The Remaking – Clay McLeod Chapman

If you get too close to this urban legend, you risk becoming part of it.

The residents of Pilot’s Creek always knew there was something strange about Ella Louise Ford. Rumoured to be a witch, she became an outcast, but that didn’t stop the townsfolk from visiting Ella Louise’s apothecary shop to seek cures for what ailed them. Naturally, Ella Louise pays the price for being different.

Tonight, they were going to burn a witch.

Ella Louise is buried in an unmarked grave. Her daughter, Jessica, who was rumoured to have been twice as powerful as her mother, is buried in the town’s cemetery. Jessica’s reinforced steel coffin is filled with concrete. Then there’s a layer of gravel and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a fence of crucifixes surrounding her grave. That little girl scared those men so much they wanted to make sure she would never escape her grave.

If you ask me, those two aren’t done.

Not with this town.

I love urban legends and ghost stories. I was even more invested when I learned Ella Louise and Jessica’s story was inspired by the real double murder of Mary Louise Ford and her daughter, Mary Ellen, which has become its own urban legend.

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Image source: Scary for Kids

I was captivated by the story of this mother and daughter in Part One, but was disappointed when their story was subsumed by that of Amber Pendleton, a child actress. The rest of the story follows Amber, who played Jessica in a B grade movie. Later there is a reboot and finally a podcast, each delving into the urban legend but ultimately focusing more on Amber than the Fords. I really wanted Ella Louise and Jessica to be given more space in this story.

I didn’t find this story scary although, to be fair, I’m not easily scared by fiction. As the story progressed it began to feel more like a social commentary: on child actors and overbearing stage parents, horror movies, their reboots and sequels, horror fans, the victimhood of women, and the injustice of the justice system.

My main niggle was the reliance on repetition in this book. I don’t generally have a problem with repetition, but here it was overdone. It seemed like every other page I was finding passages like:

It’s only a movie …

Only a movie …

Only a movie …

Only …

I’m going to take you back home.

home

home

home

Keep it spinning. Spinning.

Spinning.

Spinning.

Spinning.

Content warnings include mention of alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, drug addiction, immolation, lynchings, mental health, miscarriage and physical abuse.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Quirk Books for granting my wish to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Inspired by a true story, this supernatural thriller for fans of horror and true crime follows a tale as it evolves every twenty years – with terrifying results.

Ella Louise has lived in the woods surrounding Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, for nearly a decade. Publicly, she and her daughter, Jessica, are shunned by her upper-crust family and the local residents. Privately, desperate characters visit her apothecary for a cure to what ails them – until Ella Louise is blamed for the death of a prominent customer. Accused of witchcraft, Ella Louise and Jessica are burned at the stake in the middle of the night. Ella Louise’s burial site is never found, but the little girl has the most famous grave in the South: a steel-reinforced coffin surrounded by a fence of interconnected white crosses.

Their story will take the shape of an urban legend as it’s told around a campfire by a man forever marked by his childhood encounters with Jessica. Decades later, a boy at that campfire will cast Amber Pendleton as Jessica in a ’70s horror movie inspired by the Witch Girl of Pilot’s Creek. Amber’s experiences on that set and its meta-remake in the ’90s will ripple through pop culture, ruining her life and career after she becomes the target of a witch hunt.

Amber’s best chance to break the cycle of horror comes when a true-crime investigator tracks her down to interview her for his popular podcast. But will this final act of storytelling redeem her – or will it bring the story full circle, ready to be told once again? And again. And again

It Will Just Be Us – Jo Kaplan

In Wakefield Manor, a decaying ancestral mansion brooding on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, there is a locked room.

And this is the sort of opening sentence that immediately sucks me into a book. A decaying mansion, a swamp and a locked room? Please tell me more!

Sam and her sister, Elizabeth, grew up in Wakefield Manor with their neglectful mother. Since it was built, the mansion has witnessed both the mundane and the horrors experienced by those who have lived there, and it has not forgotten them.

Now adults, the sisters have returned to Wakefield Manor, where the locked room from their childhood remains a mystery and a new ghost has appeared.

I love haunted house stories so couldn’t wait to get into this one. I loved the house. I loved the swamp. I loved the way the ghosts made their way into the story and I wanted to spend more time with them.

The past is everywhere, here, wrapped up in the present.

There were a couple of times when I managed to forget what was happening in the story’s present while exploring the past. I never really connected with any of the characters so, although I was interested in learning what happened to each of them, the emotional investment was missing. There were also a number of potentially superfluous paragraphs that took me out of the story.

