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.
With February being LGBT+ History Month in the UK it is still important that stories are being heard. Coming out tales and the path to self-acceptance still have a fairly essential part to play for each new generation and in recent years we have seen accounts from those under-represented whose lives and backgrounds add a different dimension. Some very welcome additions to this genre of writing have come from the Muslim community with 2019’s award winning “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi and now this account subtitled “A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” by LGBT+ activist and top criminal barrister Mohsin Zaidi. This is another of the titles that I have now got round to from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post.
The most striking thing about the author is his tenacity and ability to never give up when the odds are very much stacked against him. From a devout Shia Islam background with Pakistani parents and growing up in Walthamstow he showed early educational promise. As his family was unable to navigate the private school system he found himself in a secondary school where achievement was denigrated by his peers but somehow ended up as the first person from his school to go to Oxford University, studying Law. There this East London Pakistani boy floundered amongst the rich and privileged before finding his own tribe – a group of friends who had some idea of where he had come from and who he was but they did not know the secret that he thought he would never be able to reveal, that he was gay.
For Mohsin, having the family find out would bring shame and probable disowning with his family’s disgrace spreading out into their wider community even affecting his younger brothers’ marriage prospects. In order to function he has to shift away from his family’s values and religious beliefs to find his true self before opening himself back up to the cataclysm he believed was waiting for him should his sexuality be revealed.
It’s an incredibly difficult option, especially given the closeness of the relationship with his family which he at one point describes in a really effective metaphor. “Baby carriers provide the option of placing the infant so that he or she faces the parent or looks out, facing the world. I imagined that most parents would choose to let their child see the world, whereas mine preferred I see only them.”
We know from the subtitle that there will be some movement towards resolution but it takes years and when it does come in some powerful scenes which signpost the way I found myself misting up.
I do feel that Mohsin Zaidi has fitted so much into his 35 years that there is a tendency at time to skim over the surface. There are points in the book where I wanted more detail which would help us to really connect with the man/boy behind the situations. I could tell here was a logical brain used to laying out the facts as befitting his professional status and his is a very welcome voice in British gay writing.
At times he can really hit home with a couple of sentences and I am going to leave the last words to him which makes for sobering reading and explains once again why our stories and LGBT+ History Month are so important. Commenting on reports that the perpetrator of the 2016 Orlando gay bar shootings which killed 49 had pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to the event and was motivated by his disgust of his own sexual urges Mohsin says: “I had felt this hatred once. Maybe if we weren’t raised to hate ourselves it would be easier not to hate the world.”
A Dutiful Boy was published in hardback by Square Peg in 2020.
Vaughn Entwistle has featured here before. I have read and enjoyed two of his books and in 2016 he agreed to an interview in my Author Strikes Back thread. My favourite of his books to date has been his 2015 publication “The Angel Of Highgate” which I described as a “splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters”. The same description applies here in a very different feeling historical novel.
One of the most impressive aspects of this author’s work is that he writes with such great relish. I wasn’t sure whether an Elizabethan-set “Shakespearean Thriller” as this novel is described would perhaps be a little dry. I’d obviously forgotten his writing style because this certainly is a vibrant tale bringing history to life.
William Shakespeare is travelling with the rest of his acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to Marlborough because the London theatres have been closed down amidst cries of sedition. En-route they discover a corpse and an apparition in the woods and flee to a nearby inn.
Fast-forward to the present day and a first-person narrative from Harvey Braithwaite, recent owner at the now fairly down-at-heel ancient pub “The White Hart” who makes a discovery which could change his fortunes but threaten his life.
The Elizabethan characters have the bulk of the action and it is an explosive mix of murder, treason, religious persecution and a lust for life with underground passages, deception, disguise and sex having their part to play. Both sections are full of a bawdy energy. Braithwaite has a lot in common with these lusty Elizabethans- at time it can border on a “Carry On Film” script but here that works very well and Entwistle does not let the humour get in the way of him telling a good yarn and having it present in both parts of the narrative gives the whole thing balance and symmetry which I very much approve of.
The history is incorporated well, the author does not feel the need to bombard us with his research and in many ways it does not matter if he has veered away from historical fact as the energy wins the reader over. The title itself refers to a play controversially attributed to Shakespeare which also feels appropriate to the action here. I got a lot about the dangers of not towing the line, on an everyday basis, religion-wise through the characters of the Pursuivants hunting out Jesuits and the fear instilled by the Queen’s odious torturer Topcliffe, probably picking up more history on the way than in many more serious (dare I say drier) works.
Once again Vaughn Entwistle has given me a lot of enjoyment, there’s a good balance of darkness and light in a well-structured pacy tale which all in all leaves me to conclude he may have written his finest novel yet.
