Tuesday, 18 January 2022

The Family, Naomi Krupitsky

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to The Borough Press and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Sofia Colicchio and Antonia Russo grow up next door to each other in 1920s Brooklyn. They are connected by being from Family families, a fact that separates them from their peers. Sofia is fierce and impulsive, Antonia more thoughtful and unassuming, yet both rely on the other for a sense of themselves, to remind each other they exist. When tragedy strikes and the Family is to blame it threatens the very fabric of their existence. Antonia’s mother Lina retreats into herself and Antonia becomes more reliant on the Colicchios for a sense of family, although she hates the Family and everything it has done to her. Over the course of the book we see how inextricably linked their lives are and how hard it is to heed the warnings of the past.

The Family is central to the tale yet the violence and crimes it perpetrates are at a remove. Here, the focus is the women, and the toll Family life takes on them. Lina warns Antonia never to marry a Family man, yet she finds herself falling for Paolo and pushing aside her concerns. Despite the early rush of love and security he seems to provide, she soon notices signs of her old troubles seeping in. When things come to a head it seems history might be about the repeat itself and we realise just how impenetrable a web the Family weaves around itself. Sofia falls for one of her father’s employees, someone she doesn’t think would ever be seen as an acceptable husband and therefore safe to fall for as he'd never get the chance to limit her independence. Sofia herself becomes increasingly deeply involved in Family business and it soon becomes clear that the net is closing around them too. 

Both Paolo and Saul dreamed of different lives for themselves, whether more ambitious or wholesome. Saul escaped Germany, fleeing to America for safety, but the horrors of the war and terror over what might have become of his mother haunt him. The Colicchios benefit greatly from the War and Saul becomes entangled in their world, convincing himself it’s just temporary, he’s helping refugees but once it’s all over he’ll do something else. As the War draws to a close it becomes apparent that the Family is not a temporary alliance and he is forced to make some hard decisions.

Joey, the head of the operation, can also find himself torn between his two lives - the family man and the Family. As time passes the pressure increases and he feels at a remove from his daughters. Sofia rebels as a teen and he is struck by the contrast between the fear he invokes in the men that owe him a debt and his powerlessness with this young woman. He wants to protect her from the grim reality of his life outside their family unit.

Against the background of violence abroad and much closer to home, we see Antonia and Sofia go through the familiar pains and joys of growing up, the impossible dreams and inevitable disappointments. Their transition to high school is their first experience of life away from people who know about the Family, their first chance to find out who they really are, and the first time they spend significant periods apart. It is a time of transformation, growth, and self discovery.

The searing, honest descriptions of their pregnancies and early motherhood can be difficult to read. There are doubts and fears abut whether they’ll be good mothers, if they want to be mothers at all. The dream of a happy home filled with children is contrasted with the shock of a traumatic birth and the sense of dissociation that it can bring. It is raw and challenging and so important to see these depictions. As ever, they rally around each other in their moments of need, providing the support and reassurance required to get through while hiding from their own insecurities. 

This book is a beautiful examination of a friendship with its natural ebb and flow. There are moments of pure joy where their families overlap and merge and they seem to be one. Inevitably there are also times where they pull apart and struggle to connect with each other’s decisions, but always there is the certainty that when they are needed they will be there. This is a promising debut with believably drawn characters whose triumphs will bring a smile to your face and whose struggles will claw at your heart.

Friday, 14 January 2022

Gothic Tales, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Better known today for her social novels, Gaskell was popular in her day for her ghostly, gothic short stories. In this collection, modern readers are given the opportunity to read a selection of them. From traditional ghost stories to historical fiction and tales of brutal marriages, this is a varied collection, but one with some recurring themes.

Gaskell plays with the idea of past sins cursing future generations. In The Doom of the Griffiths we see how a curse haunts a family for many generations. It was destined that a son would kill his father, breaking the curse. The younger generation feels hopeful and as though there’s a chance of happiness, but, inevitably, things take a turn for the tragic. The Old Nurse’s Story explores guilt and its consequences as the youngest member of the Furnivall household is put in danger because of the wrongs of her elders. It is a truly unsettling ghost story in which a chilling sense of unease will envelop you. The Poor Clare also deals with wrongs being done to an innocent, yet this time the perpetrator is also a victim in a heartbreaking twist.

