The Woman They Could Not Silence – Kate Moore

“Can [a woman] not even think her own thoughts, and speak her own words, unless her thoughts and expressions harmonize with those of her husband?”

Taking inspiration from the #MeToo movement, Kate Moore delved into the history of women who, more often than not, have been labelled ‘crazy’ and silenced for speaking the truth. Kate wondered if there was a woman whose perseverance, despite everything that was done to discredit her, prevailed.

She found Elizabeth Packard who, in 1860, was taken against her will to Jacksonville Insane Asylum, two hundred miles from her home, because of her “excessive application of body & mind.” The person who was responsible for this injustice was her husband of 21 years and the father of her six children.

The evidence of her so called insanity?

“I, though a woman, have just as good a right to my opinion, as my husband has to his.”

Elizabeth, after being a dutiful wife, mother and homemaker for almost all of her adult life, heard about the women’s rights movement and gave herself permission to think for herself. She also disagreed with her preacher husband about matters of religion and, with her great intellect and her persuasive arguments, he was afraid of the consequences of her speaking her mind.

This was a time when most states “had no limits on relatives’ “right of disposal” to commit their loved ones”, where an insanity trial had to take place before you were admitted to a state hospital (but not if you were a married woman) and where “married women had no legal identities of their own.”

The thought of me living in 1860 terrifies me. I’m certain I too would have been institutionalised and I don’t know I would have been able to sustain the fortitude that Elizabeth displayed. Don’t think that you wouldn’t have also been at risk of such a fate, as

one common cause of committal to an asylum in Elizabeth’s time was “novel reading.”

In the asylum, Elizabeth met other patients, including other sane women who had been trapped there for years, similarly pathologised for their personality. The asylum served as a “storage unit for unsatisfactory wives”. She also witnessed patients being abused by the staff.

Elizabeth was determined to prove that she was sane and secure her release from the asylum. She also wanted to enact change that would see her new friends also released and to protect the mentally ill from abuse. But what Elizabeth wanted more than anything was to be able to parent her children again.

This is a thoroughly researched and well written account of the life of a woman I’m sad to say I had never heard of before but will certainly not forget.

description

So in the end, this is a book about power. Who wields it. Who owns it. And the methods they use.

And above all, it’s about fighting back.

Content warnings include derogatory terms used to describe mental illness and mention of death by suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, medical abuse, mental illness, racism, slavery, suicidal ideation and suicide attempt .

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

From the New York TimesUSA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Radium Girls comes another dark and dramatic but ultimately uplifting tale of a forgotten woman whose inspirational journey sparked lasting change for women’s rights and exposed injustices that still resonate today.

1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened – by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So Theophilus makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.

The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line – conveniently labeled “crazy” so their voices are ignored.

No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose… 

The Book of the Baku – R.L. Boyle

Spoilers Ahead! (in content warnings)

There’s only so much horror and pain any living creature can take before it loses its mind.

Sean, unable to speak due to a trauma in his past, is going to live with his grandfather. He knows Grandad used to be a writer but that’s about the extent of his knowledge as they only met two months ago. It is at Grandad’s that Sean learns of the existence of the Baku. He’s going to wish he hadn’t.

While the Baku, a creature otherwise known as the ‘dream eater’, is not a new concept (its mythology spans centuries), the author has brought it to life in an imaginative way, imbuing it with a whole new level of creepy. I can see the appeal of what appears to be an easy way of getting rid of your nightmares but this is definitely not the incarnation of the Baku you want to feed.

For there’s a darkness deep in me,

That feeds on pain and misery.

Give it to me, relinquish dread,

And fall asleep in peace instead.

I felt Sean’s pain throughout the book, both physical and the pain of grief. His underdog status and innate likeability had me empathising with him even more. I wanted this kid to be okay and I hoped everything would work out in his relationship with his Grandad, who I absolutely adored from the get to.

