The Women of Troy: part two of Pat Barker’s superb re-telling of the Iliad

Pat Barker got me interested in Greek mythology. But, more importantly, she got me thinking about the women who were lost in the stories.

The Women of Troy, the second part of Pat Barker’s series, after The Silence of the Girls, is a re-telling of the Iliad but told from the point of view of Briseis; a former Princess of Lyrnessus, a city that fell under attack from Achilles in the Trojan War. In The Silence of the Girls we learn how she was given as a war prize to Achilles, after she had watched him kill her brothers and destroy her home. The Women of Troy picks up where the first book stops, after the death of Achilles, and the Greeks getting ready to climb in to the wooden horse that will take them into Troy.

A wooden box crammed full of men – it’ll go up like a funeral pyre larded with pig fat. And what will the Trojans do when their hear screams? Run and fetch buckets of water? Like bloody hell they will; they’ll stand around and laugh…

He’s halfway to his feet when a spear point appears between the heads of two men sitting opposite. He sees their faces blank with shock. Instantly, everybody starts shuffling deeper into the belly, as far away from the sides as they can get. Outside, a woman’s screaming at the top of her voice: ‘It’s a trap, can’t you see it’s a trap?’ And then another voice, a man’s, old, but not weak, carrying a lot of authority. It can only be Priam. ‘Cassandra,’ he says. ‘Go back home now, go home.’

The Women of Troy

The war ends with the Greeks destroying Troy (I hope I haven’t spoilt that for anyone), and the women of Troy now belong to the victors. Some are sold off immediately to slave traders, some are kept to be slaves in the Greek compounds, the others are shared out as prizes, and those who are pregnant are killed in case they are carrying sons. Each female fate is decided by the men who led the Greek armies. It falls upon Brisies, pregnant with Achilles’ child, to look after the women when they arrive, a task she thinks should have fallen to Andromache who now belongs to Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son and the killer of Priam and Andromache’s son). But as Brisies knows, she has had to learn to survive living in the Greek compounds, so close to Achilles and his men, the women have to learn to obey their new masters.

When the royal women were shared out among the kings, there’d been a lot of joking at Odysseus’ expense. Agamemnon and several of the other kings had got Priam’s virgin daughters, Pyrrhus a sprightly young widow – plenty of go in that one, if she’d only cheer up a bit – whereas Odysseus was left with a scraggly old woman. Odysseus just shrugged, brushing the laughter aside. He knew he’d be taking home the only woman his wife, Penelope, would have accepted – and, with any luck, he might be able to convince her that he’d slept alone for the last ten years with nothing to while away his lonely evenings beyond the occasional game of skittles with his men.

The Women of Troy

While Troy has fallen and the war has ended, the Greeks are still stuck in the compounds built on the edge of the sea, unable to return to their homelands. The wind has changed, constantly blowing against the ships, the sky a permanent jaundice colour. The men start to question if this is the work of the Gods. Through Brisies’ watchful eye we meet the royal women of Troy: Andromache, Hecuba and Cassandra, we learn their fates and their curses. We see their cunning plans that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, as they try to find any inch of power that they can against their new owners.

We also meet some of the slave women such as Helle, who was a slave in the Trojan halls and is the same now for the Greeks, but who’s spirit is resilient enough to come to lead the women around her. We also meet Amina, who seethes and plots to avenge the death of Priam. The women are constantly overlooked by the men of the camp but, as Barker shows, they are the ones that know everything and find ways to influence and manipulate. In one scene, Pyrrhus, discovering that someone has tried to give Priam a burial, comments that there are only two Trojans in camp (both men), what Brisies is quick to think is that there are hundreds, but they are women so can’t be seen as a threat.

I loved this book as much as I loved The Silence of the Girls. It’s full of tension and fraught with danger, but also full friendship and strength as the women try to protect each other in such terrible situations. The weather is such an omnipresent force throughout the whole novel, too, as the men are itching to get home but have to live in the ashes of the pillaged burnt-out city. The descriptions of the dead sea-life that washes up on the beach every morning out of the brown and thunderous waves. I also like the language Barker uses throughout, words that I hadn’t come across before but that paint such vivid images of the beaches and the life there: words such as ferrous, fungoid and frowsty. Some of the more modern language and terms did jar occasionally, but I also thought it helped make it feel real and accessible.

I highly recommend The Women of Troy, but I would recommend you read The Silence of the Girls first just so you can hit the ground running with this one and know who everyone is, but it is all explained in this one too. This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of wine, and some bread, cheese and olives.

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan: a beautifully written book about grief

“Hey, Ren,” she said softly, “I’m going to call every week, I promise. So you won’t be lonely.”

“Who says I’m lonely?” And I didn’t believe she would call every week, but she kept her promise until the day she died.

Keiko Ishida, you were such a liar. You would have been better off staying in Tokyo. And you told me we were going to be fine.

