The Guest List by Lucy Foley – review

I’m not really a crime thriller person and on the occasions I’ve dipped into the genre I’ve often come away disappointed. I was super happy, then, to discover The Guest List, a thriller I genuinely enjoyed – it’s always a little bit rejuvenating to read something different to your normal fare and to come away feeling positive about it. It’s a variation of the classic locked room mystery: a murder takes place during a wedding party on a remote island, with a select guest list and a location cut off from the outside world. Among the group, grudges are ubiquitous and as you would suspect, the various characters’ seedy backstories provide a vast selection of possible motives for a killing. The fun of this kind of set up is that every reader has a genuine chance of guessing the solution to the puzzle and Lucy Foley turns out to be an extremely fair writer when it comes to providing decent clues; she creates a very clever story yet refrains from any impulse to pull the rug out from under your feet for the sake of an outlandish twist, a device that appears all to often in crime fiction and can simply leave you feeling cheated.

The book is written from the point of view of a number of different wedding guests, the narrative hopping between characters every chapter. I’ve read a couple of other books in which this way of writing hasn’t really worked for me, because I found a particular character uninteresting or their voice didn’t ring true, but in The Guest List I loved it. It kept the story moving at a rapid pace, and because the chapters are pretty short it constantly tempts you into thinking “just one more”; before you know it you’re over half way through and then, well, there’s no point in stopping! That’s not to say all the people you meet in the course of the novel are enjoyable company – far from it. The wedding is a ridiculously lavish affair, bride Jules and groom Will being a high-flying editor and a TV star, and the couple are as strident and egotistical a pair as you’d expect. The groom’s friends, who make up a large proportion of the titular guest list, are an obnoxious, posturing posse from his private school days, their innate sense of entitlement all too often tipping over into cruelty and harassment. Among the bride’s friends and family there are a few more sympathetic figures, in particular her sister Olivia, whose mental fragility is immediately obvious to the reader even as it exasperates the bride who can’t bear for the attention to be on anyone else but her. You’d think, given the descriptions above, that the book might be unbearable, so awful are some of the main players, but as the story goes on, the author gradually reveals flaws and vulnerabilities that make us feel, if not entirely sorry for them, at least more understanding of their behaviour.

The dialogue is a little bit cringe-worthy in places, primarily the banter between Will’s school friends – although I couldn’t decide whether this was down to the writing or simply the fact that any drunken persiflage will end up reading a bit lamely when it’s down on paper. This aside though, the style is brilliantly easy to read and keeps the story moving along at just the right pace. Another clever little device is the fact that, although the book opens with the moment the wedding guests hear the screams indicating something terrible has just happened, we don’t know for sure who the victim is until a bit later on. Quite honestly, by the time the novel reached its conclusion there were a number of characters I would have been quite happy to see with a knife in their back!

All I’ll say about the conclusion itself is that it’s punch-the-air perfect and not what I had guessed at all. I had such a fun time with The Guest List in fact that I’m absolutely going to be buying her first novel, The Hunting Party, which I gather is a similar kind of set-up, and if it’s anywhere near as enjoyable should be a cracking read. As ever, if you’ve read either of Lucy Foley’s books I’d love to hear what you thought!

My week in books – wrapped up

Welcome to this Friday night’s foray into the books that have been in my life this week!

*Books finished*

The Guest List by Lucy Foley – I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but in this case the adage of better late than never definitely applies. If you want an easy to read, just-one-more-chapter page turning thriller then this is perfect. The personalities on show are hideous, the grudges, secrets and backstories grubby and twisted as you like, but this is still an immense amount of fun.

*Books purchased*

I’m being very restrained at the moment as I know I’ll be getting book vouchers for my birthday and Christmas (the requests are already in so no risk of being disappointed!) My aim therefore is to hold off buying any books for the whole of November; I’ll keep you updated as to how that goes…..

*Currently reading*

Lots!!

  • The Betrayals by Bridget Collins – feeling a bit ho-hum about this one at the moment, and I’m SO sad about that as I loved The Binding so much. It’s one of those books that when I’m reading it I enjoy, yet somehow don’t feel a pressing need to go back to when I’m away from it. As a result it’s been on the “in progress” pile for a few weeks now, but I remain hopeful it will pick up.
  • A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer – yes, I know this doesn’t sound like the most riveting of reads but you’d be surprised how a few fascinating facts about Neolithic cheese production can brighten an evening. Seriously, it’s light-hearted, informative, celebratory and just the sort of thing that suits my mood right now.
  • Light by Eva Figes – I never would have even heard of this if it hadn’t been for the recommendation of a fellow bookseller. It’s a brief but beautiful novella following an imaginary day in the life of Claude Monet, and it reads like a painting, full of light and colour.
  • The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – I read the original novel many, many years ago, but this is a wonderful new version, transformed into a graphic novel by sisters Scarlett and Sophie Rickard.

