Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart’s debut Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker and was nominated for many other prizes and awards. For good reason. Stuart’s novel traces the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain from childhood until he’s sixteen and it’s a doozy.

Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is central to this story. She’s thirty-nine and lives in a flat with her parents and “to have her husband and three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.” Agnes’s endless struggles with men and alcohol are central to Shuggie’s story. His older brother and sister, Leek and Catherine, are far more jaded about their mother’s problems than Shuggie, who is much younger and much more hopeful that Agnes will get better.

When Big Shug, a philandering cab driver, finds a house for them outside of Glasgow, Agnes swells with hope. But when she sees their new home, surrounded by “huge black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of life […] the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen” she no longer views the move as a step in the right direction for her marriage. She and her children are isolated from the support system of her parents, and Big Shug essentially walks out on them, too.

Agnes is one of the most fascinating characters I have encountered in a long time. While it is certainly true that she is a hopeless drunk, she is also charming and intelligent. Despite the ways in which she neglects her children, particularly Shuggie, she loves them. Douglas’s novel gives readers plenty of reasons to admire Agnes, even as we watch her sink further and further into the bottle. It is much easier to hate Big Shug because he deliberately abandons his family and does it in such a way as to cause the most damage.

The novel is bookended with Shuggie at sixteen, living in a bed-sit and fending for himself. If you ever want to understand how a person comes to be where they are, examine their childhood. For better or worse, there’s no escaping the influence our families have on us. Shuggie does his best to look out for his mom, especially after Catherine leaves to get married and Leek is finally put out (and can I just say for the record that I LOVED Leek. There’s a scene when he escapes to the top of a hill with his sketchbook that broke my heart.) Shuggie is too young to realize what his older siblings already know: nothing he can do will save Agnes. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Although you might think that a book about an alcoholic living in Glasgow (the setting for so much despair in the 1980s due to Thatcher’s economic policies) would be relentlessly grim, it isn’t. These characters are resilient and determined and so lovingly rendered, they will find a place in your heart.

Apparently, Stuart’s manuscript was turned down 32 times! Imagine. If you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to give it a go. Stuart is a born story teller and this is clearly a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

When We Were Vikings – Andrew David MacDonald

Zelda MacLeish, the protagonist of Andrew David MacDonald’s debut When We Were Vikings, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with lifelong implications.” (https://nofas.org/) Some of the common developmental disabilities found in people with FAS include “decreased IQ and deficits in motor skills, attention, executive function (working memory, problem solving, planning, and response inhibition), language, visual perception, adaptive functioning (skills necessary for everyday living).” (https://nofas.org/)

Now 21, Zelda lives with her older brother Gert. The siblings live a life dictated by schedules and rules that have been put in place to make Zelda feel secure. Gert is attending college on a scholarship and he does his best to look after his sister, but the truth is that he is only a couple years older and life isn’t easy.

Zelda is fascinated by Vikings. For her 21st birthday, Gert hires a stripper dressed as a Viking. Zelda remarks “Even if you were not an expert on Vikings and had not read Kepple’s Guide to Vikings, you would say, that is a Viking.” But Zelda is an expert and she notices several things about the stripper which are not historically accurate including the fact that his sword isn’t made of metal, his outfit is plastic, and his blonde hair isn’t natural. Zelda follows the Viking code, dividing the people she meets into members of her tribe: Gert, AK47 (also known as Annie, Gert’s ex-girlfriend), Marxsy (Zelda’s boyfriend), Dr. Laird (her therapist) and villains (most of the people Gert associates with).

Once Dr. Laird asked me why I liked Vikings. I told him three reasons:

One, they are brave,

Two, they are strong and people have to think twice before trying to hurt them.

Three, Viking heroes stand up for people who can’t defend themselves.

I told Dr. Laird that I wanted to be all of those things. People look at me and do not think that I am brave or strong and that I am the one who needs protection. My legend will show people that, even if you are not gargantuan, you can still be strong and brave and help others in your tribe.

Zelda will have her chance to prove that she is a Viking when Gert’s extra-curricular activities land him in hot water. She is so much more than meets the eye and I loved every single second of my time with her. One of the things I most love in a book is a strong voice…and Zelda’s is just perfection.