Towards the middle of the book I began to wonder if the story was going to start feeling too repetitive but new elements and additional information about Sean’s past alleviated my concerns. There’s a growing dread as the days progress at The Paddock, something that may even be enhanced by the use of repetition, as you anticipate what’s next for the main characters. The horror is amplified by Sean’s inability to communicate what he’s experiencing to anyone.

It is as though each unspoken sentence dries to create a thicker barrier for those behind it and now his voice is blocked behind an impenetrable concrete wall.

I loved the inclusion of the rowan tree in Grandad’s garden. Given the themes that were explored in the book, the choice of this specific type of tree felt especially significant. Although I want to say more about this tree I won’t because spoilers. However, I will recommend you read about its mythology and symbolism once you’ve read the book so you can see for yourself how brilliantly it all lines up. I particularly like the explanations given here and here.

Content warnings include alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, death of animals, domestic abuse, drug addiction, gun violence, mental health, physical abuse, sexual assault (off page), slavery, suicidal ideation and verbal abuse, including slurs about a physical disability (no, I didn’t like this at all but the horrible words used were consistent with what I knew of the characters who said them).

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A Monster Calls meets The Shining in this haunting YA dark fantasy about a monster that breaks free from a story into the real world.

Sean hasn’t been able to speak a word since he was put into care, and is sent to live with his grandad, a retired author whom he has never met before. Suddenly living an affluent life, nothing like the world of the estate he grew up in, where gangs run the streets and violence is around every corner, Sean spends his time drawing, sculpting and reading his grandad’s stories. 

But his grandad has secrets of his own in his past. As he retreats to the shed, half-buried in his treasured garden, Sean finds one of his stories about ‘The Baku’, a creature that eats the fears of children. 

Plagued by nightmares, with darkness spreading through the house, Sean must finally face the truth if he’s to have a chance to free himself and his grandfather from the grip of the Baku.

The Stranger Times – C.K. McDonnell

Hannah’s new boss shot himself in the foot during her job interview and that’s not even the weirdest thing that’s happened this week. She’s just joined The Stranger Times, a newspaper that reports “the weird and wonderful from around the world ‘and beyond’”. Think Fortean Times.

‘You’d be surprised what I’d believe. It’s been a hell of a week.’

Hannah is the new Tina, AKA, assistant editor. Her boss (the guy with the new hole in his foot), Vincent Banecroft, is “foul-smelling, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered”. Banecroft lives in the office, as does Manny (clothing optional), who’s in charge of the paper’s printing department.

Grace, the office manager, spends much of her time managing Banecroft’s mouth. Stella, whose job title I’m still unsure of, lives with Grace and may be my favourite character. Reggie is the paper’s paranormal consultant and Ox is their ufologist and “general paranoid”. The paper is owned by Mrs Harnforth.

Then there’s Simon, who desperately wants to work for The Stranger Times but is having trouble getting past their No Simon policy.

Meanwhile, the police are attempting to investigate some events that aren’t exactly in their jurisdiction, events that are definitely strange enough for The Stranger Times.

‘Right,’ said Banecroft, ‘let’s kick off this parade of inadequacy, then, shall we?’

This book was so much more fun than I’d expected. I got sucked straight in and was entertained the entire time. I enjoyed getting to know Hannah and her new colleagues. There was a Big Bad doing Big Bad things and a whole bunch of goings on that regular people aren’t aware of.

While I was introduced to various ‘Types’ and magical bits and pieces, I don’t really have my head around this part of the world yet. I’m hoping the gaps in my knowledge will be filled in more when I read the sequel.

I really enjoyed the newspaper clippings scattered throughout the book; my favourite was Homework Eats Dog. I would definitely subscribe to this newspaper. There’s an article about a haunted toilet in Falkirk!

‘It’s in a pub. People claim that it speaks – issuing death threats, ominous predictions and …’

‘And?’

‘Shortbread recipes.’

There was a bit of a disjointed feel to some of the chapters. Sometimes it took me a page or two to figure out which part of the story I was reading about, especially when a new character or plot line was introduced. It all came together in the end though.