I tend to gravitate to horror that is more visceral so after the set up of the first couple of chapters I found myself getting antsy. The action picks up towards the end of the book but I spent a good amount of time around the middle simply waiting for it to begin. There was an overall atmospheric feel to the book.

It is a door that should not be opened.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, alcoholism, assault, death by suicide (including method used), domestic violence, neglect and slavery. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with a couple of scenes.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

They say there’s a door in Wakefield that never opens …

Sam Wakefield’s ancestral home, a decaying mansion built on the edge of a swamp, isn’t a place for children. Its labyrinthine halls, built by her mad ancestors, are filled with echoes of the past: ghosts and memories knotted together as one. In the presence of phantoms, it’s all Sam can do to disentangle past from present in her daily life. But when her pregnant sister Elizabeth moves in after a fight with her husband, something in the house shifts.

Already navigating her tumultuous relationship with Elizabeth, Sam is even more unsettled by the appearance of a new ghost: a faceless boy who commits disturbing acts – threatening animals, terrorising other children, and following Sam into the depths of the house wielding a knife. When it becomes clear the boy is connected to a locked, forgotten room, one which is never entered, Sam realises this ghost is not like the others. This boy brings doom …

As Elizabeth’s due date approaches, Sam must unravel the mysteries of Wakefield before her sister brings new life into a house marked by death. But as the faceless boy grows stronger, Sam will learn that some doors should stay closed – and some secrets are safer locked away forever.

The Twins of Auschwitz – Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri

Eva and Miriam Morez were only ten years old when their family was sent to Auschwitz from Romania. Their parents and two older sisters, Edit and Aliz, did not survive the selection line. Eva and Miriam, identical twins, were immediately selected for experimentation by Josef Mengele.

I concentrated all my being on one thing: how to survive one more day in this horrible place.

Although this was not planned, four of the last six books I’ve read were written by or about Holocaust survivors. While the first three either taught me so much that I didn’t already know or touched me so deeply that I know I will carry them in my heart going forward, I felt a disconnect with this book that surprised me.

Throughout the book it seemed like it had been written with a younger audience in mind. It was written quite simply, with explanations given for some words I expect most adults wouldn’t need. It was only at the very end of the book that I learned Eva wanted her book to be used in schools to teach about the Holocaust. What I read makes much more sense to me if I view it as an introduction to the Holocaust.

I also felt like I was a couple of steps removed from the story of Eva’s life. I understood the basics but the level of detail I’ve found in other books written by Holocaust survivors was missing, as was the depth of emotion I have read about and felt in other books. Although this was Eva’s story and she was interviewed extensively, I got the impression that she may not have actually participated in the writing.

Accompanying Eva’s story are photos and maps, which provide context.

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The children at the front are Eva (left) and Miriam (right)

This book was originally published in 2009 by Tanglewood Publishing as Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz.

Content warnings include anti-Semitism, bullying and medical experimentation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Monoray, an imprint of Octopus Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

N.B. I do not allocate star ratings for memoirs or stories about people’s lives based on anything they have experienced; it’s not my place to rate a person’s life. My rating is based solely on my connection to the material presented.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The Nazis spared their lives because they were twins.

In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

In a narrative told simply, with emotion and astonishing restraint, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.

Also included is an epilogue on Eva’s incredible recovery and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis. Through her museum and her lectures, she dedicated her life to giving testimony on the Holocaust, providing a message of hope for people who have suffered, and worked toward goals of forgiveness, peace, and the elimination of hatred and prejudice in the world.

Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust – Rebecca Clifford

If you cannot recount the story of your own family, your home town, or your formative experiences, how do you make sense of your childhood and its impacts?

Most of us take our early childhood memories for granted. They form part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from. For so many children who survived the Holocaust, these memories are either entirely missing or exist only in fragments. There are often no surviving family members who can help them fill in the blanks.

The survivors whose stories are explored in this book were all born between 1935 and 1944. Previous books I’ve read about Holocaust survivors were written by people who were either teenagers or adults during the war. The oldest survivors mentioned here were only ten years old in 1945.

“For most survivors who are not young child survivors, there was a before, you see.”

From an interview with Zilla C., conducted by psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg in 1987

Even though I’ve now read the excerpts of their stories I’m still have trouble getting my head around what their lives have been like. For so many years they were not even counted as Holocaust survivors and were encouraged to simply move on with their lives and forget what memories they had of that time.

