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?

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. 

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.

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. 

Women of a Certain Rage – Liz Byrski (editor)

There’s so much for women to be angry about … Discrimination because of your sexuality, race, ability, gender. The treatment of asylum seekers. Climate change. The inaction of politicians on any number of issues. People refusing to hear you or take you seriously because you’re a woman.

Yet, as women, it’s likely we grew up internalising our anger, swallowing it down, because to be visibly angry is not considered feminine. When we did speak up, our voices were silenced, our experiences minimised, our reality dismissed. Is it any wonder we’re angry?

Even though I’ve been an adult for longer than I was a child, I’ve yet to become comfortable with anger. Anger, when I was growing up, equalled violence and that’s not the manifestation I’m looking for. I want anger to spur me on to action, to propel me to right wrongs, not cause destruction.

In this collection, twenty women write about rage. Among them are writers, teachers, activists and medical professionals, and they range in age from 20’s to 80’s. They have diverse backgrounds but they’re all Australian.

Like other anthologies, some contributions spoke to me more than others. Reneé Pettitt-Schipp’s description of a young asylum seeker’s hope brought tears to my eyes. Goldie Goldbloom’s recollections of Max made me wish I knew him personally. Carly Findlay’s words hurt, as I imagined each scenario she described, but they also left me with hope because there are women like Carly who speak truth into the lives of others.

Rather than tell you what I thought of each contribution I’m going to instead share quotes with you.

Introduction by Liz Byrski

Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world. – Grace Paley

A Door, Opening by Victoria Midwinter Pitt

Anger is a state of opposition.

It is not merely intellectual, or philosophical. It’s personal.

It is the direct, visceral, spiritual experience of being at odds with something.

Quarantine by Reneé Pettitt-Schipp

Time and time again, it has been proven to me that we either honour the depth of each human emotion, maintaining the fullness of our capacity to feel, or we cut ourselves off and, in walking away from anger and heartbreak, turn our backs on the possibility of our most expansive expression of being a human in this world.

Waiting on the Saviour by Nadine Browne

I wouldn’t be the person I am, nor would I have had the resilience I have, without these women. But nothing we thought or did was ever any good unless it was certified by a man. The path to God itself was through a man. I’m still shocked by how these women can negate their own power, simply by the fact of their gender.

My Father’s Daughter by Jay Martin

I’m still sad, though, that the world that shaped my dad – and still shapes so many men – to believe that their value is in being providers, teachers, knowers of things. It meant I never got to know all of the vulnerabilities, dreams, passions and fears he must have harboured that made him who he was.

Regardless of Decorum: A Response to Seneca’s ‘Of Anger’ by Julienne van Loon

One of the things that makes me angry about Seneca’s ‘Of Anger’ is how bloody reasonable he is throughout.

The Girl Who Never Smiled by Anne Aly

Rage creeps up on you. It’s stealthy like that. Rage has to beat you down first and then, when you’re exhausted and you think you can’t possibly rage any more, it lingers beneath the surface, ready to pounce again. You can see it simmering behind the eyes of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the frustrated – but only if you look hard enough. Rage shadows you.

The Club by Sarah Drummond

The white road markers are plastic and so, instead of a row of smashed wooden posts where he ploughed them down, they flipped back into upright position after the accident like nothing had happened. For some reason, I found this inanimate insouciance disturbing. How dare those posts stand up again. Didn’t they know what had happened here?

Stuck in the Middle by Carrie Cox

Mark Twain, a man who apparently spent his whole life tossing pithy sayings at a sea of scribes, has been credited with comparing anger to an acid, one that can do far more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. This is how I feel about anger today.

To Scream or Not to Scream by Olivia Muscat

What makes me most upset is that I know where most people’s ignorance is coming from. It’s fear.

Fear of the unknown.

Fear that they may end up like me.

To the Max by Goldie Goldbloom

Goldie remembers how Max would introduce her to them as ‘the love of my life’. Whenever she sold a story, he would grip her forearms and say, ‘The cream always rises to the top.’

The Thief by Nandi Chinna

I found it impossible to articulate the magnitude and intensity of my inner experience and carried it around in my body like a ball of barbed wire that scratched and tore at my insides.

Write-ful Fury by Claire G. Coleman

Fury. It can flow hot and fast like fire dancing along a trail of petrol; it can flow cold, slow and relentless like a glacier; or as cold and breathtakingly fast as an avalanche, leaving me breathless and dying. Either way, when fury passes it’s hard to imagine anything in its path surviving.

Love More by Jane Underwood

Rage sits, like a bulky body part, ready to detonate, able to cause maximum damage. It’s not like the white-hot adrenal flash we call fury, that’s here and gone: you can relieve fury with an upraised middle finger. It’s not like anger – curl up the corner of anger – only sadness and fear there. If you can shift the bulk of a rage – find some squashed high-grade injustice there.

#AustraliaBurns: Rage, a Climate for Change by Margo Kingston

Rage begets action.

The Body Remembers: The Architecture of Pain by Rafeif Ismail

We cannot negotiate with our oppressors without relinquishing part of our own existence.

