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SHUGGIE BAIN

Please don’t let the harrowing subject matter deter you from reading this book. 'Shuggie Bain' is a brutally honest and brilliantly observed story about a working-class family living in 1980’s Glasgow, set against a backdrop of high unemployment and poverty as the impact of Thatcher’s privatisation of industry takes effect. At the centre of the story is Agnes Bain, a beautiful, proud woman and young Shuggie, her youngest child who “doesn’t fit in.” Together they find themselves at odds with the harsh world they inhabit.

Agnes Bain is from a loving Catholic family. She is beautiful and impeccably dressed so has no problem in attracting men. Although her first husband adores her, she leaves him with her young family in tow and hooks up with Shug (senior), a charismatic good-looking Protestant taxi driver who is young Shuggie’s father. At first they live with Agnes’s parents in a council tower block, but Agnes likes her drink, and as Shug starts seeing other women so her drinking becomes worse. One day he moves the family to a new home in a decimated mining area. Agnes finds herself trapped in this house where she can’t move on. As her addiction becomes all consuming, so her three children find themselves imprisoned too.

This may be a challenging read, but the Den were blown away by its beauty. This is a love story too. Agnes’s children love her unconditionally, particularly young Shuggie. Shuggie is effeminate and likes “girly” things which puts him at odds with their neighbours living in this hard-hitting estate. Stuart alternates the narrator which highlights the individual struggles within the family, including Agnes’s visceral pain when she knows her actions are destructive but is unable to put on the breaks. The despair and hopes of the rollercoaster ride of living with an alcoholic are laid bare. Inevitably her children start to move on leaving young Shuggie, whose unconditional love for his mother is absolute.

You sense some of this story must be autobiographical due to the depth of understanding of living with alcoholism. It serves as a reminder to the severity of the repercussions this disease has on the whole family. All this may sound like a dark read, but the writing is fresh and intimate, even allowing for optimism - Agnes has hope that her children will go out into the world and do well. To get you in the mood, here are a couple of the Den’s favourite imageries and as you will see, there is humour too!

- “In the dim light his grandfather looked the colour of condensed milk”.
- “Agnes clenched her jaw in anger so tightly that the porcelain dentures shrieked like two supper plates rubbing together.”.

'Shuggie Bain' is Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The Den have read several and this tops the list so far!

INTIMATIONS: SIX ESSAYS

'Intimations: Six Essays' by the celebrated author Zadie Smith is our Wild Card read - a read for every book club.

As a short compilation of six essays Smith’s ‘Intimations’ provides a thought provoking and personal perspective on the early days of the pandemic. So short it’s definitely a +1 read for book clubs but one that will have you talking in new unexplored discussion about the creative process, the shared experiences of the pandemic and new found liberties of ‘locked up’ time.

Smith presents her ‘Intimations’ with artistic precision and gives this slim collection reams of book club discussion and pause for individual thought as well as a chance to get closer to the author. At 82 pages this could be read in one sitting - a truly slender read but bursting with rich writing.

Each essay takes the reader on a short philosophical journey be it downtown New York, an encounter at the bus stop or musings over youthfulness and its healthy optimism. The enticing artistic narrative is deliciously teased with tantalising essay titles ‘Suffering Like Mel Gibson’, ‘The American Exception’, ‘A Provocation in the Park’ - that draw you in to wonder where the story is heading. Expect to be surprised though. Whilst Smith presents her own personal and political 'intimations' her essays come from the heart presenting a raw vulnerability as a woman of colour, sharing her connections with the world and how she feels about recent events and the ‘virus’ within.

At a time when everyone can relate to people watching at the nail bar, the down and out cripple at the ATM, the funny memes in social media, Smith uses her well crafted tools to not be ‘preachy’, but rather share a window into her mind's eye that comes to life in this collection, using ‘the essay’ to provide a wonderful moment of reflection for self or sharing in your book club.

The essays also serve as a great reminder of the creative writer at work, even in dark times, as well as an excuse for us all to read her previous best selling classics such as 'White Teeth' and 'On Beauty'.