The book’s political message made an enormous impression on me, and if anything this revisit is even more effective; the novel, I’ll be honest, is a bit overlong and repetitive, but its power is condensed here, and the illustration style is a perfect match for the mood of the story. If you can’t face Robert Tressell’s tome, then I would urge you to try this.

*Reviews posted*

The gloriously spooky thriller Pine is the subject of my latest review, which you can read here – just in time for Hallowe’en! Half ghost story, half missing person crime thriller, it’s got atmosphere in spades.

That’s it for another busy week, but I hope to have more reviews for you soon x

Pine by Francine Toon – review

It’s the perfect time of year for something creepy, when even the most easily spooked of souls (like myself) are tempted by the prospect of a book that makes you want to leave the light on. Pine is without doubt my pick of the spooky season, ticking all the spine-chilling boxes and then some. It’s not, however, a traditional ghost story by any means, and that’s part of the reason I loved it so much – nothing here is predictable, and nothing about it was like anything I’ve read before. It’s a full-on mash up of thriller and supernatural, and it’s really hard to say on which side of the line it falls. I’ve come across a number of thrillers (as I’m sure you have too) that throw in the odd thunderstorm or creepy old house to add a bit of atmosphere and amp up the tension, when in actual fact there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, and we’re never meant to really believe there is. This novel, however, flips wholesale between the very real, earthly mystery of a woman who went missing in unexplained circumstances several years before, and genuine occult chills: the figure at the window, stone circles that appear out of nowhere, not to mention some very literal bumps in the night.

But before I get too carried away, I should probably back-track a bit. The book’s two main characters, who share the majority of the narrative between them, are Niall and his daughter Lauren, who live in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren’s mother (and Niall’s wife), Christine, is the woman who disappeared some years before, when her daughter was only tiny. No body was ever found, but no-one ever heard from her again – and no-one knows why she would have left or where she went. This tragic event – and the effect it had on the family left behind – creates a genuine sadness that runs through the core of the story, giving it a lump-in-the-throat emotional depth that many thrillers lack. Niall responds to his grief by drinking, and alternates painfully between moments of overwhelming love and affection for his little girl and periods of neglect, when the lure of the local pub proves stronger than his paternal instincts. Lauren faces isolation on all fronts: the absence of a mother she doesn’t remember yet whose presence she knows she misses, an unreliable father with a propensity to vanish for hours on end leaving her to fend for herself, and loneliness at school, where the other children seize on her vulnerability and subject her to a constant barrage of verbal and physical bullying. She isn’t completely friendless, however, and while her father drinks she creates her own adventures with schoolmate Billy and a couple of older girls from the village, Diane and Ann-Marie. Her relationship with Ann-Marie in particular will turn out to have some very chilling and ultimately dangerous repercussions.

The Highland setting is an absolute gift for anyone wanting an unnerving backdrop for their tale! The pine forests behind the village are full of frightening potential; when Lauren and Billy head off to play in this disorientating, menacing wilderness, we as readers follow them with some reluctance. Where I thought the author surpassed herself, however, was in her imaginative creation of Lauren’s home; the very place where you’re meant to feel safe became one of the most sinister settings in the novel. From the moment we take our first tour of the wooden paneled walls, dark blue carpets and damp rooms we get an unshakeable sense that all is not well. Francine Toon stirs up fear through the simplest things – the sound of dripping without an obvious source, a curtain that divides the living and dining area – a barrier that seems somehow insecure and subject to be breached without warning; a lamp that may or may not have already been on when the characters first entered the room….

Seriously, I’m getting a cold sensation up my back even just sitting here typing this out as I remember how I felt reading those spooky passages! I read a book of M R James ghost stories earlier this year and creepy though many of them were, none gave me quite the physical sensation that Pine managed. It’s easy, I think, to misjudge horror, and there’s a very fine line between scary and silly, so I have to take may hat off to Toon for evoking maximum discomfort while staying on the right side of the line. My only tiny niggle is that perhaps the supernatural element of the book becomes slightly overdone right at the end, but certainly not enough to spoil the book as a whole.