‘Just think it never happened,’ they urged, ‘and you will start a fresh new life.’

Paulette S., on how OSE staff tried to prepare her to move across the globe

In addition, there was a “disconnect between what children after the war felt and what their adult carers expected them to feel.”

The children’s wartime experiences consisted of at least one of the following:

survival in hiding, in flight to a neutral country or Allied territory, in ghettos and transit camps, and in concentration camps.

The ways these children coped with the trauma of the war and the subsequent traumas of being moved between institutional care, family members, and foster and adoptive homes is addressed. Some of the children lived in stable, loving homes during the war, albeit not with family members, only to be abruptly taken from them at the end of the war.

More often than not, they were moved to countries where they didn’t know the language. Many went to live with strangers and had to try to figure out who they were with little to no assistance.

Survivors has been extensively researched, with sources from “archival material, including care agency files, records from care homes, indemnity claims, psychiatric reports, letters, photographs, and unpublished memoirs, documents originating from nearly a dozen different countries”. The bibliography and detailed footnotes make up almost 15% of the book.

I had expected almost all of the book to consist of detailed stories of individual survivors. Snippets of interviews with survivors are included, as are overviews of the wartime experiences of a number of them. There is also a lot of information and commentary on changes that occurred throughout the decades that impacted on survivors. Some of these changes relate to what was happening in the world at the time and some examines the ways survivors have related to their stories as they grew older.

We should not be surprised to find that the way in which we tell the stories of our lives changes over time; this is true for child survivors as it is for all people.

I found it unusual that whenever survivors in general were discussed, most of the time they would be referred to as ‘she’ or ‘her’, even though interviews with male survivors are also included in the book. Some information was repeated in different chapters and I began to dread seeing the phrase ‘as we have seen’, but I came away with a much better understanding of both the short and long term impacts of the Holocaust on these young survivors.

I’m left wanting to know more about the individuals I was introduced to. Having said that, I agree with the author (an oral historian) that the level of detail I’m interested in would require many more volumes.

Content warnings include anti-Semitism, child abuse, death by suicide and attempted suicide, domestic violence, mental health, murder, sexual assault and trauma.

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Told for the first time from their perspective, the story of children who survived the chaos and trauma of the Holocaust.

How can we make sense of our lives when we do not know where we come from? This was a pressing question for the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, whose prewar memories were vague or nonexistent. In this beautifully written account, Rebecca Clifford follows the lives of one hundred Jewish children out of the ruins of conflict through their adulthood and into old age.

Drawing on archives and interviews, Clifford charts the experiences of these child survivors and those who cared for them – as well as those who studied them, such as Anna Freud. Survivors explores the aftermath of the Holocaust in the long term, and reveals how these children – often branded “the lucky ones” – had to struggle to be able to call themselves “survivors” at all. Challenging our assumptions about trauma, Clifford’s powerful and surprising narrative helps us understand what it was like living after, and living with, childhoods marked by rupture and loss.

The Gift – Edith Eger

Hope. It’s what lit the fire within my soul when I read The Choice and it’s what made its flame shine even brighter as I made my way through The Gift. Hope that I can do the work that I know I need to do in order to address the pain and trauma I’ve experienced. Hope, because if Edith Eger can do it then so can I. Hope, which Dr Eger defines as “the awareness that suffering, however terrible, is temporary; and the curiosity to discover what happens next.”

One of my takeaways from The Choice was a desire to have the opportunity to be counselled by Dr Eger, a survivor whose experiences, compassion and insight combine to allow her to get to the root of a problem before she lovingly guides you towards the you that you’ve been stifling under layers of pain, anger, [insert relevant adjective/s here], and paralysing what if’s. You may never have the honour of sitting across from Dr Eger in her office but this book is the next best thing.

All therapy is grief work. A process of confronting a life where you expect one thing and get another, a life that brings you the unexpected and unanticipated.

If you’ve already read The Choice then you’ll be familiar with some of the stories of Dr Eger’s life and those of her patients that are included in this book. You’ll also find stories that will be new to you, which help illustrate the points Dr Eger makes as she hands you the keys that will help you unlock the prison of your mind.

To heal doesn’t mean to get over it, but it does mean that we are able to be wounded and whole, to find happiness and fulfillment in our lives despite our loss.

Twelve keys are presented in this book. Dr Eger addresses the prisons of victimhood, avoidance, self-neglect, secrets, guilt and shame, unresolved grief, rigidity, resentment, paralysing fear, judgement, hopelessness, and not forgiving.

