Book Review: “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart – The Grimmest Novel ever Written?

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe not, but it must be up there. Choose a grim city – Glasgow (disclaimer, I’ve never been to Glasgow, and I’ve heard it’s improved a lot, but back in the 70s, 80s it had a terrible reputation e.g. look up the meaning of “A Glasgow Kiss“). Choose a grim period for that city – when Margaret Thatcher was destroying the fabric of British society, because she didn’t believe that society actually existed. Choose the grimmest parts of the city – the tenements and a dead coal mining town. Choose a dysfunctional family – abusive father, alcoholic mother. Choose a troubled child – a boy struggling with his sexual identity in an environment where anything non-standard is met with shaming and violence. This is what Douglas Stuart is writing about. He won the Booker Prize for this, his first novel, in 2020. It’s a hard, hard read and is, perhaps, overly long. I made it to the end, just, but it is deeply depressing.

However, the writing is good. The depiction of Shuggie and his family is based on Stuart’s own experience – his own family and those around him in his Glasgow childhood. The characterisation of Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is particularly strong. Indeed, the book might be more accurately titled “Agnes Bain”, though that doesn’t have the same ring. Somehow the character of Shuggie was never entirely clear to me, nor that of his brother Leek.

Above all this novel is a condemnation of Thatcher’s policies, of the devastation wreaked on working class communities, especially those dependent on dying industries – their death made sudden and painful by Thatcher. What once were probably close knit, supportive communities became spiteful, poverty stricken, addicted gaggles of people with no jobs, no future, no hope.


© Mike Hopkins 2021

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Book Review: The Application of Pressure by Rachael Mead

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The application of pressure by Rachael Mead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, in equal parts, an insightful, jaw-dropping, hilarious, horrifying novel about the lives of two paramedics in Adelaide, South Australia. Mead leads us through the careers of two paramedics, Joel and Tash, from their initial training through to their becoming veterans of the profession. She does this using fairly self-contained chapters, each recounting part of a day in the life of the heroes of the book. And heroes they are. After reading this book, you will have a new-found respect for this profession, because Mead pulls no punches in describing the blood, gore, faeces and other bodily fluids they deal with on a day-to-day basis. She also sheds light on the vast range of people treated by paramedics, from the innocent victims of car crashes to the druggies and domestic abusers. But she does this by placing front and centre the humanity of the paramedics, the toll on their personal lives and the mental strain on them and their partners. She also leavens it with a healthy dose of humour – at times a wry humour, at other times outright belly laughs.

This is Mead’s first novel, and all the more impressive for that. But she is already an experienced and highly-respected poet and reviewer. This experience is evident in the quality of the writing, the depth of characterisation and the easy flow of her story-telling. You can count on the authenticity of the stories because her husband is himself a paramedic, so she has an unparalleled level of insight into the life of what Australians simplistically refer to as “ambos”.

Above all this is a rollicking good read which you will not want to put down.

Tip: never again refer to a paramedic as an ambulance driver. But read this book and if you ever need to call emergency services, you will hopefully be in the capable hands of a Joel or a Tash.

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Book Review: “Don’t Skip out on Me” by Willy Vlautin, plus a few others

「Don't Skip Out on Me」(Willy Vlautin - 9780062799463)| 楽天Kobo

Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book with it’s own soundtrack by the author! I heard Willy Vlautin speak at Adelaide Writers Week a few years ago. He is an engaging speaker, I think a Vietnam Vet, and a band musician. That’s quite a combination of experiences for a still relatively young man. His book “The Free” was about a Vietnam vet, but I reviewed it as three stars “… I struggled at times to follow the narrative, which switches between reality and anaesthetic induced dreams.”

This book is really, really good. The arc of the story is straightforward – young man, Horace, who is part American Indian, part Irish, part Nevadan has been abandoned by his parents when young, and rescued by working on a remote sheep farm for a couple who we only ever know as Mr. and Mrs. Reece. He has a dream to be a boxing champion and, for some reason, be thought of as Mexican, because he is ashamed of his Indian heritage. The Reeces love him as their own son, but must let him go to follow his boxing dream. He is a good boxer, but is he a champion? The rest of the book follows his trajectory towards his goal.

Vlautin now writes clear, concise and deceptively simple prose. It is a gripping story and the relationship between Horace and the Reeces is heartbreaking.

Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine, have a lovely alt-country album with the same title as the book, on which each track depicts a section of the book. Tailor made to be the soundtrack of a film of the book.

Highly recommended.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read, but impossible to match “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I thought the ending was a touch “Harry Potter”-ish as if it was rushed to meet a deadline.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found it a hard read. The story of a family (or are they) who have escaped a male dominated apocalyptic land to live alone on a remote island or peninsula. Interesting premise but, for me, not engaging, although I stayed with it to the end

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting insight into the mind of a grieving man, centred around his journey from Belfast to Sunderland at Christmas, to retrieve his (probably) mentally disturbed son and bring him home. Not that engaging for me, but engaging enough for me to finish it.

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Book Review: “Stoner” by John Williams

21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of | GQ

Stoner by John Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”. Lest the title of the book misleads you, John Williams’ “Stoner” is not a book about a drug addled no-hoper. It’s set in the first half of the twentieth century in Missouri, where William Stoner is born into a dirt poor farming family. He has no ambition, no set path in life except to carry on back-breaking farm work like his father. His father decides that William should go to university to study agriculture, in the hope that their poor farm can become more than bare subsistence.

Early in his time at university, William Stoner takes an English elective, without any expectation, and is so inspired by his professor and by reading Shakespeare, that he decides to quit agriculture and study English full-time. The rest of his life is in academia, teaching English Literature in the same institution in which he studied. He meets and marries a woman at an academic function. They have a daughter. The marriage is unsuccessful, the daughter being used as a pawn in the marital conflict. His career flourishes, he has an affair with a colleague, his career founders, he dies a painful death of cancer. This is no Gatsby-like hero.

This all sounds fairly depressing, and in a way it is. But it is depressing in the same way that a Thomas Hardy novel is depressing – by being incredibly insightful into the twists and turns of fate that alter any human life and create both pain and joy for the characters. The writing is beautiful and the main characters are skilfully portrayed. The observations of academic politics and chicanery are acute.

I can imagine alternative critiques of this book. One would be that all the female characters are damaged, difficult and unsympathetically portrayed. Some reviewers have accused Williams of misogyny. The same criticism could be levelled at the unsympathetic portrayal of two disabled characters.

“Stoner” was initially published in 1965. It sold fewer than 2,000 copies and was out of print a year later. In 1972 Pocket Books put out a paperback version, reissued again in 1998 by the University of Arkansas Press and then in 2003 in paperback by Vintage and 2006 by New York Review Books Classics. French novelist Anna Gavalda translated Stoner in 2011, and it became Waterstones’ Book of the Year in Britain in 2012. It has now sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 21 countries. Williams died in 1994, probably before the book received the wide acclaim it now enjoys.

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Book Review: “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pat Barker is a great writer of both contemporary and historical fiction. The Regeneration Trilogy, (Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)), is a monumental achievement. It explores the First World War, combining history and fiction, using the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers as characters. She won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road. However “Toby’s Room” and “Double Vision” were less to my liking, so I did not have such high expectations from this novel.

In “The Silence of the Girls” Barker retells The Iliad, but primarily from the point of view of the women involved. In particular, this is the story of Briseis, the wife of the King of Lyrnessus. Briseis is captured when the Greeks take her city, slaughter her husband, and sons, and award her as a prize to Achilles.

There is no romanticising of war in this story. The way women are treated as possessions to be bartered or given away when they are young and fertile, and cast aside when no longer attractive, is vividly described.

Barker uses modern idioms rather than archaic speech in writing dialogue. Initially this grated on me a bit, but as the novel progressed I became used to it.

Particularly moving is her description of the scene where the King of Troy, Priam, steals into the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return the body of Hector, Priam’s son. There is a great Michael Longley poem, “Ceasefire” which also describes the same scene. In both cases, Priam’s words are quoted and are particularly memorable:

“I get down on my knees and do what must be done
and kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son”

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Book Review: “Fallen: The inside story of the secret trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell” by Lucie Morris-Marr

I read this book in three days, which, by my standards is very, very fast. That’s because it is a gripping story, even though, like just about everybody in Australia, I knew the outcome.

This is a scorching condemnation of the Catholic Church hierarchy but also of contemporary Australia where vested interests seek to determine who and what is given publicity, which convicted criminals deserve empathy, and when the law should be respected or undermined.

