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Shuggie Bain — another novel from the Booker long list

This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.

Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart plunges us into the slimy, putrified ghastly poverty of 1980s Glasgow and we are held there, as though under water, not allowed to surface for the entire 430 pages of the novel. It is a world of ill-fitting dentures, dirty underwear, the stink of vomit — yet I found it a compelling read. I am normally irritated when writers incorporate regional accents into their work. But the Glaswegian brogue enlivens every page and I loved it.

How did a 16 year-old boy come to be living alone in a dirty bedsit alongside down and out old men, mainly drunks, working in a supermarket deli and occasionally going to school? The book tells us how this came about.

It is about the relentless and unbreakable cycles of poverty and alcoholism.

Hugh, known as Shuggie, is the child of Agnes Bain’s second marriage. He is thus much younger than her other children. The husband (Shug) dumps his family in a remote and rundown housing estate out at Pithead but never lives there with them. A daughter finds refuge in a marriage that takes her to South Africa and Shuggie’s older brother, Leek, who was offered a place at university two years ago that he has been unable to take up, stays around to try to help young Shuggie ‘act normal’. But to the other kids Shuggie is a ‘wee poofter’ and is mercilessly teased. Agnes took to drink long before Shug dumped them at the Pithead estate. With an alcoholic’s desperation she uses whatever money she can get her hands on to satisfy her need — even after robbing the gas meter and the meter on the TV set, the family often has to go without a hot dinner. And yet, Agnes has a certain pride. When she’s not in a drunken stupor, the house is neat and tidy and she takes great trouble in her appearance, keeping her hair dyed and pantyhose unladdered. Shuggie has a desperate love for her, believing that he must be able to make her better. As a reviewer in The Guardian says, ‘something sadder than heroism is Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother’.

There is brief hope when Agnes joins AA and goes for a year without a drink. But a new boyfriend entices her back one evening at a posh golf club dinner, and after that it takes only a matter of hours for her to be back in an alcoholic stupor. She is ashamed of herself. There is a suicide attempt, but she is rescued by her sons.

The book would be unbearable were it not for the love that is the foundation of Shuggie’s devotion to his mother. Even when she dies (after a night out on the town, brought home by the police), Shuggie makes sure that Agnes looks as she would want. He puts fresh red lipstick on his dead mother’s lips and, for her funeral, improvises some earrings.

Sophie Ward   Love and Other Thought Experiments  (Corsair, hard cover 2020) Review by Tony Thomas

Although this post is headed ‘by Jennifer Bryce’, it isn’t. It’s by Tony Thomas. Every year Tony aims to read all of the Booker long list and here is his review of Sophie Ward’s book, which is on the list. Thank you, Tony.

Booker Long List 2020 (announced 28 July 2020)

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Yes it’s another (unacknowledged) sf novel by an author from outside the field. (This is the sentence I started with, reviewing The Wall last year, and it applies equally to this book).

Sophie Ward is a professional actress, 55, who has been in quite a few films and whom I must have seen in many British TV shows (eg Heartbeat, Inspector Lynley, Lewis, Hustle) but don’t remember. This is her first novel. She has two sons from her previous marriage to vet Paul Hobson (1988-96) after which she came out as a lesbian.  In 2005 she and Rena Brennan had a civil partnership ceremony, and they married in 2014 when it became legal. She now describes her sons (b 1989 and 1993) as the sons of this marriage. She has an Open University degree in Literature and Philosophy.

