From the title to the very last page this collection of poems feels like perfection. It will stir just about every emotion within you. It will have you laughing, crying, nodding in agreement and just about everything else in between. It is a collection about life, about those things that are topical in this crazy world but also those things which have been with us for time immemorial.
It’s title, Alexa, what is there to know about love? sums up the premise of this work perfectly. These poems are in equal parts about the things that have changed, i.e Alexa, and those things that will never change, that is the subjects we are continually asking about.
And indeed there are many poems that focus on the age old questionsof love in all its many forms. Here you will find love poems for the ages; for the past; for the future. All quirky, all clever and all deliciously original. Take for example Five Clerihews for Doomed Loves, a tribute to some of the most iconic recorded lovers. No spoilers here but I will say that the poets views of Romeo and Juliet had me cheering in agreement!
Drudge Work is a beautiful tribute to the many different manifestations of love , of the impossibility of one solid definition. A theme returned to in Minutes from a Multidisciplinary Symposium on ‘What is Love. And the simple, churning tale found within Status Update: A Lonely Cloud will fell you with it’s final line.
And for a bookworm like me the shape poem Tsundoku is just perfection. To the point where I am sure Brian Bilston has bugged my home and is tapping into a recurring argument with Mr C!! ( And if you want to know what that argument might be, you will have to buy the book!)
This collection is quite simply a work of quiet, unassuming brilliance. Where the use of the familiar, of the rhyming couplet soothes, enhances and then suddenly, unexpectedly destroys. Within these pages is comfort, humour and delicious levels of challenge. The role of the poet feels like the role of an medieval fool, to entertain but also to speak the truth. To tell the passive onlookers of their beauty and their triumph, but also to expose their weaknesses, their foolishness and at times down right stupidity.
For despite it’s universal themes, this is very much a poetry book for our times. With a comforting, a times sing song voice and a crucial bite Bilston offers us commentary and sharp, powerful insight in to recent political and societal events. The eight lines of The White House will have you reeling and for anyone despairing about the rise of the right, Brexit and wider social conditions there are poems within this book that will have you nodding in agreement , even if that agreement is tinged with despair.
Take for example Hold my hand and let’s jump off this cliff. I defy you not cry out at it’s brilliance and start recommending it to anyone you might make eye contact with in the next week!
There are poems here that will break your heart; Penguinsand Bird Watching spring immediately to mind. Others will make you smile, maybe even laugh out loud; ee Cummings attempts online banking is a great place to start.
But each page contains a little gem, a word, a line, a verse, most often a whole poem to tuck away for later and savour, and most definitely to share.
Camilla Elworthy, thank you for sharing this pocket rocket with me. I promise you I am busy exploding it just everywhere I go!!!
Alexa, What Is There To Know About Love By Brian Bilston is published by Picador on 21st January 2021.
Firstly, for good or ill, it’s been a year like no other! And secondly, I wouldn’t have survived it without reading a lot of books.
Each month I have shared a monthly wrap up, and I am finishing the year with my top 25 books. Not all of them I reviewed, some I just devoured. Not all were published in 2020, but it was the year I personally discovered them. The list is arranged in the order I read them, not in any kind of preferential order. It is also worth noting that over the last month or so I have read some cracking 2021 proofs. These are not included here, but there will be a most anticipated list coming very soon.
So, deep breath, here goes …
1. Three Hours- Rosamund Lupton
This book blew me away right at the beginning of the year. I read it from cover to cover on one rainy Sunday.
Set in a progressive English private school, this is the story of a school shooting, but my goodness, it is so much more! Perfectly plotted, with pinpoint accurate writing and a level of complexity that astounded me, I am still recommending it now.
2. The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The first historical novel to make the list, and this one is a cracker.
Set in Norway in the 1600’s, based on a true story, it is the portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse. It is so vividly told and my full review can be found here.
3. My Dark Vanessa – Elizabeth Russell
Unsettling, thought provoking and I feel essential reading this book hasn’t left me yet.
It is a tale of power, manipulation and inappropriate relationships. It will provoke strong emotions, and intense debate and my review can be found here.
4. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
This book!! I read it back when it first came out in April and from the first few pages I fell in love! I have long admired Maggie O’Farrell, but this book feels like her masterpiece.
On the surface it is story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet , who died in childhood but in reality it is so much more. It is one of those rare novels where each word is perfectly placed. Despite having read it and revisited it in audiobook I haven’t reviewed this book. Quite simply I knew I couldn’t do it justice!
5. Conjure Women – Afia Atakora
This book was just bursting with every emotion going!! This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation.
Humour, love, life and grief of every shade is found within it’s pages; a unique and special tale. I was lucky enough to be on the blog tour for this one and my review can be found here.