The prevailing theme of these unhappy tales is the damage male privilege and violence does to those around them, the suffering often falling upon women. In Lois the Witch a young girl is accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, with everyone so convinced of her guilt that she begins to wonder herself. However, we see the consequences of her rejection of her infatuated cousin and it reminds us of the many ways in which women have been manipulated and controlled through fear and powerlessness throughout history.

The final story in the book, The Grey Woman, features an abusive husband, an unwilling bride, and a desperate attempt to escape once the depth of the husband’s depravity is revealed. It is a claustrophobic, upsetting read in which the trauma of her life leaves the ‘grey woman’ afraid to leave her home and aged well beyond her years.

Family dynamics are explored in a number of the tales. The Crooked Branch shows a son who has been doted on go bad and betray his family and love. You read with regret as they continue to blindly support him, believing he will come back to them. Their good-hearted trust is difficult to read, knowing that it will not be repaid with kindness. Sibling rivalry and an attempt to win favour causes the curse that befalls the family in The Old Nurse’s Story. The judgment and lack of compromise brings far more suffering on them than the consequences of an open mind ever would have.

An interesting collection of stories featuring many familiar gothic and horror tropes. Some tales send a chill to your spine, others don’t hit the mark. Emotions are sure to be stirred by these sad stories that often rely not on the supernatural but on the cruelty of our fellow humans. This sense of realism injects them with yet more power.

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Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Europe Traveller Book Tag

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As we head into another year where foreign travel remains difficult, a tag inspired by travelling around Europe was a tempting concept. Thanks to JenJenReviews for the tag. I’ve been unable to find out who created the tag originally.

France - Your Favourite Love Story

As regular followers of the blog will be aware, I don’t read a lot of love stories, but I have to admit, the tale of love across the centuries in Outlander is compelling. Claire and Jamie’s devotion to each other is beautiful to read, and you can’t help but root for them to find a way to be together. 

Spain - A Colourful Cover

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has a beautiful, bright cover, containing a coming of age story that encompasses feminism, war, and love. 

Italy - A Book Taking Place in Summer

I read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep a number of years ago, and yet the imagery of the searing hot summer in which a group of neighbours are investigated by two girls looking to get to the bottom of a disappearance is the lingering image. 

Greece - A Book With Mythology

Mythology retellings continue to be a popular genre, and Madeline Miller is often people’s first port of call. Her 2018 novel Circe gives us a view of famous Greek myths through the eyes of Circe.

Belgium - A Book With Politics

Dickens’ take on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is full of historic politics. 

Ireland - A Book With A Strong Friendship Group

A Little Life is an incredible, difficult book, but at its heart is a group of friends, all trying to find their way in the world. They argue and fall out, separate and come together, but they remain important in each other's lives.

The Netherlands - Flowers On The Cover

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride is a beautiful, intense novel dealing with early experiences of love and sex. Its narrative style is intimate and will wrap you in the story completely.

Germany - A Book Taking Place At Christmas

The festive season is a great time for cosy reads, but I often struggle to find a book that’s both cosy and satisfying. Christmas 2021 delivered with Midnight in Everwood, an enchanting, magical read that has a dark side. 

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year, Susie Dent

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Dent’s compendium of unusual and forgotten words will give you a glimpse into our etymological history. Often she links the daily word to the date in question, revealing histories, superstitions, and apt descriptions for how you’re likely to be feeling on, say, New Year’s Day. Many of the days give you definitions other words too, so your vocabulary can expand well beyond the 365 days of the year.

There are tales of spelling errors that eventually become legitimised, the origins of some well-known sayings such as stealing someone’s thunder (which has early links to theatrical shenanigans), and quirks of history. You’ll close the book for the final time having learnt far more than a collection of new words. So whether you are plagued by a gigglemug or have the misfortune of working with a mumpsimus, you’ll suddenly find yourself with words to describe those undefinable annoyances.

