Book review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Beautifully sad and stark and longlisted for this years Booker Prize, Shuggie Bain is an uncensored story about poverty, addiction and abuse in Scotland in the 1980s. At sixteen Shuggie Bain lives alone in a grotty bedsit in Southern Glasgow and works at a supermarket deli. Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel and it tells the story of how Shuggie got there.

Agnes Bain lives in a high-rise council block with her second husband and three children all crammed together in her mother’s flat. Her husband is a philandering abusive taxi driver who takes advantage of her when she is at her most vulnerable and eventually abandons her.

She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later.

Agnes descends further and further into poverty and addiction, the only constant her children and her heroic ability to get up every morning and face the world looking her best. Shuggie is the youngest, he does not fit the mould of Glaswegian masculinity, and finds himself as the sole carer of his mother as a young teenager in the post-industrial wasteland of a pit town.

She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.

Agnes descends into addiction, failing repeatedly to save herself, or to be saved by Shuggie, a prissy, precise misfit of a kid who loves his ma. He tries repeatedly to help her but fails. He is coming of age in a Scotland that is descending into its own tragedy of unemployment, industrial collapse and recession. He is too gentle for the hostile world he lives in, but he is also strong and a survivor.

I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply impossible.

The story has a whiff of Oliver Twist and Trainspotting in that it turns an unflinching lens on poverty, yet reading it does not cause a spiral of descent into despair because there is also love and kindness. And an endearing young boy who steals a girls My Little Pony toy because he is drawn to its pastel colouring and lush mane. You know that despite the torment and challenges of his young life, he is going to make good. Highly recommended.

Flames are not just the end, they are also the beginning. For everything that you have destroyed can be rebuilt. From your own ashes you can grow again.

Meet The Creator…poet soup

Being creative nourishes the soul and gives expression to kaleidoscopic thoughts and feelings. When imaginative motivation wanes, creatives must seek small inspirations that will bring us back to our craft.

One of my habits is to leave books of poetry scattered around the house to scoop up at random and dive into. Poetry is playful and exploratory, it can spark ideas, deepen our understanding of language, make us better writers and help us understand the world around us.

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Besteller, MTC Cronin

I first encountered MTC Cronin in 2003 when I came across her collection beautiful, unfinished. Her work is intelligent and thoughtful, and steeped in paradox and surrealism. I like the way she writes in fragments leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill in, or fodder to cogitate on. Her work explores and plays with the idiosyncrasies of language and breaks many of its rules. And Cronin is prolific, having produced more than 20 books, some of which are in translation – so there are plenty to choose from.

what if everything broke
in our world
and we just had to sit there
on the ground
until we were dead

excerpt from The questions I would ask & the statements I would make, My Lovers Back: 79 Love Poems, MTC Cronin

Dr Seuss and my father’s love of the limerick ignited an early childish attraction to verse and by age ten I believed I would be a poet. Recently, I stumbled across an old note book from my childhood containing my early poetic endeavours. My personal favourite is a piece titled The Man Who Brushed His Teeth With Paint.

As I grew up, encounters with poets and lovers of poetry stoked the flames of my enthusiasm. An adult who read one of my childish versus gave me a book called Poetry A Modern Guide to its Understanding and Enjoyment containing a message ‘to use when you are very much older’. I still have it. As a teenager I sent one of my poems to Nan Witcomb and to my surprise she responded to my letter with a note saying ‘I wish I had written it.’ Poets can be generous souls.

Sit awhile with time wasted
There’s solitude in every journey
Picking up what might be
and taking it to another place
Fire suspended
Knife attracting history
to its sharp blade

V, from beautiful, unfinished, MTC Cronin

Darby Hudson stuck samples of his poetry on poles around my local town a while ago and I got great pleasure from hunting for them on my morning dog walks. Small acts of inspiration or encouragement stoke the embers for the work and solitude of writing.

In June I received a random message via my website in which the sender asked if I wanted them to send me a book. I recognised the name in the email address and had a fan moment. A short exchange followed, then in September a parcel arrived in the post with three books What We Have: Except When We Are Lost; Bestseller; and My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems. What a feast.

Bestseller (2001), Cronin’s fourth book explores the life of the poet, poetry as a form of writing, making meaning, and communication. In My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems (2002) Cronin pays tribute to the insecurities of love, its ambivalence and disquieting qualities in all their technicolour. What We Have: Except When We Are Lost (2020) is a collaboration with Melbourne poet, lyricist and librettist Maria Zajkowski. A small book, a Fat lady, poet soup.

In poetry, evening and twilight balance perfectly.
Mystery balances with any word you choose to weigh it against.
Poetry, however, puts the whole world out of whack.
When you read it you drift up or down
while everything else goes in the opposite direction.

excerpt from The Imbalance, The Law of Poetry, MTC Cronin

I highly recommend any of MTC Cronin’s work for those who enjoy poetry that plays with language and makes you think.

