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.

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 8 (2016) : Night Waking

Night WakingNowadays it is raging toothache or a trip to the bathroom which disturbs my sleep. But I well recall the days when it was a wakeful child. Many a night my husband and I would end up in different beds, or separated in our own by a toddler who snored blissfully until morning whilst we tossed and turned. But in many ways, the morning-after-the-night-before was worse; like a hangover but without the fun. Gritty eyes, swimming vision, dropping off to sleep every time you sit down. Sarah Moss captures all of this beautifully in her second novel, ‘Night Waking‘.

Anna Bennett has been brought to Colsay, a Scottish island, because of her husband’s work; he researches puffins. The couple have a seven-year old son, Raphael, and also a baby, Moth – the latter being short for Timothy but I suspect the name is also indicative of the fact that this tot is so active at night, drawn to his mother like lepidoptera to a bright light. What Anna really wants to do is to get on with the book she is trying to write, focusing on motherhood from a historical perspective.

Whilst working outside their cottage, planting some trees, Anna unearths the body of a baby. Of course, this necessitates a visit from the police who try to discover the identity of the child, but Anna uses her research skills to try to find out for herself who may have buried a child on this remote island. Interwoven with Anna’s own story is that of May, a young nurse who was sent to Colsay in 1878, to try to reduce the number of juvenile deaths. The novel also has extracts from the various texts which Anna is using to carry out her own research.

But Anna is so tired all the time, she struggles to concentrate and spends most of each day trying to reclaim some time to work. Temporary relief arrives in the form of teenage Zoe, whose parents take a holiday let in Anna and Giles’ rental cottage nearby. Zoe likes the children and seems content to babysit for a while, but it turns out that she has her own issues, which make yet another call on Anna’s precious time.

I found the author’s portayal of Anna’s predicament to be true to life, including the charming and ofen funny way in which Moss scripts the dialogue between Anna and the boys. However, there was just too much going on in this book and it didn’t quite hang together properly for me, it was just trying too hard. I would have been happy with considering the tensions and guilt of working motherhood, the isolation of a Scottish island and maybe the historical perspective. But adding in teenage anorexia, Raph’s unusual preoccupations, Anna’s research, Giles’ apparent unconcern at his wife’s exhaustion, infant tetanus, a child who goes over a cliff, a dead baby…..it all felt as jumbled as Anna’s sleep-deprived thoughts. I might be tempted to read another of Moss’ books, to give her a second chance, but I really wasn’t sold on this one, despite its Hebridean setting. Or maybe I’m just tired….

 

 

Book No 3 (2016) : The Visitors

The VisitorsWhen I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.

Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.

What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of  language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.

Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!

Book No 2 (2016) : Our Endless Numbered Days

endless numbered daysBy coincidence, the first two books I have read this year have centred upon people living in little huts. But whereas Guy Grieve’s Alaskan abode was real, Clare Fuller’s ‘die Hütte’ is imaginary. And very creepy.

Peggy’s father is a survivalist. He and his fellow North London Retreaters plan to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. In preparation for this existence, James trains his daughter in essential techniques: they camp out in the garden, eating squirrels, foraging for food and sleeping in a shelter. Peggy’s mother, Ute, is often away from home due to her career as a concert pianist, but James is not too lonely because he has a friend, Oliver. Although unusual, Peggy’s existence is tolerable. But that all changes when her father says he is taking her away to ‘die Hütte’. Deep in the forest, the hut is totally isolated. Then, not long after they arrive, James’ prophesies come true and the rest of the world is destroyed. James and Peggy are the only people left and they have to survive in die Hütte.

Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ examines what happens when the extreme behaviour of an unstable parent goes unchecked and a child’s unquestioning trust in a father is betrayed. This novel is deeply unsettling.

I am always honest in my reviews, even when I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion and, in this case, the judges of the Desmond Elliott Prize (the novel won this prestigious prize for new fiction last year). For me, the balance between ambiguity about James’ motives and behaviour as Peggy matures into a young woman, and exploration of his actual actions, was not quite right. I like to have something to think about when a novel ends, but this just left me feeling frustrated! However, this aspect of the writing means that ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ would be a great choice for a book club, there is so much to talk about.

Book No 49 (2015) : The Girl on the Ferryboat

girl on the ferryboatAs it’s Christmas, I have been doing a fair bit of baking, putting together dishes to please family and friends. With a clear recipe to follow and the correct ingredients, carefully measured, most things seem to have turned out well. Like a rich cake, ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat‘, a novel published both in English and Gaelic, had all the ingredients to be a big hit with me – a love story, set in Scotland, with a heavy dose of sea travel to bind it all together. But the resultant novel didn’t really grab me – despite its parts, the literary cake fell flat.

