Book Review on Elizabeth Day's Magpie
Elizabeth Day's Magpie begins with Marisa, the narrator for much of the story, explaining her relationship with Jake and their desire to begin a family. We see her being shown round the house they will go on to live in, despite the omen of a single magpie swooping into the living room, as the estate agent shows her round.
We learn of the early relationship between Marisa and Jake and their need to take in a lodger to increase their income. Following the entrance of film publicist, Kate, into the equation, things start to unravel for Marisa. She resents Kate's presence and thinks that Jake spends far too much time cosied up to Kate instead of her. The tension begins to become palpable.
And on it goes ... the first half of Magpie pretty much sets the scene. We are introduced to all the main characters, including the manipulative mother-in-law figure.
The reader is then presented the same events again from a different viewpoint, that of Kate. It becomes clear that things no longer add up. A crisis point is reached, but this isn't the end of the thriller. Jake's parents become increasingly involved in the story as secrets and deceptions lead to a make or break scenario for Jake, Marisa and Kate.
As the reader progresses through the novel, they realise the power an unreliable narrator has over them. Elizabeth Day shows skill and mastery of the form and uses foreshadowing to incredible effect. Marisa is so credible, particularly because there is enough truth in what she says to leave the reader completely floundered as to what to think!
Magpie has been likened to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but other than the obvious thriller link, I found them very different reads. Magpie was a quick, straightforward page-turner, and I found it less frightening than Gone Girl. When I read Gone Girl, I felt that it was more accessible than Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train. I'd say that Magpie is easier and has less depth than either, but regardless is extremely readable. It received quite high acclaim from my book club pals.
Book Club Questions on Elizabeth Day's Magpie
At what point in Magpie did you realize that Marisa was not who she seemed? Did you spot, ahead of time, either of the plot twists coming?
How would you classify the genre of Magpie?
Why do you think Elizabeth Day called the book Magpie?
How believable did you find Elizabeth Day's Magpie? Discuss what was and wasn’t believable in the story.
The book starts by telling the reader how Marisa’s mother left her as a young child. What do you think is the significance of sharing this, in light of what happens later in the story?
Marisa stabbed her sister with a pin from her mother’s sewing box and then denied hurting her. Discuss why the writer chose to include this event in the story.
What is your opinion of Jake? To what extent is he to blame for how events unfold? How could he have prevented things escalating?
How would you sum up Annabelle’s character? Discuss.
How much sympathy do you have for Marisa?
It turns out that Marisa is bi-polar, but she has stopped taking her medication, as she didn’t want to hurt the baby. Does the book do a disservice to people who are bi-polar? Why or why not?
Discuss the significance of Jake’s secret visits to Annabelle and Marisa at his mother’s house? What does it suggest about both Jake and his mother?
What is your view of Jake’s father? Do you see him as a weak figure? Why or why not?
The book ends happily with Jake and Kate having the baby they wanted, but do you really think they will live happily ever after?
On the blurb of Elizabeth Day's Magpie, Sara Collins, says “An absorbing exploration of infertility and mental illness combined with the pace and plot of a heart-racing thriller … I literally couldn’t put this down.” Did you find the book un-put-down-able?
When Marisa’s father visits her for the last time he seemed frail and old and she realized he would soon die. “She felt loss, not because his death would bring an absence, but because his existence had.” After that visit she ignored his messages and cards and didn’t contact him again. Discuss what this reveals about Marisa and the father /daughter relationship they had.
Book Discussion Questions on Elizabeth Day's Magpie (If you haven't read the book!)
When Kate catches Marisa following her on the tube, Marisa begs her to not tell Jake, but any sense of Marisa being contrite soon turns to anger against Kate. The narrator says, “Anger always wins.” Do you think anger is an emotion that is likely to supersede other feelings?"
When Kate visits Annabelle, she is passive aggressive and controlling. Jake can’t see that Annabelle is playing power games and being unkind. Would anyone like to share any mother-in-law stories?!
To what extent did the book add to your knowledge on surrogacy? If the group feels it appropriate to do so, discuss your personal feelings about whether surrogacy is something you might consider if you wanted children, but were unable to have them.
Personal Response to Elizabeth Day's Magpie
A story of two halves, jumping back in time, with NOW and THEN capitalised as chapter headings, indicating the time frame in which the events are set, Elizabeth Day's Magpie is the most unusual psychological thriller I've read. For the whole first half I felt like I was reading realistic fiction focusing on family relationships, using surrogacy as a tool to explore the complexities of life. It didn't feel like a thriller and I, somewhat predictably, didn't see either of the twists coming! As a book club read this wasn't the easiest book we've dissected. It felt like the author gave us the answers to the questions we were asking. There wasn't much disagreement about characters, theme or plot. It was a good read and a great introduction to thrillers, for readers like me, who for far too long, have avoided them.
Book Review on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
The Inseparables is about Simone de Beauvoir's friendship (from the age of nine) with Élisabeth Lacoin, nicknamed Zaza. This was a hugely important friendship to her. which she frequently returns to in her writing.
