Friday 29 January 2021

Listen, Deborah Pezzuto with Linda Watson-Brown

This post is part of the blog tour for the memoir. Thanks to Random Things Tours and the author for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pezzuto and her husband Alessandro had a difficult journey to parenthood. Initially they went through the anxiety and uncertainty involved in the adoption process, eventually bringing their daughter Keisha home. Knowing that they wanted a sibling for her, they endured the physically and emotionally draining experience of IVF. When, finally, they were able to become pregnant with an egg donor, they were overjoyed at the thought of expanding their family. Their twins, Dylan and Zack, were born profoundly deaf and so their arrival was not the joyous occasion they had dreamed of.

Pezzuto is honest about the heartache they felt at the diagnosis and her fear that they would be discriminated against for being different. She was completely committed to giving them the best chance in life, regularly travelling from Mexico City to New York for therapy. She describes how their therapy became an obsession for her and how it completely changed her priorities, previously having been incredibly career driven. Alessandro is largely absent during the first year due to the constant fear of losing his job and the medical insurance that came with it. She talks of the strain the absence and exhaustion took on the relationship, yet admits she would always have wanted to be the one looking after them and leading on their treatment. She speaks also of many wonderful professionals that helped them along the way, a heartening display of those in the health service genuinely caring about the outcomes for those who fall under their care. Pezzuto is a great advocate for the work they do and the strength they find to support families such as hers.

As their children grow and they move as a family to the UK for the provision of therapy and schooling, she begins to reassess her role now that she is no longer depended on for everything. It is during this time that she begins to meditate on the role of women and motherhood in the modern world. She comments that often a mother will know there is something wrong with their child but that their concerns are brushed aside. ‘Women are silenced in this, as they have been in so many things throughout history. It is ironic that even when they are fulfilling the role that many cultures believe is their only role, they are still ignored or brushed aside.’ Her situation had its own unique challenges but she acknowledges that she is not alone in her struggles. ‘I was in my bubble, but I could still see out, I could still see other women who were struggling just as much, even if it was with other things. I realised just how many of us see looking after ourselves as an indulgence, when actually it should be our priority.’

This is a moving and ultimately uplifting book that reveals the many complex difficulties parents and couples can face. Pezzuto does not hide behind positive affirmations nor does she rose tint her experience. Writing the book at a time when her family circumstances had improved, naturally affords a more positive outlook but the exhaustion and personal neglect are described in great detail, as well as how her and Alessandro found their way back to themselves. There are messages within about the importance of self-care and commitment that offer positive advice to all who read it no matter their individual circumstances. 

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Trobairitz the Storyteller, Celia Micklefield

This post is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thanks to Random Things Tours and the author for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Weed is a female truck driver who has put up strong walls around herself, unwilling to let others in or give anything genuine of herself. One day, at a service station, she begins telling stories to fellow truck drivers, who know her only at Trobairitz, a reference to the female troubadours of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through her tales she begins to form a connection with the group who eagerly await the next instalment. When tragedy hits Italy she rushes off to offer support, and is grateful for the network she’s formed. The trip also brings her closer to Jimi, challenging her assumptions about him.

The book has a dual narrative - that of Weed’s life, and the world she creates in her tales. Getting the balance right in a book that has two parallel storylines can be difficult, and Micklefield stays mostly within two long sections of each, with just a few digressions. This allows you to be pulled completely out of one section while you immerse yourself in the other, but leads to disorientation when it switches back again. The final dip into Montalhan Sans Vents, Weed’s fictional location, managed to tie off the novel neatly, helping the two threads not to feel too disparate. The fact that the two stories are unrelated also means that the largely separate sections don’t lose anything in being so distinct. Other tales would have demanded more interweaving.

The world of Montalhan is populated by interesting characters - a mother trying to build a life around her dreams, two former sex workers bonding over their shared secret, and a mayor trying to make sense of an historic family feud that continues to haunt them. You come to care about their stories and the kindness and community that helps individuals through hardship. During the main section of the story you become absorbed in their world, but, possibly because they remain largely neglected in the final third of the book, it is Weed’s story that stays with you.