At the end of each chapter you’ll find ‘Keys to Free Yourself’. These consolidate what you’ve learned in the chapter and can be used to facilitate your own healing. Some require you to use your imagination. Others provide prompts that you can use in journalling. Then there are some that would be ideal to work through with a therapist.

I like to remind my patients: the opposite of depression is expression.

What comes out of you doesn’t make you sick; what stays in there does.

This is one of those books where it would have been much easier to have highlighted the passages that didn’t speak directly to me. While I discovered the gems in this book in the order Dr Eger has presented them, you don’t need to do this. Each chapter is its own lesson, so you can take what you need when you need it. I know I will be rereading this book from cover to cover in the not too distant future but I also anticipate I’ll be spending more time on specific chapters over time.

Although healing from pain and trauma is serious work, that doesn’t mean there aren’t smiles to be had as you make your way through this book. Currently, my favourite smile-inducing quote is about taking charge:

Don’t be Cinderella, sitting in the kitchen waiting for a guy with a foot fetish.

You could dive into this book without having experienced The Choice but I would recommend reading them in the order of publication. While you can apply the lessons to your life without knowing Dr Eger’s own story, they’re enriched by this knowledge.

Because I know what Dr Eger chose to share in The Choice, I trust her when she outlines what she found helpful. I also can’t give myself an out, claiming something is too difficult, when I have witnessed someone I now have such admiration for working through unimaginable pain and trauma to find freedom.

I now recognize that the most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket. No matter how great our suffering or how strong the bars, it’s possible to break free from whatever’s holding us back.

It is not easy. But it is so worth it.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, grief, gun violence, murder, racism, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

This practical and inspirational guide to healing from the bestselling author of The Choice shows us how to release your self-limiting beliefs and embrace your potential.

The prison is in your mind. The key is in your pocket.

In the end, it’s not what happens to us that matters most – it’s what we choose to do with it. We all face suffering – sadness, loss, despair, fear, anxiety, failure. But we also have a choice; to give in and give up in the face of trauma or difficulties, or to live every moment as a gift.

Celebrated therapist and Holocaust survivor, Dr Edith Eger, provides a hands-on guide that gently encourages us to change the imprisoning thoughts and destructive behaviours that may be holding us back. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients her empowering lessons help you to see your darkest moments as your greatest teachers and find freedom through the strength that lies within.

The Choice – Edith Eger

“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Sometimes a book will find you at the very moment you need it. This is one of those books. I’ve previously marvelled at the resilience of some other remarkable human beings who survived the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel. Viktor Frankl.

Joining them is Edith Eger. A survivor whose courage both astounds me and gives me hope. A woman who will be occupying the space in my heart that she has made bigger with her compassion. A touchstone for the times I feel like I don’t have the strength to survive my own pain.

What follows is the story of the choices, big and small, that can lead us from trauma to triumph, from darkness to light, from imprisonment to freedom.

It would be so easy to hear even part of Edith’s story and say to yourself that your pain is insignificant compared to what she has experienced but after reading this book I realise that would be a disservice to her. Edith doesn’t rank pain and would prefer your response to be one of, “If she can do it, then so can I!” For someone whose power was taken away in such a brutal way at such a young age, Edith’s message is that much more empowering and impactful.

I can’t begin to imagine how I would have fared if I had been in Edith’s place. What I do know is, like everyone, I have experienced pain and trauma. Through Edith’s story and those of the people she’s counselled, I gained insights into my own life. Light made its way into dark corners that are painful to look at and while there’s still plenty of work to be done, it no longer feels impossible. Now I just need to make a counselling appointment with Edith. 😊

I expected to ugly cry my way through this book and surprised myself when I didn’t. The tears came unexpectedly, when I started rambling about how extraordinary Edith’s story is to someone. I was doing fine, right up until I began to explain that Edith would not have survived had it not been for a loaf of bread. Then I lost it.

Any story that even lightly touches on the Holocaust is bound to include the depravity that humans inflict on other humans. What touched me so much about that part of Edith’s story was it showed me the beauty that can still live within people, despite the ugliness that surrounds them.

I loved the way this book was written. I often felt like I was in conversation with Edith, that I was sitting across from her in a comfy chair in a room with a fireplace warming us as she was telling me a specific part of her story. I ran the gamut of emotions as I was reading but the style itself felt very down to earth.

No one heals in a straight line.

