Despite the famous line from Trainspotting proclaiming “It’s shite being Scottish” – which was more a lament on our footballing prowess, than a generalism of society – it’s not, actually. I’m not sure you’ll see anything more breathtaking for £1.50 than the views offered on a Megabus journey from Glasgow to Fort William. No, I don’t mean the peoplewatching – please ignore the bloke at the back chugging Buckfast. I mean the shimmering mirrors of lochs, rolling hills and glens, scotch mist and unspoilt Mother Earth in all her glory for miles around. And it’s not just the west coast and the highlands that are picture perfect.
Your pretentious reviewer, liking to think herself something of a Hemingway (without the rampant misogyny), favours the East Neuk of Fife. Most months, she takes herself off to spend a weekend talking in the third person against a backdrop of bobbing fishing boats, roaring waves and chocolate box houses, bum firmly planted beside a log fire as she finishes her first novel. Wait, Sarah, you’re writing a novel? You never said. Sorry, long suffering friends and family…
Anyway, the point is, Scotland is beautiful and inspires some of the most phenomenal creations, whether artistic, scientific or whatever. You won’t manage ten seconds here as a tourist without hearing how we invented the TV, the telephone and penicillin. You’re welcome, world.
And our authors are pretty cool too, which is handy since I write book reviews. So, let’s have a dram, eat some haggis, adjust our tartan blankets and get stuck in to my three books.
Christmas is Murder
First up, the Queen of Crime, Val McDermid. As regular readers know, thrillers are my jam. I love a good murder and no one does it quite like Val. God knows how her mind works, but I love it. I’ve read around 130 books this year, and honestly this was up there with the best. These are 12 short stories, loosely based around Christmas – more because of the time of year they happened in than because of any actual festive vibes, you understand. So, if you wanted murder by turkey, you might be a tad disappointed, but hey, you can always do that yourself this week after your uncle tries to goad you into another Brexit debate. Just make sure its in the garden though, for social distancing. And to protect your carpets.
Anyway, back to the stories. So, Val has a long and distinguished career but some people are yet to read any of her books. If you are one such anomaly, this is a great introduction to her tastefully macabre style.
On account of the stories being short, it’s difficult to summarise them without giving the game away. However, there’s one particular yarn involving a certain Mr Holmes and Dr Watson that should absolutely tickle your fancy.
So many of my book chums immerse themselves in Christmas/Holiday romances throughout December. This kind of escapism is particularly understandable in the year clusterfuck AD. Alas, many of us can’t stomach or understand romance novels set at this time of the year. What’s the significance of the Christmas setting? What makes them more enticing than being set say, in mid-April? December is cold, its dark, everyone is too busy so how on earth could you meet anyone new in these conditions? It’s not time for a happily ever after between an unlikely pairing who will then spend the next few years arguing about loading the dishwasher and taking the bins out. It’s not romance, it’s fantasy. April is much more realistic, with many more hours of daylight and an ability to partake in hobbies due to a more pleasant temperature.
Now, crime and murder on the other hand, that’s what you want to read in December. Something dark, weird, sinister and creepy. Val gets it. She knows December is for the stabbings and the hunting and apprehension of the culprit.
Val understands the beauty in a thriller, in helping the fictitious characters on the page in their quest to avenge the victim. She gets the need for community, to let us join her in the hunt and sit together satisfied with the happy ending of a jail term for the guilty.
That’s what Christmas is all about; blood, gore and an effective criminal justice system.
Well, this is Douglas’ first novel and it won a Booker prize. So, it’s clear this is what happens to first time Scottish novelists (agents receiving my submission in the new year, take note. I’m a shoe-in). Regular readers know I don’t rate books as such, I tell you what they’re about and if I think you’ll like them, based on your tastes.
I grew up on a council estate in Scotland and lived beside countless little Shuggie Bains and their alcoholic mothers and absent fathers or, if they stuck around, violent, abusive adults who usually spent their family’s money gambling or drinking. In my house, there was no money to go around. Like the Bain family, we too had televisions that only worked with 50p pieces slotted in the back. And we also had our Christmas and birthday presents and school uniforms bought on ‘tick’ and from ‘the provvie wife’.
So, I found this a difficult read. But only because while these were facts in my house, they weren’t my feelings or my memories. The Shuggies of my estate were gathered into the collective embrace of a community who wouldn’t see one of their own flounder. I worry Booker readers think that’s how we all treated Shuggie; that Scotland’s estates would intentionally see a child go hungry. Because those estates are filled to the brim of the most caring, kind and compassionate people in the country. I just hope the comfortable, cosy and privileged readers who can afford a hardback Booker, finish the book and then donate to a foodbank, rather than pouring themselves a glass of £30 Waitrose Sancerre, relieved they never have to think of that bleak place again.
And this book is bleak, with a capital B. Shuggie is a little dude with far too much responsibility, caring for a mum who is addicted and broken right from her toes. As any child of an addict knows, hope is the most dangerous thing and Shuggie is full of it for his beloved mother. His elder brother and sister left the constant disappointment as soon as they could, sick of waking up not knowing if their mum was having a good day or a bad day, if there would be bread and milk or a six pack of lager in the cupboard. So Shuggie’s life is a seesaw of perpetual hope and disappointment. And honestly, that’s the book.
