How often do you find a book that completely enchants you from the first page? One that happily climbs up your list of priorities, till you've cleared your schedule for the next two days so you can finish devouring the book? One that, once you've greedily inhaled it, you wish you'd stretched out longer, because you want to spend more time with the characters and now feel like you've parted from a close friend?
I admit, this is a rarity for me. So when it happened with Kerry Hudson's debut novel, and I found out she was having a blog tour to mark the release of the paperback edition (by Vintage Books), I was thrilled to take part in the #TonyHoganTour and blog my thoughts on the book that affected me so.
I first spotted the distinctive cover in the Mitchell Library, looking proud on an elevated stand, separated from the rest of the books. In bold, white letters, the title was splashed across a balloon:
A quick read of the blurb set us off, to check ourselves out:
When Janie Ryan is born, she's just the latest in a long line of Ryan women, Aberdeen fishwives to the marrow, always ready to fight. Her violet-eyed Grandma had predicted she'd be sly, while blowing Benson and Hedges smoke rings over her Ma's swollen belly. In the hospital, her family approached her suspiciously, so close she could smell whether they'd had booze or food for breakfast. It was mostly booze.
Tony Hogan tells the story of a Scottish childhood of filthy council flats and B&Bs, screeching women, feckless men, fags and booze and drugs, the dole queue and bread and marge sandwiches. It is also the story of an irresistible, irrepressible heroine, a dysfunctional family you can't help but adore, the absurdities of the eighties and the fierce bonds that tie people together no matter what. Told in an arrestingly original - and cry-out-loud funny - voice, it launches itself headlong into the middle of one of life's great fights, between the pull of the past and the freedom of the future. And Janie Ryan, born and bred for combat, is ready to win.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was all misery and doom, but in truth it is hilarious. There’s hope and anguish in equal measures and a surprising wave of optimism throughout, despite the words and actions doing everything they can to tell you otherwise.
Not many writers can pull of writing in the POV of a newborn child, but somehow Kerry managed it. I was quite happy to suspend my disbelief and hear all the infant had to say. The novel mixes literary technique with profanity in perfect balance. When you get to know the characters, you realise there's really no other way they can express themselves. It's honest and that's what matters.
You know you’ve been hooked when you want to reach into the book and ring each character by the neck. An alarming chunk of the issues were close to the bone for me. There isn’t a single person in the story that I haven’t met, worked with, grown up with, had a drunken heart-to-heart with outside the pub, or am related to.
As harrowing and dire as the storyline can get, you can’t help laugh out loud at some of the bits. When the main character, Janie, is a toddler, her mum leaves her home alone so she can go on a night out with her friend. Janie says: ‘And so, my first act of rebellion was to shite myself. That’ll show her, I thought, as I felt the hot ooze down my legs.’
When her Mum brings the elusive Tony Hogan home with her that night, you get a real sense of unease for what lies ahead. ‘The first time I saw Tony with his sharp nose, slitty eyes and mouth twisted in disgust I knew that, if I hadn’t already, I would have shat myself right there and then.’
What I love most about this book is the sense of family in it. Not the cheesy, huddled-round-the-dining-table-playing-monopoly kind of family, but the pitiful endurance of it. The tolerance; the intimate, wordless looks of anguish as they take punches for each other. The kind of punches that you’d never in a million years take for anyone outwith your bloodline.
I couldn't stop thinking about the characters for days afterwards. I wanted to know how they’d all got on with their endeavours, with an almost motherly anxiety (which is a tad worrying).
It really is no surprise the book was shortlisted for every award under the sun (Guardian First Book Award, the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year, the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award, the Green Carnation Prize to name but a few). If I didn't admire her writing so much, and if she wasn't such a nice person, I'd be sick with jealousy (ok, I still am a bit jealous.).
Proving how nice she is, I asked her for advice on editing a novel and she came up with this little nugget of wisdom:
"I saw A S Byatt speak recently and she suggested before you sit down to write you document all of your intentions and what will happen longhand in a notebook. Before I heard this, I'd been doing something similar for my editing of Thirst (my second novel); each day I would edit ten pages or a few scenes and before I started editing I would read them, refreshing my memory with what I'd written, then I'd write longhand exactly what it was I hoped to achieve in that scene, why that scene was important, what the characters motivations were - then I'd start editing those passages feeling much more confident about what the task in hand was.
I also recommend editing daily, or as regularly as you can, because it keeps you 'in' or 'with' the story and unconsciously you'll be working on it all of the time not just when you're in front of your laptop."
If you haven't read Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before he Stole my Ma yet, I urge you to do it. Now. You're welcome.
Kerry is also running a competition on Twitter!
'Want to win a signed copy of Tony Hogan? I'm trying to put together a Tony Hogan soundtrack. Simply submit your song suggestion to me @kerryswindow on Twitter with the hashtag #tonyhogantune by the end of Monday 8th of July. If your song is one of the ten selected for the soundtrack (and you were the first to suggest it!) I'll send you a signed copy of Tony Hogan.'
Have a read at some of the suggestions, some are highly amusing! And you don't have to have read the book to submit.
Kerry's next stop on her blog tour will be tomorrow with Sarah & Liz at Today I'm Reading.
Her previous tour stops have been fabulous to read too. Why not read about her imaginary book shop at Writer's Little Helper, or read about Kerry's last twelve months since publication at The Little Reader Library. There's an excellent post on the inspiring women in her life at The Writes of Woman. Have a gander! ◦