The entries are short enough that it’s not too much of a commitment to pick it up every day, and you’ll find yourself enjoying thinking about words far more than previously imagined. A great book for the etymologically curious.

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Friday, 31 December 2021

Another Year Over

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Another year draws to a close in a gentle fizz. The world is still under the ever-changing grasp of Covid and although here in England parties and family gatherings are allowed, many have opted for a more cautious approach. Despite spending less time under restrictions than in 2020, looking back over the past twelve months it feels like a familiarly uneventful year, in part because of Covid, and in part because personally the final five months of the year have been host to a lot of debilitating ill health. Here’s hoping that we will soon emerge from this pandemic without too many more casualties. My heart goes out to everyone who has been impacted.

Eilean Donan at sunset

Never one to dwell on the negative, let’s close this year out focussing on some of the positives. The return of live theatre has been a particular joy, with Hairspray and Amelie featuring among my most joy-filled visits. The uncertainty around travel abroad led to finally heading to Scotland (along with seemingly half of the population of England…), a trip oft-talked about but never realised until now. I was so grateful for the opportunity to explore some more of that beautiful country, and it proved to be one of my most beloved trips. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather, and the late sunset encouraged long days of walking. We spent almost the entire trip outdoors, marvelling at the natural beauty all around. After over a year of largely being confined to a flat and a small local radius, it was just the salve I didn’t know I needed, and I came back with a full heart.

It’s been a good reading year with a few books that have been on my to-be-read pile for many years finally making the transition to ‘read’. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Wide Sargasso Sea were among them, and provoked quite different responses. Other fiction highlights include The Story of a New Name, the second in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a powerful, consuming book. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne offers a sweeping look at life in Catholic Ireland over the course of one man’s life, tinged with discrimination even before he breathes his first. It was entirely captivating and I can’t wait to read more by Boyne. The Vixen by Francine Prose introduced me to an assured writer who crafted a beautiful tale that transported me to 1950s America. Perfect for book lovers as it heavily features a publishing house, as well as fans of intrigue. Another intense, troubling read was Born of No Woman by Franck Bouysse. Set in nineteenth century France, it has a truly despicable villain, and doesn’t let go of your heart until the very last page. After quite a few challenging reads, Midnight in Everwood by M. A. Kuzniar made for a nice close to the reading year, although it was darker than I had anticipated. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful, magical festive read.

It’s been a bumper year for non-fiction reads with The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry offering a personal look at her family’s connection to Elizabeth Bowen, and the way history is created. How Was It For You? by Virginia Nicholson was an eye-opening account of gender and sex in the 1960s. Most recently, I thoroughly enjoyed Threads of Life by Clare Hunter, a fascinating look at the history of needlecraft and its ever-changing position in society.

I already have a tempting stack of books waiting to be read, including the latest Elena Ferrante, and Ali Smith’s Summer, as well as some intriguing looking non-fiction variously about women’s health, motherhood, and the Jacobite cause. What are you looking forward to reading over the coming months?

Finally, I want to wish you all a happy and healthy year full of good times with loved ones, and many excellent books.

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Midnight in Everwood, M. A. Kuzniar

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Nottingham, 1906, Christmas is on its way and with it, the end of Marietta’s dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Ballet is her life, the thing that gives her voice, yet her status-obsessed parents require her to give it up to marry well and live the life of a society wife. When the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeier moves to the neighbourhood he is met with countless invitations, parents falling over themselves to match him with their daughters. It soon becomes clear however that Marietta has caught his eye, and he becomes fixated on possessing her. In an attempt to escape an unhappy fate she finds herself stumbling into Everwood, a magical land that appears to hold wonderful potential. It doesn’t take long for the cracks in this sweet world to begin to appear, and Marietta wonders if she will ever find her way home.

The figure of Drosselmeier is deeply unsettling. He is manipulative and over-confident, invading Marietta’s personal space and lacing their outwardly polite conversations with thinly veiled threats. His behaviour is masked by the charming persona he puts on with the rest of her family, and even Marietta’s beloved brother Frederick dismisses her concerns when she raises them. In the depths of Everwood she continues to be haunted by Drosselmeier, who appears in her nightmares, and at times seems as though he might be there in person. He is a textbook abuser, but has the advantage of magic, making her situation feel all the more helpless.

