Savage Island #2: Cruel Castle – Bryony Pearce

It’s been six months since the Iron Teen Tragedy, something that readers of Savage Island will immediately recognise as PR spin. Only Grady, Ben and Lizzie know the truth about what really happened on Aikenhead, Marcus Gold’s private island.

While Ben and Lizzie have been in hiding from Gold, Grady has been working for him. For the past four months he’s been one of the participants in Gold’s graduate programme in London. When he learns he’s being sent on a team building weekend at Stowerling Keep, Gold’s castle in Scotland, Grady knows this won’t be any ordinary team building exercise. He is certain it’s going to be Aikenhead 2.0.

Stowerling Keep. It’s going to make Aikenhead look like Disneyland.

Accompanying conspiracy theorist Grady on this potential bloodbath are several of his fellow graduates:

  • Aanay, who seems too nice to have made it into Gold’s graduate programme
  • Bella, a girl who uses her looks to manipulate others into doing her bidding
  • Dawson, one of the “clones”, who won’t let anyone see what he’s written in the notebook he carries in his trouser pocket
  • Iris, who doesn’t talk to anyone.

Of course, Ben and Lizzie aren’t going to let an opportunity to expose Gold’s nefarious deeds to the world go to waste. They may not have received a personal invitation from Gold to come to Stowerling Keep but that’s why infiltration was invented.

Savage Island was one of my favourite reads of 2018 and while many books I’ve read since then are now pretty fuzzy in my mind, my memory of it remains sharp. If I had to describe it in three words, it would be Survivor: Psychopath Edition. It felt fresh. It surprised me. I didn’t know where it was going. I’m all for gore in my horror and it gave me some “ew!” moments. I absolutely adored it!

Naturally, I was all in when I learned there was a sequel. I enjoyed it but it didn’t pack the punch of the original for me. In horror sequels I expect the body count to be higher, the deaths to be more gruesome and the twists to just keep on coming.

This sequel plays out in a series of escape rooms, which I’ve seen done so many times now, and for it to have given me the wow factor of the first book it would have needed to up the ante in a massive way. There is plenty of blood to paint the walls with, there’s bone crunching and some insides that are now your outsides action to look forward to but it felt somewhat tame to me when I compared it with Savage Island.

Told in four voices, Ben, Lizzie, Grady and another whose name I won’t mention because spoilers, I got a sense of what everyone’s state of mind was as we progressed through the ‘team building’. Switching up the perspectives also helped to propel the story along and provided opportunities for flashbacks to help explain the relevant backstories.

While I liked being able to get inside Grady’s head, I never really bought what was going on with Ben. If I hadn’t already encountered that explanation multiple times before, in books and movies, then it might have made sense to me but I’ve seen it done too many times (and usually not well) so I wasn’t as receptive to it here. This probably won’t be a problem for younger readers, who won’t have come across this or escape rooms as many times as I have.

It probably sounds like I didn’t have fun reading this book. I did, though, and I’m really looking forward to reading more books by this author. If anything, because I loved Savage Island so much, my expectations for this book may have been unreasonably high.

If a third book in the series is ever written, I’ll be there at the front of the queue to read it. I’d just hoped this book would be completely over the top (in a good way) like the first book was.

I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA horror. For context, though, and to understand what the three main characters have already survived, you’ll want to read Savage Island first.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide and mental health.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

They thought the island was the end. It was only the beginning…

Having survived the horrors of Savage Island, Grady is now stuck working for Gold, the psychopath who masterminded the gruesome competition. Sent on a “team-building exercise” in a remote castle, he starts to plot his escape.

Ben and Lizzie are in hiding, presumed dead after escaping the island. If they’re ever to return to their families, they need to bring Gold down. So they secretly join Grady in the castle. But as the doors slam shut and the series of deadly challenges between them and freedom are revealed, it looks like history is going to repeat itself…

A Red Eye horror novel for teens, this gripping sequel to Savage Island is full of fast-paced action and gruesome twists and turns. 

