Billy Summers – Stephen King

‘Bad people need to pay a price. And the price should be high.’ 

Billy Summers makes a living by killing people, but only the bad ones. He’s about to complete his final job before retiring. Needless to say, things don’t exactly go to plan, but if they did Billy never would have met Alice.

I enjoyed watching Billy and Alice forming an unusual but strong bond, despite the traumas they have experienced. While their friendship was unlikely, it was endearing. Although he wasn’t a big part of the story for the longest time, I really liked Bucky. The story within a story worked for me and I was all on board for Billy’s brand of justice. 

Until, that is, when Alice’s bad men got their comeuppance. I always thought I was a firm believer in ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ but what Billy did to the third man very nearly had me DNF’ing this book. Although I kept reading and did enjoy the rest of the ride, the connection I’d felt with Billy prior to this act was severed at that point and I never found it again.

Although it’s not immediately apparent, Billy and Alice’s story is set in the same world as other King novels. Constant Readers, and even those who aren’t huge fans, will definitely recognise one iconic location.

Content warnings include mental health, paedophilia and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He’s a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he’ll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?

How about everything.

The Forevers – Chris Whitaker

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

She was seventeen years old.

She would die in one month.

Mae has grown up knowing that she and her sister, Stella, won’t live long enough to become adults. Asteroid 8050XF11, A.K.A. Selena, is on a collision course with Earth.

So, what do you do when an Extinction Level Event is imminent? Some people put their faith in God and wait for a miracle. Others place their hope in science. If disaster movies have taught us anything, it’s that scientists will consistently fail until just before the credits roll. Then they’ll come up with a solution that’ll save the world. Surely they can do this in real life, too. 

There are the leavers, people “who said their goodbyes or those that simply tired of the wait and disappeared in search of more.” Then there are those who are living like there’s no tomorrow. They figure if you’re not going to live long enough for the consequences to catch up with you, then you might as well do whatever you want.

The countdown is on. There’s one month to go until God performs a miracle, science comes through with the biggest win in the history of the world or everyone dies.

Mae and many others in West spend much of their final month attending school and working. I doubt I would be doing either if I knew the end was nigh. Mae’s also trying to learn the truth behind the recent death of Abi, her former best friend.

Impending doom doesn’t negate the usual high school drama, with popular kids, bullies and outcasts all featured. Some of these kids have significant difficulties in their lives, though, even if you ignore the whole 70 mile wide asteroid that’s going to obliterate them in the very near future thing.

I liked Mae but adored Stella, her eight year old sister, who stole every scene she was in. With such heavy content, I was especially grateful for the comic relief that came in the form of Felix. He was all about sleeping when he’s dead and becoming visible to the love of his life, despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend.

A lot of characters were introduced but I didn’t form a connection with a number of them, due to their personality or because I didn’t get to know them well enough. There’s practically an entire alphabet of content warnings at the end of my review, with so many important issues touched on. However, individual circumstances didn’t always have enough page time for them to be explored in the depth I would have liked. 

For example, for most of the book Sally is pretty much only ever referred to in terms of her weight. She’s the fat girl. She‘s almost always consuming copious amounts of food whenever we see her. She’s fat shamed. A lot. When I finally learned something else about her, I wanted an entire book dedicated to her. There’s so much complexity and emotion there, and it felt like I only just scraped the surface of who she was.

The mystery of what happened to Abi faded into the background at times as the struggles of other characters were explored. There was a resolution, though, and many characters were given the opportunity to do what they needed to in order to finish their stories on their own terms.

Sometimes it took me a while to figure out which character was in a scene with Mae, especially when they’d only be referred to as ‘he’ for several paragraphs before they were named. Some scene changes felt jarring and for a while around the middle of the book I wasn’t even sure if I was enjoying it. 

But this was a compulsive read and Mae and Stella’s relationship kept me invested. An ugly cry snuck up on me at the end and I’m still thinking about several characters. I’m definitely interested in reading more books by this author and I absolutely adored Muhammad Nafay’s cover illustration. 

