The 22 Murders of Madison May – Max Barry

“You know, I love you, Madison. In every world. Even when you don’t love me back.”

For Clay, it was love at first sight. The Madison May he fell for was the character she played in a movie, although Clay is certain that Maddie, the person, is the woman for him. He’s so sure that he’s been stalking her travelling across multiple parallel dimensions for their happily ever after.

The only pesky problem is that he hasn’t found a Maddie yet who meets his expectations and what’s a loved up guy supposed to do when that happens? Kill that Maddie and move on to the next one. Yeah, our Clay isn’t exactly the poster child for optimal mental health.

Along for the ride is Felicity Staples, a newspaper reporter who doesn’t usually report on murders. Felicity saw firsthand what Clay’s ‘love’ is capable of in the life where Maddie was a real estate agent. Now she’s trying to stop Clay from murdering other Maddies but Clay always seems to be one step ahead.

“The details are different. But it’s her. It’s the same person, murdered in a different place.”

When I read the blurb for this book, my immediate thought was, ‘Oh, so it’s like Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls.’ No, I haven’t read that one yet so I can’t say for sure but it seems I’m not the only reader to pick up on the similarities.

Parallel universes are one of the things I love to read about. They raise so many questions that my brain enjoys teasing out. Things like, if you travel from one parallel universe to another, what happens to the you that lives there? Does You #1 erase You #2 by showing up in world #2? Does You #2 wind up in the world you left, trying to make sense of subtle or not so subtle differences? Are you now a missing person in your world? If you travel to a third world, does You #2 get to resume their life in world #2? I could go on forever like this.

This book come up with its own answers for how parallel universes work. It made sense, although it was a sadder concept than what I’d like to believe. I did enjoy the idea of moorings, although I would have liked more explanations for how everything worked, including how the first person to ever travel between universes figured out how to do it.

Clay’s obsession with Maddie is downright creepy and I expected to feel something every time I watched her get murdered. However, I never formed an emotional connection with any of the characters so while I was interested in seeing how it would all pan out, I felt like more of a casual observer than someone who was invested in the lives of Maddie, Felicity, Clay, etc.

“You’re the reason for everything.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I love you. In every world.

Young real estate agent Madison May is shocked when a client at an open house says these words to her. The man, a stranger, seems to know far too much about her, and professes his love – shortly before he murders her. 

Felicity Staples hates reporting on murders. As a journalist for a midsize New York City paper, she knows she must take on the assignment to research Madison May’s shocking murder, but the crime seems random and the suspect is in the wind. That is, until Felicity spots the killer on the subway, right before he vanishes.

Soon, Felicity senses her entire universe has shifted. No one remembers Madison May, or Felicity’s encounter with the mysterious man. And her cat is missing. Felicity realises that in her pursuit of Madison’s killer, she followed him into a different dimension – one where everything about her existence is slightly altered. At first, she is determined to return to the reality she knows, but when Madison May – in this world, a struggling actress – is murdered again, Felicity decides she must find the killer – and learns that she is not the only one hunting him. 

Traveling through different realities, Felicity uncovers the opportunity – and danger – of living more than one life.

Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. – Malcolm Duffy

It’s always been just Danny and his Mam, Kim. When Kim begins dating Callum, everything seems fine. Callum’s nice to Danny and Kim. But things quickly change. Soon, Callum begins hitting Danny’s Mam, as well as verbally and emotionally abusing her.

Never quite knew what would come out of his mouth. Or what he’d do next.

Danny discovers that what’s happening is called domestic violence and when he reads about it online he becomes scared that Callum will eventually kill his Mam. Danny doesn’t know what to do so he asks his friends what they’d do if someone was hitting their Mam. Almost all of them say they’d tell their Dad, who’d sort it out.

Danny has never met his Dad and doesn’t know anything about him, not even his name. He’s determined to find him, though. Danny will do anything to try to protect his Mam.

Danny speaks Geordie. It didn’t take me as long as I expected it would to get used to his voice, although there are some words he used that I still don’t know the meaning of. Danny is thirteen at the beginning of this book and fifteen at the end. A lot of the time it felt like he was younger.

This book tackles a difficult topic but, for the most part, it was done well. Danny initially doesn’t have words to describe what’s happening at home but once he does he learns about domestic violence. The helplessness of a child in that situation was explored well, with Danny desperate to help his Mam but at the same time he’s powerless to intervene.