The most striking aspects of the whole saga, captured well by Lucie Morris-Marr, are:

  1. The way that powerful interests worked to initially suppress the news of the accusations against Pell, and then to discredit those involved, and finally and bizarrely to still sing the praises of the convicted paedophile. Pell was known for his right-wing social attitudes on a range of issues. I doubt the likes of Howard and Abbott would have been supportive of a priest such as Father Rod Bower (Gosford Anglican) if he had been convicted of the same offences.
  2. That News Corporation is a vindictive, biased organisation only interested in stories that support its worldview (but you knew that already, didn’t you).
  3. That the Catholic Church has a long, dark history of sexual abuse and of doing everything in its power to hide the abuse, putting its own reputation above the welfare of children.

Morris-Marr starts at almost the end – the day when the jury’s verdicts on the four charges against Cardinal George Pell, are to be announced.

She then goes back three years to the start of her involvement in the story, when she was working as a freelance reporter for News Corporation. She finds out that there is police task force investigating accusations of sexual assault of minors by Pell, and then that Pell is to be charged with the offences. Initially News Corp are delighted to have such a scoop, and splash it on the front page of the Courier-Mail. However, things quickly turn sour when Pell’s powerful connections, including Andrew Bolt, move to have the story squashed. Morris-Marr finds herself without a job and, by the sound of it, having a nervous breakdown.

However, she finds support from CNN and The New Daily, and is back on the trail of Pell. Despite a suppression order preventing publicity of the trials, she doggedly attends every day of the initial trial, which ended without a verdict, and the retrial. She takes us through Pell’s life from young sporting hero, to seminarian, to his meteoric rise to become the third most powerful person in the Catholic Church. At one stage he was even spoken of as a possible Pope.

Her account of his time in Ballarat, where he shared a residence with notorious paedophile Gerard Ridsdale is most revealing. It seems inconceivable that Pell was unaware of the horrendous activities going on in the same building where he lived. One victim says that while she was being raped by Ridsdale, a man, most likely Pell, walked past the open doorway and did nothing to intervene. There are also accounts of Pell fondling boys at the swimming pool, and of being warned off by a man who witnessed him standing naked in front of small boys.

She also recounts his handling of historical clerical sexual abuse for the Church, establishing the so-called Melbourne Response. Many victims of abuse were deeply dissatisfied with, even traumatised, by the way in which they were treated by the Church under Pell’s management.

But Pell was not on trial for turning a blind eye to abuse, nor for his alleged involvement with boys at a swimming pool. He was on trial for assaulting two choir boys in the priests’ sacristy at Melbourne Cathedral. One of the boys committed suicide as an adult, before the assault came to trial. It is the evidence of the second boy, whose name has been closely guarded, which formed the main case against Pell. This evidence was presented only to the jury and no transcripts were released. There is thus an unavoidable gap in the story.

The picture of Pell presented here is of an ambitious, determined, conservative man with very powerful friends. The book also presents a picture of a legal system within which the wheels of justice grind slowly but relentlessly towards a resolution.

Pedant alert. The book was rushed out in the wake of the guilty verdict. Inevitably there are typos and other grammatical errors (in my ebook edition at least) which hopefully will be fixed in later editions . e.g. “Tony Abbot”, “in other incidences”, “juggling an eggshell”, “the cardinal just put his dead down”, the quotation from Howard’s letter not put in quotation marks.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison” by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus PrisonNo Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amongst the many shocking and astonishing things about this book, is that Boochani wrote it secretly in Farsi on a mobile phone which he had to keep hidden from the prison guards. He sent thousands of PDF files using Whatsapp to his translator Dr Omid Tofighian.

Perhaps even Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton would have to agree that it is miraculous that the end-result is such a cohesive, detailed, persuasive, poetic narrative. But then again, if Morrison and Dutton ever read books, this one would be bottom of their list, because it is a damning indictment of their immigration policies and their inhumanity.

