February is such a short month but I’ve still managed to get through four books. Annoyingly, it would have probably been more had I not struggled so much with one of them towards the end of the month, but I guess the lesson to be learned there is that maybe I need to start giving up on books that I’m not enjoying rather than force myself to finish them. Once again, the TBR Jar has meant that this month’s stack is a pretty mixed bag consisting of a psychological thriller, a sobriety memoir, a forensics memoir, and a comedy memoir. Here goes.
Note: While I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this post, there may be one or two, so proceed with caution!
Magpie – Elizabeth Day (4th Estate, 2021) ★★★★
From the Back:
“Sometimes Marisa gets the fanciful notion that Kate has visited the house before. She makes herself at home without any self-consciousness. She puts her toothbrush right there in the master bathroom on the shelf next to theirs.’
In Jake, Marisa has found everything she’s ever wanted. Then their new lodger Kate arrives.
Something about Kate isn’t right. Is it the way she looks at Marisa’s boyfriend? The way she sits too close on the sofa? How she constantly asks about the baby they are trying for? Or is it all just in Marisa’s head?
After all, that’s what Jake keeps telling her. And she trusts him – doesn’t she?
But Marisa knows something is wrong. That the woman sleeping in their house will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
Marisa just doesn’t know why.
How far will she go to find the answer – and how much is she willing to lose?”
TW: Rape, infertility, pregnancy loss, mental illness
So, I know we’re only in February, but hands down, this is probably my favourite read of the year so far. Fair warning – it’s very hard to describe what happens in the book without giving too much of the plot away, so I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but I can’t guarantee it (if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). On paper, the premise seems fairly simple. A woman buys the house of her dreams with her boyfriend, a lodger moves in, whom the woman suspects is having an affair with her boyfriend. But, all is not as it seems.
Magpie is a total headfuck, but in a good way. It gets you feeling one way for one character thinking they’re the “bad guy,” before immediately flipping the story and having you think otherwise. The narrative of the book is incredibly clever, interpreting the events from one character’s perspective and then making a shift to another’s.. There were times at which, later on in the book, I had to keep going back (purely out of curiosity) to read earlier sections to see how the different interpretations of events compared, and there were often times where events later on in the book explain those that happened earlier.
The book certainly doesn’t fall under one area when you look at the topics it deals with, but a key element is that of infertility and a couple’s struggle to get pregnant. Of course that’s not exactly something I have experience of, although the detail of which the author goes into the procedures and processes involved shows that she has clearly done her research, and from the experiences of people I know who have gone through pregnancy loss and fertility issues, it does a really great job of capturing the anguish that couples can go through.
Alongside dealing with the strong topic of infertility, the book also deals with mental illness – specifically, schizophrenia. I’m sure that we’re all aware of the trope that’s often used in films and TV – the horribly unfair and offensive notion that people with schizophrenia are murderers and psychopaths. Contrary to how schizophrenia is usually portrayed in the media, it’s actually refreshing to read about a character who is generally healthy and living a normal life while managing their illness. Admittedly, there are points in the book where said character is painted as a ‘villain’ but it soon becomes clear that’s not the case at all. One thing that Magpie is particularly clever at is that it inexplicitly gives off the message that there are two sides to every story, and that, as a reader, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the characters we’re presented with.
I’m hoping that this review has made some sort of sense – I’m sure if you’ve read the book you’ll completely get it – but I really don’t want to give away the plot for anyone. While the ending was a little anticlimactic compared to the rest of the novel, it had me absolutely hooked and if you’re a fan of thrillers or novels with a mental health genre, I would definitely recommend you pick this up.
Glorious Rock Bottom – Bryony Gordon (Headline, 2020) ★★★
From the Back:
“Bryony Gordon is a respected journalist, a number-one bestselling author and an award winning mental health campaigner. She is also an alcoholic.
Known for her trademark honesty, in Glorious Rock Bottom Bryony opens up about her toxic twenty-year relationship with alcohol and drugs and explains exactly why hitting rock bottom saved her life. Shining a light on the deep connection between addiction and mental health issues, Glorious Rock Bottom is in turn shocking, brutal, dark, funny, hopeful and uplifting. It is a sobriety memoir like no other.”
TW: Addiction, alcoholism, drug use, sexual assualt
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Bryony Gordon. In particular, I will sing the praises of Mad Girl until the day I die, and No Such Thing as Normal was one of my favourite reads of last year. So, it’s no surprise that Glorious Rock Bottom has been in my TBR jar for a while now. Told in Bryony’s traditional “no bullshit” style, Glorious Rock Bottom is incredibly raw, honest and powerful. Not surprisingly, it can be a difficult read at times, as Bryony documents some of her lowest moments over the years, but her sheer honesty helps to paint a realistic picture of what it’s like for someone living with addiction, as well as the low points it can take you to.
While Bryony’s memoir goes into some deep, dark moments during the days of her addiction, there’s plenty of humour throughout, as well as some wonderfully heartwarming moments – my favourite being when her four year old daughter greets her with a balloon on her year’s anniversary and says “happy birthday Mummy!” Actual tears.