I didn’t really buy the resolution of this story. There were a number of scenarios I would have found more likely than what actually happened but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Content warnings include bullying, domestic violence and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Zephyr, an imprint of Head of Zeus, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Humorous and heartbreaking debut novel with the fresh, funny, honest voice of a 14-year-old Geordie lad recounting the trials and tribulations of family life and finding first love. 

Danny’s mam has a new boyfriend. Initially, all is good – Callum seems nice enough, and Danny can’t deny he’s got a cool set up; big house, fast car, massive TV, and Mam seems to really like him. 

But cracks begin to show, and they’re not the sort that can be easily repaired. As Danny witnesses Mam suffer and Callum spiral out of control he goes in search of his dad. 

The Dad he’s never met. 

Set in Newcastle and Edinburgh, this supremely readable coming-of-age drama tackles domestic violence head on, but finds humour and hope in the most unlikely of­ places. 

The Right Amount of Panic – F. Vera-Gray

I’ve never thought that much about the amount of time and energy I’ve spent trying to keep myself safe, and that lies at the heart of this book. As women, we grow up internalising the messages we are given about how to be a ‘good girl’, what it means to be a girl and what our place is in the world. Along the way, we make adjustments to how we look, behave and take up space.

We make sure our friends text us when they get home so we know they’re safe. We don’t walk alone on certain streets at night. We are hyperaware of who might be following us. We get our keys out early and hold them as though they are weapons. We do these and so many other things that this book calls ‘safety work’ to try to prevent sexual violence and we’ve done it for so long that we don’t even really think about it anymore.

Safety work refers to the range of modifications, adaptations, decisions that women take often habitually in order to maintain a sense of safety in public spaces.

We know we’re in a Catch-22: if we are successful in our safety work and nothing happens then we’re seen to be overreacting and paranoid but if we are victimised then we’re blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. It seems there’s no right amount of panic, hence the title of this book.

We are scared because we’ve been made responsible for preventing rape at the same time as being told it’s inevitable.

The author examines the choices and changes we make to “maintain a sense of safety in public space”, categorised as actions relating to moving, clothing and being. As well as drawing on previous research, they conducted their own study.

Fifty women in the United Kingdom of different ages and backgrounds participated, speaking to the author about their experiences of men in public. They then recorded what they experienced from unknown men over a two week to two month period before meeting with the author again to reflect on the “work of being a woman in public”. Much of the book consists of quotes from these interviews.

I found this book interesting, albeit quite repetitive. Some potential solutions are offered.

Although the author addresses stereotypes related to gender, race, class, age and disability, I noted that the majority of the women included in her study were white (43), heterosexual (37) women.

Content warnings include domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Policy Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Have you ever thought about how much energy goes into avoiding sexual violence? The work that goes into feeling safe goes largely unnoticed by the women doing it and by the wider world, and yet women and girls are the first to be blamed the inevitable times when it fails. We need to change the story on rape prevention and ‘well-meaning’ safety advice, because this makes it harder for women and girls to speak out, and hides the amount of work they are already doing trying to decipher ‘the right amount of panic’. With real-life accounts of women’s experiences, and based on the author’s original research on the impact of sexual harassment in public, this book challenges victim-blaming and highlights the need to show women as capable, powerful and skilful in their everyday resistance to harassment and sexual violence.

Dark Screams Volume Nine – Brian James Freeman & Richard Chizmar (editors)

I love horror but for some reason I don’t usually have a lot of luck where horror anthologies are concerned. Thankfully this was one of the better ones I’ve read.

My favourite story was by Kelley Armstrong. As has been the case with this series, one story takes up about half of the book; this time it’s Lee Thomas’ Torn.

Invitation to the Game by Kelley Armstrong – 😱😱😱😱

When you’re offered a promotion at this company you receive an invitation to the Game. Only no one knows what the Game entails until it’s their turn to play.

“It’s an honour, right? We have to remember that.”

Summer of ‘77 by Stewart O’Nan – 😱😱😱😱

There’s more than fun in the sun at the lake this summer. This peek into the world of a predator could make you second guess helping anyone again.

I didn’t really need the mask; it was more for them.

The Dead Years by Taylor Grant – 😱😱😱

Emma’s been gone for years. Now he’s found Emma’s doppelgänger. But Margot’s definitely not Emma.

“Today’s monstrosity is tomorrow’s masterpiece.”

The Blackout by Jonathan Moore – 😱😱😱

A body goes missing from the morgue during a storm.

“Before the lights went out, everything in there was fine.”

Variations on a Theme from Seinfeld by Peter Straub – 😱😱😱

Clyde’s reflection has gone missing. Again.