When We Were Vikings is funny, and heart-breaking (often at the same time). This is a novel about found family, but also about the unbreakable bond between siblings. Gert is a deeply flawed human being, but he loves Zelda. This is definitely a coming-of-age story, and watching Zelda navigate the tricky waters of her life is a marvelous journey to take.

Highly recommended.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game.

Highly recommended.

Tin Man – Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s novel Tin Man is the story of Ellis, a quiet middle-aged man who has spent his adult life working nights in the paint shop at the local car plant in Oxford, England. “He was forty-five years old, and every night he wondered where the years had gone.”

Every day is much like the day before for Ellis, but his life wasn’t always so predictable. First there was Michael. Then there was Annie.

In the front bedroom, propped up among the books, is a color photograph of three people, a woman and two men. They are tightly framed, their arms around one another, and the world beyond is out of focus, and the world on either side is excluded. They look happy, they really do. Not just because they are smiling but because there is something in their eyes, an ease, a joy, something they share.

The “something they share” is the subject of Tin Man, a story that unravels like a beautiful dream. The ribbon that runs through Ellis’s story is a painting of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Ellis’s mother, Dora, won a reproduction of the painting in a raffle and, to her, it represented “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.”

When, as an adolescent, Michael meets Dora, they share an appreciation for the painting and what it represents. She tells Michael and Ellis, “Men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.”

Ellis’s relationship with Michael shape-shifts, and when they are nineteen they travel to Van Gogh’s France and consummate their relationship. A choice they make there altars the course of their lives, and a few years later Ellis meets Annie and marries her. Ellis’s marriage is another decision that changes the trajectory of their lives. Winman’s book is really about those choices, big and small, which can have an impact on our lives.

Tin Man is also a book about the kindness of strangers, and of how sometimes a moment of grace can allow the light to get into the darkest corners of our lives. A shared meal. A bed to sleep in. The opportunity to tell our story. Forgiveness when you need it most.

This is a beautifully written book. There are no villains here, only human beings hopeful to live worthy lives. I think the novel suggests that what’s worthy are the quiet moments, the moments of homecoming.

Highly recommended.

The Familiar Dark – Amy Engel

Last year I read Amy Engel’s novel The Roanoke Girls and I really loved it. Her novel The Familiar Dark is equally compelling and I read it in one sitting.

The Familiar Dark opens with a double homicide. When small town cop, Cal, comes to the diner to tell his sister Eve that her daughter, twelve-year-old Junie and her best friend Izzy have been murdered, Eve is bereft. Junie is Eve’s whole world. They are a team; only Cal has ever been invited into their private world.

Cal and Eve’s childhood is something they have worked their whole lives to escape. The siblings were raised “in a double-wide that stank of men and meth burners…strange faces and too much laughter, most of it jagged and mean. All of it nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks.” Their town is a backwater, where everyone knows your business and Eve wonders if the inept sheriff will ever find out who killed her daughter, so she takes her mother, Lynette’s advice: “You find him, Eve. Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay.”

Engel travels some pretty dark roads in The Familiar Dark. Although Eve has worked hard to live a different kind of life and raise her daughter away from the negative influences she’d had, including her mother, who she’s mostly avoided for the past decade, her questions necessarily suck her back into the “familiar dark” of her past.

For example, she must confront her former boyfriend (and I use the term loosely) Jimmy Ray, a local meth dealer.

I’d known what he was because I wasn’t blind. But I’d still fallen for the dark hair and green eyes, the lopsided grin, the tiger tattoo curled around his neck. The scent of danger he wore like cologne. When I was with him, I felt like the old Eve, the one who had flirted with disaster and never cared about how much something might hurt.

The Familiar Dark is almost un-put-down-able. Eve’s past has hardened her; Junie was the person who had smoothed out her rough edges. Engel leads the reader and Eve down a dark path, where Eve is forced to ask questions she may not want the answers to. There are some true surprises along the way and the ending is devastating.

Highly recommended.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

According to some scientists, the body replaces itself every seven years. (There are actually differing opinions on this, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s true: every seven years you essentially become a new you.) This may or may not have been something John Boyne gave any thought to when he structured his 2017 novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The novel opens in 1945, and then advances every seven years until 2015.