Bryony’s journey to sobriety is certainly an eyeopener, and her chatty, friendly style of writing is one that will instantly get you hooked, but I also loved reading her memoir from a psychology perspective. Not only did it give a detailed insight into addiction, but it also painted a really informative picture into the approaches and treatments for it.
On a personal note, I’m not sure whether or not it was my OCD/health anxiety taking the lead, but this book certainly got me thinking about my own relationship with alcohol and how it’s often something I turn to when I’m having a shitty time because at first, it numbs some of the compulsions. Bryony has spoken about her OCD before in her earlier books – Mad Girl in particular – and in this one it gave a really informative and realistic insight into how mental illness and addiction tie in with one another.
Traces: The Memoir of a Leading Forensic Science and Criminal Investigator – Patricia Wiltshire (Blink Publishing, 2019) ★
From the Back:
“Every body leaves a mark.
In Traces, Professor Patricia Wiltshire will take you on a journey through the fascinating edgeland where nature and crime are intertwined. She’ll take you searching for bodies of loved ones – through woodlands and plantations, along hedgerows and field-edges, from ditches to living rooms – solving time since death and how remains were disposed of. She will show you how pollen from a jacket led to a confession and how two pairs of trainers, a car and a garden fork led to the location of a murdered girl. She will give you glimpses of her own history: her loves, her losses, and the narrow little valley in Wales where she first woke up to the wonders of the natural world.
From flowers, fungi, tree trunks to walking boots, carpets and corpses’ hair, Traces is a fascinating and unique book on life, death, and ones indelible link with nature”
TW: Gory and disturbing descriptions of murder/crime scenes, references to rape and sexual assualt.
After enjoying my regular reading of medical memoirs, I decided to branch out and go for something a little different, and Traces had some good reviews. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as good as people made out.
It was an interesting premise – the fact that the tiniest of pollen or dust spores can lead to discoveries of where murder victims are buried, and differentiating between whether someone is guilty or not guilty is fascinating.
Alongside the subject matter, Wiltshire clearly is passionate about her work and is incredibly knowledgeable in her field. The combination of the two should work. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Often, Wiltshire goes into far too much detail in areas that she doesn’t need to, and her repetition of various phrases along with the overuse of endless lists of palynomorphs gives off a patronising vibe that becomes very tiresome, very quickly. Throughout the book, she describes a number of cases she worked on throughout her career, and for some, there’s a clear lack of empathy towards the victims, and there’s often a lot of condescension towards the teams she works with because they have other priorities ahead of her work. Another recurring issue I have with the book is frequent “kids today” attitude and how she “pities the younger generation.” I get that as a younger reader (although I don’t feel like a “younger” reader when I’m less than 3 months away from 30), I’m biased, but there really seems to be some sort of disdain for younger people, purely because they didn’t grow up in the same way she did.
I tried so hard to enjoy Traces and see past it’s flaws, but every time I picked it up, I found myself getting more and more irritated with the author’s patronising tone and over-use of technical terminology. Of course, if you were skilled in forensics, it’s likely you would find the book much easier to read, but as a complete outsider, it’s really not an easy read. And that’s without considering the gory and graphic descriptions of crime scenes and corpses.
No Shame – Tom Allen (Blink Publishing, 2019) ★★★
From the Back:
“‘When I was 16, I dressed in Victorian clothing in a bid to distract people from the fact that I was gay. It was a flawed plan’
No Shame is a very funny, candid and emotional ride of a memoir by one of our most beloved comedians. The working-class son of a coach driver, and the youngest member of the Noel Coward Society, Tom Allen grew up in 90s suburbia as the eternal outsider.
In these hilarious, honest and heart breaking stories Tom recalls observations on childhood, his adolescence, the family he still lives with, and his attempts to come out and negotiate the day dating scene. They are written with his trademark caustic wit and warmth, and will entertain, surprise and move you in equal measure.”
Tom Allen is one of the most loveable comedians in the UK, and if you’re a fan of his, this book will make you love him even more. His memoir is incredibly funny and easy to read, and you can’t help but read it in his voice, which makes it even more enjoyable. No Shame documents Tom’s childhood, his teenage years and his transition into the comedy circuit, and there’s some hilarious anecdotes along the way, such as the time he hosted a lunch at his house where two of the guests included his crush and his RE teacher.
His story largely centres around coming to terms with his sexuality, from the days of feeling like an outsider at school to starting out navigating the gay dating scene. Alongside plenty of hilarious anecdotes, there are also plenty of heart-warming moments along the way, including the time he came out to his parents.
So many of Tom’s stories are painfully relatable, from his awkward encounters at school to those he had in his early days on the comedy circuit – in particular, the chapter where he talks about learning to drive is one I where I felt every single word! That’s not all though – the book has some wonderful lessons about self-acceptance and living life without shame, not just for those within the LGBTQIA+ community, but for all of us. At the heart of his story, it has such a lovely message about standing up for yourself and coming to terms with who you are. The bottom line? No Shame is a fantastic read and if you’re not already a fan of Tom’s, this book will undoubtedly turn you into one.
What have you been reading this February? Let me know in the comments!