I mustn’t forget of course that there’s a whole other side to the novel, carried away as I am with the thrill of the paranormal! It is just as successful in its other guise as a crime novel, and the human relationships are what makes the whole story so, well, believable. Whatever spooky goings on may or may not be happening up in the forest, at its heart Pine is the story of a father and daughter who are both grieving, one for a life he lost and the other for a life she could have had. If you took away all the other mystery, that relationship alone would have made for an immensely powerful novel. It would have been easy to make alcoholic father Niall, who forgets to come home to feed his daughter and takes out his misery in violently destructive rages, a despicable character, but he is so nuanced and complex that he garners our sympathy rather than our condemnation. Ten year old Lauren, too, is given a voice that feels utterly authentic for her age (which must be very hard to do I think) an despite being “only” a child is as fascinating and sophisticated a character as any of the adults. The whole book, in fact, is a beautifully realised mosaic of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find together, but the end result is a striking, unforgettable book that defies easy classification. It won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year, but if you overlook it because you don’t consider yourself a crime fan (and I certainly don’t) then you’d be missing out on something really special – and you’d be spending a little less time looking over your shoulder when you turn the last light out before bed….

Related posts

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare – review

It may seem bizarre to say that a novel exploring forced marriage, violence and exploitation akin to modern-day slavery was one of the most uplifting books I’ve read this year, but that’s how I felt after I put it down for the last time. I had my eye on this months ago when it first came out but have only just got round to reading it, and I am SOOO glad I did. If you’re after a story of female empowerment and determination in the face of oppression then this is one for you.

This is one of those novels where I feel 100% justified in referring to the main character, Adunni, as the “heroine”; once you’ve read it you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her story takes place in Nigeria, a country I confess I know next to nothing about, but author Abi Daré was born and brought up there so there’s no doubting the authenticity of her voice and the portrayal of the society that treats poor Adunni so harshly. The novel begins when the girl, barely into her teens, is sold into a forced marriage by her father, who has fallen on hard times and wants the income her new husband will provide. Adunni is heartbroken; not only does she have absolutely no attraction to or affection for the middle-aged man she’s to marry, but her new life as a subservient wife will mean that her dream of going to school and eventually becoming a teacher herself is taken away from her.

It’s no great spoiler to say that when she arrives at the home of her new husband, her life is not a happy one. He already has two wives, one of whom is jealous, vicious and violent and makes Adunni’s existence one of misery and fear. The sexual realities of being a married woman are also incredibly painful to read, as revolting to us as they are to a girl who is far too young to be enduring this kind of relationship. However, the situation takes a turn for the worse when a tragedy strikes quite early in the book, and Adunni finds herself thrown from the frying pan into the fire, working for no money as a servant in the home of a sadistic, abusive textiles entrepreneur known to her cowed, bullied household as “Big Madam”.

It’s hard to believe that a story such as this belongs to the modern age, and it’s sobering to have Adunni’s tragedy laid out in front of us knowing this is not just a novel, but a reality that affects millions of girls and women in a society run very much for men. Yet there is more to the misery here than a fight for women’s equality with their male counterparts; the way in which women of different classes and generations relate to other is in many ways just as toxic. Adunni comes from an impoverished rural family, which immediately diminishes her chances in life and leaves her open to exploitation and abuse by both men seeking to assert their sexual dominance and women reinforcing their perceived class superiority. There are also clashes between tradition and modernity that play out in disturbing ways. Tia, who we meet later on in the novel, is what most readers would think of as a thoroughly modern woman, who campaigns on social and environmental issues and is very Westernised in her appearance and attitude. It turns out, however, that even among the adult population of Nigeria there is a divide between those women who are wedded to older, established cultural norms around motherhood and a woman’s duty to her husband, and those who are exploring other ways to live their lives. The damaging clashes between Tia, her family and other women in her social circle serve to highlight just how many battles Nigerian women are fighting and on how many fronts.

If this all sounds rather heavy, somehow it isn’t; I thought long and hard about how, despite all the agony, the book retains its optimism, and decided that (appropriately, given the title) it’s down to the endearing, hopeful and beautiful voice of narrator Adunni. Her aim is to make not just her own voice heard, but to speak out for all the other girls and women who are in her situation: oppressed, abused and denied the freedom to pursue their dreams on the grounds of their sex. The novel is written in her slightly broken and imperfect English (one of her goals is to improve in the language, and she learns as the story goes on), lending her an extra vulnerability but also an extra grit, her efforts to get to grips with the words she needs to use to tell her story a constant reminder of the uphill battle she faces and a sign of her determination to improve her chances in life.