We all found something in this work to enjoy and share.

ONCE UPON A RIVER

Diane Setterfield masterfully takes you on a magical historical journey submerging you in the River Thames as it winds its way through Oxfordshire. Starting and ending at The Swan at Radcot, Setterfield’s skilful storytelling and meticulously constructed narrative make for a gripping and wonderfully absorbing page turner.

The Swan is an ancient inn on the river with a tradition of storytelling. One night the regular drinkers find themselves involved in their own story when a badly injured man arrives at the door carrying what looks like a large puppet but turns out to be the motionless drowned body of a small child. Events take a further twist as the seemingly dead child supernaturally wakes up. Unable to speak, she cannot tell anyone who she is or where she has come from. As events unfold, the identity of the child is questioned as three families make claim to be her parents.

The mystery child brings good and evil together. With her magnetic hold over everyone she comes into contact with, gradually the stories and places intertwine, just like the tributaries of a river. The backdrop of nature and scientific references vividly draw the reader into a magical journey as the vulnerability of those affected by the child’s arrival are laid bare. Rita is not a qualified doctor, but recognised in the local villages as the “go to” person for any ailments. Her passion for nature and its healing powers enhance the beauty of this gothic novel.

The Den were riveted with this spell-binding story, the tangible characters and lyrical, layered storytelling. Setterfield explores all the river’s secrets with a hypnotic beauty – a riveting and thoroughly enjoyable read.

BERTA ISLA

'Berta Isla' revolves round the world of espionage, but it is far from a spy thriller. Rather, it is dissection of what happens to a marriage when secrets have to be kept and long periods of absence endured - no questions asked. 

Berta and Tomás meet at school in Spain in the sixties and fall in love, knowing at once, despite their youth, that their relationship is special. A beautiful, talented couple, there is never any doubt they will marry. Tomás is half British and goes to university in Oxford where he stands out as an extraordinary linguist, whilst Berta continues her studies in Madrid. Whilst at Oxford, Tomás is accused of a serious crime and to avoid prison he agrees to work as a spy for the British government. Although he does return to Spain to marry Berta, his career choice has far reaching consequences which seriously alters their future together.  Tomás is unable to divulge anything about his “other life” when he leaves Berta and their two young children for long periods at a time and Berta is not permitted to enquire about his whereabouts or what he does.  As time moves on the pressure of being apart and having no norm to return to, lead to an unsettling state whereby neither situation seems the real one.

Javier Marías captures Berta’s periods of survival without Tomás with a unique scrutiny, dissecting her feelings and coping mechanisms of this lonely separation. When a couple, presumed to be IRA sympathisers, turn up on the doorstep, Berta is unable to contact Tomás and she is suddenly made aware of the danger of her husband’s job. As time goes on she can only imagine what he might be doing and when she convinces herself he must be involved in the Falklands War, she starts to follow the news incessantly. Her isolation is unnerving and Marías cleverly draws you in to her unsettling world. The not-knowing becomes obsessional and the impact on her life and that of their children and Tomás’s parents is raw and painful.

The story is cleverly topped and tailed with Tomás’s narration - beginning with his rather foolish entrapment by the British secret service and ending with his harsh realisation that maybe the sacrifices he had been forced to make hadn’t been worth it.

Whilst the Den were totally engrossed in the storyline, there are times during Berta’s narration that the pace slows unnecessarily as viewpoints are repeated – it can feel a little long-winded and indulgent. But overall, the writing is beautifully observed and you wonder at the end – was it all worth it?

DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE

This is a special book, looking at the serious subject matter of child trafficking in India through the eyes and empathy of children. Deepa Anappara’s debut novel vividly takes you into their impoverished shanty town with candour and humility.

Jai lives with his friends Pari and Faiz in the slums of an unnamed Indian city. When children start to go missing from their basti, they take it upon themselves to try and find out who is responsible, or have they been taken by an imaginary djinn? Jai is obsessed with detective programmes on TV, in particular Police Patrol, and so persuades his two best friends to help him solve the mystery of the disappearance of their fellow classmate Bahadur. As they set forth on their mission, so the fragility of their basti existence becomes evident.