Alexander, a university lecturer, looks back upon his life, reflecting upon opportunities taken but also those missed. Having just lost his wife, he is returning to the Outer Hebrides, the land of his childhood. On a whim, he decides to visit Iona and whilst making the ferry crossing, he meets Helen. He recognises her as the same girl he saw on the ferry when he was a young man, a recent Oxford graduate heading back to Scotland. Back then, Alasdair only spoke briefly to Helen, but fell in love with her instantly. Their chance meeting some 35 years later, allows them to kindle the flame which was not given a chance in their youth.

Written by Angus Peter Campbell (surely a Scotsman with a name like that!) this is undoubtedly a well-written story but I think it just didn’t suit me. Parts of the novel read like a CV, interspersed with musings on Gaelic language, folklore and attempts at philosophical wisdom. Every now and again there was a nugget of something interesting, but then the author would wander off in another direction and lose the thread. Most of all though, I struggled with the central premise, that Alexander could literally see someone for thirty seconds and remain in love with her for over a quarter of a century. So disappointing when you want that same instant burst of passion from a book – but in this case, the ferryboat sailed without me.

Book No 41 (2015) : The Summer of the Bear

summr of the bearJamie’s Dad, Nicky Fleming, was a diplomat based in Bonn and he died when he suffered a fall. The family members he left behind – wife, Letty, and teenage daughters Georgie and Alba, as well as Jamie, are trying to re-shape their lives to accommodate the gaping hole that Nicky has left. He wrote what might be a suicide note but Letty is sure that he would not have deserted his family. An investigation ensues and gradually a version of the truth begins to emerge.

When I was 7 years old, I lost my Dad. He was only 29. Only ‘lost’ is a euphemism of course, because actually he died. My Mum told me that he had had an accident and was dead. But although I thought I understood, I really didn’t. My memories of waiting for him to come back from Canada (the farthest away place my 7-year old mind could imagine) are very vivid. What I had failed to grasp is that dead was for ever. It is obvious to grown-ups, but it wasn’t obvious to me. My desperation when the truth hit, many months after my father’s death, was as crushing as the original news.

My own experiences came flooding back to me as I read Bella Pollen’s stunning novelThe Summer of the Bear’. Jamie’s mother tells him that his Dada has gone for a long, long time. Jamie knows that as Dada is lost, he will be searching for his family, even as far as the remote Hebridean  island where Jamie now lives with his Mum and 2 sisters. So Jamie throws lots of messages in bottles into the sea, each one containing a hand-drawn map with the location of the family’s house clearly marked. This image moved me to tears; in their efforts to protect Jamie, whose mind works in mysterious ways, the adults had blurred the edges of reality to such an extent, that the little boy comes to believe that his father has been re-incarnated into the body of a grizzly bear which has escaped on the island and so far evaded capture.

The narrative moves from Bonn to East Berlin, Ballanish in the Outer Hebrides to London, taking in the experiences of not only Letty and her children, but also the escaped bear, the Cold War and a suspected radiological contamination. Only an exceptional talent could weave together such disparate threads as these, to produce a tender, compelling and imaginative novel. I found it completely captivating, such was the power of Pollen’s characters; the islanders with their fears and fairytales, the commandeering Ambassadress, Nicky’s faithful friend Tom, and Ballanish itself.

Such is the scope and sweep of ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ that even if you have never been bereaved, or set foot on a Scottish island, or read the (true) story of Hercules the bear, there will be something in this book to seduce you. I will definitely be hunting out Bella Pollen’s other work.

Book No 37 (2015) : The Last Pier

the last pierRoma Tearne’s sixth novel is set against the backdrop of the last few days of peace before the Second World War was declared. Only 13-year old Cecilia’s life is not all that peaceful, amongst the comings and goings of Palmyra Farm. Her elder brother, Joe, is in love with Franca. the daughter of the Molinello family which runs the ice cream parlour in Bly.  At night her sister, Rose, climbs down the honeysuckle bush out into the dark, whilst her mother seems distracted. Added to the fact that Selwyn, her father, is often kept away from home by his various responsibilities and her Aunt Kitty seems to have taken against Rose, Cecilia’s life is complex. Pinky Wilson is surveying the land for war use, Bellamy the farm hand is always hanging around and Tom has already been evacuated from the city to Palmyra. Cecilia eavesdrops a lot, listening in on the conversations around her, trying to make sense of what is going on.

29 years later, Cecelia has returned to Palmyra, haunted by fragments of the past.   Rose is dead; she died during that 1939 summer, in tragic circumstances. As Cecilia pieces together her own recollections and finds some long-hidden family documents, the truth about Rose’s death is gradually revealed.