There were a few times during the book when I wondered whether this hopeful tone was in fact an unrealistic representation of what the reality is for so many women like Adunni, and whether it was in some way diluting their individual tragedies to suggest there was a way out. By the time I’d finished, though, and given it some more thought, I decided it wasn’t as simple as that. Yes, Adunni is presented with a couple of lucky encounters and chances for escape that many girls wouldn’t be fortunate enough to have, but the author balances this out by showing us plenty of women whose endings are tragic in their different ways, some subtle, some less so. To liken it to a fairytale might sound flippant given the subject matter, yet that’s the feeling it left me with. We all know that real life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but the point of fairy stories is to make us believe just for a moment that happiness is possible, and the most awful of adversities can be overcome. Hope, the author is saying, not only keeps us alive but drives us on to better things; and in the most dreadful of circumstances nothing is more precious. Adunni, far from being an example of unrealistic expectation, is a figure of empowerment, of believing that women deserve better, that women can achieve and that women – sadly – sometimes need to fight in order to overcome the odds stacked against them.

The Sunshine Blogger Award

It’s always lovely to be nominated for a blogger award! Huge thanks to the wonderful Bethany who blogs over at Portable Magic – I really enjoyed answering her questions and I hope you enjoy getting to know me a bit better!

How does it work?

· Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.

· Answer the 11 questions prompted by the person who nominated you.

· Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

· List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

1 – What is your favourite book from your childhood?

The first question and already it’s a hard one to answer!! There are a few that stand out in my mind for different reasons, but I think I’d have to go with Woof! by Allan Ahlberg. If you don’t know it, it’s about a boy who spontaneously turns into a dog at the most unfortunate moments and I read it to death – I still have my battered copy, which is just about holding up!

2. Paperback, hardback or e-book?

I do like a hardback every now and then, but 99% of the time I’ll go for the paperback. I’m fully aware that there will be outrage at my next comment, but I really like the creases in the spine that make the book look loved by the time I’ve finished!

3. Favourite publisher?

I think I’d have to go with Persephone; I love the stylish, minimalist cover design but more than that, I’m a massive fan of their mission to bring forgotten female voices to a modern readership.

4. In your opinion, what makes a good book review?

When I’m writing reviews, I tend to stick to books I’ve felt reasonably positive about – my blog is primarily about recommending and encouraging (hopefully) other people to try the books I’ve loved. Having said that, I do actually find negative reviews just as interesting to read – it’s just not something I find easy to write myself.

5. List your 3 favourite books. Now choose which you would burn if it was the only source of fuel on a desert island.

Now if I was feeling devious, I’d list two of my favourite books and then list a third that I haven’t enjoyed as my one to burn!! However, I’m going to play by the rules so here goes. It’s incredibly hard to pick just three all-time favourites but after much consideration they would be: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. As for which one I’d burn for fuel, it has to be A Suitable Boy – at 1474 pages it would keep the fire going for at least 4 times as long as the other 2!!

6. When writing, do you think good writing is inherent within a person, or do you think it is something which can be practiced and improved?

I think writing can definitely be improved! I’m still in awe of some other bloggers whose writing talent beats mine hands down, and I’m pretty sure that’s something you’re born with to some extent, but I like to think it’s possible to get better for sure.

7. What is your go-to comfort read?

I almost never read a book twice, even ones I’ve really loved, so for this answer I’m going to have to go with a comfort series rather than a single book. Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew historical crime mysteries are my perfect comfort read – escapist, easy to read and with characters that you get to know so well over the course of what amounts to over 20 books so far that they feel almost like your friends.

8. Which book cover would you re-design if you were given the chance, and what would it look like?

This is a really interesting question! I started thinking about books whose cover had put me off picking them up but which had turned out to be brilliant on the inside, and I’ve decided to go for Austerlitz by W G Sebald. I bought it (slightly grudgingly I fully admit) on a recommendation while not letting on that I’d avoided it for years because the cover looked so awful! It turned out to be one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years, so what kind of cover would reflect that? The things is, once you’ve read it the poignancy behind the cover photo makes perfect sense, but in order to draw uninitiated readers in, I’d go for something elegantly architectural, possibly a photograph or illustration of the railway stations that form a key element of the story.

9. Do you like to share your favourite books with the people around you or keep quiet and savour it?

No deliberation needed here: I’m a sharer without a doubt! I kind of have to be working in a bookshop, but even outside of work I’m always telling friends and family about my latest favourite reads. I DO NOT share my actual books though – ever since my beautiful (now out of print) edition of The Hobbit came back to me with half the cover ripped off (with no apology I might add) I’ve kept my precious books safely in my own bookcases….

