Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Alan Parks – February’s Son

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Alan Parks – February’s Son

It’s been three weeks since the events of that bloody January. Harry McCoy is about to return to work with the Glasgow police hoping for some more quiet times. But when Murray calls him in early, he knows that it must be serious: a young football stars has been found, not just killed but also mutilated. It is obvious quickly that his fame as sports stars wasn’t the reason for his killing, it is much more his engagement with the daughter one of Glasgow’s underworld bosses. And then it all gets very personal: Harry’s past is going to catch up with him and the eager policeman loses control.

I already really liked the first instalment of the Harry McCoy series, but the second was actually even better. This is especially due to the fact that the protagonist gets more contours, becomes more human and thus his character and decision making becomes understandable. The development and insight in this character was for me the strongest and most interesting in reading “February’s Son”.

Again the murder case is quite complex and all but foreseeable. Different cases are actually linked and it takes some time until you understand their connection and their particular relevance for McCoy. The whole series is set in 1973 which means there is a fairly different atmosphere in comparison to many novels set today. Glasgow is an all but friendly town constantly at war, the police’s job is to prevent the worst, not to take care of minor misdoings and therefore, they sometimes need to find less legal ways to keep the upper hand. The tone is harsh at times, certainly nothing for the highly sensitive. Fights are part of everyday life and a bleeding nose is nothing to worry too much about. Yet, this all fits perfectly and creates an authentic atmosphere of a time long gone. It will not be easy to outstrip this novel with a third.

Alan Parks – Bloody January

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Alan Parks – Bloody January

‚It can‘t have been that bad.‘ But it was.

January 1973 first brought a promotion to Detective Harry McCoy of Glasgow police, but then things wrecked havoc. When Howie Nairn, a prisoner in the Special Unit of Barlinnie wants to see him, he is a bit irritated. Why especially him? And what does he have to say? Nairn tells him to take care of a certain Lorna who works in a posh restaurant and is likely to be killed the next day. McCoy doesn’t really believe him but nevertheless sets out to search for her. In vain. He can only watch how the young woman is shot in central Glasgow by a man who then commits suicide. Quite a strange thing, but things are going to get a lot more complicated and soon McCoy has to realize that the laws aren’t made for everybody.

Alan Park‘s first novel of the McCoy series lives on the atmosphere of 1970s Glasgow. The city hasn’t turned into the town it is today but resembles a rather run down place where police and gangland work hand in hand – have to work hand in hand if they want to solve any case at all. McCoy is rather unconventional in his work, but he certainly has the heart in the right place and fights for justice.

There are two things I really liked about the story: on the one hand, it is quite complicated and all but foreseeable, on the other hand, Alan Parks‘s has chosen inconvenient aspects which he puts in a different light which shows the complexity of reality and that live is not only black and white but full of shades of grey. McCoy can work for the police but maintain good relationships with old friends who control the criminal world. The recognized upper class are not the good-doers but also have their dark sides. And many people struggle to make a living, wanting to be good but at times have to ignore their own values simply to survive.

A novel which is full of suspense, with a convincing protagonist and perfectly crafted atmosphere of a dark Glasgow.

Kirsty Logan – The Gloaming

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Kirsty Logan – The Gloaming

Peter, a boxer, falls in love with Signe, a ballet dancer. This unusual match somehow triggers nature and becomes something very special. Signe soon falls pregnant, but of the three babies, only one, Islay, survives. After they had their second daughter, Mara, they move to a remote Scottish island into a huge house. This is where their third kid, the long awaited boy, Bee, arrives. Yet, the forces of nature demand donations and soon the rough sea catches young Bee and leaves the family devastated. Islay flees the haunted island as soon as she can. Mara remains there with the parents not only grieving but also deteriorating more form day to day. With the arrival of Pearl, the chance for Mara to have a more positive look on life suddenly opens up. But Pearl is mysterious and she, too, has a close connection to the earthly forces.

“The Gloaming” is an outstanding novel. It is not exactly fantasy, nor can it completely be classified as a kind of fairy tale. It is somewhere in between the reality as we know it and hardly palpable forces that come from the earth. They are not supernatural, quite the opposite, they are natural and thus guide the characters and decide on what happens. It is somehow close to very old cultures, old folkloristic sagas and beliefs that revive and are called back to the people’s memory.

What I liked best about the novel was the way Kirsty Logan created the atmosphere. Throughout the novel, you have the feeling that there is something about the island or the house, something beyond the characters’ control. It is spooky somehow and gives you the creeps at times. On the other hand, there is a sadness and melancholy which weighs especially on Mara and with is often hard to support.

There is something magical in the novel, yet, it wasn’t exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Val McDermid – Out of Bounds

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Val McDermid – Out of Bounds

Karen Pirie, Detective Inspector with the historic case unit of Scotland‘s police, reopens a cold case when an accident with several teenagers shows DNA links to a 20-year-old unsolved murder. A male relative of the young driver, now in coma, can be connected with Tina McDonald’s case. Yet, things are not as easy as it seems first: the driver was adopted and getting access to the files will require a lot of persuading. At the same time a supposed suicide attracts Karen’s attention. What makes her doubt this explanation is the fact that the victim’s mother was killed in a never fully explained plane crash. IRA terrorists were suspected at the time, but nobody has ever been convicted and murder normally does not run in families. Even though it is not her case, she starts digging not knowing what she is going to unearth…

“Out of bounds” is a novel in the series of the Cold Case Squad of Fife centred around Detective Inspector Karen Pirie. Even though, I did not know one of the preceding novels – “A Distant Echo” (2003), “A Darker Domain” (2008), “The Skeleton Road” (2014) – I did not have any major problems getting into the story. There are some hints to Karen’s private life in the past, she seems to have lost her partner not too long ago, but this is not crucial for the plot or to understand the character’s action.

The two cases that the protagonist works on are both attractive crime scenarios: one solved by a DNA match which does not turn out to be as simple to solve as expected and going into details of biology and genetic engineering as well as legal questions about which information connected with adoptions should be provided to whom. This is found most interesting for the case since it forces you to make up your mind about such a situation and how you would opt. The second case is not too far thematically from this one since here also questions of parenthood and DNA proof pop up. Nevertheless, this is much more complicated than the first.

All in all, the story moves at a high pace, shifting from one case to the other, providing a bit of information here and then going on somewhere else – this seems quite authentic in police work, since there is always some waiting time when you have to look at something different. As presumed, Val McDermid manages to solve both cases without leaving and questions unanswered. As always with her, we do have another crime novel full of suspense which does not need any blood or excess of violence to get keep your attention.

Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Marcia Blaine Academy for girls, a special place where young girls should be prepared for life. Miss Jean Brodie teaches her girls according to the latest methods – or what she believes is useful for her bunch. Miss Brodie is in her prime, her most valuable years in life and she enjoys travelling across Europe and telling the girls about her experiences. Only her love life is rather a tragedy, her fiancé died on the battlefield during WW I. The girls admire her and closely observe her relationship to the male teachers, but her colleagues and especially the headmistress only wait for their chance to get rid of the quite alternative teacher.

An acclaimed novel which could not get me at all. The puns are great and Muriel Spark’s writing is also really joyful to read, but the story did not really convince me. For my taste, it lacked development in the characters, most is just plainly presented and stated, hardly any subtleties can be found. This makes it all a bit too blunt and rarely appealing to me. I was looking for the undertones that I could not find, waiting for surprising twists and turns which did not come. So, I am mostly disappointed by it. It actually took me three times to finally reach the end, even though it is quite a shirt text – I should have been warned.