We made Forever for the creeps and the weirdos, the freaks and the outlaws.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic abuse, fat shaming, homophobia, mental health, overdose, physical abuse, self harm, sexual assault, slut shaming and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Thirty days until the end of the world. What would you do?

They knew the end was coming. They saw it ten years back, when it was far enough away in space and time and meaning.
The changes were gradual, and then sudden.

For Mae and her friends, it means navigating a life where action and consequence are no longer related. Where the popular are both trophies and targets. And where petty grudges turn deadlier with each passing day. So, did Abi Manton jump off the cliff or was she pushed? Her death is just the beginning of the end.

With teachers losing control of their students and themselves, and the end rushing toward all of them, it leaves everyone facing the answer to one, simple question…

What would you do if you could get away with anything?

Red Screen – Stephen King

“Sit down,” Lennie says quietly. “You’ll want to hear this.”

Detective Wilson is already having a bad day when he begins his interview with murder suspect, Lennie. Lennie doesn’t deny being the killer but his explanation sounds like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“It’s the perfect disguise. We’re the perfect disguise.”

This short story was so predictable but I still enjoyed it. The cover image definitely should have been red.

It’s a Humble Bundle exclusive, with all of the proceeds supporting American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), so you’re reading for a good cause.

I haven’t seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers since I was a kid. It might be time to revisit it, if only to count the amount of times people make this face.

description

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In this unsettling short story, a cop interrogates a deranged plumber who just murdered his wife, only to discover something far more insidious.

We’ve teamed up with legendary author Stephen King for a once in a lifetime opportunity. Presenting, Red Screen, a never before published work, exclusively available through Humble Bundle. Pay what you want, and support the ACLU.

The Devil Makes Three – Tori Bovalino

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“I think we summoned the devil”

One of the most important things I can tell you about this book is that most of it takes place in a library. Sure, there’s a resident devil, but don’t let that put you off. This is a library with seven floors of books, including countless grimoires, and a secret passageway. I’m pretty much ready to move in.

I liked Tess’ ability to come up with creative insults and her dedication to her younger sister. I was really looking forward to seeing how her experience with ghosts, having “grown up under the watchful presence of a host of ghosts that haunted her family’s central Pennsylvania farmhouse”, was going to come into play. Unfortunately, while I definitely saw opportunities for some helpful chats with the recently deceased, this remained firmly in fun fact territory.

I also liked Eliot, who made an indelible impression on me when he requested 147 books from the library at once. My kind of bookworm. His love for his mother made me like him even more. It also didn’t hurt that he smells like pages and vanilla.

While I liked both Tess and Eliot, I never really connected with either of them. The emotion wasn’t there for me and the one scene that I was expecting would ramp it up happened off page.

There is an actual devil in this book but the Big Bad for me was Eliot’s father. He’s absolutely detestable.

I liked the story and wanted to know what was going to happen but this wasn’t the compulsive read I had expected.

Content warnings include mention of bullying, emotional abuse, physical abuse and self harm (either unintentional or for blood magic). Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with one scene.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath the school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other. And compared to what the devil has in store for them, school stress suddenly doesn’t seem so bad after all.

The Treatment – C.L. Taylor

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

Drew’s brother, Mason, has recently been sent to the Residential Reform Academy, a therapeutic boarding school, to overcome his ‘behavioural problems’. The hope that Mason will come back a changed person becomes fear that Mason will come back a zombified changed person when a woman who says she worked at the Academy accosts Drew and hands her a note, supposedly from her brother, before running off.

Help me, Drew! We’re not being reformed, we’re being brainwashed.

Because this is a young adult novel, pretty much all of the adults are useless, evil or disinterested so if someone is going to save the day it’s going to have to be Drew. And that’s just what she decides to do.

Now Drew is also at the Academy and if she doesn’t figure out a foolproof plan soon, her brother won’t be the only one getting treated.

‘Obedience, compliance and honesty. They’re the bedrocks of society.’

