A Reading Round Up

I don’t review all the books I read because…..well…..I have a full time job and two kids and only shreds of my sanity left!

I have recently been adding little reviews over on Instagram when I’ve come to the end of a book and I’ve found this a good way of talking about the books I wouldn’t have necessarily sat down and written a full blog post review for. It’s not fair to let good books pass by just because I’ve not got the time to write a full review. Don’t get me wrong, I always tweet and IG about the books I’m reading and enjoying, so they do get a mention but I find it easier to do an Instagram post with some of my thoughts than I do to plan a whole review here on the blog.

Having said that, moving forward I may do more of these ‘reading round-up’ type of posts, as they will again let me talk about the books I’ve recently enjoyed but won’t be fully reviewing.

Today I’ll be giving you some of my thoughts on 7 books I’ve recently read. We have three fiction, one non-fiction, one short story collection and two audiobooks.

So let’s get cracking!

First up we have Mary Toft Or The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer (Corsair). 14/8/20


Surgeon John Howard is a rational man. His apprentice Zachary knows John is reluctant to believe anything that purports to exist outside the realm of logic. But even John cannot explain how or why Mary Toft, the wife of a local farmer, manages to give birth to a dead rabbit. When this singular event becomes a regular occurrence, John realizes that nothing in his experience as a village physician has prepared him to deal with a situation as disturbing as this. He writes to several preeminent surgeons in London, three of whom quickly arrive in the small town of Godalming ready to observe and opine. 

When Mary’s plight reaches the attention of King George, Mary and her doctors are summoned to London, where Zachary experiences for the first time a world apart from his small-town existence, and is exposed to some of the darkest corners of the human soul. All the while, Mary lies in bed, waiting for another birth, as doubts begin to blossom among the surgeons and a growing group of onlookers grow impatient for another miracle . . .

I’d had this book on my radar due to the fact that I knew it was about a supposed true story of a woman in the 1700’s who was reported to give birth to rabbits. Now I love a folklore tale and was intrigued by this one.

It does exactly what it says on the tin! 1726 in Godalming, a young woman confuses the eminent medical community with her apparent affliction of giving birth to rabbits. Now we’re not talking cute little fluffy bunnies, we are taking dead, partially skinned and dismembered rabbits. Nice!

Local surgeon John Howard is the first medical professional to witness this bizarre occurrence with his young apprentice Zachary, but it’s not long before several other high profile doctors with links to King George himself become involved in the strange tale.

This is a book heavily weighted with Male characters as obviously during those days all doctors and surgeons were male. They are a mixed bag of personalities, each using the incredible story as a way of gaining notoriety in the medical world. We hear very little from Mary Toft herself and I can’t decide whether this added to the mystery or took away her female voice….I’m undecided! I enjoyed this book as a whole but there were little niggles that I had to force myself to overlook. For example, the author is American but he is obviously writing a book set in 1700’s England, however little American words and phrases crept in (Fall instead of autumn and a use of the word ‘gotten’). It may sound petty but it jolted me out of the setting a little.

All in all though I did enjoy it.

The Museum Makers by Rachel Morris (September Publishing) 27/8/20


Museum expert Rachel Morris had been ignoring the boxes under her bed for decades. When she finally opened them, an entire bohemian family history was laid bare. The experience was revelatory – searching for her absent father in the archives of the Tate; understanding the loss and longings of the grandmother who raised her – and transported her back to the museums that had enriched her lonely childhood.

By teasing out the stories of those early museum makers, and the unsung daughters and wives behind them, and seeing the same passions and mistakes reflected in her own family, Morris digs deep into the human instinct for collection and curation.

I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction but when I do it tends to be memoirs. This one caught my eye because it was billed as ‘part memoir part detective story’ and that appealed to me massively! I always say I am inherently nosey, so books like this where I get to not only delve into the author’s family history via artefacts she unboxes from her family archives, but learn about the history of museums themselves is perfect for me. Rachel is a museum expert who helps to design and create some amazing museum displays all over the world. But the most gripping part of this book for me was Rachel’s trip into her family’s past, turning her focus from the artefacts of other time periods, countries and civilisations to confront her own family secrets.