Rainbirds

The story opens with Ren arriving in the small town of Akakawa, not far from Tokyo, where his sister Keiko was living before she was murdered. He has come to collect her belongings from the room she rented and the school she worked in, and to collect her ashes. But when he arrives he feels a pull to stay in Akakawa to try and understand why his sister suddenly left Tokyo one day to come to this small and empty town. As a soon-to-be graduate in the same field as his sister, the school where she worked offers him Keiko’s old position which he takes in order to be able to stay. He also moves into her old room in a well-known politician’s house, helping to look after his wife as Keiko had done.

The longer Ren stays, the more he gets to know different characters of the town and their stories. Such as the politician and his wife who are grieving the death of their young daughter; his fellow teacher, Honda, who insists on driving Ren everywhere whilst providing him with advice; and also one of his students who he gives the nickname of ‘Seven Stars’. All the while, Ren is reminiscing about his sister and their childhood in Tokyo, slowly uncovering what happened to make her leave so abruptly to Akakawa and ultimately, what led to her death.

But it is not a murder mystery. It’s a slow and thoughtful story about grieving and coming to terms with the loss of someone important in your life. Keiko looked after Ren when he was child, cooking for him every day as their parents were never home, and after she left she rang him every week to talk to him about his life. One very moving scene in the book depicts Ren going to the spot where Keiko died and lying there as the rain pours down on him, as it did that night, to try and feel how she must have felt in her dying moments.

My sister should have been able to guess nobody would come in this kind of weather. She would have known she was about to die. What was on her mind in those final moments? …Had she thought about me?

Since the day my sister had left Tokyo, I’d hoped for her return, but I’d never told her that. Had I been too proud, or too indifferent? If I’d asked her to come back, would she still be alive?

Rainbirds

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the descriptions of food and the meaning of it in Ren’s life. It his connection to his sister, but also to the politician’s wife, to Honda and Seven Stars. From curry rice, to packets of ramen noodles eaten in-between lessons, lunch boxes of steaming pork and eating teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s, through eating Ren develops bonds with those around him and his past.

It is a beautifully written book that takes a hold of the heart. Best enjoyed with a steaming portion of curry rice.

All the books I read in the dark and chilly month of November

I can’t believe it is the end of November already! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was rounding up the books I had read in October. This month has been a fun one full of seeing friends and visiting places (including trips to London, Salford and York!) but it has also been a good month for good books, gripping tales and some spooky short stories. Below is a round-up of the books I have read and enjoyed this month.

Magpie, by Elizabeth Day

Absorbing, intelligent, heart-breaking: this book had me hooked.

But with Jake, she had found someone who accepted her as she was without too many questions, and when she fell in love with him, it was not accompanied by fireworks and a surging feeling of rollercoaster stomach-leaping. It didn’t feel like a thunderbolt. It felt like something more beautiful than that. It felt like relief.

Magpie, by Elizabeth Day

Marisa moves in with Jake, the man she hopes will help provide her with stability and love after a harsh and difficult childhood and twenties. However, soon after moving in they start to experience money worries and decide to get a lodger. Kate moves in and soon Marisa starts to pick up on odd little things that, at first, annoy her but then cause her to question her own sanity. Is Kate leaving her toothbrush in the master bathroom as opposed to her own to try and usurp Marisa? Is she trying to cook their meals to get closer to Jake, especially as she is making his favourite meals? How does she even know what his favourite meals are? Marisa is also trying to get pregnant but she starts to notice little moments between Kate and Jake when they think she isn’t looking.

This book has an incredible twist in it. A drop-your-book-and-spit-out-your-tea kind of twist. But it is also a very sympathetic and sensitive look at mental health and the physical and emotional tolls that trying to have a baby can have on a person and a couple.

10/10 would recommend this book.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

I read this for my bookclub and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it! It is a collection of short stories that each follow a different character from the small town of Amgash, Illinois. It is an intricate look at small-town life where everyone thinks they know each other and everyone draws their own conclusions without knowing the full story.

The book is part of Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton series, and she is referenced by some of the characters, but I don’t think you need to have read the other book to be able to enjoy this. I thought all the stories were very engaging, some quite surprising and others so gentle in their approach to devastating topic such as loneliness, PTSD and bereavement.

After reading this book, I am now looking forward to reading Elizabeth Strout’s next book Oh William and it also encouraged me to pick up some other short story collections, as you will see later on.

Olive, by Emma Gannon

Another book read this month that looks at motherhood and wanting and not wanting to have a child. In this story, Olive is seeing her friendships, that have stood the test of time, start to change as her closest friends start having children and families of their own. She feels the shift and starts to wonder if there is something wrong with her that she doesn’t feel any maternal urge. In fact, she and her partner of nine years have just ended their relationship because she doesn’t want children.

