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Month: May 2020

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

‘Keen to see some of Europe, queer couple Lilith and Abigail get on their old bikes and start pedalling. Along flat fens and up Swiss Alps, they will meet new friends and exorcise old demons as they push their bodies – and their relationship – to the limit.’

Gears for Queers follows Lili and Abi as they travel across Europe on their bikes and charts the challenges that they encounter and overcome on their journey, whether they be mental health, differences of opinion, illness, the various language barriers, or the physical side of attempting to travel so far while carrying everything essential for day to day survival with them. They largely rely on campsites as places to stay, which don’t always turn out to places that seem as safe or comfortable as one might hope, and brave staying with strangers where necessary, which often opens up the question of how much of themselves and their relationship it is safe to be open about, knowing that there are those who may choose to judge them.

I read much of the book in one go, as I was enjoying following their journey through different countries, and particularly liked their travels through Germany, as I’m admittedly much more familiar with it than I am with the UK! At this time in particular, knowing that it is highly unlikely I will be returning to Germany in the near future, it was nice to read about someone else’s experiences with the country and culture. The incident with the fizzy water, which is most often the default, was one I could sympathise with, if not for quite as serious reasons as it impacts Abi. I’ve never been a fan of anything fizzy and detested fizzy water and drinks as a child (I’ve grown to tolerate them), and used to spend summers in Germany drinking apple juice as it was one of the only things available that wasn’t usually carbonated as standard.

What I found most refreshing about Gears for Queers is that it doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situations that Lili and Abi find themselves in. A good deal of books and the media like to suggest that to be in a relationship is to never disagree, argue or become frustrated with your partner, and while we get these insights into their relationship, we also get to see them move past disagreements and look after each other, even when they are struggling to look after themselves. Yes, they do snap and shout at each other when pushed to their limits, but they also understand themselves enough to show they care through gestures and other things when words are difficult, and, ultimately, they don’t give up on each other even they feel that they can’t go on. They find ways through and work out how to make adjustments to make things manageable, even when the urge may be just to keep going until the point of destruction. Their journey is presented in a manner true to their feelings as they experienced it, right down to their worries about being inferior travellers and cyclists compared to those who are sharing their own journeys on Instagram (which I think we all know we need to understand is a heavily edited environment). Their experience isn’t perfect, but it is real, and the reader gets a brutally honest look at mental health and the impact of the physical challenge of cycling so far, for so long, in an environment that isn’t home and very rarely feels ‘safe’. The issues that they face are not presented in a manner that focuses solely on the achievement of having met and overcome them, but in a way that does not sugar coat and focus on success: it is as much about what they endure and learn as anything else.

Gears for Queers is out on June 4th from Sandstone Press! If you’re looking for a read to take you on a journey during this time of lockdown, I really do recommend picking up a copy, primarily for its honest look at travel, identity, and mental and physical health. The book also includes some vegan recipes you could try out! Thank you, Sandstone Press, for sending me an ARC!

Blog Tour: People Like Us by Louise Fein

Blog Tour: People Like Us by Louise Fein

Leipzig, 1930s Germany.

Hetty Heinrich is a perfect German child. Her father is an SS officer, her brother in the Luftwaffe, herself a member of the BDM. She believes resolutely in her country, and the man who runs it.

Until Walter changes everything. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfect in every way Walter. The boy who saved her life. A Jew.

Anti-semitism is growing by the day, and neighbours, friends and family members are turning on one another. As Hetty falls deeper in love with a man who is against all she has been taught, she begins to fight against her country, her family and herself. Hetty will have to risk everything to save Walter, even if it means sacrificing herself…’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for People Like Us by Louise Fein, and I have a review to share! I read this cover to cover in an evening and simply couldn’t put it down. People Like Us is a haunting look at the rise of nationalism and the use of propaganda to manipulate society, something that should not be easily dismissed as a thing of the past, especially given the recent surge in nationalism across Europe, and the media’s ever more intrusive presence in our daily lives.

As a young girl, Hetty is saved from drowning by one of her brother’s friends, an act for which she is forever grateful and leads to her trusting him and harbouring a secret affection for him as she grows. In these early years, the propaganda spread against the Jewish community has yet to truly take hold, and Walter is a friend of the family, often at her home and someone who she attends school with, making her infatuation something that does not seem to too great an issue – until Hitler’s ideology and campaign against the Jews begins to pervade society. At first, Hetty does not understand why Walter is suddenly at her house so often and why her brother seems to no longer consider him a friend, her comprehension of the changes occurring in society somewhat limited and blinded by an encouraged love for Hitler. However, a day in school, where Walter is declared to be Jewish, brings everything she thought she knew about and felt for him into question – and by extension everything that she has been taught and made to believe about her place in the world and what is happening to her country.