I really enjoyed this slice of non-fiction.

Pew by Catherine Lacey (Granta) 14/5/20


Fleeing a past they can no longer remember, Pew wakes on a church bench, surrounded by curious strangers. 

Pew doesn’t have a name, they’ve forgotten it. Pew doesn’t know if they’re a girl or a boy, a child or an almost-adult. Is Pew an orphan, or something worse? And what terrible trouble are they running from? 

Pew won’t speak, but the men and women of this small, god-fearing town are full of questions. As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew’s silence.

I’d seen Jen Campbell and Liv Hooper talking about this one and knew I had to treat myself to a copy. Pew tells the story of Pew, a person found sleeping on one of the pews in a church one Sunday service. When they wake up they are taken back to the home of one of the local families. The family and the wider community cannot quite fathom who Pew is or where they’ve mysteriously appeared from. They don’t even know if this person who has ended up in their small religious town is male or female. Pew doesn’t talk you see, so they are unable to elicit any response from their enquiries.

When Pew is passed from pillar to post in the town, each person they encounter uses them as a kind of confidant, as they feel safe in the knowledge that Pew is mute and therefore unlikely to go spilling their secrets.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book right up until the last few pages where I got completely lost and wondered if I’d missed something or if I wasn’t quite clever enough to ‘get it’. Having said that I did enjoy the read very much. If you’ve read this one, please can we chat about that ending?!

The Art Of The Body by Alex Allison (Dialogue Books)


Janet is caught between care work and caring for herself. Her life revolves around Sean, a talented fine art student, living and working with cerebral palsy. Both Janet and Sean are new to London and far from their families. Both are finding a means of escape through pushing their bodies to the limit.

When Sean is faced with an unexpected and deeply personal tragedy, Janet must let her guard down at last and discover what she’s prepared to fight for.

I recently read and loved Boy Parts by Eliza Clarke (review here) and so I asked Eliza to recommend any other oils along the same lines. I’d previously taken the recommendation of Wetlands by Charlotte Roache from Eliza, and whilst it traumatised me (trust me it’s gross!), I’d enjoyed reading it.

Eliza recommended The Art Of The Body by Alex Allison and I tore through it. I hate to use the overly bandied about stock review phrase of ‘unflinching’, but this book really is an unflinching, warts and all story of the relationship between a carer and patient. I’d highly recommend it.

Outsiders – Edited by Alice Slater (3 Of Cups)

As soon as this short story anthology appeared on my radar I knew I had to have it. Luckily the lovely Clare Bogen offered to send me a copy. I read this collection in just a couple of sittings. There’s not a dud story in here and three of them are right up there in my top short stories of all time. ‘Skin’ by Lena Mohammed in which we encounter a world where people remove their skin at night, but unscrupulous folk are on the look out for better skins and will think nothing of stealing them. ‘But Not Like That’ by Susan James in which we meet a woman reflecting on a special, enduring friendship with her female friend in a small farming village. They slept in the same bed ‘but not like that’. This story explores prejudice, narrow minded thinking, love and grief. ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’ by Sarvat Hasin tells of a vengeful ghost who wreaks havoc when a newcomer infiltrates their family home.

This whole collection is about people on the periphery, people who feel as though they are on the outside looking in, dislocated and not fitting in. I have put this book straight on my Forever Shelf and I know I’ll be revisiting it often.

Ok the last two books I’d like to quickly mention are audiobooks. I’m not a huge audiobook ‘reader’ and I quite often ‘buy’ audiobooks with my monthly Audible credit, start listening and promptly stop again.

However, if an audiobook really grabs my attention I will be hooked and binge listen.

Two I’ve really enjoyed recently are:

A Place For Everything by Anna Wilson (HQ).