This was a quick, compulsive read. There’s danger, action and a bunch of kids who have all been labelled as bad stuck in a system that’s supposed to be helping them but could actually be causing them irreparable harm.

Drew was an interesting main character. Initially a loner, she rallies when she learns her brother is in danger and even makes a friend along the way. I really liked Mouse, although I wanted to learn more about her backstory. I found Lacey and Jude so very irritating, but it probably would have been weird if I didn’t want to find a way to reach through the pages to slap them.

Some coincidences were a little over the top, like Zed just so happening to live close enough to Drew that they could meet face to face and Lacey just so happening to wind up at the Academy as well. In Drew’s very own room. What did Lacey do to get sent there anyway? Was she really so desperate to bully Drew that she followed her there? Speaking of coincidences, Drew’s dad, who’s been missing for eight years, just so happened to also be at the Academy.

Then there were the things that seemed too easy, like people being deprogrammed so quickly when they were faced with a specific fear. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert at reversing brainwashing but if any of the things I’ve read about cults are true, then it’s not a switch that can simply be turned off. It seems to be a much more intense and drawn out process than how it’s portrayed here.

The ending felt rushed and a bit too neat, and I have some unanswered questions. However, this was an enjoyable read and I am interested in reading more books by this author.

Content warnings include bullying.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

“You have to help me. We’re not being reformed. We’re being brainwashed.”

All sixteen year old Drew Finch wants is to be left alone. She’s not interested in spending time with her mum and stepdad and when her disruptive fifteen year old brother Mason is expelled from school for the third time and sent to a residential reform academy she’s almost relieved.

Everything changes when she’s followed home from school by the mysterious Dr Cobey, who claims to have a message from Mason. There is something sinister about the ‘treatment’ he is undergoing. The school is changing people.

Determined to help her brother, Drew must infiltrate the Academy and unearth its deepest, darkest secrets.

Before it’s too late.

My Heart is a Chainsaw – Stephen Graham Jones

A lot of people’s insides are about to start being on the outside.

Meet Jade Daniels, my new favourite outcast.

“Town reject, nice to meet you.”

Jade’s exterior is basically armour covered in spikes but beneath the surface there’s, well, more sharp, stabby things. But beneath that is someone I want to be friends with. She even reminded me a little of me, the weirdo who word vomits about their obsession to everyone in the vicinity, not that anyone asked.

Despite having an encyclopaedic knowledge of slasher films, Jade lives knowing that she can never be a final girl herself. She’s simply not pure enough. This doesn’t stop Jade from desperately wanting a slasher to turn her hometown red, though.

Real final girls only want the horror to be over. They don’t stay up late praying to Craven and Carpenter to send one of their savage angels down, just for a weekend maybe. Just for one night. Just for one dance, please? One last dance?

Finally, she sees the signs that her dream may, in fact, be coming true. Although her current slasher theory may very well be right, Jade has a reputation in this town, so for the longest time she might as well be Cassandra. After all, who’s going to take the “weird horror chick” seriously?

It’s been four weeks since I finished this book and I’m still thinking about Jade on a daily basis. I want to tell you all of the things I loved about her but I loved everything about Jade, from her resilience to her ‘stay away from me’ vibe to her enthusiasm about all things horror. Jade is over the top in the best possible way.

She’s gonna be there front-row, shoving popcorn in, maybe wearing a clear poncho and goggles against all the blood.

It took me about a chapter to get used to the writing style but, even as I was adjusting, I felt a great big hook pulling me along for the ride. I looked forward to Jade’s Slasher 101 essays, which made me want to sit down and have an extended discussion with her (and her creator).

To put it in conclusion, sir, final girls are the vessel we keep all our hope in. Bad guys don’t just die by themselves, I mean. Sometimes they need help in the form of a furie running at them, her mouth open in scream, her eyes white hot, her heart forever pure.

With one of the most bingeworthy list of movies ever included in a single novel, I’m convinced a movie night with the author needs to be on my bucket list.

“Want to go to a horror movie with me?”