10. Do you eat snacks whilst reading or do you have a strict no snacks policy around those precious pages?

I hadn’t ever considered this but on reflection I realised I don’t tend to mix eating and reading. Snacking for me is something that happens in front of the TV or movie and usually involves unrestrained access to a biscuit tin, but I think once I’m reading I’m usually so absorbed I can’t even think about food.

11. What book was has been your biggest disappointment in your life?

Sadly I think it has to be The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I adored her first two novels (The Secret History, as I mentioned earlier, has the honour of being classed as one of my all-time faves) and I’d waited YEARS for her third. Honestly, it wasn’t just ok, it was awful. Overlong, tedious and not a single character I cared about, it was the biggest bookish disappointment I’ve ever had. Took me a while to get over, I have to say.

Now here are my 11 questions for the people I tag…..

  1. To lend your books or not to lend – where do you stand?
  2. Which book or author ignited your love of reading?
  3. How do you organise your bookshelves?
  4. If you had to choose one book you think everyone should read, what would it be and why?
  5. Is there any genre of book that you absolutely refuse to read?
  6. Which book has turned out to be the biggest surprise compared to what you expected it to be?
  7. Do you think physical books will ever become obsolete in the digital era?
  8. What do you enjoy most about book blogging?
  9. What’s your favourite book cover of all time?
  10. If you were only allowed to read one more book EVER which one would it be?
  11. If you could choose one author to write a novel about your life who would you pick?

Thank you again to Bethany – I had a load of fun writing this! Pop over to my book twitter @GirlReading1 to see who I’ve tagged for the next round of Sunshine Blogger Awards xx

My week in books – wrapped up

As I’m sure all the booklovers out there would agree, with all the dreadful things happening around us at the moment the significance of our reading time has ramped up and books themselves are playing an ever more crucial role in mental well-being, escapism and reassurance. I myself have undoubtedly been doing more reading and less writing, as I’ve turned to books as a comfort blanket in what have been some testing recent times. Some of my recent reads I haven’t reviewed just yet as the mood for thinking critically about them hasn’t taken me, but (of course) that hasn’t in any way quashed my appetite/obsession for book buying, and so there are plenty more adventures in reading to share with you this week. I normally do these wrap-up posts on a Friday, but it’s been a busy old week so Sunday it is!

*Proofs acquired*

It’s a beauty this week: the paperback is due out any minute now, but I count myself extremely lucky to have got my hands on the hardback version, as it’s just so gorgeous.

It’s one of those stay up late, miss your stop on the train kind of reads, and I’m rattling through it at great speed. It’s a revealing novel, laying before us with uncomfortable clarity the horrific treatment that women and girls endure to this day in patriarchal societies; but I get the sense as well that it’s also going to be a story of empowerment and determination in the face of oppression and injustice. This is one I will definitely be reviewing when I’m done, so watch this space.

*Currently reading*

As well as The Girl With the Louding Voice I have some others on the go:

  • The Betrayals by Bridget Collins – you may remember I mentioned this in a wrap-up post a few weeks ago, but I decided to save it, hence the delay in its reappearance on the blog. So far so good; it was always going to have to go some to live up to The Binding, which I absolutely adored, but it’s off to an enjoyable start.
  • Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi – honestly I’m on the fence with this one at the moment! I’m intrigued by the idea of separate murder mystery stories linking together to provide clues to a bigger mystery (at least I think that’s what’s happening!!) but I’m finding the writing a little bit clunky and grating in places. It’s not one I’m rushing to come back to after I’ve put it down, but I’ll certainly read to the end and let you know if my opinion changes!

*Books completed*

The last book I finished was a technically last week, but hey, I might as well mention it again: Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt, a fictionalised account of the life of photographer Vivian Maier. It had a few little niggles but by and large I really enjoyed it, and you can read my review here.

That’s all for this week. I wish you a happy, healthy and safe week of books and reading to come x

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – review

I came across Vivian when I was browsing the Fitzcarraldo website looking for a new read, and the subject caught my imagination immediately. I confess I’d never heard of Vivian Maier, whose life story the book explores, but right from the off she sounded like a compelling character. Her family emigrated to America from Europe when she was a child and she spent the majority of her subsequent years there, living out a life that on the surface would seem pretty ordinary. She worked for many years as a nanny in Chicago and New York, but remarkably also found the time to take thousands upon thousands of photographs capturing the people and sights she encountered while walking the city streets. Vivian is an unusual take on the familiar trope of real lives made fiction, and one that raises questions as much as it provides answers.

