As the year begins to draw to a close, so the major books prizes announce their winners. A couple in the past few weeks have particularly caught the eye – not least the Man Booker Prize won by Douglas Stuart’s novel of working class Glasgow, ‘Shuggie Bain’. I haven’t got around to reading this one yet but it has certainly bumped up the to-read list after watching Stuart’s deeply moving acceptance speech. So, as well as a couple of my own reviews, I defer to my colleague Callum whose review of Shuggie starts us off…
The novel follows Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, as he grows up in Glasgow during the 80’s with his mother and the absence of his father. Douglas deploys a unique and chilling beauty to tell a queer Glaswegian working class story which is all too common. Apathy, alcoholism, violence, male rage and frustration, brought about by declining industry, aggressive political neglect, and Thatcherism, permeates Shuggie’s upbringing. The most impressive aspect of Douglas Stuart’s writing is his ability to pitch characters and events within the social context and against shifting political landscapes to illuminate these significant life- organising principles, to focus on the specific, and praise the individual.
In the US, the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction was won by Charles Yu for ‘Interior Chinatown‘, which I coincidentally finished just before the award ceremony last week. Yu is a novelist and screenwriter, who has worked on the hit show Westworld, and he certainly brings that Hollywood experience to Interior Chinatown. It is an immensely enjoyable and genuinely funny novel which savagely dissects the place of Asian-Americans in US society. We follow Willis Wu, a bit-part actor on fictional police show Black and White, where he mostly plays the character Generic Asian Man. Wu dreams, like all of Chinatown, of one day securing the role of Kung-Fu Guy, something open only to the most talented and hard-working Asian-Americans. But for now, he is in the background, occasionally getting killed off before returning as another Generic Asian Man a few weeks later, by which time the audience should have forgotten he was ever in the show at all.
This set-up gives Yu a platform to explore Asian-American culture, expectations and racism. The whole book is structured like a series of screenplays – both from the show and from Wu’s ‘real’ life – which makes this a really unique read. And the ending is just genius. Yu’s satire is so sharp and the novel is laugh-out-loud funny at times. It’s a book you read knowing you are experiencing something truly special, and reminded me frequently of when I first read Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’.
The Crime Writers’ Association also just announced the winners of their Daggers, awarded in various categories to the best crime writing from around the world. The top award, the Gold Dagger, went to Michael Robotham for his novel ‘Good Girl, Bad Girl‘. Robotham is a bit of a favourite among the crime readers at Mr B’s – myself included – for his brilliant prison-escape thriller ‘Life or Death‘, so we were delighted to see him recognised once again. ‘Good Girl, Bad Girl’ opens a new series following criminal psychologist Cyrus Haven, who is investigating the murder of a teenage ice skating prodigy. Jodie Sheehan seems to have been the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect athlete. But as Haven starts to dig into her life, he finds a darker side that may have led to her death. At the same time, Haven has been called by a social worker friend to assess another girl, one who has been through the most horrific experiences imaginable. Evie still bears the scars both externally and internally but she also has certain unique gifts. Now 18, she wants to be released from care to start a new life but social services think she’s a danger to herself and the public. But is Evie as bad as they all say?
You do need to suspend belief a few times with this one, but that sort of comes as part of the deal with this kind of book. Overall it is very satisfying, had an old-fashioned dark mystery feel to it and the psychological investigation adds an exciting angle. The plot is super twisty and extremely fast-paced (I devoured it in two days) and surely it seems destined for the small screen, especially after the success of Robotham’s ‘The Secrets She Keeps’, which was adapted for the BBC earlier this year.
I should also mention that I was delighted to see ‘November Road‘ by Lou Berney, which adorns my personal favourites shelf in Mr B’s and was the best thriller I read in 2019, being awarded the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger at the same awards. ‘The Godmother’, by Hannelore Cayre, which is one of my colleague Lucinda’s top international crime reads, won the Dagger for Crime Fiction in Translation.