Anna grew up in a house that was loving, even if her mum was ‘a little eccentric’. They knew to keep things clean, to stay quiet, and to look the other way when things started to get ‘a bit much for your mum’.

It’s only when her mother reaches her 70s, and Anna has a family of her own, that the cracks really start to appear. More manic. More irrational. More detached from the world. And when her father, the man who has calmed and cajoled her mother through her entire life becomes unwell, the whole world turns upside down.

This is a story of a life lived with undiagnosed autism, about the person behind the disorder, those big unspoken family truths, and what it means to care for our parents in their final years.

This was a raw and honest account of finally gaining a diagnosis for Anna’s mother’s increasingly odd behaviour. It is a heartbreaking story but I really did appreciate the fact that Anna didn’t shy away from getting across her real feelings. She was 100% honest about her feelings for her mother and how her increasingly difficult behaviour impacted her life. It’s one of those memoirs that will always stick with me, much like When I Had A Little Sister by Catherine Simpson.

Finally we have The Other People by C J Tudor (Michael Joseph)


Driving home one night, stuck behind a rusty old car, Gabe sees a little girl’s face appear in the rear window.

She mouths one word: ‘Daddy.’

It’s his five-year-old daughter, Izzy.

He never sees her again.

Three years later, Gabe spends his days and nights travelling up and down the motorway, searching for the car that took his daughter, refusing to give up hope, even though most people believe that Izzy is dead. 

Fran and her daughter, Alice, also put in a lot of miles on the motorway. Not searching. But running. Trying to keep one step ahead of the people who want to hurt them.

Because Fran knows the truth. She knows what really happened to Gabe’s daughter. She knows who is responsible. And she knows what they will do if they ever catch up with her and Alice . . .

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I haven’t read The Chalk Man by C J Tudor. This is the book that everyone was talking about when it was published. (Fear not, I do have a copy!). The Other People caught my eye and let me tell you, this audiobook has got me through many an hour at work. I was gripped!

Don’t even get me started on how much I fancy the narrator based solely on his voice…..(I’ve since found out it’s Richard Armitage, the man Geraldine Granger married in The Vicar Of Dibley…).

So there we go!

Just a few of the books I’ve read recently and not reviewed anywhere. Have you read and of them?

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx


The Whispering House By Elizabeth Brooks – A Review

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

I was waiting with baited breath for Elizabeth Brooks second novel after loving her debut The Call Of The Curlew so much. (Review here), and which I also binge read one hot afternoon. I would have read The Whispering House in one sitting too if I hadn’t have started drinking red wine (I can’t read once I’ve started drinking, anyone else find that?).

So what’s it all about?

The story opens with Freya Lyell and her father attending a wedding in the grounds at Byrne Hall, an impressive home overlooking the sea. However, it is also not far from where her sister, Stella took her own life 5 years before.

When Freya drinks a little too much in the wedding marquee, she stumbles outside for some air and finds herself drawn to the main house despite ‘no entry’ notices from the family living inside.

Freya decides she’ll ignore the notices and take a look inside. She is then confronted by a framed painting on the wall of a woman who looks disturbingly like her dead sister, Stella. Freya passes out in her drunken stupor and when she wakes up the picture has been removed from the wall…..

Once Freya and her father return home, she cannot stop thinking about the painting and decides to take a break from work and looking after her father to go and investigate what connection, if any, her sister had to Byrne Hall.

Once there she meets Cory Byrne, a struggling artist and his ailing mother Diana. When asked about the portrait of her sister, Cory says she was just a woman he once painted and that he didn’t know much about her and Freya has no option but to take his word for this.

The room was getting darker by the second. It was different from the darkness that comes with night: harsher, somehow, and metallic. There was no birdsong, as there is at twilight, and the seething sound of the rain seemed to deepen, rather than disrupt, the electric silence.

‘I didn’t know her’ said Cory, ‘but I did meet her once. She sat for a quick sketch, which I may have made into a painting….. in fact I’m almost sure I did.