Book review: Close Your Eyes by Rachel Abbott

Close Your Eyes is book 10 from the Tom Douglas series by Rachel Abbott. It’s my second cultish psychological thriller in a month.

Douglas finds himself investigating the murder of the wife of a successful tech businessman. Martha, who works for the businessman, is entrusted with taking care of all his financial affairs so she knows where the bodies are buried. She does a disappearing act with her young son soon after the killing and becomes a prime suspect in the murder investigation.

Told from the points of view of Martha and Douglas, there is a gradual unfolding of both the investigation and Martha’s past. The underlying themes of the novel are coercive control and psychological abuse using cults as a vehicle.

Words can manipulate to create a false sense of shared values, close down debate and coerce obedience. The language of cults aims to make people feel simultaneously unique and connected with each other, separate from ‘others’ and dependent on the leader to such an extent that life without them feels impossible. Cults engender both devotion and financial commitment (or abuse depending on how you view it) to create an environment ripe for exploitation.

To drift from the path of the cultish group’s expectations means exclusion and isolation, feeding on people’s fear of being an outsider. Mental manipulation convinces people to behave in ways that are in conflict with their former integrity and sense of self. The same methods can be successfully applied whether it’s a religious cult, a commercial cult, a conspiracy theorist group, a political or racist cult, or a toxic intimate relationship. And for dissidents, it’s off with their heads, either metaphorically of literally.

As Martha’s backstory unfolds we discover why she is such a secretive person and why she did a runner when the police turned up. The plot of Close Your Eyes is well crafted and sets a good pace. With carefully placed red herrings and blind alleys. The story gradually unfolds in a way that is disquietingly claustrophobic and discomforting.

Close Your Eyes can be read as a standalone, so don’t feel you have to start at book one if you don’t want to, though I doubt you’d be disappointed if you did.

Book review: The Pretty Delicious Cafe by Danielle Hawkins

I don’t generally consider myself a romance reader but the current state of the world demanded something light.

The Pretty Delicious Cafe by Danielle Hawkins is set in a small New Zealand seaside town with abundant food, twin telepathy, a hippie mung bean mother, an unhinged stalker ex-boyfriend, and a hero love interest.

Lia and her best friend Anna, who has food issues and is about to marry Lia’s twin brother, run a cafe in a seasonal seaside town. The busy season is about to arrive when a new good looking man rolls into town. Lia is attracted to him but is also trying to deal with an ex-boyfriend who isn’t taking ‘it’s over’ well.

I listened to the audio book whilst making sourdough and then gardening. The story sets a good pace and has quirky, likeable characters (except for the crazy ex). It’s a feel good eccentric romantic comedy that’s got plenty of laughs and will make your mouth water for boysenberry cheesecake. Luckily the end of the book has a catalogue of recipes from the cafe you can try out.

pile of dictionaries, pruning implements and an orange

Online course review: Cut, Shape, Polish by the Australian Writers Centre

If you have a completed manuscript ready to edit and you’re not quite sure where or how to start, I have a solution for you. The Australian Writers Centre online Cut, Shape, Polish course is one of the most useful writing courses I have completed to date, and there have been quite a few.

Cut, Shape, Polish is a practical step by step course that will provide you with a framework, tools and templates to complete a comprehensive edit of your manuscript. The course has five modules with audio tutorials and downloadable handouts.

It starts from the macro. Get your plot and structure right to ensure a satisfying outcome, identify themes and the questions your story is asking. Learn how to map your story structure with easy to use templates so that you can dissect it for plot holes, inconsistencies and gaps and make sure tensions rise and fall in the right places.

Module two dives into character to ensure your characters develop and drive the story. Learn how to check if your characters will be engaging and believable for readers, and if their dialogue is convincing and moves the story along. Identify and resolve issues with tone, voice and motivation so that your characters are convincing and keep readers engaged throughout the story arc.

Module three covers theme, setting and descriptions. Check if you are getting your point across through layering a cohesive thread through your work. Identify and resolve issues with world building and setting, build in motifs and symbols where they can improve your story. Bring to life the story your unconscious wanted you to tell.

You will move your focus from the macro to the micro in module four and study the sentence level. Make sure your point of view is working for the story. Interrogate the balance of show versus tell, info dumps and exposition, make sure your tense is consistent and consider sentence structure and style.

The last module hones in on openings and endings of sentences, chapters, the story and the overall story arc. Catch your cliches, find the words you repeat over and over, and over. Consider the value of Beta readers, taking feedback like an adult and whether you would benefit from the services of a professional editor.

The best time to start this course is after you have completed a first draft and left it to rest for a few months. This will give you twelve months of course access to work through your edits alongside the lessons. There is a lot in the course, so you’ll probably want to complete it more than once.