The book explores not wanting to have kids, and the pressure women feel having to defend that decision, as well as what it is like to be desperate to have a child and being unable to conceive. It is a wonderful look at female friendships and is also, despite the heavy subject, very funny.

‘…I just want everyone in this room to remember to look deep inside and know sometimes we don’t have to stifle ourselves with the pressure. We don’t have to build up this huge unanswerable question in our heads: Do I Want Kids? It hangs over us, but why? Sometimes we can just roll with it, make smaller natural decisions as we go along and follow what makes us happy daily, and in doing so we will make the right decision for us in the end, without turning into something so pressurized.’

Olive

The Haunting Season

Maybe my favourite book of the month because it was so glorious in it’s spookiness. These stories are full of pieces of furniture that move all by themselves, ghostly voices heard in the hallways of empty houses, and shadowy shapes in the dark.

With stories by authors including Natasha Pulley, Bridget Collins, Elizabeth MacNeal and Laura Purcell, this book is full jumps and scares and things that go bump in the night, and I thoroughly enjoyed each of them. This book is the perfect accompaniment for anyone who likes a good ghost story for these cold, dark nights.

I sat bolt upright, my hands clasped to my chest. Those footsteps again! Thud thud thud outside the door, up and down the landing, and now perhaps the rapping of a cane along the bannisters. These were the footsteps of an angry man, full of bluster, a man out to frighten me and whom I was wise to fear. I sat stock still.

Thwaite’s Tenant, by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

The other short story collection I read this month. This one is not for the faint-hearted, it has some very unsettling stories, but they are so well-written with more than a tinge of black comedy.

For me, my favourite (or the one that I’m still thinking about weeks later), was The Pickling Jar which recounts a town’s tradition of what they do when a loved one dies. But I thought this collection was so clever in what was left unsaid. The title story Dead Relatives, for example, was very interesting to read because it was written from the point of view of a child living in a large old house which, we find out she has never left. The things she tells the reader that she doesn’t understand are very chilling and take the imagination to some very gruesome places.

The Ladies are coming today and Cook is beside herself with worry.

‘I’m beside myself with worry, Iris,’ she says, and the blade strips the darkness from the back of my eyes. ‘Do not just sit there, Iris,’ she says, turning the corpse over on the wooden board, spreading the legs just so. ‘Go find your mammy and ask her what jobs there are for you to do.’ She drops the knife and her hand goes out for the cleaver.

Dead Relatives

Learwife, by J.R. Thorp

Lear, you old ghoul, softening down in the soil, sprouting a mushroom out of your eye, listen: you have tried to do me wrong, you thought you’d bury me. After all I gave. And look how I took your punishment and made it thicken, made it bud down to the root with new growth, furred and greening.

Learwife

This book was astonishing to read. The voice and the character so strong and vivid, this is for anyone who enjoys historical books written from the point of view of the women who were left out of the original stories.

This is the imagining of the life of King Lear’s wife, banished to an abbey for a crime she doesn’t know she’s committed and is never explained to her. She lives there for over a decade until she hears of his death and the death of her three daughters, the youngest of whom, Cordelia, she was forced to leave when she was only days old. The book explores the main character’s grief which takes in every emotion from love to hate, sadness and rage, and all the questions left unanswered. What became of her husband and where are her daughters buried? What will become of her now that he is gone?

I thought this book was so very well written, poetic and lyrical in some places and sparse in others, it was so full of life and what it is to be human.

Hostage, by Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh is one of those dependable authors where you know that whichever of her books you pick up, you’re going to enjoy it. Hostage is no different – it is a superbly crafted thriller that will suck you in and slowly reveal layer after layer of mystery. As always, I take my hat off to her cleverness.

Mina is about to board a non-stop flight from London to Sydney: it is the first of its kind and the journey is set to be a special one with celebrities and journalists on board. Part of the cabin crew assigned to look after business class, Mina starts to notice strange things about the flight and it’s passengers, one of whom shortly after take-off becomes seriously ill. She finds in his wallet a picture of her daughter, Sophia, and then she receives a note that the plane has been hijacked and she has to help them get control of the flight-deck or her daughter will be in danger.

The wallet is black, an expensive but simple piece of folded leather. When I open it, a photograph falls out; a home-printed image, on cheap paper.

I put out my hand to still myself, even though the plane is steady. It isn’t possible. It’s a coincidence, that’s all; a similarity to be dismissed.

But it can’t be. I know this face as well as I know my own.

This is a photograph of Sophia.

Hostage

What have you read this month and what do recommend I pick up in December? Let me know in the comments!

Learwife, by JR Thorp: a beautiful book about grief and destiny

This book is for anyone who enjoys historical stories written from the perspective of the women who have previously been left out. Think Ariadne or The Silence of the Women, this is a woman reclaiming her space and telling her story.

I was very grateful to receive a proof copy of this novel from Lucy Zhou. Thank you, Lucy!