‘She was very beautiful’. I meant it as a bald statement of fact, but Cory said, ‘was she?’ and I was struck by that. Everyone who met Stella in the flesh came away – one way or another – overwhelmed. Nobody in my experience was non-committal with regard to my sister.

Freya and Cory become very close and embark on a relationship together with Freya moving into Byrne Hall with him and Diana with the plan being for her to work on her writing and for Cory to work on his painting.

However, the previously loving, caring and encouraging Cory starts to slowly but surely act differently. He makes Freya the subject of his paintings and has her sit for hours whilst he sketches her. He gets an idea in his head that he will put on an exhibition in Byrne Hall and invite anyone who’s anyone in the art world using his mother’s connections.

Freya becomes more and more uncomfortable with the way Cory is acting, he’s controlling and overbearing and lives under the strange shadow of his mother Diana who is fast fading away.

Can Freya figure out what secrets are held within the walls of Byrne Hall and at what cost?….

I loved this book. Elizabeth Brooks has a great talent for weaving stories that you are gripped by from the get-go. There’s nothing I love more than a story surrounding an old house and the myriad secrets held inside. There’s a almost gothic air to this take which you all know I’m hugely drawn to.

What I also loved was the way that Byrne Hall is almost a character in itself. Beautiful on the outside but falling into disrepair on the inside.

Elizabeth Brooks writes wholly believable characters who you quickly become invested in. Characters who you are itching to know the back story of and what they’re hiding behind an everyday facade. We get glimpses of Stella’s troubled past through flashbacks from Freya’s perspective. Memories of her troubled sister who thought nothing of up and disappearing, leaving Freya and her father to trawl the streets looking for her again.

We gain an understanding of Freya’s relationship with her father and their shared grief over the loss of Stella. We also learn about Cory’s childhood with Diana and his father and events that took place at Byrne Hall.

This book really picks up a pace in the last third or so and became quite claustrophobic reading…..in a really great way! We piece together Stella’s history with Byrne Hall and it’s inhabitants, using the various little jigsaw pieces Freya discovers and an interspersed chapter told via Stella’s perspective.

This is a really atmospheric and compelling read and I would heartily recommend it. It would be a great Autumn read.

Thank you as always to the publisher for having me along on the blog tour. I wish Elizabeth Brooks every success with this one!

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

The Mission House By Carys Davies – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

I am a huge fan of Carys Davies. I really enjoyed her short story collections Some New Ambush and The Redemption Of Galen Pike. So when I saw she had a new novel out I knew I’d have to get my hands on it.

If I’m honest (which I always am) I wasn’t in too much of a rush to get to it as I was a little intimidated by the fact that I gathered from the synopsis that it involved religion. I’m not big on books which tackle this subject so I was a little reticent.

However, I am very pleased to say I needn’t have worried AT ALL.

I picked this book up when I saw that the publication date was fast approaching and I read it in one sitting.

The Mission House tells the interconnecting stories of a handful of characters but our main protagonist is one Hilary Byrd. Hilary has travelled to India on somewhat of a voyage of self discovery. He has had a kind of breakdown and hasn’t handled changes to the beloved library where he works very well. He has seen technology move on and isn’t in agreement with libraries being places where people can socialise. The true nature of a library in Byrd’s eyes is somewhere quiet to read and contemplate and he just cannot get onboard with noisy kids and story time sessions etc.

He has travelled the planes in stiflingly oppressive heat and one day when he’s just about had enough, he hears of a blue railway up into the mountains where the air is cooler. It is on this train journey that he meets a Padre who offers to let him stay for a modest rent in The Mission House, a small bungalow, in the grounds of the presbytery.

It is here that Byrd meets Prescilla, a young girl staying with the Padre as a kind of housekeeper of sorts. She dutifully serves their meals and helps out with various charity events for the church. The first thing that Byrd notices about her is the fact that she has one leg shorter than the other and she is missing both of her thumbs. He considers her to be a very pleasant girl but doesn’t pay her much mind.

