thought-provoking book that both entertained and enlightened me. Maconie writes about the past, the history of the places he walked through and the tales and reminiscences of the people he met. He also writes with enthusiasm on such topics as football and music and food. It’s a lively, chatty account that includes the thorny topic of Brexit, the current and past state of the north/south divide and considers what it is to be ‘British’.

I was fascinated and thoroughly enjoyed this walk through England, past and present. My copy is an ARC from the publishers via Netgalley.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1617 KB
  • Print Length: 365 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1785036319
  • Publisher: Ebury Digital (20 July 2017)

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

Jane Austen at Home

Synopsis (Amazon)

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the rooms from which our best-loved novelist quietly changed the world.

This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

My view:

I think it was a foregone conclusion that I would really enjoy Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home. I have loved Jane Austen’s books for many years, going back to when I was about 12 and read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I’ve previously read Carol Shields’s biography Jane Austen and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: a Life so there was really very little I learned reading Jane Austen at Home that surprised me or that I hadn’t known before.

I suppose what was new to me was the emphasis on what home life was like during the period of Jane’s life and seeing photos of the houses and places that she had lived or stayed in as a visitor. And I think I gained a better understanding of the social history of Georgian England and of Jane’s wider family connections and what her family and friends thought of her both as a person and as an author.

Lucy Worsley is an historian and has presented several television history programmes. I am not a great fan of her style – the play acting and dressing up – but she writes in a lively, chatty style and reading her book I could easily hear her voice. Jane Austen at Home is both very readable and very detailed, which is not an easy thing to achieve. There is an extensive section at the end of the book, listing sources, a bibliography, notes on the text and an index. There are two sections of colour plates.

Needless to say it has spurred me on to re-read Jane Austen’s books, and I shall probably begin with re-reading Emma, a book I’ve only read once.

I received an e-galley from the publishers via NetGalley for review and part way through reading it I bought a hardback copy to get the finished product.

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (18 May 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1473632188
  • ISBN-13: 978-1473632189
  • My rating: 4*

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean

Notes on Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (1926 – 1994).

Alasdair Maclean was a Scottish poet, born in Glasgow. He left school at fourteen to work in the Clydeside shipyards. In his late thirties he read English at Edinburgh University, later returning to the family croft at Sanna in Ardnamurchan to write. His father had worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks until he retired in the 1950s and moved back to take over the croft from his father.

What their life was like on the croft is captured in detail in Maclean’s only book of prose Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family.

The main section of the book is made up of extracts from his father’s journals forming a factual account of his daily life on the croft covering two years, a decade apart: 1960 and 1970, for the same three days at the beginning, middle and end of every month in those years, with explanatory comments where he thought necessary.

I  enjoyed this section together with the Prologue and two introductions – the first about his father and their relationship and the second, a brief history of Ardnamuchan – more that the section on Alasdair’s own journal of 1979 – 1980.

I quoted the opening of the book with an extract from page 56 in this earlier post. Here are a few more extracts to give a flavour of the book:

Due to Father’s complete lack of push, coupled with his unwillingness to flatter or connive, he was passed over for promotion on several occasions. In the early 1950s he retired, somewhat prematurely, and came back to Ardnamurchan to operate the family croft, which my grandparents were getting too old to look after. Poverty accompanied him north and this lasted till a state pension at sixty-five brought some slight ease. He died five months after my mother of a coronary, they said, but of being worn out and heartbroken, say I. (page 23)

Each journal entry begins with a description of the weather and its effects. This is a typical example:

November 15 1969

Moderate to fresh Southerly wind became strong in evening. Drizzle in early forenoon. Dry for an hour in the middle of the day. In the afternoon the sleety rain became torrential and continued into the night. Did a little more to a new house for Tilly. Gave cattle a little hay. Managed across river at Cnoc Brac peats.

Alasdair commented: Tilly was a pet sheep, the first of many orphans we hand-reared. She was a privileged character (I tell her story later) and no ageing butler, slopping sherry around the salver on his tottering passage between pantry and drawing room, could have been more conscious of possessing security of tenure or more determined to exploit it. The ‘house’ that was being built for her was but one indication of her status. Your ordinary sheep shivers it out on the hillside all night, having no roof but the low cloud of winter. (pages 84-85)

The state of the weather had great importance. To the crofter:

…  clinging by a mixture of instinct and experience to the remote fringes of these islands, the weather is a god. It is the difference not merely between a pleasant and an unpleasant life, but between success and failure, until the advent of the welfare state between – possibly – living and dying.  (page 52)

Winter is hard on Sanna:

Gales often blow for days on end, accompanied for much of the time by rain. The ground around house and outbuildings, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of animals and people becomes a churned-up quagmire, a constant drag and hindrance to everything one tries to do.