What makes the story work is that all the children have hope. Pari is determined to work extra hard to get a good education to go to a top school. Jai’s sister trains as a track athlete every day so the coach won’t drop her from the team. Jai wants to be a detective. Yet to venture beyond the safety of the basti is dangerous as they discover when they take the Purple Line to the station.

As more families find their children disappearing, so the book takes a more serious tone as families unite in trying to keep their badly paid jobs, whilst trying to protect their children.

This novel touches on many different aspects of slum life. As Anappara says in her afterword, as many as 180 children are said to go missing in India every day. The huge divide between those in the basti and the neighbouring hi fi buildings behind their gated community is laid bare. The ineffectiveness and unwillingness of the police to interfere, the corruptness of those in charge and the fragility of prejudices between Hindu and Muslims is exposed.

The Den were all endeared to Jai and his two friends. Their enviable humour and acceptance of their situation, together with their willingness to see the good in everything, give life and humour to this smog covered destitution. And have the box of tissues ready as the ending is heart-breaking.

REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD

The assumption would be that ordinary people aren’t interesting, but Anne Tyler keeps us wonderfully absorbed with this short but thoroughly enjoyable tale about just that. The Den loved the way you warm towards this middle-aged man living his uneventful monotonous life when a couple of incidents throw his life off course.

Micah is in his forties, leading an unexceptional life as a computer fixer who is obsessed with routine and order. The youngest of a large family, his 4 sisters are all waitresses with chaotic and busy existences. Micah had been the one they hoped would break the mould and do something with his life. Yet these expectations appear to have been unfulfilled as Micah settles for a dependable and comfortable life. When Cass, his woman friend (he refused to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) is threatened with eviction, he fails to seize the moment. An unexpected visitor destabilises his equilibrium further. None of these incidents are life changing events, but they are disruptions to a balanced routine which slowly arouse and awaken Micah.

Tyler’s ability to make us so invested in Micah and his routine humdrum life is breath-taking. The Den couldn’t but help feel for this awkward misfit with his blinkered outlook on life. The fact his family love him unconditionally, although he is so different from their outgoing and full family lives means we also root for him, as it becomes apparent, he does care, he just doesn’t seem able to get it right!

Anne Tyler is a master at writing with such empathy about people living unexceptional lives and in Micah, she allows us to be drawn into his mind and soul with a heart-warming humanity. Unsurprisingly, Redhead by the Side of the Road is Booker Longlisted. The perfect read for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

Even if you haven’t yet read 'The Handmaid’s Tale', or seen the TV adaptation, it is impossible not to be aware of the impact of this iconic novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1984. The book is set in the near future where a new society has been created in the form of the Republic of Gilead, seen to be as somewhere in the United States of America. It is a highly controlled and restrictive society. Women are repressed and held like modern day slaves, shut off from the outside world they knew and categorised according to their age and what they can offer to Gilead.

Offred is a Handmaid, marked out by her red dress and large white bonnet to cover her face. Her role within this dystopian future is to produce a baby which is managed every month with clinical precision. However Offred can still remember her previous married life with Luke and their daughter although she has no idea what has happened to them. It is the fear of what might happen to them if she doesn’t comply which adds to her complicity. Added to this is the horror she witnesses, as the Handmaids are forced to walk past the market where anyone who has disobeyed the regime are hanged and left hanging for those to see as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Alongside the Handmaids are the Econowives who wear stripes and form the lower part of society. As Gilead is puritanical, luxuries are forbidden. Offred is desperate for hand cream and hides butter to use as a moisturiser. The only glimpse into her previous world, is when she visits a brothel with the Commander.

Although this is a dystopian future with its specific power structure, Atwood acknowledges parallels with society in many parts of the world today. Some of us were lucky enough to hear Atwood talk at the National Theatre in London, where she referenced the women and children who disappeared in Argentina whose children were often adopted by military families. Only now are they finding out that their fathers are not their fathers and that these same men were also responsible for the death of their real fathers – an unimaginable discovery. The fact Atwood thinks we are moving closer towards this regime is rather frightening.