I’ve been mulling over my review for a couple of days since I finished ‘The Last Pier‘. On the one hand, I can appreciate Tearne’s exquisite writing; she has a turn of phrase which is often arresting and unexpected, but perfect in the choice of words she uses to convey a fleeting moment, a glance or an emotion. Her writing has an ethereal quality to it which is almost dreamlike. However, I found the writing almost too subtle. It was difficult to follow the plot, the threads joining together the elements of the story were very finely spun in some places, leaving me uncertain even at the end about what had actually happened.

In conclusion, all I can say is that ‘The Last Pier‘ didn’t really hit the spot for me. However, I would not want to put anyone off reading the novel, as its literary qualities are clearly not in question. I only hope that as Roma Tearne lives in Oxford, she doesn’t recognise me in Broad Street one day and deck me. Mind you, judging by her prose, she is far too elegant to do such a thing: she could probably knock me for six with a single, well-chosen sentence.

Thanks to NetGalley for my copy of the book.

Book No 36 (2015) : The Children Act

children actIan McEwan’s is a Masterchef whose key ingredients are all carefully selected. With ‘The Children Act’ it’s as if the author has taken a much longer book and drained it through a sieve. All the wishy-washy, watery stuff has been siphoned off and the resultant literary reduction is smooth and palatable, but also deeply satisfying.

The book’s central character is a female High Court Judge practising in Family law, but the novel opens at a key point in her personal life rather than her professional one. Julia’s husband is contemplating an adulterous liaison with a young statistician and asks Julia to sanction the affair, on the basis that she and Jack no longer have a mutually fulfilling sex life. Julia is side-swiped by the request but clings to the belief that her marriage is worth saving. Whilst she is facing this intense personal challenge, the Judge is also dealing with her usual heavy workload. Divorce cases, access to children, the separation of conjoined twins, Julia has to rule on serious and life-changing cases. When the case of Adam Henry comes before her, there is not much time for a decision to be reached; Adam is opposing life-saving blood transfusions on the grounds that the procedure conflicts with his religious beliefs. At 17, is he mature enough to make the decision to refuse the treatment which will safe his life? That judgement is for Julia to make, and it is literally life or death. She gets to determine.

The Children Act’ examines not only the legal aspects of caring for families in society, (there are carefully-researched references to several landmark rulings), but also the immense skill required in the correct application of the law. McEwan explores ethics, religious belief and parental influence; as a reader I began to develop an appreciation of how difficult it must be to negotiate the complexities of the law and apply legal principles soundly. Within the book, because of the emotive nature of Adam’s situation, it is so easy to get side-tracked by moral or medical issues, when what the Judge must be concerned with is the law. The role of music and poetry is also important within the book; these art forms contrast with the formality of the law, providing outlets for self-expression, release and shared experiences.

I read ‘The Children Act‘ pretty much in one sitting; it is an interesting and thought-provoking read which succeeds on both emotional and cerebral levels. I put it down really feeling as if I had learned something. Quite an achievement for 224 pages. I’ve struggled with McEwan’s work in the past, but I am tempted now to re-visit some of his other work. A great read.

Book No 33 (2015) : Lillian on Life

lillian on lifeI’ve had a lifelong dread of being the first one to fart in a relationship’, says Lillian. Really? I don’t believe that is true; it sounds like a smart thing that someone might say in a book, to make the reader smile or laugh. And so it was with the KY jelly, the sleeping penis and the matches to dispel bathroom smells – I wasn’t disgusted, just uninterested in these revelations.  They didn’t feel deep or meaningful, just mundane. Who wants to read about farting?

Lillian is the invention of author Alison Jean Lester, and her life is described in short chapters. We learn about her disapproving mother and the Poppa to whom she is devoted. Once she leaves the USA, Lillian lives an independent, sometimes glamorous life, taking jobs in several European cities. She never marries or has children, but each city brings new liaisons. Lillian’s love affairs are recounted truthfully; the love of her life is a married man and one male forces himself upon her. Lillian has got wiser as she has got older and her recollections reveal her current stage of life. As a middle-aged woman, Lillian contemplates her choices.

This book reads like a memoir rather than a work of fiction; I maybe would have found it more interesting had it actually been autobiographical, possibly of somebody famous. As it was, I just found this book tedious – 86% of people who rated the book on Goodreads liked it so I am in the minority but I was one of the 14% who didn’t. I’m not proud of being a fourteen-percenter in this case, but this book left me completely cold. In a week’s time, I think all I am likely to remember is the cover, which is gorgeous.

Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this book.