I am the queen of two crowns, banished fifteen years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three small animals, now gone. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear’s wife. I am here.

Learwife

Where to start with this book? It is a book about life, grief and what it is is to be human. Written from the perspective of King Lear’s wife, who was only referred to a few times by Shakespeare in the play, in this novel we learn her story.

Banished by Lear to live in an Abbey for a crime that is never explained to her, fifteen years later she learns that he has been killed and her three daughters are also dead. She describes her difficult relationships with her elder two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and how she treated them to prepare them for life in court. We also learn that she was separated from her youngest daughter, Cordelia, when she was only a few days old.

I wonder if the land knows. That the press of a single king is no longer on it, and so it is split from its brothers. What God imparts to stone of its ownership, to water.

The collection of lands was Lear’s great aim, in the years before my exile. Rich soil, forests we would never see, stretching to the necks of mountains. He studded his countries with castles and we moved between them through the seasons: rich summers in the cooler north, among heather and the bee-wild slopes, then out for winter, in wide pale palaces that swam with sun. The populace felt us move in rhythm, there were crowds on every road: to be thrown favours, coins, sugar. Women stood among the flowering gorse with their heads covered and sang for us, in the dark evening.

To be in Lear’s country, to be one of his people’s! They will not see his like again.

Learwife

The book so beautifully and poetically explores grief and all the emotions that are felt within it, from love and anger, to hate and despair. She wants to know how he died and where her daughters are buried, but no one seems to have any answers. She also wants to find out what happened to her most loyal friend, Kent, who she has not seen since she came to the Abbey. And what will become of her now Lear is dead, will his enemies seek to find her?

Lear, you old ghoul, softening down in the soil, sprouting a mushroom out of your eye, listen: you have tried to do me wrong, you thought you’d bury me. After all I gave. And look how I took your punishment and made it thicken, made it bud down to the root with new growth, furred and greening.

Learwife

I haven’t seen or read King Lear and I don’t think you need to be able to enjoy this book. JR Thorp creates such a full world within this novel that you come to know all the relationships between the characters and get a sense of what they were like in the play. Goneril and Regan’s cruelty, for example, is demonstrated in their treatment of their mother’s favourite dogs. It has made me curious, however, and I think I will try to see the play in the future.

But the thing I will remember most about this book is her voice. So strong and vivid: it is told lyrically at some points, bursting with emotion, and sparsely at others as she recovers from the news of the deaths. She is character unlike any other.

Chilling short story collections to make you jump

Halloween may seem a distant memory but November, with it’s darkening nights and chilling temperatures, is the perfect time to curl up with a ghost story. Today’s ‘Books by the Fireplace’ is about two unsettling short story collections to make the toes curl and the skin crawl.

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

Gruesome and grisly, these stories are disturbing. But in a good way. The are so well written full of surprises, they take you in directions you don’t expect to go in (or want to, in some cases!) This collection is described as “not for the faint-hearted,” and that is certainly true, but there are also very humorous in places and thoroughly enjoyable to read. If, like me, you like feeling unsettled and creeped out, then this is for you.

The first story of the collection, Dead Relatives, is told from the perspective of Iris, a thirteen-year-old girl, who lives in a big house with her mother, their Cook, and their driver (Clippety Pete), under the watchful eyes of their ancestors. The house is cold and full of secrets, with plenty of dark corners to hide in. We learn that Iris has never left the grounds and knows no life outside of the house and the strange things that go on there.

Iris has to has help Cook and her mother look after three women who arrive in late stages of their pregnancies, it still being a time when abortion is banded and children out of wedlock were frowned upon. At the house, the women are provided with bed and board and “solutions to (their) predicaments procured.” But, of course, this being a short story collection described by the publisher as ‘”no-holds-barred,” as we learn more about the house and what goes on there, the more disturbing and bone-chilling it gets.

Mammy it makes it clear to the Ladies before they arrive that she has already found parents to take on their babbies: barren couples who are desperate for a child to cherish and dote on. She shows them the advertisements she places in the London papers, asking for ‘devoted parents for unfortunate children.’ They’ve already seen the other advertisements she’s placed: ‘Attention: women in a delicate situation seeking accommodation. Bed and board available and solutions to predicaments procured. Apply box number…’ It’s a hidden language, all suggestions and insinuations and such, but everyone knows what it means.

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

The most surprisingly twisted story for me was The Pickling Jar, which took a turn I was not expecting, and the one that I can’t stop coming back to in my mind is Jutland, if you know you know…

After a long moment, Mr Brewer chewed and then he swallowed. He opened his eyes. He ran his tongue over his teeth. He put a finger to his mouth and slid it down between incisor and canine, dislodging a miniscule piece of something solid. Gaynor still didn’t dare breathe, but made sure she was standing with her good ear turned towards him.

