Books Read in 2022 – 14. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Genre: bildungsroman, lgbt, family

Narrative Style: third person – flashback framed by Shuggie’s current life.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Hugh “Shuggie” Bain loves his mother, Agnes, very much. He will do anything for her. Unfortunately, Agness is an alcoholic and is not able to look after Shuggie the way she should. The novel describes Shuggie’s life, growing up in 1980s Glasgow on run down estates, sometimes going to school, sometimes not. Shuggie is a quiet, sensitive boy who struggles to fit in. His older siblings manage to escape from Agnes but Shuggie is stuck, unable to leave and unable to save her.

Time on shelf: I bought this with birthday money, last year, so not very long.

This is not an easy read. Shuggie, his siblings and their mother, Agnes are living in Glasgow, in the 1980s and they have no money and few prospects. Life is tough. Agnes is an alcoholic who can’t look after her children. Shuggie’s father is a tough, cruel man. Agnes’ life with him was a series of sexual assaults, violence and betrayals that fuel her drinking. Later, he moves in with another woman, only appearing to make sure that Agnes remains in thrall to him.

Shuggie is a quiet and sensitive child. He cuts out picutres of women from Agnes’ Freemans catalogues, he has dolls that he carries around everywhere and he is no good at what might be considered traditionally masculine things. Everyone seems to be able to see what Shuggie cannot – that he is gay. This leads to bullying and abuse from other children and from adults. Shuggie tries to learn how to behave in a more masculine manner but he cannot hide who he really is.

Shuggie’s siblings, Catherine and Leek, are lucky to be able to escape the family home but Shuggie is tied to Agnes. He feels he cannot desert her. Heartbreakingly, Agnes has a brief interlude of sobriety and things look better for everyone. Shuggie gets to see what the world could be like. Unsurprising;y, it doesn’t last and everything is even worse because he had a taste of what could have been.

This may be a bleak book full of missed chances and shattered dreams but it is compelling. It is easy to empathise with Agnes and her inability to escape from her addiction, and even more so with her children. In the end, it is hard to say what the future will hold for Shuggie. The reader can only hope that he will break the cycle and his life will be better.

Books Read in 2022 – 13. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

Genre: Science fiction. Dystopia

Narrative Style: First person, Chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1958

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: When Richard and Janet Gayford return from a trip into town, they find it is impossible to get into Midwich. As soon as anyone comes within a certain distance of the village, they pass out. Thankfully, the effect wears off but then it transpires that all the women in town are pregnant. What had happened to them when they were unconscious.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I wanted to read it before I watched the recent TV series.

This is a very British book. Wyndham gives his narrator, Richard, a middle class, stoic voice. As he and his wife were away, Janet does not become pregnant so he is able to view events in a largely detached way. He talks to the other villagers and reports what happened in a journalistic way, never succumbing to emotion.

When the babies are born and start to exhibit strange powers, although Richard is concerned, he is able to take a step back and report what is happening, much like a scientist observing an experiment. It quickly become apparent that the children have telepathic powers unlike anything seen in humans. They can force their parents to do their bidding even causing a couple who have left Midwich to return. They lash out when they feel threatened which is worrying for all of the villagers especially as the children are growing up much more quickly then human children would do.

As with other of Wyndham’s book. this is more a thought experiment than a novel. The focus is on how people might react and the moral ramifications. As such, the characters are not all fully developed. More important are the discussions of how the issue of the children will be dealt with when they grow to be more powerful and eventually unstoppable. Wyndham gives examples of events like those of Midwich in other countries and how their governments dealt with them before coming up with his own elegant solution. They have the issue that annihilation of a group of children, no matter how powerful, will not look good to those outside of the issue. It is also virtually impossible to surprise the children who will no doubt fight back viciously against any sort of attack.

This is a novel of discussion and thought, rather than action. It makes you think about what the government would do if such a thing were to occur. I am curious now to see how far the TV series follows the book.

TBR Challenge 2022 – Books Read in 2022 12. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman

Genre: Urban fantasy, mythology

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Fat Charlie has a fairly ordinary life. He is about to get married to a woman he is not sure he loves. He has a job that he neither loves nor hates. He is happy enough. Then his father dies and his world is turned upside down. His father, it turns out, is a God and, even more surprising, he has a brother he doesn’t know about.

Time on shelf: A couple of years. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. I knew it would be good. In fact, that was why I picked it up now. I’d read a couple of not so great books and I knew this would please me.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2022

This was, as you might expect, an absolute treat. Gaiman blends real life and mythology perfectly. Fat Charlie is an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances and it is very easy to empathise with him when his life starts to fall apart. His brother, Spider is a God who is used to manipulating everyone and consequently getting his own way. They are poles apart at the start.

