Book No 14 (2021) : Shuggie Bain

Agnes Bain is poor. With a failed marriage leaving her with sole responsibility for Leek, Catherine and their little brother, Shuggie, her situation becomes desperate. She does her best to keep up appearances with her fur coat, red lipstick and dyed hair, but the demon drink has her in its clutches. When Catherine emigrates leaving just Leek and Shuggie at home, the pressure on Shuggie intensifies. He’s complicit in his Mum’s struggle, knowing that a can of Special Brew will stop the shakes or a cola with extra sugar and a vodka shot will help her out of bed in the mornings. There are periods of sobriety, AA meetings, a job in a petrol station and romance. Shuggie revels in the relative calm.

Shuggie has a few problems of his own going on though, as his peers pick on him, the neighbours’ kids call him names, even many of the adults notice he’s a bit different. As he grows up, with Agnes’ health deteriorating, it seems the world is against him.

This is a powerful novel. The portrait of Agnes is tragic, yet compelling. I found myself holding my breath alongside Shuggie, fervently wishing that the better times might last for him and his Mum. This is writing which you admire, for its skill in story-telling, creating wholly credible characters and conveying a strong sense of time and place. No wonder it scooped the 2020 Booker Prize.

There have been several times in my life when I’ve been hard up; had to scrimp on the food shopping, forgo nights out and laid awake worrying about the bills. However, it wasn’t until I went to work for the DHSS in a Scottish city in the late 1980’s that I began to understand the true nature of inner city poverty. I visited claimants at home. In my naivety (I own the fact that I’m a middle class woman from an affluent area), it was a gut-wrenching shock to learn that people lived without what I considered essentials – carpet, curtains, furniture, food, heating, a washing machine. I know that, sadly, this grinding penury continues to be a fact of life across the UK.

I was willing Agnes and Shuggie on towards a better life. But, as I discovered all those years ago in Edinburgh, not everyone is guaranteed a happy ending.

Advertisement

Book No 13 (2021) : The Sight of You

To enjoy this book, you’ve first of all got to accept the central premise that Joel has foresight: he can predict what’s going to happen to his friends and family in the future. If you’re going to spend the whole time yelling at the pages ‘but this is ridiculous, no-one can predict the future‘, I suggest this may not be the novel for you.

Once you’ve got that sorted, there is a lot to enjoy. Which is not what I was expecting to say, as romance is not usually my thing. In books I mean, not in life!

The love story between Joel and Callie is a slow burner, but I found it more credible as a result. The couple meet when Callie is working in a cafe and Joel is a customer, noticeable because he falls asleep at the table. Unbeknown to Callie, his night-time dreams of the future are so all-consuming, he tries to avoid them by surviving on as little shut-eye as possible. The main reason for the romance developing slowly though, is that Joel knows something bad is going to happen and, as a result, he doesn’t want to commit to the relationship. To add to the tension, the reader has no idea what Fate has in store. Joel’s advance warning causes him to take a drastic, heartbreaking decision.

As a story, I was swept along by this writing and really cared about the characters. The plot is simple with an ambiguous ending, which wasn’t a problem for me. What lingers after the last page though, is the searching question about whether you’d embark on a love affair, knowing when and how it would end. Not a vague notion of maybe it won’t work out, but the specific time, date and reason.

Of course I don’t know what other readers’ answers will be: but I can’t help thinking that we all know a romance is going to end. Whether that be in a few weeks, years or even decades, it will come to an end. Whether you part amicably or acrimoniously, for any number of reasons, or till death do you part, nothing is forever, not even the love of your life. Yet most of us take that risk time and time again. Maybe the truth is in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s words that ultimately, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. I, for one, have always been willing to take that chance on love.