Sophie Ward Heartbeat


Knowing all this, it’s not much of a surprise that each chapter starts with a philosophical conundrum, eg Pascal’s wager, brain-in-a-box, Chalmers’ zombies, Descartes’ demon etc, and then this is explored, more-or-less, in the chapter which follows. And also no surprise that the story begins with a lesbian relationship in the present day, in which the characters of Rachel and Eliza are well drawn in a conventional literary way. The chapters initially seem loosely connected – chapter two jumps to Rachel’s conception (we discover a good way through), chapter three deals with Rachel’s elderly mother and her husband in later life in Brazil, chapter four returns to the lesbian couple from the point of view of an ant which Rachel ‘imagines’ has entered her eye. The ‘ant’ eats the tumour which has started in Rachel’s head, which allows her to deliver the baby she is pregnant with, Arthur. The foetus has been artificially implanted using the egg of her wife Eliza and the sperm of a good gay friend, Hal. Not too long after this, Rachel dies. It’s about at this time that we realize that this is really an sf novel in literary guise: the ‘ant’ turns out to be (or to become, it’s unclear) a god-like super computer, which relates, in extremely broad metaphorical terms, the future of humanity, a humanity over which it exercises god-like powers, including the ability to enter or create parallel universes (those ones, you know, just a little bit different from ours). So in the final chapter, the adult Arthur has become an astronaut returning from a solo flight to the Mars moon,Deimos, (his ‘reality’ is the one I’ve described so far, but twenty or thirty years on) but on splashdown he’s greeted by his mother Rachel, still alive in this continuum, who soon realizes that there’s something different about this Arthur – he’s just extremely puzzled and confused, but he’s able to fool, for a while at least, his monitoring body-implanted personal computer (Zeus!), which of course is communicating everything to a future somewhat more sinister NASA. And does he become Zeus at the end? So it’s intimated, as he sits with his mother, contemplating all this, and is Zeus just another name for that ant, the super-computer, who is really Arthur as well? Ho hum. Well, all this canvasses a whole lot of rather hoary sf ideas, all lumped-together, though nicely enough done , but of course there is no attempt to explain why/how all this might happen in anything like science-fictional terms – it’s really all just a metaphor for the author to explore what I take to be her real interest, as the blurb says, ‘love lost and found across the universe’.

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It kept me reading, though rather slowly. Now if only the Booker panel would put in a real sf novel by, say, Kim Stanley Robinson or Adam Roberts, better written than this, they might realise that there is an imaginative world out there they know almost nothing about.

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Mary Trump on her Uncle Donald

At the front of Mary Trump’s book about her uncle Donald, Too Much is Never Enough, is a quote from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo:  If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.

I was unsure about whether to read this book. Every day news broadcasts confront us with the devastation caused by a narcissistic sociopathic man who happens to be president of the United States. Could I take more?

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Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist and she has experienced first hand what it is like to be a member of the Trump family. She has reason to write this ruthless ‘blistering memoir’. Her father, Freddy, was the oldest of the Trump children, Donald was the second son. Freddy was disinherited — largely because he didn’t tow the family line — he wanted to be an airline pilot rather than be groomed to head Trump Management. The extraordinarily cruel and controlling power that the Trump father, Fred, had over his children led to Freddy crumbling:  giving up his airline career, divorcing his wife, and becoming a hopeless alcoholic who died in 1981 at the age for forty-two. Donald took over as the favoured son. So Mary has every reason to seek some kind of revenge. She, her daughter and her brother and his family missed out on inheriting a share of a huge fortune.

The book is perhaps more about the legacy of the emotionally unavailable Trump parents. There seems to have been no love. A photograph of the Trump children does, I think, show them as tense and anxious. A review in The Guardian describes how Trump’s mother was ‘born to penury in Scotland, [and] remained so meanly thrifty that every week she dressed up in her fur stole and drove her pink Cadillac around New York suburbs to collect small change from the coin-operated laundry rooms in buildings the family owned’.

Money seemed to replace love in this family. There are many cases of  wealthy Victorian parents who were remote from their children — but usually there seemed to be a loving nanny. Mary mentions here grandmother’s illness caused by gynaecological problems soon after Robert, the youngest child’s birth. But the mother lived on to her late eighties. I suppose she was ‘nouveau riche’. She is described as carrying out her husband’s bidding, showing no warmth towards her children. The father took little or no interest in his children’s education.  Mary suggests that Donald had a learning disability — it is well known that he hired a surrogate to sit his university entrance exams. Mary gives the impression that the father rewarded displays of toughness and sleight of hand. Whereas Freddy didn’t wish to pursue the road to cut-throat business,  Donald was easily manipulated by his father. Mary suggests that in the same way today he is manipulated by the likes of Vladimir Putin.

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The Trump children: Donald is on the far left next to oldest son, Freddy

Mary was certain that Donald would lose the 2016 election: how could such an ignorant ego-maniac win? So she didn’t attend the election party as she didn’t want to display before the family her joy when Hillary Clinton won. But she was wrong.

Tellingly, Trump has a photograph of his father on his desk in the Oval Office.

I interpret Mary Trump’s book as saying that there are explanations as to why Donald Trump has turned out the way he has. The book doesn’t set out to address the weightier question of how is it that such a man came to be president of the United States.