One of my favourite takeaways is the way Edith explains trauma. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the long term impacts she has lived with and that alone endeared her to me. So often the message seems to be that once you have survived the experience it’s all sunshine and roses from that day forward. No, pain hurts and surviving the aftermath of pain hurts too.

Edith’s authenticity when she talked about experiencing flashbacks and nightmares decades after her initial survival spoke to parts of me I can’t even verbalise yet, but I know some of what I felt as I read those parts was a bubbling hope rising up within me. When I read her take on PTSD I actually stopped reading to cheer; what I have long believed was actually being said by someone else.

This is why I now object to pathologizing post-traumatic stress by calling it a disorder. It’s not a disordered reaction to trauma – it’s a common and natural one.

I can already see a time in the near future where I’m going to need to reread this book. Different things are going to speak to me at different parts of my life; I can feel it in my bones.

What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past.

It’s not unusual for me to finish a book and be overcome by the need to book evangelise. Oftentimes it’s a wanting to shout from the rooftops, ‘Hey, you! Read this book! Then let’s talk about how much we both loved it.’ I also want to book evangelise The Choice but it’s coming more from a quiet knowing that this book can change lives. It’s a desire for people to get an infusion of compassion and empathy, to see in black and white what can happen when we don’t treat other humans like humans, and to make sure this never happens again.

We can choose what the horror teaches us. To become bitter in our grief and fear. Hostile. Paralyzed. Or to hold on to the childlike part of us, the lively and curious part, the part that is innocent.

I’m in awe of Edith surviving Auschwitz at all. To see what she has done since, both in working towards her own healing and facilitating the healing of countless others? I don’t know enough words to be able to adequately convey the way that makes me feel. This is truly a remarkable woman and if you haven’t already, you really need to read this book.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, eating disorders, grief, mental health, murder, racism, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1944, sixteen-year-old Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz. There she endured unimaginable experiences, including being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, Edith’s bravery helped her sister to survive, and led to her bunkmates rescuing her during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.

In The Choice, Dr Edith Eger shares her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since. Today, she is an internationally acclaimed psychologist whose patients include survivors of abuse and soldiers suffering from PTSD. She explains how many of us live within a mind that has become a prison, and shows how freedom becomes possible once we confront our suffering.

Like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but exceptional in its own right, The Choice is life changing. Warm, compassionate and infinitely wise, it is a profound examination of the human spirit, and our capacity to heal.

Mayhem – Estelle Laure

“Don’t you want to know what’s really going on, Mayhem?”

Mayhem and Roxy, her mother, have recently moved in with Elle, Roxy’s twin sister, and her foster children. Roxy always swore she’d never return to Santa Maria but Mayhem doesn’t know why. It turns out there’s a lot she doesn’t know about being a Brayburn.

This book covers a lot of ground: family legacies, the secrets we keep from ourselves and others, the impacts of trauma and the ways we try to reclaim our power.

I was only three. Lyle saved us. That’s the story.

The portrayal of what it’s like for a child living in a home where domestic violence is the norm was painfully authentic. I could feel what it was like for Mayhem as the abuse was happening to both herself and her mother, the impacts of which were evident throughout the story.

I particularly appreciated the fact that once there was some physical distance between the abused and abuser, life didn’t automatically become sunshine and roses. The abuse wasn’t sensationalised but it also wasn’t sugarcoated.

Roxy doesn’t cry. Neither of us do. We don’t talk about it, even to each other, like if we never say it out loud, it will stop.

There were some sentences that resonated with me so much that I had to reread them immediately and then pause while I absorbed them. I anticipate these quotes will be staying with me for quite a while:

“Don’t let the idea of people overshadow truth.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to hear things, because then you have to admit other things and the story you’ve been telling yourself unravels so fast you can barely handle it.”

I found the names of several businesses in the story absolutely delightful. I’d stop reading when I came across those as well, but only long enough to say to the nearest person, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’. My favourite was We’ve Got Issues, a comic book store. Brilliant!

Then there were the parts of the story that hovered over my head, just out of reach. In particular, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening during the scenes where magic happens. There often wasn’t enough detail given to allow me to ‘see’ what was going on.

There was one scene involving the serial killer where this was especially evident; I didn’t even know what happened until I was given more information a few pages later. Incidentally, I had hoped the serial killer would have more page time than they did. The resolution of their part of the story was much too quick and easy for my liking.

