One positive of these last few months in lockdown (and I think we really do have to seek out the good now and then, don’t we?) has been the chance to devote more time to reading. Reading can be such an escape from the realities of our current situation (even if, like me, you occasionally find yourself startling at characters doing things like meeting in pubs, hugging, and hanging out in cafes – it all seems so alien in 2021). Books can transport us to other times and places, offering us a chance to retreat from the world we’re in, which at the moment, feels like a wholly worthwhile function. For me, reading is also about learning; exposing myself to different viewpoints, lifestyles and experiences. The more I read, the less sure I become about things (which, nowadays, often feels like a very good thing indeed).
This winter, I’ve been reading my usual varied mix – I don’t like to tie myself down to particular genres. If I do have a favourite genre, it would probably be one that blends people and places – the books I like best tend to include place as a dominant theme. I also like to follow my curiosity as opposed to reading what everyone else on Instagram is reading (although, as you’ll see, I do often enjoy what everyone else is enjoying!) So this is my usual mix of bestsellers, lesser-known gems and the odd classic.
Speaking of which, enter book one of lockdown 2.0…..
SHUGGIE BAIN BY DOUGLAS STUART
My first Christmas holiday read this year was Douglas Stuart’s Booker-winning Shuggie Bain, a story of poverty, addiction, sexuality and childhood trauma in 1980’s – 1990’s Glasgow. This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in recent years; one that kept me up late into the evening and glued to the couch on rainy days. It’s a beautiful, brave and often harrowing story (imagine a blend of Trainspotting and Angela’s Ashes if you’ve read them). Readers who are are sensitive to bad language should probably be advised that there is a lot of it in the novel – however, it is all completely authentic to the story and the time. When I finished this book, I felt slightly lost, which in my opinion is the way you should feel when a book has really grabbed you. Douglas Stuart – whose own life has many parallels with the story – has been quoted as saying: ‘Not a word of it is true, it is all written in truth,’ which I think is about authenticity.
Shuggie Bain may be a work of fiction, but its truth sings out from every single page.
RETURNING BY SHARON GUNASON POTTINGER
Another book I enjoyed over the Christmas holidays was local author Sharon Gunason Pottinger’s Returning – The Journey of Alexander Sinclair. Returning is the story of a war correspondent returning to Caithness in the aftermath of tragedy, and his quest to pick up the pieces of the relationships he left behind.
Sharon and I are members of the same writing group, so I’m familiar with her work and knew I would enjoy this piece of clear-eyed storytelling. For me, there is something comforting in reading about local places, and being able to picture the familiar settings in my mind.
There is a line in the book that really spoke to me – ‘He’d been around the world and wound up back in the Co-op car park’ – something that probably speaks to anyone who ever hailed from a small rural town, however far (or not), they’ve travelled.
One of the lovely things about this book is its length – it’s a novella of about 100 pages. Perfect if your concentration span or time is limited, or you’re looking for a quick read to while away a few wintry lockdown hours.
THE GREAT EDGE BY GEORGE GUNN
Like Sharon, I know George Gunn, author of The Great Edge, well (full disclosure: he is the leader of our writing group.) As with Sharon’s novel, I knew I’d enjoy this story, a sweeping tale of discovery and mythology; an epic blend of Caithness present, future, past. The novel entwines subjects spanning archaeology, science, Christianity, Nordic myth and Celtic civilisation. At the heart of all of this is Caithness – its people, landscape and culture – the same elements that made George’s 2015 book The Province of The Cat so essential for anyone hoping to understand this mesmerising place. George’s words about the county touch me in the way words only can when they land with that realisation of shared feeling. ‘In the far north of Scotland nature fed or consumed you; it either sustained or destroyed you,’ George writes in one passage.
It gave you everything, and then asked for it back.
Rarely have I heard the essence of Caithness summed up so acutely in a single line.
SLACK-TIDE BY ELANOR DYMOTT
My next winter read was Slack-Tide, a short, compelling story about a woman embarking on a new relationship after the loss of a child and the end of her marriage. As much as the novel was beautifully written, I struggled with the controlling nature of the central relationship, and found myself wanting the protagonist to dislike the male lead as much as I did (very unusual for me). That sense of discomfort was no doubt part of the author’s intention – it is made clear from the outset that the relationship founders – yet even at its conclusion I wanted the woman to scorn her old love more wholeheartedly. Despite that, I found myself thoroughly absorbed in the story, and the series of well-observed vignettes used to tell it. I was still thinking about this novel several days after finishing it, which is a testament to the author and her captivating prose.
ANIMAL FARM BY GEORGE ORWELL
Another book from the holiday reading pile, and a thankyou to Barrington Stoke who sent us this dyslexia-friendly copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm just in time for Christmas. I don’t often accept gifted items to review on my blog, but I’m hugely passionate about books, and making reading accessible to all. My youngest son is dyslexic and we’ve found Barrington Stoke books a wonderful way to make reading more enjoyable for him (Barrington Stoke use special fonts, formatting and paper to make reading easier for dyslexic and reluctant readers). I love that the book is unabridged – the story hasn’t been altered or watered down in any way. My son and I loved reading (my own copy) of Animal Farm back in homeschool 1.0 – it’s an amazing story that can prompt a lot of discussion about the nature of change and the destructive effect power can have. This fable-like tale should be a staple on any self-respecting bookshelf.
In fact, I love it so much I named it one of my favourite reads last year.
THE CRUEL PRINCE BY HOLLY BLACK
My final book for this round up was The Cruel Prince, the first in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series. In this young adult fantasy, Jude and her sisters forge a life in the High Court of Faerie after her parents are murdered back in the human world. Holly Black weaves a world of deception and intrigue with razor-sharp descriptions and complex, intricate characters – I loved it.
And if you’re a fan of stories with faeries, romance and adventure, you might also enjoy my novel Castles of Steel and Thunder….
Until next time – happy reading, friends!