… Even to enter or leave one’s house, if it lacks a back door – and most of the old cottages did – may be a hazardous operation in a gale and a door once opened may not be easy to shut again. I have seen old people in Sanna go from house to steading on hands and knees, being unable to proceed any other way. (page 52)

This is an unusual book describing not only life in a dying community but also revealing the relationship between children and parents, particularly in an isolated community. I was fascinated.

I was also interested to know what Ardnamurchan is like today. The Ardnamuchan website states it is on the most westerly peninsular of the British mainland, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and with views from every shore of islands, castles, lochs and wilderness, an amazing part of the West Coast of Scotland.

File:Sanna Bay - geograph.org.uk - 354282.jpg
Sanna Bay (The copyright on this image is owned by Stuart Wilding and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

Amazon UK –  only available from third-party sellers

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (22 Feb. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140108122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140108125
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 3.5 stars

My Friday Post: Night Falls on Ardnamurchan

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery 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.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean.

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family

It begins:

Introduction 1: Father and Son

We hardly conceive of our parents as human. There are innumerable actions, there are whole areas of life and thought, that we do not care to see connected with them, that we scarcely allow ourselves, far less others, to connect with them.

From the back cover:

The Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean records the rise and fall of the remote crofting hamlet in the little-known area of Ardnamurchan where his family had its roots.

Perceptive, humorous and sharp he binds his own account of the crofter’s lifestyle and extracts from his father’s journal, a terser, more factual and down-to-earth vision of the day-to-day. It is an unusual and memorable story, one that not only describes life in a dying crofting community but also illuminates the shifting, often tortuous, relationship between children and their parents.

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

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  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.

The events on page 56 are concerned with winkle gathering, which provided an additional income to many of the crofters. The winkles were gathered and then stored where they could be refreshed by sea water until they were shipped to a merchant.

The reaction of a bag of thirsty winkles to a good splash of Mother Atlantic is delightful. For a few minutes all is creaks and squeaks and bubblings, as though a buzz of winkly conversation had broken out.

I found it was slow going at first, but now I’ve read half the book I’m really enjoying Maclean’s commentary on his father’s journal.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir by Chris Packham

Description

Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir is indeed unlike any other memoir I’ve ever read. I loved it. It is deeply personal and honest about his childhood and early teenage years. It doesn’t follow any chronological time-line but moves to an event in 1975 when he was fourteen that touched him to his core. Some chapters are in the first person, giving an intense insight into his mind and some in the third person telling of events as though through on onlooker’s eyes. Some parts are told in the third person whilst he was talking to a therapist later in his life – these are raw and intensely moving. There are parts that are so sad and parts where his anger and indeed rage and the cruelty of others come through so very clearly.

They describe his isolation, his separation from other people and his acceptance and recognition that he was different, the ‘loops’ or obsessive thoughts that run repeatedly through your mind, and the stress he experienced because of all that.

I think it is beautifully written, richly descriptive – although if you don’t like adjectives you probably won’t agree with me. I do, and I can’t imagine the book without them, they paint such vivid and colourful images, especially in passages such as those where he describes his ‘sparkle jar‘ – simply wonderful. There is no way I can summarise that, other than to say it is dazzling and scintillating – you need to read the book.

There are many, many passages that will remain with me, such as those about his obsessions with a variety of things from dinosaurs, tadpoles, otters, and snakes, (his description of the enclosure for his snakes they built in the garden is most alarming – they escaped) for example, culminating in his love for the Kestrel he stole from its nest and then took home to rear and train.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a very special book. In his acknowledgements Chris Packham explains the encouragement, patience, tolerance and help he had from his parents, and how he turned their house into a menagerie and the garden into a safari park.

Extract from Chris Packham’s  website

Extraordinarily creative and prolific, Chris Packham has led a remarkable life. He’s gained recognition as a naturalist, television presenter, writer, photographer, conservationist, campaigner and filmmaker.

As a broadcaster he is a presenter of BBC’s BAAFTA Award winning Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch series. He presents notable natural history series such as Nature’s Weirdest Events, World’s Weirdest Events, World’s Sneakiest Animals, Cats V Dogs, The Burrowers, Inside the Animal Mind, Operation Iceberg and Secrets of our Living Planet. He was featured in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC ‘“ US) where he introduced Jimmy to a Porcupine and baby spotted Hyena, and sent a Black Vulture flying to him as he stood in the audience.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (6 April 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785033506
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785033506

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book!