6. The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel
This book needs no introduction from me!
The final instalment in Mantel’s epic Trilogy, this book that details the downfall and fate of Thomas Cromwell. Long listed once again for the Booker, Mantel amazes me every time I read her. Quite simply stunning!
7. A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
I love a Greek myth retelling and this book is right up there with the best.
A retelling of the story of the Trojan war, Haynes focuses on and brings to life, the unique perspective of the woman involved. Beautiful and heartbreaking from beginning to end, this novel thoroughly deserved it’s place on the Women’s Prize Shortlist.
8. The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld
This one was getting so much attention on Twitter, so many people whose opinion I trust were raving about this one, that I knew this was a winner. A beautiful inter generational story that will linger for a long time.
It is fair to say that I have recommended this book to so many people and to find out why you can find my review here.
9. Saving Lucia – Anna Vaught
BlueMoose Books never ever let me down. This year they have published only books by women authors and what an absolute treat it has been. Saving Lucia begins with the narrative of two women, both incarcerated at St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. Both women are public figures; Lady Violet Gibson was sectioned after attempting to assassinate Mussolini, Lucia Joyce is the daughter of poet James Joyce, a talented dancer and artist in her own right.
This unique story by Anna Vaught was another book I devoured in a day. My review can be found here.
10. Summerwater – Sarah Moss
It’s hard for me to pick a favourite author, there are way to many to choose from! But Sarah Moss has to be pretty near the top spot.
Summerwater is perfection. Written across the period of one day, in one remote place, from the point of view of several diverse characters this work is an absolute joy. In fact it was so good I read it twice. My review can be found here.
11. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
I read this book against the back drop of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations gathering momentum across the globe. It is hard to imagine a more momentous time to have engaged with this particular novel, but I am quite convinced that whenever I had met The Vanishing Half , it’s impact would be have been the same.
13. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth – Matson Taylor
It’s fair to say that 2020 has sometimes fallen short on laughs! But this book helped to raise mirth and spirits alike.
It is the story of 16 year old Evie, a Yorkshire lass, living on a farm with her Dad Arthur. It’s 1962 and having lost her mother as a baby Evie is close to her Dad, so her world is rocked when the indomitable Christine appears on the scene. With her entirely pink wardrobe, over bearing mother Vera and grand plans for the family – none of which actually involve farming or Evie – Christine is a force to be reckoned with and it seems she has Arthur under her spell.
What happens next is a glorious riot of a story!
14. The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue
Considering I have been living through a pandemic you might have thought I would avoid books that reflected that world back to me.
However The Pull of the Stars, set in Ireland in 1918 flu pandemic made me realise just how lucky we are today. Here was a civilisation, still coping with the ravages of war, poor sanitation, economic hardship and limited communication, dealing with challenges we could only imagine.
This book was profound, moving and in many ways hopeful.
15. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
This book needs no introduction from me. A Booker Prize winner that I will forever feel privileged to have read in proof form; this book went to the core of my soul.
So beautifully written, full of heartbreak and joy; light and shade in equal measure. Shuggie Bain is a present and future classic.
16. The Sound Mirror – Heidi James
Back to Bluemoose Books (there is a delightful pattern developing here!!) and this time to the raw and rather special The Sound Mirrorby Heidi James.
If I can write just one paragraph with the skill, beauty and sharpness of Heidi James I will die a happy woman. This is the story of women, of families and the mark they make, for good or ill, on the lives they touch.
This one is unsurpassed.
17. Supporting Cast – Kit De Waal
Short stories continue to delight me, and these are up there with the best of them. They are made all the more delightful by linking to Kit’s previous novels.
Touching, tender and immersed in compassion, these stories were like revisiting old friends and peeking into their hearts and souls.
18. Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers
I read this book back in the summer and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. This is an unusual and atmospheric tale and one which perfectly radiates and reflects the period in which it is set.
My review is here and I know this is one I will be rereading in the not too distant future.
19. The Harpy – Megan Hunter
There was no other book quite like this one in my reading pile this year!
A tale of betrayal, deceit and the ultimate revenge, this novel is heavy with mythological reference and symbolism. The Harpyis once read and never forgotten.
20. A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ni Ghriofa
This book was an unexpected find and joy this year. A book that introduced my to the idea of ‘Women’s Texts’ and spoke to me in a myriad of ways.
This book is a celebration of women’s lives through the ages, of women telling their own and each other’s stories, of celebrating the extraordinary and the domestic with equal gravity and relish. My review is here.