This is my first Stephen Graham Jones read but this is only the beginning for me. I can’t wait to catch up on everything I’ve missed.

Content warnings include alcoholism, attempted suicide, self harm, and sexual assault.

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

Jade is one class away from graduating high-school, but that’s one class she keeps failing local history. Dragged down by her past, her father and being an outsider, she’s composing her epic essay series to save her high-school diploma.

Jade’s topic? The unifying theory of slasher films. In her rapidly gentrifying rural lake town, Jade sees the pattern in recent events that only her encyclopaedic knowledge of horror cinema could have prepared her for. And with the arrival of the Final Girl, Letha Mondragon, she’s convinced an irreversible sequence of events has been set into motion.

As tourists start to go missing, and the tension grows between her community and the celebrity newcomers building their mansions the other side of the Indian Lake, Jade prepares for the killer to rise. She dives deep into the town’s history, the tragic deaths that occurred at camp years ago, the missing tourists no one is even sure exist, and the murders starting to happen, searching for the answer.

As the small and peaceful town heads towards catastrophe, it all must come to a head on 4th July, when the town all gathers on the water, where luxury yachts compete with canoes and inflatables, and the final showdown between rich and poor, past and present, townsfolk and celebrities slasher and Final Girl.

The Rooks #1: Wish You Weren’t Here – Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

‘A lot of really bad things have happened in Coldbay. A lot-lot.’

Brenda, a clairvoyant, is married to Richard, who has his own stuff going on. They have two adult children. Darryl, also clairvoyant, loves his husband, Janusz. Charity, the human Ghostbuster trap, loves carbs. Janusz, who was once upon a time a client of the Rooks, loves spreadsheets as much as he loves his husband. Together the Rooks run a ghost hunting business.

Clients contacted the Rooks because their kids were talking backwards or their cutlery kept flying at them or their walls were bleeding and they really quite wanted it to stop.

The Rooks’ newest client is Coldbay Island’s local priest. They might have to do a little overtime on this job and that’s going to seriously mess with Janusz’s spreadsheet.

‘Here we are, and it’s positively crawling with ghosts.’

I enjoyed this book and will be continuing the series. However, fair or not, I couldn’t help comparing it to the Darkwood series, which I absolutely adored.

I loved all of the characters in Darkwood but I mostly just loved Janusz in this book. There was some humour in this book but, unlike Darkwood, my face doesn’t hurt from smiling almost the entire time I was reading. There was no Bin Night equivalent on Coldbay Island.

I would happily pass the Darkwood series along to a child. I wouldn’t do that with this book, if only because of the swearing.

I originally hoped for a sneaky Darkwood crossover, maybe with Trevor or perhaps a character more appropriate for this story like Patience. Until I saw Charity in action. Then I was glad Patience stayed in Myrsina.

Maybe it’s because I’m almost two months into lockdown here in Australia but a lot of what I’m reading at the moment reminds me of other things I’ve read or movies I’ve seen.

Something that happened to Janusz reminded me of one of my favourite scenes in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The Rooks’ website’s “No spectral problem too big or too small” brought to mind Venkman’s “No job is too big, no fee is too big”. When the Rooks faced up against this book’s Big Bad, I couldn’t help thinking they could potentially solve all of their problems if they sourced some of the pink slime from Ghostbusters II, smeared it all over whatever the English equivalent of the Statue of Liberty is and sing happy songs to it.

There’s plenty of action in this book. The Rook family quickly became real to me and I’m keen to find out how individual family members are going to deal with the information that came to light while they were at Coldbay Island. This story doesn’t officially end on a cliffhanger but there are plenty of threads to tie together during the rest of the series.

Content warnings include alcoholism and mention of death by suicide, immolation and miscarriage.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Farrago, an imprint of Duckworth Books, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The Rook family run a little business: ghost hunting. And things has picked up recently. Something’s wrong. It’s been getting noticeably worse since, ooh, 2016?