Book No 12 (2021) : Being Adam Golightly

You would think, wouldn’t you, that if your partner had died, the last thing you’d want to read about is someone else who’s been widowed, but in fact it is strangely interesting. Mostly to be consoled by the fact that grief is a rocky road and we all navigate it differently. Hence the subtitle to ‘Being Adam Golightly – One man’s bumpy voyage to the other side of grief.’ I know it makes it sound like crossing the A34 on a busy Friday, but it does avoid saying that this is a ‘journey’. Because I can assure you, no one wants to buy a ticket for that particular cliché.

Adam Golightly is a pseudonym: the author of the book wrote a regular column for ‘The Guardian’, in which he shared his experiences as ‘The Widower of the Parish‘.

Adam’s children are aged 10 and 14 when their Mum dies, so he has to step up to parenting on his own. I got the impression he was a pretty hands-on dad anyway, it isn’t as if he needs to read the instruction manual for the toaster, but there are nevertheless practical challenges. Ballet shoe ribbons and alcohol for teenage parties provide more of a learning opportunity. But the widower’s relationship with his children is honest and open, with lots of moments of humour as well as sadness.

Within the book, which reflects on the past as well as dealing with the present and looking to the future, the author tackles lots of the practical aspects as well as some of the more emotional ones: collecting ashes and what to do with them, money worries, drinking too much, whether to wear a wedding ring, dating and socialising, going back to work. He finds having a pet around the place comforting and faces the first Christmas. I particularly identified with the way Adam describes Helen’s possessions as ‘portkeys’, seemingly random objects which have the ability to transport him to another place or time in memory.

Golightly is a funny, charming and insightful narrator and were many times during the book that I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition. It made me feel part of something bigger than my own experience, which I found comforting. Which led me to think about what the appeal of the book might be to those readers who haven’t had their spouse die of ‘fucking cancer‘ (Adam’s words, not mine. Although I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment) or anything else. I’m not a fan of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ which prescribe how to talk to a bereaved friend – there are so many variables and what might make one person cringe is another’s solace. But this book is a gentle insight into what might be going on in our lives, or minds. However, if you are looking for help tailoring pointe shoe tapes, don’t go here – Adam stabs himself in the thigh with a needle!

Book No 11 (2021) : The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Over the years I’ve read about, visited, stayed in and photographed lighthouses – they have always fascinated me. Looking back, I think it was the children’s BBC TV programme Blue Peter that sparked my interest: there was a clip about winching Christmas puddings over to the lighthouse keepers. The Blue Peter album that year had a feature about Grace Darling, who saved several survivors from a ship wrecked near the lighthouse where her father was the keeper. I remember reading it again and again.

There is something about the combination of the lighthouses themselves – their construction, longevity, isolation, proximity to the sea (obviously!) which set me off on my own explorations. There’s no way I could have let ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter‘ pass me by.

Based on fact, Hazel Gaynor has written a fictionalised account of the rescue which Grace Darling and her father mounted in September 1838 from the Longstone light. The circumstances surrounding the rescue are well documented as Grace became something of a national heroine once details of the rescue became more widely known. One of the survivors saved from the sea was a young woman called Sarah Dawson. Sadly, Sarah’s two young children drowned.

Interwoven with Grace and Sarah’s history is an entirely imaginary thread, concerning a young woman (Matilda) who is banished from Ireland to America when her family discover she is pregnant – with no prospect of marriage. Matilda is sent to stay with a distant relative, Harriet, who is a lighthouse keeper on Rhode Island. As the time draws near for Matilda’s baby to be born, her relationship with Harriet takes on a new significance. Two family heirlooms, a locket necklace and a manual for light keepers are the clues to an untold story.

I enjoyed this book and not just because of the lighthouse interest! Grace Darling emerges as what we would now call a celebrity and the attention doesn’t sit comfortably with the young heroine. She feels as if her father’s role in the dangerous rescue is underplayed in the light of her own bravery, but they had worked as a team. Furthermore, everyone wants a piece of her – quite literally. As well as boatloads of gawpers chartering boats to try and catch a glimpse of Grace at Longstone, correspondents also write requesting locks of her hair and scraps of her clothing. She has her portrait painted several times and is tempted by a dubious offer from a circus owner. I was drawn in by the notion that Grace Darling was famous for a reason, rather than looking a certain way or having an astute marketing team. She deserves recognition for her heroism, but the balance between the public’s admiration and infatuation, is a fine one.