21. The Night of the Flood – Zoe Somerville
I always get excited when I am introduced to a new author, especially when that author is right at the beginning of their publishing journey. Because it means there are more exciting things to come.
This was most definitely the case with The Night of the Flood.Set against the backdrop of the 1953 Norfolk flood, this story is exciting, tender and robustly told.
22. Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books – Cathy Rentzenbrink
If there has been one more thing comforting than books and reading this year, it has been sharing that love with other people. Be that through the giving and receiving of books, blogging, zoom book clubs or through wonderful books like Dear Reader that focus on what it is that books mean to the author.
This one was such a treat; a beacon in a very dark time. My review, I hope, will explain why this is a not be missed book.
23. Should we fall behind – Sharon Duggal
This year has been an opportunity to embrace and celebrate the power of community. To remind ourselves once more of the individual stories and experiences that come together as a whole to make us what we are.
And this book is a true reflection of that philosophy. Another Bluemoose offering, Should We Fall Behind is the story of what happens when we look beyond the surface and start to let others in. It was a glorious book to lose myself in this autumn.
24. When I Come Home again – Caroline Scott
Literature set around the First World War has it’s own special place in my heart. There is something so individual about this period, about the challenges, the loss and in a strange way, the gains, that I will always seek out these stories.
When I Come Home Again is a perfect example of this canon of literature and it was my absolute pleasure to read and review as part of the blog tour.
25. The Thief on the Winged Horse – Kate Mascarenhas
Set in the modern day but in a world more magical than our own, this story of family tradition, magic and rivalry captures both my heart and my imagination.
It’s attention to detail was exquisite, and it’s strong female characters, intent on reclaiming a stolen birthright, was just the boost I needed. This book is powerful and just a little bit special. And it was a privilege for my review to be catching a ride on the blog tour.
So there, are my top 25! So many fabulous books read and shared this year. And so many people to thank. Huge thanks to everyone who has sent me books to read, review and generally worship; it is a privilege I will never take for granted.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read the blog this year and connect with me on Social Media. It’s always a pleasure but this year it has literally been a lifeline.
Here’s to 2021 – whatever it brings, let’s remember there are always books!!
So autumn is very much upon us and September seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. For me September is always about the start of the school year, always busy, but this year unsurprisingly it has presented it’s own unique challenges!!
As such the reading totals are way down on last month and the type of books I have read have varied enormously!!
For example, there have been a number of books which I think of as ‘dip in and out books’, books perfectly suited to grabbing when I have five minutes to indulge myself. Keeping me company throughout the whole month has been the glorious Poems to live your life by collected and illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. It’s been the perfect bedside companion to busy days and early mornings.
Entirely different and accidental poetry and very light relief has been found in The beautiful poetry of Donald Trump by Rob Sears. Each poem is a little gem created by the author from actual Trump quotes. As with anything surrounding the current US President it is hilarious and scary in equal measure.
My final ‘dip in and out’ read has been the excellent The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla. This is a collection of experiences and essays by a multicultural cast of voices, focusing on what being a immigrant in Modern Britain really means. Illuminating, sometimes heartbreaking, this collection is likely to provoke every emotion going but it is an absolute must read.
Immigration seems to have been a bit of a theme in my reading this month. I started the month with the fabulous, if some what challenging Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, part fiction, part fact this is an honest account of what it is like to grow as a Muslim in the USA.
And in a similar vein the month drew to a reading close with the beautiful The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. My Instagram review can be found here
In a bid to escape the reality of daily news I have reawakened my habit of listening to an audiobook on the drive to work. I am almost at end of my life long love Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, performed by the talented Joanna Froggat. and l have also listened to this month’s book club pick Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson
I have been involved in two cracking blog tours this month. One was the mammoth but delightful undertaking of Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin, a detailed and compelling retelling of the complex loves of John Ruskin.
I am sent so many fabulous books to read and review and I am genuinely appreciative and overwhelmed by them all. But I wanted to take this opportunity to say a special thank you to Camilla Elworthy from Picador. This year, thanks to her, I have had the pleasure to read some amazing books, including the incomparable Shakespearean by Robert McCrum; my Instagram review can be found here
But this month Camilla sent me a book that literally saved me. In all kinds of ways this has been a tough month but sinking into the pages of Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrinkwas like being enveloped in a warm and book lined cloak. I am so grateful for the chance to read and review this book. Camilla, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You!
I have ended the month with two cracking books which have both come highly recommended and neither disappointed. I delighted in the short but deliciously dark Sisters by the super talented Daisy Johnson. And lost myself in the workings of the Royals with The Governess by Wendy Holden.