The book begins quite dramatically when Father John Monroe “stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.” Catherine Goggin, 16, is pregnant with the narrator, and the priest (who it has not yet been revealed has fathered two children of his own) has humiliated her in front of the entire congregation. She will not reveal her baby’s father; her parents and older brothers will not come to her rescue, and she has no choice but to leave her tiny village and head for what she hopes will be a better life in Dublin.

Flash forward seven years and this child, Cyril, lives with his adoptive parents Charles and Maude Avery. That’s what he’s to call them, not mom and dad because, as Charles often reminds him, he’s not a real Avery. The Averys are quite well-off, although Charles is in a bit of trouble for not paying his taxes, and that’s how Cyril meets Julian Woodbead, seven-year-old son of Max Woodbead, the soliciter who is going to try to keep Charles out of prison. This meeting with Julian is significant for Cyril and causes Cyril a great deal of heartache, over the next few years, when he realizes that his feelings for Julian are romantic. Flash forward seven years, and the boys are now sharing a room in boarding school – a circumstance which causes Cyril quite a lot of sexual anxiety.

This is one of the novel’s central themes because homosexuality in a country ruled by the church isn’t just against the law, it’s a sin.

It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature

But lie Cyril must, and these lies cause him all sorts of trouble. It’s difficult to imagine any of this happening in my lifetime, and watching Cyril gratify himself with anonymous partners in alleys and dark corners was really depressing, actually. It was worse, though, to watch him try to ignore his feelings for Julian, who turns out to be a complete womanizer. Eventually, Cyril makes a catastrophic choice which separates him from Julian for many years. Their reunion, when it comes, is quite – I was going to say healing, and it is, but it’s more than that, too.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping, funny, sad picaresque (although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Cyril is rough, and his dishonesty is borne of necessity.) I am usually someone who hates great leaps forward in time, but this was certainly not the case with this novel. I loved being with Cyril and his family every seven years. (Unbeknownst to Cyril, he keeps crossing paths with his biological mother over the years and I kept crossing my fingers hoping that this was the moment that they reconnected.) This is a brick of a book – 580 pages – but I turned the pages without difficulty. It is full of pop culture and political references, I could hear all the accents as the characters spoke, and it is a book that will certainly stay with me for a long time.

Highly recommended.

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls (One Day, Such Sweet Sorrow) is a master at peering into all the hidden corners of relationships. In Us, he tells the story of Douglas and Connie and their seventeen-year-old son, Albie. One night, Connie wakes Douglas up and drops a bombshell: “I think I want to leave you.”

Douglas and Connie have been married for two decades, a happy marriage, Douglas (our narrator) tells us, but certainly not without its problems. Connie’s news comes just as the family is about to set off on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in advance of Albie heading off to university. They decide to go anyway, and Douglas takes this as a hopeful sign; perhaps he will be able to win back his wife’s affection and repair his slightly wobbly relationship with Albie.

The fact was I loved my wife to a degree I found impossible to express, and so rarely did. While I didn’t dwell on the notion, I had presumed that we would end our lives together.

Douglas, a scientist, and Connie, an artist, seem like an unlikely pair, really. Douglas’s narrative mines their origin story (they met at a dinner party thrown by his younger sister) for all the details which will help the reader understand their relationship and Douglas, wisely, doesn’t gloss over the fact that he is often pedantic and, perhaps, less empathetic than others. Maybe it is the scientist in him, but Douglas doesn’t always see the value in throwing caution to the wind. For him, everything is a teachable moment, and it’s caused some friction with his family over the years. I could certainly see how living with him, especially given that Connie is much more free-spirited, could wear one down.

So the family go off on their tour of the great museums of Europe and it’s a bit of a bust from the get go. Douglas has the whole thing planned down to the minute, but of course it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Still, he tries.

1. Energy! Never be ‘too tired’ or ‘not in the mood.’

2. Avoid conflict with Albie. Accept light-hearted joshing and do not retaliate with malice or bitter recriminations. Good humour at all times.

3. It is not necessary to be seen to be right about everything, even when that is the case.

Poor Douglas. He really can’t help himself. But he’s not a jack ass. He’s actually quite a lovely guy and he really does try, but it doesn’t take long before the trip goes sideways. His willingness to do whatever it takes to fix things, including his marriage, (often leading to quite comical incidents) is one of the great joys of Us.