The image before him in the mirror’s rectangular surface depicted an unusually ordered bathroom empty of humanity, especially as represented by himself.

Torn by Lee Thomas – 😱😱😱😱

The search for a missing child is only the beginning of this story.

How do you go on when something like that happens to your child?

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Kelley Armstrong, Stewart O’Nan, Taylor Grant, Jonathan Moore, Peter Straub, and Lee Thomas weave six hair-raising yarns proving that appearances can be deceiving – and deadly – in this horror anthology assembled by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar.

INVITATION TO THE GAME by Kelley Armstrong
Vivienne dreams of moving up in the company, and now she’s got her chance. All the company asks in return is that she prove her absolute devotion by playing a simple, silly little game.

SUMMER OF ’77 by Stewart O’Nan
Suntanned and bleached blond, the boys and girls of summer never expect anything to interrupt their carefree days. They never see me coming until it’s too late.

THE DEAD YEARS by Taylor Grant
Emma was the great love of his life, even after she vanished. So when she reappears at a cocktail party fifteen years later, he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her from slipping away again.

THE BLACKOUT by Jonathan Moore
When a body goes missing from the morgue, Detective Nakahara is called in to investigate. Despite the storm, it should be a simple case. After all, a dead body can’t just walk out on its own … right?

VARIATIONS ON A THEME FROM SEINFELD by Peter Straub
At six years old, Clyde noticed that his reflection decided not to show up in the mirror. Whenever it happens, he just needs to go through the mirror and fetch him. The trick is making it back.

TORN by Lee Thomas
Luther’s Bend is the kind of place where bad things just aren’t supposed to happen, but even the sleepiest towns have secrets … and the full moon can bring retribution for all manners of sins.

Kasey & Ivy – Alison Hughes

Kasey has just learned she needs to spend an entire month in hospital. She’ll be away from her family and friends and surrounded instead by old people.

And you know how old people creep me out, Nina. I can’t help it. The slowness. The teeth. The tendency to be super crabby.

Kasey passes the time by writing a series of letters about the experience to Nina, her best friend. She also has Ivy, who helps her through the lonely and scary nights.

While she’s waiting to be released back into the world outside, Kasey makes some friends and realises how lucky she is. There wasn’t much of a transition between Kasey complaining about her situation and coming to the realisation that she has much to be thankful for.

Sometimes it felt like Kasey was younger than twelve and I wondered if this was because the author was reflecting on their own hospitalisation when they were nine years old.

I also wondered why Kasey was hospitalised and hooked up to an IV before she was even officially diagnosed. There wasn’t really any indication of how she was feeling physically during her hospitalisation either.

In the beginning of the book I wondered why this twelve year old was handwriting letters (this was answered) and why she didn’t spend her time complaining about the lack of internet access.

I had expected much of this story to consist of Kasey visiting the other patients and learning their stories. She did interact with some of the other patients but not as much as I had originally hoped.

I absolutely loved Missy Wong, though, and was delighted to learn that she was based on a real person. I also liked Louise, although I really wish I had learned the details of why she didn’t want to go home.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orca Book Publishers for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Through twenty-six letters to her friend Nina, twelve-year-old Kasey chronicles the often humourous observations and impressions of her unexpected, month-long stay in a geriatric ward for the treatment of a rare but treatable bone disease (“osteo-something-something-itis”).

Kasey tries to make her life less dull by wearing her own nightgowns, surrounding herself with her favourite stuffies and developing an unusual exercise routine. Hospital food, insomnia and the germy communal bath are enduring sources of dread, but some new (and unexpected) friends make her life bearable.

Clara Voyant – Rachelle Delaney

Clara can’t wait to write some groundbreaking investigative journalism pieces for her school newspaper, the Kensington Middle School Gazette. When she’s given the job of writing the paper’s horoscope column instead, Clara is devastated. She doesn’t even believe in horoscopes or anything else she considers “Woo!”

She’s hoping to only have to write the column once to pay her dues and then move on to more interesting articles, like the mystery of the missing school mascot, but the horoscopes Clara has written are coming true. All of a sudden everyone around her thinks she’s clairvoyant, despite her protests that she is most definitely not.

I liked Clara’s mother, who practices herbalism, has a group of new friends that Clara disapproves of and paints her home in colours Clara finds the outrageous, like Ripe Tomato and Mango Tango. Clara’s mother’s friends were a fun, eccentric bunch.

“Seriously?” Was there no end to these people’s weirdness?

I also liked Clara’s best friend, Maeve, who’s enthusiastic, loves crime dramas and wants to star in the school play.