Double Falsehood was published by Masque Publishing in August 2020. For more about the author and his books visit https.//vaughnentwistle.com/
This is an updated version of Chris West’s 2017 study of the Eurovision Song Contest and how it fits in with the history of modern Europe. It takes us up to (but doesn’t mention) the 2020 Competition that never was. I love Eurovision, some of my earliest memories are of being allowed to stay up late to watch it. A UK entrant marked the first time I went into a record shop alone and purchased a single (my older sister was stood at the door) and that was Lulu’s “Boom Bang A Bang”. I reviewed the 2016 semi-finals here where I called the eventual winner Ukraine “not particularly listenable”, showing once again it’s the annual festival of the impossible-to-predict and I’ve read a couple of Eurovision themed books before – “The Official History” by John Kennedy O’ Connor and “The Complete Companion” co-written by amongst others Paul Gambaccini and Tim Rice. This book is where we stash our Eurovision score cards each year, now going back to 1999.
If it looks like I might be a bit of an obsessive, let me tell you there are many millions more so than me, people who actually travel to the now massive stadiums each year, knowing all the songs before the shows and can recall instantly who came third in 1984 (well, actually I do know that, because just writing it made me want to look it up- the answer is Spain, but maybe some of you already knew that!)
Chris West, however, is offering here a very different slant. There is the obsessive fan lurking under there but really he’s in it here for the history. He sees it as a very political institution which reflects Europe’s historical patterns. (We’re not talking voting for your neighbours here, which he does not think is as prevalent as its detractors claim). He takes a wider view than the other books I have mentioned, in fact, the UK gets fairly scant attention because here it is not taken seriously enough and does not tap into what’s going on, as a number of the best winners and Chris’ personal favourites have tended to do.
Each year is given a few pages and pretty equal amount of attention is given to the competition itself and events and trends in Europe during those twelve months, with some of the concerns, triumphs and failures being reflected by the entrants or represented by the results. To take an example, the UK seems to have got it right on only a couple of occasions which led to victory each time, Sandie Shaw, who, (the artist rather than the song) conveyed Swinging London of 1967 and Katrina & The Wave’s anthemic “Love Shine A Light” which caught the mood of Europe and so won impressively.
To be honest, the songs West tends to focus on are the ones that passed me by. It seems I’m watching for the spectacle rather than the politics but his view was fascinating backed up by the history (which, admittedly, when we are dealing with the workings of the EU at times I felt a little dry).
In a conclusion the author explains why Europe should perhaps be more like the Eurovision Song Contest which I found myself agreeing with. This is an interesting read which brought the contest right up to date. I think I’ll still continue to stuff my score sheets in the more trivial “Companion” but I welcomed this look at the more serious side which attempts to stick true to the reasons why the contest came into being in 1956.
The paperback edition of Eurovision! I read was published in 2020 by Melville House.
I’ve always been very impressed by Tom Allen. A couple of years back he performed locally at what we thought was an absolute bargain price compared to many comedians who show up at our local theatre. Having really enjoyed the show my partner posted positive comments on social media whilst sat in the pub afterwards. By the time we got home he’d had a personal message from Tom thanking him for coming and for saying he’d enjoyed it- how nice was that!
Since then Tom has become a more regular face on TV. I particularly enjoy him on “Bake Off’s Extra Slice” and “Bake Off: The Professionals”. Over the Christmas period there was a new Channel 4 show “Tom Allen Goes To Town”, was one of three comedians locked overnight in Hamleys and co-presented a festive Bake Off.
He has written a memoir which is of a much higher quality than many celebrity biographies. The reason for this is partly his natural wit and aptitude at handling his material but also the focus he places on shame, which does influence his stand-up work and has had a significant effect on his life and mental health. This gives his writing a sense of purpose and development.
Like Will Young in his “To Be A Gay Man” also published in 2020 much of this shame is linked to sexuality but it is also about the fear of standing out. His upbringing in Bromley, South East London where nobody seems to want to stand out holds an influence here, but, as so often happens, not wanting to stand out is what causes him to stand out. His well-spoken, clear diction is at odds with his family and his neighbourhood, nobody seems to know where that has come from; as a teenager he dresses as a Victorian dandy and there is a wonderful story as to how he opts to deal with homophobic name-calling by doing something theatrical for a PTA event at school in Year 8 which he hopes will make him seem more cool but chooses an Alan Bennett monologue as famously performed by Julie Walters playing an actress on a porn set which becomes even more inappropriate when he does it in a ballgown.
