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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