Weed is portrayed as a bit of a loner, never wanting to stay in one place for long. She explains at one point that difficult events in her childhood made her realise at the age of twelve that life isn’t fair and that she’d have to look after herself. Despite having people who clearly care for her, she continues in her solitary life, avoiding laying roots. Her son, Fabian, in some ways reflects this lifestyle, but is distant and unfeeling toward her for reasons that are never explored. Certainly she feels a lot of guilt and believes she’s made many mistakes in her parenting. Conversations with others reveal that she was far from a terrible mother, but she struggles to believe it. 

This was an enjoyable read but one that felt like an introduction. A sequel is expected and I hope it will provide some deeper context and backstory to the characters, allowing readers to understand more fully their psychology and how they became the people they are when we first meet them. 

Wednesday 20 January 2021

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie

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The novel opens not with the the death of Roger Ackroyd as you might expect, but with the suspected suicide of Mrs Ferrars. Her death is quickly swept aside however when Ackroyd is discovered dead in his study, a fatal stab wound to his neck. They’re not entirely unconnected, the two victims having been lovers, Ackroyd receives a letter revealing the blackmailer that led to her death on the night of his own demise. Our narrator, Dr James Sheppard, was present when the letter arrived and witnessed first hand the uneasiness of Ackroyd, anxiously asking him to check that his window is locked. In the story that follows, world renowned detective Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to investigate, and all those with a connection to Ackroyd appear to have a motive. Sheppard acts in the role of assistant and is constantly confused by Poirot’s methods.

Christie masterfully portrays her characters, Sheppard’s sister Caroline is introduced in the early pages of the book and her profile immediately gives you a sense of her. She has an uncanny ability to find out what’s happening in the lives of her neighbours without ever having to leave the house, and frustrates her brother by constantly knowing more than him. Poirot too offers some light relief, being introduced in a marrow throwing incident. He has his little eccentricities and although willing to share his discoveries, he keeps his conclusions to himself until the end.

Sheppard’s account remains as impartial as possible, Poirot commenting on his diligence in his note making when shared, but noting also that he modestly writes himself out of the narrative. There are moments where Sheppard can be a slightly frustrating narrator, seemingly so trusting of those involved that even the most suspicious behaviours barely make an impression.

Poirot carefully uncovers the secrets of each suspect, explaining away their motives with reason and fact. All these small reveals keep you hooked throughout, but as some characters barely feature it is occasionally hard to muster enthusiasm for the truth behind their deceptions, yet the final revelation will leave you flabbergasted. The reader is given enough information to deduce the solution, but I found myself quashing my suspicions when I’d landed on the truth, unable to believe it could be true. I’d be interested in re-reading the novel knowing the conclusion to fully appreciate the clever storytelling that obscures the truth until the appropriate moment.

Christie weaves a complex web of intrigue that will make you constantly question your assumptions. A good cosy murder mystery with a dubious host of characters, perfect for the long winter nights.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein

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The second of Ferrante’s scintillating Neapolitan Novels picks up from the close of My Brilliant Friend, Lila and Stefano’s wedding. Elena, our narrator, explains that she has access to Lila’s inner thoughts from this time in the form of a series of notebooks which she refers to throughout, showing how her perceptions at the time often didn’t align with what was being experienced by Lila. She has been entrusted with these diaries but callously destroys them. We are thrown straight back in to the complex, destructive friendship between these two young women. Throughout the book their lives diverge, creating a distance between them. Lila’s life shrinks as she comes to terms with life as a wife while Elena continues to study and even has the opportunity to leave Naples.

Their friendship is truly the heart of the novel, and although they care deeply for each other and want to appear in the best light, there’s a lot of jealousy and competition which leads them to behave far from admirably. Elena seems to have an inferiority complex when it comes to Lila, believing she is more than her, that she would be shining far brighter with the same opportunities. This can lead her to make bad decisions as she desperately tries to keep up with Lila, yet always conscious of the contrast between their experiences. This can also result in her acting unkindly to Lila, unable to see beyond her jealousy of all the wonderful things she believes Lila to be in possession of, wilfully ignoring her suffering.