Some questions were answered in this book but there were a bunch that are being held over for the sequel. I expect I’ll be rereading this book a little closer to the sequel’s publication date.

The employees at The Stranger Times are a bunch of oddballs but they’re my kind of oddballs. I think I’d fit right in with this team.

‘The world is not what you thought it to be.’

Bonus content: If you sign up for the newsletter at https://thestrangertimes.co.uk you’ll snag In Other News, a free ebook.

Content warnings include mention of alcoholism, death by suicide, drug addiction and homophobic and racist slurs. I didn’t feel like the homophobic and racist slurs added anything to the story and, although they were challenged, I wondered what the point was of including them in the first place.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A weekly newspaper dedicated to the weird and the wonderful (but mostly the weird), it is the go-to publication for the unexplained and inexplicable.

At least that’s their pitch. The reality is rather less auspicious. Their editor is a drunken, foul-tempered and foul-mouthed husk of a man who thinks little of the publication he edits. His staff are a ragtag group of misfits. And as for the assistant editor … well, that job is a revolving door – and it has just revolved to reveal Hannah Willis, who’s got problems of her own.

When tragedy strikes in her first week on the job The Stranger Times is forced to do some serious investigating. What they discover leads to a shocking realisation: some of the stories they’d previously dismissed as nonsense are in fact terrifyingly real. Soon they come face-to-face with darker forces than they could ever have imagined.

Between Sea and Sky – Nicola Penfold

Somewhere, between the sea and the sky, there are other places.

Pearl and Clover live with their father on the oyster farm. Clover yearns to go to school but Pearl is determined to never step foot on land again, certain the land’s poisons were responsible for her mother’s death. Pearl and Clover are keeping a big secret, one that will tear their family apart if anyone ever finds out.

Nat lives on the land with his mother, a science advisor who works hard to provide for her son. Nat enjoys playing with his friends but is always careful not to get caught doing anything that will accumulate civil disobedience points for his mother. The constant threat of peacekeepers and the visual reminder of the prison ship keep the people on the land in line.

“You don’t know what it’s like, living there,” he’d said quietly, gazing back to land. “Some rules are hard to keep.”

Nat doesn’t want to stay at the oyster farm with his mother this summer and Pearl definitely doesn’t want “landlubbers” intruding on their lives but it’s the beginning of something new. Nat has his own secret, one that could change everything.

I couldn’t help comparing this book with the author’s debut, Where the World Turns Wild. Both feature worlds that ours could easily begin to resemble in the not too distant future if we don’t take climate change seriously.

My biggest delight came when I realised that the names of the characters in both books have been so carefully and cleverly chosen. There are some names in this book that foreshadow a character’s role or something about their personality. However, the ones that really stood out to me were those I could easily align with elements, which are a vital part of this story. For example, Sora is a Japanese name that means ‘sky’.

Water is the sea all around us. Earth the poisoned land. Air’s the sky where the gulls fly.

Fire is the Decline. Here it was floods and the rising storm water, but elsewhere it was fire. The world got too hot. Fire burned forests and villages, whole cities too.

Spirit is everything that was lost.

The only thing I adored in Where the World Turns Wild that I missed in this book was a connection to a special adult. I love Annie Rose from Where the World Turns Wild as much now as I did the day I met her. While I liked many of the adult characters in this book there wasn’t someone that I got to know well enough to want to spend all of my time with. The closest I came was with Olive but, for reasons that will become clear as you read the book, she wasn’t ever going to be as knowable as Annie Rose was.

Kate Forrester, whose cover image was what initially drew me to Where the World Turns Wild, has also designed this cover. The details will all mean something to you once you’ve finished reading.

“But if people don’t try, things won’t ever change, will they?”