Bad spirits are abroad, and right now they’re particularly around Coldbay Island, which isn’t even abroad, it’s only 20 miles from Skegness. The Rooks’ ‘quick call out’ to the island picks loose a thread that begins to unravel the whole place, and the world beyond.

Is this the apocalypse? This might be the apocalypse. Who knew it would kick off in an off-season seaside resort off the Lincolnshire coast? I’ll tell you who knew – Linda. She’s been feeling increasingly uneasy about the whole of the East Midlands since the 90s.

When Things Get Dark – Ellen Datlow (editor)

This anthology features short stories from some of my favourite writers, including Seanan McGuire. It also introduced me to some writers whose work I hadn’t read before. All are paying tribute to Shirley Jackson.

Like any collection of short stories, there were some I absolutely loved. My favourites in this anthology were those by M. Rickert, Elizabeth Hand, Seanan McGuire, Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman and Kelly Link.

Although the other stories were well written, I often failed to connect with either the main character or the plot. Some I enjoyed, until I realised I’d run out of story before the thing I felt was missing showed up. I don’t expect to love every story in an anthology, though.

Usually when I review anthologies, I’ll include a short quote and a sentence to describe each story: what it’s about, its theme, or what I loved or didn’t love about it. I started doing that here but then abandoned the idea. There were some stories that I couldn’t explain in a sentence without spoiling them for you.

There were others that I couldn’t explain because, quite honestly, I need someone to explain them to me. Perhaps a reread will help me find the missing puzzle pieces. Maybe what I perceived as deliberate ambiguity was actually the literary equivalent of a joke’s punchline going over my head. I may read the review of someone smarter than myself and when they explain it, the lightbulb will finally turn on above my head.

So, instead of giving you an explanation and a quote, I’m only providing a quote here.

Funeral Birds by M. Rickert

The truth was she rarely went to the funerals. Delores was special.

For Sale By Owner by Elizabeth Hand

“That’s trespassing.”

“Only if we get caught,” I replied.

In the Deep Woods; The Light is Different There by Seanan McGuire

She moved here for a haunting, and even if the house refuses to be haunted, she fully intends to be.

A Hundred Miles and a Mile by Carmen Maria Machado

It’s strange, the knowing-not-knowing. It twitches like something that won’t die.

Quiet Dead Things by Cassandra Khaw

“We’re going to die for what happened.”

Something Like Living Creatures by John Langan

“You saw something!” Samantha said.

“Did you?” Kayla said.

“Yes,” Jenna said.

Money of the Dead by Karen Heuler

On one side, life; on the other, death. It was almost, sometimes, as if they could see across the divide, or hear a furtive, melancholy whistle.

Hag by Benjamin Percy

“Without you, the island starves.”

Take Me, I Am Free by Joyce Carol Oates

“Just sit here. Don’t squirm. I’ll be watching from the front window.”

A Trip to Paris by Richard Kadrey

Why won’t you stay dead?

The Party by Paul Tremblay

“I do get into the spirit of my themes. Perhaps too much.”

Refinery Road by Stephen Graham Jones

It was just the three of them, same as it had always been. Same as it would always be.

The Door in the Fence by Jeffrey Ford

“Some people, when they get old, all they can think about is dying. Some, on the other hand, find freedom.”

Pear of Anguish by Gemma Files

The past is a trap and memory is a drug.

Memory is a door.

Special Meal by Josh Malerman

“Do you really not know what today is?” Dad asked. “It’s okay if you don’t.”

Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive Home by Genevieve Valentine

Never be stuck on the road alone, that was the rule.

Tiptoe by Laird Barron

Trouble is, old, weathered pictures are ambiguous. You can’t always tell what’s hiding behind the patina. Nothing, or the worst thing imaginable.

Skinder’s Veil by Kelly Link

Skinder may show up. If he does, DO NOT LET HIM IN.

While I didn’t find any of the stories scary, there were some that were accompanied by a growing sense of dread. Others were unsettling. Then there were those that left behind confusion in their wake. But that’s the beauty of anthologies; there’s usually something for everyone. The times where a question mark appeared over my head? Those stories are probably someone else’s favourites.