I began to read some reviews to find out if I was the only one who wasn’t always getting it. Plenty of reviewers have mentioned the similarities between this story and The Lost Boys. I’ve never seen that movie and I’m still not sure if it was an advantage or disadvantage coming into this book uninitiated.

It has made me wonder if some of the more magical components of this story were written using a kind of shorthand, where if you were familiar with the movie you’d know exactly what the author was talking about without needing the additional descriptions that would have been beneficial for me.

The person I most wanted to get to know was Neve but she remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I wanted to find out more about her life before she lived with Elle but I only caught a couple of glimpses.

“They do not mess with us,” Neve murmurs, almost to herself. “For good reason.”

I’ve never been a fan of insta-love although sometimes it grows on me as a story progresses. It didn’t here. I also became frustrated as the story never really came together for me, even though there were plenty of elements that I should have loved.

Aspects of the story didn’t have the depth I was looking for and neither did some of the characters. I wanted to come away having a detailed understanding of the way the magic worked but I could only explain it to you in vague terms. I don’t even really know how to explain it but it was like I got a taste of many things but never the entire experience.

“People want to keep secrets from you, but it’s not right. You need to know everything.”

Content warnings include addiction (alcohol and other drugs), child abuse, death by suicide, domestic violence, emotional abuse, murder, physical abuse and sexual assault. Further information can be found on the author’s website.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else. 

But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good. 

But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost. 

The Year of the Witching – Alexis Henderson

Spoilers Ahead!

“You never go into those woods, you hear? There’s evil in them.”

Immanuelle is a shepherdess who lives in Bethel with her family. She was raised by her grandparents, Abram and Martha, having never known her parents. Also living in the home are Anna, Abram’s second wife, and their two children, Glory and Honor.

The Moore family follow the Prophet and the Holy Scriptures faithfully, although their fellow Bethelans will never forget what Immanuelle’s mother, Miriam, did. Her sin continues to cast a shadow over her entire family.

Bethel is a community where polygamy is the norm, the Prophet’s power is absolute and indiscretions, actual or perceived, can be punished by pyre. Men have taken and abused their power, but some of the women are also complicit. Faith is polluted by fear and repression.

Bordering Bethel is the Darkwood, the home of Lilith and her coven of witches, a place to be feared and avoided at all costs. Except the Darkwood is calling Immanuelle and if she heeds the call she will be putting both her life and soul on the line.

Even now, their ghosts still haunted the Darkwood, hungry for the souls of those who dared to enter their realm.

Or so the stories said.

There will be blood.

Once upon a time I spent several years studying the Bible and one of the things that fascinated me at the time was discovering the original meaning of specific words I was reading. Sometimes it wouldn’t make a difference but there were also times where the entire meaning of a passage could change once I knew one word’s origin. Why am I telling you this in the middle of my review? Well, I’m glad you asked.

As I was reading I kept noticing specific names whose etymology seemed perfectly matched to their characters and while I could be wrong, it felt intentional. I won’t go into all of the connections by brain made while I was reading here but I will mention a couple that stood out to me.

Bethel may mean ‘house of God’ but the current Prophet is anything but godly. In a sea of biblical names, the current Prophet’s name is Grant. Revered by his followers, this Prophet claims to speak for the Father. Visions of the Prophet are treated as gospel and given how isolated Bethel is, there aren’t outside influences challenging the status quo.

Given his predilections, perversion of power and the I want to punch that guy urges I experienced as I got to know him, it felt right that Grant wasn’t named after someone in the Bible, or anything associated with biblical teachings, like Glory and Honor.

Ezra, the name of the Prophet’s son and successor, means help or helper.

In what was quite possibly my favourite association, Immanuelle stepping foot in the Darkwood was Judas’ fault. Naturally.

Now, I acknowledge I could be seeing things here that were not intended but I also noticed that, prologue and epilogue aside, this book contained forty chapters. Forty in the Bible usually denotes a period of testing, trial or probation.

Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.

I really enjoyed this book but, although I was sure I was becoming emotionally invested in the characters as I was getting to know them, I don’t think I really did. Although the characters experience a lot of high stress situations I never felt the urgency. I didn’t worry about them when they were in danger and when they experienced something that could have triggered an ugly cry I was left unaffected.

There were accused witches, girls and women who broke some arbitrary rule set forth by man and/or religion, and those that maybe didn’t break a rule at all but were accused of a crime.

To be a woman is to be a sacrifice.