The Pickling Jar, Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy

The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights

There was one island, and on that island, sudden and stark, was the house. Its lights looked disembodied from here, in a way that made Thaniel think of alchemy. He glanced at Mori and grinned. He’d never seen anywhere like this before, much less stayed. He found himself quite hoping for a ghost.

The Eel Singers, by Natasha Pulley

This is a collection of short stories from eight authors including Laura Purcell (the queen of spooky stories – her book The Silent Companions is firm a favourite of mine), Elizabeth McNeal (who’s book The Doll Factory unsettled me so much that I had to find out the ending before I could carry on reading it to make sure I would be able to cope with it), and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (author of The Mercies which I couldn’t put down earlier this year). I had high expectations of this book because of the authors involved and, while there were certainly some similar themes throughout the stories, it did not disappoint.

‘My dear boy!’ he effuses. ‘You have strayed off the well-lit path into a world of thieves and costermongers, whores, and labourers, artists, visionaries and gin-palaces. Rich with stink, even in the deep winter. Rich with clamour, all hours, what with the calling and jibing, fighting and loving.’

‘To Camden, yes.’

‘You have come in the pursuit of knowledge. Wishing to probe the very secrets of nature, finger the mysteries of life and death, verily, to assume the role of God. You want to get your quivering hands upon tomes ancient and occult!’

‘If it’s not too much trouble.’

Lily Whit, by Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the collection of stories, they didn’t unsettle me in the way that Dead Relatives did, these stories were more jumpy ghost stories involving plenty of pieces of furniture moving by themselves, ghostly voices out in the hallways of empty houses, and shadowy shapes in the dark. The collection really revelled in the genre of spookiness and it felt as though the authors each had great fun writing their contribution.

I really enjoyed Natasha Pulley’s The Eel Singers for its slow creep factor as a family escape London to the fens for Christmas and start to forget things. Lily Wilt by Jess Kid, about a man who falls in love with a corpse of a beautiful woman who persuades him to try and bring her back to life, was also fun. But all the stories were enjoyable to read and complimented each other well.

Another creak came from the mechanical chair. Choking on terror, Evelyn let her gaze drift towards it. The contraption was still to her left, beside the chaise longue, but it was no longer turned to the side.

Now it was facing her.

The Chillingham Chair, by Laura Purcell

Short stories are fascinating and thrilling to read. Thrust from one story to the next, each one leaving a lasting impression because of the questions left unanswered. These two collections are no different. Not for the faint-hearted, they are for lovers of all things creepy and ghostly; they will leave you with a distinct sense of being unsettled but loving it.

You can save hundreds of lives, or the one that matters most… Hostage, by Clare Mackintosh

I’m grateful for this oasis of sobriety as the rest of the cabin gets progressively merry. I have a sudden yearning to be at home, cuddled with Sophia on the sofa, watching Peppa Pig. When I’m away travelling, I remember all the good bits. Isn’t that always the way? I even remember the good bits about me and Adam – the laughter, the closeness, the feeling of his arms around me.

A hum of noise comes from the bar, and I go to see if they need help. It’s heaving, conversation rising in volume as more business-class passengers join the throng. Several customers are in their pyjamas, the novelty still amusing them, hours into the flight. a couple stand at the bar, their body language flirtatious.

‘Have you seen the corkscrew?’ the barman – Hassan – looks harassed.

Hostage

Mina is about to board a non-stop flight from London to Sydney. It is the first of its kind and the journey is set to be a special one with celebrities and journalists on board. Mina is part of the cabin crew assigned to look after business class, but she wasn’t even meant to be on this flight. So that she could escape her home-life for a few days, she swapped shifts with a colleague . At home, her marriage to Adam is failing after discovering that he had an affair with the au pair who looked after their daughter, Sophia. Sophia is herself a challenging child as she was adopted by Mina and Adam after social services took her away from her biological mother at a few months old; an experience that has traumatised her and left her with a severe fear of abandonment.

As the flight takes off, Mina is going over everything in her head when she notices that some of Sophia’s belongings, including her epi-pen, have ended up in her handbag. When a passenger becomes ill and Mina discovers a photo of Sophia in his wallet, she begins to realise that someone on the plane means to do her harm. Soon she receives a message instructing her to co-operate with the hijackers on board in order to save Sophia; leaving Mina with the choice of saving her daughter’s life or the lives of over two hundred passengers.

Clare Mackintosh is one of those writers you can always depend on to write a good thriller. Every one of her books drips with tension as she raises the pressure and slowly reveals the plot bit by bit. Full of twists and re-herrings, I love her stories because I know she will keep surprising me right to the very last page.