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a near future where a series of environmental disasters has left much of the country underwater, Pearl lives on a floating oyster farm with her father and younger sister, Clover. Following her mum’s death several years earlier, Pearl refuses to set foot on land, believing her illness was caused by the poisons in the ground. Meanwhile, Clover dreams of school, friends and a normal life.

Then Nat comes to spend the summer at the sea farm while his scientist mum conducts some experiments. Leaving behind the mainland, with its strict rules and regulations, he brings with him a secret. But when the sisters promise to keep his secret safe, little do they realise that they may be risking everything…

The Extraordinaries #2: Flash Fire – T.J. Klune

“Superhero team-up,” Nick breathed. “It’s like this is a sequel! Oh my god. Yes. Yes.”

I’ve been waiting (not very patiently, mind you) for this sequel for so long! The Extraordinaries was the queer superhero book I didn’t realise I needed until I began reading it. If you haven’t read it yet, please rectify that immediately.

Nick, our main character, has ADHD, panic attacks and an extraordinarily high adorability/cluelessness quotient. I fell in love with him as soon as I met him. His best friend and now boyfriend, Seth, is just as adorable but not clueless, although he does have a lot of abs. Their friends, Jazz and Gibby, round out the bunch and I can’t think of a group of friends I want to claim as my own any more than these four. I could read an entire book where Team Pyro Storm just sit around chatting.

With the timing of the first book’s publication and the subsequent feedback the author received at the time, I’d been expecting police brutality and corruption to be explored in more depth in this sequel. You can read what the author has to say about this here.

At times it felt like it was left to Gibby and her parents to explain things to the white characters. However, Nick showed maturity in the way that he reassessed what he had grown up believing about the police, still loving his father but trying to come to terms with his actions and those of other members of the police force. Nick’s father must also reevaluate his past behaviour and figure out what being accountable looks like.

“You’ve seemed to have done an about-face with the whole cop thing.”

Police brutality and corruption were addressed throughout the book and I’m glad that they were, although it definitely changed the tone of the book. The smile that you couldn’t wipe off my face during the first book and the first few chapters of the sequel (so many embarrassing sexual conversations), where everything felt light and playful, turned into a heaviness that weighed on me for most of the rest of the book.

Thank goodness for Nick, who remains adorable. I love the way his brain works. I love that he’s open to new ideas. I love how fiercely protective he is of the people he loves. I even love the “conversational whiplash”; I may love that about him most of all.

The banter between Nick, Seth, Jazz and Gibby is everything and each time they are together I melt a little bit. My romantiphobia fades away whenever Nick and Seth or Jazz and Gibby get all lovey-dovey. The friendship dynamics of Team Pyro Storm is pretty much everything you need in your life.

“We stand together,” Nick reminded him, “so we don’t have to struggle apart. You’re not alone in this, okay?”

Because this is a sequel, we have to discuss the need for superhero costume upgrades, but needles are very pointy and it’s all a lot of effort. We’re reminded that if you don’t shout the name of the move you’re doing, then you’re not fighting right.

“Backflip of Chaos!”

We’re introduced to new Extraordinaries! We’re not entirely sure if they’re on our side or not.

“What the hell,” Nick muttered. “What’s trying to kill us now? You think it’s some new Extraordinary villain bent on—”

I particularly loved Miss Conduct but need to spend much more time with them. I need their entire backstory ASAP.

There are secrets (so many secrets) and with secrets come their unravelling. The reveal at the end of the first book is explored in a way that I loved. Even though it took Nick a lot longer than I’d hope to figure it all out, I really appreciated that it wasn’t a success only journey for him. There’s also a reveal at the end of this book but I’m not entirely sure I’m on board with this development, even though I’m definitely intrigued; I’ll wait until I read the third book to decide.

Bring on some more Extraordinaries!

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams, but with new heroes arriving in Nova City it’s up to Nick and his friends to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous. Which is a lot to handle for a guy who just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Friday Barnes #9: No Escape – R.A. Spratt

‘I’m giving that up,’ said Friday.

‘What?’ asked Melanie.

