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.

October Round-Up: What I read this month

In this week’s edition of ‘books by the fireplace’ as I am now calling it, I’m looking back on some of my favourite reads from October and looking ahead to what is on my TBR list for November.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff

I found this book difficult to get into at the start because it all just looks so bleak for our protagonist, Marie. Banished from Queen Eleanor’s court, where she never really fit in due to her looks and background, to live out her days as prioress of a royal Abbey. Its 1158 and everything is cold and damp and miserable. The other nuns don’t know what to make of her and she longs to be back with Eleanor but, as time goes on, a determination and ambition develops in Marie, and soon she brings the abbey back to such a state of wealth that even Eleanor has to notice what is going on.

Eleanor laughed at Marie’s refusal of her favour, mocked her. But but but. Did Marie truly think she would one day be married off? She, a rustic gallowbird? Three heads too tall, with her great rough stomping about, with her terrible deep voice, her massive hands and her disputations and her sword practicing? What spouse would ever accept Marie, a creature absent of beauty or even the smallest of feminine arts? No, no, this was better, it had long ago been decided, back in the autumn, and her entire family agreed. Marie knew how to run a large estate, she could write in four languages, she could keep account books.… Which was, of course, to say that the abbey where Marie would be installed as prioress was so poor they happened just now to be starving to death, alas. They had fallen out of Eleanor’s pleasure some years earlier and had suffered grave poverty ever since.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff

So, worth sticking through all the freezing nights in the abbey, the diseased nuns and dead birds at the start.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This was a truly engrossing thriller that started off slow, each day an age, and then gathered up speed as we begin to realise the danger that the two main characters are hurtling towards.

Set in the early 1600s on a remote island in Norway, where all the adult men are killed at once in a freak storm as they are out fishing, the women left have to learn how to live with their grief and survive in the harshest of environments. But, news of their island has spread and the King sends a new Commissioner to the women to seek out any evil that may be lurking among them.

As she watches, a final flash of lightning illuminates the hatefully still sea, and from its blackness rise oars and rudders and a full mast with gently stowed sails, like underwater forests uprooted. Of their men, there is no sign.

It is Christmas Eve.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is one of those books where just have to sit back and praise the author for coming up with such an incredibly detailed plot and then have written it so beautifully.

The Lonely Fajita, by Abigail Mann

This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Simple, easy-going and completely heart-warming: I recommend this to anyone who needs a little boost of happiness.

Elissa’s life is falling apart: she has a rubbish job working for a creepy boss, her boyfriend has just told her she needs to move out of their flat share and her bank account is empty. She applies to join the ElderCare Companionship Scheme, asking volunteers to move in with elderly members of the community to offer them friendship and help in the home. When she moves in with Annie, Elissa finds herself exactly where she needs to be.

‘When he went away, I didn’t miss him. Not really. I missed rolling into the warm spot he left behind in the bed each morning, and falling asleep to a film on Sunday afternoons, and eating fajitas together.’ My throat gets prickly and I have a lukewarm sip of coffee…. ‘Suki, there’s nothing sadder than constructing a fajita on your own.’

The Lonely Fajita, by Abigail Mann

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

Another great thriller by Paula Hawkins who also wrote The Girl on the Train. Her books are always engrossing, surprising, and contain a slew of deeply untrustworthy characters we don’t know if we should pity, dislike or distrust. A Slow Fire Burning is no different.

A man is found dead on a houseboat in London. A woman, who the police believe has a motive to do it, leaves the scene of the crime with blood on her clothes. But, was she the killer?

As with The Girl on the Train, the story is told through multiple narratives which are expertly intertwined giving away snippets of what may or may not have happened, as years of grief, anger and loneliness come to the surface.

‘Laura.’ She could hear Egg’s voice, concerned, reprimanding. ‘Laura, come on, don’t do this…’ But she wanted to do this, she wanted to fight. She wanted them to grab her, to throw her to the ground, to knock her out. She wanted oblivion.

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

Set in Iceland in 1686, Rósa leaves her home village to join her new husband Jón in Stykkishólmur. But when she arrives in her new village, Rósa finds the inhabitants wary of her and Jón who’s first wife, she discovers, died suddenly in the night. To further suspicions, he buried her, alone, before anyone else could see the body.

The more Rósa tries to get to know her new neighbours, the more Jón tries to force her stay within the walls of their home. Except, when he is out for the day farming the land or fishing, she is certain she can hear strange noises coming from the loft above her bedroom.

The day the earth shifts, a body emerges from the belly of the ice-crusted sea. Bone-white fingers waving, as if alive.

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

This book has been sat on my shelves for a while and I’m so glad that I finally got round to picking it up. It was perfect for this time of year with just the right amount of spookiness.