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Donald Trump with his father in 1988





More metaphors

As a writer, I find it helpful, instructive and intriguing to keep collections of what I (rather loosely sometimes) call metaphors or similes that jump out at me when I’m reading. Here are some that I’ve come across recently.

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All the wretchedness of their shared pasts had been distilled into this one child Kate Atkinson: Big Sky, p. 11
With the remnant of his laughter still trickling from his face Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim, p.46
Through the tulle of darkness Lee Kofman: The Dangerous Bride, p.75
Prongs of excitement Lee Kofman: The Dangerous Bride, p.92
Its walls seemed to throb with his anger Pat Barker: Life Class, p.5
Corrugated faces Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.25
Someone’s scraped me out with a spoon Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.66
The lights along the embankment shuddered in the water Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.132
A thorny sort of woman Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.149
Citrus-sharp brain (Diana Mosley) Laura Thompson: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters p. 238
His glare could have burned through brick Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.145
The tangling of two hearts Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.232
My smile felt as brittle as porcelain Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.233


Nicholson Baker: Substitute

Nicholson Baker is not a well-known writer in Australia. I wrote a review of his novel Travelling Sprinkler in the early days of this blog:

‘Substitute’ is the term used in the US for emergency teacher — someone who fills in when a regular teacher needs to be absent. To my amazement, it isn’t necessary to have any teaching qualification to be a ‘substitute’ — in some states it’s not even necessary to have any kind of degree or diploma, just to have passed high school.

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Nicholson Baker

This book is a chronological account of the twenty-eight days that Baker ‘subbed’ in the school district of Maine. I was drawn to it because for a short period of my professional life I was a high school teacher. The subtitle of the book is ‘Going to school with a thousand kids’ — and that’s exactly what you do. At first I thought it was going to be pretty tedious: there are of course the daily classroom dramas, but there’s no plot, no climax. That’s what Baker intends — to give us a taste of the life of a teacher. We are immersed in the world of a sub. A sub doesn’t even have the interest of shaping the curriculum or watching students develop their skills — Baker is expected to stand in at all levels: high school chemistry, kindergarten, and lots of middle school classes in between. As Baker said in an interview: ‘I think teachers should be paid more. I would never want to pretend that what I did was equal to what they have to do.’

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Ubiquitous in these classrooms are malfunctioning iPads, dull worksheets, requests to go to the bathroom, intrusions from the PA system and lists of educational objectives. The objectives reminded me of when I undertook teacher training a long time ago. On our teaching rounds we had to write up our lessons and each lesson had to have an aim and a set of objectives.

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The teachers are worn out. Most of their communications to the children are relayed by Baker in upper case letters because they are shouted, or shrieked. They seem to survive on worksheets and assignments — I was sometimes horrified by the expectations, and from Baker’s observations there was no way that most of the kids could understand what they were meant to be doing — it was just a matter of filling in meaningless blanks on a sheet.  In a history class there was a choice of four ‘isms’: fascism, militarism, isolationism and totalitarianism and they were to be paired with phrases such as ‘Foreign policy of the United States after World War I’, or ‘Focus of growth on industry and military, low standard of living, shortage of food and consumer goods’. A third grade class was given an assignment and one of the questions was: Explain how the writer’s style changes in the last two paragraphs [page 535]. There are lots of routines and automatic punishments such as losing time off recess.

There is an implicit criticism of school structure and curriculum, but also an understanding that teachers are greatly undervalued. Baker spends a lot of time chatting to the kids. He often asks, How’s your day going? He is greatly concerned when one student tells him of a drug he’s been prescribed in adult doses and the side effect is that he cannot sleep. Baker speaks to the school nurse about it. Whilst he undertakes the required supervision of work sheet completion, he tries to teach students the basics that they will need to survive — how to spell, and particularly, their times tables. As one reviewer comments: ‘For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.’

In the same review, we learn how Baker managed to write up all this detail. In an interview he said: ‘After the day was over, I parked in a parking lot on the way home and spent a few hours making an anguished set of recollections about the highs and lows of the day.’

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It seemed to me that Baker is a natural teacher. If only he could have been let loose in those classrooms with no obligation to supervise quizzes and worksheet completions. He would have read to the kids. He would have drilled them in their tables. He would have talked to them about all kinds of things relevant to their lives.

Every Second Tuesday

Watch this space, because in the next few months my writing group, Elwood Writers, will be launching an alluring anthology of fiction, memoir and poetry that we have written over the past ten years. Published by Rightword Enterprises, the book will be available in paperback and ebook.