Book review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those books that straddles commercial and literary fiction. The story made me laugh out loud one moment and cry the next. 

First novels are autobiography and wish fulfilment. Evidently, one’s got to push all one’s disappointments and unmet desires through the pipes before one can write anything useful.

Food writer, Martha, is reflecting on her life soon after separating from her husband and about six months after finally getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment for a mental illness that has plagued her for all of her adult life. She reflects on the the two decades that have passed since ‘a little bomb went off’ in her brain at seventeen.

Everything is redeemable, Martha. Even decisions that end up with you unconscious and bleeding in a pedestrian underpass, like me. Although ideally, you want to figure out the reason why you keep burning your own house down.

Martha’s telling of her life is deadpan and comically tragic. She is not a particularly likeable character, yet she becomes an endearing narrator as the reader comes to understand her struggle with her own behaviour and identity.

Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. usually on their own.

Sorrow and Bliss is a love story set in London and Oxford. It is a novel about mental illness and it’s effects on sufferers and those who love them, including their uniquely dysfunctional middle class families. 

After that, Nicholas got up, stretched, and told me I could have his spot because he just remembered a girl he need to make amends with because his final act before rehab was putting a nine iron through her windscreen after taking more than his recommended daily intake of methamphetamine. ‘Which I discover is non. Back shortly.’

Various doctors, psychologists and prescriptions have failed to help Martha. She and those around her fall back on the belief that she is simply too sensitive, and a bit difficult. Martha searches for answers, knowing that something isn’t right. Her experience exposes the fallibility of the medical profession that often gets things quite wrong, and through doing so can change the course of a persons life in ways that can be quite damaging.

Suffering is unavoidable, the only thing one gets to choose is the backdrop

Interestingly Martha’s illness is never named. I found this both liberating and frustrating. It forces the reader to understand her issues purely from her perspective on the world and the lived experience of her illness. It also frustrated that very human drive to label and categorise things.

I was the victim, and victims of course are allowed to behave however they like.

Book review: Pig Island by Mo Hayder

Grisly. A faith healing cult on an isolated island divided by a fence and inhabited by wild pigs, the preacher gone mad and isolated away from his flock with his disabled daughter on one side, the rest of the faithful on the other. A story starts circulating on the mainland that a half human-half animal creature has been seen wandering the island.

Everyone hates him. Me – I think I can see the sun shine when he bends over.

Journalist Joe Oakes is invited by the Psychogneic Healing Ministries to visit the island in order to debunk the myth that a devil is running around. The cult members don’t realise that Joe has history with the mad minister. Years previously he wrote an article under a pseudonym calling the minister a sham healer. 

What unfolds is a gruesome, page turning thriller with a twist that will make your skin crawl. If you can’t stomach a bit of graphic violence it may not be for you. It may also give you nightmares.

Pig Island is the fourth novel by Mo Hayder, the pen name for Beatrice Bastin who died recently from complications of Motor Neurone Disease. Pig Island was nominated for a Barry Award for Best British crime novel and a CWA dagger.

Hayder wrote ten thrillers, earning herself the title of ‘queen of fear’. There is also another due out in 2022 written under the name Theo Clare:

Jack Caffery series

  • Birdman (2000)
  • The Treatment (2001)
  • Ritual (2008)
  • Skin (2009)
  • Gone (2010)
  • Poppet (2013)
  • Wolf (2014)

Stand-alone novels

  • Tokyo (2004), also published as The Devil of Nanking (2010)
  • Pig Island (2006)
  • Hanging Hill (2011)

Writing as Theo Clare

  • The Book of Sand (2022)

Book review: Memorial by Bryan Washington

Benson and Mike’s relationship has never been easy and now it’s in a rut. Their fights with words and fists end in sex. Each is unsure about what their relationship is or where its going. Memorial is a modern story of the relationship between two gay men – one Japanese, one a black man – and their relationships with their families.

That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.

Sexuality, race, class, trauma and grief are the subjects of Memorial by Bryan Washington.   The story is written in three parts across two locations – Houston and Osaka – and told from the perspective of the two men.  

You’re taking up space in another human’s brain, she said. You’re a foreign entity. A parasite. That’s a lot by itself.

Memorial opens from Benson’s perspective. His partner, Mike has decided to go back to Japan to see his dying father. Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who Benson has never met arrives to stay the day before Mike leaves. Benson finds himself sharing a house with a Japanese woman he doesn’t know in a predominately black neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification. Mitsuko is disappointed that her son has run off to be with her ex-husband just as she arrives and resists Benson’s attempts to draw her out.

He came out of my body. He’s a homosexual. He left his mother with a stranger. I’ve already got everything I need to know.

Mike arrives in Japan and takes up residence with his estranged, dying father, Eiju, who runs a bar and pretends nothing is wrong. Mike communicates via sporadic text messages with Benson and equally sporadic conversions with his father.

