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review 2018-04-25 21:07
Compelling WWII historical fiction, coming-of-age and M/M love story, and a fascinating backdrop.
The Artist and the Soldier. A Novel - Angelle Petta

When I was approached about the possibility of reviewing this book, I was fascinated by the historical background behind it, which I was not familiar with. A book combining World War II, Nazi summer camps in the US, the filming of a movie by Vittorio De Sicca in Rome during the war, and a love story, had to be a winner.

The author manages to combine a coming-of-age (both male protagonists, Max and Bastian, are very young at the beginning of the book) and love story with a fascinating historical background. The two youths meet at a Nazi summer camp in New York. Both their fathers are German and want them to grow up aware of their heritage. Max and Bastian are, in many ways, mirror images of each other, opposites that, indeed, attract. Bastian looks German (blond, tall, strong), is impulsive and always excels when it comes to sports, and outdoor activities, whilst Max takes after his Italian mother, is quiet, and has the soul of an artist. They both suffer trauma and have difficult childhoods, although in different ways. The unlikely pair becomes close and Bastian supports Max when tragedy strikes, although things take a bad turn, and they end up separated by life and circumstances.

They go their separate ways, and we keep waiting, convinced they will meet again. Bastian is still daring, impulsive, and is plagued by self-hatred and doubt. Max, who has always been more accepting of his own identity and has become stronger and more determined, has been living in Italy, has studied film, and finds a great opportunity to help Italian Jews. He takes part in the project of filming a movie under the protection of the Vatican and comes up with the idea of offering them contracts there. De Sica is determined to keep filming for as long as he can to keep all those people safe, and this historical fact provides a fascinating backdrop to the story of the two lovers.

The story, told in the third person, follows the point of view of the two male characters first, and later we also get to read about the adventures of Ilsa, Bastian’s sister, a fantastic character, from her point of view. She is strong, a fighter, and is determined to find her brother, no matter how far she has to go and what she has to do. Her experiences as a nurse during the war are gripping, and she keeps working despite terrible personal loss, hardship, and deprivation. Her character allows us to see things from a different perspective and also provides us more background into Bastian’s character, that is, perhaps, the most complex of the book, at least in my opinion.

Although the love story is central to the book, this is not a light and easy book to read. Apart from the tragedy and the terrible events that happen during the war, there is child abuse, mental illness, bullying, and the novel does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of life. The characters are not all good and perfect either, and they sometimes do things that are questionable, while at others they can behave like true heroes.

The writing beautifully conveys the emotions of the characters, the setting (Rome as an open city provides a great backdrop), and the relationships, without going over the top with the descriptions, and ensuring the story keeps moving at a good pace. Being a big movie fan, I would have liked to read more about the filming of the movie, but the author refrains from getting sidetracked, and the guest appearances by the actors of the film and the interventions by De Sica are all the more enjoyable for being kept under control and not overwhelming the main story.

I wanted to share a couple of quotes from the book:

“Travel safely, signora. It is a dangerous world we are living in.” Her world had always been a dangerous one. A gun instead of a fist, a war instead of an irate father, her present didn’t feel so different from her past.” (This reflection belongs to Ilsa, Bastian’s sister).

Did something as inconsequential as film belong in this new world? It was De Sica who’d helped him see his misconception. “We need film, and music, and art, more than ever now,” De Sica had said. “These mediums help us remember that we are humans living in a world filled with monsters. What we are doing here is not frivolous. It is saving us, our humanity.” (Max questions his vocation, but De Sica comes to the rescue).

The ending feels appropriate and fits in well with a love story. It shows that both characters have grown and learned to accept who they are and what their relationship means. Other issues are resolved as well, and although some of the coincidences and the way the characters always seem to be in the right place at the right time require some suspension of disbelief, this does not go beyond the expectations for the genre.

In an end note, the author explains the conception of the story and clarifies that although Max, Bastian, and Ilsa are creations of her own imagination, the historical events and backdrop are accurate, and she has used her fictional characters as a conduit to tell the story. I believe this would be a great selection for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and many interesting aspects that will attract readers of different types of stories.

I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in WWII, Italian cinema, and love stories with complex protagonists. I look forward to following the author’s career in the future.

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review 2018-04-25 02:38
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Audiobook)
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood - Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah narrates his own autobiography with humor and passion. Even when he's describing things as crippling as apartheid, racism, and domestic abuse, he's able to relate the events in a way that not only educates the listener about the horrible cruelty that crippled a country under the laws of apartheid but also allows the listener to laugh - or cry - with him at the absurdity of some of the situations. 

 

As an American, I know very little about apartheid, except that Nelson Mendela helped bring it to an end and that it made Jim Crow look like a Sunday brunch. Trevor Noah explains the ways that the South African government, ruled by the minority white population, overcame the majority black population, split them up and took the power from them. He's able to convey the lessons he learned growing up in this system - which made his very existence as a half-white/half-black child a crime - and how his mother found ways to get around the system time and time again. 