When the Padre asks Byrd to assist Prescilla with her English skills he begrudgingly takes up the task as a thank you for letting him stay in the mission house. Helping Prescilla with her spelling and reading soon leads on to teaching her how to sew and how to bake. But what are the Padre’s motives for calling on Byrd’s skills and will Byrd realise what is being asked of him?

Alongside this we have the character of Jamshed, a rickshaw driver who is living in extreme poverty and crosses paths with Byrd one day. What starts out for Jamshed as a minor revenge of sorts for the way that Byrd treats him, swiftly turns into a tentative friendship, with Jamshed driving Byrd around everyday and Byrd using Jamshed as a confessor of sorts. He feels he can tell him about his life back home and the problems he has faced with dealing with his depression and mental illness. It is through these confidences that we also learn about Wynn, Byrd’s sister who has supported him through his dark times and has worries and anxieties about his trip alone around India.

Carys Davies writes such intriguing characters with whole back stories, fragments of which get drip fed to the reader to enable us to flesh these people out and slot pieces of a jigsaw together. As much as these people are connected they each have their own struggles, their own secrets and their own anxieties. You could take each one of them and study their whole back story, their idiosyncrasies and their desires.

We have Byrd who is ultimately looking for happiness, trying to find glimpses of home in India. He in turn feels settled and yet yearning for more.

We have the Padre who is battling to help the poor as much as he can, help take care of Prescilla and see that her future is secure whilst also feeling terribly alone after the death of his wife whom he still spends hours talking to.

Then there is Prescilla, a girl with a complicated and heartbreaking past who is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants.

And Jamshed, a man who is living in the depths of poverty and trying to carve out a living so that he can help his family with their dreams, particularly his nephew Ravi.

Each one of them is captivating in their own way, much like the whole book. There is a gentle pace and whilst the plot was not the main focus for me, the beautifully descriptive narrative and the examination of these wonderful characters was glorious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly confident novel and would highly recommend it.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Birthday Book Haul

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and I was very lucky to receive some money and vouchers to spend on lovely books……and spend I did!

I thought I’d just give you all a quick run through of what I chose, so let’s get crackin!

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Faber & Faber)


Meet the Ramdin-Chetan family: forged through loneliness, broken by secrets, saved by love.

Irrepressible Betty Ramdin, her shy son Solo and their marvellous lodger, Mr Chetan, form an unconventional household, happy in their differences, as they build a home together. Home: the place where your navel string is buried, keeping these three safe from an increasingly dangerous world. Happy and loving they are, until the night when a glass of rum, a heart to heart and a terrible truth explodes the family unit, driving them apart.

Ive this book everywhere of late and I’ve heard nothing but good things! So I bought it. Simple!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Marino Garcia (Jo Fletcher Books)


He is trying to poison me. You must come for me, Noemí. You have to save me.

When glamorous socialite Noemí Taboada receives a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging to be rescued from a mysterious doom, it’s clear something is desperately amiss. Catalina has always had a flair for the dramatic, but her claims that her husband is poisoning her and her visions of restless ghosts seem remarkable, even for her.

Noemí’s chic gowns and perfect lipstick are more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she immediately heads to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is so affecting her cousin.

Tough and smart, she possesses an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness. 

Again this is a book I’ve seen EVERYWHERE. That cover is stunning! And let’s face it, any book with the word ‘gothic’ in the title will have me reeled in hook, line and sinker!

Dear NHS 100 Stories To Say Thank You (Trapeze)


Curated and edited by Adam Kay (author of multi-million bestseller This is Going to Hurt), Dear NHSfeatures 100 household names telling their personal stories of the health service. Contributors include: Paul McCartney, Emilia Clarke, Peter Kay, Stephen Fry, Dawn French, Sir Trevor McDonald, Graham Norton, Sir Michael Palin, Naomie Harris, Ricky Gervais, Sir David Jason, Dame Emma Thompson, Joanna Lumley, Miranda Hart, Dermot O’Leary, Jamie Oliver, Ed Sheeran, David Tennant, Dame Julie Walters, Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai and many, many more. 