So there we have it; September’s reading laid bare. On to October…
Since all this Covid madness began the one thing I have been missing hugely is hugs. Not being able to throw my arms around a friend or give a colleague a reassuring squeeze is just the hardest thing in the world. So if you, like me are missing your fix, get your hands on Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, because this my friends is a book hug! Huge and heartfelt thanks to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy.
It’s not often these days I sit down to write a blog post with no notes. As I am reading I am usually scribbling away, trying to get my thoughts down. But this review has come from a place of love and instinct; I don’t need any notes to tell you this book spoke immediately to me.
Any book that has embraced and celebrated Rebecca and The Chronicles of Narnia within the first 10 pages is guaranteed to touch a special place within me. These are the books that I return to time and again, that are tied up within my life, woven into the fabric of growing up. So many familiar and favourite books are to be found here. The Cazalet Chronicles, for example provokes an almost identical reaction within me as it does the author; a beautifully constructed time-gone-by saga which gives more of it’s self every time you read it.
And there are books celebrated here that remind me of those I love. I have never read a Catherine Cookson in my life but these novels were the backdrop to my childhood, exchanged every other Sunday by my Mum and my Grandad, each new release eagerly awaited and devoured.
Cathy Rentzenbrink reads compulsively and with passion. I am told I am a quick reader, but I am in awe of her ability to devour three books a day. This book felt like sitting down with a kindred spirit and comparing notes. This isn’t a list of books the author has read; it isn’t a volume of put together reviews; it is a tale of how reading had underpinned, shaped and support a life, through all it’s challenges and joys. And I feel a deep connection with that.
You see reading has helped to build me and it always has the power to put me back together again. For me reading is like breathing. I need to read. In this world of box sets and social media the amount I read each year often seems to provoke constant comment, as if compulsive reading is some kind of disease or affliction. Maybe it is but like the author I am powerless to change now.
Cathy Rentzenbrink has made books her salvation and her career. It is a source of regret to me that no one ever told me and the teenage me never realised, that I could make books the centre of my professional life. Maybe my blog is part of the desire to address this. Or maybe it is way of fulfilling that desire to recommend books to complete strangers in libraries, in book shops and in public transport.
This book felt like coming home to an old friend. My reading list has grown beyond all measure and so has my bookish heart.
August is always my Happy Reading month! A combination of so much good stuff coming out at the beginning of September and the fact I am not in school, means I can truly indulge myself, and my reading totals tend to climb. This month I have read 21 books in total. It’s been bliss! Back to school this week and I suspect that September’s totals will struggle to reach double figures! August is definitely the purple patch!
August’s books were really varied. I read both physical and eBooks, and was able to catch up with several books I have been meaning to get to for a while. These included Breaking and Mending by Joanna Cannon, Himself by Jess Kidd, Keeper by Jessica Moor , Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore . Each one was a book neglected for too long and it’s own unique way a delight.
Another book that I finally got round to reading cover to cover was Hollie McNish’s Nobody told me. I am way behind with this one but if you don’t know it is a collection of prose and poetry written during the author’s pregnancy and the first weeks, months and years of her daughter’s life. It is perfection. It sums up the terror, exhaustion, love and exhilaration of that unique time so beautifully. And for this mum about to send her eldest off to the big wide world of University it was a reflective trip down memory lane.
Another book I had been saving for a special, uninterrupted reading time was Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers.Honestly it was one of the best books I have read this year. I wasn’t planning to review it but having been totally immersed in it there was no way I could pass this one by!
Similarly hoarded and enjoyed have been In The Sweep of The Bay by Cath Barton and Alison Weir’s fifth Tudor Queen book; Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen.
I love short stories, but I don’t feel I have read enough this year. So I have managed to squeeze a couple in to August. First was the newly released Supporting Cast by Kit de Waal. This book was like meeting up with old friends as we gain further insights into the lives of the characters from Kit’s previous novels. This one is going on the forever shelf and is due a reread.
The second collection of stories, arrived through my love of Pondweed by Lisa Blower.It’s gone dark over Bill’s mother’s provoked every emotion going! Highly recommended!
My one and only audiobook this month has been Hamnet. Having read this one back in April, the beauty of this book kept us company on the long drive through France and drew a whole car full of people under it’s spell. I will never fail to be stunned by this book.
I made one foray onto the Booker Prize list with The Redhead By The Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Always in a safe pair of hands with Tyler!
And, as always this month I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to read some cracking proof copies. Thanks to everyone who sent and continues to send me books. I will never take this privilege for granted.
A pretty inspirational proof for me this month was Finish your book by Lizzie Enfield. It has given me the writing kick up the backside I needed and August was a really productive month!! Thank you Emma Dowson for sending this one my way.