 

In a lot of ways, there are many things here that many can relate to - your first pet, feeling left out of the crowd, struggling to make ends meet - but the constant presence of apartheid and its aftermath turns those things on their head. His observations on life, people, the power of language and empathy, and the laws that surround us and shape us are astute and timely, even today. Maybe even especially today. 

 

I wasn't sure what I was going to get with this story, and didn't realize that Noah was that guy from the Daily Show until after I finished it, but I enjoyed this a great deal, which is a weird thing to say about a book filled with such heavy topics.

 

“Nelson Mandela once said, 'If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.' He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, 'I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

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review 2018-04-21 03:17
ARC Review: Somewhere Over Lorain Road by Bud Gundy
Somewhere Over Lorain Road - Bud Gundy
Please don't let the cover confuse you into thinking this is purely an M/M romance. It's not. While there is a love story inside, this book is at its core a mystery with gay characters. It's a book about secrets, and unsolved murders, and old wounds, and family pain. It's about coming home to help your aging mother take care of your father in his last days, it's about giving an old man his dying wish. It's about terrible, horrible secrets kept for 40 years, and confronting the ghosts of your past.

Don Esker has come home to North Homestead, Ohio, where his father lies dying, and his mother and older brothers need help with the palliative care. Don has done well for himself in San Francisco, working in marketing, and is in a position where he can work from anywhere. Coming home isn't easy, as the family name is still talked about in hushed voices in connection to an unsolved crime that happened 40 years ago in 1975, when a little boy, the neighbor's and Sheriff's son, mysteriously disappeared, and two other little boys were found brutally murdered. Don's father was a suspect in the disappearance of the first boy, if only for one evening, and while he was never charged with anything, his good name has never been fully cleared. The suspicion alone shattered Don's family, and when he came out as gay, staying in town became impossible for him. Small towns and small-minded people will not forgive and not forget, and the townsfolk certainly wouldn't accept a gay man. 

In a lucid moment, Don's father asks for just one thing before he dies - to have his name cleared once and for all. Don, obliging son, begins a journey that not only brings him to Bruce, the love interest, but also face to face with his childhood friend, the brother of the missing boy, who still lives with his father, the ex-Sheriff across the street from the Esker home. It forces him to confront things of his past. Thick as thieves when they were young, Don and his friend haven't spoken in many years, longer than Don has been gone from North Homestead. There is history there. And hurt, anger, and hate. 

As the story unfolds, we are given pieces of the past, set in the 70s and 80s. There's an incident with an old fridge. There's the moment in which Mr. Esker is hauled from his home to answer questions about the disappearance of the neighbor's son. There's the moment in which Don's brother... no, I won't spoil this for you. Just do yourself a favor and read this book.

There is a moment when I knew, just KNEW, who the culprit was, thought I knew who had committed these crimes. 

And there is a moment when the truth comes out, and I was proven wrong. Except, not entirely. 

The romance between Don and Bruce doesn't really begin until the 2nd half of this book, and it's never in the forefront of the tale. There are no explicit scenes, and there didn't need to be any. It unfolds quietly, organically, and peacefully, just as it should have. These are grown, mature men, and there are no games to be played. No contrived misunderstandings. A love story. Simple. Quiet. 

Obviously, Don is not a skilled investigator, and it's often just sheer luck that he is able to find a piece he needs to solve the decades-old crime. He fumbles more often than not, which is to be expected, but he does persevere. 

The mystery is eventually solved. The truth comes out, as it always will, no matter how much time passes. I wasn't prepared for this truth. I wasn't expecting this truth. Though, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to go that route, and I must applaud the author for taking this road. It humanized the perpetrator, and though it doesn't offer forgiveness, it offers a believable motive. It does also shine a bright light on deep dysfunction within a family, on emotional and psychological and physical abuse. Facades crumble under such light. Cracks appear. Truth will out.

This book, with its tight narration and unexpected turn of events, kept me glued to its pages until the very last one. It's riveting - a page turner, and masterfully written. 

Give this a try, I beg you. This isn't a romance. It's a mystery with a gay MC. It's a story about family. But it is also a love story. Absolutely worth your time.


** I received a free copy of this book from its publisher via Netgalley. A positive review was not promised in return. **
 
 

 

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review 2018-04-16 02:08
Book Review: No More Hiding by Renee Stevens
No More Hiding - Renee Stevens

If my husband came out to me and told me he was gay, the one thing I would NEVER do is deprive him of our kids. Parents - don't do that shit. Kids are not bargaining tools. If your relationship with your spouse ends, they don't stop being a parent. Don't kidnap your kids. Don't withhold your kids from your ex-spouse. If you're like Phillip's ex-wife from this here book - FUCK YOU!

Now that we have that out of the way - this was only my 2nd book by this author, and I enjoyed reading it, when I wasn't ranting at Phil's ex-wife, that horrible woman. 

Phillip (and by extension, his twin brother) has been desperately looking for his two kids ever since his ex-wife didn't turn up for visitation and ran away with them. It's been six long years, and Phillip is barely living. His despair and heartache, his fears and guilt just poured off the pages as soon as we met him. When his brother Robert tells him to join the new gym, Phillip meets Vance. 