I called it unusual because it’s not a straightforward third or first person narrative. Instead, the story is set out almost like a playscript, with a character’s name followed by their thoughts or description of events. These can be pages long, or a single line – sometimes two characters even converse with each other about abstract ideas surrounding the story, as if they’re considering things retrospectively. The narrator is a “character” too, appearing as simply “narrator” when it’s their turn to pass comment on events. She (I call it “she” because I automatically imagined it as the voice of Christina Hesselholdt herself, although of course this is only my interpretation) is the voice that grounds the reader in reality; she talks about her research and the gaps that inevitably appear when trying to compile a complete and fair account of someone else’s life, and as such we’re never able to forget that this is merely an attempt to put together a reasonable representation of Vivian Maier, and can only ever be flawed, both as a “biography” or indeed a fully satisfying novel.

What comes across without any doubt, however, is that Vivian is in many ways quite a sad figure. She comes from a dysfunctional and largely unhappy family (there are hints of some sexual abuse during her younger years) and doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships of any kind with other people during adulthood. She is, we learn, obsessive to an extreme extent, hoarding newspapers in her bedroom to the point when the only way through the room is via pathways between the teetering stacks of print. Strangely though, she seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to her own photographs. Although she takes her camera with her wherever she goes, and has been captivated (we learn) by the hobby since she was young, many of her pictures are never developed, and never catalogued or displayed in any way. Perhaps it’s the act of observing and choosing the precise moment for the perfect shot that’s most important to her, rather than having an end result in which she can take pleasure – but we never know for sure. One thing is clear: Vivian Maier never made any attempt to make a career out of her indubitable talent.

Such an enigmatic main character will always lead to a reader wanting to know more after the final page, but even so, I did feel the novel petered out somewhat towards the end, when the story became incredibly sketchy. Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to draw on as regards Vivian’s later years, but her old age is skimmed over pretty quickly, with new characters introduced but never really developed, even though we’re given to understand they played a part in looking after her towards the end of her life.

As I said earlier, however, the author (speaking through her “narrator”) is open about the challenges of writing such a book, and by the end it becomes almost as much about the act of creation than is is about Vivian herself. The narrator even resorts to conversing with her protagonist towards the end of the book, as if she realises her readers will have questions she hasn’t been able to answer. Why, she asks Vivian, did you not do x, y and z? Fictional Vivian gives an elusive, inexact reply – an acknowledgement that of course we can never claim to know what went through someone’s head at any given time when perhaps they weren’t even sure themselves. In some ways, the novel is a rebuttal to those fictionalised accounts of real lives that give the illusion of being a reliable insight into a person’s psyche. I know that as a reader I’ve been so swept up by certain novels featuring real figures from history that they almost become the historical reality in my own head – I have to remind myself that Philippa Gregory shouldn’t be my first point of reference when citing fascinating facts about the Tudors! I did appreciate the way the author shone a light on the act of writing a novel of this kind, rather than it just being a straightforward retelling; it ensured that as a reader you were never able to drop your guard and stop thinking, or start assuming, and I enjoyed that approach very much.

Vivian was certainly a very interesting read, and for the vast majority of the book a very compulsive one – I put everything else I was reading aside and finished it in a day, unusual for me. I resisted the urge to look up Vivian Maier’s photographs online until I’d finished, as I didn’t want the images I already had in my head messed with in any way. When I’d finished, though, I did look into her work – and I’d really recommend you do the same, as suddenly the sadness and isolation that seeped out from the pages of the novel was there in front of you, literally in black and white.

Have you read Vivian and if so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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This is Happiness by Niall Williams – review

I won’t lie: I bought this book primarily because there was a hare on the cover. It was my first Niall Williams novel and I had no idea what sort of author he was, but having now spent many happy hours basking in the luminous quality of his writing I know it won’t be my last. This is happiness indeed.

Set in 1950s Ireland, the story begins as Noel, a boy in his late teens who has dropped out of the seminary following a crisis of faith, returns to the rural community of Faha to live with his grandparents. He has arrived at a highly significant time in the town’s history: it is about to receive electricity for the first time. While Noel struggles with contemplating his future, the family are joined by a newcomer and lodger, brought to Faha by the forthcoming electrical works but with something far more profound on his mind. Christy is on a moral mission to right a great wrong he did to one of the town’s inhabitants many decades ago when he was a young man. For Noel, he provides a window onto parts of humanity he hasn’t yet experienced, the friendship he needs and the impetus to see himself and his future in a new light.

