I recently came across Read Across America Day and thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have the same over here in the United Kingdom? I did check – and we don’t. So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by suggesting a few candidates for you to read on that day, whenever you choose to celebrate it.
One huge problem is I can’t get away with only suggesting books to cover England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, when there’s all the regions and conurbations within those individual countries with riches to offer. No matter what, as it’s impossible to cover every option in one post, I’m just going to start – with the aim of re-visiting this subject on a regular basis.
Shuggie Bain, 2020’s Booker prize-winner from Douglas Stuart has been described variously as dark and funny, beautiful and brutal. It is the tale of a gay boy and his alcoholic mother growing up in Glasgow, living a life of poverty on benefits. Despite being the “queer son of a single mother who lost her battle to addiction” himself, Stuart is quick to point out that he is not Shuggie. A long-time Booker fan, this is on my TBR list, although I’m waiting for a time when the world feels brighter than it does at present.
A quick jump from literary prize winner to bestseller – with Ian Rankin’s Rebus detective novels, which generally take place in Edinburgh or its environs. John Rebus, a detective with a thirst for whiskey, displays a level of commitment to the job which means he’s not the best husband or father. We shouldn’t blame Rankin for this, for stereotypes are often accurate reflections of the status quo. Featuring in 25 novels, the latest of them being A Song for the Dark Times, this one has Rebus – who now suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – travelling to the northern towns of Aberdeenshire. On screen Rebus has been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott – both portrayals I’ve much enjoyed. I’ll admit I’ve chosen the screen over the books in this case, but imagine the state of my TBR if I’d not made that choice 🙂
Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae was shorlisted for a Booker prize in 2016. This being the first on this list I have read, I can tell you that it is well-written, with a real sense of time and place. The tale of a crofter, it depicts the dirt, the constant grinding hard work and, most important of all, the vulnerability to those in positions of power. I was in no doubt that Roddy was guilty, but book is presented as a piece of historical research, so left me with a frustratingly incomplete ending. Don’t let this fact put you off though…
I’ve read a fair number of books based in the Republic of Ireland, but the North is entirely unrepresented, except in my TBR list, which includes the following.
Northern Ireland: Belfast
As a sucker for a Booker winner, Milkman from Anna Burns heads them. This satirical tale of the troubles, never naming either the place or the people, is generally taken to be Belfast during the Troubles. Seen through the eyes of a literature loving teenager who has to deal with the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary many years her senior (who she names milkman), in this place of secrecy, gossip and hearsay, contemporary history is re-written as dystopia. Again, I may be waiting for a brighter world in which to pick this up.
Northern Ireland: Border Country
Michael Hughes’ Country being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was enough to ensure it appeared on my decidedly overloaded TBR. One review pointed out that as the author is also an actor, we would find this a work filled with the sound of a rhythmic speaking voice – yet another big tick for me. Set in the border country post-ceasefire in 1996, there are parallels drawn between the characters of Hughes’ IRA gang and those in Homer’s Iliad.
For this section, I’ve selected a couple on my TBR from contemporary Welsh authors rather than the classics.
Wales: Rhondda Valley
A collection of short stories whose title has links to Kurt Cobain jumped out, and it turns out there are elements of rock ‘n roll in the tales of dirty and druggy Welsh youth, alcoholic mothers and wayward daughters to be found within the pages of Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Apples. Described as gritty and thought provoking, raw and uncomfortable, with stories sometimes so touching, then leaving you cold and indifferent – it sounds like more than press hype that these stories may well be a must-read for a glimpse of Wales today.
Wales (and beyond)
My next choice is really a rather modern day memoir, as it weaves personal history with a meditation on what it means to belong. The author, Professor Charlotte Williams, has been appointed by the Welsh Government to ensure their school curriculum gives pupils the opportunity to understand difference and diversity – something her background as the child of a white Welsh speaking mother and a black Guyanese father makes her uniquely well-placed to do. Displaying an ear for dialogue, Williams uses both prose and poetry in Sugar and Slate to describe her travels in Africa, Guyana and Wales, as she examines her complex cultural loyalties and mixed-race identity. This one sounds especially up my street and has just leapt up my TBR list 🙂
Hamnet from Maggie O’Farrell was a favourite read of mine from last year and is a marvellous re-imagining of Shakespeare’s family. Taking place almost entirely in Stratford-upon-Avon, we’re told a tale of a couple of bullies – one male, one female – with both the bard and his wife having to adjust, before finding a way to remove themselves. Although it’s the bard who’s famous, this is a tale of family life, so it’s his wife who’s the central character. Older than Will, with strange and unusual powers, she remains at home to care for their 3 children when their youngest daughter develops breathing difficulties, making life in a city impossible – even then. Yet, it’s their son who dies. The differing manner in which Will and his wife respond to that loss is movingly beautiful to read.
England: The Fens
The Nine Tailors from Dorothy L Sayers was my second Lord Peter Wimsey book. Stranded in a small town in the fens, Wimsey spends New Year with the local rector & his wife. The rather splendid local church has a famed collection of bells, and Wimsey steps in to save the day for an epic record-breaking ring. While there, he hears how the local gentry became impoverished following the theft of an emerald necklace. This is a tale of twists and turns, of thinking you’d worked out the murderer, only to discover that you hadn’t. When you do find out whodunnit, it’ll be a surprise – for if you work this one out ahead of Wimsey, you’re quite the sleuth. With lovely descriptive passages of the fenland and sympathetic rendering of local village folk – the kindly but rather scatty rector with a passion for bell ringing, being but one.
I’m cheating slightly here by suggesting two series – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books & the Cormoran Strike books from Robert Galbraith. What both series have in common is their central characters are both detectives – one a policeman investigating the “unusual”, the other a private detective and ex-military policeman firmly rooted in reality. Both are also based in central London (with odd forays further afield). Aaronovitch displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of his beloved city and, so vivid and detailed are his descriptions, that London itself feels like a key member of the cast of characters. In contrast, the West End of London is simply where Galbraith’s detective lives and works, but Galbraith does nicely juxtapose the grime and the glitter of the area in the tales. I’ve read both series and found them most enjoyable.
While researching the massive array of options, I’ve uncovered some absolute beauties to topple my TBR pile, but still please add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.
© Debra Carey, 2021