Everything is Awesome! by Mihaela Nicolescu

The notion of a ‘fair go’ disguises the reality of an unfair system and places the blame on the individual when that system fails them. A genuine ‘mate’ does not judge you for going through a hard time. And an evolved society places more value on the rights of all citizens to have their basic needs met than on the rights of a few citizens to accumulate ridiculous wealth (while one in six children live in poverty).

Uluru Statement from the Heart by Fiona Stanley

I think that in today’s world of corporate, political, bureaucratic and individual corruption and lack of care, we need to convert our anger to action more than ever.

Vicarious trauma: I Was You and You Will Be Me by Carly Findlay

Ableism starts with you.

And it can stop with you, too.

Seen and Not Heard by Meg McKinlay

And what is buried, of course, doesn’t always remain so; when conditions are right – or wrong? – it will vent, even erupt.

Women of a Certain Rage? by Eva Cox

Angry. Cranky. Mad. Can you think of any context when applying these words to a woman would be positive?

Content warnings include ableism, attempted suicide, death by suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, homophobia, medical negligence, mental health, racism, self harm, sexism, sexual assault, xenophobia and war.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

This book is the result of what happened when Liz Byrski asked twenty Australian women from widely different backgrounds, races, beliefs and identities to take up the challenge of writing about rage.

The honesty, passion, courage and humour of their very personal stories is engergising and inspiring. If you have ever felt the full force of anger and wondered at its power, then this book is for you. 

See What You Made Me Do – Jess Hill

We talk a lot about the danger of dark alleys, but the truth is that in every country around the world the home is the most dangerous place for a woman.

If you only ever read one book about domestic abuse, please make it this one. While I’d like everyone to read it, I think it should be mandatory for so many professions, including anyone involved in the judicial system, medicine, politics, teaching and counselling.

Domestic abuse is not just violence. It’s worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner’s love and trust and uses that person’s most intimate details – their deepest desires, shames and secrets – as a blueprint for their abuse.

I thought I knew a lot about domestic abuse already. I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction books that talk about it. I have a psychology degree. I worked in a women’s refuge for a short time. Yet I learned so much from this book.

What should surprise us about domestic abuse is not that a woman can take a long time to leave, but that she has the mental fortitude to survive.

When the author introduced Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’, saying there are parallels between the experiences of returned prisoners of war and domestic abuse survivors, I admit I was a tad wary. Even as someone well versed in the experience of domestic abuse, I wasn’t sure how the two would or could line up. The way the author outlined the techniques, step by step, sucked me in though. It all made perfect sense and it was horrifying, but I was learning something new and I needed to find out more.

Accompanying extensive research are stories of people who have perpetrated and been victimised by domestic abuse. Prepare to brace yourself as you read these accounts as they are invariably brutal and heartbreaking, but please don’t bypass them, even though that would be easier. (Or else you risk missing out on aha! moments, like when emotional abuse is explained as someone bashing someone with their emotions instead of their fists.)

If you’ve experienced domestic abuse yourself, you will easily recognise the truth of these accounts. If you are fortunate enough to have made it this far without being impacted by this type of trauma, know that these stories are representative of so many people’s lives. Friends, family, neighbours …

I can’t imagine reading these accounts without having a visceral reaction and if you’re struggling to ‘witness’ them on the page, please be sure to practice self care. I don’t know if what helped me will apply to other readers but each time I came across something that was too difficult, I told myself that my discomfort wasn’t even in the same ball park as the horror of actually experiencing that firsthand.

The people who have told their stories have courage beyond my comprehension and I feel we owe it to them to not shy away from their words. It’s too easy to maintain the status quo; maybe what we all need is a wake up call to spur us into action.

There’s so much we still need to do. A recent Australian survey, conducted by White Ribbon, found that

Four in ten young men do not consider punching and hitting to constitute domestic violence

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald 25/10/2020

In NSW, Australia, coercive control is not even a criminal offence. Yet. Hopefully this will change, if proposed coercive control laws aren’t squished by the powers that be. You can find Women’s Safety NSW’s proposal here.

I want people to stop asking ‘Why does she stay?’ and start asking ‘Why does he do that?’

SURVIVOR, QUEENSLAND

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and sexual assault.

P.S. There’s going to be a three part TV series in 2021 hosted by Jess Hill.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

At the office of Safe Steps, Victoria’s dedicated 24/7 family violence response call centre, phone counsellors receive a call every three minutes. Many women are repeat callers: on average, they will go back to an abusive partner eight times before leaving for good.

‘You must get so frustrated when you think a woman’s ready to leave and then she decides to go back,’ I say.

‘No,’ replies one phone counsellor, pointedly. ‘I’m frustrated that even though he promised to stop, he chose to abuse her again.’

Women are abused or killed by their partners at astonishing rates: in Australia, almost 17 per cent of women over the age of fifteen – one in six – have been abused by an intimate partner.

In this confronting and deeply researched account, journalist Jess Hill uncovers the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest – and most intimate – ways imaginable. She asks: What do we know about perpetrators? Why is it so hard to leave? What does successful intervention look like?

What emerges is not only a searing investigation of the violence so many women experience, but a dissection of how that violence can be enabled and reinforced by the judicial system we trust to protect us.

Combining exhaustive research with riveting storytelling, See What You Made Me Do dismantles the flawed logic of victim-blaming and challenges everything you thought you knew about domestic and family violence.