‘Private detection, solving mysteries, that stuff,’ said Friday. ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’

It’s been two years since we last saw Friday and the years haven’t been kind to her. When we meet up with her again she’s just been released from “the country’s highest security juvenile detention facility”, having spent eleven months imprisoned there.

In that time Binky has graduated (I miss him already!) but Melanie is still at Highcrest Academy and she has held onto Friday’s green pork-pie hat. Melanie might be a great napper but she also knows her best friend can’t stay away from solving mysteries for long.

Thanks to Parker, who was at Highcrest Academy all along but still seems like a replacement Binky to me, Friday is soon investigating the case of the missing passport and missing underwear. She also has an appointment with the school counsellor.

‘Are you going to psychoanalyse me based on my literary preferences?’

Uncle Bernie, Ian, Ian’s mother and Friday’s new cousin are still in Italy. Uncle Bernie needs Friday’s help so it’s lucky that there’s a school excursion to Italy that Friday can join. Melanie’s coming too and as usual she constantly reminded me why I love her.

‘I know you feel scared right now because you’re out of practice at being brave. But I’m your best friend, so I know for a fact that you can do this because you’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.’

For someone who spends most of the book sleeping, she manages to snag some really good lines.

Once they’re all in Italy, Friday has plenty of mysteries to investigate, including the case of the gelato rivals, the mysteriously malfunctioning water heater and the potential theft of priceless artefacts from museums. There are nuns and tourist attractions and the opportunity to say things like:

‘It’s an urgent matter of national historic importance.’

It was really good to get to hang out with Ian again. He and Friday make a great team, even though they sometimes baffle one another.

‘I think you’re going to surprise me, by doing something unimaginable. You always do.’

Friday has grown up a bit in the past two years but her time in Juvie has had a huge impact on her. She’s more fragile and vulnerable, and it’s sad to see her readjusting to real life again. At the same time, though, what she’s been through has made her more relatable to me. While I always loved her, in some of the earlier books it was easy to believe that almost nothing fazed her because she was so out of touch with her feelings.

‘I don’t understand why people do the things they do. I just know what I’ve read in books.’

I’m so glad this series is continuing. I wish Friday had been there to model smart, socially awkward and loveable to me when I was a kid.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It’s two years later …

Friday steps out of prison, a shell of her former self. She’s still wearing the same brown cardigan, but she swears she’s never solving mysteries again! Who is Friday kidding? She can’t suppress her brilliant deductive mind and is soon drawn back into the intrigues of Highcrest Academy.

Then Uncle Bernie rings, pleading with Friday to fly to Italy and help him protect the Uffizi Gallery from a team of art thieves – and she can’t say ‘no’ to family. Even if it means travelling to the city where Ian, her nemesis/ex-boyfriend is living.

Will Friday be able to protect Italy’s finest artworks? Will Melanie stay awake long enough to help her? And will Ian still be as gorgeous as a Greek god and twice as annoying?

Friday Barnes #5: The Plot Thickens – R.A. Spratt

‘Urgh, I knew this was going too well. Heaven forbid we have a school occasion where Miss Barnes doesn’t interrupt and turn everything on its head.’

Friday and Ian’s already tenuous friendship takes a hit when Friday is infuriatingly right about Ian’s father. Ian responds by taking it out on her, devising elaborate pranks at her expense.

Just when Friday is considering leaving Highcrest Academy, three newcomers arrive. A famous artist is going to be teaching the students for eight weeks, culminating in the reveal of a mural and an art show.

There’s also a new and very enthusiastic PE teacher. Friday and Melanie are not pleased at all with this development as it may require them to actually participate. Friday is not coordinated at all and Melanie flat out refuses to do anything that resembles exercise. Friday does discover what a burpee is but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.

Finally, Highcrest Academy welcomes a new Year 8 student, Epstein Smythe.