Tom is so good at recreating these “shameful” moments of his life that you laugh with him, never at him. If you have seen his stand-up routine some of the material will be familiar, for example, his childhood experiences at Bromley Leisure Centre was a highly memorable part of the stand-up show I’ve seen performed but it is great to have it again here and the familiarity had me laughing in anticipation as much as at the events.
This is thoroughly entertaining with serious points to make. Tom is a product of an educational system tainted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government Section 28 ruling and as a youth grappling with sexuality his sense of being an outsider was reinforced directly because of this. It takes years for Tom to begin to accept himself and this growth is catalogued in a well-written, funny, significant text.
No Shame was published in 2020 in hardback in the UK by Hodder Studio.
This was a title from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” post. I liked the idea of this but recognised it could go either way. Get it wrong and it could be embarrassing but I was spurred on to read it by positive reviews and Amanda Craig’s on-cover observation “Miss Marple meets The Crown.”
It has been done very well. S J Bennett introduces us to a new sleuth for her series (with second title due November 2021) but it is someone we all feel we know well – The Queen. From Windsor Castle, Elizabeth II indulges in something, we are assured, she has done from time to time during her reign, some amateur detective work.
Here, following a rather lively dine and sleep at the Castle a young Russian pianist is found dead in his room in circumstances nobody wants to share with the Queen. Unfazed by the position the corpse was found in but distressed by what looks like a murder in one of the Royal bedrooms the Queen begins her investigations alongside those of the official channels of the Metropolitan Police and MI5.
The problem with Elizabeth II as a sleuth is that she can’t do very much. She has to rely on others to do the door to door investigating and report back to her. Here it is Rozie, a recently appointed assistant Private Secretary, who is taken into the Queen’s confidence and secretly begins to find things out for her. This does tend to shift the emphasis away mid-way through the book where the main character’s role becomes passive. This might become an issue in later instalments of the series but I forgive it this time around.
It works because it is convincing. S J Bennett obviously knows her Royals and doesn’t overcomplicate things by putting in the whole family. It is merely the Queen with Prince Philip in a supportive role yet it feels like we are being given titbits on their lives and life in the palace whereas it is just a work of fiction. The author could have just made everything up but it feels authentic and imbued with a British charm which I very much enjoyed.
This would not normally be the sort of book I would read that often, if fitting it into a genre it is light-hearted cosy crime but I think that this is something which has an impressive amount of sparkle to it. If the publishers Zaffre could get this book out there it could end up a very big seller, especially if continued lockdowns means we will be looking for something which is both reassuring and different.
The Windsor Knot was published in hardback in 2020 by Zaffre.
It’s time for my final retrospective of the year where, as I have done the last couple of years, I take a look at other bloggers end of year posts to see what books have really caught their imagination. There seems to be an acknowledgement that reading habits changed this year – some went through spates of not reading much at all and had periods of time when they whizzed through books. Some read less new fiction than normal and re-read more, but that might have had something to do with bookshops being closed for part of the year. There seems to be a much wider range of recommended books, with very few cropping up on more than a couple of lists.
One of the things I look for are common ground seeing who has enjoyed the same books as me. The only one I found from my 2020 Top 10 was Kiley Read’s Such A Fun Age which Cathy at 746 Books also highlights it saying “not what I was expecting at all….incredibly smart and funny“. She also has me adding a couple of books to my reading list – one I was aware of anyway and one which was new to me. “Tyll”, by Daniel Keldmann, in a translation by Ross Benjamin, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize and in its original German was reputedly the second best-selling novel in the world in 2006. It’s taken a long time to get over here and Cathy’s observation that it is a joyous mix of fact and bawdy fiction makes it seem an even more tempting prospect. Her book of the year is “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, a book which when she finished it, immediately started from the beginning again. It’s a novella, which I have been sniffy about in the past, maybe this could be the book to warm me to this format .
A book which just missed out on my Top 10, although the author has featured on it before is Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin At The End” . It is the choice of best book for Eva at Novel Deelights. I interviewed Chris a couple of times after his debut novel “Tall Oaks” was published and I really loved his second “All The Wicked Girls“. I said that I felt that British author Chris could have a crack at producing the Great American Novel, there are some this year, perhaps Eva included, who would say that he has already done this with his third book. Also on Novel Deelights list is the author who, probably more than other, people suggest I should read and that is Frederick Backman. Here it is his latest “Anxious People” which is being recommended and that did appear in a few other lists. I do have a copy of “Bear Town” on my Kindle, which is the one people say I should start with, so maybe in 2021 I will develop my own admiration for this author. Other titles that I have in common with bloggers include the gripping (but I think the follow-up was better) “Nine Elms” by Robert Bryndza which is on Fictionphile’s separate crime list, “A Thousand Moons” by Sebastian Barry highlighted by Margaret at Books Please (here I preferred his previous novel) and the book which gave a voice to the victims of Jack The Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five” recommended by Lou at Random Book Reviews.