Why is it called Every Second Tuesday? More, anon…

Cover Every Second Tuesday

Broken Rules and Other Stories, update

Barry Lee Thompson

Some early reviews of the book have appeared. There’s a write-up in Westerly, here, and one from The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, here.

The book’s release date is now 1 September, owing to the COVID-19 reschedule. There’s a chance it might come out a bit earlier, possibly late August. But the main thing is it’s printed and waiting to meet the world. For more info, visit Transit Lounge at their website, below.

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Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler

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Alma Mahler

My introduction to Alma Mahler, at the age of about fifteen,  was through a World War II era publication by Alma, entitled Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, translated by Basil Creighton. The book had been produced ‘in complete conformity with economy standards’. My aunt had acquired it in 1948 through a book club and when, many years later, she knew that I was interested in music, she passed it on to me. I’d vaguely heard of Mahler. Didn’t like his heavy music. The book, largely an appreciation of Gustav Mahler with some letters at the end, appeared to have been written by a devoted wife, with no suggestion of the life of dalliance that she was probably still leading at the time of publication.

Alma Bride of the Wind

Kokoschka’s painting, Bride of the Wind, dedicated to Alma Mahler

Next, many, many years later, I saw Bruce Beresford’s film Bride of the Wind — the title referring to a painting by Oskar Kokoschka (one of Alma’s many lovers) that he dedicated to Alma.

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I was almost obsessed by that movie. For me it conveyed the belle epoque of early 20th century Vienna — the exciting discoveries, the flourishing arts, and most importantly it told me a great deal more about Alma Mahler — dwelling on the devastation for her and Gustav on the death of their daughter and, significantly, driving home the fact that when they agreed to marry, Gustav insisted that Alma cease her own musical composition (which was a driving part of her life). This demand seems outrageous today and critics have considered that Alma’s composing can’t have meant a great deal to her. However, she said that she carried her own songs around inside her ‘as if in a coffin’. Particularly at that time there were no role models of female composers and maybe she assumed that her own efforts could amount to no more than some gentile accomplishment.The film ends, well after the death of Gustav, with a concert of Alma’s own works.

Alma her song

One of Alma Mahler’s compositions

By the time of her death in 1964, Alma Mahler had a reputation as a self-serving, narcissistic gold-digger, who flung herself at many powerful male figures in the arts. It is now interesting to examine her life from a distance and to evaluate it in its contemporary context. A recently published book by Cate Haste provides a detailed and largely sympathetic account of Alma Mahler’s life.

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Alma with her two daughters before Maria’s death in 1907

Alma had huge admiration for her father, the artist Emil Schindler, who died when she was young. She was used to the artistic wealth of early 20th century Vienna. My own belief is that Alma, perhaps unconsciously, saw Gustav as a replacement for her recently deceased father. Maybe because she couldn’t fulfil her life through composition, Alma came to define her life through love – and the list of her lovers is long. Was it from a lack of fulfilment? Artists, such as Klimt, Kokoschka, the architect Gropius (whom she married), ultimately the writer Werfel (who was a best seller in his day). Sometimes, it seems to me, her diaries (quoted in Haste’s book) read like those of a teenager: do I really love him? In the foreword, Haste says that Alma was ‘untrammelled by convention’ (page x) – her liaisons were often wild and it seems she was quite open about her philandering and adultery. In many ways it was a life of peaks and troughs: three of her four children died (Bereford’s film concentrates on her life while Mahler was alive), and there are many descriptions of times when Alma was driven to her bed for long periods of depression. She seems to have been obsessed by her own allure – later in life she was described as ‘an extravagantly festooned battleship’ (page 261) and – more unkind – ‘her figure a bag of potatoes’ (page 286) and ‘a bloated Valkyrie’ who ‘drank like a fish’ (page 353).

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the ‘extravagantly festooned battleship’

For most of her life Alma seems to have had plenty of money. After a horrifying escape from Europe, over the Pyrenees, during World War II, Alma and third husband Franz Werfel ended up in the US and were soon holding salons with their friends from Europe. Alma must have been well read – at one time she is described as packing up 10,000 books. However, although many of her friends were Jewish, she was unforgivably anti-Semitic.

She is known as Alma Mahler – Mahler was her first husband. She also married Walter Gropius, the architect and writer Franz Werfel. But in the end, it seems, she wanted to be remembered through her connection with Mahler.