Surprisingly, this book split the Den which may seem remarkable given its iconic status. Views varied from it being seen as a work of dystopian genius, to others finding it unfulfilling, perhaps because the book ends without knowing Offred’s fate. There is however plenty to discuss for any book club gathering. It will be interesting to see how many of us choose to now go on and read 'The Testaments', especially as in paperback from September.

THE TESTAMENTS

Whilst we are sure avid fans of Margaret Atwood will have already read this sequel the moment it was released, now this joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize is out in paperback we urge those of you who haven’t read it to do so. However, if you haven’t read 'The Handmaid’s Tale' or watched the Netflix series, then this should be your starting point so check our review in the Den’s Library.

With Offred’s fate unknown, 'The Testaments' begins 15 years later with the witness testimonials of three women from Gilead. The mistreatment of women is as ingrained as ever, and any attempts to escape to the “outside’ world are punishable by death. These women risk everything to try and end this deplorable regime. We also learn that Commander Waterford’s daughter, (of course in reality Offred’s daughter) baby Nicole, has been smuggled into Canada and it has become the mission of Gilead to secure her return.

Aunt Lydia has the highest status of the 3 witness testimonials within Gilead and her manuscript, The Ardua Hall Holograph comes from the heart of the hierarchy. We learn she took on her role as rule enforcer having endured horrific hardship and indignities. She is calculated but totally driven in her determination to succeed and it seems she is out for revenge as much as caring about what happens to Gilead.

The second witness testimony is that of Agnes, a young girl grown up in Gilead, taught to conform and do her duty. The fear of a highly inappropriate marriage to a Commander several times her age, causes her to take the only possible action to avoid this fate, which is to train to become an Aunt herself at Ardua Hall under the leadership of Aunt Lydia. It is only at this stage, despite having been at school in Gilead, that she is taught to read and write.

The third witness testimony by Daisy is the only one which touches on both the outside world and inside Gilead. Having grown up in Canada, she is educated and streetwise. Consequently, she is able to question authority and not scared to take risks. Her life changes dramatically when both her parents are killed and she discovers her real identity. Informed that she is the only one who can change the fate of women in Gilead, she is persuaded to be wooed by the Pearl Girls, who are given permission to go to Canada to recruit new vulnerable women to join Gilead.

'The Testaments' has the same well-defined and powerful narrative as 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and continues to shock with Atwood’s depiction of a society where young girls are groomed for marriage with a single role, to run a household and reproduce. The Den felt the outcome was more predictable, as if Atwood wanted a conclusion for Gilead and for “good to win over evil.” Atwood said in conversation that she wanted to leave the reader with hope and optimism. This is not necessarily a bad outcome, it just raises less questions and unsettling feelings of discomfort which was so evident in 'The Handmaid’s Tale'. And ultimately this book answers the question of how Gilead’s demise came about, which let’s face it, everyone in the Den wanted to know.

The Den thoroughly enjoyed this compelling and gripping sequel which offers a wider dynamic to Gilead and a more encouraging and conclusive outcome. In September last year, the Den were privileged to see Margaret Atwood in conversation at the National Theatre - with excerpts from the book read by Ann Dowd, Sally Hawkins and Lily James – seems impossible to imagine now, rather like these iconic books, you never know what is around the corner...

REBECCA

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

The first line of this romantic gothic thriller will hopefully excite the senses this summer. 'Rebecca' by Daphne Du Maurier is an exquisitely written classic and makes a wonderful book club novel, whether it’s your first reading, a re-read or because you’ve heard about the new Netflix remake starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas – coming to our screens soon. So reading with your club or on your summer break be it a staycation at home or by the sea – 'Rebecca' is a delicious tonic that will keep you on your toes and provide lots of fizz and sparkle!