The other thing I find interesting about her books is that I never particularly like her main characters – they are always flawed, battling their own demons and sometimes say disagreeable things, but I am still so drawn in by their stories. Hostage is split into two narratives: that of Mina and Adam. It told over the twenty hours it takes to fly from London to Sydney, and also includes accounts from some of the passengers in business class explaining how they ended up on that flight. We learn that both Mina and Adam have been keeping secrets from each other that threaten to put their family at risk. So much is revealed as the story goes on, and all of it is unpredictable and just a thrill to read.

This book is hard to put down so be careful what time of the day you start it! Best enjoyed with a packet of peanuts and miniature wine.

Magpie, by Elizabeth Day: a twisty-thriller with one heck of a twist (book review)

I picked up this book after my mum recommended it and so I knew it would be good because she has great taste. She said that as the book got going she felt she knew what the story was going to be and guess what the twist but then, when it came, it completely surprised her. And I have to agree with my mum’s summary! I too felt secure that I could guess what was going to happen, only to have the rug completely pulled out from under me. This feeling of unsettled uncertainty hangs over the rest of the and even by page 300 of 324, I still couldn’t guess how it was going to end. To describe it as a thriller is an understatement – this book will have you on the edge of your seat.

The woman said she felt Marisa was just the right person to move into the house. Marisa smiled.

‘These things can be so…’ Marisa searched for the right word. ‘Instinctive, I guess?’

‘Instinctive,’ the woman nodded. ‘Exactly.’

It was when the woman opened the glass doors into the garden, folding them back on themselves like origami, that the bird flew in. It swooped low and fast so that neither of them had a chance to stop it.

Magpie

The novel opens with Marisa looking round a house for her and Jake to move into. The house is a quiet place almost sanctuary-like (apart from the appearance of the magpie), which Marisa finds appealing after the tough life she has had before meeting Jake.

However, when one of Jake’s business deals goes sour and he begins to worry about money, it is suggested that they find a lodger to help with the bills. Kate moves in and before long Marisa starts to pick up on things she finds odd about her. From the way she dresses, to where she leaves her running shoes in the hallway and her toothbrush in the main bathroom as opposed to her own little one, it all seems to familiar. When Marisa and Jake decide to start trying for a baby, Marisa finds Kate too over-enthusiastic for them, as if she is trying to place herself between the couple. The sense of unease becomes stronger and stronger as Marisa thinks she starts to notice little moments passing between Jake and Kate when they think she’s not looking.

Kate is cooking dinner. She has ‘insisted’ and said it is ‘the least I can do’ and ‘you’ve been so generous’ and would Marisa please just let Kate show her appreciation? This last line is delivered with a laugh that requires a lot of comic pouting and a playful, semi-sarcastic tone that grates. She barely knows me, Marisa fumes. Jake is delighted, especially when Kate says she’s cooking macaroni cheese, ‘which I know is your favourite.’

Magpie

The book beautifully explores motherhood and the strength of maternal instincts. It looks at the physical and emotional tolls of struggling to conceive and going through IVF, and the impact not being able to get pregnant can have on someone, their relationship, and how they want to interact with society. It also so sensitively looks at mental health and the long-lasting effects of rape. It is all so beautifully put together and threaded throughout a very absorbing story.

It’s also a such good thriller with twists and turns aplenty! Elizabeth Day is a wonderful writer and her characters are so vivid: from Marisa, the artist using a paintbrush to hold up her hair, to Jake religiously doing his fitness workouts in the garden, and Kate with her intensity, they are all so interesting to read. One of the other characters is described as growing “fattened like a maggot by all the compliments” which I thought was such a good line. That refers to Jake’s mother, Annabelle, who is a force of nature within the novel and has to be read for her rudeness to be believed.

I could not read Magpie fast enough to get the words off the page and into my brain to find out what was going to happen next. Definitely enjoyed best with a strong G&T.

Anything is Possible(?) The Book Review

This is a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Strout that follow on from her novel My Name is Lucy Barton. This time we are in the small town of Amgash, Illinois, which Lucy left behind when she moved to New York and went on to be a successful writer.

We meet some of Lucy’s past neighbours, her siblings and other town folk, and they are a real mixed bunch of characters! Each their own burdens to bear, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a horrific upbringing or even one character who has a rapist for a husband, the stories are all different but linked through Lucy and the town. For example with Tommy, whose story starts the collection, we learn that his farm burned down in the night many years previous and he had to get a new job as a janitor at the School where Lucy attended, but he had always carried around an understanding that God spoke to him that night of the fire. His story is very different story to Patty, a lonely widow, and her sister Linda who lives a completely different life with her husband.

For me, the stand-out stories came from Charlie, a Vietnam war-veteran, still suffering many years later from PTSD and the impact it has had on his marriage; and Dottie, a B&B owner who has a startling interaction with a guest.