From the writings of Teman, the first wife of the third Prophet, Omaar

Then there were the actual witches, the characters I was most looking forward to getting to know, whose dark presence casts a shadow on the apparent light of this religious community. The Unholy Four make an impact when they appear but they didn’t get nearly as much page time as I had hoped they would. I didn’t feel I got to know them at all.

This book nudged up against one of my pet peeves, where someone who has recently obtained new powers doesn’t need to spend weeks, months or years in training learning how to wield them. While the character I’m referencing here doesn’t entirely violate this pet peeve, there was definitely some instinctual knowing how to use them involved.

I wondered why the events that activated the final two plagues were different than the first two. I may have missed something or not have thought about it enough but it seemed to me that the first two were forming a pattern.

Why did the forest call to her?

I’ll be look out for this author’s future releases.

Content warnings include animal sacrifice, grooming, immolation, paedophilia, physical abuse, racism, scarification and sexual assault. Readers with emetophobia may struggle with some scenes.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Born on the fringes of Bethel, Immanuelle does her best to obey the Church and follow Holy Protocol. For it was in Bethel that the first Prophet pursued and killed four powerful witches, and so cleansed the land.

And then a chance encounter lures her into the Darkwood that surrounds Bethel.

It is a forbidden place, haunted by the spirits of the witches who bestow an extraordinary gift on Immanuelle. The diary of her dead mother …

Fascinated by and fearful of the secrets the diary reveals, Immanuelle begins to understand why her mother once consorted with witches. And as the truth about the Prophets, the Church and their history is revealed, so Immanuelle understands what must be done. For the real threat to Bethel is its own darkness.

Bethel must change. And that change will begin with her …

Where the Veil is Thin – Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbott (editors)

So, here I am again, having read an entire anthology just because there’s a contribution from Seanan McGuire. I always think this is a brilliant idea when I first stumble across the book but my excitement generally turns to dread when I remember that short stories and I have a love-hate relationship. I love some and I hate some. Sometimes the love outweighs the hate but more times than I can count it’s the other way around.

Taking on faeries (“Yes, but we don’t like to use that word.”) are fourteen authors. Included in the mix are stories of love and betrayal, a unicorn named Kevin, changelings and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that knows when you’re cheating.

The Tooth Fairies: Quest for Tear Haven by Glenn Parris

Night always invited wayward blood thirst in one form or another.

Glamour by Grey Yuen

“The door! We saw the door. I swear it! It had a mouth and it screamed!”

See a Fine Lady by Seanan McGuire

“It’s always so much easier to do our shopping when someone can see us.”

Or Perhaps Up by C.S.E. Cooney

“Family does not pull family under. We pull each other out.”

Don’t Let Go by Alana Joli Abbott

“You shouldn’t have seen that.”

The Loophole by L. Penelope

“Seems like my last meal isn’t agreeing with me.”

The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud by Minsoo Kang

“Even as we speak, the fate of the man who has done me wrong is being sealed.”

Your Two Better Halves by Carlos Hernandez

“Your choices are your opportunities.”

Take Only Photos by Shanna Swendson

“What else that’s supposed to be imaginary is actually real?”

Old Twelvey Night by Gwendolyn N. Nix

It happened the same way every time.

The Seal-Woman’s Tale by Alethea Kontis

Ah, humans. My guilty pleasure, my fatal flaw. They were always just so … fun.

The Storyteller by David Bowles

“Would you like to hear a story?”

Summer Skin by Zin E. Rocklyn

It would be nice to be noticed.

Colt’s Tooth by Linda Robertson

“You’re not going anywhere ‘til I get those teeth!”

All of the anthologies that came before this one are now collectively pointing at me and sneering, ‘Have we taught you nothing about yourself?’ While this book already boasts multiple five star reviews, I wandered through it underwhelmed. I’d encourage you to read some of these five star reviews before deciding whether or not this is the book for you.

I loved Anna Dittmann’s cover illustration but unfortunately I didn’t come away with any favourite stories.

Content warnings include mention of assault, murder, self harm, sexual assault and torture.

Thank you to NetGalley and Outland Entertainment for the opportunity to read this anthology.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

These are not your daughter’s faerie stories …

Around the world, there are tales of creatures that live in mist or shadow, hidden from humans by only the slightest veil. In Where the Veil Is Thin, these creatures step into the light. Some are small and harmless. Some are bizarre mirrors of this world. Some have hidden motives, while others seek justice against humans who have wronged them.