Content warnings include child abuse, death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and self harm.

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

A collection of new and exclusive short stories inspired by, and in tribute to, Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is a seminal writer of horror and mystery fiction, whose legacy resonates globally today. Chilling, human, poignant and strange, her stories have inspired a generation of writers and readers.

This anthology, edited by legendary horror editor Ellen Datlow, will bring together today’s leading horror writers to offer their own personal tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson.

Featuring Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, and Genevieve Valentine. 

The Project – Courtney Summers

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

Huh. Before I read a word of this book I already knew what the opening line of my review was going to be: Another Courtney Summers book, another ugly cry.

But there were no tears and I’m all kinds of confused. So, heads up: this review is basically my messy way of trying to process my response, or lack thereof.

Part of it has to be a result of my astronomically high anticipation. I tried and failed so many times to get my hands on this book from the moment I fell in love with its cover.

I requested copies through NetGalley and Edelweiss. I emailed the publisher begging for an ARC. I joined Instagram for 24 hours to enter a competition to win a copy. I tried to preorder a signed copy but it couldn’t be shipped to my country. Each time the ebook was listed on sale I’d immediately click the link, only to find out that it wasn’t on sale in my country; I couldn’t afford to pay full price because, you know, life and all that.

Finally I got my hands on a library copy. I loved the emotional gut punch of Sadie and was sure I was in for the same here. I even timed my read so I was at peak ugly cry vulnerability.

I was so hopeful because I was already gearing up for a cry in the prologue.

Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.

I was ready for the sisterly bond. I was ready for the charismatic, yet nefarious cult leader. I was ready for the anguish that crossed over from emotional to physical pain. But my eyes are the Sahara and I’m baffled.

“There’s so much you don’t understand”

I felt so removed from the characters and I didn’t expect that.

Gloria. Latin. Glory.

Sure, Lo was desperate to free her sister from the grip of the cult but when she heard that her sister was no longer a member, she didn’t file a missing person report. No, she kept interviewing the cult leader and his minions so she could show her boss that she’s a writer, dammit, and should be promoted yesterday. Her priorities were all over the place.

Beatrice. Italian; Latin. Bringer of Joy.

Then there was Bea, who I’m sure I would have connected with if her story wasn’t told in a series of flashbacks.

Lev. Hebrew; Russian. Heart; Lion.

Lev was always going to give me skeevy vibes because of the whole cult leader thing. He could have promised me the world and I would have side eyed him. I fully acknowledge my bias there, even though at first glance, The Unity Project’s mission does sound kind of amazing.

What The Unity Project offers people, in its simplest terms, is food if you’re hungry, water if you’re thirsty, clothes and shelter if you need it, and family if you lack it. All it asks in return is being part of, and upholding the tenets of, a revolution that pays it forward.

But that’s how they suck you in, isn’t it? If people thought they were signing up for a cult, membership would dry up. Like my eyes. I can understand the initial appeal, though.

You want to belong. You’re hurting. You don’t believe anyone who knows you could ever love you. But someone convinces you that they see you, all of you, and love you anyway. You have a purpose. You are wanted. Enticing, right?

“Do you know what that’s like, Lo? To be really, truly seen?”

You don’t get to see behind the curtain until you’re already well and truly invested. Cult leaders like Lev make it sound so appealing and the message is close enough to the real thing that if you’re listening with your emotions, you might not realise you’re worshipping a man, not God. Or maybe you do notice but you don’t care because what this man is offering seems worth the adulation and the cost.

Bea and Lo had so much potential. The story, when I explained it to someone who hasn’t read the book, sounded so good. Courtney Summers definitely knows how to write a book that you don’t want to put down.

I wanted to care so much about these sisters that I hurt for them. I wanted to ugly cry myself into a equally ugly mess. But I didn’t like Lo, I didn’t really get to know Bea and for the longest time I didn’t feel the urgency of their story.

Because this is a Courtney Summers book, I’m going to assume part of the problem is me and will eagerly await her next release.