Dottie was, in fact, a bit older than Mrs Small, but Dottie had taken to the Internet like a paddlefish waiting for water; she was sorry it hadn’t arrived when she was a younger woman, she was certain she could have been successful at something that made use of her mind more than the renting out rooms for these past many years. She could have been rich! But Dottie was not a woman to complain, having been taught by her decent Aunt Edna one summer – it seemed like a hundred years ago, and it practically was – that a complaining woman was like pushing dirt under the fingernails of God, and this was an image that Dottie had never been able to fully dislodge.

Anything is Possible, By Elizabeth Strout

I’ve not read a huge amount of short stories before (something I am trying to rectify now), because I’ve often found that they feel like too small a snippet of a story: you just get into it and then it ends and your thrust forward into the next story. But a short story can leave a lasting impression because of that very sense of being cut off and the questions left unanswered. As Joanne Harris comments at the start of her short story collection Jigs and Reels:

A good short story…can stay with you for much longer than a novel. It can startle, ignite, illuminate and move in a way that the longer format cannot. It is often more troubling, often frightening or subversive. It provokes questions, whereas most novels tend to try to find the answer to them…

Personally, I find short stories difficult and slow to write. To compress an idea into such a small space, to keep its proportions, to find the voice, is both demanding and frustrating. four or five thousand words, which might take me a day to write as part of a novel, may take me two weeks to finish as a short story.

Jigs & Reels, by Joanne Harris

But with these stories (with the exception of Cracked which was strange and unsettling), I wasn’t left feeling as though any of them had an abrupt ending. With the links of the quirky small-town and the character of Lucy Barton, each story felt part of a wider picture, and a character mentioned in the background of one story may pop up again or even take centre stage in the next.

You don’t need to have read My Name Is Lucy Barton to be able to enjoy this collection; I haven’t read it and I feel as though I understood the town and family dynamics and still got a lot from reading it. I have read one of Elizabeth Strout’s previous books, Olive Kitteridge, which has a similar format of being a novel told in short stories and, I have to admit, that it kind of went over my head at the time and, whilst I enjoyed it I feel that I missed a lot of the nuance and detail. With Anything is Possible, however, I felt completely immersed and really enjoyed reading about the town and the characters as their stories surprised me. It’s made me wonder if I should go back and re-read Olive Kitteridge as I enjoyed the format so much this time that maybe I would get more from it.

If anything is possible, then this book would be best enjoyed whilst staying on a farm in rural America looking out at the “little corn plants and fresh bright soybeans” growing in the fields, but if that is not possible, then it would be just as good on the sofa on a brisk Tuesday afternoon.

Next up on my TBR…

Because I am always curious to see what people have got on their ‘to be read’ next pile, these are the five books I’ve currently got on my bedside ready to be picked up. The quotes are all the first few lines of the book, to give you a little teaser.

Magpie, by Elizabeth Day

The house was perfect. Well, not perfect exactly, because houses never are, but at least the imperfections were liveable with. The flooring which had clearly been bought in bulk by the developer, was a shade too light, the wood-laminate a touch too smooth to pass for real. The plantation shutters were plastic and layered with thin spores of dust.

Magpie

I’ll admit this this opener doesn’t immediately draw me in but any book that is described as ‘completely, terrifyingly brilliant’ according to Marian Keyes, is probably definitely worth reading. Jake and Marisa open up their home to lodger, Kate, before too long, however, Marisa starts to question Kate’s motives for being there. The Guardian described it as “domestic noir with a twist.” Ooooohhh…

Learwife, by JR Thorp

The word has come that he is dead, now, and the girls. And that it is finished.

Today they will ring the bells. The priest will say four masses, for their souls. The autumn light is fragile and my veil is thick, and I must descend. To light the candles. This is just and Christian, and I am afraid.

Learwife

Inspired by King Lear, this is the story “of the most famous woman written out of literary history”: his wife. Having recently read Ariadne, and previously The Silence of the Girls, I am enjoying the re-telling of stories from a female perspective, and just from the opening of this novel, I can already tell that I am going to be swept away by the voice of it. Waterstones describes it as a “breath-taking novel of loss, renewal and how history bleeds into the present.”

Dead Relatives and other stories, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

The Ladies are coming today and Cook is beside herself with worry.

‘I’m beside myself with worry, Iris,’ she says, and the blade strips the darkness from the back of my eyes. ‘Do not just sit there, Iris,’ she says, turning the corpse over on the wooden board, spreading the legs just so. ‘Go find your mammy and ask her what jobs there are for you to do.’ She drops the knife and her hand goes out for the cleaver.

Dead Relatives

This is said to be a ‘”no-holds-barred” short story collection “not for the faint-hearted” (I am very faint of heart and so already scared, but excited to be so). The blurb explains that the stories explore themes of motherhood and the fragile body, family dynamics and unusual traditions. I look forward to being terrified reading this in bed on these cold, dark November nights.

The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes

Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it. There’s no birdsong past dawn, not even in high summer, and especially not now, with the chill air so thick with moisture that it stills those few leaves clinging gamely to the branches.