Clara, though? I didn’t like her much at all. I understand that she’s missing her old home and her grandmother, who’s recently moved away, but her enthusiasm for most things was underwhelming at best and her attitude needed a serious realignment for the majority of the book. I didn’t like the way she judged everything she didn’t personally believe in and the people who did believe in those things.

“You can’t predict the future,” she told herself aloud. Could she?

I would have loved to have explored the Mystic Mart, which is like “Walmart, but with voodoo dolls.” Although we do solve the mystery of who stole the school mascot, we never learn the identity of the Counterfeit Kid.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Clara can’t believe her no-nonsense grandmother has just up and moved to Florida, leaving Clara and her mother on their own for the first time. This means her mother can finally “follow her bliss,” which involves moving to a tiny apartment in Kensington Market, working at a herbal remedy shop and trying to develop her so-called mystical powers. Clara tries to make the best of a bad situation by joining the newspaper staff at her new middle school, where she can sharpen her investigative journalistic skills and tell the kind of hard-news stories her grandmother appreciated. But the editor relegates her to boring news stories and worse … the horoscopes.

Worse yet, her horoscopes come true, and soon everyone at school is talking about Clara Voyant, the talented fortune-teller. Clara is horrified – horoscopes and clairvoyance aren’t real, she insists, just like her grandmother always told her. But when a mystery unfolds at school, she finds herself in a strange situation: having an opportunity to prove herself as an investigative journalist … with the help of her own mystical powers. 

Corners – Corrina Austin

“Corners are something you fix up … and sometimes, you can’t fix people.”

Ten year old Davy doesn’t have any friends and has just been banned from the local swimming pool for the rest of the summer. It’s 1969, the summer he meets thirteen year old Ellis, who teaches him about corners. The two weeks he spends with Ellis change Davy’s life in ways he doesn’t anticipate.

I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this book. Ellis had a sadness that radiated from her, even as she made small corners of her surroundings more beautiful. Hannah, Ellis’ grandmother, was an absolute sweetheart. Davy’s mother, a single parent, is doing her best trying to provide for her small family. Mr Mosely, Davy’s mother’s landlord, had his own struggles.

This story is told in two timelines. Davy is recalling this time in his childhood to his son, who is now the age Davy was in 1969. While I found the progression of the story of Davy’s childhood interesting, it didn’t read to me like he was telling the story to his son. The language didn’t feel conversational.

Adult me figured out what was behind Ellis’ sadness early in the book and knew how the story would end from the get go. Child me probably would have been surprised by both of these revelations.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Dancing Lemur Press and Independent Book Publishers Association for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Everyone needs their own special corner…

It’s 1969 and ten-year-old Davy is in a predicament. With two weeks remaining of the summer holidays, he’s expelled from the public pool for sneaking into the deep end and almost drowning. How will he break the news to his hard-working single mother? She’s at the diner all day, Davy has no friends, and he’s too young to stay by himself.

The answer lies in his rescuer, mysterious thirteen-year-old Ellis Wynn. Visiting her Grammy for the summer, Ellis offers to babysit Davy. She teaches him about “corners” – forgotten or neglected areas fixed up special. Together, the kids tackle several “corners” and Davy learns what it means to bring joy to others.

Davy begins to wonder, though. Why does Ellis want to be his friend? Why doesn’t she ever smile? And is Davy just one of Ellis’ “corners?”

Skyborn – Sinéad O’Hart

Bastjan has been raised in the circus. His mother, who was the star of the show, died while performing her act. Since then he’s been reliant upon his found family, the other performers. When the ringmaster (boo!) makes a deal with a stranger, Dr Bauer (BOO!), Bastjan’s life becomes much more complicated.

I absolutely loved Sinéad O’Hart’s The Star-Spun Web so had expected to adore Bastjan’s story as well. Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy it, but I didn’t fall in love with it like I’d hoped.

I think this could be a case of bad timing as I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment. I’m also wondering if it might have made a difference if I’d read The Eye of the North first.

You see, Skyborn is the prequel to The Eye of the North, something I didn’t know about until after I finished Skyborn. Some things make more sense to me now, including why both the story itself and many of its characters seemed to be hovering around a neon sign at the end that said, ‘To be continued…’.

From the reviews I’ve read, readers loved The Eye of the North and have been delighted to delve into Bastjan’s backstory. Without having read that, I found myself more interested in Alice’s story in Skyborn and am disappointed with where we left her. I’m hoping her story will continue in The Eye of the North.