Hazel Gaynor has clearly researched her subject matter very carefully and cites many of her sources and reference works in the author’s notes. However, the facts of history are balanced by Matilda’s fictional narrative which is also engaging and enjoyable. There is a touch of mystery and some romance; next time I’m at a lighthouse, I’m sure there will be scenes from this novel which will be realised, just as I imagined them. I just hope it isn’t the part where I’m single-handedly steadying a small boat in the middle of a storm!

Book No 10 (2021) : Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan’s novel has been hugely successful. As well as having been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2018, it has recently been added to that Club’s list of their favourite, stand-out titles from the past decade. Which all makes me think that anything I might have to say will be largely irrelevant, as the reading jury has already delivered its positive verdict on this one! Nevertheless, I’ll give you my twopenn’orth.

The plot of the novel (classed by Richard & Judy as ‘literary fiction‘ #debatable) centres upon a prosecution for rape brought against a politician (James Whithouse) by an aide with whom he was having an affair. The case is prosecuted by a female barrister, Kate; it transpires that she has a particular reason for wanting to see this perpetrator brought to justice.

Switching between the viewpoints of Kate, James and his wife (Sophie), and a University contemporary of the couple (Holly), the story is set between the University of Oxford in the early 1990s and the London setting of Westminster and the courts in 2017. Although this may sound complex, it works reasonably well as a literary device and the plot is easy to follow. I managed to read the book in a day.

For most of the day that I spent reading though, I wanted to fling the ‘Sunday Times‘ best-selling, 4-pages of plaudits, Simon & Schuster novel at the wall. If it hadn’t have been the monthly choice for our own village book group, I would have given up.

Firstly, the plot is paper-thin. If it was a hotel wall, you’d be able to hear your neighbour clipping their toenails. It is also predictable, and not in a dramatically ironic way, more in a ‘I saw that coming a mile off” way. Kate has a back-story which is barely disguised and the reveal is under-whelming.

Even more frustrating though, were the clumsy stereo-types, especially of Oxford students: the provincial, dull, hard-working state school pupil who is over-awed by the public-school types. Contrast her with the posh bird – beautiful, sporty, wealthy and only at Oxford to find a husband. The male counterparts are the posh boys – floppy haired members of exclusive drinking clubs, drug-taking champagne quaffers who are dismissive of their sexual flings with women. This may have been the Oxford of Sarah Vaughan’s youth, but I felt she does the University a huge disservice. Oxford today works hard to dispel these out-dated stereotypes, which threaten to make an Oxbridge place feel unattainable for less privileged and state school pupils. Interestingly, most of us in the book group discussion had come to the same conclusion – many of us have first-hand experience of the modern University of Oxford and were disappointed by the cliches.

The number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low but sadly the treatment of the issue in this novel was disappointing, with the prosecuting lawyer driven by a personal vendetta, rather than striving for a conviction to deliver justice for the victim.

I realise that my last few reviews I’ve been a bit Marmite about books – I other seem to love ’em or hate ’em. But this one is definitely toast!

Book No 9 (2021) : One August Night

This is the sequel to Victoria Hislop’s highly successful novel ‘The Island‘, which chronicles the experiences of a young woman sent to Spinalonga, the leper colony off the coast of Crete. I like this novel, although not without reservations – I read it for a second time in 2018.

One August Night‘ is supposedly the story of what happens after a cure for leprosy is discovered and the residents of Spinalonga return to their island communities. Two key characters in ‘The Island‘ are sisters Anna and Maria; Maria had contracted leprosy and been exiled to Spinalonga. Anna, meanwhile, engages in a passionate extra-marital affair with Manoli and gives birth to a daughter, Sofia.