Book in a book: Lo and Emmy read Creepy Pair of Underwear! together. That kid’s got good taste in books.

Content warnings include (and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some) branding, death by suicide, emotional abuse, mental health, overdose, physical abuse, self harm and sexual assault (implied).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died in a tragic car accident, her sister Bea joined the elusive community called The Unity Project, leaving Lo to fend for herself. Desperate not to lose the only family she has left, Lo has spent the last six years trying to reconnect with Bea, only to be met with radio silence.

When Lo’s given the perfect opportunity to gain access to Bea’s reclusive life, she thinks they’re finally going to be reunited. But it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, and as Lo delves deeper into The Project and its charismatic leader, she begins to realize that there’s more at risk than just her relationship with Bea: her very life might be in danger.

As she uncovers more questions than answers at each turn, everything Lo thought she knew about herself, her sister, and the world is upended. One thing doesn’t change, though, and that’s what keeps her going: Bea needs her, and Lo will do anything to save her.

A Dark History of Chocolate – Emma Kay

You know chocolate accompanied me on my journey through this book, don’t you? You might think that makes this book an outlier. You’d be so wrong. Professional chocoholic here! So much so that if you’re missing some chocolate, it’s fair to assume I‘m responsible.

What this book did give me was a new excuse for my binge reading, chocolate binge combo: immersive reading. You can’t read a book about chocolate without eating some. That would be like watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory while eating cabbage soup.

I enjoyed learning about chocolate’s dark history, with the obvious exception of the information concerning slavery. In this book, you’ll learn about chocolate’s role in history, from crime to the arts.

Pirates raided ships with cacao on board. Jeffrey Dahmer worked in a chocolate factory. Chocolate is a final meal choice for many death row inmates.

Poisoned chocolate remains one of the most common methods of murder throughout history.

Chocolate was on the menu both the day the Hindenburg crashed and the Titanic sunk.

Chocolate is practically everywhere, it seems. It’s even accompanied astronauts into space.

There was the seemingly ingenious marketing idea of having chocolate rain down from planes, which may have worked better if the ‘bombs’ didn’t result in people below being badly bruised.

Chocolate laced with methamphetamine was marketed to “German homemakers, along with the strap line ‘Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight’. Two to three chocolates a day were recommended to make housework more fun!”

I was sometimes amused and often flabbergasted by the conditions chocolate has been used to ‘treat’ over the years, from headaches, fevers and infections to asthma, heart conditions and burns. It’s also been used as a slimming aid and to “Cleanseth the Teeth”.

Chocolate has even been ‘prescribed’ as a love potion. Handy hint: don’t eat love potion chocolate. You don’t want to know the other ingredients it may contain.

Scattered throughout the book are a bunch of recipes, from Chocolate Creams to the more dubious Chocolate Coated Candied Garlic.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, addiction, alcoholism, attempted suicide, death by suicide, domestic abuse, human trafficking, immolation, mental health, sexual assault, slavery and torture. People with emetophobia may have trouble with a passage in the third chapter.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Pen & Sword History, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books, for granting my wish to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A Dark History of Chocolate looks at our long relationship with this ancient ‘food of the Gods’. The book examines the impact of the cocoa bean trade on the economies of Britain and the rest of Europe, as well as its influence on health, cultural and social trends over the centuries. Renowned food historian Emma Kay takes a look behind the façade of chocolate – first as a hot drink and then as a sweet – delving into the murky and mysterious aspects of its phenomenal global growth, from a much-prized hot beverage in pre-Colombian Central America to becoming an integral part of the cultural fabric of modern life.

From the seductive corridors of Versailles, serial killers, witchcraft, medicine and war to its manufacturers, the street sellers, criminal gangs, explorers and the arts, chocolate has played a significant role in some of the world’s deadliest and gruesome histories.

If you thought chocolate was all Easter bunnies, romance and gratuity, then you only know half the story. This most ancient of foods has a heritage rooted in exploitation, temptation and mystery.

With the power to be both life-giving and ruinous.