Gifted books that have thrilled me in every sense (!) this month have been The Heatwave by Kate Riordan, for which I am delighted to be part of the Blog Tour, andAfterthe silence by Louise O’Neillpublished on 3rd September. Both kept me enthralled and intrigued! Similar responses were provoked by the stunning debut The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville published on 3rd September. Review coming next week…
And last but certainly not least are the two gorgeous reads that were A Ghost in the Throat and Potterism. Both unique and both bringing new writers into my life, something which gives me joy.
So it’s been a mammoth reading month! The feast before the famine I suspect, but that’s the way it rolls! Bring on autumn…
Well, where to begin!! If I tell you that I practically devoured this book in less that 24 hours on our first journey south since lockdown, pretty much oblivious to everything and everyone around me then you should get a good idea of it’s impact.
The Harpy by Megan Hunter will literally make your heart stop. I suspected when Camilla Elworthy sent me a proof I had a little treasure in my hands, but I couldn’t have imagined how much I would enjoy this book. Originally due for publication by Picador in June, but like so many books, delayed due to ‘the current situation (!)’, until 3rd September, The Harpy is waiting, coiled to blow everyone’s literary socks off this autumn!
It is the story of Lucy. With a degree in Classics, Lucy is now working from home as a part time copy writer. She is committed to her family; husband Jake, who is an academic at the local university and her two young boys Ted and Paddy. She is secure in her relationship , making her marriage and the boy’s childhood work in a way her own parents failed to do.
And then quite suddenly she receives a phone call. The husband of one of Jake’s colleagues phones to tell her that his wife, Vanessa, and her husband have been having an affair. Her world collapses. In shock and disbelief she confronts Jake. He is contrite and offers a way forward; a way to repair their marriage and even the score.
Lucy will hurt Jake three times. He will not know when or how. This will avenge his wrong doing. This is the first echo of the modern day mythology that reverberates through out this book. Suddenly Lucy’s lifelong interest and learning in Classical Mythology is much more than a detail. Woven together with her past childhood experiences of domestic abuse the scene is set for a tale of revenge and power. A tale where actions speak louder than words and nothing can be undone.
Enter the Harpy. A mythical bird-woman, the embodiment of revenge; powerful but dark, feared. She has been Lucy’s obsession in her childhood and through her youth, sparking her interest in Classical literature , sustaining her through dark times. But in her marriage Lucy had found peace, laid the Harpy to rest. But it the Harpy is just sleeping, waiting coiled to renter Lucy’s consciousness and life. To change things. The Harpy is a lynchpin, an idea, a motif that becomes more vivid, more solid as the novel progresses.
The Harpy on some level represents Lucy’s past; her childhood tainted by domestic violence. Like her obsession with the Harpy these memories are lying dormant. When the marriage she has created with Jake starts to fall down her memories resurface. The effect her past experiences have had on her break through and begin to unsettle Lucy. Through his proposal Jake has introduced domestic violence to their relationship. Suddenly this horror is almost sanctioned, and Lucy and the reader are left in a turmoil. The feeling that emotional betrayal has to be physically avenged is accepted within classical mythology, but within a modern marriage? Is this allowed? Does the desire or the need for revenge cancel out the reality of abuse? Have the past examples of Lucy’s own upbringing instilled within her an almost default mechanism? Will she always return to type in a crisis, following the example of her parents? And what cost revenge; not just to Jake but also to Lucy? How does this overwhelming sense of vengeance change her, emotionally and physically?
The Harpy is a modern day myth. It steeped in the feelings of a dark fairytale, bound up with classical mythology. There is a a recurring motif of natural disaster; physical descriptions of bodies, references to like gods or warriors are scattered through the text. Time and again we return to the tension created by forgiveness verses revenge. It is embodied within the characters of both Lucy and David Holmes, the wronged partner of Vanessa. The sense of myth and the blurring of reality increases as the time moves on, moving towards the climax.
The Harpy is fresh, dark and raw. It has a simplicity but also a complexity which is impossible to define. There is so much to digest and discuss in this book. If you are looking for something unique, which will both challenge and entertain, then this my friends is the book for you!
I have admired Jackie Kay‘s work for a long time. Ever since I found Trumpet tucked away on my Mother-in-Laws shelves one summer. Jackie Kay can weave magic with words, in what every form she chooses. So I was genuinely thrilled when Camilla Elworthy sent me a gifted copy of The Lamplighter.
I have sat for an age trying to start this review. There seems to be no catchy or clever way that feels appropriate to open a discussion of a work such as this. I am left with the slightly uneasy feeling that I using use words as ‘important’ and ‘heartbreaking’ will feel trite and insignificant, and that they are words I have over used in the past. This is a book that has truth at it’s core, and a beauty and darkness I fear I don’t have words to convey.