The Giver of Stars

A friend lent me this book ages ago with the recommendation that it was an excellent read and I have to return it soon and so it is on the pile, ready to go. I haven’t read anything by Jojo Moyes before, but the sound of this novel has me intrigued. Set in 1937, Alice moves from England to Kentucky after she marries a man called Bennett Van Cleve. Here, she joins the ‘Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky’ who take books to the isolated and vulnerable of the wilderness. However, Alice’s father-in-law begins to turn the town against them and they must now overcome all kinds of danger in order to continue with their mission of bringing books to those who need them. Apparently this is based on a true story and sounds epic in terms of setting and adventure.

Hostage, by Clare Mackintosh

‘Stop that, you’ll fall.’

A week’s worth of snow has pressed itself into ice, each day’s danger hidden beneath a night-time dusting of powder. Every few yards my boots travel further than my feet intended, and my stomach pitches, braced for a fall.

Hostage

Long-time readers of Luggage & Scribble will know that I love a good twisty thriller, I always try to guess what is coming and rarely am I right. Clare writes really good books and I am looking forward to getting into this one. The book is set over the course of a flight from London to Sydney where “someone wants to make sure the plane never reaches its destination” and one of the hostesses, Mina, is being blackmailed into cooperation.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Is it ‘child-less’ or is it ‘child-free’? My book review of ‘Olive’ by Emma Gannon

I bought this book last year along with Ghosts by Dolly Alderton (which is also a fab read), and it has sat on my shelf waiting to be read. Sometimes that happens, doesn’t it? A book will sit there for years until suddenly some twist of fate encourages you to pick it up and read it at just the right time.

For me, I am currently watching so many of my friends step into the world of parenthood (and it is a joy to watch, as well as a very interesting one). It seemed to happen overnight that suddenly I went from knowing no parents in my close friendship circle to being the odd one out. And it does change things (obviously, how could it not), and there are now a lot more discussions about sleep regressions, teething, breastfeeding, that I can’t be a part of. I see my friends who used to be out for dinner all the time, always abroad, now barely leave their homes because they have to work around nap times. So, Olive resonated with me as she is going through similar circumstances.

I have the Sunday blues, but I also feel glad that I have an office to go to tomorrow after a depressingly quiet weekend. I posted some old photos of me sitting in the park on Instagram so that people might think I was busy. In reality, I’m not quite ready for human contact. I’m also ninety-five per cent full of booze and chocolate orange and didn’t move all weekend except for occasionally putting a cold glass of gin to my lips.

Olive

Olive starts with a break-up: she and Jacob end their nine-year relationship because he is ready to start a family and she isn’t sure if she will ever want to. Throughout the course of the book, Olive explores her feelings towards the idea of starting a family. She realises that she has never once felt broody, and she tries to decide if it is her being abnormal or if it is ok that she doesn’t want to be a parent. She also wonders if there are other women out there who feel the same way as her and, as a journalist, starts to put her investigatory skills to use to find them.

Around her, her three closest friends are all starting (or trying to start) to have children. This drives Olive into panic because she feels as though her friendships are changing and the others no longer have the time they used to have for the group, and there’s nothing that can be done about that change. The book discusses, IVF, choosing to be ‘child-free’ rather than ‘child-less’, loving being a parent, not loving being a parent, the isolation of it (even from your partner), as well as the impact children can have on friendships. The full spectrum of choosing to become a mother can be found here.

‘…I just want everyone in this room to remember to look deep inside and know sometimes we don’t have to stifle ourselves with the pressure. We don’t have to build up this huge unanswerable question in our heads: Do I Want Kids? It hangs over us, but why? Sometimes we can just roll with it, make smaller natural decisions as we go along and follow what makes us happy daily, and in doing so we will make the right decision for us in the end, without turning into something so pressurized.’

Olive

I found this book very funny, like actually laugh out loud. Some of her observations are so spot on. Sometimes I liked Olive, and sometimes I didn’t. When she wears a ‘Baby on Board’ badge on the Tube or when she gets drunk at a friend’s baby shower and says some pretty nasty things, for example, not her finest moments. It is obvious that Emma Gannon has done a lot of research for this book – the tweets that break up each chapter, for example, show that it is such an ongoing discussion and that some women feel the need to defend their child-free lifestyle.

Turns out it’s the kind of day where it really does matter if you leave the house and forget to wear deodorant. It’s four in the afternoon and my iPhone tells me it’s still 22 degrees. It’s like ‘yay, shorts weather’ slash ‘oh shit, global warming’.

Olive

But for me, it was the portrayal of female friendship that stood out the most. How friendships are the most important thing in the world but that they change over time. Losing a friend due to you both drifting apart can be one of the worst feelings. I know from having lost a friend, nothing happened and no one at fault, but it was still painful. I thought this book very cleverly explored it.

Change will always happen: it’s how you react to it that’s important.