Friday gets involved in more than her fair share of mysteries, including searching for the missing ‘Red Princess’, thwarting an attempted kidnapping of a “remarkably unremarkable student” and revealing the identity of the person who’s been adding contemporary elements to well known paintings.

‘If you’re up to something illicit but that is somehow for the greater good, could you please do a better job of hiding it from me?!’

She also has more than her fair share of head injuries. It seems like Friday is always getting a new bump on the noggin, whether she’s been knocked unconscious or she’s fainted at the sight of her own blood. Friday is much more emotional in this book than she usually is, although this is probably just a side effect of being hit on the head so many times.

There’s one thing that’s really irking me – some of the language used to describe people. I’ve previously been miffed by the way mental health has been made fun of. In this book I’m objecting to the term “bonkers” being used to describe someone with Alzheimer’s. This is so unnecessary, it’s not funny and the book would be better without it. I mentioned in a previous review that I read a first edition and it’s possible the words I didn’t like may not have made it into subsequent editions; I hope that is the case this time too.

I really enjoyed the inclusion of the new teachers and student and, despite my objection above, this book is my second favourite of the series so far (the first one holds a special place in my heart).

The further I get into the series the angrier I become at Friday’s neglectful parents and the more I appreciate how well the teachers get away with working so very little. I adore Friday and Melanie but it’s Binky, Melanie’s brother, who has overtaken everyone else to become my favourite character. He’s absolutely delightful and I desperately want him to have a happy ending with his princess.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Friday Barnes is being attacked on all fronts!

When Friday Barnes gets involved in her frenemy Ian Wainscott’s family dispute, it appears her knack for uncovering the truth may ruin their friendship once and for all.

Highcrest Academy is no longer a fun place to be. Ian has declared war on Friday and she is thinking of leaving … for good. Meanwhile, there’s two new teachers to contend with – a celebrity artist whose intentions are somewhat unclear, and an over-enthusiastic PE teacher on a fitness crusade. Between them and Ian, it’s going to be one dangerous term. Can Friday repair her friendship with Ian, restore her perfect school-life balance and work out who is committing the blatant acts of vandalism around Highcrest? No one said high school would be easy!

Friday Barnes #1: Girl Detective – R.A. Spratt

Friday Barnes is currently my favourite girl detective. I first read this book in 2016 and my reread has been just as enjoyable. Friday is eccentric, extraordinarily smart and forthright.

Friday was named after the day on which she was born. Well, she would have been if it had actually been a Friday. She was really born on a Thursday but her ever distracted (and dare I say, neglectful) parents confused the days. Their minds were no doubt on quasars or electrons at the time. Don’t believe me? Friday’s older siblings are named Quantum, Quasar, Orion and Halley.

Friday essentially raised herself and until recently has spent most of her time in silence, reading anything she can get her hands on. Faced with the problem of needing to attend high school, despite passing the entrance exam to study medicine at university, eleven year old Friday elects to send herself to an elite boarding school. She pays for the tuition with the reward money she earned from solving the case of a missing multi-million dollar diamond.

Once she arrives at Highcrest Academy, Friday becomes known as the resident mystery solver, taking on cases of missing homework and the swamp yeti who has been terrorising the students.

‘Swamp yetis don’t exist.’

She also finds a potential nemesis/love interest and spends much more time sitting on the bench outside the Headmaster’s office than she does in a classroom.

‘Sometimes I wonder if you are startlingly gifted,’ said the Headmaster, ‘or you simply have access to some sort of illicit counter-intelligence mind-reading device.’

Occasionally she even needs to suck on a lollipop when she’s considering all of the variables of a problem, something she only does when she’s “processing a difficult conundrum.”

Despite Friday’s off the charts IQ, she’s not the best at picking up on social cues, although she is slowly getting better at detecting rhetorical questions. It’s lucky for her that her new roommate, Melanie Pelly, notices things that other people don’t.

‘My brain just does it. The hard part is getting it to notice things that are useful.’