Bookish Beck had the Booker Prize shortlisted “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor at number 5 on her list. This also impressed me and just missed out on my Top 10, Beck makes comparisons thematically and linguistically to Virginia Woolf which I must admit passed me by although I was moving towards that direction looking back at my review as I said “Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.” So I was on the right lines, maybe this is a book which would benefit from a re-read at some point. Bookish Beck also had another strong contender for the Top 10, “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey in her runners up list and her number one choice was another author who has been recommended to me, Evie Wyld. “Bass Rock” is the choice here and its coastal setting and “elegant time-blending structure” haunted the imagination.
As always there were recommendations I had to add to my wants list- Jen at Books On The 7.47 captured my imagination with Cathy Rentzenbrink “Dear Reader” – a book about books which gave her loads of recommendations and was like “having a great chat with a bookish friend”.
Booker Talk’s recommendation of Lemn Sissay’s “My Name Is Why” and A Little Book Problem’s runner-up “Where The Crawdads Sing” have both been on my radar since publication and I just might give another go to Joseph Conrad whose “Nostromo” was Fiction Fan’s Book Of The Year, when I read Conrad I was much younger and couldn’t get on with him at all, maybe age and experience would change that.
A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” list has been confirmed as a book I have so far really missed out with Books On The 7.47 saying it was “almost impossible to stop reading” and in the runners-up list from Bookish Beck, but I must admit it was one that I thought I would see on a lot more end-of-year lists and that is “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Perhaps its inevitable arrival in paperback this year and people like me who recently managed to pick up as a Kindle read for 99p will spread the word and it may appear on more (and perhaps my own) best books read in 2021 choices.
It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020. This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives. My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.
This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year. Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year. I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*. Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed. There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.
Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6. If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.
I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list. It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation. It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart. I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format. It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.
The best new thriller I read this year. This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation! I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel. In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.
I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019. Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century. This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression. I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades. I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.
Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother. She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down. She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality. I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written. Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”
This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read. It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia. It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.”
Here’s my annual post which I face with equal measures of pleasure and guilt (a winning combination I’ve always found!). I’ve selected 10 titles which I feel I should have got round to reading this year. Perhaps they slipped under my radar on publication and I’ve only found out about them in round-ups of the year, perhaps I’ve always been aware of them but just haven’t got round to them for one reason or another. Probably like most people I have read more books this year (although not by a huge amount) but there are still a great number of desired titles that I just have not been able to fit in.
Looking back on last year’s list I can see that I did eventually get round to reading 50% of the titles that I felt I had missed out on (the same as in 2018) and have 40% of them on my shelves ready to be read, (hopefully in 2021) leaving just one, the YA adult novel “Chinglish” by Sue Cheung, which continues to elude me. So, without further ado, here in alphabetical order by author are the titles I felt I missed out in this strange old year, 2020.
No Shame – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)
It’s been a good year for memoirs and I have read a few of them but haven’t yet got round to comedian Tom Allen’s work. On the cover fellow comic Sarah Millican says it is “wonderfully funny, utterly charming and sharp as all hell” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the man so it makes me look forward to reading his writing. I anticipate that there will be a focus on his feelings as an outsider growing up gay and I wonder how much it can be seen as a kind of companion piece to Will Young’s 2020 publication which focused on gay shame which I did read, “To Be A Gay Man“. I’m very interested in reading Tom’s perspective on this issue. He is one of the few comedians out there now that I have seen live and would certainly pay to see him again. In the meantime there is this book to savour.
This is a debut novel I seem to have been putting on my personal to be read lists all year. It is one I have kept reading about but to be honest haven’t yet come across a copy. I’ve seen it on various best of the year in crime lists and I’m fascinated by its premise of a nine year old detective in modern India . It appeared early on in the year, has a striking cover and made the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. On the cover Ian McEwan describes it as “brilliant” and Anne Enright hits home for me when she says “We care about these characters from the first page and our concern for them is richly repaid” which is so often something I look for in a novel. It does seem that the pandemic has been particularly hard on debut novelists as they were unable to promote their books in the traditional ways and we as a nation tended to turn in large numbers to authors who we already knew.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)
I did read a book about separated twins this year, Edmund White’s “A Saint From Texas” but it seems like the one I should have read is this American writer’s second novel which I have seen described in end of year round ups as “a stunning family saga”. My colleague Louise who continues to put so many good book recommendations my way has this in the running for her book of the year vying for the title with a book which may very well be my own very favourite read of the year so that is a good enough recommendation for me.