You have to be aware of the depths of misery you’re sinking into. It’s not uplifting, it’s not joyful and it’s not heartening. You have to ask yourself, particularly at this time of year, if you’re strong enough for it, if you’re robust enough mentally to enter the world of a little boy who sees too much.
You’ve got to know what you’re getting into with this one. But you also need to remember that this isn’t a Booker winner without reason. It’s written utterly flawlessly. Like, seriously flawlessly. Like, Rihanna’s skin flawless. It’s that good – if you can withstand the misery.
For those of you that don’t know, Scotland had a referendum in 2016 to see if it should become independent from the rest of the UK. Many readers will think I’m being sarcastic, here. Obviously, we know that, they might say. But legitimately, we have readers from around the world who might not actually have much clue about an event that utterly consumed Scotland and much of the UK. When the referendum narrowly resulted in victory for the ‘No’ camp, tethering Scotland afresh to the UK, almost half of Scots voters were utterly stunned, angry and rudderless, while the other (marginally more than) half went about their business as any other day. It’s the former half of the country that I feel this book is written for, and about.
Scotland has a history of political activism. Demonstrations, union battles, petitions, street stalls, political party membership. You name it, and a family member or friend has been involved in it. These are ingrained in huge swathes of Scottish society. And it’s against this backdrop we meet our Scabby Queen, Clio.
Clio is a 50-year-old one-hit-wonder still dining out on her famous protest song Rise Up, recorded in her early 20s at a time when Scotland and the rest of the UK were protesting the Poll Tax. The protests, 30 years ago, created a lot of modern day folk heroes who became prominent politicians and community leaders. They are stalwarts, protesting about every injustice from apartheid to gentrification to Iraq to asylum seekers. They are also exhausting, as Clio’s friends found out.
After her fame was reduced to ‘that woman who sang that song once’, she bounced from one cause to the next with the fervour and stringent dogmatic and utterly recognisable belief that her view was the right view, the only view, and that anyone who disagreed was either misguided, uniformed or wilfully oppressive and part of the problem. Unfortunately for Clio, by the time she hit the big 5-0, the people she met along the way were moving on, marrying, having kids, and forging their own paths in the world. They still had the same world view, but it wasn’t their sole priority anymore. For Clio it still was, and she was lonely as hell, fighting a battle that grew to be more internal than anything she protested against.
This book is a great snapshot of what it is to be a certain type of activist, to be a certain type of Scot, to be a life-long protester against countless injustices anywhere in the world. There’s a unique nature to these stalwarts, forged over hundreds of years of activism, and I love that this book shows them warts and all. For people like Clio, activism can be a lonely place after a certain age. If you dedicate your life to a cause, there’s a point at which you look around an empty room as your former allies slowly fade away. She’s that friend at uni who never compromised her principles. And as anyone who never compromises knows, that comes at a price.
This was such a lovely story, and it’s a great one for this time of year – a time of reflection on choices, on friends and family, and on memories of years gone by.
The Flock Book Club in January – New Year, New You?
New Year, New You? Pah! I don’t know about you, but my only resolution is to not get the bloody virus before I get a vaccine. But in the spirit of tradition and New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be talking about three books that have reinvention at their heart.
The Vanishing Half
Tens of thousands of American bookworms are treated to the Book of the Month club, which is a hugely popular monthly book delivery. In December, The Vanishing Half was voted their book of the year for 2020. And it’s no wonder.
It’s an incredible tale of two sisters living in a small town in the Deep South – very light skinned African American young women – and the different paths they take in life. One sister is content to stay in their hometown, while the other decides on the ultimate reinvention; to leave her past behind, move to the city and present herself to the world as a white woman. But, as with so many of us who leave home in search bigger and brighter things, she soon discovers that you can go to the ends of the earth but you’ll never outrun yourself…
The Girl with the Louding Voice
When 14-year-old Adunni is sold by her dad for some rice and livestock, to be the third wife of a man older than him, she is defiant and determined to escape her latest hell. And escape she does – only for her Nigerian sanctuary to turn into another layer of hell. But a tragedy this is not. She fights, she shouts and she refuses to stand still and accept what society tells her she should. I was rooting harder for Adunni than any sports fan on championship day. What a journey she takes you on.
The Henna Artist
Another book, another woman who sees what society has in store for her and sticks two fingers up at it. This time we head to India, where a teenage Lakshmi, trapped in an abusive marriage, breaks free and heads to the city. She can’t do much, but man is she good at Henna. Thanks to her savvy and her unshakable desire to build a life for herself others insist she has no business thinking about, she takes her skills to the most affluent and influential women in Jaipur, decorating their hands and feet beautifully. Life is going according to plan, her very own house is in the middle of being built – and then her rancid ‘husband’ turns up to collect what’s ‘his’.
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