The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti

It’s not in the photo, but I managed to sneak one more book in before the end of October: The Vanishing Year, which turned out to be a real page-turner! Following her mother’s death and falling in with a criminal gang, Hilary runs away from San Francisco to New York to take up an entirely new life. Newly married and going by the name Zoe, she tries to forget her past life, but it keeps threatening to re-appear. Who can she go to for help? Her husband, Henry, does not know about her life before him and he has his own trauma to deal with. But, as Zoe begins to realise, is he protecting her from it or is he part of the problem?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, gulping it down in twenty-four hours because I wanted to know what was going to happen to Zoe. I actually manged to guess the twist, which is rare for me, but didn’t it dampen the big reveal. This is perfect for those who like twisty thrillers where you don’t know who is telling the truth and who is lying.

We have been married nearly a year and have the rest of our lives to “complicate things.” I think about couples who giggle and share their pasts, their childhood memories and lost loves. Henry thinks all these conversations are unnecessary, trivial. He is the kind of person whose life travels a straight path, his head filled with to-do lists and goals. Meandering is for slackers and dreamers.

The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti

Next up, what I am hoping to read in November:

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan

How to Kill Your Family, by Bella Mackie

What have you read and enjoyed this month? What else should I add to my ‘Up next’ list?

The perfect twisty thriller for the end of October

Book review: The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti. Published in 2016 by Titan Books.

He smelled nice. Like soap and aftershave. He wore a wedding ring. I wondered if his wife was as young as him. Perhaps pregnant with their first child, round and glowing… He probably rubbed her tired feet at night, massaged cocoa butter into her belly. She surely had many pairs of jeans that fit her and that she washed in a machine, swirling with fresh Tide and fabric softener. She’d never done heroin. Or sold drugs in the presence of children.

The Vanishing Year

Where to start when trying to summarise the plot of The Vanishing Year without giving anything away… I feel like this is going to be a struggle!

Hilary’s adoptive mother, Evelyn, has just died and she needs to cover the cost of the funeral and burial; she seeks help from Evelyn’s off-and-on partner Mick. With him, Hilary quickly plunges into San Francisco’s dark world of drugs and violence, and her life as a college student with a happy future ahead of her quickly disappears. When she sees the chance to escape; she takes it.

The plot then fast forwards to her new life in New York, where she is now going by the name Zoe, married to wealthy banker, Henry. She suddenly has a life full of luxury away from all the poverty and hardship, but Zoe can’t stop thinking about her biological and adoptive mothers, and the life she left behind.

Both she and Henry have pasts they don’t talk about, choosing instead to live in a present-moment bubble, but when Zoe’s past starts to catch up with her new life, she has to decide who she can turn to for help.

When I emerge into the hallway, he gasps. If there is a script for this movie, this moment in my life, it would have been written exactly as it played out. My heart hammers and my hands shake and I know in that instant, like the sappiest of romance movies, that this man will change my life.

The Vanishing Year

This is a thriller that will keep you up at night to find out what happens next. The pace is relentless from the drug-fuelled streets of San Francisco to the penthouses and charity galas in New York, I felt Zoe was a believable and compelling protagonist. The sense of danger is ever-present as she finds herself increasingly isolated and scared, trying to work out who she can trust.

I’m thirty years old and I’m not familiar with contemporary pop music. Lydia would be appalled. Our apartment in Hoboken was never quiet, always bursting with underground punk, hard-core rock, and then sometimes just blasting the latest Pink song. Lydia lived her life in music. Loud, harsh, thrumming beats for Saturdays and soft jazz for Sunday hangovers. The past year of my life has been outlined in shades of silence.  

The Vanishing Year

For once I did actually guess the twist of this novel (and yes, I am proud of myself), but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book. I thought it was packed full of intricate details and a serious amount of threatening energy. Good for anyone who enjoys a twisty thriller where you don’t know who to trust.

A day out at the theatre: what I thought of The Mirror and The Light

In a Luggage & Scribble first, today I am writing about going to the theatre! I recently travelled to London to watch Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light at the Gielgud Theatre. This is the third in a trilogy of books and plays based on the life of Thomas Cromwell.

I have written this post to cover who Cromwell was, as he had such an interesting life, what the play was like and also how I found being in London and at the theatre again after such a long time away from it. Let me know if the comments if you have seen this play or have any theatre recommendations for me!

First things first, who was Thomas Cromwell and what is The Mirror and The Light ?

Briefly, The Mirror and The Light is the third in a trilogy of stories written by Mantel that focus on the life and times of one of the most powerful men in Tudor England (and, arguably, in British history). You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard of Henry VIII: Thomas Cromwell was his right-hand man… right up until Henry had him executed for treason.   