I did like Bastjan and really liked Crake, a strongman with a heart of gold, but Alice and her protective dog, Ware, stole the show for me. I want to learn more about Dawara, the Silent City and the Tunnellers.

I would be interested in rereading this book once I’ve read The Eye of the North to see if that helps me get caught up in the magic.

Content warnings include emotional abuse, physical abuse and verbal abuse.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Stripes Publishing, an imprint of Little Tiger Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The circus has seen better days, but for Bastjan it’s home. He will do anything he can to save it, even if it means participating in a death-defying new act. But when that fails to draw in the crowds, the ringmaster makes a deal with a mysterious man by the name of Dr Bauer.

In exchange for his help, Bauer wants a box that belonged to Bastjan’s mother and came from her birthplace – the faraway island of Melita. Bastjan is desperate to keep his only memento of his mother out of Bauer’s hands. And as he uncovers more about the strange objects contained within, he realises it’s not only the circus that’s in terrible danger…

Playing Beatie Bow – Ruth Park

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

‘It’s Beatie Bow,’ shrieked Mudda in a voice of horror, ‘risen from the dead!’

If you’re an Australian of a certain age it’s practically a given that this book was one of your early high school English class assigned readings. You probably spent so much time second guessing what the author meant, trawling through the text for themes and writing essay after essay about characters, plot and location that even the sight of this book may make your heart sink.

You may even even remember watching the 1986 movie in your classroom on one of those combined TV and VHS contraptions; your teacher would have rolled it into your room on a metal trolley. My takeaway from the movie was that the girl who played Beatie Bow was someone I knew from Home and Away (it’s an Australian thing).

I liked this book in spite of myself in high school, even though my English teacher did everything in their power to make me hate it, what with their dreaded essays and overanalysing almost every single aspect of it. When my library ordered a new copy of it I wondered whether it would stand the test of time. It turns out it both does and doesn’t.

‘But I didna mean to bring you here, I didna know it could be done, heaven’s truth.’

The story, with Abigail accidentally following Beatie Bow back in time to 1873, is still quite interesting. As a kid I had no interest in history but I found the details of The Rocks in both Abigail’s present and Beatie’s fascinating in this reread. I was less interested in the prophecy that saw Abigail cast as the Stranger when I was a kid. Now I want to know more about how the Gift works. I’ve decided I don’t like Abigail or Beatie; I’m pretty sure I liked both of them when I was a kid. I was never a fan of the insta-love.

In my English class there was no discussion about the age gap between Abigail and Judah, no mention of Uncle Samuel’s mental health and no analysis of the sentences that made me cringe during this reread, those featuring racism, ableism and body shaming. Then there’s the fact that Abigail is kidnapped and almost forced into prostitution. I have no memory of my English teacher mentioning that at all.

This reread has made me wonder what I’d think of other English class reads as an adult. I may need to revisit some more.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The game is called Beatie Bow and the children play it for the thrill of scaring themselves.

But when Abigail is drawn in, the game is quickly transformed into an extraordinary, sometimes horrifying, adventure as she finds herself transported to a place that is foreign yet strangely familiar …

The Froggies Do NOT Want to Sleep – Adam Gustavson

I love the concept of this book: a group of frogs who try to get out of going to bed using increasingly imaginative excuses. Parents are already well versed in the usual suspects: another story, another glass of water… The froggies come up with much more interesting scenarios to postpone their bedtime.

Kids will love seeing these realistic frogs acting out a series of unrealistic froggish activities, from shooting themselves out of cannons while singing opera to flying spaceships.

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The illustrations are very detailed, with some fun things to discover, like a frog who’s been drinking a bottle of Croak. Kids will enjoy the humour of the illustrations and may be inspired to come up with some better excuses themselves for why they can’t possibly go to sleep yet.

This book is marketed as a bedtime story and given it’s about frogs at bedtime, that should make sense. My reservation is that it’s not a soothing bedtime story. I’d expect kids to be more hyped up after having this book read to them, which defeats the purpose. I’d be testing this one out well before bedtime first to see how the kidlets respond.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Charlesbridge for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Prepare for a different kind of bedtime book – a zany, imaginative adventure to send your little froggies off to dreamland. Not since David Weisner’s Tuesday have frogs had so much fun!

Why go to bed when you can play the accordion, dance underwater ballet, and hold burping contests with strange alien lifeforms? For every kid who ever came up with an outlandish excuse for why it can’t be bedtime yet, these froggies’ antics will delight and entertain. Acclaimed illustrator Adam Gustavson’s raucous authorial debut shows parents there’s more than one way to do bedtime.