Faithless – Hunter Shea

Father Raul Figeuroa, an Episcopalian priest, had it all. Bella, his loving wife. Abel, his son. Lizzy, his daughter. A happy life. Until his family are brutally murdered.

“It’s better you don’t go in there.”

Raul’s faith dies with his family. He gives up the priesthood, planning to live out his days in seclusion on his aunt’s farm. His only company will be the alcohol and pills which, if he does it right, will reunite him with his family soon.

Except Raul’s not alone on the farm.

This was a different book than what I was expecting. Hunter Shea has made an urban legend come to life. He’s shown me what New York rats are capable of. He’s even given me a final girl to hang out with. I thought I knew where this book was going. I was so wrong.

Prayers would not be answered here.

Much of this book highlights the way grief haunts you and some of the ways we self destruct in our attempts to numb pain, but because it’s a Hunter Shea book there’s more to the story than that.

I loved Raul’s childhood friend, Felix, and was ready to adopt Bruiser, the Maine Coon that scratched its way into my heart. I really enjoyed getting to know Raul and Felix and following them down some pretty dark paths.

I didn’t completely buy into the explanation for what was really going on and the ending raised some theological question marks in my brain but I was still hooked for the entire ride.

I can’t wait to find out what will be causing the bloodshed in the author’s next book.

It was time to poke around the dark places.

Content warnings include addiction, alcoholism, racial slurs and suicidal ideation.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

How do you survive hearing your family being brutally murdered over the phone? For Father Raul Figeuroa, all faith and hope are lost. Turning away from the priesthood behind, he retreats to his aunt’s empty farmhouse in upstate New York, hoping to drink himself to oblivion. But he’s not alone in the house. Something is trying to reach out to him. Or is he losing his grip on reality? When his childhood friend Felix comes to visit, things take a darker turn. The deeper they dig into the mystery, the closer they get to hell literally breaking loose. 

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.

The Haunted Heart of America – Logan Corelli

Between you and I, I thought Peter Venkman was telling a furphy when he said he had a PhD in parapsychology, but that’s the exact qualification the author has. I knew from watching American TV growing up that American colleges and universities have much more interesting subjects than we do in Australia, but parapsychology? I definitely would have studied at least one subject in that field if it had been on offer.

So, besides his PhD in parapsychology, the author has a doctorate in metaphysics and is also an ordained reverend (yes, his bio confirms he’s performed exorcisms, although there are none in this book).

This books provides some basic historical background for some well known American haunted locations, including Waverly Hills Sanitarium and the Myrtle Plantation. Then the author gives their impressions of each time they’ve investigated them.

If you were to ask me if I’m a Mulder or Scully, I’d tell you I’m both. I want to believe but I also want the science to back it up. Considering that to label something paranormal means that current scientific knowledge doesn’t have an answer for it, I’m fully aware that I want to have my cake and eat it too, but I’m okay with that.

Without fail, I wanted to scream, ‘Have you not studied Horror 101?’ every time the group of investigators decided to split up. I also may have groaned each time someone got an impression, a “feeling of unease” or “a strange sensation”.

I got a playful, innocent feeling at times and a scared, threatened feeling at others.

Vibes weren’t exactly the kind of evidence I was looking for.

Speaking of evidence, there were some times the author said they recorded voices and said what they heard. At other times, though, it was claimed they recorded … something, but never specified what. Then there were the times someone heard a voice but no one else did, or someone heard a voice but it wasn’t picked up by the recorder. I would have loved to have been given a link so I could listen to these recordings myself.

There were some photographs included in the book that were said to be showing a ghostly face or other spooky occurrences. The quality of the photos in the copy of the book I read weren’t good enough for me to decide one way or the other. The photo I most wanted to see but was not included was the one that showed a disembodied eye.

I never felt like I knew anything significant about any of the other investigators. Most were only introduced by name, although some of the early introductions included a brief description. We had an “experienced and innovative” investigator and a “mysterious” one, but “talented” Michelle was also “the most beautiful investigator I had met at the time”. I didn’t know whether to be offended on Michelle’s behalf for having a label attached to her that had nothing to do with her skills. I also wondered, yet at the same time didn’t care, who now holds the title of most beautiful as it’s implied Michelle has been demoted.