Written in 1938 'Rebecca' is a classic that captures the experience of first love written from the perspective of a young unnamed narrator. We never know her name but we certainly learn plenty about Rebecca, the book’s namesake. Whilst working as a lady’s companion the narrator has a chance meeting with the troubled and handsome widower Maxim de Winter in a grand hotel in Monte Carlo.

After a speedy marriage they return from the Riviera to de Winter’s Manderley, an English stately home by the Coast that lives and breathes the previous Mrs de Winter. The reader is introduced to Manderley’s household of staff each with their own relationship with Rebecca, including the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, ‘a madwoman, a fanatic’ who adores her Rebecca.

Through the story-telling we live out the narrator’s dreams, hopes and fears and because the protagonist is ‘young inexperienced and not of his (de Winter’s) world’ the narrative creeps around Manderley exploring the landscape and discovering its dark twisted secrets.

Nature is a strong force in the novel setting the tone and pace. It is also rich in drama and action with ship-wrecks, murder, jealousy and unrequited love.

We loved this novel in the Den and discovered many scenes to unpick and discuss. Definitely a novel that gets better with discussion.

MY SUNSHINE AWAY

This debut novel submerges you into Baton Rouge so gracefully that you can feel the sweltering heat, taste the southern food and feel part of this wonderfully tight-knit community. 

The story begins in the summer of 1989 when the narrator, at the time a 15 year-old high school boy, is consumed by his infatuation with Lindy – an outgoing athletics superstar who lives across the street. One hot night, Lindy is raped and this changes the dynamics within the community irreparably forever. As various suspects are eliminated and no one is brought to justice for the crime, so the pressure increases on those closest to the event.

Twenty years on, now married and about to be a father, the narrator recalls his teenage childhood during this life-changing period with compelling nostalgia. The story is a cathartic process for him as he looks back on this time of coming of age and unravels his feelings, what happened to him and his family and how they emerge, not unscathed, but with a future to look forward to. The story’s main theme is guilt, but it also covers grief, love, embarrassment and suspense whilst never forgetting the stunning nature and backdrop of Louisiana. 

The author also touches on Baton Rouge’s image as home to 'second-rate citizens' compared to their outgoing lively neighbours in New Orleans and how the dynamics of this relationship changed after hurricane Katrina. 

The Den found the story-telling so genuine that you felt you were reading a memoir. The tension builds beautifully throughout the novel and the ending is particularly compelling as the narrator dramatically explains his actions. Although the story has a serious subject matter, it never feels dark or austere which is a credit to the beauty of Walsh's writing. Hopefully more in store from this author.

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN

The popular Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, has written seven delightful and imaginative stories about isolated men, and their relationship with or without a woman. During a time when we are all coping with our own individual experiences of isolation, the Den loved these idiosyncratic snapshots of lonely men and their varying and unusual connection with a female presence in their lives. The stories are moving, witty, often dark and unpredictable – perfect for those of us who are currently finding it hard to jump into a big read.

An old-timer actor confides in his young female chauffeur, an exemplary plastic surgeon is overcome with love sickness, a misunderstood and unfulfilled youthful relationship and whether it be through a gift of storytelling or running a jazz bar with a mysterious guest, these wonderfully eclectic reads are quirky - a new spin on romance!

It is not always just the man we hear about, Scheberazade recalls breaking and entering into the house of a boy at school who she was besotted with but who never noticed her. She takes one of his pencils and hides a tampon in return in one of his drawers. This glimpse into her adolescence is funny, dark and you long to hear more.

The Den found the last two stories the most “off the wall.” Samsa in Love is Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis' in reverse. In the final title story Men Without Women (the same title incidentally used by Ernest Hemingway for his book of short stories) our nameless married man receives a phone call at 1 am from a stranger announcing the death of his wife. The woman was an old girlfriend, only it turns out this woman was the third woman he’d gone out with who’d killed herself – as he himself observes, “an extremely high fatality rate.”.

The seven short stories have been beautifully translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen so none of the nuanced humour or surrealism has been lost. Overall, a pleasure to read.

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Illustrations by Lizzie Nightingale