The novel’s structure places the events very firmly within a defined time frame, one that serves to highlight the momentous, quasi-mystical nature of the happenings contained within it. Much as Mary Poppins can only stay until the wind changes, so we know this magical moment won’t last, but also that the town and its characters will be shaped by it for the decades to come. The first notable herald of unusual times is the weather: in Faha, we are told, it rains almost constantly, so the appearance of sunshine is in itself a small miracle, one which is met with pleasure but also incredulity and a sense of the normal order of things being thrown somewhat out of kilter. The coming of the electricity provides another framing device, the novel starting with the news that electrification is on its way and ending with the flicking of the switch that will finally bring modernity to the community. Then there is Christy, whose residence in the town in ostensibly connected to the electrical installation, but who is almost a spiritual presence (guru? sage? I hesitate to say a Christ-like figure, but a clue in the name perhaps?) and one whose appearance in Faha we know to be transient – when the electricity comes, he will go.

This sense of spirituality is the cornerstone of the novel. Human, worldly passions are treated with a reverence that elevates them to something ethereal; even the slightly comedic infatuations of an inexperienced teenage boy are spoken of in deferential terms, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek at times. Music is vitally important, and Noel and Christy’s nocturnal sojourns to the local pubs in search of the best live performers are themselves akin to a spiritual quest. The fact that they are usually blind drunk by the time they head home, and that their inebriated cycling exploits make for some hilarious passages in the novel, strangely (cleverly) doesn’t in any way detract from the sense of joy, elevation and release that comes from following their passion. The whole novel could be said to be one of metaphor; the coming of electric power is poised to illuminate Faha just as the coming of Christy and the events that unfold as a result bring enlightenment to the life of narrator Noel. Even the name Noel has etymological links to the Latin for “birthday” or “relating to birth”; no coincidence perhaps for a character who spends the novel on a journey of self-discovery, personal growth and deeper understanding of those around him as he truly lives perhaps for the first time.

Appropriately, the writing itself is sublime; at times, reading the novel felt like being rocked to sleep in a hammock, the prose lilting, ebbing and flowing but never less than pinpoint precise. On almost every page there was a turn of phrase that made you pause for a second to take in the perfection. Niall Williams takes great care to afford even the most mundane moments a sense of beauty, as if to remind us that everything about this life is wondrous. He also clearly has enormous affection for the rural way of life that has now disappeared; technologically speaking the people of Faha may be backward but they have something special in their sense of community and determined self-sufficiency that we too come to love and admire as the novel goes on. Electricity, that great innovation that we couldn’t in the 21st century do without, seems incongruous and unnecessary here, a blight on tradition that signals an ending as much as it does a beginning.

I fell completely and utterly in love with this novel; I defy you to read it and not do the same! If you’ve read it already – or any of his other books – do tell me what you thought.

Happy reading x

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – review

You know, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know exactly what Shuggie Bain was about before I started reading. I can think of occasions in the past when simply discovering the theme of a book – A Little Life, My Absolute Darling – has been enough to put me off even trying it, despite the fact that the writing has been praised by critics and readers alike. So if I’d known I was about to embark on a novel depicting alcoholism, rape, domestic violence and child sexual abuse, there’s no WAY on earth I would have gone anywhere near it. And I would have missed out on one of the most affecting, haunting and all-round superb books of 2020.

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s and 1990s, Shuggie Bain tells the almost unbearable story of Agnes Bain and the three children who, as the years go by, bear the brunt of the addiction that slowly dismantles their mother piece by piece. Shuggie is the youngest, and it’s he who frames the novel; we first meet him as a teenager living an independent yet pretty dismal and unfulfilled life at the very start of the book, before going back in time to his early years and following him as he grows up amid the wreckage of a family that’s breaking apart. The neglect, poverty and unpredictability of living with an alcohol-dependent parent are not the only things he has to deal with: as the book progresses and Shuggie grows older, he can’t shake the sense that he is different from the other children and doesn’t fit in. He is bullied and mocked – by adults as well as other children – and finds himself more and more alone, escaping to imaginary worlds that he creates for himself during the lonely days when he can’t face school and can’t face home.

If outside world is hostile, home holds just as many terrors. One of the most striking elements of the story is the way addiction instills fear in the sufferer’s loved ones. Is Shuggie’s mother going to be drunk or sober when he gets home from school? If she’s been drinking, is she going to be celebratory, vindictive or despairing? If she’s drunk but still cheerful, can Shuggie stop her drinking herself to the next stage of intoxication, the stage of anger and recrimination? I can’t remember the last time my heart broke so completely when reading a book as it did when I watched this little boy taking care of his inebriated mother in a way far beyond his years, desperately trying to keep further alcohol out of her reach, trying to distract her from her destructive whims and reacting with devastating practicality when she finally loses consciousness.