The other joy is watching this family – all of whom love each other deeply but imperfectly – try to figure things out. The potential dissolution of a family – all that history – isn’t easy, and watching Douglas bare his scientific soul to the idea of being without Connie and having damaged his relationship with Albie beyond repair is really quite magnificent. I read one review that suggested that Douglas was too reticent about sharing personal details, often times the scene fades to black before too much is revealed, but I think this is exactly the reason Connie felt she had to leave him.

Us is funny (although there were instances when I felt it was trying just a tad too hard to get a laugh), and well-written. I loved visiting these European cities. The characters felt like real people. The ending was – well, you decide.

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery

I haven’t read a Lucy Maud Montgomery book for probably 50 years – and, sadly, that’s not an exaggeration. Of course, like many Canadian women, I read and fell in love with Anne of Green Gables when I was a kid, but I haven’t ever revisited Anne’s island. The Blue Castle is the only novel Montgomery wrote which is not set in her beloved Prince Edward Island, and it’s only one of two adult novels she wrote.

Valancy Stirling lives with her widowed mother and Cousin Stickles in Deerwood, Ontario. Her life is joyless, and her mother, cousin and extended family are overbearing and critical. Every day is like the day before, and there is no hope that anything will ever change. What stings most of all is that “she had never had a chance to be anything but an old maid. No man had ever desired her.”

There is one bright spot in Valancy’s life and that is her “Blue Castle”.

Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle.

A trip to the doctor changes everything for Valancy. Suddenly she stops allowing her family to bully her and their reaction to her spirited responses is quite comical. She packs her bags and moves out to Old Abel Gay’s, the local handyman and town drunk, whose daughter, Cissy, a former classmate of Valancy’s, is dying. No one can quote believe it. They think she’s gone quite mad. But Abel is kind to her and Valancy finds a friend in Cissy. Suddenly the whole world opens up to Valancy, and truthfully, almost 100 years after The Blue Castle was published, her journey to independence is a delight.

If, like me, you haven’t read Montgomery in forever, I highly recommend this one. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s sweet and, in many ways, Valancy is a modern heroine. I loved my time with her.

If We Were Villains – M.L. Rio

I would put M.L. Rio’s 2017 debut If We Were Villains in the ‘dark academia’ category. For me, that’s a book about students in a sort of gothic university setting where dark deeds are done. Donna Tartt probably deserves the credit for writing the quintessential novel in this milieu, The Secret History, a book I read when it first came out and intend to re-read this summer because I recommend it all the time, but have very little memory of the book’s details.

When If We Were Villains begins, Oliver Marks is just being released after spending ten years in prison. He makes a deal with Joseph Colborne, the detective who arrested him but never really believed he was guilty, to finally tell the story of what really happened at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, where Oliver had been one of the seniors in the acting department.

There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no further than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry. all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum.

Dellecher is a weird, isolated school – kind of a given in books of this type. The seven main characters live together in “what was whimsically called the Castle.” They are as eclectic a bunch as you’d expect acting students to be; almost every type you could imagine is represented. They are serious ‘actors’ and at Dellecher, the only playwright they ever study is Shakespeare. Indeed, the seven of them often converse with each other using only words written by the Bard. A Shakespeare scholar might be able to parse the significance of the lines that are spoken; I felt lucky to merely recognize some of them.

Oliver unspools the story of what happened at Dellecher and, in doing so, reveals the dark underbelly of friendship, jealousy, violence, and love that simmers beneath the surface of this close-knit (proximity, not affection necessarily) troupe of players. I can’t say they were a particularly likeable group, but I guess that doesn’t really matter. They’re actors, and by definition we can’t really know who they are beneath the stage make-up. That works in the novel’s favour, really, because when the crime for which Oliver is later incarcerated is committed, the players (let’s call them that instead of friends) have to put on the greatest performance of their lives.

I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. It requires something of its readers: attention must be paid. It is structured in five acts, the ending is ambiguous (although I have my suspicions) and, like any great play, it gave me a lot to think about.

Well worth your time.