In these pages, you will meet blood-sucking tooth fairies and gentle boo hags, souls who find new shapes after death and changelings seeking a way to fit into either world. You will cross the veil – but be careful that you remember the way back. 

A Cosmology of Monsters – Shaun Hamill

Spoilers Ahead!

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This book is a difficult one for me to review. It’s been on my radar for nearly a year and I loved the writing style and how well I felt I knew many of the characters, but it also had some problematic moments for me.

I loved hearing all about the history of this family, tragedy and all. I liked getting a feel for the dynamics between its members and the ways they individually coped with the pain that they’d experienced. The more I learned about their complexities as individuals and as a whole, the more I wanted to delve deeper. The unlikeable parts of certain characters made them even more real to me.

“How often do I get a chance to live out a true-life nightmare?”

I couldn’t get enough information about the Tomb and The Wandering Dark. I could easily visualise each room and I was eager to experience them for myself. I was even plotting new rooms that I could add to those the family had created and wondered how I could get involved behind the scenes to bring the scares to life.

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I even loved it when the monster was introduced. I love monster stories so I was looking forward to getting to know this one but certain aspects of the monster’s behaviour didn’t work for me at all. Now, this is where my review becomes a spoilery rant, so you may want to skip the next four paragraphs. Sorry, my rants get kinda wordy.

Okay, if you’re still with me, I’ll assume you have either read the book already or spoilers don’t bother you. So, the monster. As Noah started spending more time with the monster I wondered about its why, how and what. When some vital information about the monster was revealed my curiosity quickly turned to ‘I no longer want to read this book’ and I would have DNF’ed at this point if I hadn’t committed to reviewing it.

The monster had been grooming Noah since he was six years old. This meant that when they eventually began having sex (apparently fairly regularly), my brain immediately went to ‘ewww!’ and I felt decidedly icky reading about it. If these scenes had involved a female child and male monster/adult, there would likely be an uproar and I don’t see why it should be any less abhorrent because the genders have been switched here. Thankfully, this is eventually called out for what it was by a minor character. Briefly.

Then there was Sydney, who thought she was having a relationship with a man, but there was a huge power imbalance as he was her teacher. Depending on where you live, legally this may or may not be called statutory rape, but even if it isn’t the power balance alone is enough to make alarm bells echo in my head. This whole thing is effectively silenced. Noah keeps the secret. Sydney gets put out that her ‘relationship’ is over. It’s never called out for what is really is. Even near the end of the book it’s described as a man who fell in love with a teenager.

I acknowledge that my experience of sexual assault could be colouring my perceptions of both Noah and Sydney’s experiences to a certain degree, but I still can’t imagine ever being okay with either situation. I do need to say that the minor character naming Noah’s experience redeemed that part of the narrative for me to an extent, although it will never be anything but icky to me. Sydney didn’t have anyone dismantling the truth she’d lived with and that wound up tainting some of my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

“It’s seen us. It has our scent.”

While I don’t generally have a problem with endings where the bows aren’t all tied, I did want to know more about the City and the history of the monsters. I was fine with not knowing exactly what was next for some of the human characters, although I could see the way the story resolved for Noah a mile off.

Loss, grief and the experiences that haunt us are central to this book. In exploring those through Noah’s story, the horror in part becomes about the parts of yourself that you hide and those that feed on your pain. I didn’t have to work at all to get into this book and the characters became real almost immediately. It wasn’t the horror I was expecting but I was sucked in and am interested in reading more books by this author.

“Noah, there is no such thing as a happy ending. There are only good stopping places.”

Content warnings include mention of abortion, cancer, death of loved ones, grooming and sexual assault, homophobia, mental health, suicidal ideation, attempted suicide and death by suicide.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Noah Turner’s family are haunted by monsters that are all too real, strange creatures that visit them all: His bookish mother Margaret; Lovecraft-obsessed father Harry; eldest sister Sydney, born for the spotlight; the brilliant but awkward Eunice, a gifted writer and storyteller – the Turners each face their demons alone.

When his terminally-ill father becomes obsessed with the construction of an elaborate haunted house – the Wandering Dark – the family grant his last wish, creating themselves a legacy, and a new family business in their grief. But families don’t talk about the important things, and they try to shield baby Noah from horrors, both staged and real.

As the family falls apart, fighting demons of poverty, loss and sickness, the real monsters grow ever closer. Unbeknownst to them, Noah is being visited by a wolfish beast with glowing orange eyes. Noah is not the first of the Turners to meet the monster, but he is the first to let it into his room …