Lila continues to be fiery and impulsive. She has a reputation in the neighbourhood and receives no sympathy when it’s clear she has been beaten, many believing that she deserved it and needed pulling into line. She is controlling and manipulative, forcing Elena to be part of her schemes against her will, and doesn’t give the pain she causes her friend a second thought. The reader does feel for her - she is only sixteen when she marries Stefano and deals with a lot at such a young age. However, there is a sense of the power she wields and her behaviour is difficult. Unlike Elena, she does seem to genuinely want her friend to succeed, despite the pain it causes her to see while her own intelligence is stifled. On occasion these feelings do spill out and she can be spiteful, driving a wedge between them.

There are moments where Elena mixes with other students and suddenly finds herself interacting comfortably, being understood. This doesn’t extend to her time outside of Naples however, where she masks her Neapolitan accent and works hard to be accepted. She succeeds to an extent, but it is shown to be fairly superficial and fragile. In contrast, when she returns to Naples, an act she dreads, they see the difference in her and so she feels out of place wherever she goes.

The socio-economic environment they grow up in is touched on throughout, as are the inequalities between men and women. It is accepted that women will be beaten in marriage and that they should behave according to their husband’s desires. The younger generations perpetuate the behaviour that was normalised in their youth. Elena’s ambitions are also limited by her gender, her male colleagues at school are offered far different opportunities for life after graduation. This stings Elena with a sense of injustice and the disappointment that comes with knowing she’s just as able as her male counterparts.

This is a stunning read that offers a deep insight into the lives of its young protagonists. Their characters are often unlikable yet you feel for them, seeing the events and situations that have formed their personalities. It’s an honest appraisal of friendship that doesn’t hide the dark side that comes with intimacy. This is a hard book to put down and I can’t wait to immerse myself once more into Elena and Lila’s story in the third book of the series.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

The Devil and the Dark Water, Stuart Turton

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It’s 1634 and the Saardam is setting off from Batavia on its long journey to Amsterdam. Aboard are the governor general, Jan Haan, hoping to be admitted into the Gentlemen 17 on arrival, his family and mistress, a renowned detective, Samuel Pipps, boarding in chains for a crime unknown to most onboard, including his loyal assistant, Arent Hayes. There’s crew and treasure aplenty aboard the ship, and when things start going wrong, everyone seems to have motive. A demon known as Old Tom whispers to the passengers, tempting them to commit murder. Trapped in the confines of the ship, the tension grows rapidly as the sign of Old Tom spreads and seemingly impossible events unfold.

The opening is dramatic - a leper at the dock warns passengers that the ship is cursed before apparently self-combusting. On closer examination it’s noted that his tongue had been cut out and an injury to his leg means he would not have been able to position himself where he made the announcement. This is a brief taste of the type of mysteries ahead, and gets you hooked right away.

There are moments where the pace lags, and the vast array of characters can take a while to orient yourself with, but the subplots keep you interested. Sara, Jan Haan’s wife, is on surprisingly good terms with his mistress. She despises her cruel husband and is surprised to discover others have experienced a softer side in years past. Their daughter Lia is in possession of a brilliant mind but is forced to conceal her intelligence as it is not seen as fitting for her sex. In Batavia she was kept separate from the outside world and hates her father for the abuse he inflicts on Sara.

Arent seems to have a good heart, but he also has the mark of Old Tom on his wrist, a mark he received in childhood during a curious incident he doesn’t fully remember. There is a constant sense of mistrust, but Turton writes the characters in a way that draws you in to some of them, instinctively feeling that they can’t be malicious. Others, however, maintain a sense of mystery.

The second half of the book is where the action really ramps up with the smaller mysteries revealed and the peril to those onboard rising with every page. When the final reveal arrives it feels a little rushed, giving us a sense of the disorientation that the characters would feel as their accepted reality changes in a few short moments. The truth is complex and I definitely didn’t see it coming, yet was left feeling as though something were missing, that there had been a slight misstep with the characters we felt we knew acting in ways that didn’t feel quite true to them.

This is an interesting read, playing with the idea of superstition, guilt, and suspicion. Despite its historical setting, Turton is upfront about the fact historical accuracy comes second to plot, and the book is none the weaker for it. He creates a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere that has the overall feeling of a different time. The characters’ background stories and motivation make them intriguing players in a novel that defies definition.

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