All profits from this book will go to NHS Charities Together to fund vital research and projects, and The Lullaby Trust which supports parents bereaved of babies and young children.

Not only did I want to pick up a copy of this book to support the NHS Charities Together, I bloody love Adam Kay too! Win win innit?!


Only joking. Love you.

First up in the Shirley fest:

Hangsaman by…….well……Shirley Jackson (Penguin Modern Classics)


Natalie Waite, daughter of a mediocre writer and a neurotic housewife, is increasingly unsure of her place in the world. In the midst of adolescence she senses a creeping darkness in her life, which will spread among nightmarish parties, poisonous college cliques and the manipulations of the intellectual men who surround her, as her identity gradually crumbles.

The Road Through The Wall


In Pepper Street, an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: what can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.

The Sundial


Mrs Halloran has inherited the great Halloran house on the death of her son, much to the disgust of her daughter-in-law, the delight of her wicked granddaughter and the confusion of the rest of the household. But when the original owner – long dead – arrives to announce the world is ending and only the house and its occupants will be saved, they find themselves in a nightmare of strange marble statues, mysterious house guests and the beautiful, unsettling Halloran sundial which seems to be at the centre of it all.

Do I love Shirley? Yes

And to be honest that’s enough of a reason for me to want these books BUT also I’m collecting these Penguin Modern Classic editions because those covers are just beautiful!

Box Hill by Adam Mars Jones (Fitzcaraldo Editions)


On the Sunday of his eighteenth birthday, in 1975, Colin takes a walk on Box Hill, a biker hang-out. There he accidentally trips over Ray, a biker napping under a tree and that’s where it all starts. This transgressive, darkly affecting love story between men, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize, is a stunning novel of desire and domination by one of Britain’s most accomplished writers.

I’ve actually read this one already and bloody loved it! There are some more of my thoughts on my Instagram post here.

Little Girls by Ronald Malfi


After years away, Laurie returns to the home where she was raised by a cold, distant father who recently exorcised his demons. But no amount of cleaning can wipe away the troubled past. She feels it lurking in the broken moldings, sees it staring from an empty picture frame, hears it laughing in the moldy greenhouse deep in the woods . . . 
At first, Laurie thinks she s imagining things. But when she meets her daughter s new playmate, she notices her uncanny resemblance to another little girl who used to live next door. Who 
died next door. With each passing day, Laurie s uneasiness grows stronger, her thoughts more disturbing. Like her father, is she slowly losing her mind? Or is something truly unspeakable happening? 

I’ve read this one already too. I recently read a book called The Bird Eater which had been recommended for people who enjoyed Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe which I did……well I say ‘enjoyed’ it was more like poo’d my pants. Anyway…..after reading some reviews of The Bird Eater I saw someone else recommend Little Girls as a true honest to goodness ghost story. Now I love me a ghost story. So I got involved.

I enjoyed it. It didn’t blow me away and I didn’t poo my pants (phew) It was just ok.

I’ve kinda ended on an underwhelming note there haven’t I!

I’m OF COURSE very excited to read the other books I’ve mentioned and I’m still buying books now under the guise of them being a ‘birthday treat’…….how long can that legitimately go on for?…..

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

This book was an absolute gem of a surprise and probably the book that makes me most thankful for unexpected book post!

I’d not heard of Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart until it dropped through my letterbox. As I always do with new books, I had a read of the blurb (which sounded amazing) then I had a flick through and a little read of various sentences and sections just to get a vibe (anyone else do this?). All this did was make me super hyped to read the book and despite it not being published for a few months at the time it arrived, I pushed all other books aside and cracked on!

Man am I glad I did!

Glasgow, 1981 and against the backdrop of a Thatcher led government, Agnes Bain has big dreams for herself and her little family. Unfortunately, circumstances and finances conspire against her and she must make do with putting on a perfectly made up brave face and act the life she wants rather than actually living it.

