100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

100 Essential Books – Winnie The Pooh – A A Milne (1926)


Some days just feel like Pooh days, and more often than not they are pooh days in every sense as they are the times I feel like escaping from the realities of the world we’re living in and retreat to the Hundred Acres Wood for a bit of sanity, Winnie The Pooh style.


I’m not sure AA Milne knew exactly what he was unleashing when he decided to put together the bedtime stories he’d been telling his son using his toys as characters and that almost 90 years later this publication would still remain one of the greatest children’s books ever.  In fact, the philosophies of Pooh and his friends expounded in this book and its follow-up “The House At Pooh Corner” (1928) (which introduced the irrepressible Tigger) makes it an essential also on every adult bookshelf.

I certainly read and had read to me this book as a child but I was a greater fan then of the Disneyfication of Pooh and it wasn’t really until I hit my late teenage years that Milne’s original creation became dominant.  Whilst at college I had quite a little collection of EH Shepard’s illustrations on mugs, towels, postcards etc and was well versed in the wisdom of this extraordinary little bear and his pals.  In 2003 the BBC Big Reads survey (still the definitive list of what is good for us combined with what we enjoy in our books) placed this at number 7, so it is a book held dearly in a lot of hearts.

On every read I become totally captivated and surprised by how much stays with me.  I also feel this way about Milne’s children’s poetry collection “When We Were Very Young” (1924).  Luckily, it was not just Christopher Robin Milne who benefited from these wonderful stories and characters as generations will have come to love Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo.  As each character is introduced in the book a warm feeling envelopes the reader and it was a sheer delight once again to experience Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit’s doorway, Eeyore losing his tail and celebrating his birthday miserably and Piglet getting flooded in.  Magical stuff!

I’ll leave you with two examples of the logic of Pooh in case you’ve not read this for a while;

It’s like this,” he (Pooh) said. “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming.  Now if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only a part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is : Which is most likely?”

“Wouldn’t they notice you underneath the balloon?” you asked.

“They might or they might not,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “You can never tell with bees.”  He thought for a moment and said: “I shall try to look like a small black cloud.  That will deceive them.”

“Then you better have the blue balloon,” you said and so it was decided.


And there’s Piglet surrounded by water and putting into early practice one of the tenets of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of modelling your actions on someone who would be successful at a problem;

“There’s Pooh, “ he thought to himself.  “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm.  He does silly things and they turn out right.  There’s Owl.  Owl hasn’t exactly got Brain, but he Knows Things.  He would know the Right Thing to Do when surrounded by Water.  There’s Rabbit.  He hasn’t Learnt in Books, but he can always Think of a Clever Plan.  There’s Kanga.  She isn’t Clever, Kanga isn’t, but she would be so anxious about Roo that she would do a Good Thing to Do without thinking about it.  And then there’s Eeyore.  And Eeyore is so miserable anyhow that we wouldn’t mind about this.  But I wonder what Christopher Robin would do?”piglet


Winnie The Pooh was published in 1926.  Egmont produce a classic edition with the unforgettable illustrations by E H Shepard.