Marietta lives a stifled life of expectation in her family home, denied the possibility of even expressing her desires. She has an ally in Frederick, who is also forced to deny his true self to fulfil the role demanded of him. Marietta does have moments of disobedience, but once she enters Everwood she becomes increasingly defiant. At times entirely warranted, at others foolhardy and excessively contrary, she can be a slightly frustrating protagonist. We see her grow over the course of the book however, her captivity offering her freedom in other ways. She learns to open herself to others, and to re-evaluate her perceptions of her own privilege. Her experiences in Everwood prove her strength and change the way she views the world and her place within it. 

Everwood itself is richly drawn and decadently described. You can easily picture the lavish balls, smell the sweet scent of the sugared world (and worry at the state of their teeth living off a diet predominantly consisting of sugar), and imagine the gorgeous creations that Marietta, Dellara, and Pirlipata are dressed in as the king’s pets. We see the world as Marietta does, and witness her disillusionment as she discovers the world outside the palace and the suffering inflicted on the many for the benefit of the few.

The tyrant King Gelum displays some uncomfortable similarities to Drosselmeier - a desire to possess at any cost. He delights in the suffering of others and does not think twice about destroying those who cross him. Marietta soon learns the harsh consequences of defiance, but also the power of friendship and the willingness for sacrifice that comes with such fierce bonds. In such an intense environment passions run high and despair and love are intensified. Marietta learns not only of the power of sisterhood, but feels her first flushes of romantic, heartbreaking love.

This is an enjoyable, enchanting read that’s perfect for the festive season. Pedants like me will find the constantly odd sentence structures distracting, as well as Kuzniar’s passing fixations with certain slightly unusual word choices that feel unnatural. Nonetheless, you will be so swept up in the magical world, and keen to find out what happens next that this can be forgiven. Recommended for fans of modern fairy tales, light fantasy, romance, ballet, and cosy winter reads, this book ticks a lot of boxes.

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Thursday, 9 December 2021

Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature, Natural History Museum, London

A little slice of magic has arrived in the Natural History Museum’s Victorian halls. Step through the archway into a world of unicorns, dragons, and nifflers. This exhibition uses the Fantastic Beasts franchise as its starting point to explore the mythologies of human history that included weird and wonderful creatures, considers the real life animals that might have inspired them, and likens Newt’s work to that of modern day conservationists. It is a wonderfully realised experience with mysteriously opening drawers, projections, and interactive displays that make you feel as though you really have stepped into a magical world.

The first section looks at evolving ideas about magical creatures - mermaids and dinosaurs lurk here, including one named after Hogwarts itself! There are medieval manuscripts, incredible tapestries, and gruesome relics  of generations past trying to profit off of people’s superstitions. You’ll also learn about some fascinating real life creatures that may have inspired travellers’ tales. The one that stood out for me was the giant oarfish - a bony fish that can grow to seventeen metres long!

We learn a little about the life of those who searched for wildlife and how their findings were recorded. There’s a quick nod to the fact some of this activity and the items museums now house because of it, have links to colonialism, but this isn’t explored in any depth.

Next, we’re thrown into a highly interactive section (with plenty of hand sanitiser stations - all, unfortunately, empty) alongside rather too much taxidermy for my liking. Magical creatures are side by side with real animals that exhibit some of the same behaviours, and a few that don’t live up to the folklore around them. The final section looks at endangered animals and the work being done to protect them, ending the exhibition on a thoughtful note. 

All in all a thought-provoking display that has plenty for fans of the Wizarding World and those interested in nature. Its design is engaging and works well for adults and children. Props from the films mix with computer generated depictions of some of the magical creatures, offering a captivating and interactive experience that will satisfy even if you do skip past the non-magical sections (although I’d recommend giving them your attention too - there’s a lot to be learned in a fun and interesting way).

The exhibition is on at London’s Natural History Museum until January 3rd, 2022. If you can’t make it in person, there’s an accompanying exhibition on Google Arts and Culture which is well worth a look.