The Lamplighter is the story of slavery, portrayed in a work that reads as a lyrical, mesmerising poem and has been performed both as radio and stage plays. Taking the stories of 5 slaves; four women and one man, here is presented the story of the slave trade. Through a fragmented and tortured narrative we move from the slave forts in Africa, to the slave ships, to Britain and finally the plantations. Through each stage we follow their story.
With a unique rhythm and song, the stark realities of the slave trade and most importantly it’s legacy are presented. This is a collective chorus of loss, shared experiences and histories, there is a sense of one terrifying, appalling, overwhelming story. And yet it is compiled and defined by individual tales.
The power of the collective chorus does not diminish Aniwaa’s experiences as an 11 year, ripped from her family, alone and frightened in a slave pit. Or Mary’s beatings. Or Black Harriot’s life of selling her body to only half survive. These stories, presented as part of a larger whole are a powerful and dark swelling song.
There is a consistent sense of fragmentation to be found here a nonlinear narrative that is allowed to repeat in a dark cycle. The refrain often repeated; ‘I remember, I forget’ gets to the heart of the message. This is the story of not just the past, but how slavery has and continues to affect society today.
Here is the legacy of slavery. From the smell of the slave ships, two days out of dock, to the wealth this trade created, Jackie Kay places this legacy firmly on British soil. Heralded by list of transactions and place names, descriptions of slave markets in Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow; there is no escaping the fact that this is a British legacy. It is part of the fabric on which our society is built. The wealth it created are the shoulders on which our civilisation, ( and you will question that word, I guarantee) has risen . We could pull down a hundred statues and we won’t change that history. That we can’t alter this legacy is indisputable, but we must acknowledge it, own it and learn from it.
Is this an easy read? Or course it’s not. Is it essential? Absolutely.
Jackie Kay, thank you.
The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay is available now, published by Picador
I woke up this morning and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was on The Booker Prize long list. And my heart leapt. Because hands down this has been one of the most accomplished, raw and heart breaking novels I have read in a very long time. And I have read some great books this year.
Published by Picador and due for release on 6th August, I am indebted to Camilla Elworthy for my copy.
I have been hoarding this one away for a while now, waiting for a space in time when I could immerse myself in it. And immerse myself I did.
This debut novel is set in working class Glasgow. It spans the early 80’s, through to the early 90’s and encompasses a period of huge social decline. Thatcher is in power, heavy industry is closing. The Clyde’s ship yards are in free fall, as are the mines on the edge of the city. Mass unemployment, social deprivation and poverty is the backdrop to this story.
For this is the story of a boy, Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his adored mother Agnes. Proud and striking, Agnes adores her boy in return. But he is in a continual fight for her attention, first and periodically with the men of her life, his own father Shug included. But continually and crucially with alcohol. For Agnes is an alcoholic. A proud, feisty alcoholic, with standards of cleanliness and a show for the neighbours. An alcoholic who believes that a better future is always just around the corner. But an alcoholic just the same.
When Agnes follows her husband to a mining town on the edges of the city, chasing the promises of a better life Shuggie’s world turns upside down. The estate they find themselves on is broken and in free fall. His father disappears, leaving the family with nothing but a crowd of suspicious neighbours and a weekly benefits cheque.
It is here that Agnes’ drinking begins in earnest and slowly as his older siblings distance themselves from the inevitable, it is Shuggie who is left to pick up the pieces. Shuggie who is no more than a child and a child who is struggling to fit in to his surroundings, who is living on the very limits of his endurance, whilst grappling with his own emerging sexuality.
Shuggie Bain is written from the heart. This is, I am aware, an over used phrase. But sometimes you read something that you know comes from the core of someone’s being. That is written with such accuracy and authenticity that no amount of research could replicate, no matter how hard it tried.
The sense of time and place that encompasses this novel draws you in and pins you there. There are times in this story when you will want to look away, when the unfolding events make for more than uncomfortable reading and your heart will break again. But the narrative won’t let you look away, if you are with Shuggie at the beginning I can guarantee you will be with him at the end.
The characters in this novel are real. They command the story, they drew you back in and their experiences explode across the page, pulling your sympathies this way and that. You will scream at them, cry with and laugh out loud. And surprisingly, it will be very hard to judge. For even on her darkest days, even at her lowest ebb Agnes will command your sympathies. This is the skill of Stuart’s writing. He presents Agnes as a whole. She is more that her illness, more that the can of Special Brew waiting under the sink. She,and all those around her, live and breathe in these pages. Alongside the tragedy, the deprivation and the waste, there is humour, solidarity, fight and so much love.