I did appreciate that the author was willing to say that at times nothing happened or, if something did happen, there was no way to prove that it was supernatural. The writing style, though, was very dry. There was a lot of ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened and then we went to bed’. The emotion that you’d expect to accompany occurrences like feeling someone was tugging on your shirt or voices coming from nowhere weren’t evident in the writing.

It was frustrating when the author said they saw or heard something significant but they didn’t have any equipment with them to record it, or when they witnessed something while in a group but decided for whatever reason not to mention it to anyone at the time.

If it was me, I’d be asking everyone around me if they saw or heard it too. I’d want the confirmation that I wasn’t hallucinating. I’d also want someone to freak out with. Believe me, if I ever witness something supernatural, no one will be able to accuse me of being casual about the experience.

Because everything was written in such a matter of fact way, it was difficult to become invested in each suspected haunting. At no time was I caught up in the atmosphere, so I was comfortable reading late at night in the dark. I never felt the need to look over my shoulder or turn the lights on.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide.

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

An ironing board jumps off the wall and flies straight toward an investigator’s head at the famous Villisca Axe Murder House. Shadow figures rise out of the ground and run between the gravestones of a haunted cemetery. The mischievous spirit of a deceased child pulls the blankets off an investigator, humming a song from the other side the whole time.

Featuring investigations of famous paranormal hotspots like Waverly Hills, Myrtles Plantation, and The St. James Hotel – as well as many lesser-known though equally fascinating locations – this riveting book details years of creepy stories, hair-raising experiences, and intriguing physical evidence from one of the heartland’s most experienced investigators.

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.

Snowflake – Louise Nealon

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine

This book is an exploration of mental health and it’s a coming of age story. It’s about our relationships, with other people and with ourselves. It’s about how our feelings of not being good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, [insert your own adjective here] enough can manifest in self-destructive behaviours. It’s about cows and snowflakes and stars and dreams.

Debbie grew up in Kildare. She and her Mam, Maeve, live on a dairy farm owned by her uncle Billy. Billy lives in a caravan on the property. Maeve has been writing a book about dreams practically forever and Billy is an alcoholic.

Debbie doesn’t have any friends and her most complicated relationship is with the boy who stands at the back of mass, a boy she’s never spoken to. Now Debbie, a self-proclaimed culchie, is going to university. There she meets Xanthe.

My only friend. Friend? Acquaintance? Person who knows my name?

I’m struggling to think of ways to explain what I liked about each character without getting into spoiler territory. Instead of telling you about specific characters, I’ll tell you what I loved about the characters as a whole.

Every major character is damaged in some way, whether by a personal trauma or the way they see themselves. Every character is trying the best they can with what resources, external and internal, they have to work with. Things might knock them down but they don’t stay down. Everyone is a work in progress.

‘There’s no way to catch a snowflake. And I haven’t met anyone who is able to catch a dream.’

There was an authenticity in the way mental health conditions and emotional pain were addressed throughout the book. Sometimes a sentence that appeared simple enough on the surface felt more profound when I slowed down and reread it.

The bathroom is where I go to recharge, let myself cry and pull myself together just enough to define my edges so I seem solid on the outside.

There were aspects of the story I wanted to delve into further: Maeve’s dreams, Debbie’s dreams, Billy’s mental health…

A character that I could have read an entire book about was Audrey. I wanted to go with her on the journey that led to her making her curiosity cabinet. I felt like she had a backstory that was worth exploring.

Oh, and that quote at the beginning of my review? It’s an Irish saying that means “People live in each other’s shadows.” Basically put, we need one another. I love it!

Content warnings include alcoholism, attempted suicide, disordered eating and mental health.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Eighteen-year-old Debbie White lives on a dairy farm with her mother, Maeve, and her uncle, Billy. Billy sleeps out in a caravan in the garden with a bottle of whiskey and the stars overhead for company. Maeve spends her days recording her dreams, which she believes to be prophecies.