Alma Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce playing Mahler in Bride of the Wind



My friend Sally has just reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s brilliantly irreverent song about Alma Mahler:

Thanks very much, Sally!



St Kilda Historical Society Short Story Competition

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I’m involved in setting up an excellent new short story competition to bejudged by local Melbourne writer Lee Kofman   The competition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the St Kilda Historical Society, but it isn’t necessary to be a resident of St Kilda to enter and the story doesn’t have to be historical — just some link to St Kilda. There is no entrance fee and there are good prizes: first prize in the open section is $1000 with prizes of $500 and $250 for second and third places. There is also a junior section with a first prize of $500 and $250 and $100 for second and third places. Full information is at

The competition closes on 7th August.

A Ladder to the Sky

John Boyne’s most well-known book is the YA, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas(2006). I haven’t read it or seen the film that was made. John Boyne, from Dublin, was a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week.

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It is said that ambition is putting a ladder to the sky, and Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky is about a sociopathic writer who is totally dominated by ambition. We first meet the divine looking young Maurice Swift as he taunts an ageing gay novelist, Erich Ackerman. This part of the book is from Ackerman’s point of view. Maurice teases out a story that Ackerman has never before told, about a terrible act he committed when he was a member of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice heartlessly appropriates this story, launching his own career with a best seller and ending Ackerman’s career in ignominy.

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The second part of the book, an ‘Interlude’, is from Gore Vidal’s point of view – told in the third person. Writers are gathering at Vidal’s opulent pad on the Amalfi Coast and Maurice, flaunting his good looks, is in tow with a well-known American writer. Some reviewers have liked this part of the book best, but I preferred to be carried along by the breath-taking horror of the next few sections.

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Gore Vidal’s ‘pad’

I found the next section technically very interesting. Written from the point of view of Maurice’s wife, Edith, it is narrated in the second person, addressing Maurice. They are living in Norwich. His writing appears to be at a stand-still while she has just published a very successful first novel and is teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. We, the readers, start to sense a creeping menace – why is her computer warm when she arrives home earlier than expected? Maurice can put together a sentence quite well, but has no ideas for plot and, being an utter sociopath, presumably has no interest in character. He appropriates her ready-for-the pubisher second novel. She finds out. She must go. He pushes her down the stairs and she ends up on life support. The end of this section is extraordinary. Narrated by Edith in a coma – she can hear, but cannot communicate. And she knows so much: she is the only person who knows that Maurice is selling her novel as his own work. She also knows that her sister has planted child pornography on her estranged husband’s computer so that he will be barred from having access to their children. Edith also knows that she is pregnant, but loses the baby in her fall. Edith’s last perceptions, which are spaced out more in the print form of the novel, adding poignancy to her last few moments: ‘I can hear switches being turned and the wheezing of an artificial breather as it starts to slow down, and that’s when I realise. You’re turning me off, aren’t you, Maurice? You’re turning me off. You’re killing me. To protect yourself and, more importantly, to protect your novel. My novel. Your novel.

I see you.

You’re reaching down and taking my

that thing   at the end of my arm …

I can’t see you any more      there’s no light

no sound

no more words.’

Nothing more needs to be said.

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The rest of the book is narrated by Maurice. He continues to build his career in New York, where he owns a literary magazine – ideal for appropriating story lines from short stories he rejects for publication. He has a son, through surrogacy – for some strange reason he always wanted children. But – a similar story – Daniel finds out too much – particularly the appropriated novel from Edith, whom Daniel wrongly thinks is his mother. Thirteen-year-old Daniel dies of an asthma attack when Maurice withholds his ventolin puffer.

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Maurice returns to London and becomes a drunk. A student takes an interest in him and the forever ambitious Maurice agrees to meet him on a regular basis in various pubs, understanding that this association will lead to a biography, since the student’s father is an editor at Random House. Playing on Maurice’s growing frailty, the student manages to expose everything. Maurice ends up in prison for life. As a rather satirical coda,  Maurice teaches creative writing while he is incarcerated. One student writes particularly well – a novel ‘that would give Henry James a run for his money’. But this student dies in a prison brawl. Maurice, of course, appropriates the work. It is published and ends up one of the best-selling books of that year.

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I loved the irresistible plot, the variety of writing and particularly the rather smug sense of humour as Boyne gently satirises the literary world of festival circuits, publishers and literary prizes.


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