One of the worst things to see in the story is how Hetty is brainwashed by propaganda and indoctrinated into an increasingly disturbing belief system, not least of which is her belief that Hitler is a god-figure, the picture in her bedroom treated as an idol that she prays to and imagines as a father figure that she feels she must obey and would be disappointed in her if she fails him in any way. As the Nazi ideology progressively invades almost every facet of her life, Hetty is encouraged more and more to believe as they do, unable to escape the onslaught that claims more and more of those around her, in turn influencing her own behaviour. At first, there is much she doesn’t understand about why she is being encouraged to treat others differently, and the moment that she bows to the pressure of her peers and the weight of the beliefs she is being forced to comply with is utterly awful and finds her openly mocking and behaving in a thoroughly offensive manner to some of her Jewish neighbours. In her youth, Hetty’s belief in the propaganda spread by the Nazis is only encouraged by her father’s status within the order – how can the awful suggestions spread by the Nazis be bad when the father she loves believes them? And when her mother and brother support them too? And when her friends all want to participate in the clubs and societies created for children?

The scene I have to say that I found most horrifying and uncomfortable to read is the moment where the teacher of Hetty’s class brings a Jewish girl and boy to the front of the class and spends time detailing everything about them that he believes makes them inferior to his own ‘pure’ German race. The worst of it is knowing that this sort of thing did happen, and both children are thoroughly dehumanised and treated like animals in-front of peers who are encouraged by someone who is supposed to be a ‘responsible’ adult to demean them and consider them sub-human. They are singled out solely based on their faith and painted as an entirely different species, not considered worthy of basic human decency and kindness, and assessed like livestock. Hetty is disturbed by what the teacher chooses to do, yet she is also shocked at the fact that Walter – who is blonde and blue eyed – is one of the people that she is being taught to despise and look down on, both because he doesn’t physically meet the ‘specifications’ she is being told to look out for, and because she believes that he cannot possibly be capable of all that she is being told the Jews are and are doing.

I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I mean to avoid discussing specific points in the latter half of the narrative, but I do want to speak for a moment about the structure of the novel and the use of time. People Like Us doesn’t focus on any one particular year in the rise of the Third Reich, but lingers on formative instances of Hetty’s childhood and her life as a young woman, spending months in different years across a decade. The pacing and structure created by this use of time is incredibly effective in demonstrating the gradual stranglehold of Hitler’s ideology and its effects on the attitude, beliefs and behaviour of German society, the time spent with the characters long enough in each moment to get to know them, while simultaneously being broad enough over all to demonstrate the alterations in their behaviour and the impact that the world they are living in has on who they are.

Thank you, Head of Zeus, for the ARC of People Like Us, and for the opportunity to be part of the tour!

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

‘Mia’s best friend Holly died when they were thirteen. But years later, Holly still hasn’t left her.

Spending the summer in New York, Mia is hoping to escape the visions of Holly that haunt her life at home. There she meets Rav, a parapsychology student, who convinces her to take part in a study into why some people see ghosts. Soon she is caught up in the investigation of Halcyon House, which is reputed to be haunted by a poltergeist. As Mia confronts her fears, what she learns about the house and herself will change her life forever.’

Here Lie the Secrets opens with Mia, still trying to heal following the death of her best friend, Holly, experiencing what she believes to be a haunting by her, something that she has endured before, with ever more increasing emphasis on Holly’s disapproval and disappointment in her, to the extent that what she thinks Holly would believe and want has gained no small measure of control over her every day life. When she has the opportunity to spend the summer in New York, she takes it as her chance to escape familiar surroundings, and, hopefully, Holly’s presence and judgement of her.

The novel is an enjoyable one, particularly in how it explores the differing beliefs surrounding ghosts and the afterlife, looking at them from a scientific angle and the matter of the heart and mind – taking into consideration that the mind is a powerful thing, capable of that which we still don’t have extensive scientific answers for. When she arrives in New York, she meets Rav, who focuses on the study of paranormal phenomena, and when she is asked whether she believes in ghosts, she declares a very definite ‘no’ on more than one occasion, determined not to let her visions of Holly become something widely known or claim even more control over her life. However, she is soon brought into the world of Rav’s studies, and though she is an adult, it feels a little as if the group of academics and researchers are taking advantage of her for their own gains in a way that becomes quite unsettling as the narrative unfolds. This may be because we, the reader, know much more about Mia’s history, experiences, and the guilt that is tormenting her than the people who encourage her to take a central role in their exploration of Halcyon House, a property considered to be haunted by spirits responsible for the death of a child.