Uncle Bernie, although he doesn’t have a great deal of page time in the first book, quickly became my favourite character. He appreciates Friday for who she is (brown cardigans and all) and is the only family member that appears to even notice her existence.

I’ve been planning a Friday Barnes binge for several years. With the release of the ninth book I’ve decided it’s finally time.

I would have adored this series as a kid and am having fun with them so far as an adult. I’ve yet to decide if Friday and I would have been best friends or mortal enemies if we were in the same class. Either way, I know I wouldn’t have been bored.

Beware: this book ends in a cliffhanger.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Imagine if Sherlock Holmes was an eleven-year-old girl! 

When girl detective Friday Barnes solves a bank robbery she uses the reward money to send herself to the most exclusive boarding school in the country, Highcrest Academy.

On arrival, Friday is shocked to discover the respectable school is actually a hotbed of crime. She’s soon investigating everything from disappearing homework to the Yeti running around the school swamp. That’s when she’s not dealing with her own problem – Ian Wainscott, the handsomest boy in school, who inexplicably hates Friday and loves nasty pranks.

Can Friday solve Highcrest Academy’s many strange mysteries, including the biggest mystery of all – what’s the point of high school?

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day – Seanan McGuire

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

The living are a mystery to me. I didn’t spend enough time as one of them.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day was my second ever Seanan McGuire read and it’s just become my first Seanan reread. It also has the distinction of being the only book on my very long list of favourites that, if you were to ask me its name when it wasn’t sitting right in front of me, chances are that I would fail miserably in my attempt to arrange the D’s in the correct order.

Our main character is Jenna, a ghost who volunteers for a suicide prevention hotline, and that right there is the book I didn’t know I needed to read until I learned of its existence.

Jenna’s sister, Patty, died by suicide in 1972. Jenna’s death, shortly after her sister’s, was accidental. Because Patty died when she was supposed to, she bypassed the ghost stage, moving straight on to whatever comes after death. Jenna died before her time so she will remain on earth as a ghost until when she should have died. Except time works differently for ghosts – they can both give and take time from the living.

The guilt Jenna feels over not seeing the signs that led to her sister’s death has resulted in her feeling like she needs to earn her death, only counting the minutes where she’s confident she’s made a positive impact on someone’s life.

I started earning the time I take, justifying it with my actions before I pull it into myself.

I would have been content if that was the entire story, but it’s not. There’s also witches, magic and mysteriously disappearing ghosts. Oh, and a bunch of “feline senior citizens” and cornfields, because this is a Seanan McGuire book, in case you’d forgotten.

If my tear ducts hadn’t suddenly taken a vacation, the dedication alone would have been enough to activate them.

For everyone who has been tempted to go, and has found the strength to stay. I will see you all tomorrow.

Suicide and suicidal ideation can be difficult enough topics to even broach, let alone do right with the sensitivity they deserve. I feel like Seanan has done a really good job here, in the phone call we get to listen in on, in the grief and guilt that Patty’s family experience and the responsibility Jenna feels for not anticipating and preventing her sister’s death.

I’ve paid off a fraction of my debt I owe to Patty, for not hearing the things she never said to me.

It took a little while for me to get my head around how ghost time works but by the time I figured it out, something had happened that has so far always happened when I’ve read a Seanan book: I believed. The characters and the rules that apply in the New York they’re living in felt real to me, and that’s part of Seanan’s magic as far as I’m concerned.

I was entirely satisfied with this story fitting inside a novella during my first read but I’ve gotten greedy since then. I wanted more ghosts, more witches, and more time with those I was introduced to. I could read entire books dedicated to the stories Sophie, Brenda and Delia have to tell.

My reread has raised some questions that my reader’s bliss hid from me during my first read. That was the read that essentially consisted of me marvelling at my good fortune, having so recently discovered a new favourite author.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The question marks above my head did not interfere with my enjoyment of this novella. I still love it to bits. Don’t be surprised if you see me reading it a third time.

Major Spoilers Ahead: Continue reading at your own risk.