The story of Cromwell is a fascinating one: he rose from rough and humble beginnings and climbed up the court’s hierarchy at a time when the right to do so was seen as God-given. In the first two parts of the trilogy, the first being Wolf Hall and the second Bring Up the Bodies, we see Cromwell’s rise to power and notoriety. In The Mirror and The Light, we see his downfall.

If you remember the old rhyme ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ then Cromwell was hugely involved in the first four of those fates. Cromwell helped Henry get his divorce to Catherine of Aragon when England split from the Pope and Catholicism during the English Reformation. This also meant Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, who Cromwell supported at first, but then helped engineered her execution. He was by Henry’s side during his marriage to Jane Seymour and set up the subsequent marriage to Anne of Cleves following Jane’s death. This marriage would then prove to be the death of him.

I wonder, what Thomas Cromwell would make of the level of fame he has now reached. I think, thanks to Mantel, we have grown quite fond of him; he’s almost as well known to us now as Henry and his wives. From his start in life as the “ruffian” son of a blacksmith, Cromwell has now reached infamy thanks to the books and the plays that they have been adapted into. But, what would he think of how he has been portrayed?

The Play

The play starts at the end: with Cromwell being unceremoniously dumped in his cell in the Tower of London. Here he is taunted by his enemies who have been biding their time to bring him down. They ask him about his loyalty to King Henry VIII and about incidents that have apparently called this into question. Cromwell remains tight lipped assuring them of the punishments he will met out once he is reinstated in his role. The play quickly flashes back, to Henry’s marriage to Jane, and from there we watch Cromwell’s demise unfold.

In the play he comes across as a family man, his love for his sons ever present and their safety his greatest concern. He also comes across as pragmatic to the end; Ben Miles, the actor playing him, scanning the stage whenever he enters, jaw clenched and fight-mode ready. He does not seem to relax. Although, how could you in Henry VIII’s court? and I suppose you would be tense awaiting your fate in the Tower of London!

Even though I knew going in what the outcome would be, I found I still had a small hope flickering that he would be reprieved: “I am a merciful king…” says Henry, before agreeing that Cromwell may be beheaded rather than the more gruesome death of being hung, drawn and quartered.

And then, it’s all over. A quick end after a long build up and it leaves no real time for wallowing or feeling sentimental for a man that we have all grown to know so well. A man who obviously had such a big impact on British history, struck down by a monarch susceptible to his whims. It is said he regretted the decision of signing Cromwell’s death within a month of it happening. 

Did I enjoy the play?

Once I worked out who all the different characters were (a few of the male actors did look very similar), I was completely absorbed by it and both parts flew by. I also thought the use of the scenery and lighting was very effective – there was one moment where Henry was lit with a warm orange light, to make it look like he was stood in front of a roaring fire to confess his feelings, that was very dramatic. Also at other times, the grey and austere setting was lit up with sudden pops of colour from the costumes such as the decadent robes worn by Anne of Cleves, or Henry’s blood-red stockings.

I thought the actors who played Cromwell and Henry (Miles and Nathaniel Parker), who have played them throughout the trilogy, were still just as excellent portraying that strange relationship between the two men.

It was a spectacle of storytelling: the kind you can only experience in a theatre. I have so missed feeling part of a collective experience as the story is told around you. The Mirror and the Light isn’t a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but it had a few humorous moments in it and I liked hearing the wave of chuckles as it ran through the audience.

One of my other favourite things about going to see a play is watching the shadows of people moving scenery and props around in the darkness in between scenes, like a well-oiled machine: each person with their part to play.

Did I feel safe going to the theatre?

Before March 2020 I went to the theatre a lot: I love it. Dramas, comedies, musicals, dance – I would go and watch it all if I could. I like being part of an audience and there’s nothing better than good actors, good staging and good writing. I have certainly missed it.

At the Gielgud, the audience wasn’t as spread out as they were just after theatres had re-opened (I don’t think they have to be now), but it wasn’t fully booked. Getting to the bar and bathrooms at the interval was hard work; as with most theatres in London, it wasn’t built with a huge amount of space to allow people to move easily past each other. But before entering the theatre everyone had to show proof of vaccine or of a recent negative test result and I would say around half the audience wore a mask throughout the show (myself included).

What was London like?

London was quieter than usual (although still much busier in some places than anywhere else I have been since the pandemic started). Leicester Square and Covent Garden, the theatre district, obviously still drawing huge crowds of people. But other streets felt quieter and Bloomsbury felt almost deserted. As the weather was nice we didn’t get on the tube – I don’t think I would have gone on it, however, even if it had been raining. As with the theatre, I’ve missed travelling to London and I’m looking forward to getting back into going.

What are your favourite things to do and see in London? Let me know!