During the island celebrations for the return of its villagers from Spinalonga, Anna is murdered. Someone is convicted of the crime and jailed, whilst her lover takes off to start a new life. I hoped that the novel would pick up Maria’s story and address how she adapts to life after Spinalonga, but instead it spins along-a (see what I did there?!) different storyline.

This whole book feels like a wasted opportunity. Having invested a considerable amount into the development of Maria’s character and circumstances in ‘The Island‘, there was a rich seam of material to be mined in a sequel. Instead, leprosy and its consequences are virtually ignored in favour of a bizarre exploration of Manoli’s new life and Maria’s prison visits to the murderer. The plot is weak, disjointed and uninteresting, as are the majority of the characters. There was very little to hold my interest and I struggled to finish the novel at all. I can’t help thinking that if this had been a submission to an agent from an unknown new author, it would have either gone in the ‘Reject’ pile or been published after several major edits. As it is, Victoria Hislop has seen another bestseller hit the shelves.

For me, Ms Hislop was drinking in the last chance saloon and I’m afraid she’s blown it. Nothing she has written since ‘The Island‘ has equalled it, despite my fervent hoping. Having read every single thing she’s produced afterwards, desperately looking for the same emotional connection I felt with Alexis, Eleni and Maria initially, nothing has been as good. I was very excited when a friend lent me ‘One August Night‘. When I’d finished, I was even more glad. Because if I’d wasted £12.99 of my own money on a copy, I’d have been gutted.

Book No 8 (2021) : Beastings

The plot is simple: a young workhouse girl, having been found a job as a servant, absconds when she discovers the father of the household physically abusing his baby. The girl takes the child with her and runs – there is no real plan, nowhere to run to. She just has to get away. It isn’t long before she is missed and the local priest, assisted by an able poacher, sets off on her trail. The novel follows the girl (we never know her name, nor the that of the baby – whose sex is never even revealed) as she flees, trying to survive in the wild, becoming increasingly exhausted and malnourished.

The runaway is shown some kindness by strangers, but only temporarily before she moves on again. The portrayal of nature and the landscape is harsh and so are the people. The Priest is an ugly character, immoral and hypocritical; as the novel progresses, his reason for wanting to run the girl to ground becomes apparent. When they finally encounter one another the conflict is brutal and terrifying.

Reading this felt like all my bad dreams – running, running, always scared and looking behind. Finding a place to rest for a while before having to be on my feet again. Blisters, hunger, a crying baby, rain, dark. The relief of water, a wash, a drink. Then scrambling again, the danger always just out of sight on the periphery of your consciousness, but you have to keep moving to get away from it. A nightmare.

When I was at studying literature at University, I think my critical analysis skills were probably at their height. About 30 years ago! Nowadays I read for pleasure and entertainment, not to pass exams and so, after years of laying unused, my critical skills have diminished. I missed them whilst reading Benjamin Myers’ ‘Beastings‘. The text is rich in imagery, punctuation during dialogue is non-existent and scarce in many places, adding to the pace of the narrative. I felt I could have got more to the heart of it, as if true insight was evading me.

I’m not sure this is a book I can say I enjoyed – admire, certainly, this is powerful and arresting writing. A Portico Literary prize winner, it would almost certainly provoke a lot of discussion as a book group choice. Nevertheless, it has made a lasting impression: all I kept thinking about was people for whom terror, running, hiding is a permanent state – refugees, the homeless, conscripted child soldiers, trafficked slaves, illegal immigrants….. how terrifying it must be to never be able to relax, rest, breathe, for fear of being caught.

Book No 7 (2021) : The Last Wilderness

With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.

Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.

There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.

Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.

Book No 6 (2021) : Close to Where The Heart Gives Out

Another Scottish island experience, this time of a GP who moves from his Glasgow city practice with his wife and children to Eday, one of the Orkney islands. Written retrospectively, the book recounts Dr Alexander’s time on the island.