Boochani is a Kurd. He was a member of the Kurdish Democratic party which is outlawed in Iran, and of the National Union of Kurdish Students. As a result he was watched closely by the Iranian authorities. The first part of the book describes Boochani’s time in Indonesia and then two attempts to come to Australia by boat, almost dying in the process. Boochani then gives a detailed, sickening description of what he calls the Kyriarchal system imposed on the asylum seekers in Manus – a system built around domination, oppression, and submission. Everything that might give the asylum seekers any sense of humanity, dignity or self-respect is denied them. The system requires detainees to queue for hours or days for everything – food, cigarettes, telephones, medical attention, anti-malarials. The queues pit man against man. Generators are turned off in the intense heat to keep the men exhausted. The toilets and showers are like open sewers. Self-harm is prevalent. Fights break out regularly over minor issues. Huge mosquitoes feast on their exposed flesh. Any attempt to buck the system is met with brutality from the Australian security guards and even the locals, the ‘Papus’. In short, Manus is a living-hell.

There can be no justification for the way Australia treats asylum-seekers. To drive men mad in these conditions, with the supposed justification that it will prevent others from risking their lives at sea is a thin cover. In reality, ever since John Howard, the Australian Government has exploited racism in Australia for electoral advantage. Asylum seekers are a convenient distraction from the corruption and nepotism that the Government gets away with on a daily basis. The Australian media, even the ABC, is mostly a cheerleader for these policies.

The words “important book” have been bandied around a lot recently, but this really does deserve that nomenclature. Surely nobody who reads it can ever again support Australia’s asylum seeker policies.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “How Late it Was, How Late” by James Kelman

How Late it Was, How LateHow Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy’s wisdom: “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That’s the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”

James Kelman won the Booker Prize for this novel, in 1994. It was, apparently, a controversial winner, mainly because of objections to the profane language. The book is in Scots dialect, from the point of view of Sammy. We first meet Sammy waking from a monster hangover, the cause of which he cannot remember. He soon picks a fight with some “sodjas” (policemen), and ends up in a police cell, waking again to find that he has lost his sight as a result of the beating he received. The rest of the book is his stream of consciousness as he comes to terms with this disaster, which it seems is just one of many, many disasters which have befallen him. He is estranged from his wife and son, his current girlfriend has disappeared, he has had spells in prison, there are suggestions of politically motivated violence, he has no money and, it seems, no friends he can rely on.

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”

I found Sammy a surprisingly sympathetic character. His outlook on life is philosophical, almost Buddhist at times. He holds no animosity towards the police who beat him. Towards the end, when his estranged son appears, their relationship is quite touching. Also evident is the kindness towards him of neighbours and Glasgow locals.

This is not an easy read. I’m not familiar with Scots, but perhaps my Irish / English origins made it fairly easy for me to understand. Others might find it hard going. But it is a tremendous achievement to hold the reader’s attention, as it did mine, by describing the inner thoughts of a newly blind man who exists on the margins of society, who utterly distrusts authority and has little hope of redemption.

“Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping’s the same. One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.”

© Mike Hopkins 2019 (other than quotes from book)

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about …. loneliness, trauma, friendship, community, recovery, office politics, mother-daughter relationships. At times very moving, at times hilarious, at times the characters make you cringe in embarrassment. This is a wonderful book which I found grabbed me from the start. It’s Honeyman’s first novel and therefore an incredibly impressive feat to pull off such a polished book.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely young woman whose life consists of an office job during the week, and a weekend consuming vodka and pasta, and talking to nobody. She possesses zero social skills and is the brunt of jokes amongst her work colleagues. Once a week she is the subject of a conversation with her mother, in which she is put down, mocked and humiliated.

Early on in the story she becomes infatuated, from a distance, with a pub singer. She is convinced that their futures lie together and formulates a plan which she expects will lead to them becoming life partners. Where this book then becomes more interesting and insightful is in depicting the way in which, against her will almost, Eleanor is exposed to the warmer side of the Glasgow community in which she lives, a warmth that she has never before experienced. It also takes us into her mental state, the dark story behind her childhood, and the route to her salvation.

We have probably all met an Eleanor Oliphant in our lives, and probably been unkind towards her or at best ignored her. This book gives us pause to think about why people are the way they are, and how a kind word or invitation can make a huge difference to people who have rarely experienced them. If it has a weakness it is that perhaps the characters are a bit too black and white – either totally evil, or wonderfully warm and kind. But this does not detract from the power of the story. Highly recommended.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

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Book Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceWhat You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché’s memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved with that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem “The Colonel”, (…). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”.

I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago – it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (…)

Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed.

Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attacks on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gómez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation.

This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019