Thinly guised as fiction, in The Inseparables, Sylvie (Simone) firstly meets Andree (Zaza) at a private Catholic school. Sylvie is immediately fasicnated by Andree, with her diminuative size, but irreverant and bold behavior. Andree announces that she had been 'burned alive' and her right thigh 'grilled to the bone' while cooking on a campfire. For the first time, Sylvie experienced what it was like to have a special interest in one of her classmates .She becomes a friend to whom she felt passionately towards for the rest of Andree's life.
As the girls grow up we get a sense of the intense disappointment Sylvie feels when Andree's love for her mother and commitment to family, comes between their special friendship. This distancing between them continues when Sylvie realizes that she no longer believes in God, whilst Andree feels that she couldn't bear to be alive without a religion.
As Sylvie watched Andree, to an extent at least, conform to the expectations her family have of her, there is a sense of Sylvie wanting Andree to take a stronger stance than she does against them. Sylvie is disappointed when Andree confirms to societal rules; the reader is left feeling that Andree's personality has been chastened and limited by external contraints that she cannot or will not fight against. Despite this, Andree is a strange mix of compliance and rebellion. She agrees to her mother's breaking off of an engagement she disapproved of, yet injures her foot with an axe in order to avoid attending a social engagement she didn't want to attend. It is hard to pin Andree down and it this elusiveness that Simone is fascinated by.
As children and young teenagers, Sylvie and Andree had talked intensly and frequently about social, political and educational issues. It is important to remember that this was at a time when women were not allowed to vote It was a time of political awakening, yet many women would not be encouraged into intellectual pursuits or judged on their minds.
Sylvie constantly wants to return to the sharing of the depth of feeling and openness of communication the friends once shared. She perhaps resents the intrusion of societal expectatons in Andree's life. She seems to constantly long for emotional intimacy with Andree.
The second part of the story moves quite quickly. Critics have said that it is rushed and the structure of the novella is imbalanced. I tend to agree. Nevertheless, the exploration of the friendship continues to be shown and invite a strong emotional response from the reader. Sylvie's involvement in encouraging Andree's love affair with Pascal, shows her deep desire for Andree to be happy.
The re-telling of what happened to Andree at the end of the book is rushed and needs more explanation and developement. It is perhaps indicative of the depth of feeling that Sylvie had toward Andree, and her confusion about Andree's own increasing sense of self-disregard, that she writes so briefly about what ultimately happens to Andree.
Book Club Questions on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
Best Book Club Questions on The Inseparables (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
It's about thirty-fve years since I first read Simone de Beauvoir's works, but of course The Inseparables wasn't published until 2016. The well-written and interesting introduction by Deborah Levy to The Inseparables gave plenty of context to the thinly disguised autobigraphical account, as did this fascinating article Levy wrote about it for the Guardian. The Inseparables resonated with me as it shows the power and intensity that childhood and adolescent friendships can have. In this relationship Sylvie's awareness of the dislike Andree's mother had for her struck me as worth commenting on. Relationships with friend's parents, which at the time, are often only half noticed and observed intrigue me. It fascinates me how children, well in fact, all of us can feel that which we are not able to articulate, We immediately sense if we are 'liked or not'.
The amazing thing about Simone de Beuvoir's writing is its depth and accessibility. Having rediscovered her writing after all this time, I will definitely be venturing further back into her works. I remember a book called She Came to Stay which, at the time, struck me as incredibly perceptive and insightful. I wonder what I will think when I read it again.
Book Review of Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
I’ve read a few enjoyable and comforting reads in recent weeks, but Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the first book I’ve picked up, in absolutely ages, that I struggled to put down. I read it in two sittings.
The strength of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the connection that the reader makes to Lucy Barton the narrator. She tells the story in first person and focuses on the minutiae of life, which she uses to explore big life questions. The effect that an individual’s childhood has on their present and future self is never far from the surface of the book.
In Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, Lucy’s second husband has recently died. She finds herself spending time with her first husband, William, and she and he go on an actual and metaphorical journey of reflection. William’s own life is unravelling as his third marriage disintegrates. Lucy and he discover hidden family secrets that create insight and provide them with greater understanding of who they are and why they are as they are. We learn a lot about William’s mother, Catherine and through that see the complexity of son/mother relationships. I’m sure if this were a high school text it would be worth analyzing from a Freudian stance.
Oh William! Is a book that focuses hugely on connection. The narrator’s own self-awareness of time passing, the significance of perception and her ability to pinpoint precise emotion is incredible. There is absolutely nothing twee or sentimental in the writing, though it is nostalgic, particularly in relation to their shared grown up children. The sophistication, yet simplicity of the writing in Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! makes it an utter joy to read.
Book Discussion Questions for Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
Book Club Questions on Elizabeth Strout's Oh William! (If you haven't read the book).
Personal Response to Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
The phrase Oh William! made me think of a different book Oh David! by David Shannon. It is a text I used to read to Key Stage 1 children when I worked as a librarian. Oh David! features a little boy who does a series of naughty acts from knocking over a vase to running down the street naked. Despite all his misdemeanors his mum loves him anyway.