I particularly like stories that look at features of memory and the mind, which Here Lie the Secrets ties into examination of Mia’s grief and her need to resolve what she has experienced in an effort to move on with her life. She has kept the visions of Holly a secret from nearly everyone, afraid of what seeing a ‘ghost’ means for her and frightened that Holly’s hauntings are all too real and condemnation of what happened before her death. Mia denies that she believes in ghosts partly because facing the idea of Holly’s presence being real is almost as frightening as considering what it means for her mental state. Not only owing to that, but because of her fear of others condemning her for believing in something that many dismiss as impossible. Her work with Rav’s group allows her to examine what she considers to be plausible and not in terms of her own experience and that of others, and in uncovering the truths of what happened at Halcyon House learns more of human nature and the mind’s desire to protect itself from what it cannot face. Though the investigation is ostensibly concerned with whether the house is truly haunted, what happens during the study ultimately reveals more about the darker sides of those fuelled by guilt and ambition, and what they are willing to let others believe to make matters easier for them to bear.

The area of paranormal studies is one that I don’t know too much about, and I enjoyed learning more about the academic side of the subject over the course of the story. Here Lie the Secrets is a well-paced and engaging read that handles its subject material sensitively while providing a suspenseful narrative and a protagonist who is easy to empathise with and want a positive resolution for. Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me an early copy for review! Here Lie the Secrets is out on June 25th!

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

‘Mercy is hard in a place like this…

It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.

In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.’

Valentine opens from the perspective of Gloria Ramírez, in the wake of a brutal attack and rape that she has finally managed to escape from, following a night of torture that has left her severely injured and with both physical and mental scars. She immediately makes the decision to take what control she can back from that which her attacker has stolen from her, deciding to cast off the name he has forever ruined for her and rename herself Glory, trying to distance herself from the experience and reclaim her own power. The first place she sees that could be one of refuge turns out to be the home of Mary Rose, whose actions in the wake of discovering the girl on her doorstep are destined to haunt her.

The novel follows the stories of Glory, Mary Rose, and other women within the Odessa community, and how almost everything about their lives is controlled by their husbands and other men within society, to the extent that they have next to no control over their own bodies, and nor are they ‘allowed’ to support other women in difficult situations or speak out with their own thoughts and ideas. The men consider a woman’s place to be in the home and serving their every need – and one of the worst things (if not the worst) of all of it is their perception that a fourteen year old child can be considered a grown woman, thereby making any crime committed against her perfectly acceptable. Not only this, but Glory’s race is used to further dehumanise her and paint her as responsible for what occurred, no matter the fact that she was so seriously injured as to need extensive surgery. The women of Odessa are desperate to escape the cycle of adolescent pregnancy, marriage and violence, but find that mental, physical and societal manipulation and abuse keeps them from breaking free and speaking out.

In deciding to testify in court against Glory’s rapist, Mary Rose finds herself the target of intimidation and slander from the community. She receives a daily barrage of threatening phone calls, where men state their intent to beat and rape her if she testifies, and her own husband adamantly refuses to support her, claiming that she should never have tried to protect Glory in the first place. Where she might have found support from other women, she largely finds only contempt, despite their shared experiences of being a woman of this era, many too frightened of and indoctrinated into a blame culture by their husbands that they cannot offer Mary Rose anything but derogatory commentary for the sake of their own safety. In Odessa, women are not people. They are wives and objects and property; to be seen and not heard. Corrine, who has perhaps begun to escape that world, being an older woman who is (not all too successfully) navigating the grief of losing her husband, becomes an eventual source of support, both for Mary Rose and for a young Debra Ann, whose mother has left her with a father unable to do much by way of caring for her, and is set on making a new life for herself and retrieving her daughter from Odessa as soon as she can.

The eventual court scene is one that I found made me so angry that I had to put the book down and come back to it, because how Mary Rose is treated by the judge and those in the courtroom is so infuriating and so unflinchingly true to the female experience when it’s a woman’s word against a man’s that it was awful to look at where we are today and see that this still goes on; that we like to think we have made progress, but women are still belittled and taunted and not believed in cases such as this. Mary Rose is repeatedly told, in a mocking manner played for laughs by the judge, to moderate her behaviour, to not use ‘bad’ language or that which bluntly addresses what has happened, and to ultimately behave in a way that is less outspoken, more demure and more acceptable by men. He does not want to hear her tell the truth simply because she is speaking out against a man – a man that he has decided has done nothing wrong just by dint of his being male. The whole scene brilliantly conveys Mary Rose’s frustration and highlights the foul nature of the men’s belief in a woman’s place, role, and lack of rights of speech, the judge perfectly content to turn events into a story that fit his narrative.

Valentine is a raw and powerful book, out on June 11th in hardback in the UK. It is an absolutely brilliant and haunting novel, and though it is not always an easy read, I believe it is one that should be read for the issues it highlights and the narrative it explores. Highly recommended. Thank you, 4th Estate Books, for sending me a proof copy!