Wednesday 24 May 2023

The Slow Road to Tehran, Rebecca Lowe

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Rebecca Lowe was not an experienced cyclist when she decided to cycle from the UK to Tehran, she did not train for it, and she wasn’t in peak physical fitness. Nonetheless, she was confident that she could succeed in her mission and return home safely. Her friends and family were less convinced. When the time came to set off she had her own doubts, but set off valiantly, not having researched the route much beyond drawing a line on a map. The prologue explains the origin of her interest in the Middle East, but also acknowledges the privilege she benefits from in being able to travel in and out of areas where others do not have the same freedom. On her journey she is met with kindness and generosity and these uncomfortable feelings of unearned privilege rise again, although she admits it does not stop her accepting the offers of help.

As she travels first through Western Europe, across the Balkans, through Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and many more, she engages with the locals. To begin with her conversations tend to focus on views of Islam and refugees, but as she rides deeper into countries that the news in the UK has convinced us all are entirely dangerous, she sees the frustration of local business owners that the whole country has been tarnished with a bad reputation when most of it is completely safe. People are generous in sharing their views and homes with her and some of her own misconceptions are redressed. In some countries it is dangerous for people to be seen talking to her as a journalist but many do nonetheless. She is struck by the courage of many who she meets, and again feels the contrast between the risks involved. 

She finds the bureaucracy of different countries frequently frustrating, and comes to appreciate the ease with which she was able to cross borders while in the Schengen area. She finds it particularly difficult leaving Cairo with endless hold ups and misdirections. She deals with over-zealous officials with a confidence she doesn’t always feel and mostly succeeds, even if it takes a few attempts. Another difficulty she encounters in Egypt is that the police go everywhere with her, and although this occasionally proves to be useful it makes her uncomfortable. At one point a tuk tuk driver is brutally beaten by them when he smacks her backside while driving past. She takes some pleasure in this having experienced a lot of sexual harassment, but eventually asks them to stop. 

Lowe is a self-deprecating, humorous writer who writes with honesty and humility about her experiences. Her year long journey fits into a reasonably slim book, and there is a lot packed in to its almost four hundred pages. It can at times feel like a whistle stop tour, but she does take the time to focus in on certain experiences, histories, and people, giving the reader a broad sense of the countries she passes through. Certainly this is not a comprehensive guide to any of the areas, but it is a very human story. Everywhere she goes she seems to have a friend or a friend of a friend, or a willing local she connects with online to host her and share a slice of their life. We see many contradictions and varying views on the way their countries are run and perceived, learn about the food, traditions, and customs, as well as the day to day struggles and joys. This is a rich tapestry which serves as a wonderful jumping off point for those who want to delve deeper into some of the issues and histories Lowe raises. 

Wednesday 10 May 2023

If Tomorrow Doesn't Come, Jen St. Jude

 This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the WriteReads blog tour for the novel. Thank you to The WriteReads and Penguin for providing me with a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

It’s Avery Byrne’s nineteenth birthday, and she is not intending to survive it. Her plans are disrupted when she receives a call from her best friend Cass telling her an asteroid is headed to Earth and they all only have nine days left to live. She soon finds herself battling to get to Cass and get them both back home in Kilkenny, her roommate Aisha and lecturer Dr. Talley in tow. Their presence acts as a point of anxiety for Avery as they both know dark secrets that she desperately wants to hide from her family.

The narrative bounces between the countdown to the end of the world and the history of Avery, revealing her challenges with her sexuality, strictly religious parents, mental health, and keeping up with her classes and sport. In high school she had been a star on the soccer team and a straight A student, but when she arrives at Eaton she struggles to thrive while her mental health makes her very existence unbearable. Her struggles with depression are painfully realistic and it’s heartbreaking to see how little of her light she sees. Convinced her loved ones would be better off without her, and certain there will come a time when she is no longer around, she keeps herself from getting too close to her nephew, not wanting him to become attached to her. The day Avery was born her aunt Devin killed herself, and she sees it almost as an inevitability that she will do the same. She has been told how much she looks like Devin which only reinforces the idea that they have a connection, a shared destiny.

The thought of being stuck in a bunker with her family fills her with dread because she isn’t sure she’d be able to keep the carefully constructed mask in place, that they’d see her completely. Can the last few days before the collision make her want to keep living, make her feel worth the affection of those around her?

If there’s one person who can help her turn things around, it’s Cass. They have been best friends for years but Avery’s secret feelings for her add tension. The last time she saw Cass she told her she hated her, but when it comes to it, there’s nobody either of them would rather be with. Cass has been openly gay for years, she is vibrant, beautiful, and fun, and Avery feels herself pale beside her. You root for them to be together but the flashbacks show how often they’ve miscommunicated their feelings and hurt each other. This isn’t an idealised relationship, it’s very relatable and it has the potential to help Avery feel at home in the world.

The apocalyptic world they are living in is intense. Cities are dangerous, planes are grounded, and suburbs are abandoned. Her brother and sister-in-law, neighbours to her parents, fall apart under the pressure of trying to protect their son from the reality of what is happening. An apocalypse party brings Avery and Cass face-to-face with a spurned classmate who is looking for revenge, and all the normal rules that guide life are broken in this terrifying new world.

This is a deeply emotional read. It is written absorbingly and the characters all feel believable. The emotions and challenges of first love will be relatable both to those reading in the throes of adolescence and those reading with the advantage of age. A compelling read, and one that you might want to keep a box of tissues to hand for. 

Pick up a copy:

Monday 1 May 2023

Spotlight - Straight Expectations by Calum McSwiggan

 Today the WriteReads blog tour kicks off for Straight Expectations by Calum McSwiggan, out on 4th May! Find out more below.

'I want what the straight kids have. Even just for a couple of days . . .'
Seventeen-year-old Max might be out and proud but he's usually too busy checking his nail polish to
check his privilege. So, when he says he wishes he could have the 'easy' life straight kids enjoy, Max gets more than he bargained for. He wakes up to find his wish has come true - not only have his feelings for boys vanished, so has his lifelong best friend Dean.
With his world turned upside down and relationships in tatters, can Max find his way back to the life he took for granted, and maybe even win the heart of the guy he thought could never be his . . .?

Calum McSwiggan is an author, presenter, and LGBTQ+ advocate. He's worked for Attitude magazine, written for the Metro, Gay Times and PinkNews, and was recently placed in the Guardian's list of the 50 most influential LGBTQ+ figures. Putting LGBTQ+ stories at the heart of everything he does, he's produced award-winning films that have been showcased at film festivals around the world and
racked up over 10 million views on his online videos.