At the time of starting work on Eday, Malcolm and his wife, Maggie (also a doctor) have four young children, all boys. As you’d expect, life is a bit crazy as everyone adapts to the new lifestyle with wild and windy weather, a slightly rundown cottage and dramatically different lifestyle. The GP’s surgery attached to the cottage isn’t well equipped and takes a while to get organised. Supplies come by boat, weather permitting.

The islanders leave the new arrivals alone for a while, not wanting to bother the doctor while he settles in. Gradually though, the new GP gets to know his patients, consulting in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. The recollections of these home visits allow the reader to learn about Eday life – cottages with no running water, peat fires, hard working islanders – straight talking, uncomplaining and stoic. Doctor quickly earns the respect of the locals and is asked to step up as a preacher, teacher and vet: very few people have only one job!

What I loved about this book is that it has heart. This isn’t a medical journal or textbook. Dr Malcolm Alexander seems genuinely modest and he treats people, not ‘cases’ or symptoms. His writing is reflective and insightful – about his own part in his marriage difficulties, being a good dad, serving his community and where he seeks fulfilment as a medic. When Maggie encounters difficulties in her fifth pregnancy, her husband’s anguish rises from the pages, as all the while he cares for the boys and his patients.

As you’d expect, the book is also shot through with observations about the landscape and wildlife on Eday; wind and sky, otters, owls and gulls. Tempered with the author’s gentle philosophy about the sanctity of life and his duty to do no harm, embracing the pace of island life instead of resisting it, I found this book enchanting.

The irony of me reviewing a book called ‘Close to Where The Heart Gives Out‘ when my partner has died of a heart attack, is not lost on me! Hearts do give out between these pages, and death itself isn’t euphemised, as you would expect from a doctor. But I was touched by the author’s refutation of the view that as death is commonplace for medics, it becomes almost meaningless to them, part of the job. ‘Patients sometimes think they are just one among many but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.’ I imagine this is why Eday took Dr Alexander to their own hearts. How lucky they were.

Malcolm now lives on Bute, having spent a while working in Stromness before leaving the Orkneys. I’ve started following him on Twitter, where he continues to offer comment on landscape, home comforts, vaccines and duck eggs. In the meantime, I’ve added Eday to my list of places to visit.

Book No 5 (2021): A House by the Shore

This slim volume has been on my bookshelf for many years, I can’t even recall how I came across my copy, which was secondhand when I got it! Despite there being so many new books and never enough time, this (along with Judy Fairbairns’ ‘Island Wife‘) is one I have returned to and re-read several times.

Scarista House is still a highly successful hotel, well known for its shoreside location and gourmet food. However, it wasn’t always as polished! Alison Johnson and her husband were working as teachers when they decided to relocate to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where they renovate an old manse and turn it into a guest house.

Far from being DIY experts, the young couple, although practical, have taken on a huge project. Many of the rooms are uninhabitable, there are not enough bathrooms. Floors and windows have rotted, everything needs re-wiring. Alison herself spends a lot of time outside, digging trenches for the various pipes, drainage and services. It isn’t glamorous at all!

The renovation begins in 1974, so there is no internet to ease the communications involved in ordering, finding expertise, seeking advice. Battling with the difficulties of being in such a remote location and the inherent problems of getting supplies, combined with the frequently awful weather, Alison and Andrew persevere. With an immense amount of hard graft, lots of mistakes but a little bit of good luck, they are eventually able to welcome guests. There are several Fawlty Towers moments, with a big discrepancy between what is happening front of house in the dining room and Alison’s frantic scrabblings in the kitchen. Let’s just say it’s probably a good job this all took place before ‘elf and safety was A Big Thing.

A gentle read, with lots of comical moments, the opening of Scarista House is testament to how Alison and Andrew adapted to life in the Outer Hebrides and made it their own. I return to this book because it contains my dream; to move to a Scottish island. I relinquished the dream years ago; there has never been the right time and the opportunities to start again have passed. However, part of me still hankers after it so I live the experience vicariously. Although the Johnsons have moved on, the hotel is still there – I’m going to visit next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Hopefully the plumbing is no longer dodgy!