There are a lot of spaces in this novel. The unanswered questions and awkward silences between characters draw your attention to what is not said, revealing that there is as much, if not more meaning in the unspoken than the spoken. A beautifully written insight into the ordinary life of men.

Book review: Seed to Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

staghound dog staning in the Yarra river. River bank behind shows tall eucalypts and greenery
Natures landscaping

If lockdown continues for much longer, I may well complete most of that list of outstanding jobs that has been hanging around, some for longer than I care to admit. When I go for my daily walks in the forest I notice what a superb landscaper nature is. She throws together trees and shrubs and rocks and delicate flowers to create a display of visual perfection that I strive to emulate in parts of my constructed garden.

There is a patch of gravel beside my house that has been largely unchanged for over twenty years as I have never been quite sure what to do with it. The area is in a cutting and shaded and damp in winter, dry in summer. I had an inspiration after discovering some discarded pavers beneath the house and set to work over two weekends.

I often listen to audio books whilst working in the garden and chose Seed and Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer. His story was the perfect companion. Told over a twelve month period when Marc tended elderly Miss Cashemere’s garden on her country estate, the story is a meditation on gardening, nature and life.

In my imagination, this life has been a path with many, many forks, each one a choice to be made. Each unchosen route fading from view as it became the past, its destination unknowable. No destination is really known until you arrive, and then it becomes merely a point along the way — a vague place rarely planned for, simply the start of another adventure. The only thing to do is be happy with the outcome, whatever it is. The path leads to the end, as all paths do.

The story meanders month by month through the seasons honing in on minute changes on the estate. Marc’s work in the garden reflects his love for nature and his distant yet intimate relationship with its owner who observes him and occasionally interacts with him is tentative yet tender. Reflections on nature are interspersed with Marc’s reflections on his own life and philosophical observations of humanity and what gardening has taught him about life. It is a beautifully written story. I really enjoyed listening to the rambling baritone of actor Owen Teale reading the audio.

By the time I got to the end I had fallen in love with the garden the man and the voice and started listening to it again.

Seed to Dust was shortlisted for the Wainwright Price in 2021 (winner to be announced next week on 7th September). I understand that the printed novel is beautifully illustrated and have ordered a copy for my shelves as well as one I have sent as a gift to someone I think will enjoy it also.

200 days of solitude

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday marked the 200th day of lockdowns in Melbourne since the beginning of the pandemic. The solitude of lockdown has a rhythm, and despite the shrinking of our worlds to 5km life goes on. It is surprising how much still happens.

I wake at 5am to a dark silence interrupted only by the occasional sound of snoring from the great yellow hound languishing on my bed. 

I suppose I will have to make the coffee again, I think. Sometimes I say it out loud and wonder how I might teach the dog to do the task. Though, I suspect even if Harper knew how, I would still be the morning barista as I would lose patience with her indolence before she with mine.

I make coffee and breakfast. Chicken and vegetables for the dog, muesli, yoghurt and an orange or tangelo plucked from my tree the day prior for me. I climb back into bed with my hoard (the dog will have to get up for hers). 

My plan is always to write, but often I become lost in news stories about COVID, vaccines, politics and the destruction of the planet, or find myself falling blindly down some social media rabbit hole. My morbid fascination with all this unpleasantness so early in the morning confounds me. Though perhaps it is not so surprising considering some of my reading as reflected in my book reviews. My father keeps suggesting Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin to cure my macabre tastes in literature.

It is hard to know whether my staccato concentration is a consequence of social media or COVID brain, but I often become frustrated by it and apply additional effort to focus my concentration, congratulating myself for putting pen to paper and bleeding ink across the page (or screen), even if it is only 200 words. This blog generates a rigid moment of writing discipline each week that I am grateful for having imposed on myself, as even in my laziest writing periods this weekly ritual keeps me engaged.

Mornings are the most precious part of my day. They seem to me always to be filled with hope. 

I leave the house with the dog just before dawn. The first kilometre of our morning sojourn traverses a quiet road running up a north-south ridge. To my left I catch glimpses of the sky burning shades of yellow, orange, pink and red from the sun rising behind the mountains to the east. I spy the occasional ringtail possum crouching in a tree as if enjoying the event. To my right, the  blinking lights of Melbourne gradually fade as the sky brightens. I am transported along this enchanted path by the morning chorus as it shifts and swells and rolls with the growing illumination. I am absorbed and in awe of the beauty around me.

Away from the stories of pestilence, conflict and climate change it is easy to find great pleasure and meaning in the small things of life. An emerging flower augers the coming spring, the pure joy on my dog’s face as she wallows in the muddy waters of the Yarra and explores the bushland, the sight of Tawny Frogmouths roosting high up in a eucalypt. The ninety minute walk is a fortifying elixir and the most precious part of my day.