It’s mentioned late in the story that

“Ghosts don’t just happen. Someone has to make them. That’s why we all died so early, and why so many of us had freak accidents.”

The person or people or witch or witches who make the ghosts are never revealed. Neither are their motives. Maybe it’s to make sure places are anchored or maybe it’s to make sure time can still be given and taken. The most likely reason to make new ghosts would be to trap them inside mirrors but Jenna has been living her life after death for over forty years mirror free. The not knowing for sure isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things but I would have liked to have at least met whoever it was that was making the ghosts so I could interrogate them myself.

The witch who imprisons almost every ghost in New York must have done a massive amount of research and spent more time than I can fathom collecting a mirror that would work on each individual ghost. It doesn’t say how many ghosts are spending this portion of their lives after death in New York but I’m almost positive that you couldn’t fit all of their mirrors in a supply room.

Content warnings include death by suicide (including the method used).

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror – Mizuki Tsujimura

Translator – Philip Gabriel

‘If you’re told it’ll definitely come true,’ Masamune said, ‘then everyone will have a wish or two.’

Kokoro, a 7th grader who no longer attends school because of “the incident”, has the house to herself during the day while her parents are at work. She spends her time watching TV, hiding from the world outside her home.

One day a light appears from inside her mirror. Before she’s even barely begun investigating this strange occurrence, Kokoro finds herself on the other side of the mirror. There, in a castle that looks like it belongs in a fairytale, she meets others whose mirrors have learned the same new trick:

  • Aki is in the 9th grade and appears to have her act together
  • Fuka wears glasses, has a high pitched voice and is in the 8th grade
  • Masamune is in the 8th grade and is likely to be playing a video game whenever you see him
  • Subaru is in the 9th grade and is described as looking like Ron from Harry Potter
  • Ureshino is already in love with being in love and he’s only in the 7th grade
  • Rion is a handsome 7th grader who plays football.

The seven strangers are met by the Wolf Queen, who tells them the rules of the castle.

‘From now until next March, you will need to search for the key that will unlock the Wishing Room. The person who finds it will have the right to enter and their wish will be granted.’

Over the course of many months, the group slowly get to know one another and discover what they have in common. Despite the fairytale elements and some magical realism, the core of this book addresses some difficult topics, albeit in a sensitive way. I loved the focus on mental health, particularly anxiety, and how it impacts other areas of our functioning, including physical health and social interactions.

I liked the characters, although some were given more detailed backstories than others. I was most intrigued by Aki and wanted to spend more time behind what I saw as her protective wall. I would have loved to have learned what happened to all of the seven after the events of the story. I definitely wanted more page time with the mysterious Wolf Queen, hoarder of the best lines:

‘Can’t you simply be satisfied that you’ve been chosen as heroes in a story?’

Anyone who knows me knows I love portal stories and I found myself bingeing this one. There weren’t as many fantasy elements as I’ve experienced in other portal stories I’ve read. I also got to know the characters and the rules of the castle at a more leisurely pace than I’d expected. Neither were a problem for me, though. The payoff at the end ticked all the boxes for me, confirming some suspicions and answering most of the questions I had. This is definitely a book I want to reread.

How could a portal into a different world not be appealing?

Content warnings include bullying, grief, mental health, sexual assault and mention of death by suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

How can you save your friend’s life if she doesn’t want to be rescued?

In a tranquil neighbourhood of Tokyo, seven teenagers wake to find their bedroom mirrors are shining.

At a single touch, they are pulled from their lonely lives into a wondrous castle filled with winding stairways, watchful portraits and twinkling chandeliers. In this new sanctuary, they are confronted with a set of clues leading to a hidden room where one of them will be granted a wish. But there’s a catch: if they don’t leave by five o’clock, they will die.

As time passes, a devastating truth emerges: only those brave enough to share their stories will be saved.

Tender, playful, gripping, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a mesmerising tale about the importance of reaching out, confronting anxiety and embracing human connection.