When Fat Charlie (a name given him by his father which he has not been able to escape) realises that his father is dead, his memories of him are of all the mean jokes he played on him. He knows that things won’t be straight forward. However, he wasn’t expecting to discover a brother he didn’t remember he had. He has terrible luck and is late for his father’s funeral. Life swirls round him. Out of sheer desperation, he finally calls for his brother by telling a spider he wants him. An act he soon begins to rue.

When his brother, Spider, arrives, things start to go wrong for Fat Charlie. Spider takes a shine to Fat Charlie’s fiancé and uses his godly power to impress her. Spider goes to work instead of Fat Charlie, who is too hungover, and causes issues that lead to Fat Charlie being accused of stealing from his boss. Even though Fat Charlie meets a woman he is much more suited to, he hasn’t the confidence to change the direction of his life. Although he doesn’t realise it straight away, Spider actually does him a favour by falling in love with his fiancé because he changes the course of Charlie’s life.

It’s when he decides that he wants to get rid of Spider that things get a bit darker. Charlie makes a deal with a bird God to get rid of Spider, not realising he is also putting himself in danger. At the beginning, Spider is charming and Charlie is a bit pathetic. As the novel progresses, they start to become more like each other. Spider falls desperately in love with Charlie’s fiance. Charlie learns that he can sing and as a result, charm entire audiences. They both become more well rounded as people

I could find no fault with this. The story trots along nicely, with humour, with romance and with adventure. The characters are well drawn and interesting. The African mythology fits seamlessly with the modern story. Another hit from a master of the craft.

Books Read in 2022 – 11. Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North – Stuart Maconie.

Genre: Travel writing

Narrative Style: informal

Rating 2/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stuart Maconie is proud of being a northerner but it is a long time since he lived in the north. Exiled in the south for too long, he decides to return to his roots and investigate what is true and what is cliché about his birthplace.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years from a charity shop. We certainly had it during lockdown because my husband made an attempt at reading it. He didn’t get very far before he put it back on the shelf. I really should have taken more notice.

I wouldn’t say I was a massive fan of Stuart Maconie but I always quite enjoy his 6radio show with Mark Radcliffe and I am Northern so I thought this might be an interesting read. And in someone else’s hands it might have been. As it was, it irritated me from the very start.

The book opens with Maconie describing a scene where he and an old friend (also Northern) were making Sunday brunch and they were looking for the sun-dried tomatoes and it turned out they were behind the cappuccino machine. They looked at each other and wondered what they had become. Maconie knows the answer to that: Southerners. I would like to give him a different answer: middle class people. Throughout this book, Maconie equates being Northern with being working class – an annoying stereotype that he seems quite happy to perpetuate. Don’t get me wrong, I know there was a lot of industry in the North and so obviously, there were a lot of workers but every city in the North has its share of moneyed people, just as every Southern city has working class people. To be fair, Maconie does talk about the revitalisation of cities such as Leeds and Manchester that have had a lot of money thrown at them – he mentions how journalists called Leeds ‘the Knightsbridge of the North’ when Harvey Nichols was opened there. But that isn’t what he was talking about in the opening which is about people and how they act. When Maconie comes to talk about Northerners with money, the main place he talks about is Cheshire which is barely in the North. It’s as if he couldn’t countenance anywhere further into the North having that sort of money. There are 28000 millionaires in Yorkshire but I guess that would have spoiled his impression of the cheeky, salt of the Earth, Northerner.

This book should really be called In Search of the North West because that is where Maconie spends most of his time. I understand that he is from Wigan and he loves the North West; that really does come across. However, the whole of Yorkshire and the whole of the North East get one chapter each which seems remiss when Blackpool got nearly a whole chapter to itself. (Incidentally, not all Northerners have been to Blackpool, holiday makers in Newcastle tended to go to Scarborough or Berwick, not somewhere on the other side of the country.) As a result, Durham and Newcastle get only a few pages each. Okay, so I am biased, being from Newcastle, but surely both of these cities deserved more.

Finally, it turns out that Maconie writes like he talks and it is really annoying. I guess having Radcliffe to bounce off on his radio show really takes the edge of how irritating he is. Throw in some needless name dropping and you have a book that I almost didn’t finish. It was only the fact the he deals with the North East (which he calls The Great North but only gives it one chapter) right at the end that kept me reading.