This is a story about what people, and particularly women, will do to survive. Nothing in this novel is linear. It is about life, love and everything in between. It is about the way life can soar and then can crash, how things can flip in a heart beat but how life can slowly creep up when you are not looking and change the world for good or ill. You will find no stereotypes here, just people, with all their joys and faults. And just like the people of this novel your heart will break and your heart will soar. Through the vulnerability of a child you will see this story laid bare, both hope and hopelessness.
Sometimes a book comes along that all politicians, civil servants and social policy makers should read. When anyone of these people is becoming jaded and seeing only numbers and caseloads , making sweeping statements and generalisations someone needs to march along and shove a copy of Shuggie Bain right under their noses.
This one is a belter. And it’s my Booker Prize winner right there.
On 23rd June Picador published the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of The Wonder and Room. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof, a massive thank you goes to Alice May Dewing, and The Pull of the Stars has leapt on to my books of the year list.
The novel is set in Dublin in 1918. It is November and the armistice is actually only days away. But after 4 years of fighting, political unrest and now a crippling Flu pandemic, hope seems out of reach. The novel’s title is in fact taken from the Medieval Italian translation of influenza; influenza delle stelle- ‘the influence of the stars’.
Nurse Julia Power is working long and impossible days on a maternity ward, where expectant mothers who are suffering from the Flu are quarantined. The hospital is understaffed, running low on supplies and Dublin is descending into chaos. Julia travels across town each day, leaving her brother Tim alone, a brother rendered mute by his experiences in the War.
The novel takes place over the course of three days, and centres on Julia and two other key women characters. Doctor Kathleen Lynn is compassionate, controlled and a political revolutionary, hiding from the police under the cover of the hospital. Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer, raised by nuns in a local orphanage. Bridie is quick to learn, intelligent but has lived a life of unspeakable hardship and deprivation.
The three women are thrown together in the most extreme of circumstances. The pandemic is unchecked, the disease is not behaving in the way other influenzas have and medical professionals are learning on the job. The advice to the public is changing daily but the obvious and harsh reality is that the poor of Dublin can not afford to suspend their lives, and the disease continues to thrive. Death is everywhere and often sudden.
Under such circumstances the usual hierarchies and routines of the hospital are hard to maintain. The three central women characters are learning from each other, in all of kinds ways. It is fair to say that the three days depicted here change all the women in ways they would never have imagined.
Here are three women of different social standing, working seemlessly together. Bridie is the conduit through which the reader begins to understand the realities of maternity care and childbirth during this period. She also teaches the assured but socially naïve Julia about the realities of poverty in Dublin at the time.
It is through Bridie that Julia, and indeed the reader, begin to understand the foundations that underpin the poverty of the time. Foundations that often begin and end with the Catholic Church. Bridie’s experiences lay bare the cruelty of the Irish Homes run by the Church, where children weren’t told birth dates or their given names. Where families were separated and their relationships erased and denied. Where twisted morality was used as a pretence to divide families and where unmarried women where made to work off their stays in the homes for years, the time dependent on how many children they had out of wedlock, no mitigating circumstances considered .
All of this knowledge, translated by Bridie to Julia through the circumstances of the women that they care for, is powerful and shocking. It is the connections and bonds that forms between these two women that push their relationship forward into new and unfamiliar territory.
Following the theme of social awareness and learning, Dr Lynn, a revolutionary and member of the Irish Citizen Army, offers Julia a unique inside the Dublin’s political struggle, taking her beyond the propaganda of the nationalist press and offering her an alternative perspective. Each women offers the other knowledge, experience and an alternative viewpoint. Even in the darkest of times, these are women empowering each other.
This novel is the best kind of historical fiction, where research and detail are woven beautifully into the narrative. It is a book which I learnt from continually, but at no point did the flow of the characters story feel compromised or interrupted.
Of course as this is a novel about a pandemic, all sorts of parrallels can be drawn our current situation. But imagine a pandemic at the end of a war, in a country that is half starved, fighting it’s own internal political and religious struggle, where communities are pitted against each other. Imagine what it would be like to not have the technology allowing loved ones to keep in touch, to not have any government support to enable workers to self isolate and still feed their families. For the poor of Dublin not working equated to certain death for themselves and their families.
But this story is also about another pandemic. The realities of a child bearing at the beginning of the last century in a country that refused to allow any form of family planning. Where large families were the norm and a women’s health came a poor second. Where a potentially viable fetus would be delivered post-mortem regardless of what it chances of survival would be and whether anyone would be able to care for it. Of a time before antibiotics, when the period after a delivery was as perilous if not more so than the birth its self.