The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (Zaffre 2020)
Whilst everyone was going nuts for Richard Osman’s quirky, cosy crime caper “The Thursday Murder Club” I found myself favouring a secret yearning to read this book which has the potential to be a real guilty pleasure. The premise is nicely set out on the back cover “On a perfect Spring morning at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II will enjoy a cup of tea, carry out all her royal duties…and solve a murder”. Amanda Craig describes it as a mash-up between Miss Marple and “The Crown” which seems like a potent combination. QEII is no stranger to fiction, think Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader” and it is his depiction of her that I am imagining as the main character in this work. What’s with all these Bennetts that have appeared in this post?
Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)
One of the few crime writers who I was up to date with until this doorstep of a book arrived in September by J K Rowling’s alter-ego. I am daunted by the size and the long waiting list for a library copy and will probably wait until it appears in paperback. I don’t think I will be disappointed when I eventually get round to it. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike novels so far (and the BBC TV adaptations) but so far they have never featured in my end of year Top 10. I wonder if this book will be the one to change that situation?
Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books)
As soon as I read a review of this debut novel I knew I wanted to read it. A gay black man escapes his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to come to London and ends up a sex worker. Adjectives such as “explosive”, “ground-breaking” and “daring” have seemed to follow it round and I was further intrigued by Booker Prize winning Bernardine Evaristo promoting it as her choice on Richard and Judy’s teatime lockdown book club programme. (I hope a large number of those viewers thought “I’d like to give that a go”). I really don’t know why I haven’t got round to purchasing a copy, I have been close to doing so a number of times but it is only a couple of months now until the paperback is scheduled to arrive so I think I will end up waiting until then before discovering a writer who is being described as a major new British talent.
Let’s Do It- Jasper Rees (Trapeze)
Another big book, this time about a really big talent. This is Ree’s authorised biography of my favourite comedian of all time, Victoria Wood. I think Rees is going to be good at separating the performer from the very different real Victoria. I saw her a number of times in her professional guise live in stand-up and of course devoured all of her television shows and am still able to quote whole scenes and also in her personal guise as many years ago her children went to the school I was working at. End of year round-ups have described this as “impeccable” I cannot wait to find out if I agree.
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador)
I went through a spate of reading the Booker Prize winning novels as soon as possible after their win and for a couple of years worked my way through both short and longlists but the book that put me off this was “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a book I did not see winning one of literature’s most prestigious prizes back in 2017. I know I should have read by now last year’s joint-winning “Girl, Woman, Other” which featured on this list last year but I will do and I hope I won’t hesitate as long before reading this. I have been on the list for a library copy since this made the shortlist but I’m likely to end up buying it before long. It seems a book which is getting both critical and popular acclaim for it’s tale of a tough upbringing in 1980’s Glasgow. The Telegraph was one of a number of publications who had it as their book of the year saying that “it will scramble your heart and expand your mind“.
The Devil And The Dark Water – Stuart Turton (Raven Books)
Aha, Stuart Turton. No stranger to this list. His debut “Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” featured in my 2018 picks and ended up picking up The First Novel award at the Costas. It has been sitting on my Kindle since then and I just haven’t got round to it. This may be because I’m always asking people who have read it what they thought and their opinions have been a bit more mixed than I was expecting but now he has written something else which seems right up my street. This is a chunky, historical whodunnit set on board ship in the seventeenth century. Chosen by the very watchable TV series “Between The Covers” as a Book of The Week, this got the thumbs-up from the celebrity reviewers and has been described in end of year round-ups as a “fiendish maritime mystery.” The chronological obsessive reader in me is pushing me towards “Evelyn Hardcastle” first, but then that might mean it would take me some time to get to this and I’m not sure if I am prepared to wait.
A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (Square Peg)
I’m finishing my list as I started with another memoir which has attracted a good share of praise. Subtitled ” A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” this feels like it would have parallels to a couple of other books I have read “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi, which this year has gone on to win both a Somerset Maugham and Polari award and a flawed but very enjoyable YA novel “How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi. It’s combination of religion and sexuality also brings to mind the “Rainbow Milk” novel I highlighted earlier. Of this Lord Michael Cashman has said it is “A real page-turner that sparks with humanity and hope“. After the year we have all had this would seem like a great reading choice.
What books did you not get around to reading this year?
On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers. I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.
There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form. I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters. It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.
Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children. One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time. With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events. This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters. At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with. Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself. The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew. Whose behaviour is without blame? Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive. There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised. If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character. I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December.
My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”
“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus. The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.