This world is Debbie’s normal, but she is about to step into life as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. As she navigates between sophisticated new friends and the family bubble, things begin to unravel. Maeve’s eccentricity tilts into something darker, while Billy’s drinking gets worse. Debbie struggles to cope with the weirdest, most difficult parts of herself, her family and her small life. But the fierce love of the White family is never in doubt, and Debbie discovers that even the oddest of families are places of safety.

A startling, honest, laugh and cry novel about growing up and leaving home, only to find that you’ve taken it with you, Snowflake is a novel for a generation, and for everyone who’s taken those first, terrifying steps towards adulthood.

The Final Girl Support Group – Grady Hendrix

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“Someone always wants to kill us. It’s never over.”

Dr Carol Elliott has been conducting regular group sessions with final girls for sixteen years. Our final girls are:

  • Marilyn Torres, who won’t let leather touch her skin
  • Adrienne Butler, who was a counsellor at Camp Red Lake
  • Dani Shipman, whose babysitting job didn’t quite go to plan
  • Heather DeLuca, who faced off against the Dream King
  • Julia Campbell, whose experiences were turned into the Stab movies
  • Lynnette Tarkington, who tells the story.

These women have watched friends and family members being butchered by “monsters” but they survived the unsurvivable. Many have even survived sequels. Their stories have been made into successful movie franchises, some have attended conventions and then there are the superfans to contend with.

No one except another final girl can truly understand what it’s like to live with the impacts of this type of trauma. Their scars are both physical and psychological. And it’s really hard to try to move on because there’s never any certainty that the past will stay in the past. These monsters have a habit of not staying dead, after all.

We get subjected to sequels. That’s what makes our guys different, that’s what makes them monsters – they keep coming back.

The final girl support group has been the one constant in the lives of many of these survivors but it’s no longer safe. Someone has been planning their deaths and it’s time for them to fight for their lives. Again.

“This is the sequel or a crossover, or I don’t know what.”

This book was so much fun! I was delighted to discover that the atrocities these women have survived were based on some of my favourite horror movie franchises. Between them, these women have survived Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason and Mrs Voorhees, Ghostface, and Billy and Ricky Chapman. I have never seen the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies but I’ve binged all of the others many times. Some details have changed but the basic plots remain the same.

I loved picking up on the similarities and differences between the backstories of these women and the movies I know so well. The chapter titles are spot on: The Final Girl Support Group’s New Nightmare, Season of the Final Girls, The Final Chapter, The Final Chapter II.

Even the names of the characters are perfect. For example, the woman whose story represents the Scream movies is called Julie Campbell. Neve Campbell, Scream’s final girl, played a character called Julia in Party of Five. Details like that really stood out to me.

After the trauma they have all experienced, it’s not surprising that the final girls live with a variety of long term impacts. I particularly appreciated that there was no ‘one size fits all’ approach in this book. While they all experienced living nightmares, these women cope with their trauma in individual ways. Their different personalities, their support systems (or lack thereof) and their individual strengths and weaknesses all play a part in what their lives look like now.

“Are those guys really that scary?” he asks.

“Scarier than you can ever imagine,” I answer.

In between the blood spatter I started thinking about serial killers. The names of those who commit heinous crimes are usually burned into our brains but how well do we remember the names of the people they murdered? I know the names and predilections of so many infamous serial killers. I often know in detail what they did to their victims but I’d be hard pressed to tell you the names of their victims. I think it’s time for me to rectify this.

Because I’m me, I tested out the address that a character in the book receives emails from. As usual, I was disappointed to get an automatic response saying my email was undeliverable. One of these days an author or marketing person is going to set up the email address that’s included in a book and I’ll finally get a real response. I’m hoping for an exclusive short story, a personal message from the character that I’ve emailed or even a treasure hunt or details of a competition where I can win a signed copy of the book. One day…

I own every single one of Grady Hendrix’s books. I knew I’d love them but somehow they made it into my Kindle’s black hole of good intentions so this is my first Grady Hendrix read. Believe me when I say it will not be my last!