TBR Challenge: Books Read in 2022 – 10. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane

Genre: Crime fiction

Narrative Style: Third person chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Joe Coughlin has turned away from his strict upbringing to live a life of crime. He is has graduated from petty crime to working for some of the most fearsome mobsters in the city. When he falls in love with the girlfriend of Albert White, head of a rival gang, it is inevitable that he is heading for trouble. Live by Night follows Joe’s journey to prison and then to Florida where he climbs the ranks to become gang leader himself.

Reading Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on Shelf: About eighteen months.

I was really looking forward to this book, having read two Lehane novels before and really enjoyed them (Mystic River and Shutter Island). Both of those were compelling and difficult to put down. Unfortunately this one didn’t quite live up to them. In fact, I struggled to finish it.

While I like crime fiction, I don’t often read stories about mobsters or gangsters and part of the problem was that didn’t really appeal to me. To be fair to Lehane, I think he did a good job of setting the scene in 1920s America during prohibition, but I felt that the story and the characters didn’t sparkle enough to pull me in.

Joe Coughlin was a fairly likeable character and it was easy to root for him and hope that he would do well. In fact, at the beginning, when he was a thief working for one of the crime bosses but with big ideas of his own, I thought I’m really going to enjoy this. Then he falls for Emma Gould and he loses the ability to think straight. It is annoying when a character’s stupidity is used as a plot device although obviously people are stupid in real life. However, the fact that Joe gets caught because he goes back for Emma didn’t quite ring true to me.

From then on, I found the narrative to be a bit flabby. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly pushing the narrative forward. There was nothing to compel the reader onwards. At first, there was the thought that Joe might meet Emma again in the future but it was so long before she reappeared in the narrative that I’d almost forgotten her.

The relationship between Joe and his police chief father, Thomas, was interesting and could have been further developed had Thomas not been killed off quite early in the book. Other areas of tension, such as Joe’s relationship with a former friend who betrayed him, were similarly undeveloped.

In the end, I carried on reading just so I could finish it. I don’t like abandoning books but at times I was very close.

TBR Challenge 2022 – Books Read in 2022 – 9. The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Fantasy, adventure

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Published: 1954

Rating: 4/5

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: The company have been beset by orcs and are no longer all together. Boromir is dead, Merry and Pippin have been captured and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are looking for them. Sam and Frodo have already tried to escape. Somewhere in the shadows is Golem.

Time on shelf: A long time. My husband has been on at me to read the series and at last I succumbed.

Reading Challenge – TBR Pile Challenge 2022

There was a little trepidation on starting this. I’d found the first book a bit of struggle and as a result, I wasn’t sure whether to read the next one or not. After suggesting this caused my husband to wail in despair, I decided I had to carry on but I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it.

Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect this time but I enjoyed this one more than the Fellowship of the Ring. It felt like there was less history and explaining and more action this time round. I appreciate that there was a lot of scene setting that had to be done in the first book – a lot of things that needed to be explained – but it really slowed the pace. This time there was action aplenty as well as peril and danger for the main characters.

There were great characters – Wormtongue, Treebeard, and Ugluk are well drawn and exciting – and a lot more of Gollum which I really enjoyed. The battle between Gollum and Smeagol, the good and the bad, is incredibly well observed and made me both sympathetic and annoyed at different points. As a result, it was more of a surprise to discover Gollum had indeed sold Frodo and Sam out.

As previously, Frodo and Sam are the heart of the story. Sam’s devotion to his master is touching as is his mistrust of Gollum. He is unable to understand why they need to use Gollum’s knowledge. Frodo doesn’t want to either but he understands the necessity of it. Of course, there is a possibility if Sam had been nicer, Gollum might not have sold them out to Shelob but I don’t really think that is true. Gollum was always going to win over Smeagol.

As at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a cliffhanger. Frodo is in extreme danger. Even so, I wasn’t tempted to start reading the next instalment. Having said that, when I do read it, I can be fairly sure that I’m going to enjoy it.

Books Read in 2022. 8. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Black Literature

Narrative Style: Third person, largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Cora isn’t sure at first when Caesar asks her to escape with him. He tells her about the Underground Railroad which is not just a metaphor in Whitehead’s book but an actual network of stations and trains. Even though she is an outcast on the plantation, she still hesitates. The punishment if caught is likely to be horrific. But then things grow more unpleasant on the plantation and she decides to go with him and they escape. At each stop, Whitehead shows a different aspect of the horror of slavery.

Time on shelf: Not very long. Last year, I read Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and was blown away. I bought this not long after.