This is a story that is told with skill and heart. At a time of great challenge, when the world seemed to be falling into despair and disrepair, the interactions and friendship of these three women, over these three days, are the spark of hope which pulled the world along .
No one writes like Sarah Moss. When you open a novel by Sarah Moss you are going to fall down a rabbit hole and not come up for air. Her writing is sharp, detailed and quite frankly amazing, so best clear your schedule if you are about to start one of her books.
So when I heard there was a new Sarah Moss, Summerwater , on the horizon I was desperate to read it. Thank you to Camilla Elworthy for the chance. Back in May I devoured it, loved it, sat down to write my review and failed…
Not because Summerwater isn’t a great book, it is. It’s a fabulous book with bells on! I started and stopped my review because I was convinced I couldn’t convey even half of it’s brilliance. So I wrote one line and stalled; chickened out basically.
But now it’s August and this book needs a review. I need to pay some kind of tribute to this clever and complete book, even if it falls short. And I need to pay tribute to an author I have mentioned numerous times on the blog but never reviewed. So I have embarked on my first reread of the year, put my big girl pants on and here goes…
Summerwater is the story of one day. Set in a small holiday park of log cabins, deep in the Scottish hills, on the shores of a Loch. It is midsummer and it is raining. Raining relentlessly, set in, a constant drumming backdrop to the unfolding events of the day. The rain is fraying tempers, stretching the edges of tolerance, already tested by the late night parties of the Eastern European woman saying in one of the lodges.
Each cabin holds a family, each family has their own story, their own reason for being there. Within each lodge we find a microcosm, the story of a family, but also the story of individuals. There are many lives depicted here; it feels like there are seeds of many novels waiting to be written, nestled in the pages, beneath this rainy Scottish sky. But nothing about these snapshots, these glimpses of each life feels superficial or shallow. Nothing feels incomplete. On the contrary it all feels rich, textured, multilayered and tantalising.
Take for example Justine, mother and wife, walking early and slipping out to run, to find her escape from family life whatever it might cost. Or Josh and Millie, engaged and looking forward, but each pulling in slightly different directions. Or David and Mary, retired and veterans of the holiday park. Both ageing, but at different rates, both aware of but ignoring a growing problem in their lives. And the small inappropriately dressed girl, often seen alone at the edge of Loch, daughter of those who party late into the night. All of life it seems is trapped in theses lodges, bored teenagers , struggling mothers, wayward children, babies and misfits.
It is Sarah Moss’ particular skill that crafts beautifully observed, honest and authentic characters. Characters that live lives filled with dark humour and uncomfortable truths. It seems that people’s inner most thoughts are her speciality, particularly the thoughts of women. Her writing is precise, intuitive and relevant, presenting a series of portraits expertly drawn. Everyone’s strengths, flaws and frustrations are laid bare, all building towards the novel’s climax. Each portrait provides a critical layer of tension, a layer of depth and investment. So many times I felt myself move deeper into the story, sure I was reaching a pivotal moment of crisis or intrigue, but then the writing veered away, pulling me in a different direction, on to a climax I didn’t see coming.
Quite simply there is so much in this book. So much to digest and discuss, so many places the story and events could go. Moss is the master at painting complex authentic pictures in a small window. These are snapshots that get to the heart of a character, their thought feelings and preoccupations, some problems momentary and easily resolved, others deeper brewing and more threatening, maybe not yet fully realised.
Authentic is the word I keep returning to time and again. Sarah Moss gets it! Her detail is all so real, tangible and so beautifully observed.At a stroke she encapsulates a sense of time and place. I found myself nodding along as she conveys the nothingness of holidays with small children in the rain. Or that feeling of setting out on a run when your body is screaming and then it all clicks. Or that feeling of quietly lamenting the life before small children, whilst simultaneously being unable to let go of the day to day realities of life and unwind. All of this matters, all of this is real.
And throughout there is an under current, maybe more than an under current linked to Brexit and it impact. Woven neatly into the narrative, without being intrusive is evidence of the changing of attitudes. Lola, a confident bully of a child, tells Violetta, to go home, rehearsing the xenophobia rhetoric she has learnt from her father. Justine laments the choices that will be denied to her children. And the in antisocial behaviour of women in the cabin, much is made of her nationality, as if this will explain away her behaviour, as if this defines her.
I am a huge fan of Sarah Moss. I don’t even try to deny it. I love the way she doesn’t waste a word, the way she uses language to weave a web and trap you, all the while getting to heart of what she has to say. Summerwater is up there with the best of this year’s publications and this review is my own small way of banging it’s drum. If you haven’t read Sarah Moss before, please do. And if you have, Summerwater is another perfect stop off along the way.