Content warnings include addiction, alcoholism, mental health and suicidal ideation.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Ever wonder what happens to those Final Girls? After the cops eliminate them as suspects, after the press releases their brace-faced, pizza-cheeked, bad-hair-day class photos that inevitably get included on the cover of the true crime book? After the candlelight vigils and the moments of silence, after someone plants the memorial shrub?

For Lynette Tarkington, it’s been a support group. Her, five other final girls, a therapist. Close to twenty years. Today’s the last day for group, but Lynne doesn’t know it yet. It’s also going to be the last day for one of the group. And maybe the final day for all of the final girls, because someone’s been planning a nasty surprise for them for a long time.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead – Heather B. Armstrong

When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.

Heather B. Armstrong has lived with depression since she was a child but her experience in 2017 was more intense than anything prior. She spent eighteen months severely depressed, wanting to be dead but forcing herself to go through the motions, doing “All the Things Needing to Get Done”, because of her children.

It was during this time of desperation that Heather learned of an experimental study being run by Dr Brian Mickey. She was only the third person to qualify for and agree to participate in Dr Mickey’s study. About three times a week for ten sessions, Heather was put to sleep with propofol anaesthesia.

Dr. Bushnell would eventually clarify that they weren’t technically killing me; it was more of a really, really intense induced coma. They were just almost killing me.

Heather’s writing style is engaging, taking the reader on the journey with her: the good, the bad, the TMI, the scary and the funny. I met her family, some of her friends and the professionals treating her. I learned about the abyss and found the humour in Heather’s inability to recall what year it was when she was coming out of anaesthesia (1979 or 2012, every single time).

I particularly loved how candid Heather was in describing her depression, including the fact that she was able to hide its severity from many people for so long.

No one knew that I wanted to be dead. That’s how good I am.

Heather’s story not only showcases her perseverance and bravery, it also highlights how integral supportive family and friends are for people living with mental illness. I adored Heather’s friend, Stacia, who stayed the night with her when she didn’t have the internal safety to be alone.

However, Heather’s mother, Linda, and stepfather, Rob, were the ones who stole my heart. The practical and emotional support they offered almost had me ugly crying. They are everything you need family to be when you need help. I could have hugged Linda when she said:

“We have nothing else to do this month other than be there when you wake up.”

As I read, I kept thinking back to times when I’ve had suicidal ideation and the more I thought about it the more courageous Heather seemed. Regardless of how desperate I was, I don’t think I could have attempted a treatment option with a possible side effect (however rare) of death. That may sound absurd to you. Here I am saying I wanted to die yet I would have been too scared to try a treatment that might kill me. Isn’t that exactly what I wanted?

Well, yes and no. See, to submit yourself to an experimental treatment like Heather did, you would have to think that it’s the only or best option for you. But because it’s labelled as ‘treatment’ a part of you, even if that part is teensy, would hope that it might work. That’s the part that would have terrified me: the prospect of holding hope while knowing that hope could literally kill me.

It can be hard for a lot of people to ask for help when they need it. It’s especially difficult when your brain is lying to you, telling you that the people who love you would be better off without you. Heather’s recovery, with the help of the medical profession as well as her family and friends, will hopefully convince readers that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help and accept it when it’s offered.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, disordered eating, mental health and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Author and blogger Heather B. Armstrong writes about her experience as one of only a few people to participate in an experimental treatment for depression involving ten rounds of a chemically induced coma approximating brain death.

For years, Heather B. Armstrong has alluded to her struggle with depression on her website. But in 2016, Heather found herself in the depths of a depression she just couldn’t shake, an episode darker and longer than anything she had previously experienced. 

This book recalls the torturous eighteen months of suicidal depression she endured and the month-long experimental study in which doctors used propofol anaesthesia to quiet all brain activity for a full fifteen minutes before bringing her back from a flatline. Ten times. The experience wasn’t easy. Not for Heather or her family. But a switch was flipped, and Heather hasn’t experienced a single moment of suicidal depression since. The Valedictorian of Being Dead brings to light a groundbreaking new treatment for depression.

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.

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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…