Whitehead starts his story on the Randall cotton plantation where Cora was born. Her mother, Mabel had escaped when Cora was younger, leaving her daughter behind. The only thing that Cora has in the world is a small plot of land and when someone tries to take it from her, she attacks him and is made to live with other outcast slaves, in Hob, away from everyone else. She has already suffered a huge amount of abuse when Caesar first asks her to escape but still she refuses at first, the risk seeming too great. Caesar persists and they make their escape.

They very nearly don’t make it. In the swamps outside of the plantation, some of Randall’s men catch up with them. In the fight that follows, Cora accidentally kills a teenage boy making it even more urgent that they manage to escape. It is a relief, albeit short-lived, when they make it to the first station of the railway and manage to get the train to South Carolina.

Of course, there troubles do not end there. Whitehead uses the railroad to show the many horrors that white people have visited on black people – not just slavery. At first, in South Carolina, all seems well. Cora has a new name and a job, she is learning to read and seems happy. The white people seem kind and caring. However, it soon becomes sinister as Cora is given a job as a ‘type’ in a living museum which gives a false, positive version of slavery. Free medical treatment given at the local hospital turns out to be governmental experimentation aiming to find a cure for syphillis and the women are encouraged towards voluntary sterilisation. The whites that seemed so kind actually still have a racist view of black people as childlike and less than themselves. Cora decides that she cannot stay. This is the start of a horrific journey for her.

Whitehead uses her journey to inform the reader of many terrible events – Cora becomes trapped in the attic of a station agent, unable to stand or make any noise, a doctor raids black graves for corpses to use in anatomy classes, in Georgia, every Friday, they have a festival which ends with the hanging of a black person – and it becomes more than just Cora’s story, more than just a story about slavery, it becomes a history of racial injustice in America.

This isn’t an easy read. And nor should it be. Like Kindred by Octavia Butler, this is unflinching in its detail. I have read some reviews that say that Whitehead’s tone is flat and it is true that it is not overly emotional but I think that it works very well given that this is a history. There is no need for it to be overly emotional when the stark facts speak so loudly. If Whitehead had shown the level of upset and horror that these events warrant, I think it would have been unreadable. Instead, the reader is given a calm voice to guide them and show them exactly what the problem is.

Another criticism is that Cora is not a fully developed character. I agree but I think it is deliberate on Whitehead’s part. She has no free will. Things happen to her. She has no power to change that or to do anything other than constantly react. Her journey is a representation of African American experience and she is a product of that experience. At the end of the novel, when she is finally free, she makes the decision of who to ride with. This is the first real decision of her life.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that Kindred where I struggled to suspend my disbelief. I couldn’t put this down. Definitely one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 7. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan

Genre: Historical fiction, Chinese fiction

Narrative Style: First person from two different points of view.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1991

Synopsis: Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s secrets for years, since they first came to America in fact. Helen believes she is dying so she wants to tell all of Winnie’s secrets. Winnie decides to tell her daughter, Pearl, everything herself. Pearl also has secrets that she is frightened to tell her mother.

Book Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on shelf: About eight years. I inherited it from my husband’s aunt. I might have read it sooner but was put off by a more recent Tan novel, The Valley of Amazement, that I really did not enjoy.

The Kitchen God’s Wife starts with the first person story of Pearl, Winnie’s daughter. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is fractious. Winnie seems like a stereotypical Chinese mother, irritable, full of wise sayings and seeming not to have fitted into American life. Pearl is so removed from her, she hasn’t told her she has multiple sclerosis – a secret she has kept for seven years. Little does Pearl realise but her mother also has many secrets. When ‘Aunt’ Helen says she is dying and feels she needs to tell all secrets, both mother and daughter realise they need to talk to each other. Winnie invites her daughter to visit and proceeds to tell her the story of her life. This takes up the bulk of the novel.

Winnie – or Weiwei as she is known – is abandoned by her mother at age 6 for reasons unknown and her life of privilege ends. She is sent to live in the countryside with her Uncle’s family where life is tougher for her. Stories fly around about her mother but she never finds out the truth about the disappearance. This is the start of Weiwei’s sorrows and pains. Her Uncle’s family aren’t unkind but she feels she is less loved than her cousin, Peanut.

Tan doesn’t let up after that. Weiwei marries Wen Fu. He had previously courted Peanut but changes to Weiwei when he realises she is richer. This greed will be a theme of the novel with Wen Fu doing terrible things to try and hold on to Weiwei’s money. He rapes Weiwei and is violent towards her. He sleeps with other women, sometimes bringing them into the family home. He lies about his war record, claiming to be a hero when in fact, he used to fly away from the Japanese fighter planes. Weiwei’s life with him is miserable and difficult. She also loses three children.