Vance is immediately enamored with Phillip, and their relationship takes off relatively fast, considering that we don't really see a whole lot of their interactions other than at the gym and a weekend they spend together. Phillip seems a bit more reticent at first, plagued by guilt over having feelings for Vance when he should be looking for his children. Then Vance and Phillip are in a serious accident that ends up with Vance breaking his leg and ending up in the hospital, which clarifies Phillip's feelings for Vance, even more so when he takes Vance home to look after him.

And then Phillip gets a long-awaited phone call.

I had some doubts about Samantha and Jacob adjusting so quickly to living with their father and Vance, and re-forging the relationships. I would have liked to find out a bit more about what happened to them in the past six years, and also about the man who helped their mother kidnap them and hide them from their father. Even with the relative ease with which Sam and Jacob adjust, this is the point of the book where it all becomes a roller coaster ride, and you can only hope you're strapped in tightly. I experienced a myriad of emotions, sitting on the edge of my seat, hoping that all the ups and downs would end up in a happy ever after.

Which, of course, it did.

The author created a well-rounded supporting cast, including Phillip's twin and his wife, who were supportive and helped Sam and Jacob find their stride again. 

This is definitely an emotional read, which is totally my thing, so it really worked for me. Phillip and Vance aren't perfect, but they're perfect for each other, and it was a joy to watch them both grow into their relationship, as well as become a family. 

Well done, Ms. Stevens. 


** I received a free copy of this book from its author in exchange for an honest review. **

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review 2018-04-03 23:46
Release Day ARC Review: Sweet Nothings by T. Neilson
Sweet Nothings - T. Neilson

At first glance, this seems like a sweet and cute romance, with an MC who's starting over in his smallish home town of Lake Balmoral, and the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks being the love interest. Throw in some freshly baked goods, like tarts and muffins and such, and you might think you'd be able to settle in for a nice, easy ride to happy ever after.

You'd be right. But you'd also be wrong.

Sweet Nothings is a sweet and cute romance, no doubt, but it's also a lot more than that. It's about starting over, about family ties, about older brothers, about finding your own way, about not judging a book by its cover, about forgiveness, about trust, and about love. 

When Tristan flees his current life and his fiance in NYC to return home to Lake Balmoral, we don't know much about his reasons, other than that Christopher, the ex, is controlling and manipulative, and that Tristan felt stifled and smothered and needed to get out of the relationship. He buys the old bakery with his savings and works toward the reopening. 

He meets Jake, a car mechanic, on his first day home while shopping for groceries. It's a real meet-cute, even though Tristan's flirting techniques are rusty and even though he's warned off Jake by the store clerk and everyone else. Tristan doesn't care what others say - there's immediate attraction between him and Jake, and he's all too willing to find out where this might take them.

Meddling family notwithstanding, Tristan works hard to get the bakery business off the ground, taking wholesale orders from his oldest brother Simon and the nice couple who owns the coffee shop next door, while cleaning and sprucing up the place. And getting closer to Jake.

Jake has a history, a bad one, and the reader finds out fairly quickly that Jake's been to prison, but is now released and working for his sister's garage, living in an old travel trailer behind her house, to get back on his feet. The reason for his prison stint isn't immediately clear, but nothing about Jake screams criminal, and his whole persona was one of kindness and consideration, and keeping his nose to the grindstone. He knew, of course, how people looked at him in town, but he wasn't willing to prove their assumptions right - he kept on working and doing the right thing. Good guy, Jake is. 

The further I got into the book, the clearer it became that Tristan was afraid of his ex, and for good reason. When he finally tells the truth about what pushed him to leave NYC, to end the relationship, I might have sniffled a bit, and I might have wanted to reach into the book and wring Christopher's neck. What also upset me was Simon's behavior toward his little brother - Tristan didn't need a father; he needed his brother to be on his side and stand by him. Sure, Simon changed his whole attitude once the truth came out, but his grumpy ass should've known better. 

As you can see in the blurb, the bakery falls victim to a fire. I'm not going to tell you here why there's a fire, or who's responsible for it, because that's pretty clear once you get into the book, but I was struck by how the author chose to use that moment, and how it really made it clear that Tristan believed Jake, and that he stood up for him. I truly loved that scene!

As for Jake, his truth also comes out, and we are told why he went to prison, why he made that choice, and what it has cost him. I might have sniffled a bit once more, but thankfully the author didn't delve too deeply into his experiences in prison. 

So... while this is superficially a sweet and cute romance, it's actually much more. The 3rd person narration, switching between Tristan's and Jake's POV worked well for me, and the writing isn't overly flowery. I enjoyed this quite a lot. 

And I think you should definitely give this book a try. Perhaps you'll love it like I did, and then end up in my position - anxiously awaiting the next installment when grumpy Simon gets hit by the love bug. I can hardly wait!


** I received a free copy of this book from its publisher in exchange for an honest review. **

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