2008 Other Prizes Romance

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard

I don’t read many romance novels, but I received an email from the author explaining that this book had been short-listed for 2 awards in 2009 – Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award, the UK’s first environmental book award. This combination of awards intrigued me and so decided to give it a try. I was surprised when readers of Women’s Weekly voted it the best romance novel of the last 50 years as I thought that a more well known author would win, but it made me very curious about the contents of this little book.

Star Gazing is set in Scotland and focuses on Marianne, a blind woman who was widowed in her twenties. Now in her forties and living with her sister in Edinburgh she has resigned herself to a life alone, but all this changes when a mysterious man turns up on her doorstep.

I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing. The descriptions of what life is like when you are unable to see were amazing and I felt that I came understand how she viewed the world.

I tell sceptics and doubters that I go to the opera because opera pours a vision of a wider world into my ears in a way that excites me. Plays, novels and poems move, entertain and educate me, but they don’t rock me to my foundations and make me see. I can read Tolstoy’s account of the French retreat from Moscow, either in Braille or as an audio-book, but I have never seen a city. Or snow. I’ve never seen a man, let alone an army. Tolstoy uses a visual language that I can read, haltingly. It’s not my mother tongue.
But music I can ‘read’ much more easily. In fact, I don’t need to read it at all. When I hear music it goes directly to my heart, it pierces my soul and stirs me with nameless emotions, countless ideas and aural pictures.

The characters were all well developed and engaging, but this book turned me into a gossiping woman! It was a very weird experience that I have never encountered with a book before. I found that I didn’t like the central character and wanted to slap her on numerous occasions. I told several people about the stupid things she’d done and had lengthy conversations about her decisions. This makes the book a perfect choice for book groups as I guarantee that you will enjoy discussing the events in this book.

I also had a problem with some of the plot towards the end of the book. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but a few things were a bit far-fetched and I’m afraid I’m a miserable sceptic who has trouble believing that people can have visions of future events.

Despite these criticisms I think the fact I wanted to talk about this book so much proves its quality. I don’t think it is the best romance novel of the last 50 years (The Time Traveller’s Wife  and The Dark Side of Love are my favourites), but it is an original, heartwarming book. 


1990s Booker Prize

How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

 Winner of the 1994 Booker Prize   

How Late It Was, How Late is set in Glasgow and follows Sammy, who wakes up in the gutter after a night of heavy drinking to discover that his shoes have been stolen. He gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen (“sodjers”) and ends up in a police cell. Badly beaten, he wakes to discover that he is blind and so begins the difficult task of learning to live without his sight whilst also trying to avoid being blamed for a crime he knows nothing about.  

I started off hating this book. The stream of consciousness writing style combined with frequent swearing and the Glaswegian dialect meant that I had trouble connecting with it, but I persevered and slowly became used to the writing style. I found that if I read it in large chunks then I could immerse myself in the Glaswegian dialect and the bad language became a natural part of the conversation.   

Plus ye couldnay quite predict what they were up to, the sodjers. So he was gony have to go careful. So fuck the drink there was nay time, nay time, he had to be compos mentis. Whatever brains he had man he had to use them. Nay fuck-ups. The things in yer control and the things out yer control. Ye watch the detail. Nay bolts-from-the-blue. Nayn of these flukey things ye never think about. Total concentration. 

After about 50 pages I was amazed to find that I started to like Sammy – I began to feel sorry for him and even found some of the book funny.   

It wasn’t an easy read – the book flipped forwards and backwards in time and sentences were often left without an end. It took me a long time to read this book and there were several points at which I nearly gave up. Very little happens and the middle dragged. I think that if the book had been 200 pages shorter then I’d have appreciated it a lot more.

This book is packed with symbolism and I’m sure it could benefit from multiple re-reads. I’m glad I glimpsed Sammy’s life, but I’m not sure I’d want to read about him again.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction who enjoy reading about the darker areas of society.

Did you enjoy How Late It Was, How Late?

Do you recommend any of Kelman’s other books?

2000 - 2007 Orange Prize

Buddha Da – Anne Donovan

 Short Listed for the 2003 Orange Prize

Buddha Da is a lovely story about a working-class Glaswegian man who decides to convert to Buddhism. The book follows his every day life as he begins be appreciate the benefits of simple living and meditation. His family don’t understand his desire for a more meaningful life and this causes them to drift apart.

The book is written entirely in dialect and I have a feeling that those unfamiliar with the Scottish way of pronouncing things may struggle with this book. Here is the first paragraph so you can see how you’d get on:

Ma Da’s a nutter. Radio rental. He’d dae anythin for a laugh so he wid; went doon the shops wi a perra knickers on his heid, tellt the wifie next door we’d won the lottery and were flittin tae Barbados, but that wis daft stuff compared tae whit he’s went and done noo. He’s turnt intae a Buddhist.

For those who are struggling: Radio rental is rhyming slag for mental, meaning mad.

It took me a little bit of time to get used to the dialect but after a few pages I started to love it and thought it really added to the atmosphere.

The plot was quite gentle, but there were thought provoking discussions about how to give more meaning to your life and the problem of balancing this with your relationships.

Overall it was a light, entertaining read that I’d recommend to someone looking for something a bit different.


Did you understand the first paragraph of the book?

Have you read Buddha Da?

Have you read any other books written by Anne Donovan?