Weiwei suffers terribly during the war and after when she ends up in prison when Wen Fu accuses her of stealing away their son and letting him die. (He died in an epidemic.) By now, she has met Jimmy (Pearl’s father) who presents a clear contrast to Wen Fu. He represents hope for the future as does the move to America.

Weiwei’s story takes up the majority of the novel with Pearl’s narrative framing it. We return to Pearl at the end so she can share her secret. I would have liked to hear a little more of Pearl’s voice but really this is Weiwei’s story which mirrors the story of China during the second world war. An interesting, emotional read.

Top Ten Tuesday – Dystopias

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week is a freebie so I was able to choose my own topic. I decided on one of my favourite genres – the dystopia. It’s hard to say which one would be my favourite which is why they are in alphabetical order.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  2. Oryx and Crake series – Margaret Atwood
  3. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  4. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  5. A Scanner Darkly – Phillip K. Dick
  6. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  7. The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin
  8. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  9. 1984 – George Orwell
  10. Day of the Triffids – John Wyndam

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 6. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Non fiction, Psychology, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Informal academic

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2008

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Gladwell discusses the most successful, the brightest and best in various fields and how they got to the top.

Book Challenge: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: About eighteen months. I didn’t think that this would be the next book I finished. I started to read this after The Kitchen God’s Wife and I was only reading it on my commute but it took my fancy so I finished it quite quickly.

This was a very enjoyable read. Gladwell isn’t particularly saying anything profound but his style is easy to follow and the illustrations he uses to support his ideas are interesting. I couldn’t put it down.

The premise of Gladwell’s book is that there are some people that stand out from everyone else – be it in intelligence, musical prowess, computing, sport – and he calls them outliers. He suggests that the usual reasons people give for their success are false – innate talent, for example, personality traits or habits such as getting up early in the morning. There is no such thing as a self made man and maybe we didn’t really believe that myth anyway but even so, the way that Gladwell goes about debunking it is compelling.

In some ways, there isn’t much variety to this book. Gladwell is making the same point all the way through but I lost count of the times I was surprised or intrigued by the examples he explored. The chapters are all structured in much the same way as well. He begins anecdotally, usually detailing someone’s life story or an event and then moves to research that relates to the life story and then finally back to the original story to show how we ought to be thinking about it. Again, I didn’t mind this as it helped me understand the points that Gladwell was making in a clear and simple way.

Gladwell begins by talking about Canadian hockey leagues and how the cut off for children to go into the highest leagues allows only the oldest children to get through every year (because they are just that bit bigger and older). Then due to the extra help they get, they become the most gifted that they were assumed to be in the first place. I see this sort of self fulfilling prophecy in education all the time. Those kids assumed to be gifted and talented are given extra lessons and opportunities so that the gap between them and their classmates widens. If we gave all pupils those opportunities we might see something different happen.

The first half of the book looks at individuals such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy and tries to alter how we normally view these narratives. Gladwell suggested that 10000 hours of practising is needed in order to master anything – a musical instrument, programming a computer – and then discusses the other advantages (e.g. his school had one of the only computers at the time to allow time sharing so he got to do real time programming in 1968) that people such as Gates had. He suggested that the Beatles got to be so big so quickly because of all the hours they spend in Hamburg playing set after set after set.

The second half looks at the way our culture affects our behaviour. Gladwell suggests that we inherit cultural information in much the same way that we inherit genetic information. He asks whether we should be taking cultural legacies more seriously than we do. The most interesting example Gladwell uses is that of a series of serious plane crashes involving Korean Air planes. So serious were these crashes that the Federal Aviation Authority were considering revoking Korean Air’s overflight and landing privileges in some areas of the world. Something had to be done. The problem was all to do with the way the pilots were talking to each other and to air traffic control. It transpired that the co-pilots were using mitigated speech because of the Power Distance Index which measures how a particular culture relates to authority. In these cases, the co-pilots were hampered by the power distance between themselves and the pilot – that is they were unable to tell the pilot they were making a mistake. Not only that, unlike in Western cultures, the onus is on the listener to work out what is being said, rather than the speaker to make themselves understood. This let to obvious difficulties in the cockpit. Once this was realised, Korean pilots were trained in a different way and the crashes stopped.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much. It’s not really all that radical but it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered and I will probably read more of Gladwell’s books.