So far you might imagine that Agnes Bain would be an extremely unlikeable character – after all, what kind of parent would put their child through this? If I had to put my finger on the area in which the novel most excels (hard to do when it’s amazing in so many ways) I’d say it’s in the way Douglas Stuart manages to keep us on side with characters who could at first glance be incredibly unappealing. Yes, Agnes is an alcoholic whose children go hungry so she can feed her habit and whose youngest son is left vulnerable to abuse because she isn’t there to look out for him; but the things we see her go through in her own life are equally shocking. Her second husband is brutish, violent and unfaithful. Her relationship with her parents is not straightforward; she is no stranger to physical violence from that quarter. The other men she encounters while she is at her most vulnerable range from outright abusive to unreliable and enabling. I doubt there’s a single reader who’d be unable to feel sympathy for Agnes at least at some point during the story.

Calling the novel a social commentary makes it sound a bit dull and dry, and that’s absolutely not the case, but I did feel there was a hugely important wider point behind the minutely observed individual stories. Poverty and a lack of opportunity traps not just Agnes but entire communities; small wonder, then, that addiction and other substance abuse become one of the few escapes available. To say the book’s message is that Agnes’s alcohol dependency is a direct result of social policy would be a massive oversimplification, but the seeds of the argument are certainly there if you feel inclined to read the book in that way. Personally, this more “political” aspect is something that struck me very strongly and haunted me for some time afterwards: it’s all too easy, from a position of privilege, to pass judgement on others who haven’t had access to the opportunities we’ve had, and to make assumptions about what might be called their “life choices” – when in fact they have almost no choice at all.

So how does this book remain in any way readable with all its bleakness and tragedy? The answer for me is quite simply, Shuggie. No matter what happens, you read on, and you read on for Shuggie. You get through it with him and for him, and you feel as if by reading his story you’re somehow there holding his hand through the worst of times. And strangely, when it ends, although there’s no denying you’ve been put through the wringer emotionally, you’re not left with a sense of despair – because Shuggie loves his mother no matter what, and it’s that love that cuts through the novel’s darkness and provides a tiny, but absolutely crucial, light.

I prefer to recommend rather than beg, but this time I’m begging shamelessly! You won’t just read this book, you’ll live it; so please, try it – let it get under your skin and into your head, and appreciate the awesome power of what a book can do.

Bookworm in a heatwave – my week in books wrapped up

You know you’re in the middle of a heatwave when it’s too hot even to read. As for writing, well that’s been totally out of the question, as I’ve been spending my free time shifting between cool spots on the sofa and eating ice-cream while indulging in mindless TV watching that requires no effort from a brain rendered useless by my flat’s sauna-like conditions. Today however, the clouds are building and a tiny breeze has made its way into the living room, so I’m attempting my first blog post in a while – the reading and writing may have ground to a near halt but the acquisition of books has continued unabated.

*Books purchased*

  • A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan – I’ve walked past this book almost every day at work for years, and it catches my eye every time, to the point where I’m now wondering why on earth it took me so long to own it. Fantasy isn’t normally a genre I’m drawn to but there’s something really appealing in the idea of a magical story that emulates the exploits of the Victorian naturalists and explorers, only with dragons!
  • Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – I bought this one completely on spec after browsing the Fitzcarraldo website to see if there was anything new I fancied. What piqued my interest was the fact that it’s based on the story of a real-life character, photographer Vivian Maier. It sounds intriguing, and (as I discussed in my recent post about literary style icons) will make a neat addition to the Fitzcarraldo blue section of my bookshelves!
  • Essays by George Orwell – I do feel like my brain has been on cruise control of late, and I decided I needed a bit of stimulus in the thinking department. This was the result (although I might have to wait until the temperature drops a tiny bit more before I attempt it….)

*Biggest sucker punch of the week*

And the award goes to….. Shuggie Bain, which has left me shattered into little traumatised pieces. I can totally understand why lots of people are touting it for Booker glory, although I admit I’ve had to put it down a couple of times and take a break, such is the emotional impact. If you can cope with the more distressing themes, I would recommend it passionately.

*Proofs acquired*

Just the one this week, but it’s been a nice little surprise. Ocean Vuong, the author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, started his writing life as a poet, and it really comes across in his debut novel. Flitting from one vignette to another, it’s at once unflinching and curiously beautiful; it’s early days with this one as I’m not far in, but I sense it’s going to be rewarding.

I very much hope I’ll be able to get a couple of reviews up on the blog soon, but in the meantime, thank you for reading x