This is, I think, kind of how Lucy feels about William. In life we make mistakes, we don’t understand why people act the way they do, we put faith in individuals when perhaps it isn’t deserved and we can’t ever really understand or explain why we do the things we do.
As Lucy observes the actions of her first husband she frequently says Oh William! This sums up the emotions she feels toward him, without perhaps having to overtly articulate or fully understand them. We are all a bundle of complex and contradictory emotions, which leave us baffled, yet alive!
Book Review of Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book is the perfect read for anyone who has found themselves at a low ebb and needs a message of hope that things can and will get better.
Matt Haig begins The Comfort Book by telling the readers that the structure of his writing makes it a messy read. It has both short and long chapters, lists, quotes, case studies and even the occasional recipes. It is quite random in structure, but the theme that runs through The Comfort Book is one of connection. Everything is connected to everything else – hope to despair, pain to joy and so on. It also reminds us repeatedly that the simple fact of our existence is a reason for hope and joy, that we don’t need to try to be anything other than what we are, or meet anyone else’s expectations. Just be!
Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book is written in a completely non-judgmental tone. It is friendly and warm and welcoming. Part memoir, with a little bit of philosophy for beginners, for me it is a book of substance. It creates a solid and positive basis for building self-love which can help readers avoid faulty thinking or going down a spiral of negativity. Even if you are not feeling low or needing comfort it is a book of hope and I found it frequently amusing. It is definitely a book that enhancing wellbeing and creates a feeling of positivity. I was delighted to read under the heading Wolf, that “Crying releases stress hormones. Swearing increases pain tolerance. Fury can motivate us into action.” The book legitimates both activity and inactivity as a means of managing life.
Book Discussion Questions for Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
Book Club Questions on The Comfort Book (If you haven't read the book)
Personal Response to Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
“Feel what you feel,” says Matt Haig. “Sometimes it is good to howl.” What’s not to like? Although written with a lightness of touch, the message of The Comfort Book is profound. Connection is all.
Some of the text in The Comfort Book can be viewed as an inspiration for personal activities, such as writing a list of music that is significant or cheer inspiring. I think that this book would be wonderful to dip into as a class tutor, parent or teenager. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if this is true, but my hunch is that this book has helped many people who are in complete despair.
Book Review of Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace is set in Northern Ontario in 1972. It is beautifully accessible, eternally hopeful and poignantly sad.
A Town Called Solace explores the relationship between Clara, (the sister of Rose, a rebellious teenager who has run away from home), with Mrs Orchard her next door neighbour, who also inexplicably disappears, and later Liam, the mysterious man who then appears in Mrs Orchard's house. Told from alternate narratives we learn everyone's story and the relationships between them.
The main story in A Town Called Solace, is a historical one. I'ts a tale that Clara never actually learns about. Had she known I wonder how she or her parents might have felt about her friendship with Mrs. Orchard. Elizabeth Orchard, a Primary teacher who was unable to have children, befriends Liam, the small boy from next door. Events unfold and Liam is removed from Mrs Orchard's life. Years later Elizabeth, having moved to a town called Solace, leaves her house, in her will, to Liam, now a grown man, If I were teaching the book in school I'd be looking at the unreliability of narrative voice as I'm not sure I believed everything Elizabeth said!
Liam, now an accountant, in the aftermath of a failed marriage, arrives at Solace determined to stay only long enough to sort out Mrs Orchard's estate. Events unfold in a way that the reader realizes early on that Liam's visit will be a lengthy one. After all Mrs Orchard has a cat that someone must look after!
The individual stories that emerge are tragic and heartbreaking, yet any sense of despair felt by the reader is fleeting. Somehow, Mary Lawson manages to instil hope in the most awful of situations. Perhaps it is the feisty innocence, but determination of young Clara, who links each of the stories, that allows for optimism to emerge.
The book has both a small town, parochial feel alongside a sense of it being universally important. The deceptively simple writing style embodies this. It's straightforward nature belies its utter brilliance. It feels strong and immersive. The reader is left enchanted, yet wondering why this is the case. There are definite weaknesses in the plot - the inclusion of child safety issues pertaining to Clara seem like an editor's after thought. Not particularly being a cat lover myself the ending struck me as cheesy, yet it didn't matter.
Despite criticisms that can be made A Town Called Solace resonates to the very heart of the reader. It has the same kind of feel good message as The Midnight Library, but the plot is probably a bit darker in places. Perhaps it is because ultimately we are all concerned with the small corners of life that make up existence. Trivial to others, but important to us.
It is both pleasing and surprising that Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I wonder if it could win?
Book Discussion Questions on Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Bookclub Questions on A Town Called Solace (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
The fascinating thing about The Booker Prize is how diverse the selected longlist and then the short list of books are. I would not have expected this to be on it, yet why not? It is a powerful and sophisticated exploration of the frailty of people. It deserves it's place.
The more I read, particularly in recent years, the more obvious it seems to me that the fundamental purpose of all fiction is just to help us understand ourselves and the people we love. Mary Lawson achieves this in A Town Called Solace. It is probably a good job that I've been out of the teaching profession for several years now. If that's all I'd had to say when teaching IB English my lessons would have been very short.