When she is abandoned by her cheating husband ‘Big Shug’ on a housing ‘scheme’ in a near defunct mining town, Agnes relies more and more on the drink to get her through. It’s not long before her oldest child Catherine makes her escape from the family leaving brothers Leek and little Shuggie behind.

Shuggie is considered a strange boy by the local kids on the scheme and is often told by the adults around him to ‘act normal like the other boys’. He is fastidious like his mother, he has a doll, he enjoys dancing and he is very well spoken and polite. He absolutely adores his mother, she is the centre of his little world and he will do anything to see her happy.

As Agnes relies more and more on the drink and spends time with various different men, Shuggie is left to pick up the pieces when Agnes reaches blackout point. Despite vowing a number of times that she will give up drinking, Agnes is never very successful for long and the evil drink clutches hold of her time and time again.

Shuggie is neglected, not only by his struggling mother but by his two older siblings who can no longer put up with the life they’ve been dealt and flee the scheme, leaving Shuggie with the heavy weight of the responsibility for caring for his mother. His adoration is unerring and he is such a resilient little boy, he really breaks my heart!

Even though Agnes quite clearly neglects Shuggie I couldn’t help but feel empathy for her mental health and addiction struggles. Her desperate desire for a perfect life and to portray to those around her how ‘put together’ and in control she is when quite clearly she is failing. When the narrative sat with Shuggie, I felt such pain for him and wanted to shake Agnes to open her eyes to what she was doing to him and her family. However, when the narrative switched to Agnes’s point of view I felt I could understand her thoughts and actions and I felt like I was firmly in her head, experiencing her issues.

Although this is a dark and tragic story there are glimmers of hope. Shuggie deals with too much in his young life, things that no child should ever endure and some events he would not have experienced if maybe he had a mother who opened her eyes to what was happening around her instead of blocking life out with alcohol.

The relationship between Agnes and Shuggie albeit unbalanced in terms of parent/child responsibility is so beautiful at times. There are occasions where they bond over singing and dancing and playing ‘jewellery shops’ together. There is so much love between them. Love that Shuggie desperately needs and craves.

Agnes clipped through the scheme with the message bag by her side. She glides faster now, and Shuggie struggled to keep up as she flew down the hill. When she got home she went into the kitchen without taking off her coat. Shuggie sat in the living room and let her gather herself. He waited for the hiss and splash of the cans and then the sound of the drink being hidden. He waited until he heard the tap running at the big metal sink.

‘You feeling better?’ He asked from the doorway. She turned from the tea mug. The nervousness from her face was gone, but the worry was still there. ‘Much better, thanks. You were a good wee helper the day.’

He went and wrapped himself around her waist. ‘I’d do anything for you.’

He has such a hard time fitting in, with his sexuality and the way he holds himself, his interests and his general demeanour but he’s a little fighter.

This book is by no means an easy read but it is such an important one. There are so many themes running through it. It deals with violence, hopelessness, addiction, poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, unemployment and other grim subjects. However you cannot look away from this book.

There are also moments of pure humour and vibrancy! There’s a particularly vivid scene at the start involving a card game, a catalogue night and some new bras. Pure genius! Some of the peripheral characters are fabulous! So full of grit and life and grim determination. Agnes herself is a feisty one at times and I couldn’t not include this quote from her that had me chucking and thinking ‘gwaaarn Agnes!’

Agnes closed her coat against her neck and smiled goodbye. ‘Oh, and I fucked your man. It was lousy.’ She sniffed distastefully at the memory of it. ‘He had a line of skidmarks on his underwear that was a pure embarrassment’.

It has been a couple of months since I read it but revisiting this review now has brought back so many emotions. I feel like I need to go back and re-read it very soon but I’m not sure my heart can cope!

This is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel and has now been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am about this! I will be championing this book SO HARD! I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already.

Also, just before I leave you, if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t read the acknowledgements in a book, please make an exception for this one.

I cannot thank Camilla Elworthy, Picador and of course Douglas Stuart for bringing Shuggie into my life. I’ll never ever forget him.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat. Xx